Joe Meek had engineered dozens of hits for major labels in state-of-the-art London studios by the time he went independent in 1960. Along the way, he had learned the “correct” techniques for recording everything from pop groups to jazz combos to full orchestras, while simultaneously gaining a reputation for successfully subverting those techniques at every opportunity.
Meek placed microphones directly on sources, intentionally distorted preamp inputs, pushed tape signals into the red, soaked sounds in echo, and pumped up nearly everything with compressors—techniques that became commonplace years later, but that drove the white-coated house engineers crazy.
A handful of recording mavericks had run independent studios in the United States since the ’40s, but Meek was England’s first truly independent engineer, producer, and “home” studio operator, and between 1960 and 1967, he recorded thousands of songs bearing his unmistakable sonic signature—including the worldwide mega-hit “Telstar” in 1962.
Guitars played a huge role in the music Meek recorded, and some of England’s best guitarists played on his sessions, including “Big Jim” Sullivan, Steve Howe, Roger Hall, Peter Miller, Jimmy Page, and Ritchie Blackmore, who was Meek’s first-call guitarist between 1962 and 1965.
Guitarists typically used Vox AC30s, which Meek recorded by placing an AKG D19 dynamic microphone on the grille, and covering the amp with a heavy blanket to contain the sound. Before the signal made it to tape, however, it could be routed through lots of devices, including Meek’s “black box” spring reverb (built in 1957), compressors modified for maximum squash, a reel-to-reel used for slap delay, an echo chamber in a room above the studio, and an RCA “Orthophonic” tube preamp that could be overdriven into extreme distortion. Recorded sounds could then be messed with further by manipulating the tape speed to change tempo and pitch, making the tape play in reverse, etc. Meek may even have used tape flanging as early as 1958.
Many of Meek’s recordings feature heavily distorted guitar tones that would have given the teenage Hendrix pause, beginning with the supersaturated pedal-steel sound on the Blue Men’s “The Bublight” (1959), through to the ultra-fuzzy riff on Jason Eddie & the Centremen’s “Singing the Blues” (1966), which also sported a truly bizarre run-away-delay part.
Other startlingly cool Meek guitar sounds include the heavily modulated twang on the Moontrekkers’ “Night of the Vampire” (1961), the spacey surf and palm-mute echo effects on the Packabeats’ “The Traitors Theme” (1962), the double-speed octave/delays on the Saints’ “Midgets” (1963), the flanged clean tones on the Blue Rondos’ “I Don’t Want Your Loving No More” (1965), and Blackmore’s stinging solo tones on the Outlaws’ “Keep A Knockin’” and “Shake With Me” (1964).
On the latter, Meek demonstrated yet another valuable production strategy: “Joe said that he wanted me to go crazy on the solo and play with complete abandon,” remembers Blackmore. “I just played as many notes as possible that were vaguely relative and it worked. The solo had more feeling than you get on most sessions, and Jeff Beck told me that when he played it for Hendrix in 1967, Jimi wanted to know who it was.”
More on Meek may be found in my bookJoe Meek's Bold Techniques.