Damien on… Joe Meek
After having returned from fighting tyranny in Europe, British gay men found it still alive at home. During the casual sophistication of the Thirties, homosexuality was on its way to being tolerated – but the austerity of the Fifties stopped all that.
And it was during this period that Joe Meek entered adulthood. In addition to being gay, Joe was paranoid, OCD, schizophrenic and manic-depressive. He was also into spiritualism and the paranormal.
He was destined for a hard life.
However, he did have some redeeming qualities: whilst having little musical talent himself, he had a natural flair for enhancing the sounds of those who did.
This he achieved by developing a number of Heath Robinson acoustic techniques and various crude electronic devices that took the recording business by storm.
But he had a lot of difficulties to overcome, in order to do so.
The first was the fact the post-war British popular music scene was utterly dominated by four large companies – EMI, Decca, Philips and Pye. Fifties Pop music was essentially a closed shop.
For a while, Joe tried to work within this system, as a recording engineer. He mixed, among many others, hits such as Frankie Vaughan’s “Green Door” for Philips, Lonnie Donegan’s “Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O” for Pye and Humphrey Lyttelton’s “Bad Penny Blues” for Parlophone (EMI).
The reaction he got to the last of these efforts was typical of the repression he encountered during those years. By over-recording the brushes and bass, and modulating the piano, Joe turned a Trad Jazz number into something the youth of the day could relate to. But Humph was FURIOUS (although his fury cooled somewhat when the record hit the POP charts).
In 1959, he created a stereophonic New Age concept album, featuring electronic sounds, called “I Hear A New World” – but it was only partially released. New Age? Concept album? Electronic music? In 1959? Precisely. It was WAY ahead of its time.
Of course, if Joe had been born in America – instead of England’s West Country – he could have started his own independent label and been as successful as Phil Spector. But the hidebound attitudes of Fifties and early Sixties Britain throttled the life out of the man.
Nevertheless, he plugged away – recording tracks at his Holloway Road “studio” and releasing them, one at a time, on any label that would take them. The only clue to his having produced them was the legend – “An RGM Sound Recording” – somewhere on each label.
304, Holloway Road, London.
The three floors above a leather goods shop at that address formed Joe’s “studio” – the premises was, and still is, a terraced HOUSE.
The stairwells were covered in cables and the individual rooms served as recording booths – with one set aside for the mixing desk. How Joe was able to prevent traffic noise from the busy road outside ruining his recordings is still a mystery, but at least SEPARATION was not a problem.
However, conflict with neighbours – particularly his long-suffering landlady downstairs – WAS. She would bang the ceiling with a broom handle, while Joe’s response was to place speakers on the floor to INCREASE the noise he was making.
According to visiting artists, the landlady – Violet Shenton – was a sweetheart. But Joe hated her with a passion. And their relationship would not end well.
The first hit to emerge from Holloway Road was John Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me” – written by Geoff Goddard (of whom, more later). It featured a booming vocal by John, eerie calls from an uncredited Lissa Gray and was released on Top Rank’s short-lived record label.
Its success was due in no small part to it and John Leyton being featured in a then-popular TV series called “Harpers, West One” – a soap, set in a department store.
But this was eclipsed by Joe’s next – and biggest – hit. “Telstar”.
Joe’s interest in the paranormal extended to all things extra-terrestrial – and when Telstar was launched, as the World’s first communications satellite, Joe was fascinated.
All of his life he had been interested in electronics (it is said that he built the first working TV set in his town) and his ingenuity with the science was certainly a major factor in the extraordinary records he created.
He even tried recording the dead in graveyards and a recording exists of a cat Joe found there – that he claimed spoke in tongues (although to THIS chronicler, it mostly sounds like “miaou”).
Anyhoo, Telstar inspired Joe to create his masterpiece.
So many stories surround this epic that today, it is hard to separate fact from fiction – but this scribbler will try…
It seems Joe merely supplied the MELODY for Telstar. The arrangement, Clem Cattini’s brushes on the snare-drum, the key-change in the middle, etc. – ALL came from the Tornados. But Joe doubtless also supplied the sound-effects that frame the number.
Central to the piece is a Clavioline. Originally invented in 1947 as an add-on for pianos, it had first hit the Pop charts in 1953, on Frank Chacksfield’s “Little Red Monkey” (which was supposed to to be a light novelty number – but on that, the Clavioline sounds CREEPY – this scribe’s wife HATES it).
Roger LaVern was the Tornados’ keyboard player – but his organ proved not to be big enough (so to speak) for Joe. And therefore, Joe decided to add the Clavioline. However, as Roger had a gig later, in Yarmouth – Geoff Goddard subbed for him on that instrument.
The echo was allegedly obtained by setting up two tape-recorders in 304, Holloway Road’s bathroom – and using a mic attached to one, with a speaker attached to the other, the whole recording was transferred acoustically.
If true, this would certainly explain why even this historian’s MINT original copy does NOT sound as clear as any of the Tornados’ subsequent recordings.
(One story even has it that Telstar was RECORDED in the bathroom – but that appears to have been a mashing of the above story with the fact that the rooms of the premises were used as studio “elements”).
One wonders whether the ORIGINAL recording still exists, in “The Tea Chest Tapes” (of which again, more later).
Another mystery is the BASS part. Heinz was the Tornados’ official bassist – but he could barely PLAY. His guitar often had rubber placed between the strings and body to disguise that fact, by damping the sound down to an atonal thump. So did he LEARN the bass part, or did someone sub for him, too?
But whatever the truths – the fact is, Telstar became a massive World-wide hit. It was Joe’s finest moment.
However, Joe would never earn a penny from it as the composer. This was due to a French composer accusing him of plagiarism, over a piece the Frenchman had written for a 1960 film. The fact that when Telstar came out, the film had not yet been released in Britain makes it unlikely Joe had ever HEARD it.
But this (probable) coincidence kept the matter tied up in court for YEARS. It was eventually settled – in Joe’s favour – three weeks after his death.
Geoff COULD play – and compose. In fact, he often helped Joe out by transcribing the latter’s tunes onto sheet music. He also supplied a number of his own compositions to Joe’s canon. Some say Joe even STOLE a few from him – and others. And he played keyboards on a number of Joe’s other hits.
Also, like Joe, Geoff was interested in the paranormal and was a practising psychic.
But despite the fact he too was gay, Joe and Geoff never really got on. And after a spat, they parted: whereupon Geoff LEFT the music business – sinking into obscurity and passing unobtrusively at the age of only 62. For years, he had been working in the canteen of a local university – the students unaware of his history.
Over the years he had been working, many artists had benefited from Joe’s productions – in addition to the above-mentioned, he had now recorded Screaming Lord Sutch, Mike Berry, Billy Fury, Gene Vincent, Petula Clark, George Chakiris, Mike Sarne, Freddie Starr, Tommy Steele, Jess Conrad, Anne Shelton, Shirley Bassey and a host of lesser lights, long-forgotten today.
He even encountered Tom Jones – but that also ended badly. In the early Sixties, the fashion for men’s trousers was TIGHT. And Joe’s remarks about the size of Tom’s package did not appeal to The Boy From The Valleys.
“It serves its purpose,” was Tom’s curt answer to one of Joe’s enquiries. Most gay men would have moved on after this obvious rebuff, from someone who was clearly a Ladies’ Man – but Joe continued his advances and eventually Tom lost it and WENT for him.
Having doubtless been beaten up over his proclivities before, Joe’s response was to scream like a girl and jump up onto his desk – then the mantelpiece – with an agility that took Tom aback. Shaking his head and sighing, Tom turned and walked away. He eventually got signed by Gordon Mills – who was STRAIGHT – and the rest is history.
Thus Joe needed to move FORWARD. What he badly needed was a follow-up to Telstar.
And so he composed “Globetrotter” – for which he was lucky not to receive ANOTHER accusation of plagiarism – it was VERY similar to “Venus In Blue Jeans”. However luckily, no-one seemed to notice and it made number five in the UK – but did nothing in America (Telstar had topped the charts on BOTH sides of the Atlantic).
Several more Meek-composed Tornados hits followed – “Robot”/“Life On Venus” and “The Ice Cream Man”/“Scales Of Justice” being the best (Scales Of Justice was composed by Johnny Douglas, for the film series).
But Joe grew tired of the group – all except for their bassist…
Heinz was a young German – brought up in Britain, from age seven – who was handsome and a natural blond. And Joe LOVED him – even insisting Roger LaVern dye his naturally fair hair black to avoid clashing with him.
But, like Tom Jones, Heinz was straight. However, UNlike Tom, he was charming and naive – thus was not as forceful in rebuffing Joe’s advances. And so Joe determined to extract him from the Tornados and make him a solo singing star.
However, while Heinz was a looker – his singing talents were merely adequate. Thus the only hit he scored was a minor one – “Just Like Eddy” – written by Geoff Goddard as a tribute to Eddie Cochran. A young Richie Blackmore (destined for fame with Deep Purple) played guitar. It made number five in the UK.
(After Joe’s death, Heinz carried on in The Business – singing in pantos, naustalgia shows and occasional Tornados reformations. He died a few weeks before Geoff Goddard, aged just 57).
When Heinz failed to become a star, Joe began looking around himself. The Tornados were ailing, Screaming Lord Sutch was only a one-hit-wonder novelty act, the major record companies were still not interested in him – and the Beatles (a group he had turned DOWN a few years earlier) were leading a whole new generation.
Joe felt he was about to become obsolete. But then came…
Featuring lady drummer Honey Lantree, the Honeycombs gave Joe his last number one hit, “Have I The Right”. Like Telstar, the stories surrounding its creation are fabled – and contradictory.
One says the THUMP that characterises the record was created by the group stamping on the stairs of 304, Holloway Road, recorded by a series of mics attached to the bannister rail by bicycle clips (THAT must have pleased Violet).
Another says Joe wrapped a moving coil mic in a towel and placed it on the bare boards of the bathroom floor and stamped his OWN foot on the floor, in time to the rhythm.
Maybe it was both. Or neither.
Whichever, the record went top ten all over the World – Joe appeared to be BACK.
However, this late entry in Joe’s canon proved to be his swansong. He continued recording tracks with the Honeycombs, but apart from a having a minor hit with “That’s The Way” in ’65 – they all fell on stony ground.
And his rants and rages became worse and more frequent – Honey Lantree was terrified of him.
Thus the Honeycombs spelled the end of an era.
Like everything else surrounding Joe Meek, his exit is surrounded by confusion. The FACTS are that on the third of February, 1967 (the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death) Joe’s body, along with that of his aforementioned landlady, Violet Shenton, was found at 304, Holloway Road – they had both died by shotgun blast.
Another fact was that the shotgun found at the scene belonged to Heinz Burt. At first, the police went looking for HIM.
However, they soon eliminated him from suspicion: declaring that Joe had shot Violet – then himself.
The presence of Heinz’ shotgun was explained as its having been confiscated by Joe, when he discovered Heinz was using it to go bird-shooting while on tour – a sport Joe disapproved of. He had then hidden the firearm and cartridges under his bed.
But questions remain unanswered – and are likely to continue to be, given the principals are now all deceased.
Like, was the fact the murder-suicide took place on the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death relevant? Joe was obsessed with the singer and had often claimed to have had psychic conversations with him.
Then there was the business of Heinz’ shotgun. The police were satisfied at the time, but…
And what happened at 304, Holloway Road, to trigger (again, so to speak) the tragedy? Since there were no reported witnesses, we shall probably never know.
For many years, people FORGOT Joe. But slowly, his story began to grow: from curio, through fame – to LEGEND. Books, TV docos and now, even dramatisations of his life. His recordings have been re-issued many times. Most are currently available on YouTube (some even uploaded by this writer).
And then there are “The Tea-Chest Tapes” – these have changed hands a number of times, for ever-increasing sums. They apparently include recordings that never made it to vinyl, of many of the stars Joe recorded – and some he did not (like Tom Jones and the young David Bowie).
Perhaps the original master of Telstar is in there (which could now be restored – in STEREO, if it was recorded on multi-track – and with MODERN echo added).
But while it is said they were catalogued in the Eighties, they have not yet surfaced in the public domain.
Naturally, now being fifty-odd years old, they may be commercially useless. Audio tape is quite durable if kept away from heat, humidity and magnetic fields – but fifty years is a long time.
And finally, it is cruelly ironic that within just SIX MONTHS of Joe’s expiration, three important things happened…
One: the court case concerning Telstar was (as stated above) settled in his favour. This would have restored his financial status – he was BROKE when he died.
Two: homosexuality was (sort of) legalised in the UK.
And three: The Summer Of Love happened. Pop music and culture EXPLODED. In short, the World changed – and many of the ways it changed would have suited Joe right down to the ground.
If only he had just WAITED a bit…