Our last entry in this mini-series takes us from the middle of the road hit-machine that was Norrie Paramor, to somebody slightly more niche.
Not that Robert George ‘Joe’ Meek didn’t have his moments in the spotlight; but his was a chart-career that favoured quantity over quality. The bold over the bland. Crazy over sane. Would one expect anything less from a man whose mother supposedly dressed him as a girl for the first four years of his life…?
The achievements in his short career are many and varied – he recorded what was potentially the first ever rock opera, and pioneered the idea of independent record distribution – as well as making music that simply didn’t sound like anything else around at the time… There was overdubbing, distortion and sampling (more on which later…) He worked with big acts like Frankie Vaughan, Lonnie Donegan, Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, and a young Tom Jones. But this is the UK #1s blog and we are here, primarily, for the chart-toppers.
And what a trio of chart-toppers. First came the gothic ludicrousness of John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, in which a dead lover calls across the moors to her still-living beau, daring him to even think about forgetting her. Up last came ‘Have I The Right?’, by The Honeycombs, in which Merseybeat was fed through an electronic blender. And sandwiched in between, the perfect weird filling in a bizarre sandwich, sits The Tornado’s ‘Telstar’. I don’t have the time or space to give that record another write-up – just follow the link here for my original post or press play on the video below. Suffice to say that it is one of the very best chart-toppers that we’ve covered so far. Top five? Definitely. Top three? Probably.
‘Telstar’ sold five million copies around the world, topped the UK charts for five weeks and became only the second British chart-topper on the Billboard 100, a full year before the British Invasion truly kicked off. And it, like most of his hits, was recorded above a shop on the Holloway Road in North London. He used something called a Clavioline on the recording – a sort of proto-synthesiser – to create that alien-craft-hovering-right-above-you sound. But Meek wasn’t fussy, or a slave to technology; the ‘drums’ on ‘Have I the Right?’, for example, came from the band stamping on his stairs.
And as mad, zany and out-there as his hit records were, they can’t compare to Meek’s life story. This is a man who took recording equipment into graveyards to capture the voices of the dead, who held seances with Buddy Holly, who talked to cats, who thought that the photographs in his studio were trying to communicate with him… It’s perhaps not surprising that some found him a little difficult to work with… Meek was a man, it seems, who knew what he liked. He turned down the chance to work with a young David Bowie, and tried to persuade Brian Epstein not to sign The Beatles. He allegedly ran screaming, with his fingers in his ears, from a 16-year old Rod Stewart the second he began to sing…
Which all sounds perfectly absurd and entertaining; but it’s probably not fair to make light of it. Meek had serious troubles with addiction and paranoia in the later years of his life, stemming largely from the fact that he was gay and feared being outed. He was arrested for ‘immoral acts’ in a public toilet in 1963, which signalled the start of his downward spiral. Somewhat touchingly, it seems that he feared being outed to his mother much more than the general public…
On top of this, he faced lawsuits from one his main collaborators over exactly who wrote ‘Have I The Right?’, and from a French composer for the melody from ‘Telstar’ (which meant he never received a single royalty cheque for his biggest hit.) Meek was, in all honesty, a bit of a musical magpie, and seems not to have had much regard for licensing and copyright. He was above all those prosaic concerns – a true artiste. A one-off. No constraints, no boundaries. Which is why he could create a record as ahead of the curve as ‘Telstar’.
But it’s also why, when he heard rumours that every ‘known homosexual’ in London was going to be interviewed over the murder of a young man, a paranoid and desperate Meek shot himself and his innocent landlady. It was 1967 – he was just thirty-seven. He had had nothing to do with the murder, he simple feared the notoriety and possible prison sentence that came with being gay in the sixties. It’s tragic, given that five years later Bowie was dressing up as Ziggy Stardust on Top of The Pops, and that barely fifteen years later Frankie were saying ‘Relax’. Meek was born just that little bit too early.
He died on 3rd February, the same day as his idol, Buddy Holly, and his ghost can still be heard banging about in his old recording studio every year on that date, if you believe in that sort of thing. I’m including the videos for his three chart-toppers below – knock yourselves out – and would recommend Darryl W. Bullock’s book ‘David Bowie Made Me Gay’, in which I first read about unhinged genius of Joe Meek.