The Madness of King Robert GeorgeDecember 2, 2012
Robert George Meek was better known as Joe Meek. A maverick record constructor, sonic architect and visionary of what was possible from the seemingly impossible, he led a turbulent life, permanently perched on the line right between madness and genius. Many of the main protagonists in the Joe Meek story went onto bigger and more successful things (though not necessarily better), but equally, many of the characters who crossed paths with Meek during his quest for sonic perfection ended up troubled, broke (mentally, physically and financially) and even dead. By comparison, Joe Meek’s story makes Phil Spector’s look almost insignificant.
From his rented flat above a handbag shop on London’s Holloway Road (Number 304 – there’s now a wee unobtrusive plaque there for anyone with a keen eye and musical trainspottery tendencies), and with financial backing from a somewhat eccentric ex-army major who made his fortune from importing children’s toys, Joe crafted a selection of minor hits, major hits and million-sellers, all sewn together from an unlikely array of self-built echo chambers and a Health & Safety Officer’s wet dream of spaghettied electrical cables across landings and staircases via the bathroom and bedroom to the wee cupboard/control room where it all came together. Windows were covered up for sound-proofing. It could be the height of summer but no-one inside the ‘studio’, least of all Joe, could have known. To the piano keys Joe added drawing pins to give it a more sparkly sound. Vocals were nearly always recorded in the tiled bathroom, where there was a better, more natural reverb.
Joe couldn’t play a note of music, so he would hum and sing the tune he was wanting to the musicians, who would then be instructed to play it back note perfect. Often, in the search for perfection, they would be asked/encouraged to play the same tiny fragment of a song over and over again, way into the wee small hours if necessary, until they captured the essence of what Meek was hearing in his tortured head (sometimes even at gunpoint, when Joe’s demons got the better of him – more on them in a bit). It’s quite clear that Joe was not like any of the other 9 to 5 shirt-and-tied record producers of the day. Lee Mavers would’ve loved him.
Joe’s personal life was significant for two reasons. One: He had an interest in the spiritual world and the occult. He regularly channeled the spirits for guidance and inspiration. On meeting Buddy Holly, Joe told him he had foreseen his death. “February 3rd,” said Joe. “That’s today,” replied Buddy. A year later, on February 3rd 1959, Buddy Holly hopped on board a light aircraft in Iowa and died when the plane crashed.
Joe, like many people in the early 60s, had a huge interest in space travel and the possibility of civilisations on other planets. Watching the launch of the Telstar satellite and mesmerised by it’s capabilities for beaming live television and audio around the world, Joe began working on his most famous record. The music for Telstar came to Joe in a dream. Re-creating the drama of lift-off and the other-worldliness of outer space, Telstar was like nothing that had been before. A combination of twanging minor key surf guitar and distorted clavioline it has since had the dubious distinction of being known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite record. But don’t let that put you off. Telstar was also one of the catalysts for Joe’s descent into madness. But more of that in a moment.
Have a listen to Telstar by The Tornadoes:
The other significant aspect of Joe’s life was that he was homosexual. Still illegal in early 60s Britain, Joe was forced to keep his true self under wraps. Surrounding himself in his studio with eager young boys, Joe was on a mission to find the next Billy Fury, a singer he nearly ‘got’ before showbiz giant Larry Parnes snapped him up, and who’s success Joe found hard to cope with. Joe began managing a young German-born hopeful called Heinz. Heinz had little talent and minimum appeal but Joe spent the major’s money on far too many promotional shoots in an attempt to hype him into the charts. He lavished clothes, cars and even a boat on him and began a very one-sided love affair that was doomed to failure from the start.
No hits were forthcoming and the major was starting to ask for a return on his money. So too was Joe’s landlady, a woman who put up with much and to a point had allowed Joe to defer payment on his rent. But Joe had no money to give them. Around this time, Joe was arrested, George Michael style, for soliciting an undercover policeman in a public toilet. Named and shamed in the newspapers, friends stopped calling and Joe slipped into a spiral of drugs and the unpredictable madman/genius behaviour he has since become known for – waving guns around the studio, sacking the session musicians who had played on all his tracks and constantly checking for hidden bugs around his studio/flat when he became wracked with paranoia thinking Decca Records and even Phil Spector were somehow stealing all his ideas.
Hey Joe! Where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?
The success of Telstar should have eased the situation. It spent 5 weeks at Number 1 in the UK. It was the first British record to reach Number 1 in the USA. It won an Ivor Novello award. More importantly, it sold millions. It should’ve made Joe and everyone involved very comfortable. However, as the record grew in success, Jean Ledrut, a French composer decided that Joe had taken the melody for Telstar from his track La Marche d’Austerlitz.
Contrast and compare with Ledrut‘s tune:
Royalty payements were subsequently frozen and a lengthy courtroom case began. This deprived Joe of much-needed income. Perhaps, more significantly, along with the public toilet episode and the subsequent hushed-up blackmailing of him, it robbed Joe of any dignity he had left. Joe maintained his innocence, that the tune had come to him in a dream, but by now the people doubted his talent. Joe spiralled even further into madness. With his studio dismantled and possessions confiscated following a court order for non-payment of bills, he got into an argument with his landlady over his over-due rent. Pulling the gun on her, he shot her before turning the gun on himself. The date? February 3rd. Albeit 8 years apart, the same date as Buddy Holly’s death.
John Leyton – Johnny Remember Me. John Leyton was the original actor-turned-singer, long before Simon Cowell trawled the karaoke bars of Blackpool in search of the inspiration required in order to turn a couple of ugly actors in to million-selling chart stars, and make himself a fortune in the process. Along with The Shangri-La’s Leader Of The Pack, Johnny Remember Me is all you really need for sides 1 and 2 of Now That’s What I Call Melancholic Teen Angst. Like a spaghetti western theme, all galloping Spanish guitars and teen heart throb vocals, Meek’s trick is to add a gallon of reverb, a ghostly female wail and enough pathos to soften the collective hearts of every spiv, shyster and Kray Twin who flirted with the music business in the early 60s. Wee Alex Turner and Miles Kane, when doing their Last Shadow Puppets album had this on constant rotation, I’d bet.
The Outlaws – Swingin’ Low. A post-Shadows, pre-Beatles twang affair, this is neither rock nor roll. On account of all the wee bits where the musicians get to showcase their individual talents, it falls into the almost novelty record category. The Outlaws were Meek’s backing band of choice and various combinations of them played on many of Joe’s sessions. Given the chaotic nature of Meek’s recording, and the sheer volume of un-labelled tapes in the Meek archive, no-one knows for sure exactly who played on what. Bass player Chas Hodges went onto greater fame in his own right as Chas from Chas ‘n Dave. Guitarist Richie Blackmore went on to join Deep Purple, form Rainbow and live more recently as a 17th century mandolin playing medieval minstrel. Occasional drummer Clem Cattini went on to do sessions for The Kinks, Tom Jones and played un-credited on any number of 1960s hit singles.
The Honeycombs – Have I The Right. Stealing the chorus from the Everly Brothers Walk Right Back, Have I The Right is yer classic stomping 60s smash. The stomp was created by banging brooms, boots and all manner of bangable things on the studio’s wooden floor, much to the annoyance of everyone in the handbag shop downstairs. It’s just my opinion, but I think the Sex Pistols based their jackboot stomp on this record when they recorded Holidays In The Sun.
The Tornadoes – Telstar. Other-wordly, of its time, yet still contemporary sounding today, Telstar is Meek’s legacy. In an ironic post-script to the Joe Meek story, just 3 weeks after Meek’s death, a judge ruled in favour of Meek, citing the fact that Ledrut the Frenchman’s music hadn’t been played outside of France and that Meek could not possibly have heard it. Given that Meek spent every hour cooped up in his little flat/studio, he does have a point. Had the judge’s ruling been made earlier, perhaps Joe might still be with us today, kicking against the pricks and doing something interesting. We’ll never know.