The Mercurial Joe Meek

An appreciation of the maverick record producer by Samantha Veal.

Punk didn’t start when Johnny Rotten gobbed his first greenie across the stage. Punk started years before that. Punk started in a flat on the Holloway Road, above what was then a handbag shop. There was no McLaren, no Westwood, no New York Dolls. There was a handsome, tone-deaf sound engineer called Robert George Meek, professionally known as Joe. Joe used his flat as a studio, using the bathroom for vocals and the stairwell for drums. But, more importantly, Joe invented sound techniques. Today, the touch of a button can take a prospective songwriter into a world of sounds. Joe made that button, or at least helped to name it.

Sounds fascinated Joe from an early age. He would build circuit boards and take radios and record players to pieces, even creating his own recording equipment (there’s a tale that he put speakers up trees so that the local cherry pickers could listen to the radio whilst they worked, which is brilliant if true). Signing up for his National Service, he became a Radar Technician which also helped nurture another of his fascinations- outer space.

Sound techniques he’d picked up as a youngster stayed with him, and he moved to London to work for a radio production company. He added his two cents to Humphrey Lyttelton’s Bad Penny Blues, making it a hit even though the composer wasn’t happy with the compressed sound and tinkered-about-with piano. Subsequent studio tensions lead to Meek deciding to leave. He helped found Triumph Records in 1960- the records it produced are now highly-prized…

Distribution issues and Meek’s fiery temperament meant that the label didn’t last long, but it was grist to the mill. He would set up his own production company, and he would operate it all- the recording and the distribution- from his own flat. He could do it all himself (with a little financial help from toy importer Major Wilfred Banks, of course). There was no stopping him now.

Your correspondent loves walking past the flat. One can only imagine the noises that must have filtered down. The (very excellent) biopic Telstar shows rudimentary attempts at soundproofing the flat with liquid rubber being poured into the floorboards. The sheer activity – people going up and down the stairs, the singing, the drumming…. These days the council would have a noise order out in the drop of a cymbal.

He was very mercurial, was Joe. Paranoia that his innovative techniques were being stolen, mixed with the strain of his having to hide his homosexuality, could make him a difficult man to be around. Coupled with that, he didn’t read music and couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket (although he could drop pennies into it and record the reverb). He would have to “sing” his tune ideas to the hapless Geoff Goddard, or whoever else was around to assist recording, and they would have to translate that tuneless fervour into song.

Those songs, though. They were, quite literally, things that had never been heard before. Imagine hearing Telstar for the first time. What is this….noise? Johnny Remember Me, sounding like it was fresh out of the casket (Meek was also obsessed with graveyards, and would leave tapes running to try and catch the sounds of the dead). Have I The Right? – WITH A GIRL DRUMMER DID YOU EVER HEAR OF SUCH A THING? He never stopped creating, never stopped trying to make new sounds to climb inside. It also helped that he had a rock-solid house band to help realise his dreams. Clem Cattini – one of the most prolific drummers in music (if not THE most prolific), a pre-Purple Ritchie Blackmore whose work rate was just as high, and – of course – Chas Hodges (who deserves a film and book of his life all by himself). What must it have been like to make those sounds? To be at the creation of that work by that brilliant and troubled man?

Poor Joe got more and more paranoid inside his tiny flat. Paranoid that Decca were hiding microphone behind the wallpaper, paranoid that Phil Spector was stealing his ideas, paranoid that The Met were going to question him around the grisly discovery of mutilated body parts in Suffolk, of all places (he’d already been fined £15 previously for “importuning” in a London toilet). His fragile mental state wasn’t helped by the fact that a French composer sued him for plagiarism, saying Telstar had been copied from “La Marche d’Austerlitz” (that lawsuit meant he never made any money from Telstar during his lifetime).

On 3rd February 1967 (the eight anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, who Meek was also obsessed with), he shot his landlady and himself. He was only 38.  He left behind the tools for others to continue his work, as well as an expansive back catalogue. Your correspondent recommends the Portrait of a Genius box set – four discs of pretty much everything he created, plus some lovely spoken-word reminiscences. It’s quirky and shambolic and wonderful – pretty much like the man himself.

Holloway Road (Photo: Author’s own)

His noise remains everywhere, and I personally think that’s all he wanted. If you happen to find yourself on the Holloway Road, stop for a moment outside 304. A big orange and white sign (at time of writing of course) announces itself as the Holloway Supermarket. But look up above that and you’ll see a plaque dedicated to Joe. He deserves it.

Samantha’s recommendation – ‘Joe Meek: The RGM Legacy – Portrait of a Genius’ – was released in 2008 by Sanctuary Records and is still available, RRP £89.99. A more slimline sampling of the Meek discography can be found on ‘The Joe Meek Story’ released in 2012 by Not Now Music, RRP £5.49.

Samantha is in her mid-40s, and likes to be told she doesn’t look it. She used to be in charge of a cemetery and her favourite almond-based product is marzipan. She fits bouts of catsitting in around her desk-jockey day job, and has been halfway through writing a debut novel for a good few years now. In the meantime, she’ll have a strong white coffee with one sugar please, thanks.

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  1. This is a great article, thanks! I would class myself as a huge fan of Joe Meek’s music, even after you’ve listened to the tracks over and over again, there are still new things to hear. I wonder what would have happened if not for his tragic actions, would a man who apparently didn’t see any potential in the Beatles or Bowie been able to continue in the music business? I think he may have become a Kim Fowley type figure, never in the mainstream, but close to the leading edge.

    • Good comparison! I think he would. I reckon he’d have curated a Southbank Meltdown by now if he’d still have ben with us. And thanks for liking the piece! Sam.

  2. I can heartily recommend the Word podcast interview with Chas Hodges (reposted this week in memoriam). He has a wonderful description of how he had to transcribe Meek’s tunes…

    • Yeah, I’ve got it saved on my Mac. It’s a brilliant thing. He has so many stories, it would have been brilliant to have had a pint with him.

  3. I loved the Telstar film! Chas Hodges definitely needs to have a biography written about his time in the Outlaws and after.

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