Joe Meek and Telstar's tragic tale

Joe Meek was Britain's Phil Spector, and now his tormented life will be told on film

Geoffrey Macnab
Saturday 18 April 2009 00:00 BST

On a shabby part of the Holloway Road in north London, just a few hundred yards from Arsenal's Emirates Stadium, is the flat where record producer Joe Meek used to live and work. On a wet April morning, you can barely see the plaque which commemorates his presence: "The Telstar Man ... Lived, Worked and Died Here." It is emblazoned on the wall between the Holloway Express Grocery Store and the Titanic Café and Restaurant (noted for its "all day English breakfasts").

Standing in front of 304 Holloway Road in the rain, you can't quite believe that in this scruffy-looking building, the Tornados recorded "Telstar" – Margaret Thatcher's favourite piece of music and the first single by a British group to reach number one in the US. (You certainly don't feel that you are at Graceland.)

Later this summer, Nick Moran's movie Telstar, about Meek's short and troubled life, is released in British cinemas. This is just one of a number of books, documentaries, plays and even songs about him that have appeared since his suicide. Meek, who died in 1967, would have been 80 this month. He is often called Britain's very own Phil Spector, a compliment that seems both apt and very barbed given that Spector has just been convicted of murder. Students of morbid coincidence in rock and roll history will already no doubt have noted the grisly fact that Phil Spector shot Lana Clarkson dead on 3 February 2003. It was on 3 February that Meek killed his landlady and subsequently turned his gun on himself. It was also on 3 February that Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959. Perhaps this really is the day that the music died.

It is not hard to understand why Meek's own story has so obsessed film-makers and artists. His biography reads like something out of a Joe Orton play. It has all the elements – sex, death and rock'n'roll mixed with plentiful dollops of British eccentricity. Moran first had the idea for making Telstar (which he first wrote as a play) after catching a taxi on the Holloway Road one drunken evening in the mid-1990s and noticing that incongruous plaque above No 304. Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" was built in Hollywood recording studios with the most elaborate equipment imaginable. Meek, by contrast, created "Telstar" in his cramped north London flat. He wasn't exactly using pots and pans (Meek was an electronics wizard who had worked in the RAF as a radar operator) but he certainly didn't have the resources at Spector's disposal.

"He was short of money and he did the best he could with the money he had," says solicitor Ken Ledran, the current chairman of the Joe Meek Appreciation Society. Meek soundproofed the flat, put in acoustic curtains and put rubber between the floorboards.

One of Meek's recording artists, Screaming Lord Sutch, used to tell stories about recording conditions inside304 Holloway Road. In the cramped little flat, there would be a bass player on the stairs. Meek would be at his homemade controls. The guitarist would be strumming away in the front room. The vocalist would be somewhere else and – to round it off – extra percussion would be provided by somebody stamping up and down in the bathroom. (It was little wonder that Meek's rivals were never able to work out quite how he achieved his sound.)

The early part of Moran's film captures the cheery chaos that characterised Meek's working methods. Adding to the Goons-like feel of recording sessions was the occasional presence of Meek's business partner, Major Banks. In the film, he is played to tweedy perfection by Kevin Spacey as the kind of patrician Englishman who judges a man by his posture and by the firmness of his handshake. His landlady (Pam Ferris), meanwhile, is a bustling, maternal figure who clucks around him and seems extraordinarily indulgent of his foibles, just as long as she is made cups of tea and gets to meet the minor celebrities who used to flock to the Holloway Road flat. At times, at least before the tragic denoument, Meek is almost a Tony Hancock to her Hattie Jacques.

This was the era just before the Beatles. Meek knew the Beatles' manager Brian Epstein but rejected the chance of working with them. ("He [Epstein] has got this Merseybeat combo. They're rubbish," we hear Meek say in Telstar as he throws their demo tape in the bin.) Like Epstein, he was a gay man in a society in which homophobia was rife.

Actor Con O'Neill (who also played Joe Meek on stage) excels as the tormented record producer. His high-pitched voice still has a pronounced West Country twang. He is a driven, febrile figure, prone to tantrums but not without charm as he cajoles his musicians around his flat and tries to capture the elusive sound that will make his records special.

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Much of the film is given to chronicling his relationship with Heinz Burt, the German-born singer and bass player who became his protégé and lover. As played by J J Feild, Burt is a preening, narcissistic figure of only moderate ability. Meek, obsessed by the 1960 horror film Village of the Damned, persuaded him to dye his hair blond. Like Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, Meek was determined to transform Heinz Burt. He lavished money on him and tried to make him into a star but fans stubbornly resisted.

Another key theme in Telstar is Meek's preoccupation with spiritualism. Together with songwriter Geoff Goddard, the producer had the strong conviction that his best work was influenced by spirits from the "other side". His fascination with the occult seems comical at first but as he descends into madness and depression, it takes on a much more morbid hue.

In keeping with its subject matter, Telstar is a film made against the odds. Moran first announced his plans to make the film way back in 2002, still flush with the success as an actor a few years before in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but only when Simon Jordan (the chairman of Crystal Palace football club) came on board as producer five years later did it finally go in front of the cameras.

"I edited the film in my London flat. Just like Meek turned his living room into a recording studio, I made my kitchen an edit suite," Moran commented when Telstar screened at the Rotterdam Festival recently. "Legendary" is a term that is often flung in front of Meek's name, as if to atone for the relative obscurity into which he has fallen. For all the zealotry of his fans (who range from novelist Jake Arnott to Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand), and in spite of the efforts of documentary makers and Joe Meek societies, he is not that well known. Telstar may have sold millions of copies but once the Beatles came along, Meek began to seem a little old-fashioned.

In some ways, Meek was early British rock'n'roll's version of the great British boffin. Beavering away with his speakers and microphones in his Holloway Road flat, he wasn't that different from visionary scientists such as Barnes Wallis, the inventor who came up with the bouncing bomb in The Dam Busters.

"The other side is the gay thing," suggests Anthony Wall, who produced a 1991 Arena documentary on Meek. "He was very much another example of someone in a managerial position in relation to young lads from the lower orders who suddenly found that they were given new names. It's very interesting that he and Brian Epstein and Joe Orton all died within four months of each other in 1967 – all of them because of factors arising directly or indirectly from the difficulties they had being who they were."

Telstar will be released this summer

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