The First Record Producers

The rise and fall of Joe Meek and Phil Spector

While the no-man’s-land of 1960 had made stars of Frankie Avalon and Bobby Vee, wipe-clean fifties faces who would inform future revivals like Grease, it had also allowed for a second, slower and less vaunted, wave of modern pop. Pop’s deceleration led to a dark, post–rock ’n’ roll sound, one which would became a fertile nursery for a pair of innovators who began experimenting in earnest, a pair who would give modern pop renewed vigor.

If rock ’n’ roll’s initial blithe cacophony (1955–58) had liberated teenagers, then the period immediately after (1958–61), like the final scene of The Graduate, saw doubt and fear and a sense of agoraphobia creeping in. These were new and very real teenage emotions, and they needed an artistic outlet, away from the increasingly adult (Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” no. 1, ’59) and plain silly (Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” no. 1, ’60) records dominating the chart. The Aquatones’ “You,” a minor American hit from the tail end of ’58, had articulated this still, small need for calm. It was a 6/8 ballad that owed little to classic rock ’n’ roll beyond its heavy backbeat. The backing track was a mush of repetitive piano, thrummed acoustic guitars, and dense, soupy bass. It sounded like the musicians were three rooms away. Over this, a keening female vocal, high and pure yet oddly emotionless, echoing in a well of loneliness, gave the record a hypnotic, womblike quality.

The single’s eerie qualities would be exaggerated further by the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him” (no. 1, ’58) a few months later; the vocal was softer but still pure, soothing, almost maternal, and the lyric sat halfway between a love song and a eulogy. Again the backing track had a half-speed, sludgy drum sound, everything was soft and heavy at the same time, creating a mantra-like feel. It was remarkable, and after it hit number one in late ’58 this sound was soon replicated: Ritchie Valens’s “Donna,” Donnie Owens’s “Need You,” Rosie and the Originals’ “Angel Baby,” all great, all big hits. There was even a Hawaiian variation, Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk,” which was another number one. We can safely assume that David Lynch bought these records.

By ’61 the soft-heavy sound had been perfected and peaked with the skeletal, delicately terrifying “Tragedy” by the Fleetwoods (no. 10, ’61) and the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” (no. 5, ’61). Priscilla Paris had one of the sexiest female voices in all pop. “I love how your eyes close whenever you’re near me,” she sang, in a super-suggestive whisper that, placed over the dense, muffled rock-a-bye backing, simultaneously suggested an eager sexuality and a return to the comfort of the cradle. This and the Teddy Bears’ sole hit were both the work of a young, five-footnothing New Yorker called Phil Spector, who was slowly mixing the ingredients for a vast, regal pop that would peak with the Ronettes’ “Baby I Love You” and the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” three years later.

Phil Spector was mixing the ingredients for a vast, regal pop that would peak with the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers.

In a separate but related proto-goth move, newly liberated teens — as well as yearning for sex and childhood — developed a taste for “death discs” around 1960/61, possibly prompted by the early demise of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Eddie Cochran. Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” (girlfriend dies on a railroad track) and Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her” (boyfriend dies in a stock-car race) were huge hits, but the “death disc” monster was John Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me,” the most thrilling, feverish pop record Britain had yet produced — the drums galloped and the skies darkened as Leyton’s echo-choked voice mourned the girl he “loved and lost a year ago.” In a year that also gave us Elvis Presley’s “Wooden Heart” and Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore,” it was a lightning bolt, and with a primetime TV slot it couldn’t miss, giving its producer Joe Meek a UK number one that summer.

Joe Meek was Britain’s first record producer. He could be described as the first record producer in the world. In the pre-rock era, there had been two significant names who could challenge this: Les Paul, through his wild guitar effects and close-miked vocals on his duets with Mary Ford, and Mitch Miller, who had double-tracked Patti Page and backed Rosemary Clooney with a distorted harpsichord. But Meek was the first to manipulate every element of the track, imagining the record as a complete production.

Before he started working as a studio engineer in 1955, the UK’s pop records were made by sticking a microphone in the middle of the room and placing singers and musicians strategically around it. Meek was the first to challenge this orthodoxy, the first to argue that records didn’t need to directly mimic a live performance, that they could sound more exciting — and more commercial — with a little mechanical manipulation. As an engineer, the Merrie Melodies bow-and-arrow effect (“p-doiiiiing”) he added to Gary Miller’s 1955 single “Robin Hood” was his first showcase; Anne Shelton’s “Lay Down Your Arms” featured a shaken tray of gravel to mimic marching feet; on “Poor People of Paris” he added a musical saw to jolly along Winifred Atwell’s ragtime pub piano. Clearly, he had commercial clout. The first record Meek produced on his own was Humphrey Lyttelton’s straight jazz instrumental “Bad Penny Blues,” on which he exaggerated the low notes on the piano to make it danceable, got the brushed drums to fizz, and gave Lyttelton his only hit — the Beatles later pinched its feel wholesale for “Lady Madonna.”

Meek at work in his bedroom studio at Camden Town, London in April, 1963. Photo by John Pratt/Keystone Features.

Meek was in love with the future (space travel, satellites), Americana (teen idols and cowboys), and the world beyond — ghosts, death, deceased lovers returning as guardian angels. He sought to replicate these obsessions via overdubbing, compression, sound separation, and distortion. With his I Hear a New World album (1960) and the Tornados’ transatlantic number one “Telstar” (1962) Meek’s mind was connected directly to the machinery.

Along with being tone deaf, incapable of playing an instrument, and possessing a vicious temper that wasn’t helped by his daily diet of steak, coffee, and pep pills, Meek was also gay, which gave him deep-seated, lifelong issues, and pop music was an escape. As an “indoors” child in rural Gloucestershire, Meek had rigged up speakers in the local orchards and played pre-rock 78s to entertain the cherry pickers. His bedroom overflowed with soldering irons and gadgetry. He worked at a radar station during his national service in the early fifties and, soon after, found himself at IBC and Lansdowne studios in London. A high proportion of the best British fifties records — Johnny Duncan’s “Last Train to San Fernando,” Lonnie Donegan’s “Cumberland Gap” — had seen Meek’s hand on the controls. Yet once he became a fully fledged independent producer in 1960 things got serious.

After falling out with just about everyone he’d ever worked with, Meek set up his own RGM studio above a leather-goods shop at 304 Holloway Road, the main road north out of London. Vocals were recorded in the toilet, string sections stood on the stairs, and it should have been a joke. Instead, two of the best records he ever made appeared almost straight away: Mike Berry’s “Tribute to Buddy Holly,” and John Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me,” both in ’61. They were written by Geoff Goddard, who shared Meek’s interest in the occult, and were garish and cinematic, bunching together the Wild West, plane crashes, war-comic heroes, and Wuthering Heights heroines.

Meek’s RGM studio, above a leather-goods shop at 304 Holloway Road. Photo by Loz Pycock/Flickr

Dozens of RGM productions were released in quick succession, not always great, though they all shared the trademarks of speeded-up vocals, sound effects, angelic backing vocals, massed strings, and a hint of clammy, illicit trysts. The classic RGM single was so sonically compressed it sounded like an orchestra had been squeezed into a wardrobe.

Meek was heavily inspired by another thread of the immediate post– rock ’n’ roll era, the instrumental, which had provided a rare safe haven for tougher sounds: Duane Eddy’s echo-drenched growling guitar (“Rebel Rouser,” “Because They’re Young,” “Peter Gunn”), The Shadows’ idealized evocations of the foreign (“Apache,” “FBI,” “Kon-Tiki”), and Johnny and The Hurricanes’ wasps’-nest–like organ (“Red River Rock,” “Beatnik Fly,” “Rockin’ Goose”) had all regularly made the UK Top 20 from 1958 to 1962. The Outlaws, Saints, Tornados, and Moontrekkers were Meek’s instrumental response, and the latter’s “Night of the Vampire” — with creaking coffin, deranged-cat keyboard, and a frighteningly realistic female scream — created a rare masterpiece on pop’s Carry On/Hammer House of Horror interface.

The exact difference between British and American pop can be found by comparing Meek’s and Spector’s productions. Meek sped things up, worked at a frenetic pace, as if it was the best way to keep warm in his cramped North London flat. Spector’s sound was panoramic, as big as Meek’s but warmer, more luxurious; it used the finest ingredients, the greatest singers and musicians from New York and California, while Meek’s seemed gaudy, straight out of Woolworth’s. Meek could turn out three singles in a week, but Spector took time, expensive LA studio time, perfecting his sound. Songwriter Jeff Barry remembered working on Spector’s 1963 Christmas album as a physical and mental endurance test: “I stood there for days and days and days, just playing shakers.”

Both had traumatic childhoods, simultaneously bullied and cosseted by their families; both were convinced other people were out to steal their ideas (Meek apparently received a call from Spector, just the once, and slammed the receiver down so hard it shattered). Both were out to gain revenge on the world, were ungracious while at the top, and crashed and burned when the world turned and they fell from favor.

Phil Spector with Larry Levine at Gold Star Studios’ recording console in 1963— his sound was panoramic, warmer, more luxurious.. Bertha Spector sits in front.
Photo by Ray Avery/Redferns.

The gulfs between age and race and between Britain and America had been bridged by rock ’n’ roll. There was another gulf to be bridged, but this didn’t really manifest itself until the early sixties. Commerce versus art: it was a fifties cliché that the arts were a fancy affair, highbrow for longhairs, worthy, important, and a bit dull, and that the products of commerce were the obvious, stupid opposite. But a feeling was gathering that modern pop was suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, delivering something that art — as defined in the fifties — no longer understood. While there were plenty of wheeler-dealers trying to push their own Johnny Restivo into teenage girls’ hearts, it was apparent to some commentators that the likes of Roy Orbison, Dion, Del Shannon, Joe Meek, and Phil Spector were operating on a different level.

“I get a little angry when people say it’s bad music,” Spector told Tom Wolfe during an interview for Esquire magazine. “This music has a spontaneity that doesn’t exist in any other kind of music, and it’s what is here now. It has limited chord changes, and people are always saying the words are banal and why doesn’t anybody write lyrics like Cole Porter any more, but we don’t have any presidents like Lincoln any more, either. You know? It’s pop blues. I feel it’s very American. It’s what people respond to today. It’s not just the kids. I hear cab drivers, everybody, listening to it.”

Spector condensed pop to romance and sex, crushes and breakups, love and pride. For many people who bought his records, he gave the subject matter the backdrop it deserved; this was the stuff of life itself. The sound was all-consuming, left no room for anything else in your head, and tore at your heart with tympani and an exuberant rush of noise: it was labeled the Wall of Sound. In contrast to this barrage, the key to the directness of Spectorsound was lyrical simplicity. Take any random line from the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” — “I’ll make you happy, baby, just wait and see” — and it’s a crush in a heartbeat. Spector’s best writers were Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, a couple from Brooklyn who also happened to be very much in love when they wrote the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me,” Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans’ “Not Too Young to Get Married,” and Darlene Love’s “Wait Til My Bobby Gets Home.” And as Spector was very much in love with the Ronettes’ Veronica Bennett, he saved their very best songs — “Be My Baby” (no. 2, ’63) and “Baby I Love You” (no. 24, ’64) — so that he could hear the words come out of her mouth and into his ears.

Those Ronettes chart stats show that no matter how futuristic their sounds were, how big and progressive and damn-near perfect, Meek and Spector, like so many others, staggered and faltered after the Beatles broke. Meek had a beat-era hit with the Honeycombs’ “Have I The Right,” a foot-stomping hormonal howl (“Grrrrrr, come right back, I just can’t bear it”) that showed he could manufacture what he disparagingly called “matchbox music” any time he wanted. Spector’s last dance was altogether more tormented. By late ’64 the Beatles and Motown were the now sounds, leaving even a single as lush and romantic and tearfully timeless as the Ronettes’ “Walking in the Rain” stranded outside the Top 20. Suddenly his sound seemed too teenage. He turned to Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, New York’s most furrowed and thoughtful songwriting team, for something a little more mature. They delivered “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’.”

There is a staggering force in its opening line: “You never close your eyes any more when I kiss your lips” is a dreadful inversion of the whispered promise of “I Love How You Love Me,” the Paris Sisters hit Barry Mann had written and Spector had produced four years previously. It chronicles the imminent death of a love affair in such a deeply wounded way that it’s a blessed relief to know the song wasn’t autobiographical. Spector “borrowed” blue-eyed soul boys the Righteous Brothers, who weren’t used to anything as slow and brooding. Spector arranged the session “like he was going to invade Moscow,” according to guitarist Barney Kessel. “Musically, it was terribly simple, but the way he’d recorded and miked it, they’d diffuse it so that you couldn’t pick out any one instrument.” The Aquatones’ “You,” the spooked one-off hit from ’58 that predicted this sound, had been almost a sketch of a song; now this sound had mutated into a dam-busting thing of extraordinary size and power. The vocals are angry, accusing, pleading; by the end all the flash and noise is reduced to one solitary bassline, before a final crescendo — “bring back that lovin’ feelin’” — and a fade into depthless introspection. It was Spector’s masterpiece and made number one in both Britain (despite Cilla Black’s cover version climbing as high as number two) and America.

Phil Spector, Tina and Ike Turner in 1966 at Gold Star Studios recording ’River Deep, Mountain High.’ Photo by Ray Avery/Redferns.

After the Honeycombs’ initial promise dissipated with a weak follow-up (“Is It Because”), Joe Meek kept producing music at a prodigious rate but could hardly get a record released; his dogged independence was becoming a curse. Toward the end he was recording some of the most mentally damaged music to gain release on a major British label. Hear the eerie, empty winterscape of the Honeycombs’ “Eyes” (1965) or the feedback squall of the Syndicats’ “Crawdaddy Simone” (1965) and The Buzz’s “You’re Holding Me Down” (1966) to hear the true sound of paranoia and encroaching insanity. Also in ’66, Spector was crushed by the failure of Ike and Tina Turner’s titanic “River Deep — Mountain High,” which took lyrical naiveté (teddy bears, puppy dogs, pies) to a new extreme, twinning it with the most ferociously sexual vocal he ever recorded. It reached number 3 in the UK but fell away after a few dismal weeks in the bottom quarter of the Billboard Hot Hundred. Spent, Spector retired at twenty-five. Despite working in later years with the solo Beatles, the Ramones, even Celine Dion, he never recovered that march-on-Moscow bravado, and wallowed in his eccentricities for decades before his fondness for firearms ended with the death of an actress called Lana Clarkson.

Meek’s twilight was far briefer; since shooting his landlady and then himself in 1967, his legacy has lived on in recording studios around the world via the equipment named after him, effects boxes he had invented and kept secret some four decades earlier. Meek and Spector were the first to really understand and engineer the power of the 45, the first to forge a new pop music from the white heat of technology. Unlike almost all of their contemporaries, they realized that great pop is, at its heart, about great-sounding records. Meek and Spector weren’t trying to deal with reality, they were trying to improve on it.

Excerpted from Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Bob Stanley. Copyright © 2014 by Bob Stanley. First American Edition 2014. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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