Preview: Telstar - The Joe Meek Story, New Ambassadors Theatre, London

Record producer Joe Meek created some of the most recognisable sounds of the Sixties - from his bedroom. A new play celebrates his life

In recent years there have been several successful West End musicals about dead rockers, including Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. But this month sees an innovation, with a play about a deceased record producer, Telstar - The Joe Meek Story. In another innovation for a play about hit records, the authors, Nick Moran and James Hicks, have dispensed with music. This makes sense because Meek's life was so dramatic, and the music itself was often lacklustre. The Tornados' "Telstar" and John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me" are epic records, but Meek's real achievements lie in being the UK's first independent producer of pop records, and in obtaining surprising results from makeshift equipment.

In recent years there have been several successful West End musicals about dead rockers, including Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. But this month sees an innovation, with a play about a deceased record producer, Telstar - The Joe Meek Story. In another innovation for a play about hit records, the authors, Nick Moran and James Hicks, have dispensed with music. This makes sense because Meek's life was so dramatic, and the music itself was often lacklustre. The Tornados' "Telstar" and John Leyton's "Johnny Remember Me" are epic records, but Meek's real achievements lie in being the UK's first independent producer of pop records, and in obtaining surprising results from makeshift equipment.

Ken Pitt, who managed Manfred Mann, knew him well, and recalls: "Joe was a controversial character. His sessions were marvellous but you'd create tension if you criticised any of his artists. Everything would be thrown at you and you'd have to get out. He was very temperamental."

Robert George (Joe) Meek was born in Newent, Gloucestershire, on 5 April 1929, and his mother, who wanted a girl, kept him in dresses for the first years of his life. In 1953 he began working as a sound engineer, and while learning the trade, he recorded many hit singles including "Bad Penny Blues" (Humphrey Lyttelton), "Cumberland Gap" (Lonnie Donegan) and "Green Door" (Frankie Vaughan). Among his early gimmicks are the marching feet in Anne Shelton's "Lay Down Your Arms" and the arrow's flight in Gary Miller's "Robin Hood".

When Meek was working for the jazz producer Denis Preston at his independent Lansdowne Studios, he was impressed by the way he made records and leased them to the major labels. Nobody was doing it with the rock'n'roll music of the day so Meek stepped out on his own in 1960. He found a backer, Major Banks, and established a Heath-Robinson style studio in his flat in north London, which was a maelstrom of activity as musicians came and went. The actor and singer John Leyton was a regular visitor: "I'd be singing in the sitting room; the string section would be in the hallway; the vocal backing group would be in the bathroom; and the brass section would be on the stairs. The end result was songs like 'Johnny Remember Me' and 'Telstar', which had a unique sound, although many people criticised it at the time."

Although the hyperactive Meek was tone deaf, he could recognise talent in others. He worked with the nerdish songwriter Geoff Goddard, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, and he formed two groups for studio work, the Outlaws and the Tornados. Another Meek singer, Mike Berry, remembers: "He wasn't satisfied with run-of-the-mill, ordinary sounds and oddly enough his recording studio is like a lot of today's. Many people have bedrooms and garages stuffed with recording gear. He was considered eccentric but he couldn't afford to buy or build a studio and so he did it in his flat. He had one room for the band and the singers. Joe would be in the next room and he would pop his head round the door and say, 'Ready'. He'd have three or four violinists and he'd get them to record something and ask them to do it again. They thought it was another take but he was doubling them up to get a fuller sound without them knowing it."

Because making a record cost no more than a reel of tape and electricity, Meek would take almost anyone off the street and record them. The usual stipulations were being male and good-looking, and Meek made 100 one-off recordings with artists who were never heard of again. He failed to spot the potential of both Tom Jones and Rod Stewart, but he found a common bond with Screaming Lord Sutch, and they made the ghoulish "Til The Following Night" and "Jack The Ripper".

Meek saw Mike Berry as Britain's answer to Buddy Holly and wrote his Top 10 single "Doncha Think It's Time", but Meek's songwriting skills are questionable. The record producer Derek Lawrence gained his experience from helping Meek, and noted his bizarre working practices: "Joe would take a record from the charts and sing his own song over the top of it. He'd record what he was doing so there are tapes of, say, a Freddie and the Dreamers record with Joe warbling out of tune across the top of it. He wrote his songs this way and the records themselves would turn out fine because he was working with good musicians. They could just say, 'Oh, you mean this, Joe.'"

There exists a tape of Meek doing just that to create the melody for "Telstar" in 1962. The Tornados' drummer, Clem Cattini, remembers: "He played this tape of him singing and the music didn't sound right. It had all the wrong time and key signatures and we rewrote it." The Tornados recorded the instrumental during the summer of 1962, but had to leave early for a booking in Great Yarmouth. Enter Goddard, who added eerie sounds on a clavioline, a primitive, battery-powered keyboard.

"Telstar" went to the top of the charts in both Britain and America, a unique achievement for a British beat group before The Beatles. Meek became infatuated with the Tornados' bass player, the late Heinz Burt, and according to the play, had an affair with him.

Because of the laws relating to homosexuality, Meek had to keep his private life secret. His most revealing composition is "Hey There Stranger" which he passed to a girl singer, Pamela Blue, in 1963. She sings: "Hey there, are you a stranger/ Or just a-passing through,/ I haven't seen that face before,/ Let me show you what my love can do."

John Repsch, who published a biography, The Legendary Joe Meek, in 1989, says: "Joe was gay, and that played a very important part in his creativity. Had he not been homosexual, I don't think he would have done the things he did. He was riddled with persecution and an inferiority complex. When I looked into his background, I found that his mother had wanted a girl and had brought him up as one. He was always teased when he was at school, and the musicians used to mock him for his tantrums and his West Country accent."

As he did not leave a note, it is not known why Joe Meek shot his landlady dead and then himself on 3 February 1967, the anniversary of Buddy Holly's death. There are several theories, including gangland involvement. In any event, Meek's troubles were stacking up. A French composer, Jean Ledrut, had accused Meek of plagiarism, saying that he had composed "Telstar". Although Meek was contesting the claim, the proceeds from the hit single were frozen, which made it difficult for him to keep going. To add to his problems, he was arrested for importuning in north London, and was mortified to find his name in the papers.

Telstar - The Joe Meek Story is a study in paranoia, although it does not get to grips with why Meek killed himself. He might have felt he was losing out to The Beatles and the Stones, but his later records show that he could adapt to new trends. Record producer Derek Lawrence says: "If Joe Meek were alive today, he'd be in his glory. With all the new equipment and techniques, he'd have all the machines wired up to see if he could create something new and he'd be constantly experimenting. Some of the best sounds come from rotten machines."

Cattini agrees: "We have tried to record 'Telstar' using modern equipment and we haven't got anywhere near the sound of the original. Joe Meek was definitely ahead of his time and I'm not surprised that he went the way he did. He had so much talent that he never would have died a natural death."

'Telstar - The Joe Meek Story' is at the New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2 (0870 060 6627), from 20 June

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