A Life in the Death of Joe Meek is a provocative, intriguing and incredibly frank documentary about a music visionary that many of us may never have heard of.
Sound innovator, weirdo, guarded, persecution complex, bad tempered, an obsession with the occult, Meek was a complicated man, who died tragically at the age of thirty-eight.
Considered one of the most influential producers in the British music scene prior to the rise of rock n’ roll, Meek was wildly ambitious, singularly focused and defiant towards the powerful music labels and executives of the time.
As an engineer, he built an early reputation producing popular pop records. His innovation caught fire in a scene that had been churning out “limp” and “dull” British pop music. He quickly garnered a reputation for being a rule breaker, altering EQ’s during his sessions, breaking recording technology rules and protocols despite warnings from execs. His goal was to create unique sonic landscapes for each recording, even if it meant throwing out standard engineering techniques that had gone unchallenged. Just some of the pioneering studio techniques credited to him includes looping, echo and reverb effects, and the concept album—primary elements that form modern music and sound. Today, he is recognized as the “first of the creative sound mixers.”
His work with singer Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle sound—“folk music with a beat”—helped his star rise. The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles & Albums states that Donegan was “Britain’s most successful and influential recording artist before The Beatles.” Meek was instrumental in many of Donegan’s essential hits, and his work soon influenced producers like Phil Spector. Further, at a time when powerful record labels had in-house producers at their disposal, and control, Meek became the first independent rock n’ roll producer.
However, his private life was complicated. Meek was a gay man during a time where tolerance was non-existent, and “homosexuality” was never even discussed. Myths, innuendo, speculation and contradictions run throughout the entire documentary. Was his sexuality used to demonize him? Did he have a sexual addiction? Was he predatory towards aspiring male musicians? I find it timely that the film debuts at the RIFF Film Festival on a day when singer Kesha filed a stunning lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke over allegations of excessive control and sexual abuse. And Lady Gaga discussed having to fight off predatory men in the music industry during the early days of her career.
Another defining element in Meek’s life and death was the occult. Did his obsession with the supernatural lead to his downward spiral and death? Was his death, on the same day as his idol, Buddy Holly, merely a coincidence? Was Joe Meek good or bad? These questions are never answered. And that may be the most honest conclusion of all.
The life and death of Joe Meek is a must see music documentary. (Chaka V.)