Episode 46. Joe Meek
Telstar, by The Tornados, released in 1962 went No.1 in the UK and the USA, the first UK record ever to do so. Millions of people know that record but they have no idea who the man behind it was and furthermore, they have no idea just how important this man is in the history of popular music. In 2012 the NME named him the ‘Greatest Producer of All Time, beating George Martin, Phil Spector and Quincy Jones and all of your favourites. Here then, is the simplified story of a complicated man. Joe Meek, the world’s first independent producer.
Joe was born Robert George Meek on 5th April 1929 at 1 Market Square in Newent, a small town in Gloucestershire with a population of about 4,000 people. His parents were farmers and they nicknamed him Joe after his brother who had died as an infant. Joe’s mother actually wanted a girl and she dressed him in girl’s clothes until he was four years old which may or may not account in part for his homosexuality later on in life. He was a precocious, reclusive child who preferred to listen to the radio rather than play outside. He was teased at school by his elders and became interested in electronics at a very early age, taking apart radios and gramophones to see how they worked and tried to construct other things from them. By the time he was ten, he had already built a crystal radio set attached to a microphone and amplifier and by the age of fourteen had upgraded it so much that he could work locally as a DJ. This was 1943, WWII was raging, parts were difficult and expensive to get and electronics were still in their infancy. He also astonished the local community when he built a sound system to put in trees to frighten birds away and built the first television in his area. Sadly, he lived in such a remote part of Britain that the signal was very weak and very few programs reached his home.
In 1948, the compulsory National Service Act meant that Joe had to serve eighteen months in the military and he enlisted in the RAF, serving as a radar operator. When he was dismissed, he returned home and worked at the Midlands Electricity Board but London called and he moved to the capital, landing a job as a TV/radio engineer for a while at the HMV Company. Whilst there, he made contact with a lot of record industry salesmen and then in 1955, moved to the International Broadcasting Company (IBC) Recording Studios at 35 Portland Place where he learnt the basics of engineering a record. The following year he engineered Frankie Vaughn’s No. 2 hit Green Door as well as Humphrey Lyttelton's Bad Penny Blues which was the first British Jazz record to enter the Top 20; Paul McCartney based the piano riff to Lady Madonna on this piece. In 1957, Humphrey Lyttelton's producer, Denis Preston, asked Joe to find him a property for a new studio. He found one in Holland Park, West London and Lansdowne Studios was founded that year. Denis took Joe to work with him where he was free to experiment a bit more and Joe engineered several of the Lonnie Donegan early hits at Lansdowne including Cumberland Gap and he also tried his hand at song writing. He wrote one called Put A Ring On Her Finger which was recorded by Eddie Silver and produced by George Martin in his pre-Beatle days but the record flopped in the UK. However, it was covered in the US by Les Paul and Mary Ford, reaching No. 32 in the Billboard chart.
Frankie Vaughn’s Green Door Humphrey Lyttelton's Bad Penny Blues
Around this time, Joe became very interested in spiritualism, tarot cards and other such things. One night, he attended a séance and was told that Buddy Holly would die on February 3rd. When Buddy was on his UK tour in March 1958, Joe went to see him and gave Buddy a note telling him about the séance. Buddy thanked him but ignored it because Feb 3rd 1958 had already passed. This really reads like a side note but as you shall see, has relevance later on. Now, where were we? Oh yes…Lansdowne studios.
For reasons unknown, Joe and Denis parted company and Joe decided to form his own record company with the royalties from Put A Ring On Her Finger. Triumph Records was unusual for the time in the UK as the major labels dominated the charts and there were only a handful of independents. After a few unsuccessful releases, he had a top 10 hit with Angela Jones sung by Michael Cox which was the first UK hit on an independent label in ten years but by then he had lost interest as well as a lot of money due to poor distribution which was done through Saga Records - they specialized in film music. This was just one of Joe’s many examples of his poor business dealings. Triumph Records was closed less than a year after it opened.
In that year though, Joe had formed a partnership between himself and one of the members of the board at Saga, Wilfred-Alonzo ‘Major’ Banks. Banks saw the sales of Angela Jones and offered Joe a deal whereas Joe would receive a salary and they would split all the profits 50/50. Major Banks would also finance an independent studio for Joe to record in giving Joe all the freedom he wanted. The company was registered on September 12th, 1960 under the name of RGM Sound Ltd (Robert George Meek) and Joe rented a three story flat above a leather goods shop at 304 Holloway Road, Islington. Together with Dave Adams, a musician friend who happened to also be a carpenter, he converted the middle floor of the flat into a recording studio. Now all he needed was someone to record.
304 Holloway Rd in the 1960s and as it is today . Note the Titanic café next door is still in business. I highly recommend the English breakfast.
Mike Berry, a wannabe singer from Northampton, had already made a demo of himself with his band and via a friend, the tape found its way to Joe who liked it. Joe told Mike that he had an idea to do a tribute to Buddy Holly with Mike’s face superimposed over Buddy’s on the cover, an idea Mike loved and promptly signed the record contract. To begin though, Joe thought Mike should record a cover version of The Shirelles’ Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow which Mike did, using Joe’s studio band called The Outlaws. It was released in January 1961 and disappeared without a trace. Joe spent the next few months experimenting with recording including putting microphones in dustbins to get an echo, asking drummers to play boxes rather than drums, dropping marbles in toilets and scraping combs along objects, recording all of them on reams of tape. The Major funded all of Joe’s eccentricities for a while but then being the good businessman he was, insisted that Joe put some hits out. In August 1961, he had his first No. 1 with Johnny Remember Me performed by another singer named John Leyton, again with The Outlaws as the backing band. A follow-up record, Wild Wind, went to No.2. Both songs were written by a young man named Geoff Goddard and he would become Joe’s regular songwriter. Mike Berry then got his chance to record his tribute to Buddy Holly (also written by Goddard) and the single reached No. 24 in October 1961. Mike Berry took off on tour and The Outlaws went with him so Joe put a new band together and called the The Tornados.
Joe was doing well and the peak of his career came in late 1962 when Telstar hit No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic but within a few months, he was being sued for plagiarism by a French composer named Jean Ledrut. Joe had all his royalties frozen and it was the start of the decline of his personal life. He had hits after Telstar but nothing matched it in sales and he had too much faith in The Tornados bass player, Heinz Burt, who he wanted to mold into a pop idol along the same lines as Elvis and Billy Fury. Joe may or may not have been in love with Heinz but either way, Heinz was with Joe for the fame and the adulation, not for a relationship. Joe poured money into Heinz’s career and in August ’63 they had a top 5 hit with Just Like Eddie (an Eddie Cochran tribute) but the follow-up singles failed to make much of an impact and then in November 1963, Joe was arrested for homosexual activities in a public toilet. The fine was small - £15 - but the shame was almost too much to bear and he was mocked by youths outside the studio whenever he entered, sometimes beaten up by them as well. Heinz eventually left Joe when the money ran out in 1965.
La Marche d'Austerlitz by Jean Ledrut Telstar by Tornados
By this time, Joe had also split with Major Banks and he had very little funds left to carry on producing. He became increasingly paranoid that his studio was bugged by the big labels and he had difficulty adapting his style to the quickly changing pop world. Merseybeat and the Tottenham Sound now dominated the charts and unable to take the rejection and failure, locked himself away in his studio, talking to no one. The last thing he did that garnered any success was producing The Honeycombs’ Have I The Right which went to No.1 in July 1964 but this brought only heartache for Joe when Geoff Goddard sued the writers, claiming that Joe had stolen his song, Give Me A Chance. Joe was a broken man, financially, physically and mentally.
No one knows for sure what happened on February 3rd, 1967, the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death. Joe was heard arguing with his landlady who seconds later, fell down the stairs, having been blasted with a shotgun Joe had confiscated from Heinz. Joe then turned the gun on himself and ended his own life. It was a tragic end to a man who invented recording techniques and captured sounds that nobody else could. He left behind over 1,800 tapes in tea chests (now known as The Tea Chest Tapes), most of which had never been released.
His hits speak for themselves but the clarity of the recordings, the sound effects and inventiveness are just a part of his legacy. Lansdowne Studios became one of the most desired studios in the UK and was used by Uriah Heep, Queen and The Animals and many others. The Outlaws guitarist did well for himself. His name is Ritchie Blackmore and he got into The Outlaws at the suggestion of the drummer, Mick Underwood who went in to become Gillan’s drummer in the 1980s. Chas Hodges was on bass and with Dave Peacock, found fame as Chas & Dave that same decade. The Tea Chest Tapes were acquired in 2021 by Cherry Red Records and over eighteen months, indexed, catalogued, digitized and are now being released. They are said to contain not only unreleased Ritchie Blackmore recordings but also ones by, amongst others, David Bowie, Ray Davies, Marc Bolan, Steve Marriott and Gene Vincent. I have a standing order with Cherry Red to buy every one of them.
Joe’s studio equipment was unique, as was his sound. In the digital age many things come close to recreating the original analogue sounds and Joe would be rather proud to know that his name lives on in a series of digital processors in his name. The sixties green is a nice touch.
N.B. The Telstar lawsuit which started in March 1963 was settled in a French court. The judge’s verdict was that there were indeed parallels between Telstar and Ledrut's film music. The film however, was only released in France at the time and therefore it is highly unlikely that Joe knew of its existence. Ledrut obtained £8,500 and all Joe’s frozen assets were released. Sadly, it was too late for Joe, the case took over four years and was settled after his death.