Joe Meek: the life and legacy of the British record producer
The UK’s most successful independent record producer of the 1960s, Joe Meek was also a gay man whose troubles ran deep. Writing for BBC History Magazine, Jon Savage examines the short life and long legacy of this pioneering outsider
On 22 December 1962, The Tornados’ single Telstar rose to the top of the US charts, where it would stay for three weeks: that year’s Christmas number one. It was only the fourth British record to achieve such heights and, like Vera Lynn’s Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart, Laurie London’s He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands and Acker Bilk’s Stranger OnThe Shore, it would prove a one-off. Like their compatriots, The Tornados would never break the Top 40 again.
For a short while, Joe Meek was on top of the world. At the age of 33, he was the top independent producer in the UK and had cracked the holy grail of transatlantic success. At the point Telstar reached the summit of the US charts, it was still in the UK Top Ten, after 17 weeks in the charts, including five at number one. Their follow-up, Globetrotter, was ready for release and would, along with another Meek production, Mike Berry’s Don’t You Think It’s Time, quickly rise up the UK charts. By late January, Meek had three singles in the Top 20.
Telstar remains Joe Meek’s best-known tune – an instrumental that seemed to exemplify the promise of the new technological age, taking its name from the recently launched Telstar communications satellite. Composed by Meek and arranged by The Tornados from a crude, home-sung demo, Telstar saw Meek’s fascination with technology and sound manipulation find its perfect expression. It was a compelling, compressed fusion of excitement, longing and innocence – but with a haunting and otherworldly undertow that reflected the tortured psyche of its creator.
Joe Meek was always different. Born in April 1929 in Newent, Gloucestershire, he was sensitive, almost clairvoyant, but highly volatile. His native temper was exacerbated by his father, who suffered violent fits after experiencing shell shock in World War I. Dressed as a girl by his mother until the age of four (a scenario imagined by The Who’s 1966 hit, I’m A Boy), Joe was called a sissy and left alone by most of his peers. His homosexuality, coupled with his hair-trigger temper, led to the start of the persecution complex that lasted for the rest of his life.
Meek left the West Country for London at the age of 25 and developed a reputation as a brilliant sound engineer. Early successes included Humphrey Lyttleton’s Bad Penny Blues (the seed bed for The Beatles’ Lady Madonna) and the Christmas 1959 UK number one What Do You Want To Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For? by Emile Ford and the Checkmates.
Nevertheless, he remained haunted by the fact that his sexual orientation was illegal. This laid him open, as it did generations of gay men, to ridicule, arrest, imprisonment, violent attacks and blackmail.
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Unwilling and unable to work for anyone else – he was one of nature’s freelancers – Meek became an independent producer, a pioneer in the locked-down world of the British music industry. He was completely self-contained, working not in a conventional studio but in a converted upstairs maisonette above a leathergoods store at 304 Holloway Road in North London. Here he constructed and patched together an extraordinary laboratory, rooms of sound to which only he had the key.
Meek was obsessed with science fiction and the occult. He was otherworldly: his famous 1960 concept album, I Hear Another World, projected pop into outer space with sounds that had never been heard before, and all created by the labyrinth of wires in his home studio.
Meek’s forte was sound effects – creaking coffin lids, machine hums, boot stomps – and the fierce compression of every instrument into a trebly concussion that cut through the primitive playback technology of the time. It was highly effective, but gimmicky.
“To survive as an independent,” he told Disc magazine in September 1961, “I’ve got to produce records that are different.” Meek placed his RGM Sound productions with all the major record companies, including Decca, Pye and EMI. He arrived as the period’s foremost independent with John Leyton’s summer 1961 chart-topper, Johnny Remember Me, an eldritch spasm that embodied the heightened teenage emotional state. Addressed to and sung by a man, the song also acted as a metaphor for the sense of loss and disassociation felt by Meek and many others.
Leyton’s follow-up, Wild Wind, was even more hysterical, with its boosted middle eight of wild vocals and wind sounds. It was part of a Gothic strain that permeated the Meek productions of this period. Around the same time, Meek fashioned the chilling Jack The Ripper and ’Til the Following Night for the infamous Screaming Lord Sutch. Meek’s tour de force, The Moontrekkers’ Night of A Vampire, was banned by the BBC because it “was unsuitable for people of a nervous disposition”.
By the turn of 1963, Telstar had made Meek big news in the British music industry. “Probably the best known independent producer in this country is Joe Meek,” June Harris wrote in Disc in December 1962. “Joe produces discs with atmosphere and vitality. His sound is said to be more American than the Americans.”
Meek had given his rules for success in the same publication the previous October: “topical ideas, a good tune and a sound that isn’t borrowed from someone else are essentials”. These words would come back to haunt him.
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The Velvet Mafia
There has long been talk of the gay involvement in British showbusiness and pop music – sometimes called the Gay Mafia or the Velvet Mafia – but these terms suggest a conspiracy that never existed. The simple fact was that the music industry offered gay men and women a reasonably safe haven at a time when male homosexuality was illegal and lesbianism highly disapproved of. The roots of this go way back into the history of the entertainment industry and are well explored in 1960s memoirs by band managers Simon Napier-Bell (You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me) and Andrew Loog Oldham (Stoned).
The figure of the gay manager/ svengali goes right back to the roots of British rock’n’roll in the figure of Larry Parnes, the successful entrepreneur who decided to set up his own stable of pop stars. This included Billy Fury, Vince Eager, Johnny Gentle and, nearly, The Beatles, whose eventual manager, Brian Epstein was gay (although this was not disclosed during his lifetime). Epstein brilliantly packaged The Beatles like a boy band. Giving them his undivided attention, he grounded the group and smoothed their path to mass success.
Because of their shared experience of being gay men at a time when it was illegal, it was inevitable that Joe Meek, Brian Epstein and EMI head Joseph Lockwood would meet up; there is strong evidence to suggest some kind of mutual support system. It could also be argued that the gay sensibility permeated sixties pop as a whole – in its softer fashions, long haircuts and generally less Victorian attitude to sex and gender.
Certainly the period would not have been the same without this powerful, yet still covert influence.
However, success did not improve Meek’s life. If anything, it compounded the pressures. Despite his freedoms, he had all the worries of a self-employed person in a volatile industry: without a regular outlet, each record had to be placed individually and each had to stand on its own merits. He was only as good as his last hit and, after the advent of The Beatles in 1963, they were slower in coming: the organic group sounds of the Beat Boom made his compressed and gimcrack productions sound passe.
Although it began with such promise, 1963 was an unsatisfying year for Meek: formulaic follow-ups by Mike Berry and The Tornados tapered off, and his biggest hit, Heinz’s Just Like Eddie, harked back to the rock’n’roll era (Eddie being Eddie Cochran), just at the moment that British music was surging forward at great speed. And, as ever in the music industry, success brought litigation: in this case, by a French music publisher who held that Telstar had a similar melody to one of his copyrights.
While the matter was decided, all Meek’s royalties from his biggest hit were frozen. He was in limbo. His mood darkened. Chas Hodges, later of Chas & Dave, was the bassist in Meek’s house band, The Outlaws, and offered this observation: “You never knew how to handle Joe. You was always a bit on edge.” Meek terrified the usually fearless Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham when they met: “he looked like a real mean-queen Teddy Boy and his eyes were riveting”.
In November 1963, Meek was arrested for importuning in a public toilet just off the Holloway Road. His friends were amazed: Meek could have had all the young men he wanted, as they were queuing up to be recorded by him and he was not averse to using this power for sexual purposes. But he was a habitual cruiser who, like the playwright Joe Orton (who worked the same North London beat), regularly went looking for sex in public parks and public toilets.He was addicted to the frisson of excitement.
The times were not propitious for much more than a quick encounter. In the supposedly Swinging Sixties, male homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, leaving any man who acted on his sexual and emotional orientation liable to conviction, exposure and blackmail. This was not conducive to good mental health and, in Meek’s case, the problem was exacerbated by his prominence. His case made the front page of the London Evening News, leaving him open to the. attentions of several would-be-blackmailers.
Meek had always been prone to paranoia, and this now had something real to feed off. Popping amphetamine pills, he becameobsessed with the possibility that he was being bugged, that people were stealing his ideas by electronic listening devices. His interest in other worlds deepened: graveyards, spiritualism and the occult. Charles Blackwell, the arranger of Johnny Remember Me, remembered Joe as “a split personality. He believed he was possessed, but had another side that was very polite with a good sense of humour.”
The negativity that he experienced clung to him like worn-out, not-yet-shed skin. Even so, Meek pulled off a huge coup with the success of The Honeycombs’ Have I The Right? – a UKnumber one in August 1964 at the time of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Kinks - and an oblique comment on his own blocked right to sexual and emotional fulfilment. This was his last chart-topper, but he continued to adapt. He was too restless and forwardthinking to get totally trapped in the past.
In early 1965 he relaunched RGM Sound as Meeksville Sound. His output barely abated: David John and the Mood’s Bring It To Jerome showed him at home with the new R&B medium, which he then transcended with The Syndicats’ frenzied Crawdaddy Simone. In March 1966, he scored his last ever hit with the Liverpool group The Cryin’ Shames’ Please Stay, which featured a completely overwrought vocal extracted by Meek under extreme duress: he had bullied the singer to the point of tears.
Although he found it difficult to place many of his productions during 1966, Meek remained a player among the British music industry’s ‘gay mafia’, which acted as an informal support network. Not only would he accompany BrianEpstein, the gay manager of The Beatles, to witness Bob Dylan’s June 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert, but when the continued freezing of the Telstar royalties threatened to bankrupt him later in the year, Meek was thrown a lifeline by the EMI chairman, Sir Joseph Lockwood, who offered him a job as an in-house producer.
In August 1966, Meek produced the first overt gay statement to be released on a major label in the UK, The Tornados’ Do You Come Here Often? – a dialogue set in a gay bar. However, this brief triumph barely assuaged his downward spiral of drugs and paranoia.
In January 1967, Meek became caught up in the investigation of a gruesome crime dubbed the Suitcase Murder that made the news when the chopped-up body of 16-year-old Londoner Bernard Oliver was found in two suitcases in the Suffolk countryside.
It was a shocking crime with homosexual overtones – the victim had been sexually assaulted – and detectives said they intended to “interview every gay man in London”, which included the high-profile Meek. Although the hapless producer had nothing to do with the killing, the police interest tipped him over the edge. On February 2, he burst into a friend’s house all dressed in black, claiming he was possessed. The next morning, on the 18th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, Meek blasted his landlady with his shotgun before turning it on himself.
Joe Meek died in the same year as two other significant gay sixties cultural figures: Joe Orton and Brian Epstein. Their deaths occurred just at the point when the freedoms of the 1960s were institutionally recognised in Britain. The Sexual Offences Act, which became law right at the end of July 1967, substantially decriminalised homosexuality. Allowing for the existence of gay social and sexual relationships, it removed the threat of blackmail and enabled the first very basic steps to be taken towards the ultimate goal of total parity with heterosexual society
But the past couldn’t be wiped away. Quite apart from their individual childhood experiences, all three of these major cultural innovators — Meek, Orton and Epstein — were indelibly scarred by what they had gone through in adolescence and early adulthood. In the 1950s and early ’60s, being homosexual was, in terms of social attitudes, like being a paedophile is today. There was no negotiation: you were the lowest of the low. The effect was shattering.
At that very point of liberalisation, Meek, Orton and Epstein succumbed to the damage of all those years in the shadow. “Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away,” John Lennon had sung in one of The Beatles’ most poignant songs, and for almost every adult gay man born before the mid-1940s, the strain of having to do so was psychologically disastrous. In far too many cases, the result was alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive cruising, crippling guilt and an inability to form lasting emotional relationships. It was a monstrous waste of lives.
Do you come here often?
The A side of The Tornados’ final single Is That a Ship I Hear? was a shameless attempt to appeal to the pirate radio stations of the day, but the flip-side was something quite different. Do You Come Here Often? begins as a flouncy organ drenched instrumental, but after two and a half minutes, there is a new element: two sibilant, obviously homosexual voices bitching in an atmosphere designed to sound like a gay club. The exchange is brief but has a tart authenticity:
“Well I must be off.”
“Yes, you’re not looking so good.”
“Cheerio. I’ll see you down the ’Dilly’.”
“Not if I see you first, you won’t.”
In the account of the heterosexual members of the group who voiced Meek’s lines, everyone concerned had a lot of fun during the recording, and Meek regarded the track as a triumph. Do You Come Here Often? was an extraordinary achievement: the first record on a UK major label to deliver a slice of queer life so true that you can hear its cut and thrust in any gay bar today.
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