No Ordinary Joe

Sometime in the summer of 2005 I saw the play ‘Telstar’ at The Ambassadors Theatre in London. It was story of the maniacal musical genius, record producer, sound engineer and songwriter Joe Meek. In the lead role, actor Con O’Neill gave a performance that lived with me for quite a time after. Thinking about it today, I’m convinced he had some sort of real life breakdown on stage the night I saw him, so convincing was he, as a man with his world collapsing around him. It was truly amazing acting. No surprise to me then, that O’Neil later reprised the role in the 2009 film based on the play.

Some of you may know the story of Meek, working in those the pre Beatles days of the mid 1950s till it all ended spectacularly and tragically in 1967. One thing that can’t be denied is that he was certainly a pioneer in recorded sound at the time of so little equipment to literally play with. Today he is held up as a massive influence on all aspects of the art of production, from achieving experiential sounds to early sampling.
It is also a dark story and one I am looking forward to telling.
Robert George ‘Joe’ Meek was born in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire in April 1929. His mother, desperate for a daughter, brought him up as a girl till the age of four.  From a very early age he had developed a strange fascination for all things electronic and built what is considered he first functioning television set in the area.

Not surprisingly, he became a radar technician during his national service and promptly joined the Midlands Electricity Board upon discharge in 1953.

He continued to collect equipment, including a vinyl cutter and he moved into producing his first records. He also made the natural move into independent radio making programme for stations like Radio Luxembourg.

The first recorded ‘hit’ he worked on, was ‘Bad Penny Blues’ by Humphrey Lyttleton in 1956 for Parlophone. He also engineered other jazz records with the likes of Kenny Graham and worked with Frank Holder in the Calypso genre.

He set up Triumph Records with independent financial backing from Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks. Meek very nearly hit number one with the song ‘Angela Jones’ by Michael Cox, then a popular singer on the TV show ‘Boy meets Girl’.

Only distribution problems stopped the disc in it tracks,

He then set up RGM Sound Ltd at 304 Holloway Road, North London. Major Banks again backed the home studio set up on three floors, above a handbag shop. He soon secured his first number one, with ‘Johnny Remember Me’ by John Leyton in 1961. Other hits for him includeJust Like Eddie’ by Heinz, 1963, a reprised release of  ‘Angela Jones’ by Michael Cox also in 1963 and ‘Have I the Right?’ by The Honeycombs in 1964.

Of course, by far his biggest hit was the instrumental ‘Telstar’ by the group ‘The Tornados’ in 1962, a number that Meek wrote and produced. Said to be Mrs Thatcher’s favourite record, it became the first British number one in the US Hot 100.

Other notable acts produced by Meek include
Chris Barber, Shirley Bassey, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, Petula Clark, Jess Conrad, Peter Cook, Billie Davis
Lonnie Donegan, Diana Dors, Billy Fury, Chas Hodges, The Manish Boys, Mike Sarne, Freddie Starr and the Midnighters, Tommy Steele, Big Jim Sullivan, Screaming Lord Sutch and the Savages, Frankie Vaughan and Gene Vincent.

Occasionally his landlady downstairs would bang a broom on the ceiling to tell Meek to turn the volume down. I doubt Phil Spector, who Meek later accused of stealing his sound and ideas over a telephone conversation, had too much of that to deal with….

Joe was known to make the occasional howler in the talent spotting dept. including telling Brian Epstein to forget about the pre-signed Beatles and later telling a band to get shot of the lead singer, one Rod Stewart. He did however record Tom Jones well before Tom he got his big break, but Meek was unable to get him a recording deal.

Joe Meek became a very troubled soul, suffering from bipolar and schizophrenia from early on. He also had a fascination with talking to the dead and this began to take over his waking and non-waking hours to the point of obsession. He believed he could communicate to the dead Buddy Holly in his dreams and that photos in his studio were communicating with him. He was unstable at best and his increasing drug abuse only quickened his deterioration.

Added to the mix was Meek’s homosexual way of life, especially at a time when many gay men were prime targets for blackmailers due to the illegal status of homosexuality in that period. Andrew Loog Oldham said of him ‘He looked like a real mean-queen Teddy Boy and his eyes were riveting’.

Due to lengthy legal problems, Meek received no royalties from his biggest hit ‘Telstar’ in his lifetime, which added to the already weighty financial problems he was suffering from.

He finally snapped on the 3rd of February 1967.  He killed his landlady Violet Shenton with a shotgun taken from his solo star Heinz, and then turned the gun on himself. The date was the 18th anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly

Joe meek was 37.

Many years later the NME celebrated the work of Joe Meek. ‘He was a complete trailblazer, attempting endless new ideas in his search for the perfect sound. The legacy of his endless experimentation is writ large over most of your favourite music today.’

Some life that.

The Mumper of SE5