Robert George “Joe” Meek was a song-writer, producer and sound engineer. He was also an independent label, publisher and studio owner. He was the epitome of independence in the music industry. He wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered the first song by a British group to go to number 1 in the USA and sold well over 5 million records, all from his rented flat on the Holloway Road in North London.
Joe Meek is often described as the British Phil Spector this is probably as much to do with some of the more bizarre aspects of his life as it is his music. On February 3rd, 2003, Phil Spector shot and killed Lana Clarkson at his home in California, he was sentenced to 19 years to life in jail for her murder. On the same day in 1967 Joe Meek shot and killed his landlady Violet Shenton, he was not arrested for her murder as after shooting her he turned the gun on himself and took his own life. February 3rd is also the day (in 1959) that Buddy Holly died.
Joe Meek was born on the 5th of April 1929, in the small town of Newent in Gloucestershire, England. He was the second son of George and Evelyn (known as Biddy), his mother wanted a girl so would dress Joe as one as a child and let his hair grow long. She even considered sending him to school as a girl but George put a stop to that the moment he discovered her plan.
He was given the nickname Joe in remembrance of one of his 3 uncles that died in World War 1. His father was the only one of 4 brothers to make it back from the war alive, but he came back with PTSD or “shell shock” as it was known then and severe shrapnel wounds.
Young Joe took an interest in electronics from an early age. Around the age of 6 or 7, he got his first record player, a wind-up gramophone. He discovered that if he waited until the blank runout section of the record at the end and shouted into the horn, his voice would be etched into the record. After that discovery, he became fascinated with audio recording and electronics in general.
Using his Grandma’s shed as a workshop, he gathered as much electronic equipment as he could lay his hands on. If it was broken, he would fix it or harvest the parts to fix or build something else. He built a variety of electronic equipment including a working television, the first one in the area. It would be a little while before anyone watched anything on the TV as the BBC didn’t yet broadcast to that region.
He was also a keen performer and around the same age, he started playing with electronics he would put on shows in the garden and charge the neighbours an entrance fee to sit and watch. The shows often involved Joe dressing up in girls clothing and dancing around in a manner that displeased his father and resulted in plenty of teasing and bullying from the local boys, including Joe’s two brothers. They would call him namby-pamby or cissie boy, and he would fly into a rage.
Recording audio was his main passion, although the subjects he recorded didn’t always know they were being recorded. His brothers recall Joe’s covert recordings, “there were always microphones around the house, you didn’t know whether you were being recording…”.
The Family Business
Joe’s dad George owned a fish ‘n’ chip shop in the town and used the profits to buy a small farm, the first of many property purchases George Meek made. On the first farm, there was a small cherry orchard and Joe and his two brothers were often sent there with a shotgun to shoot starlings before they could eat the fruit. Joe didn’t want to kill the birds, so instead, he wired up a series of speakers in the branches of the trees and played loud sounds to scare them away.
The second farm Joe’s dad bought had a large number of pigs, he put Joe in charge of them and although he didn’t exactly relish the work he made sure the pigsties were spotless every morning. The pigs would muck them up again with an hour or so but Joe would still clean them again the next day to the same high standard.
By now his electronics projects and the junk that went with them had spilled out from the shed into the sitting room of the house, after months and months of trying to take back control of the room his parents relented and the room officially became Joe’s workshop.
At the weekends he would hire out his services as a DJ in local pubs, using his huge homemade sound system. He also provided sound effects for the local amateur theatre company, his speciality was scary sound effects and car crashes.
When he was 18 he had the choice to enlist in the armed forces as part of his National Service that was required at the time, or he could go back to working on the family farm and be exempt. He didn’t want to go back to the farm so he joined the Royal Air Force and worked as a Radar Operator, as well as performing his duties he would often fix the radios and record players of the other servicemen.
After leaving the Royal Air Force he decided to not rejoin his family on the farm and instead looked for work locally, there were three big electrical shops in the area, Curry’s, Broadmeads and MEB (Midlands Electricity Board). He started first at Curry’s and enjoyed it at first, but soon got tired of the excursions to repairs items in people’s homes. He told his boss he was moving to London but instead he applied for a job at MEB, there were no more home visits and as long as he clocked in on time he was pretty much free to do what he wanted in the workshop.
It was while working at MEB he built his own disc cutting lathe and in the summer of 1953, he cut his first record, a sound effects compilation. His projects were getting more ambitious now and what he couldn’t do in the MEB workshop he would continue at home, often working until the early morning. This meant he began struggling to meet the minimum requirment of turning up on time, at 7.45 am. After being more than 2 hours late on too many occasions he was told to find himself another job.
So he made his way to the 3rd and final electrical shop around, Broadmeads. He did not enjoy Broadmeads at all it had all things he hated about both Curry’s and MEB home visits and early starts and none of the perks. There wasn’t even a honeymoon period so he vowed to leave pretty much as soon as he got there. He had started to record local bands and in mid 1954 he cut his first vocal record, the singer was his brother Eric’s future wife, Marlene Williams. He sent the disc to a record label but was rejected. A few months later he crashed his Broadmeads van and although he emerged unhurt it gave him the jolt he needed to quit Broadmeads.
The only choice now was to actually leave Newent and move to London and try to get a job as an audio engineer there. His first job was at a film company that was looking for dubbing engineers, not exactly what he wanted to do but it was better than repairing radios in Gloucester and they had also provided him with accommodation. He found the job entirely void of any creativity and left after a week.
His next job was at Stones Radio Shop on the Edgware Road, he would later reference the pub next door to the shop in his song “Who’s Coming With Me To The Old Red Lion”. As well as selling radios and other electronics, Stones was one of London’s biggest record stores so Meek soon started making contacts with distributors and salesmen whose job it was to get the records on the shelves. He was also able to buy some more sophisticated audio equipment to complement his homemade creations.
Away from the small town of Newent, Joe was starting to come to terms with his sexuality but remember this is 1954 and homosexuality was a crime with some acts punishable by life in prison or chemical castration, by the end of 1954 there were over 1000 British men in jail for being gay. Just two years prior, world war two codebreaker Alan Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” when he acknowledged he was in homosexual realtionship while reporting a burglary at his home.
He met his first real close friend, Lional Howard and together they moved into a large bedsit at 15 Leinster Gardens in Bayswater. The attitudes of people in London was more open minded than in his hometown but he still had to put up with the off-hand comments and whispers behind his back. After a while Lional got sick of having all the audio gear around the one room they lived in and Joe’s temper was beginning to wear him down, and they both moved out.
Joe moved into a flat at 20 Arundel Gardens in Notting Hill and set up his audio equipment in one of the rooms. Eventually, he landed a job at IBC Studios, one of the biggest recording studios in the country at the time. The sounds inside of the legendary Mellotron were all recorded at IBC Studios. He started off as a film projector operator before joining the mobile recording team for the Radio Luxembourg roadshow “People Are Funny”. It didn’t take long for his electronics and recording skills to land him his dream job, sound engineer in their music studios.
At IBC’s now-iconic studios at 35 Portland Place in London, Meek worked on recordings for some of the biggest artists of the time. He did recording sessions for Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey, Anne Shelton and Lonnie Donegan, but as just the “junior engineer” he rarely had any influence in the way the records were produced. Although, he did put his sound effects skills to good use on Anne Shelton’s “Lay Down Your Arms”. He used a tray of gravel to recreate the sound of soldiers marching and added it to the rhythm track.
Back in the 50s recording studios were very sterile, serious places. Sound engineers wore a shirt and tie with a white coat on top, as part of the strict dress code, so resembled doctors more than artists and the producers always wore suits. The concept of recording music was simply to capture the performance in the most natural way, which usually just meant setting up a selection of microphones around the performers and hitting record.
Joe Meek had almost the opposite philosophy when it came to recording, he saw the recording studio as an instrument in itself. He believed that by processing parts of the audio more heavily than usual and re-recording other parts you could create recordings that were larger than life, that sounded better than the performance in the studio. This is a philosophy that was completely alien to the other engineers at IBC and often put him at odds with the musicians.
In 1956 Joe Meek recorded “Bad Penny Blues” for Jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton, who recalls his concerns about Meek’s recording techniques. “…the idea in Jazz was to get a natural sound without monkeying around but Joe over recorded the drum brushes, Stan Gregg playing the brushes…he bumped these up and also did something very peculiar in distorting the left hand of the piano so that rolling octave thing sounds very peculiar on the record because that’s not the actual sound that comes out of the piano!”
Lyttleton disliked the way the record sounded, he thought it was “dreadful”, but he had gone on holiday after the recording session and was not present to hear the finished recording before it was released. The record was released and became the first British Jazz record to make the top 20 in the pop charts, staying there for 6 weeks, Lyttleton attributed the success to the way it was recorded and admits it may not have been a hit had he been there to stop Joe Meek from recording it the way he wanted.
Coincidentally, “Bad Penny Blues” was released on Parlophone, and the head of A&R there at the time was none other than future Beatles producer George Martin who would have undoubtedly noticed the unique sound of the recording. Paul McCartney is said to have based the piano riff from “Lady Madonna” on the piano line that Meek had boosted and distorted.
Humphrey Lyttleton’s producer, Denis Preston, was so impressed with Meek’s engineering skills that he insisted that Joe Meek be the engineer for all his future sessions. This upset IBC’s studio manager Allen Stagg, who had been Preston’s first choice until Joe Meek came along. It was just one of the things about Joe that bothered him.
Allen Stagg hated Joe’s constant “fiddling” with the equipment, and the fact he didn’t reset them afterwards meant the next engineer spend the first half an hour of the session “zero-ing” the controls. This bothered him so much he had special locks fitted to the dials to prevent Joe from setting them the way he wanted. According to one of the other engineers, Adrian Kerridge, Allen Stagg also targetted Joe in staff meetings because of his sexuality and often reduced him to tears. Eventually, Joe had taken all he could, he quit IBC, despite having no clue what his next move would be.
When Joe told Denis Preston the news he was taken aback, he had come to rely heavily on Joe’s skills and rather than ask what Joe’s next move might be he simply asked: “what am I going to do, Joe?”. The answer seemed obvious he would just pay Joe directly to engineer the sessions at IBC, Preston would have his favoured engineer balancing his records, IBC would retain their biggest client and Joe wouldn’t have to put up with the abuse from Allen Stagg anymore.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Stagg refused to let Joe touch any of the gear, he could produce the sessions but an IBC engineer would operate the controls. Okay in principal but as Joe frequently pushed the gear to the limit the engineers often refused to follow his instructions. Joe used his ears to judge when it sounded right, engineers in those days often mixed with their eyes just as much, paying close attention to the needles and if they went into the red they would pull back the levels. Seeing needles in the red didn’t bother Joe one bit.
Given these conditions, Preston now felt that the £6000 (over £140,000 in today’s money) he was spending every year at IBC was “extortionate”. So he decided to find another solution.
Denis Preston is regarded by many as one of the most important figures in the British jazz business, producing countless recordings as well as hosting a number of BBC radio shows focussing on jazz.
Unlike the other record producers of the time, Preston was not contracted to any particular label and would often take the risk of funding recordings himself before he had secured a deal with a label for them. He is one of Europe’s first independent producers. In the USA independent producers were common as were independent record labels, even in the 1950s there were well over 1500 independent labels, whereas in the UK there were barely a dozen.
It only made sense to expand that independence by building his own studio, in Joe Meek not only did he have someone to operate and run the studio he was also more than capable of designing the equipment needed. All they needed was a suitable location.
Lansdowne Studios, on Lansdowne Road in Holland Park, was equipped with all the latest equipment including a brand new 12 channel tube mixing console, designed by Joe Meek and custom-built by EMI in their nearby Hayes factory, the console had EQ on every channel, which is standard nowadays but was extremely rare at the time. The specifications were so complex the engineers at EMI struggled to meet them all.
Even with all the equipment at Lansdowne at his disposal Joe Meek still built and used his own equipment, but was very secretive about what they were.
Adrian Kerridge recalls one of Joe’s “magic boxes”. “..he had a little piece of ex-army equipment in a green box and, it took me a long time to find out what this was but he made this spring echo device and it was his secret box with his secret sounds as he used to say and he wouldn’t tell anybody what he was doing. He used to hitch this box up and just use it in all sorts of ways to process sounds that were going through it and would keep it locked away it was all taped up with black tape we couldn’t get near it”
It didn’t take long for the first hit to be recorded at the new studio. In February 1957 Lonnie Donegan’s cover of “Cumberland Gap”, recorded by Joe Meek, went to number 1 in the UK. It was the first of Donegan’s 3 UK number 1 singles.
It’s worth noting that at this time most of the major labels were producing their own recordings, in their own studios, with their own staff and paying the musicians and singers just the musician’s union basic rate with no royalties. For his 1955 recording of “Rock Island Line” a top 10 hit in the UK and the USA, Lonnie Donegan was paid 3 pounds and 10 shillings by Decca Records, that’s about £85 in today’s money.
Another artist that Joe Meek recorded at Lansdowne was American actor George Chakiris. He had some minor film roles in the US, he was one of the dancers in Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and had moved to London in 1958 to be in the West End production of “West Side Story”. He would later win both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his role in the movie of “West Side Story”.
Chakiris had signed to SAGA Records in the hope of launching a singing career, and they had hired Joe Meek for the recording. The recording itself is something of a mystery, Chakiris denies meeting Joe Meek or making that recording claiming that Dave Adams, a friend of Meek’s recorded the session. However, Charles Blackwell who arranged and conducted the strings for the song insists it was Chakiris singing and thinks the actor may have just been embarrassed by its lack of success. It was a new entry at number 49 and after 1 week it had dropped out of the charts.
I Hear a New World
While working at Lansdowne Meek was still making his own home recordings. This included his concept album “I Hear A New World”, inspired by his fascination with the space program and idea of extra-terrestrial life. The album wasn’t fully released until 1998 but contains many techniques ahead of their time.
Joe started to feel like he was outgrowing his role as an engineer, he wanted to produce his own artists. He found the perfect band, The Station Skiffle Band so-called because they rehearsed at West Kensington tube station where the stationmaster had given them their own room. The train guards would later invite them to play on the actual trains.
They were the hottest unsigned Skiffle band in town, they had an energetic live show and passionate fans. He went to one of their shows to check them out live, Joe like everything about them except the name. He took them for coffee after the gig and signed them up, appointing himself their recording manager. He just needed a new name for them, as he sat there talking with lead singer Jimmy Miller, he gazed around the room. A sign on the bar caught his eye, it said “bar-b-cue”, he decided they would be called Jimmy Miller and the Barbecues.
The recordings he made with Jimmy Miller and his group didn’t make the impact that Joe hoped but something else happened while working with the band. Jimmy shared some of Joe’s otherworldly beliefs and had been telling him about seances he been involved in, with spectacular results. Jimmy and Joe arranged to hold a seance at 304 Holloway Road.
Joe Meek had tried to perform seances before but with no results, but on this occasion, the events shocked everyone. The had placed a key inside a bible with the end poking out and, they all put their hands on the end of the key and read a passage from the bible. To the collective surprise of everyone, the key turned over completely tearing the pages along the way.
They all felt they had made a connection and were keen to get some more information. Joe’s friend Faud was in charge of writing whatever messages came through. First, he wrote a date, February 3rd. Then a name, Buddy Holly and then finally the word “dies”. Jimmy was particularly freaked out as he was convinced that the note was written in his handwriting despite being written by Faud.
When the day, February 3rd arrived in 1958 Joe was frantic, he had tried to warn his hero to no avail, he even went to a Buddy Holly gig in London and handed him the note Faud had written, Holly smiled and thanked him but probably didn’t think it was anything to worry about. Joe only calmed down much later in the evening when it was clear Holly was still alive. The following year, on February 3rd, 1959 Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, when Meek heard the news he was in a state of shock and eventually came to the conclusion he had some kind of psychic abilities.
Joe Meek continued to hold seances and claimed he had contacted Buddy Holly who out of gratitude to Joe for trying to save his life had vowed to help him write better songs. Coincidentally, Joe’s songwriting skills did improve around that time.
In nearly all of the stories and biographies of Joe Meek that I have read, they describe him as “tone deaf”, which despite being a frequently used term isn’t really a thing, not in the context people use it.
When people say someone is “tone deaf” they mean they are unable to perceive differences of musical pitch accurately. In fact, unless they have hearing damage or damage to the part of the brain that interprets what you are hearing then everyone can learn to recognise pitch, in a musical context.
Joe Meek didn’t play any musical instruments and didn’t know how to read or write musical notation, instead, he would hum or sing his ideas and record them. Sometimes those recordings would be over an existing instrumental and so some of the new ideas would clash harmonically with the backing track. He was also not a very good singer, to say the least. He would play these demos to his trusted arrangers and sessions players and have them work out the melody he was trying to express.
It’s probably those demo recordings that had lead to him being branded tone-deaf, but despite his inability to play any instruments or sing Joe Meek has written hundreds of songs, many of them were chart hits, so his mind’s ear clearly isn’t “tone deaf” despite his inability to effectively express those ideas.
…put a ring on it…
His musical creations once again caught the attention of George Martin, in 1958 Martin recorded “Put A Ring On Her Finger”, with Eddie Silver for Parlophone. The song was written by Joe Meek and although Eddie Silver’s version, released in June, was not commercially successful in the UK in July 1958 guitar legend Les Paul released a cover version that reached number 32 in the charts in America.
In October 1958 British teen-idol Tommy Steele released his own version that went to number 10 in the UK chart. This was the first time Joe had earned money from one of his compositions, the various recordings of this song earned Joe Meek around £3000 in publishing royalties, that’s about £65,000 in modern money.
Denis Preston, on the other hand, wasn’t as interested in Joe Meek’s own songs and was constantly trying to rein in his creative tendencies when it came to his recording methods. Meek did not live up to his name, he was known for his fiery temper and volatile nature. If he was upset he would either launch into a rage or go into a monumental sulk, Joe was impossible to cope with if he wasn’t happy.
In November 1959, Joe Meek left Lansdowne after another falling out with Denis Preston, either over creative control in the recording sessions or lack of opportunities for his own songs, or both, or something else altogether….it’s hard to know with Joe Meek, such was his temperamental nature. What we do know is that he walked out in the middle of an important session. For Preston that was unforgivable, and unlike previous falling outs he was not willing to overlook it.
During his time at Lansdowne, Joe had taken advantage of the times the studio wasn’t being used to record some of his own productions. After he left Lansdowne he pitched these recordings to labels and managed to place once track, “Be Mine” by Lance Fortune, with PYE Records and it went to number 4 in the charts. He knew if he could make more recordings he would have more hits, but his home studio at Arundel Gardens wasn’t enough and he no longer had access to Lansdowne. He needed someone to back him financially.
In January 1960, Meek approached Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks, one of the SAGA board members and owners, as he had heard they were looking to expand into pop music. Up to that point they had only released classical music and the soundtracks from musical films that their film division owned the rights to.
Major Banks’ main business was toys, artificial Christmas trees and Christmas tree decorations. It’s estimated that 80% of the Christmas tree baubles sold in the UK at that time were distributed by his company. He used the money he made from his main business to invest in failing companies, that he was able to buy a stake in cheaply, and turn them around for a greater profit.
That’s how Banks came to be involved in SAGA Films. The founder, concert pianist Leonard Cassini, had started the company with the intention of making documentaries about classical composers but ran into financial difficulties early on. Major Banks was unable to find any interest in the movies themselves as they were deemed too niche so instead he issued their soundtracks at a much lower price than other classical music labels.
He pressed the vinyl in France on slightly lower quality material to reduce costs and he did a deal with one of the mail-order companies that already stocked his other products. They had wanted to include records in their catalogues for some time but none of the major labels wanted to supply them for fear of driving the price down and upsetting the existing retailers.
SAGA was able to sell the LPs at less than half the price of other classical albums and still sell in big enough numbers to make money and trouble the competition. PYE records eventually launched their own cut-price range, “Golden Guinea”, in order to compete. Once SAGA Films and Records was profitable Major Banks handed the reins to another board member, William Barrington-Coupe and went back to his main business.
When Meek approached Banks in search of backing for his productions he was busy with preparations for the Harrogate Toy Fair, so he introduced Joe to William Barrington-Coupe.
“The New Name, The New Sound”
Meek and Barrington-Coupe founded Triumph Records in March 1960 with each of them putting in £1500 to start the company. Triumph records had a bold approach from the outset, if they had been founded in this modern era they would be described as industry disruptors.
The first unorthodox decision they made was to aggressively target the teen market, which at the time seemed like a very risky tactic. Unlike in the USA, in the UK the majority of the record-buying public in the late 1950s and early 1960s were middle-aged, and their musical tastes were middle of the road.
Sure enough, Triumph releases were advertised in all the pop and teen-oriented publications, they also had a weekly 15-minutes commercial broadcast on Radio Luxembourg called “It’s A Triumph!”. The show was hosted by Joe Meek, using the pseudonym Johnny Watts, and co-host Ricky Wayne (a bodybuilder and singer who recorded for Joe Meek and would later win Mr Universe 3 times), they would play Triumph releases for the duration of the show.
This is from the promotional material they sent to record retailers. “Dear Mr Dealer, Enclosed with this letter are full particulars of the new Saga issues on the Triumph label, which in future will carry out our special ‘pop’ releases. These records are being planned with the teenage market well in mind, and the 45s will introduce some new teenage stars. They will receive top publicity in the ‘pop’ press, as well as special additional exploitations.”
For the first two single releases, they bought 200 billboards along the Central Line, the busiest tube line in London and provided the stores with an abundance of posters, postcards and other items to dress the store or give to potential fans. It seemed to be working, the orders were rolling in.
Inspired by the early success of his new company Barrington-Coupe started expanding Triumph. He launched Triumph Electronics, employing around 100 people manufacturing cheap record players and tape machines. He moved his office into the city, right next to the Official Reciever and abandoned his post at SAGA.
SAGA records collapsed soon after, owing £250,000, nearly £6million in modern money. The Official Receiver declared that Barrington-Coupe was chiefly responsible for the company’s demise. As a result of SAGA Records’ collapse, some of the SAGA recordings were released on the Triumph label, such as the recordings Joe did with George Chakiris.
#The remaining recordings were released on another new label Barrington-Coupe had founded, Lyrique. The recordings were released under pseudonyms and in 2006 it was revealed that many of these along with recordings from other labels he owned was, in fact, pirate recordings of other artists, over 100 of them were fraudulently attributed to Barrington-Coupe’s own wife, Joyce Hatto.
Despite all the promotions, after 7 singles the best chart position they had achieved was number 23 with “Green Jeans” by the Flee Rekkers, which was an updated version of Greensleeves and not exactly the kind of cutting edge recording Joe Meek had planned to make. The problem was he didn’t have a studio beyond his little room at Arundel Gardens so for the Triumph releases he was paying to use other studios and it was getting expensive.
304 Holloway Road
Major Banks ran his business from his office at 538 Holloway Road, opposite what was then The Gaumont cinema (it became an Odeon Cinema in 1962), which was quite some distance from Meek’s west London flat. Joe wanted to move to a bigger flat, somewhere he could record, so he started looking for something near to his new backers.
He found a place a short distance away, above a handbag and leather goods shop owned by Albert Harold Shenton and his wife Violet. He rented the top three floors of the building for £17.50 per week (about £320). The first floor had the kitchen, living room and an office. The second floor had the studio’s control room and live room. There were three other rooms on the top floor including Joe’s bedroom. Joe’s close friend Dave Adams, a singer and skilled carpenter, helped with converting the north London flat into something that resembled a recording studio.
One of the first recordings in the new studio was “Angela Jones” by Michael Cox, a super catchy pop song destined for the charts. The orders came flooding in, much more than any previous track and evidently a little too fast for Triumph’s resources. They were unable to fill the orders in time and missed out on a large number of sales. The record still made it to number 7 but clearly, with better distribution, it would have had a great chance of reaching the top spot.
This is a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by Meek, he knew “Angela Jones” should have sold more copies and he knew it was SAGA that dropped the ball, he had noticed the same thing happen when they put out “Green Jeans”, they would get plenty of orders but seemed to end up shipping and ultimately selling much less.
Another big factor in the demise of Triumph was the way they were billed for mechanical licenses. These fees are based on the number of copies pressed, the big labels were allowed to pay these fees retrospectively but MCPS was not as accommodating with Meek’s label. The didn’t trust Triumph to pay afterwards so forced them to pay upfront and attach stamps to each and every copy. This meant licking and fixing tens of thousands of stamps by hand to their entire stock. An expensive and time-consuming process.
To make matters worse the cheque Barrington-Coupe had given Marcel Rodd of Allied Records to press the Triumph records had bounced after the records had been pressed leaving an unpaid bill for £500. When Rodd went to the Triumph offices to chase up payment not only was Barrington-Coupe not there he saw first hand the issues the label faced. “There were mammoth quantities of orders from record shops all around England for “Angela Jones” he recalled, “but the pile for orders he hadn’t invoiced out was much larger than the pile he had.”
Joe would undoubtedly have lost his temper with Barrington-Coupe over the inadequate manufacturing and distribution, whatever was said it didn’t help matters and in June 1960 barely 4 months after setting the company up Joe Meek left Triumph.
He had shrewdly signed all the acts he recorded directly to his production company rather than Triumph so when he left he simply took all the artists with him, leaving them with just a few half-finished projects and practically no artists.
They brought in Johnny Keating to continue in Meek’s stead but they struggled to put out anything as successful as Joe Meek’s recordings. By November the company had folded, an arranger they had hired petitioned for the company to go into bankruptcy as he had not been paid for his work and Triumph was finished.
Despite the failure of Triumph Records, Wilfred Banks still recognised that Meek was a talented producer and valuable asset. It’s also likely he blamed Barrington-Coupe as much as Joe Meek for the label’s demise, he had, after all, run SAGA into the ground too and by the end of the 60s, he would serve time in prison for an unrelated case of financial fraud.
That’s not to say that Banks thought Meek was a good businessman, far from it. He decided he would continue to invest in the maverick producer but was determined to monitor the business a lot more closely this time. They named the new company RGM Productions Ltd after Joe’s actual name, Robert George Meek. (They also previously used the prefix RGM to make the catalogue numbers for the Triumph releases, and Joe had painted RGM in big letters on the speakers he had built back in Newent as a teenager)
Major Banks insisted that all profits be split 50/50, including the royalties from compositions which is something he doesn’t really have the right to. Joe Meek objected to this so started crediting his compositions to “Robert Duke” in order to avoid giving the Major any royalties. He did this for a year or so until Banks found out and they argued over it. Eventually, it was agreed that Meek would keep all of his composition royalties and he agreed to stop using pseudonyms.
Instead of taking a share of the writer’s royalty, Major Banks decided to go after the publisher share. He convinced the company that was publishing Meek’s works, Cambell, Connolly & Co Ltd, to start a subsidiary with him, he also brought Radio Luxembourg into the venture by offering a 50% share. At the time Radio Luxembourg was the biggest independent station to broadcast to the UK, second only to the BBC in terms of audience size. Having a stake in a publishing company meant that they would receive money anytime one of their songs was played on the radio, even if they played it themselves. From that point on Joe Meek found it a lot easier to get his songs on the radio.
Robert Stigwood and John Leyton
Shortly before Meek left Triumph he had auditioned an actor who, with more than a little encouragement from his manager, was trying to forge a singing career. John Leyton was starring as Ginger in a TV adaptation of the Biggles adventure books, it first aired in April of 1960 and within a few days, he was getting fan mail from female fans. Up to 100 letters a day, they eventually had to set up a fan club to satisfy the demands of his new followers. His manager, Robert Stigwood, wanted to capitalise on his newfound fame and cut a record.
Leyton was reluctant as he had auditioned for EMI back when he was in drama school with disastrous results, “…the whole experience was dreadful, I was extremely nervous, I chose the wrong song (A Man On Fire), I sang it badly and I couldn’t wait to get out of there..” Leyton recalled. Still, Stigwood managed to talk him into giving it another go.
Robert Stigwood had taken Leyton to all the labels and production companies he could think of and they had all turned him down. Eventually, with options running thin, they made their way to Holloway Road to audition for Joe Meek.
Like everyone else that Leyton had auditioned for, Joe Meek wasn’t very impressed with his singing ability. He could carry a tune, much like many stage-school actors, but he didn’t really sound like a rock star.
Joe was much more impressed with Leyton’s looks than his musical ability, and he knew that the exposure from being on a successful TV show would be better than any promotion they could pay for so he agreed to produce his recordings. Robert Stigwood paid Joe Meek £100 of his own money to produce the recordings, that’s about £2000 in today’s money, which meant that technically Stigwood would own the master recordings.
They decided the first recording would be a cover of a song that was sitting at number 7 in the charts in the USA, “Tell Laura I Love Her” a song about a teenage boy who enters a stock car race hoping to win the money needed to marry his sweetheart Laura, he dies in the race and the song’s title is his last words. Despite it being a hit in the USA the label, Decca, decided against releasing it in the UK as they considered it “tasteless and vulgar” instead they destroyed the 20,000 or so copies that had already been pressed and shipped to the UK. The BBC also refused to play it.
It’s also worth mentioning that over the previous 5 or so years there had been dozens of serious accidents in the sport with at least 10 British racing car drivers killed behind the wheel. This included the most catastrophic in the sport’s history, the 1955 Le Mans disasters that killed a driver and 83 spectators, it also injured 180 other bystanders. It prompted the makers of the driver’s car, Mercedes Benz, to retire from the sport for nearly 35 years.
The dramatic content of the song must have made it seem like the perfect single for the actor turned singer and the fact it was already a hit and unavailable in the UK was a huge bonus.
They signed the record to Top Rank, who coincidentally owned The Gaumont cinema on Holloway Road, but shortly after it’s release Top Rank was taken over by EMI. EMI had also just released a cover of the song by the then-unknown Ricky Valance and didn’t want the 2 singles to compete so they withdrew Leyton’s version from shops as they considered Valance’s recording to be the better of the 2 versions.
Ricky Valance’s version went to number 1 in the UK in August of 1960 and stayed there for 3 weeks, making Valance the first Welshman to have a UK number 1. Joe Meek couldn’t accept it was just a coincidence that EMI had recorded their own version at the same time they just happened to gain control of the company releasing his version, and to make matters worse Triumph Records released their own version with singer Laura Lee and an Orchestra directed by Johnny Keating in August as well.
Meek was convinced he was being spied on, that was the only explanation he could believe. He was always very secretive and had covertly recorded his own family as a child, so the idea that EMI or some other producers had put microphones in his walls or something like that didn’t seem that far fetched to him.
Neither Robert Stigwood or Joe Meek were put off by this setback and started planning for Leyton’s next recording. They released another single as part of the deal they had done with Top Rank, this time EMI decided to put it out on the HMV label. The song, “The Girl On The Floor Above” didn’t chart. By now the TV show Biggles had finished but Leyton’s following was still growing so Stigwood and Meek persevered. They decided John Leyton needed to have a song written for him.
Geoff Goddard was a classically trained Pianist and Viola player but decided against pursuing a career in classical music and instead wanted to get into the pop music industry. Just like Joe Meek, he was obsessed with Buddy Holly and would play his records repeatedly every day. This was the kind of music he wanted to write.
He tried to sell his compositions to publishing companies and although he didn’t manage to get a deal he did meet Bob Kingston at Southern Music who recommended him to Joe Meek as a piano player.
Sometime in 1960, before his first meeting with Joe Meek, he went to visit a psychic who he believed put him in touch with the spirit of Buddy Holly who had only died a little under a year earlier. It was a profound experience for Goddard, he became fascinated with the occult and even planned to train as a medium himself.
Initially Joe Meek thought that Geoff could be a star himself, a flamboyant pianist kind of like Liberace and gave him the stage name Anton Hollywood. However, after a few performances, it was clear that despite being a fantastic piano player he was not a natural stage performer.
Geoff had played Joe one of his own compositions, “Lone Rider”, and Joe thought it was great, he recorded the song with The Flee-Rekkers and although the single wasn’t a hit, Meek was happy with how it sounded and thought Geoff would definitely be a useful addition to his team.
Following the end of the Biggles TV show, John Leyton was offered a part in a new television show about a London department store called “Harpers West One”. By sheer coincidence, the character was a rock star called Johnny St.Cyr who was at the store to officially open the music department. Robert Stigwood convinced the show’s producers that Johnny St.Cyr should sing a song on the show. At the time they didn’t actually know what song he was going to sing.
Geoff called Joe from a phone box at Paddington station on a Saturday asking if there was any work for him. Joe told him they were looking for a song for John Leyton and said if he could come up with something by Monday they would try it out.
Geoff went home, Sunday morning he woke abruptly with words and a melody in his head. He sang what he had into the tape recorder he kept by his bed. 10 minutes later he had finished writing “Johnny Remember Me”. He took the song to Holloway Road and told Joe how the idea had come to him in a dream, it was a teenage tragedy song similar to “Tell Laura I Love Her”. These types of songs were relatively common in the 1950s and 60s, they were sometimes referred to as “death ditties” or “splatter platters”.
In Geoff’s song, Johnny’s deceased girlfriend pleads with him from beyond the grave to not forget her. The ghostly plea, sung by Lissa Gray, is drenched in reverb making it sound otherworldly. The effect was a combination of recording the singer in Meek’s tiled bathroom and his homemade reverb devices. On the night they finished the song there was a thunderstorm, superstitious Joe and Geoff both thought this was a good omen for their spooky song.
Goddard told Joe about his obsession with Buddy Holly and the experience he had psychic, he showed him another song he had written, “Tribute to Buddy Holly”.
Joe, Geoff Goddard and few others, held a seance at the flat on Holloway Road, with an ouija board and believing they had reached the spirit of Buddy Holly they asked if “Johnny Remember Me” would be a hit. “NUMBER 1” was spelt out, then they asked if “Tribute to Buddy Holly” would be a hit. ” SEE YOU IN THE CHARTS” was the answer.
After the song was on the show the single went straight to number 1 and stayed there for 4 weeks. This was the first of Joe Meek’s productions to go to the top of the charts, despite the BBC effectively banning the record because of its “morbid” content. Fortunately, Harpers West One was made by ATV for broadcast on the relatively new channel ITV, who had no issues with the song.
The go-to guy
Following the success of “Johnny Remember Me”, Joe Meek became one of the go-to producers. Not so much the major labels, they still saw him as a bit of a crank, but he became a beacon for up and coming artists. Many of the singers and musicians that visited 304 Holloway Road went on to achieve great success although Joe turned some of them down.
Brian Epstein sent him a demo of a band he was considering managing, Joe wasn’t impressed with the demo and advised him not to bother. The band was, of course, The Beatles then called Silver Beatles. To be fair on Joe though, anyone who has heard early Beatles demos will agree they weren’t all that great.
Another band from Hornsey, just up the road from Holloway, auditioned for Joe Meek. They had just taken on a new lead singer, but Joe didn’t like his voice. In fact, he reportedly walked into the studio with his fingers in his ears going “la la la la la la” at the top of his voice and blowing raspberries until the singer stopped. He said he would only record them if they got rid of their lead singer, a then 16-year-old Rod Stewart. He changed their name from The Raiders to the Moontrekkers and they recorded “Night of the Vampire”, an instrumental.
Later he would record a welsh beat band called Tommy Scott and the Senators, they laid down a handful of songs at Joe Meek’s studio and Joe took them around to labels trying to get them a deal but with no success. The band’s lead singer later caught the eye of music manager and songwriter Gordon Mills, who got him a deal with Decca and gave him a new stage name. Tom Jones.
When Tom Jones’ second single, “It’s Not Unusual” (co-written by Mills) became an international smash hit, Meek was able to sell the recordings he had made with him for a decent amount.
Another band Meek recorded was The Konrads, they made a few demos at Holloway Road but Joe declined the opportunity to continue. The band didn’t last long, the Saxophone player David Jones left the group and eventually launched a successful solo career, under the name David Bowie.
The Outlaws and The Tornados
The list of musicians that passed through Holloway Road is just as impressive. He had 2 bands that he used in the studio, The Outlaws and The Tornados, they would provide the backing for the solo singers that Joe recorded (both on stage and in the studio) and they also released instrumental records in their own right.
Ritchie Blackmore was a session player for Joe Meek and member of The Outlaws from 1960 to 1967, in 1968 he joined Deep Purple. The bass player in the band was Charles Hodges, after leaving The Outlaws he switched from Bass to Piano and started a band with his friend Dave Peacock. Chas ‘n’ Dave had a string of hits in the 70s and 80s and also did session work, they played on “I Got The” by Labi Siffre which was sampled for Eminem’s debut single “My Name Is”.
The Outlaws were formed in 1960 when Joe Meek needed a band for Mike Berry, they played on many songs for Berry including “Tribute to Buddy Holly” and 2 of his other hits. They also played on John Leyton’s hits “Johnny Remember Me” and the follow up “Wild Wind”.
They also released a number of singles and an album as an instrumental band. Much like the early Triumph releases, Joe Meek went to great lengths to promote the band. He rented a stagecoach and the band rode around dressed as cowboys, they even staged a “stick-up” in an HMV record shop although they apparently didn’t mention it to the shop beforehand so when they demanded she hand over a copy of the new single by The Outlaws, she didn’t actually know who they were. There’s some grainy cine footage of the day on youtube in which it appears to show Joe Meek getting a fine from the Police.
The Tornados were formed in 1961 as a studio session band for Joe Meek but it was a year or so later they actually got the name. They also toured and recorded with Billy Fury, but those recordings were not produced by Meek. The Tornados first single “Love & Fury” was written and produced by Joe Meek and was a reference to their role as Fury’s band.
The Tornados drummer, Clem Cattini has played on 44 UK number 1’s which is more than any other drummer. He was even considered as the drummer for Led Zeppelin by Jimmy Page, who while not a regular at Holloway Road did play the odd session for Meek too.
Another drummer of note that played for Meek is John “Mitch” Mitchell, later of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s claimed that Joe Meek once held a shotgun to Mitch’s head during a recording session that clearly wasn’t going well and said: “If you don’t do it properly, I’ll blow your fucking head off!”. Mitchell repeatedly refuted this, even calling the editor of MOJO, the magazine that first printed the story, to tell him directly it was false.
Tom Jones said in a 2009 interview that Joe fired a gun at him during a session, Joe walked into the studio during a take aimed the gun at Tom Jones’ face and pulled the trigger. Jones thought he was “a-goner” when he heard the bang but it turned out to be a starter pistol. It may be this story getting mixed up with the story about Mitch? Many of the first-hand accounts of sessions with Joe Meek have conflicting details. This is probably simply due to fading memories and being too busy living in the moment to remember all the details. As John Leyton put it in an interview in the 90s, “If I had known we’d be having this conversation 30 years ago, I would have paid more attention at the time”
The original Tornados line up was Clem Cattini on drums, Heinz Burt playing Bass, Roger LaVern on the Organ. Alan Caddy and George Bellamy played the guitar. George Bellamy’s son, Mathew is the frontman of rock band Muse. The line up changed drastically over the years, with band members coming and going. The goings were often the result of a falling out with Joe Meek.
During the ’50s and early ’60s, one of the most influential men in British pop music was Larry Parnes, he managed the careers of some of the most successful acts of the time. His first act was Tommy Steele, Parnes was instrumental in transforming him into an all-round entertainer with a successful music, movie and stage acting career.
After the success of Tommy Steele, Parnes began looking for other young male singers to manage. He was also a gay man and allegedly chose names he felt reflected the artists’ sexual tendencies when choosing stage names.
His other artists included Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Vince Eager, Johnny Gentle and Nelson Keene so you can see why people would come to that conclusion. He also managed Joe Brown but was unable to convince him to change his name to Elmer Twitch.
Parnes was known for his ruthless dealings and was often accused of exploiting his acts, he earned himself the nickname “Parnes, shillings and pence”. He demanded 40% of the gross earnings of the performers he managed and many of them saw very little of the money their music and performances earned. One of his biggest stars, Billy Fury, died penniless despite earning Parnes a fortune. Nevertheless, Parnes once told an interviewer that his one regret was not to have looked after his own bank balance better.
Rather than being employed as a manager by the performers, he considered them his employees and paid them a wage, and kept their royalties from record sales. Even if the contracts entitled the artist to high wages and royalties he included so many other clauses he was able to pretty much do what he wanted when it came to paying them.
When Vince Eager confronted him about paying the royalties stated in his contract, Parnes simply pointed to the fact that he had included a power of attorney clause in the contract and declared “I’ve decided you’re not getting any”
As well as managing artists he was also a prominent tour promoter organising big national tours and one-off gigs alike, he would often include all of his acts in package shows. The shows were designed purely to make him as much money as possible and would sometime involve the acts playing twice in one night. One such event was the “Star Spangled Nights” concerts consisting of 26 twice-nightly shows.
He also organised the “Anglo-American Beat Show” in 1960, featuring American rockers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. It was after one of the shows on that tour, in Bristol, that Eddie Cochran was killed in a car accident.
The driver of the taxi they were in was speeding along the A4 in Chippenham when he lost control of the car and crashed into a lamppost, there were no other vehicles involved. Just before impact Cochran, who was seated in the middle of the backseat, threw himself over his fiancée songwriter Sharon Sheeley. He was thrown from the vehicle and suffered severe brain injuries, he died the following day aged just 21. The other passengers survived. The driver was convicted of dangerous driving and fined £15 (about £300 today) and banned from driving for 15 years.
One of the first on the scene of the crash was a young policeman called David Harman, later known as Davy Dee of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. It’s said he played Cochran’s Gretch guitar while it was in the police station. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich also recorded a session with Joe Meek, but they objected to his techniques. He asked them to play slower than normal so he could speed it up afterwards, they refused and Joe went crazy, he threw his coffee cup across the room then stormed out and didn’t return to the session. It was left to Patrick Pink to inform them ‘Mr Meek will not be doing any more recording today.’
Joe Meek must have known what Parnes reputation was but he was desperate for the chance to record one of Parnes’ acts, Billy Fury. So when Parnes wanted Joe’s band The Tornados to be Billy Fury’s live band he jumped at the chance even though it meant a convoluted management arrangement where Parnes became their booking agent and Meek their recording manager, with neither having any say in the other’s activities. This would later prove disastrous for The Tornados.
On July 10, 1962, the Telstar communications satellite was launched into orbit. It was designed to relay and transmit television pictures, telephone calls, and telegraph images from space. It was a huge advancement for telecommunications and space exploration so naturally Joe Meek was fascinated.
He started work on a piece of music to celebrate the occasion, he made a demo for the song by his usual method of singing the ideas into his tape recorders and then gave the demo to Dave Adams who transcribed all the music. The Tornados were in the middle of the summer season in Great Yarmouth as Billy Fury’s band but had come back to London on a short break. They recorded the basic rhythm section and left Joe to finish it off.
He added futuristic-sounding effects and to really give it an outer space feel he got Geoff Goddard to play the central melody on a Clavioline. The Clavioline is an early form of synthesizer that uses a valve oscillator to create a soundwave that is then modified using a combination of vibrato and filters to imitate a variety of instruments. It has a sound that still sounds unique today would have sounded out of this world in the early 60s.
The Clavioline is monophonic, only one note can be played at a time, if you play two keys at once you only hear the higher note. To get around this Joe got Geoff to overdub the Clavioline to create harmonies. The night they finished the recording there was a thunderstorm, much like the time they recorded “Johnny Remember Me”. Geoff and Joe agreed this was another good omen.
Geoff Goddard thought it sounded “…tremendous” when he first heard the finished version. Some of the band didn’t share the same opinion, Heinz Burt thought it was “crap” and when Clem Cattini first heard it he felt embarrassed to have performed on it.
Just 1 month after the actual Telstar was launched into space, Joe Meek released “Telstar” by The Tornados, on Decca Records. By December 1962 it had sold well over a million copies and was number 1 in the UK, where it stayed for 4 weeks, it spent a total of 25 weeks in the UK charts. It also went to number 1 in the USA and stayed there for 3 weeks. It became the biggest-selling instrumental single of all time, a record it kept for 15 years until a disco remix of the Star Wars theme in 1977 narrowly outsold it.
“Telstar” became the first single by a British band to reach number 1 in the USA, 2 years before The Beatles’ “I wanna hold your hand” reached the top of the American charts.
They made a Scopitone film, an early form of music video played in special jukeboxes, to promote the song but due to their commitments with Billy Fury, they were unable to tour America to promote what was already a hit single there. Larry Parnes was unwilling to let them go as he had been unable to convince the American tour promoters to take Billy Fury as well.
Despite having only released 2 singles, being Billy Fury’s backing band and having a song that was a hit in 57 countries catapulted The Tornados to seemingly unimaginable heights.
Joe Meek decided that the band’s bass player, German-born Heinz Burt, could be a star in his own right. When Meek discovered Burt he was working in a grocery store in Eastleigh and playing in local bands.
Meek took him under his wing and did all he could to make him a star, something he promised the young bassist when they met.
Joe invited him to London and gave him a place to stay, Heinz Burt lived at 304 Holloway for around 3 years. He also told him to drop the Burt and be called just “Heinz”, I’m assuming to emulate other mononymous performers of the day like Elvis and Liberace. Finally, he convinced him to bleach his hair platinum blonde. According to those around at the time, this was inspired by the 1960 movie “Village of the Damned”.
Heinz wasn’t a great singer, he wasn’t even a great bass player, the reason Joe Meek had taken an interest in him was much more personal. He had become infatuated with the young musician.
The first single Heinz released was a song written by Joe Meek, “Dreams Do Come True”. They also filmed a Scopitone video for the song and Heinz was booked to support Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis on their UK tour but this didn’t go well, to say the least.
The audience for Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis were mostly male so Heinz’s image, that was fashioned to appeal to young girls, didn’t go down well. At one show the first few rows of the audience turned their back on him during his set, at another show they threw baked beans over him, and often they would just chant “off, off, off”, sometimes before he had even started. Undeterred by the bad experience, Heinz remained as enthusiastic as ever and actually improved as a result of the experience, by all accounts his later shows were much more accomplished and far better received.
Joe had also done a deal with Rank to provide music for a crime movie about the murder of a pop star called “Farewell Performance”, he submitted the Heinz song along with “Ice Cream Man” by Tornados. He had hoped that the exposure from the movie would be the catalyst to launch Heinz as a solo artist but the movie release was delayed by a few months and Decca released the 2 songs as singles anyway.
The Tornados song from the movie managed to reach number 18 in the charts, the Heinz song, on the other hand, didn’t do as well. It failed to chart and sold less than 400 copies worldwide, a fact Joe didn’t reveal to Heinz until much later. It seems the movie itself is as scarce as the song, it’s considered a “lost film” and is on the British Film Institute’s 75 most wanted lost films list.
The follow-up song “Just Like Eddie”, written by Geoff Goddard, did much better, reaching number 5 in the UK charts. ” Whenever I’m sad, whenever I’m blue, Whenever my troubles are heavy. Beneath the stars. I play my guitar…Just like Eddie” sings Heinz in the song’s chorus. It is, in fact, Ritchie Blackmore playing the guitar on the track.
He went on to release other singles but “Just Like Eddie” remained his biggest record. Meanwhile, The Tornados without Heinz had a lost a little bit of their teen appeal and the hits were proving a little harder. Especially for an instrumental band just a few months after The Beatles had released their debut album.
Répondez S’il Vous Plaît
In March 1963 Joe Meek received a letter from France. Movie composer Jean Ledrut was informing him he believed the melody from “Telstar” was copied from his own composition “La Marche d’Austerlitz” from the movie Austerlitz. For some reason, Joe Meek ignored the letter.
He probably thought it was ridiculous, he’s unlikely to have even heard of the movie let alone heard the soundtrack. The movie was released in France in 1960, but it wasn’t until 1965 that it was dubbed into English and released in the UK. The only problem is, it does sound a bit like it.
More often than not, copyright cases are heard by regular courts. The judges and juries have no specific knowledge or experience in music theory, publishing or copyright. If they hear 2 pieces of music that sound similar to them, it becomes really difficult for them to not think one copied the other.
This is something we are still seeing today with writers suing other writers for using the same chord progressions, drum patterns and rhythms. These are the building blocks used to make all songs and can not be owned by anyone. Traditionally, composition copyright covers the words and the melody (sometimes referred to as the “top line”), in some circumstances, other elements can be protected by copyright but usually only if they are unique.
So regardless of whether or not he copied or took elements from the song, the fact they sound similar should have made him take this seriously. Quite often these cases are settled quickly and quietly, out of court and of the public eye. You will often see songs these days credit multiple writers sometimes as many as 10 or more, leading many people to think that modern pop songs are all written by committees or spliced together from various other unfinished songs (which is true of some songs, Beyonce’s “Hold Up” was made this way).
Sometimes the additional songwriters are added following legal action that was settled without going trial so media coverage is minimal. A good example of this is “Uptown Funk”, originally written by Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, Phillip Lawrence and Jeff Bhasker the song now has 12 credited writers. First to sue was The Gap Band, for the song’s similarities to “Oops Up Side Your Head”. They were given 17% of the publishing as a settlement. Various other artists and writers came forward and were given credits and publishing shares, they then dropped their cases.
Rather than discuss a settlement with the French writer or even try to convince him he didn’t copy the song, Meek just ignored the issue completely and went on with his business, leaving Ledrut no option but to escalate the matter. In situations like this, the Plaintiff needs to be able to attach something of value to the case to force the other party to engage. In the case of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, the legal team for the family of Solomon Linda attached 240 trademarks including Mickey Mouse in order to get Disney to negotiate a settlement. Joe Meek didn’t own any trademarks in France but he did own the compositions globally, that copyright was managed by the UK societies PRS and MCPS who have reciprocal deals with other societies around the world, including the French society SACEM.
For each copy of “Telstar” that Decca pressed they had to pay for a mechanical license. The cost of that license is currently 8.5% of the wholesale price or 6.5% of retail, which has risen slightly over the years. It would have been around 5% of retail in 1962 when Telstar was manufactured.
The retail price of a 7” single in the 60s was around 6 shillings so the writer would get about 4p for each copy pressed. “Telstar” had sold around 2 million copies by the time the French composer contacted Meek so at least 2 million had to have been pressed. There were 240 old pence in a pound so for 2 million copies the mechanical license would have cost £35,000 (about £750,000 in today’s money) that money would be collected by MCPS and then paid to the writer, Joe Meek.
There would also have been payments made every time the song was played on the radio, and it was played on the radio a lot. There were also numerous cover versions that each would generate mechanical and performance royalties.
As “Telstar” was released in August 1961 the first mechanical royalty payment was due in 1962, Meek was still yet to receive this payment when Jean Ledrut’s letter arrived. As he had received no reply, Ledrut notified SACEM of the dispute who contacted MCPS. If Ledrut’s claim that “Telstar” infringed on his copyright was upheld then some or all of the mechanical royalties would be paid to Ledrut via SACEM rather than Joe Meek. So MCPS froze the royalties until the case was decided.
This certainly got Joe Meek’s attention now. He had been spending heavily since the record went to number 1, he had bought a boat and a fancy car for Heinz among the many lavishes purchases he made. He started to engage with the legal proceedings but it still didn’t stop his spending as aside from the composer royalty he also received 5% from the sales of the record.
He also must have just assumed at some point the case would be ruled in his favour and the royalties would be released. Instead of a quick result, the case rolled on for years.
He started to engage with the legal proceedings but it still didn’t stop his spending, he must have just assumed at some point the case would be ruled in his favour and the royalties would be released. Instead of a quick result, the case rolled on for years.
Later in November 1963, Joe Meek once again found himself having legal issues. He was arrested in Madras Place, a side road a little farther down the Holloway Road towards Highbury Corner and at the time a notorious meeting point for gay men. He was marched down to Caledonian Road police station and charged with “importuning for an immoral purpose” under section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, for which he received a £15 fine.
It’s not clear exactly what Joe did to get arrested on this occasion but it’s well known that section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act was frequently used to target and victimise gay people. Madras Place was under Police surveillance that night and a local newspaper reported at the time that Joe had just “smiled at an old man” and was then arrested. It’s likely on this occasion the charges were fabricated but according to Joe’s close friend Lionel Howard Joe did frequently visit these types of places for the purpose of meeting young men. Lionel would often look for Joe, and finding his easily recognisable car outside of such a place would convince him to go home.
Joe Meek was worried that reports of his arrest would be headline news and his career would be ruined. The story did make the papers but it was a small article inside the paper, not even on the front page let alone the headline story. It was enough for people to start talking though.
1963 was proving to be a tough year, aside from the frozen royalties (which had risen to around £100,000 by now) and legal issues the hits were becoming more scarce, the only singles he released in 63 that broke the top 10 was “Globetrotter” by The Tornados and “Just Like Eddie” by the former Tornados bassist Heinz, both reached number 5. He also started to get harassed over his sexuality, with gangs often outside his studio shouting abuse and troubling the musicians recording there. He told his brothers he was being blackmailed, on more than one occasion, by young men threatening to tell the police he abused them unless he gave them money.
There are reports that around this time notorious east end gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who owned a nightclub in Knightsbridge, approached Joe Meek in an attempt to take over management of The Tornados but he flatly refused and risked their wrath. Maybe he was worried about the abusive gangs outside his house or the chance the Krays would pay him a visit, but either way Meek increased security at Holloway Road. He installed an intercom at the flat and became increasingly paranoid he was being spied on, often insisting conversations took place outside of the studio, in corridors and on stairways
Screaming Lord Sutch
Another Joe Meek produced artist came to the fore in 1963, David Edward Sutch, better known by his self-appointed title of “Screaming Lord Sutch, 3rd Earl of Harrow”. He was neither a Lord nor an Earl but he did his fair share of screaming.
Sutch’s style was horror-themed rock with an over the top theatrical live show. He dressed outrageously, drove a hearse, often tossed fake blood at his audience and frequently started his shows by emerging from a coffin. His band, The Savages, would wear animal skins in most of their live shows and press pictures.
He almost certainly took inspiration from Screaming Jay Hawkins when coming up with his stage name and persona, Hawkins was also often carried on and off stage in a coffin and carried a skull on the end of a staff.
Although he lacked any real vocal talent, something he readily admitted himself, his sheer confidence won him quite a few followers. Perhaps choosing the name “Screaming…” was a way to set the audience expectations for what sort of vocal performance they would be in for.
Sutch first met and recorded with Joe Meek in 1960, shortly after “Johnny Remember Me” had been to number 1. He recalls driving his hearse, with the coffin in the back, to Holloway Road for his first session with Joe Meek. “When I pulled up outside 304 Holloway Road I couldn’t believe his studio was above this old leather shop. I went up these rickety stairs and I couldn’t believe this was where all those number one records came from”
The first collaboration between Meek and Sutch was “Til the following night”, released in 1961. The intro is made up of spooky sound effects Joe had created using creaky doors and a pitched down recording of a toilet flushing, it was the kind of foley work he had enjoyed doing in his younger days and he revelled in the opportunity to put his effects on a record. Sutch screams and wails through the opening, his voice was drenched in reverb partly from Joe’s hand-built reverb box, but mostly because he had recorded it in Joe’s bathroom with one foot in the bath and the other on the toilet.
When the music starts, it’s fairly standard rock ‘n’ roll but Sutch’s lyrics referring to zombies, monsters and coffins set the tone for his proceeding songs and the shows that would accompany them.
In 1963 Screaming Lord Sutch released what would become his trademark song, “Jack the Ripper”, again produced by Joe Meek. Although it’s a cover of a song by Clarence Stacy Screaming Lord Sutch really made it his own. Due to the content of the song the BBC and many other stations refused to play the record and it failed to chart.
Always the eccentric, Screaming Lord Sutch surprised everybody when in August 1963 he stood as the candidate for the National Teenage Party in the Stratford-upon-Avon by-election following the resignation of the then Secretary of State for War John Profumo. Profumo had been forced to resign after it was revealed he had an affair with a woman who had also had an affair with a suspected (and later confirmed) Russian spy and then he lied about it.
Sutch placed 5th in the election, out of 5 candidates, gaining 209 votes or 0.6% of the vote, which isn’t really that bad when you take into account the fact that he was standing for the National Teenage Party, and teenagers couldn’t actually vote in 1963, it wasn’t until The Representation of the People Act 1969 lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, which took effect in 1970, that they could. He stood again in the 1966 general election, fairing a little better, he was 18th of 22 candidates. In 1983 he founded The Monster Raving Loony Party and consistently stood in every election up to 1997.
For the follow-up to “Jack The Ripper”, Joe Meek and Geoff Goddard ripped off Jimmy Clanton’s “Venus In Blue Jeans”. They rewrote it for Sutch as “Monster In Black Tights” and it was released in 1964. Although Mark Wynter’s cover of the original song had made it to number 4 in the UK charts just over a year earlier Screaming Lord Sutch’s horror-themed parody failed to chart.
Despite the blatant rip-off of the original song no legal action was taken against Meek, Goddard and Sutch. Possibly because it could be argued the song was a comedic parody and therefore not an infringement of copyright but this “fair use” provision of US copyright law wasn’t established in court until the case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc in 1994*, so it’s much more likely they didn’t even notice it as it didn’t chart.
(*it’s this “fair use” loophole that allows “Weird Al” Jankovic to make his songs without falling foul of copyright law, although he does actually ask permission as a courtesy)
Despite thier efforts, none of the recordings Screaming Lord Sutch made with Joe Meek ever charted. Meek’s search for another hit record continued.
If you can’t beat them…
Even if more of Joe Meek’s productions had broken the top 40 in 1963 or 1964 they would still have likely been eclipsed by The Beatles. Their debut album “Please Please Me” was recorded in just one day at Abbey Road but still managed to turn the UK music industry on its head. Every release seemed to break a record and set a new trend, the album went to number 1, as did 3 of the first 4 singles. The 4th single, “She Loves You”, sold 750,000 copies in less than a month and became the fastest-selling single in the UK of all time. It was their first record to sell over a million copies and it held the record for biggest-selling song in the UK until 1978. As a result of their phenomenal success, just about every band wanted to sound like The Beatles and every label was looking to sign “the next Beatles”
He had previously dismissed the style as a passing fad but eventually realised it was the sound that people wanted. He still released a lot of stuff in his preferred style but was starting to get a reputation of being a little old fashioned and behind the times in his songwriting. His production techniques, on the other hand, were still very different and ahead of their time.
He did try his hand at the more popular beat style of pop music a few times and one of those releases made it to number 1. The Sheratons were an amateur band started by hairdresser Martin Murray, they would rehearse in the salon in the evenings. Murray’s assistant in the salon, Ann “Honey” Lantree wanted to be in the band so she started trying to learn the guitar but it was clear she wasn’t going to be good enough any time soon. So instead she tried her hand at the drums, she was a natural and began practising whenever she had the chance. Martin came into the salon one evening to find Ann playing the drums like a pro and decided she should be the drummer in the band.
In fact, they pretty much build the band around her from that point. They later changed their name to The Honeycombs, Ann’s nickname combined with a reference to the fact two of them were hairdressers, and a lot of their press pictures featured Honey front and centre. Quite often interview questions would be mostly directed to her although they would be more interested in her thoughts on fashion and makeup than music.
The Honeycombs had a 3 day a week residency at The Mildmay Tavern, on Ball’s Pond Road about a mile away from Holloway Road, playing this regular gig helped them build up an enthusiastic teen following. They were spotted there, in February 1963 by Alan Blaikley, who at that time worked at the BBC and was also trying to launch a career as a songwriter with his writing partner Ken Howard. Blaikley was impressed by the band’s performance, the crowd they had pulled and of course the novelty of their female drummer. Their repertoire at this time consisted of R&B and rock n roll standards, Blaikley approached them and asked if they would be interested in recording some original songs.
They had already arranged an audition with Joe Meek and had been looking for the right song to record. They played the song Howard and Blaikley had written, “Have I the Right?”, Joe liked the song and agreed to produce some recordings, starting right away. They recorded “Have I the Right?” along with “Please Don’t Pretend Again”, written by Joe Meek, that same day.
The sound of “Have I The Right?” was similar to Dave Clark 5’s “Glad All Over” (the song had just reached number 1 in the UK a few weeks before “Have I The Right?” was recorded), especially in the chorus with the stomping kick drum. To enhance that section Joe attached 5 microphones to the bannister on the stairway with bicycle clips and recorded everyone stomping on the wooden stairs. This lead to people accusing Joe of stealing the idea from The Dave Clark 5, who had also used it on their previous hit single “Bits and Pieces”. When that track was released Joe had immediately thought they had stolen the idea from a recording he had done with The Saxons, someone connected to Dave Clark 5 was at that session so it seemed like an obvious conclusion.
Aside from that track Joe frequently recorded demos where he would bang on doors and stomp on the floor for the rhythm. He had stomped so much some of the wooden floors in his studio were noticeably bowed. To further stoke Joe’s suspicion the producer for Dave Clark 5 was his former Lansdowne assistant Adrian Kerridge.
The tambourine on the Honeycombs track was recorded by hitting it directly onto the microphone causing it to distort, giving it a unique tone. The entire recording was also speeded up, something Meek was known to do a lot, which transposed the tuning of the song making it very difficult for lead singer Dennis D’Ell to sing it live as in this case it had been shifted about 3% or half a semitone.
Joe Meek shopped the record around to a few labels and was initially rejected but eventually signed the single to PYE Records. The single was released in June 1964 and sales were slow at first. At the end of July, the song started getting played regularly on pirate station Radio Caroline and as a result, it began to climb the charts. By the end of August, it reached the number 1 spot and had sold over 1 million copies. Aside from the UK it was also number 1 in Australia, Canada and Sweden, and was top 10 in many other countries. It managed to reach number 21 in Germany, and shortly after the release of the single the band re-recorded the song in German and released it on one of PYE’s other labels Deutsche Vogue, “Hab Ich Das Recht?” also reached number 21 in Germany just one month after the English version occupied the same spot.
The German version differs in a few other ways other than the language, it wasn’t speeded up so you can hear the original pitch of the song and the stomping is a lot less prominent in the mix.
When Geoff Goddard heard The Honeycombs debut single, he wasn’t as happy as everyone else. He strongly believed that “Have I The Right” sounded like his own song he had made a demo of with Joe “Give Me The Chance”, to the point where he believed his song had been copied. He told Joe what he thought but not only did Joe dismiss Geoff’s claims he also stated coldly that he would side with Blaikley and Howard in any legal proceedings.
This effectively ended both the friendship and the working partnership between Meek and Goddard. They never spoke amicably again. The relationship had already become strained as Geoff had stopped travelling up Reading to work on songs instead he would post his ideas. Joe thought this was because of some personal issue Geoff had with Joe. In reality, Geoff was scared the people hanging around the entrance to the studio hurling abuse and threatening violence would target him, but he never told Joe that.
The matter of who actually wrote the hit song did go to court but Geoff didn’t want to testify and in July 1965 the High Court in London ruled that the song was the work of Howard and Blaikley. Geoff Goddard didn’t appeal the ruling, instead, he withdrew from the music industry, left London and returned to his home town of Reading.
He did resurface in 1970 when he wrote a song that Cliff Richard recorded, but he never returned to professional songwriting. He worked in the catering department at Reading University for many years despite earning enough from his songs to not have to work again. Remember, he wrote the b-side of “Telstar” so half the mechanical royalties for the record were due to him and the revenue for the b-side was not frozen by MCPS. He received more royalties in 1985 when Bronski Beat covered “Johnny Remember Me” and in doing so sold 300,000 copies and went platinum. This money came as a complete shock to Goddard.
With “Have I The Right?” sitting at number 1 in the charts, Joe felt it was the ideal time to take back control of RGM. His relationship with Major Banks had deteriorated over the last few months, Joe had grown tired of Banks scrutinising every penny he spent. He felt that whether or not he chose to use a string section for a song was a creative decision and therefore something he alone should decide. Major Banks disagreed and considered it a financial decision that he should have a say in.
By now Joe was working around the clock, writing, recording and then trying to find labels to license the records. With all profit being split 50/50 between Meek and Banks, Joe was beginning feel like he was working himself to death for someone else.
He wanted to break away from the Major but wasn’t in a position to go it alone, he needed someone to take over from the Major but on different terms. He eventually found someone he considered ideal for the role, an accountant working in The Strand called Tom Shanks. Shanks was everything the Major wasn’t, friendly, fatherly and most importantly he had experience of the music industry. Among the other entertainment companies he worked with, he was Petula Clark’s accountant and business manager.
Shanks had been helping Joe with his financial affairs for a few months already and together they had set up a company Joe Meek Enterprises to better manage Joe’s money, so it seemed like the next logical step for Shanks to step in and replace Banks.
On August 27th 1964, at Tom Shanks’ office in The Strand, Joe Meek met with Major Banks to agree on a settlement. They agreed on the oddly specific sum of £14,999, 4 shillings and sixpence. Just over £300,000 in today’s money. In return, Banks would give Joe back his 50% share in the company. Tom Shanks became a partner in the business but Joe was only willing to give away just 1% this time and retained 99% to ensure he was in full control.
One of Shanks’ tasks was to get the company Joe had set up to handle the finances for Heinz’s career, Heinz Burt Ltd, under control. Joe had spent far more on Heinz than he had ever made but his infatuation had blurred his judgement. That all came into focus when Heinz showed up at Holloway Road with his new girlfriend Della Burke, shattering any hopes Joe may have harboured about a more intimate relationship. They argued for a while with Meek telling Heinz in no uncertain terms that no other producer would ever record him.
They eventually came to an arrangement where Heinz would move out of 304 Holloway Road and into Petula Clark’s old flat in Westminster that Tom Shanks had put in Joe’s name as a tax dodge. When Heinz moved out he left behind the single-barrelled shotgun that he would use to shoot birds when he was on the road. The reason he left it behind varies depending on which account you read, he either simply forgot it or Joe had asked to borrow it when he started getting blackmailed and death threats.
The Tornados ’65
By 1965 The Tornados’ drummer and de facto leader Clem Cattini had grown tired of touring constantly. The Tornados commitments as Billy Fury’s band combined with recording sessions was just too much. On one occasion Joe Meek had kept them in the studio so long they were in danger of missing a Billy Fury show, they had to drive straight from Holloway Road to the gig and went straight from the van onto the stage.
Clem Catinni left The Tornados to become a full-time session musician. He was reportedly considered for both Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney’s Wings but turned them both down as he knew the bands intended to tour extensively and didn’t want that lifestyle any more.
He was initially replaced by Peter Adams, who played with the band for a year before leaving himself. By 1966 none of the original line up remained, the band’s personnel was so different they were often referred to as The New Tornados or The Tornados ’65, although these names were rarely used on any promotional material.
The new line up released 2 singles in 1966, “Pop-Art Goes Mozart”/ “Too Much In Love To Hear” and what would be their final release, “Is That A Ship I Hear?”/ “Do You Come Here Often?”
Although neither record made the charts the latter’s b-side “Do You Come Here Often?” is considered to be the first openly gay pop record released by a major UK label. The track starts off in a fairly unremarkable way, a cheesy organ riff chugs along for a few minutes before the music dips slightly and the next minute or so is a dialogue between what appears to be two gay men in a nightclub toilet. While there’s nothing directly sexual in the dialogue it’s very camp and is an obvious depiction of gay cruising for the era.
Despite the lack of a new hit, The Tornados continued to be a fixture on the live circuit and spent a lot of time on the road. When they set off for these shows Joe would often tell them to let him know they had arrived okay by knocking on wall of the hotel room, and he would hear it. They laughed it off as one of his weird eccentricities but would be more than a little freaked out when they would return and Joe would seem to know specific details about the shows and the events that took place after the shows.
By 1966 the frozen royalties at PRS and MCPS were up to £150,000 but the case was no closer to being resolved and to make matters worse the record labels had all but stopped licensing new releases from him. The advances were few and far between but the bills kept coming, and he was no longer receiving the £20 weekly wages that were part of his deal with the Major. He was reduced to relying on his young assistance Patrick Pink to bring him food from his Mum’s pantry.
Joe was also starting to face scrutiny from The Board of Trade who were investigating claims that Joe was not correctly paying royalties and other payments to his artists
It seemed Joe’s luck was running out, Robert Stigwood had taken John Leyton from him in suspicious circumstances. Joe had always shrewdly signed agreements with all the acts making him their exclusive recording manager, but Stigwood claimed no such agreement had been signed between Meek and Leyton. Joe turned his office upside down trying to find the document that he knew existed, but it simply wasn’t there. Either Stigwood stole it or someone stole it for him.
Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!
The mysterious loss of John Leyton’s contract wasn’t the only incident that fueled Joe Meek’s paranoia. He’d always suspected he was being bugged by other producers, songwriters and record labels intent on stealing his ideas but those suspicions were seemingly proved correct when he got a knock on the door from a man who said he was picking up the audio from Joe’s studio on his car radio.
The source of the transmission turned out to be a defective tape recorder. When he took it back to the stockists they told him it had a loose coil, which sort of makes sense as the coiled wire could act as an aerial but would usually turn the machine into a receiver, not a transmitter.
That wasn’t the only “bug” they found in the studio, Patrick Pink also found a walkie-talkie behind one of the speakers with the button taped down so the channel was always open. There were also a few occasions when acetates (one-off vinyl pressings) and demo tapes went missing from the office. During the peak of Joe Meek’s success, there would be scores of songwriters, A&R men and publishers coming and going at 304 Holloway Road. They would sit in the tiny waiting room next to the office waiting for the opportunity to pitch their services. It wouldn’t have been that hard to sneak in the office.
Patrick Pink caught two record label executives doing just that, he found them in the office listening to the pile of acetates on Joe’s desk. Patrick didn’t mention it to Joe at the time for fear of sparking one of his foul moods, instead, he just kicked the men out.
All the accounts of Joe Meek’s life talk about his paranoia but rarely mention the justifications for such a mindset, of which there are many. Instead, they choose to dismiss it as a symptom of some sort of mental illness. Many going as far as presenting a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder despite there being no evidence that he was ever diagnosed with, or treated for, either of those conditions. All such diagnoses are pure speculation.
By the mid-’60s Joe had developed a habit for pill-popping. Everything from amphetamine-based slimming pills Preludin (Phenmetrazine) to Barbiturates. The side effects of some of these drugs include confusion, hallucinations and persecution complex.
The cocktail of drugs he was taking daily would have been to blame as much as his suspicious nature. Then add to that what happened with Top Rank/EMI and “Tell Laura I Love Her”, the faulty broadcasting tape machine, the hidden walkie-talkie and the nosey A&R men and suddenly it doesn’t just seem like baseless paranoia at all.
He took to scribbling notes on pieces of paper instead of talking in the studio and would often stop sessions at the mere hint that someone may be listening. The tiniest click would have him running into the studio, “did you hear that?” he’d ask as Dennis D’Ell recalls. D’Ell couldn’t hear it but Joe was adamant. “It’s fucking there, those rotten pigs are listening!”
Sir Joseph Lockwood and the EMI offer
At the end of 1965, following the release of The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”, George Martin had asked for an increase of his £3000 annual wage (about £70,000 in today’s money). The request was turned down by EMI chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood, retrospectively it may seem like a miscalculation but at the time would have made total sense. Less than 10 years earlier EMI was on the verge of bankruptcy, losing around £500,000 a year. It was Lockwood’s frugality that saved the company and earned him the nickname Joseph Tightwad.
With his wage demands denied George Martin left EMI and started Associated Independent Recording or A.I.R as it would be known. He took a lot of the best engineers and other staff at EMI with him and eventually set up a studio that rivalled even EMI’s legendary Abbey Road facility.
Lockwood now needed to fill the huge void left by Martin’s departure, Joe Meek seemed like the perfect replacement, for most of George Martin’s roles. Although George Martin could also play the piano and was an excellent arranger as well as producer, so Meek could never be a direct successor.
Lockwood offered him an annual wage, an office at EMI HQ and access to their studios including Abbey Road. The only caveat being that he would have to cease his independent productions and focus only on the projects EMI gave him. Turning up late because he had been recording at Holloway Road all night would not be tolerated.
Joe was conflicted, he liked and respected Lockwood but generally distrusted EMI, they were one of his main suspects for bugging him. Also, they had been licensing his recordings less and less of late, something he took somewhat personally. Having access to Abbey Road studios and being able to get an orchestra in at a whim was inticing but he was unwilling to entirely give up his independence. He said he would think about it, which he did, for almost the entire next 12 months.
The Vampire Hunter and the Unusual Cat
When he wasn’t recording, Joe’s only other obsession was the paranormal. Aside from seances in his flat he would also sometimes go on field trips, they started as simple sound effects recording missions but evolved into more than that. The spooky sounds he could record in graveyards would be used to great effect on his recordings, particularly the horror-themed Screaming Lord Sutch records.
He would go to the nearby cemeteries in Highgate and Tottenham in the hope of recording some paranormal activity, which seems a little odd as he didn’t exactly have nerves of steel when it came witnessing such things. One night back in his days at IBC he had heard some strange noises that prompted him to run out of the studio screaming, he never worked there alone at night again.
One night at Highgate cemetery he would have had the fright of his life when he bumped into occultist David Farrant wandering among the graves. Meek was intrigued by Farrant and they arranged to meet again.
A few years later Farrant and rival vampire hunter “bishop” Sean Manchester sparked a media frenzy when they both claimed they had tracked a vampire to Highgate. Farrant would later serve time in prison for desecrating a grave after a headless corpse was found burned nearby the graveyard.
In addition to his sound recording missions, he would also follow up reports he heard of ghostly goings-on. One such report took him and friend up to Basildon, in Essex, to the Holy Cross Church after cleaning staff saw a ghostly monk wandering around. They weren’t able to find any evidence there, even after multiple visits.
After hearing about ghostly activities following a suicide at Warley Lea Farm, Joe Meek and his friend Tony Grinham went to the farm with some recording equipment. There they encountered a cat that Joe thought was “talking” in what he thought were human tones. He recorded the cat and transcribed their “conversation”, as he heard it.
Cat: Miaow, Help me, Miaow Joe: Hello Cat: He-llooo, Help me, help. Joe: Do you want help? Are you trying to talk to us? Cat: Help Joe: It’s so unusual, it’s an unusual cat
He gave a copy to the Society for Psychical Research who declared it was “probably the dead farmer talking” through the cat.
Meanwhile, in France the court case was progressing, a musicologist gave his assessment of the two tracks. He stated that as both songs were based on a diatonic scale, meaning it only uses the seven notes of that scale, that combinations were finite so similarities were inevitable. He also noted that “Telstar” bore as much resemblance to “Rule Britannia” as it did Ledrut’s composition.
A positive development but it didn’t mean Meek was entirely off the hook because French copyright law states even “partial similarity constitutes sufficient presumption of infringement” so a French court could still rule against Joe Meek. However, as there were only 8 bars of the entire composition that bore any resemblance and there had been no drop in earnings following the release of “Telstar” any settlement would probably just be based on adapting the 8 bars in question.
Joe Meek’s lawyer estimated that the settlement would likely be just a few thousand francs, and the case should be wrapped up by February or March of 1967, but they couldn’t be sure of either.
The longer the case dragged on with no resolution the more financial pressure Joe was feeling, to make matters worse The Board of Trade had escalated their investigations in Joe’s business, they raided 304 Holloway Road and seized a huge amount of paperwork and other documents.
The Suitcase Murder
Joe spent Christmas 1966 back at his family home in Newent, shortly after he returned to London news broke of a gruesome murder. The dismembered body of a young man was found in 2 suitcases in Suffolk, the Police were unable to identify the remains so took the unusual step of distributing pictures of the decapitated head to newspapers and tv stations.
The family of the man saw the pictures and identified him as Bernard Oliver, a 17-year-old who had gone missing from his home in Muswell Hill a few days earlier. He had been sexually assaulted and strangled before being dismembered and placed in the two cases. They had very little to go on, the only evidence they had were the cases, one of which had the initials PVA written inside and a book of matches primarily sold in Israel.
As Bernard Oliver was a gay man Police immediately came to the conclusion the murderer was also a gay man. With no other evidence or leads to pursue the Police announced their intention to interview every gay man that was known to them in London.
As Joe Meek had been charged with homosexual behaviour, from his arrest at Madras Place, he would undoubtedly have been on their list of “persons of interest”. It’s also rumoured that Oliver was known to Meek and had possibly even been to his studio looking for work. Muswell Hill was not very far from Holloway Road.
Its likely that with all the pressure Joe Meek was under, the prospect of being investigated for murder was enough to push him right to the edge.
Joe had kept recording throughout everything that was going on, and he had 2 records that he thought were destined for the charts, surely he could get these signed and the advances would tide him over until the case in France was resolved?
On February 2nd 1967 Joe called into the EMI offices at Manchester Sq, to meet with Rex Oldfield to play him the records. They were flatly rejected with no explanation. Joe was bewildered. How could they turn them down? He started to wonder if Joseph Lockwood had told them not to accept anything as a way of coaxing him to take the offer? His trust in Lockwood was shattered, how could he take the offer now? But if he turned it down, then what? What would be the point of making new recordings if nobody was going to license them?
I’m going now, goodbye.
Back at Holloway Road later that afternoon Joe told Patrick Pink he was going to record his first song, finally. Patrick had been assisting Joe for about 6 years now and he was elated they were finally going to record him.
They went into the studio and got to work, Patrick began singing the song they had chosen but partway through Joe heard a click or something that made him believe they were being listened to and he instructed Patrick to just mime the lyrics.
It’s unclear what that was supposed to achieve or why he didn’t simply end the session. It was around midnight when they eventually finished recording.
The next morning when Patrick woke up he found Joe was already up and was burning various documents and some paintings that were hanging on the wall in the studio. Muttering under his breath “they won’t get this…”. He was also writing notes, and then burning them.
After half an hour or so of burning documents Joe went back into the studio and continued working on Patrick’s tape. He came back down about 15 minutes later and handed Patrick a note that simply said “I’m going now, goodbye”.
In retrospect that was clearly a suicide note of sorts, but to Patrick it was just as cryptic as the other messages he had written and burnt that morning.
Joe went back upstairs to the studio and carried on working on the tape, or at least the tape was playing. About another 15 minutes passed then there was someone at the front door. It was Michael, one of the young lads that would do casual work in the studio from time to time. Stacking tapes and general tidying up.
Patrick shouted up the stairs to let Joe know Michael had arrived. Joe shouted back that he should send him away, but to fetch Mrs Shenton, the landlady and owner of the shop below.
When Violet Shenton came up from the shop she was smoking a cigarette. She asked Patrick what sort of mood Joe was in. Over the years she had experienced all of Joe’s various moods and often she was able to calm him down. Patrick told Mrs Shenton Joe was in a terrible mood.
She asked Patrick to hold her cigarette as she didn’t want to smoke in the studio and headed upstairs. It wasn’t long before Patrick could hear an argument, Joe was shouting “give me the book” or something like that. Possibly in reference to the rent book. The Shenton’s lease was up for renewal and Joe may have been worried they were trying to get rid of him and his noisy studio. He’s only just recently caught up with rent payments having been behind for a while.
As Patrick went back into the office he heard a loud bang, he ran back to the stairs to see what had happened. As he got to the bottom of the stairs Violet Shenton was falling down them and landed in his arms.
“She’s dead!” He shouted, he put Mrs Shenton’s lifeless body down and ran up the stairs. He’d barely gone up two steps when he heard the second bang. Joe had turned the gun on himself. When he got to the top of the stairs Joe was lying dead with the gun next to him.
Patrick called the police and as the only witness was subjected to 6 hours of questioning before being released without charge. The shotgun Joe used was covered in Heinz’s fingerprints, it was his gun after all, so he was also brought in for questioning and then released without charge.
Joe Meek was buried on February 10th at Newent Cemetary, his goods were auctioned off the following year, this included the Clavioline used on “Telstar” and his other recording equipment. It was all sold for £3.129, much less than it’s value in 1968. Among the item sold was also a large number of tapes, they were stored in 67 tea chests so these have come to be known as the “Tea Chest Tapes”. The Tea Chest tapes were bought by Cliff Cooper, the bassist in the Millionaires, a group Joe Meek recorded in the 60s.
The tapes remained with Cooper, unlistened to and uncatalogued until 1983 when he passed them on to Alan Blackburn. Cliff Cooper was hoping to be able to release some of the music on them but first needed to work out what exactly was on them.
It took 18 months for Blackburn to listen to all the tapes, there were 1856 of them in total. Among the tapes, Blackburn found recordings by Tom Jones, Jonothan King, Freddie Starr, David Bowie, Francis Rossi (Status Quo) and Marc Bolan (T-Rex).
The tapes were put up for auction in 2008 and although they fetched £170,000 this was under the reserve price so the sale didn’t go through. It’s unclear if the tapes will ever be released publicly.
One of the most tragic aspects of this story is that many of the pressures Joe was under disappeared after his death. The case in France was ruled in his favour and although he was instructed to pay a small amount to Ledrut due to some idiosyncrasies in French law the majority of the £150,000+ in royalties was released shortly after his death.
In fact, PRS had received a letter from France the previous day advising them of what the verdict was, which meant they were in a position to advance Joe a large sum of money while they calculated the full amount due to him. They had considered calling Joe to let him know but decided against it, for some unknown reason.
The murder case remains unsolved to this day but the police had narrowed it down to 2 suspects who fled to Australia, so would not have spent much time, if any, investigating Joe.
In July 1967 the Sexual Offenses Act was passed into law and effectively decriminalised homosexuality between consenting adults aged 21 and over.
In May 1967 The Beatles, who had quit touring the previous year to focus on recording, released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album utilised the equipment in the studio in the same ways Joe had been doing for over a decade. With the most successful band on the planet experimenting in this way, attitudes changed and the techniques were embraced rather than scorned.
If he could just have made it through the next few months his story would have a much different ending. What would he have done with the synthesizers of the ’70s or digital audio in the ’80s and ’90s? What if he had taken the job at EMI? Would he have produced The Beatles, or other EMI acts of the late ’60s and early ’70s like Pink Floyd and T-Rex? We can only wonder.
More often than not, the reputations of creatives like Joe Meek are boosted after their death by books and movies of their life, but very few books have been written about Joe Meek and the movie that was made, Nick Moran’s “Telstar” misses the mark altogether.
His name does still live on through a range of audio gear launched by Ted Fletcher, a musician and sound engineer who worked with Joe Meek in the mid ’60s and a 2012 article in NME ranked Joe the greatest producer of all time ahead of George Martin, Quincy Jones, Phil Spector and the other usual suspects.
So Joe Meek remains the greatest producer most people have probably never heard of.