The Joe Meek Society - keeping a musical legacy alive
We met up with Rob Bradford, a member of the Joe Meek Society. A group dedicated to keepingJoe Meek’s name and his musical legacy alive. Joe Meek was the legendary 60’s maverick record producer who pretty much invented small-scale recording. From a small studio above a shop on Holloway Road, Joe Meek recorded hundreds of artists and made countless hits.
We asked Rob about the man and about the work of the Joe Meek Society (JMS)…
Joe Meek was born in Gloucestershire and was interested in sound from an early age?
Joe Meek was born in the small rural town of Newent on April 5th 1929. His lifelong fixation with sound and recording began when he was given his own phonograph on his eighth birthday in 1937. He soon began experimenting with old 78rpm discs when he discovered, completely by chance, that if he yelled or spoke loudly into the ‘bell’ of the tone arm that the sound was recorded into the run out grooves of the disc and could be played back. By age eleven he was already building his own valve radios from scratch without the need to refer to any kind of plans or circuit diagrams.
And he left for London already an established sound engineer?
Joe left Newent for London in 1954 at the age of 25. By this time he was a highly skilled radio and TV repair expert. Joe’s family and relatives owned the first two TV sets in Newent, which Joe himself built from scratch. He was fired from one of his jobs in Gloucester for building his own amplifiers and tape recorders from spare parts lying around (or about to be discarded) in the workshop during company time! Joe had also become a skilled Radar operative during his National Service days. By the time he left for London he’d already made his very own FX LP and other private recordings.
And he eventually ended up in London in the 1950s where he worked for Radio Luxembourg and with IBC…
Yes, after working briefly for Stones Electrical Stores on the Edgware Road he was indeed working for both IBC and Radio Luxembourg by early 1955. As well as working for Luxembourg, IBC and recording for EMI, Philips, Decca and Pye, Joe jumped at the opportunity to help to design and fit out Lansdowne Studios (‘The House Of Shattering Glass’) which truly was state-of-the-art sound recording wise for many a year.
However, he was always rowing with people and stormed out in mid -session late in 1959 vowing never to return. Fed up with compromises, he was determined to be his own boss, answerable to no one.
So he went on to create his own company and studio in London…
So, yes, his plan was to set up the UK’s first ‘major’ independent record label – Triumph – with himself in charge of the roster of artists and their recordings. The recordings (ultimately) would be done in his very own studio.
In the event he did indeed record literally thousands of tracks at 304 Holloway Road. Over 700 (featuring just over 100 different groups, singers and ensembles) were commercially released (leased to the major record labels of the day) in just under 7 years - which is a monumental achievement!
The Triumph label itself lasted for just a few heady months during 1960 itself. Its failure was not actually down to Joe Meek – but rather his financial backers and a chronic inability to press sufficient discs to meet public demand. Craftily, Joe had all of the artists and all of the original master tapes under his personal control and shortly before the label folded, Joe quit…taking all of the recordings and artists with him!
Joe Meek seems to have worked with nearly anyone who is anyone in the 1960s….
People forget that Joe Meek engineered over 1,000 commercially released recordings before he branched out on his own. All of the major record companies of the day were after his services. As well as hundreds of acts whose names are now long forgotten, Joe recorded and worked with some of the biggest stars of the era including: Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, Shirley Bassey, Acker Bilk,Petula Clark, Lonnie Donegan, Emile Ford, Edmund Hockridge, Gary Miller, Harry Secombe,Anne Shelton, Frankie Vaughan, Dickie Valentine, David Whitfield and Marty Wilde to name but a few. These people were amongst the genuine superstars of the era.
It’s also not as widely known that Joe Meek was the first to record many artists who later went on to superstardom – including: Ritchie Blackmore, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Adam Faith, Georgie Fame, Tom Jones, Steve Marriott, Jimmy Page, Status Quo and Ten Years After to name but a few more!
But there were also some high profile acts that he didn’t want to work with too! You’re presumably referring to the fact that he turned down the Beatles. It’s true that he did – but definitely not as depicted in the “Telstar” film. Joe Meek certainly had connections with Brian Epstein. Joe turned down the Beatles on the basis of their demo tape – which, to be fair, had been rejected out of hand by every single record company Epstein had approached – until EMI took a chance. Less well known is the fact that Joe Meek wasn’t exactly impressed by schoolboy Rod Stewart’s interpretations of Elvis songs in 1961. He apparently put his fingers in his ears and blew raspberries at the youngster before throwing him out of the Holloway Road studio!
And there was of course a very sad ending to the story…
Joe was brilliant sound engineer – but a terrible businessman. Again, it’s a complicated story. Suffice it to say that, by early 1967, Joe’s hits had dried up and his financial / business affairs were in total chaos. He had spiralled into deep depression and was undoubtedly in the throes of a complete physical and mental breakdown.
On February 3rd 1967 (the eighth anniversary of his idol Buddy Holly’s death) he literally blew his own head off with a shotgun he kept at the flat. Moments before he’d tragically gunned down his landlady Violet Shenton – or so it seemed. The jury at the time quickly returned a verdict of murder. In ensuing years, doubt has been cast on this appalling scenario. Joe Meek was clearly out of his mind at the time with (it has subsequently been proved) a notoriously unreliable shotgun in his possession. There were definite connections with the Kray twins and Lord Boothby. Conspiracy theories abound.
Moving on now to the Joe Meek Society, and your work. Why do you think that Joe Meek is so deserving of recognition? What made him unique and so special?
What made Joe Meek so unique was that he did everything literally single–handedly and succeeded against all the odds. Students on sound recording courses nowadays refer to him as ‘The Godfather Of Home Recording’. Record company magnates and ‘Captains of Industry’ back in 1960 were genuinely staggered and dumbfounded that Joe Meek could produce massively successful commercial hit - recordings from a couple of incredibly small rooms above a leather goods shop in the middle of the A1 in North London (304 Holloway Road). Moreover he found acts to record, he produced them, and in many cases he even managed them too. Even more remarkable…the likes of George Martin would have at least four or five people (engineers, tape operators, etc) to assist him whilst recording sessions. Joe Meek did it all by himself.
But why the continuing appeal to this day? Many other producers have come and gone and are largely ignored by music historians, but Joe Meek seems to be different?
He literally broke the mould, pushed the envelope, challenged so many ‘studio norms’ and refused to bow to convention. He was a maverick – and he existed literally for recording and experimentation. He pioneered (in the UK at any rate) the use of bizarre and esoteric FX. He treated voices and instruments electronically. He experimented wildly with excessive echo, compression, and deliberate distortion of sound. You want more? Tape - speeding, tape manipulation, overdubbing (superimposition of sounds), close–miking, DI….
Plus, he built his own equipment (or adapted commercial hardware) in order to create new sounds in the studio.
Do you think that the tragic events at the end of his life have added to his continuing appeal? Music fans do have a tendency towards mythologising tragic lives, I’m thinking of people like Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix for example.
Even JMS members are divided about this. Inevitably there is - or can be - a macabre fascination with Joe Meek’s private life. He was obviously a very complex personality and some aspects of his personal life were disturbing. Plus, the shocking way in which his life ended, coupled with the dreadful fact that he apparently murdered the innocent Violet Shenton casts a long shadow.
I try to maintain that literally the last five minutes of Joe Meek’s life should not overshadow the incredible work that he did over many years in the recording studio. In many regards, the JMS has always tried to be even – handed about this. We can’t ignore the awful way his life ended and it is discussed, analysed and debated from time to time.
But….we obviously concentrate much more on the music and sound recording aspects of his life and career. I believe that we do all that we can not to ‘mythologise’ Joe Meek. Whilst not ignoring the darker aspects of his psyche – there was also a fun – loving, kind and positive side to Joe Meek’s personality which is frequently overlooked.
He had a very distinct sound to some of the more popular recordings, how might you describe it to a layman?
A very dense, ‘edgy’ sound. Quite often his recordings include highly unusual ‘electronic’ treatments of both voice and instruments. The use of bizarre effects which somehow become an integral part of the overall sound. Pronounced bass and drums. Many recordings feature numerous overdubs. Much more echo and compression than would be allowed on ‘normal’ recordings from the major UK labels. Above all – a haunting melancholia and….I can’t describe it any other way….a kind of ‘unworldly’ or ‘other worldly’ sound which just sweeps all before it in its finest examples. Fey … yet utterly uplifting too.
What do you think his enduring musical legacy will be?
In the history of music throughout time, only the ‘greatest’ tracks from different eras survive into posterity. I’m confident that in 50, or100 years’ time, “Johnny Remember Me”, “Telstar” and “Have I The Right” will still be played and talked about. I truly believe too that Joe Meek’s name, and his contribution to sound recording history, will endure.
Why the formation of the JMS? Did you feel that not enough was being done to recognise his contribution to culture, or was it more about like-minded fans creating a forum for discussion on the man and his work?
Firstly - the original society, the Robert George Meek Appreciation Society (RGMAS) was actually founded on the very day that Joe died in 1967 by Jim Blake. It was John Repsch’s book “Joe Meek: The Legendary Telstar Man” which created huge media interest when it was published in 1989. Shortly afterwards the Joe Meek Appreciation Society, JMAS (now shortened to JMS) was launched - with both Jim and John at the helm. They subsequently fell out and Jim re-activated the RGMAS.
Nowadays though the two societies co-exist very happily. JMS has kept going always serving fans, collectors and aficionados for almost 25 years now. It’s run by a dedicated group of people whose only aim is to keep Joe’s name and music alive. Many former RGM artists are members like Clem Cattini, Roger LaVern and John Leyton. As is Joe’s niece, Sandra Meek-Williams who is incredibly supportive. And, yes….discussion and research about Joe’s music still forms the vital core of everything we do.
What kinds of activities does the JMS get involved in?
Nowadays there’s quite an Internet presence, which enables so many more people to get involved with Joe Meek matters online. We produce the JMS magazine “Thunderbolt” three times per year and a regular Newsletter six times per year. Former RGM artists frequently contribute and new ‘old’ information still continues to come to light. We also have a dedicated Joe Meek / RGM tribute group, The Triumphs. JMS has been involved with putting on Joe Meek shows and events.
Finally, several JMS ‘experts’ answer an awful lot of press, media, and personal enquiries about Joe Meek and his various acts and recordings through the website I also give regular lectures and presentations about Joe Meek and the RGM Sound.
How has his life been celebrated to date?
Way back in 1992, the Joe Meek Appreciation Society arranged for a plaque dedicated to Joe’s musical and sound recording achievements to be placed at 304 Holloway Road. The society worked hard to achieve this – but none more so than John Repsch who was also Joe Meek’s biographer. The same team also arranged for a plaque at Joe Meek’s birthplace at 1, Market Square in Newent. In 2011, the plaque at Newent was actually replaced by one from the Heritage Foundation – in formal recognition of Joe Meek’s achievements.
In 2006 Gloucester Folk Museum housed an extremely successful Joe Meek Exhibition, which led to the Newent Initiative and a Joe Meek Festival in 2007 – which continued for several years. In 2012 the NME voted Joe Meek as the Greatest Record Producer and the importance of his early work on tape manipulation and Electronic sounds has been recognised by the likes of “Mojo”, “The Wire” and “Sound On Sound”.
Do you think more could be done to honour the man and his work? If so, what?
Although recently honoured by both “Mojo” and “NME” and even though the film (the flawed “Telstar: The Movie”) is out there….Joe Meek’s name still hasn’t entered the national consciousness of the general public at large.
To be fair though, the vast majority of the general public would be hard pressed to name any producers. To be honest….if you really narrow it down….most people would probably just name either George Martin or Phil Spector. Joe had tremendous success with a handful of big hits, but, really…it was all over by 1964. In so far as international, global hits on a massive scale (& for the sheer number) he can’t be compared in that respect with the likes of Spector’s roster or the Motown artists, the Beatles or Quincy Jones with Michael Jackson.
But….I think that there is still a growing recognition of Joe Meek’s undoubted genius and his original contribution to sound recording techniques per-se.
If there was one record which best encapsulates the Joe Meek sound, what would it be?
I will ‘cheat’ slightly here, if I may, and select one vocal and one instrumental recording. Inevitably, they both represent Joe Meek’s greatest hits and sound recording achievements – being “Johnny Remember Me” and “Telstar” respectively.
Rob - thanks very much for your time!