I Hear a New World
Joe Meek was one of the leading figures in pre-Beatles British pop music. A hugely talented record producer, his innovative recordings were way ahead of anyone else working at the time. His constant inventiveness at putting down the strange sounds he heard in his head, together with his talents at sound balancing, and his use of distortion and echo effects, produced a body of extraordinary music which still sounds strange and futuristic today. Tracks such as The Tornadoes' "Telstar", John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me" and The Blue Men's album "I Hear a New World" are now considered classics.
But, like many other geniuses of popular music, he did not lead a happy life. Ill-tempered and prone to tantrums when he could not get his vision across, he fought constantly with the conservative record industry of the time. He was also gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain, and was constantly entangled with the law over everything from plagiarism to murder. Finally in 1967, plagued by career problems, hassled by gangsters and possibly seriously mentally ill, he shot his landlady and then turned the gun on himself.
Robert George Meek was born on 5 April 1929 in the village of Newent in Gloucestershire in the West of England. His family moved around a lot looking for work during the depression of the 1930s, and he had a disruptive childhood, spending some of it living with his grandmother.
Aged 8, he began putting on shows for local children: acting in plays and sketches and performing conjuring tricks. He enjoyed dressing up as a girl as a child; it is said his mother originally wanted a daughter, and put him in dresses for the first four years of his life. He also began to develop what would be a life-long fascination with the occult and unworldly. Meek was described by his family as "an indoor boy" and "sensitive", and enjoyed staying inside listening to his gramophone, although he also had a strong sense of humour and a fondness for practical jokes.
As a young man in the early 1950s, he worked for the Midlands Electricity Board repairing televisions and other items. In his spare time, he made mix tapes of pop hits which he played at parties and dances. He also recorded sketches and stories on tape, experimenting with sound effects and recording tricks. His recordings of ghost tales allowed him to develop tricks that would later resurface in the haunted atmospherics of "Johnny Remember Me" and other songs.
In 1953 with the MEB's resources he made his own record cutter, and made his first record, a collection of sound effects. He moved on from this to recording local bands, and got a job at IBC studios with Radio Luxembourg, as a chief engineer on the show "People are Funny". He also worked on a number of other programs, including "The Petula Clark Show", "This is Your Life" and "When You're Smiling".
Beginnings as a producer
His first major music recording job was as balance engineer on the Alan Aiynsworth-produced orchestral pop collection "Film Themes". His next project was the Ivy Benson Orchestra's "Music for Lonely Lovers". Meek's first work as a producer was in 1956 for Humphrey Lyttleton's "Bad Penny Blues". His manipulation of the drum sound, including the use of echo, was unique for a trad-jazz record, and the recording was a commercial hit, reaching the singles chart. Around this time he also worked, in various capacities, on Anne Shelton's "Lay Down Your Arms" and Frankie Vaughn's "Green Door", and with Shirley Bassey, Alma Cogan, Petula Clark and Harry Seacombe.
Early production work for the artists Mike Preston, Joy and David, Lance Fortune, and others appeared on the Decca and Pye labels, and following his number 12 chart placing for "Mr Blue" by Mike Preston he got his first number one in 1960 with "Why You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me" by Emile Ford and the Checkmates. Meek built a primitive studio in his home at Arundel Gardens in London. Here he made recordings with Joy and David, The West Five (aka The Blue Men) and Ricky Wayne.
Joe was far ahead of his competitors technologically. The British recording industry was very conservative by nature at this time. His ideas always risked either being rejected by his bosses, or being stolen by less-talented rivals. This may have led to his increasing paranoia. He went through a number of business ventures, including RGM Sound (after Meek's initials) with Wilfred Alonzo Banks, known as Major Banks, a project to produce records and lease them to larger record labels. He also worked in the Landsdowne Studio, which Meek had designed but which was owned by Dennis Preston, who had got Meek his original job with Radio Luxembourg. They quarreled repeatedly over many issues, and eventually Meek was forced out.
In 1960, Meek set up Triumph Records, with classical record producer William Barrington-Coupe. Meek and Barrington-Coupe each owned half, and Meek had full creative control. Recordings from this period include "Angela Jones" and "I See a New World". However, this collapsed after problems with distribution, leaving a number of records unreleased, including the first single by a young actor-turned-singer, John Leyton.
Leyton had already been turned down by a couple of record labels when he was picked up by Triumph. He had an average voice, but good looks that seemed set to make him a teen idol. Leyton's first single was a cover of "Tell Laura I Love Her", a huge hit in America for Ray Peterson. When this failed to chart, after finally being released by Top Rank, Meek followed it with his own composition, the similarly macabre "Johnny Remember Me", which reached number one in Britain.
Leyton had another big hit with "Wild Wind" and released a highly praised album "The Two Sides of John Leyton". However, his career quickly declined, and his agent Robert Stigwood stopped Leyton working with Meek. He went on to a successful career as an actor, with roles in The Great Escape and Von Ryan's Express, and he still tours singing on the nostalgia circuit.
304 Holloway Road
304 Holloway Road is the mecca for Meek fans, the home of Meek's recording studio, incongruously located in a second-storey flat in a busy part of North London above a leather goods store. His landlady was Mrs. Violet Shenton, a woman in her late middle age, who owned the leather goods store with her husband Albert. It was at this address that Meek was able to bring his ideas to their greatest fruition, and create his most unique and extraordinary music.
The recording industry was very different then, and Meek had to be a master at quite different talents from the producers of today. Meek was a genius at sound balancing: before multitrack recording, music was recorded live with all the instruments in the same room. The producer had to arrange all the equipment to achieve the right balance between the instruments, without the chance to spend long hours mixing pre-recorded tracks. Meek did not have the benefit of modern electronic effects either. He produced home-made echo chambers, using springs from a garden gate and a fan heater. The whole operation was similarly ramshackle: musicians often had to sit on the stairs, or even in the bath to take advantage of the acoustics. In contrast, at the major studios, recording engineers acted with the seriousness of nuclear scientists: they wore white coats, with sports jackets allowed on Saturdays.
His early fooling with sound effects led to him putting a curious assortment of non-musical sounds on his pop records. He used the flushing of a toilet (recorded and played backwards) on one record, and a variety of percussion effects including the stamping of feet and banging various household objects. His landmark recording "I Hear a New World" featured "running water, bubbles being blown through drinking straws, half filled milk bottles being banged by spoons, the teeth of a comb drawn across the serrated edge of an ashtray, electrical circuits being shorted together, clockwork toys, the bog being flushed, steel washers rattled together. Heavy breathing phased across the mics, vibrating cutlery, reversed tapes, a spot of radio interference", according to the liner notes of the CD reissue.
"I Hear a New World", credited to The Blue Men, was a concept album about life on the moon, drawing on Meek's obsession with the future and outer space. Recorded in 1960, it used the clavioline, a primitive electronic instrument which could only play one note at a time, and the record also featured early stereo technology. The record was never properly released at the time, due partly to the collapse of Triumph. Now it is hailed as a masterpiece of space-rock and ambient electronica.
It was also at 304 Holloway Road that he recorded "Telstar", his greatest hit and best known record, for The Tornadoes. Even Margaret Thatcher once expressed fondness for the track. It was the first record by a British group to reach number one in the US singles charts. His only other US hit was the Honeycombs' "Have I the Right", a doubt-wracked piece of brittle British invasion pop (although his composition "Put a Ring on My Finger" was a 1958 hit in the US for Les Paul and Mary Ford). Telstar used bass, drums, guitar, clavioline, Lowrey organ, and Joe's modified piano with thumb tacks in the hammers to create its science fiction sound, inspired by the launch of the world's first communications satellite.
However, he was sued by a French composer who claimed Telstar's melody was stolen from his film soundtrack The Battle of Austerlitz, and the lawsuit cost him millions. This was despite the fact that the film was not released in Britain until after Telstar was released, and Meek had never been to France. There is by all accounts little similarity between the two. The case was not settled until after Meek's death, when the court awarded 8500 pounds to the French composer, a tiny fraction of the total legal bill.
Through all his life, Meek was prone to fits of rage. In part these were due to his inability to express his musical ideas; his tone-deaf singing often produced laughter from musicians. He also maintained his childhood interest in the occult and spiritualism; he visited graveyards, attempting to record the voices of the dead.
Meek claimed to be in contact with spirits in the afterlife, including Buddy Holly who (Meek said) blessed his "Tribute to Buddy Holly" recording. Meek apparently predicted Holly's death on February 3, 1959, and warned the musician; Holly shrugged it off. Meek believed had a Native American chief and Egyptian Pharoah Rameses the Great as spirit guides. He may also have been connected with the Golden Dawn, a long-running occult movement which claimed W. B. Yeats as an earlier member.
He also developed increasing paranoia. His studio was almost certainly bugged by other record companies or producers, anxious to hear what he was working on and find out his tricks. But he also believed he had a machine that could control people's minds through high-pitched sounds. Around 1964, Meek found himself the target of gangsters, who also controled many nightclubs and a large part of the entertainment industry in London.
On November 11, 1963, he was arrested for cottaging in Madras Place men's convenience, also a haunt of playwright Joe Orton. He pled guilty to the charge of "importuning for immoral purposes". Meanwhile, the law suit over "Telstar" continued to hang over him, preventing him getting the royalties from his biggest hit, and he also faced litigation over the break-ups of his varied business dealings, and claims of plagiarism by him against The Dave Clarke Five, and against him over "Have I The Right". The more stripped-down sound of The Beatles and blues-influenced bands like the Rolling Stones and the Animals had reduced the importance of studio wizardry, though he had attempted to work with the Merseybeat sound with The Honeycombs and The Crying Shames, for whom he created sounds of unparalleled desolation on "Please Stay" in 1966.
All his paranoia and anger came to a head on February 3, 1967. That night he argued with his landlady Mrs Shenton; the reason is unclear, but it may have concerned his unpaid rent. As she attempted to leave, Meek shot her in the back with a shotgun that had been lying around the studio, fully loaded. Meek's assistant Patrick Pink was downstairs and heard the shot. He rushed up to find Meek reloading the gun; before Pink could do anything, Meek had shot himself.
Many of Meek's fans dispute the official version of his death. Shenton was one of the few people Meek enjoyed a happy relationship with, so they doubt he would have killed her; notwithstanding his violent temper. There are suggestions that the gun discharged accidentally, or that Meek was under the influence of drugs. Some people also claim that a third party was involved, and Meek was killed by gangsters. Pink was the first police suspect, and they also investigated Heinz Burt, the owner of the gun.
At the time Meek was highly disturbed and upset. His career appeared to be in decline, and EMI had recently rejected recordings. He feared police questioning over the death of a male prostitute, Bernard Oliver, whose body was found in two suitcases in the village of Tattington in Suffolk. Meek knew Oliver, and although there is no evidence he was directly involved in the murder, he may have known something about it.
February 3, 1967 was also the 8th anniversary of Buddy Holly's death.
By the time of his death, Meek's success was in the past. The music world was concerned with the strange new music of producers like Brian Wilson and Phil Spector, not to mention The Beatles. He must have seemed an anachronism with his high-tech dreams in a world of hippies. But great music, once recorded, is never truly lost, and Meek's work was rediscovered in the late 1970s. He has gone on to be recognised as one of the true originals of British pop.
Selected recordings (including all his UK top 10 hits)
"Mr Blue", Mike Preston, UK #12, 1959
"Why Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me", Emile Ford and the Checkmates, UK #1, 1959
"Be mine", Lance Fortune, UK #4, 1959
"Angela Jones", Michael Cox, UK #7, 1960
"I Hear a New World" (album), The Blue Men, unreleased, 1960
"Johnny Remember Me", John Leyton, UK #1, 1961
"Wild Wind", John Leyton, UK #2, 1961
"Telstar", The Tornadoes, UK #1, US #1 (in 1965), 1962
"The Sounds of the Tornadoes" (ep), The Tornadoes, UK #2, 1962
"Telstar" (ep), The Tornadoes, UK #4, 1962
"Don't You Think It's Time", Mike Berry, UK #6, 1962
"Globetrotter", The Tornadoes, UK #5, 1963
"More Sounds from the Tornadoes" (ep), The Tornadoes, UK #9, 1963
"Just Like Eddie", Heinz, UK #5, 1963
"Tornado Rock" (ep), The Tornadoes, UK #7, 1963
"Have I the Right", The Honeycombs, UK #1, US #5, 1964
"Please Stay", The Crying Shames, UK #27, 1966
http://www.concentric.net/~meekweb/telstar.htm - TelstarWeb
http://www.rgmsound.co.uk/ - The Joe Meek Appreciation Society, who also produce the magazine Thunderbolt