Friday, July 06, 2007

Joe Meek

Addicted to pills, illegal gay sex in public toilets, and with a head full of devils, this music producer was more rock than most of his bands

Record producers aren't the sanest of people. Phil Spector made wife Ronnie drive the streets of LA in a car with a man-sized dummy, and is currently in court, accused of murder. Brian Wilson washed up fat and paranoid in a sandpit. But the oddest studio boffin of all was British. Joe Meek made some of the most spooky-sounding records of the 1960s, and they soundtracked a life that included murder, suicide, inventing goth, communicating with cats, and holding black magic séances. He's been called "the Ed Wood of lo-fi".

Joe Meek was born in 1929 in Newent, Gloucestershire, blessing him with a West Country burr for which he was mocked for the rest of his life. His mother had wanted a girl, so she gave him dresses to wear. Joe would set up speakers in a local orchard for workers to listen to as they picked fruit, and had his own ahead-of-its-time mobile-DJ business.

After a stint in the RAF as a radar technician, Joe started to record local musicians and singers. But he was becoming more and more uncomfortable with country living. He was gay, and a gay man in the 1950s didn't only face being beaten up by narrow-minded thugs, but also being arrested. Homosexuality was outlawed. London was a little more liberal. So the bequiffed Joe moved there in 1953.

He took a series of studio jobs. He was a perfectionist, obsessing over sound and equipment, all the time hepped up on the diet pills that helped fuel his long recording sessions. He was irritable and difficult to work with.

Eventually, though, Joe set up his own independent label, Triumph. It was for this label, in 1960, that he recorded his most way-out work, the first-ever concept album I Hear A New World. The world was obsessed with space travel: Satellites and rockets, science-fiction and men from Mars. Tracks on Joe's record include 'Entry Of The Globbots' and 'March Of The Dribcots', and it sounds like a trip through cold, dark space and into the future. He layered sound effects including bubbling water, toilets flushing, radio interference and speeded-up voices over weirdly distorted Hawaiian guitar and layered, shifting spookiness. The record is now regarded as a pioneering work that stands alongside Kraftwerk and Aphex Twin in electronica's history. At the time it just sounded alien. Only 20 copies of the full album were pressed, for promo purposes.

Meek relocated to his most famous recording studio. A small flat above a leather-goods shop on at 304 Holloway Road in London. It was so tiny that string sections played cramped on the stairs, singers recorded their vocals in the bathroom, and whole bands crammed into the minuscule recording room. Loose wires were held in place with chewing gum and matchsticks, and some of the equipment was homemade.
His first big hit on his new RGM label was 'Johnny Remember Me' in 1961, by John Leyton, which featured Chas Hodges (later of crafty rockney duo Chas'n'Dave) on bass. The record went to number one in the charts. It was written by Joe's writer partner, Geoff Goddard. Not only did the pair share an interest in sonic teenage operas but also in spiritualism.

In 1958, Joe had once chased Buddy Holly around London in order to give him a note warning that he would face great danger on 3 February. Joe had received the warning message at a séance. Unfortunately, he got the year wrong. Buddy died on 3 February the following year.

Joe was a huge fan of Buddy, and he and Geoff held a séance where they contacted him before they recorded and released Mike Berry and The Outlaws' single 'Tribute To Buddy Holly'.

Joe was always looking for a novelty angle for his records, and one of his obsessions was horror rock. He took North London band The Raiders, dismissed their lead singer from the studio with a raspberry (Rod Stewart later went on to some success), changed their name to The Moontrekkers, and made the eerie, creaking 'Night Of The Vampire'. Next, he recorded Screaming Lord Sutch, who would emerge from a coffin on stage, brandishing a skull, with the sounds of windswept cemeteries whirling underneath him. As Sutch's recordings were branded obscene, and not extensively played on radio, the singer took to extreme publicity stunts, such as running through the streets of London dressed as a Viking. Joe loved this.
Joe's biggest commercial success was 'Telstar' by The Tornados. Inspired by the communications satellite launched in 1962, the futuristic instrumental shot to number one in the UK charts, and later the US hit parade in 1965. Joe was especially keen on the bass player, Heinz. He persuaded Heinz to dye his hair shocking blond (based on his obsession with sci-fi film Village Of The Damned, and its cast of sinister Aryan children), and propelled him on his way to a (relatively unsuccessful) solo career.

In November 1963, Joe's world was shaken. He'd been into cottaging - picking up boys for sex in public lavatories - for a while. It was a habit he'd acquired while accompanying bands on tour. On 11 November he was caught red handed, soliciting in the men's room in Madras Place in London. He appeared in court the next day, and was found guilty of 'persistently importuning for an immoral purpose'. Joe was convinced he'd been set up. Not least because the accuser was an old man. As he said to his office boy, Patrick Pink: "I don't go chasing old men with watch chains dangling from their waistcoats - I go after young trade. Who wants a fucking old man?" The case was reported in the newspapers as a small news story, but it was big enough for Joe's business associates and band charges to notice. It was an embarrassing blow for him. It also opened him up to blackmail - something that local boys took mean advantage of.

The hits continued, bands such as The Honeycombs were popular. They hit the top 10 with the tub-thumping 'Have I The Right'. But Joe was growing more troubled. He necked diet pills, which acted like speed and had him bouncing off the walls of his studio. His songs were the subject of two copyright cases, which made him even more stressed and irritable. He was convinced (with some justification, following the discovery of a transmitting bug in his studio) that other studios were spying on him. His behaviour grew more erratic. And his obsession with the dark arts festered.
The producer took to wandering London cemeteries, making field recordings and trying to capture spirit voices on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. During one of his forays around Highgate Cemetery he literally bumped into 'High Priest' David Farrant. Farrant was a keen vampire-hunter, and in 1974, in a case heard at the Old Bailey, was accused of grave-robbing.

Joe also took a trip to Warley Lee Farm, which he had heard was haunted. As he and his friend approached the house, a cat came up to them. Their tape recorder was running, and they were astonished as the cat started talking to them in a semi-human voice. They claimed to have had a conversation with the cat, mainly consisting of "hellos" and "help mes". Sadly, the friendly feline then reverted to purrs. On listening to the tape, the evidence is certainly scant, to say the least. He lent the tape to the Society for Psychical Research. Joe was also convinced there were unaccountable voices on song recordings he had made. And he further believed 304 Holloway Road was haunted, and that his furniture would dance. Too many séances and drugs perhaps?

At the start of 1967, Joe's paranoia, diet-pill habit, and frenzied work schedule were beginning to bubble over and burn. He was taking anti-depressants, and was now having to compete with records as sonically advanced and complex as George Martin's work with The Beatles, and Johnny Franz's recordings with the Walker Brothers. He owed money to many of his artists. All it would take was one catalytic event to push him over the edge.

In January 1967, a suitcase containing the horrifically mutilated body of Bernard Oliver was found in Tattingstone, in Suffolk. Oliver was a rent boy, and Joe knew him. Joe realised the police would want to speak to him about the murder, and panicked. By 2 February he was a wreck. But still he agreed to do a recording session, a long-promised date with his faithful PA Patrick Pink. Patrick recalls that Joe's paranoia during the session grew worse and worse. Patrick went upstairs at midnight. Joe had another visitor that night, however. Ritchie Blackmore, who went on to fame and success with Deep Purple and Rainbow, was a member of The Outlaws, and rented a flat from Joe. He was on tour, but Joe was friends with his German wife, Margaret. She came round later that night, and is convinced Joe had been indulging in the black arts. She tells how Joe said: "There's somebody around me - I can feel it. There's somebody in the air." She believes that Aleister Crowley's spirit was lurking in the flat that night. Margaret also describes how a picture Joe had painted, of a woman crying, was "full of blood... like someone tried to get some blood in it. It was like someone said goodbye to something."

The next day Joe was in determined mood. Patrick found him burning papers and paintings. He finished Patrick's tape, hands shaking, and his paranoia ramped up so high he had his shotgun propped against his door. Patrick went upstairs to tell Joe that Michael, a young boy who often helped them out, was at the house. Joe told Patrick to tell him to "fuck off" and to send up Violet Shenton, his landlady, from her flat downstairs. Violet went up to Joe. Patrick could hear shouting, scuffling, mentions of a "book", by which he presumed Joe was talking about his rent book. Patrick continues: "I was in the office when I heard a big bang. It was such a fucking big bang. I was stunned. I rushed out and Violet was falling downstairs and I sort of grabbed her as she came to the bottom, and felt her. I was sitting on the stairs with her flapped over me... I saw the blood pouring out of these little holes in her back. And she died in my arms - I'm bloody positive she went still. I had quite a bit of blood over me. Her back was just smoking."A few seconds later, Patrick saw Joe rush out of the room. He shouted to Joe: "She's dead!" Joe reloaded the gun, and shot himself. It was 3 February. The same date that, as predicted by Joe, Buddy Holly died.

Initially, Patrick was arrested. There was utter confusion. Headlines screamed about the scandal. Barbiturates, amphetamines and dexadrine were taken from the flat. The case went to court, and the coroner came to the conclusion Joe had killed his landlady then committed suicide. He said, "Why he should do this, we don't know. He just did it." Joe was buried in his hometown of Newent. Despite interviewing more than 100,000 people, the Suffolk police never caught the suitcase murderer.



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