Suicide or murder? The life and untimely death of Sixties pop genius Joe Meek

Joe Meek blazed a trail for studio innovation that was followed by Phil Spector and The Beatles but, as Mark Beaumont discovers, some still find his death suspicious

Thursday 03 February 2022 06:30 GMT
Joe Meek pictured in his studio
Joe Meek pictured in his studio (Leonard Joseph/Daily Mail/Shutterstock)

It’s difficult to say, in his final hours on the morning of 3 February 1967, what Joe Meek feared the most. The knock on the door from police officers investigating the “Suitcase Murder” of his friend Bernard Oliver, vowing to question all gay men in London. The Kray twins, demanding control of his biggest act The Tornados or blackmailing him over his homosexuality. The bailiffs confiscating his revolutionary home-made recording equipment to offset his snowballing debts. Decca Records or Phil Spector hiding microphones in his walls or tapping his phone to steal his ideas. The poltergeist haunting his studio. The aliens controlling his thoughts.

What’s certain is that for this visionary but disturbed production pioneer – the man who revolutionised studio recording in the pre-Beatles age, made The Tornados the first British group to hit No 1 in America with space-age 1962 instrumental “Telstar” and recorded with Gene Vincent, Tom Jones, Marc Bolan and David Bowie among many others – 3 February was a cursed day. A day of universal reckoning. Reading tarot cards with a friend early in 1958, it was the date on which this eccentric producer and keen spiritualist suddenly foresaw, in a premonition, the death of Buddy Holly; his attempts to warn the rising rock’n’roll superstar failed to prevent the plane crash that killed him on 3 February 1959. And it was exactly eight years later – and 55 years ago this week – that Meek’s world finally caved in, in shocking and violent fashion.

Wracked with paranoia, beaten down by financial collapse and tormented by delusions of spies, spectres and demonic possession – the results of both real-life misfortunes and his bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, long-term fascination in the occult and raging amphetamine and barbiturate abuse – Meek took a single-barrelled shotgun from under his bed at the studio he’d built in a flat above a leather goods shop at 304 Holloway Road in north London and, following a heated argument, shot and killed his landlady Violet Shenton, before turning the gun on himself. Or so the story goes.

“In my heart of hearts, I do not believe Joe did it,” says Peter Rochford, chairman of the Joe Meek Society, convinced that there’s far more to Meek’s death than the official account suggests. “I think there were two murders that day, not one murder and one suicide.”

It was a horrific end to one of early pop music’s most fascinating and innovative figures. That Meek both realised the studio-as-instrument philosophy years before The Beatles or The Beach Boys and struggled with intense psychological issues sprung from a deeply unconventional childhood. Born Robert George Meek but raised as a girl for his first four years by a mother who’d hoped for a daughter instead (he wore long hair and dresses until starting school, and continued dabbling in cross-dressing throughout his youth), the solitary and obsessive Meek spent much of his formative years in the market town of Newent, Gloucestershire, in the 1930s constructing his own electrical contraptions in his grandmother’s garden shed: cameras, gramophones, radios, amplifiers, tape recorders. Even the area’s first TV set, which half the town would come to wonder at.

It was a form of self-training in the magical arts of electronics which would stand him in good stead, first as a radar engineer in the RAF, then a TV repair man, a mobile DJ and ultimately, via his own experiments producing recordings of layered sound effects and local bands on a home-made disc-cutter, an engineer and producer of radio shows and jazz and swing singles in London in the mid-Fifties. Workmates at IBC Studios would describe him as ruthless, selfish, highly temperamental and a loner, protective of his processes and ideas to the degree of locking other producers out of his sessions crying “rotten pigs, trying to steal my secrets!” After all, his ear-catching innovations in compression, echo, phasing, overdubbing and manipulating distortion were striking gold. Humphrey Lyttelton’s “Bad Penny Blues” became the first jazz single to break the UK Top 20 in 1956 and, launching his own Triumph label in 1960, Meek hit the Top Ten with Michael Cox’s “Angela Jones”. Jazz producer Denis Preston would claim “Joe had a concept of sound… 10 years ahead of his time.”

“He was very ‘I will put my mark on this, you will know it’s me’,” says Rochford. “He wanted to stand out above everybody. ‘The louder the music, the more it can be heard’, that was his attitude. He divided everything up, separated everything, recorded everything separately and then had this super technique of being able to mould it all into one. His editing techniques were out of this world, it was all mixed together and boosted with echo. It was well ahead and he knew exactly what he wanted.” Often, Meek would hand-craft his own recording equipment to suit his needs, using whatever was to hand. “He built this amplifier inside the shell of an old cooker,” Rochford says, “who would have thought of that?””

Such maverick experimentation required its own devoted laboratory. In 1961, Meek rented the flat above 304 Holloway Road from Mrs Shenton and transformed it into a domesticated sort of hit factory. On the first floor he set up his office and living space, while the front bedroom acted as the main studio and vocal booth, where in-house bands such as The Tornados and The Outlaws would play drumkits set into the fireplace while Meek listened in from his control room full of home-made gadgetry in the back bedroom. Upstairs, the toilet acted as a makeshift echo chamber. Meek would mike up musicians all over the flat to separate the sounds, a technique unheard of in an era when songs were generally recorded as-live.

“When you look at guys like Lonnie Donegan, they were all shoved in one room and they all had to sit in a circle and it was recorded as one sound,” says Rochford. “With Joe, there would be musicians in the studio, there would be backing singers on the landing and there’d even be an orchestra on the stairs.”

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For several years, the hits seemed to gush out of 304 Holloway Road. Biggles actor John Leyton topped the UK charts with the haunting “Johnny Remember Me” – the first of a string of Top 20 hits Meek would produce for Leyton, Mike Berry, Heinz and The Honeycombs. The sci-fi and UFO fixation that Meek had developed during his time in the RAF had already led to his unreleased 1960 “outer space music fantasy” concept album called I Hear a New World, but in 1962 Meek woke up the morning after seeing a news report about the launch of the Telstar communications satellite with a nagging, celestial melody in his head. Recording a demo of himself wailing the tune, he had it transposed to piano, then onto the alien-sounding clavioline he’d purchased for just £40. The melody became “Telstar”, a trans-Atlantic smash for The Tornados for which Meek won an Ivor Novello award.

Joe Meek recording with The Honeycombs
Joe Meek recording with The Honeycombs (ANL/Shutterstock)

A hit-maker certainly, but Meek wasn’t the best talent spotter in the business. Hearing an early Beatles demo he told Brian Epstein not to bother signing them and he failed to fully appreciate the talents of many future famous names that recorded with him: David Bowie, Ritchie Blackmore, Marc Bolan, Status Quo. Auditioning a band called The Raiders, Meek left them in no doubt about his poor opinion of the voice of their singer, a 16-year-old Rod Stewart. “[Stewart] did three tracks on the audition and after the session Joe came in, stared him right in the eye and blew a long raspberry at him,” says Rochford. “Rod just picked up his coat and walked out.”

Mike Berry, who fronted The Outlaws and had Meek-produced hits with “Don’t You Think It’s Time” and “Tribute to Buddy Holly” over the course of 18 months at Holloway Road, saw method in Meek’s vision. “He wanted all his artists to cover the American top rock’n’rollers of the time,” he says. “A guy called Danny Rivers was his Elvis and Michael Cox was his Ricky Nelson and he wanted me for his Buddy Holly.” Those acts he did favour occasionally came in for Meek’s romantic attention. The Tornados’ bassist Heinz Burt began a relationship with him; Meek bought Burt cars and even a boat as he strived to make him a solo star with hits such as “Just Like Eddie”.

Other advances weren’t so welcome. Berry recalls The Outlaws’ Chas Hodges, later of Chas & Dave fame, being propositioned while watching wrestling on TV with Meek at the studio. “Joe was madly in love with Chas, absolutely besotted,” he recalls. “Joe was looking at the wrestling with all these half-naked blokes and he looked at Chas and said, ‘do you like wrestling, Chas?’ Chas said ‘Yeah, it’s alright’. And the next thing he knew Joe’s hand was on his crotch.”

He was living in a very difficult time for a homosexual

The Outlaws frontman Mike Berry

Tom Jones, whom Meek planned to turn into a huge star, told his bandmates that he too was groped by Meek, after a turbulent session during which Meek fired a starting pistol filled with blanks at the band to get them to play what he wanted. “I remember loading the equipment in the van outside Joe’s,” said Jones’s then bassist Vernon Hopkins, “and Tom running down the stairs shouting “he just touched my b*******! That b****** grabbed my b****!”

“He was living in a very difficult time for a homosexual,” says Berry. “It was all very closet. He used to go and importune up the road in the men’s bog.”

Meek’s long working hours and ballooning addictions to amphetamine and sleeping pills exacerbated his short temper. Whenever his landlady would hammer on the ceiling with a broom handle to complain about the noise, for example, he’d place speakers in open windows and crank up the volume. And he notoriously responded to a friendly phone call from his US counterpart Phil Spector by smashing the phone against the wall. “He picked the phone up and lost his rag with Phil Spector,” says Berry. “‘You’ve been stealing all my ideas!’ He went for the throat. Phil Spector didn’t know what hit him.”

Like many who knew Meek, Berry stresses how pleasant the producer could be unless riled. “The things that riled him and really made him lose his rag was if you criticised his artists or criticised him or his musicality – which wasn’t great – or if you asked him for money. That’s when the red mist would come down and you’d be lucky to get out with your life.”

He recalls the legendary story of The Tornados’ drummer (and future session musician on over 40 No 1 hits) Clem Cattini having an entire tape machine thrown down the stairs at him after a row with Meek: “This thing’s about as big as a tea chest, metal and full of electronics, it weighed a ton.” On another occasion Meek is said to have held a shotgun to the temple of drummer Mitch Mitchell – later of The Jimi Hendrix Experience – to get him to play a pattern better. “Another time the guitarist with The Outlaws, Bill Kuy, he had the temerity to go and ask for money,” says Berry. “‘Where’s me royalties?’ he said. And Joe saw red and threw a pair of scissors at Bill. He was lucky he didn’t kill him or blind him, the guy completely lost it. Other than that, working in the studio, he was really nice. ‘Alright boys,’ he’d go.”

Charles Blackwell, arranger of “Johnny Remember Me”, claims Meek had “a split personality. He believed he was possessed but had another side that was very polite with a good sense of humour. He was very complicated.”

‘He was very complicated’ – Charles Blackwell on Joe Meek, pictured sitting in his flat in London
‘He was very complicated’ – Charles Blackwell on Joe Meek, pictured sitting in his flat in London (Daily Mail/Shutterstock)

Indeed, by the early Sixties Meek’s childhood love of west country myths and legends – the Civil War ghosts haunting Newent streets, the witchcrafts performed by covens deep in the nearby Forest of Dean – had developed into a passion for spiritualism and the occult. Attempting to record and communicate with the dead, he’d plant microphones in graveyards, once thinking he’d captured a purring cat asking for help in a human voice. His obsession with Buddy Holly led him to hold seances to contact the late singer, believing Holly was visiting him in dreams to deliver unintelligible messages.

As his profile soared but the hits dried up, real life started invading and inflating Meek’s niggling paranoias. In 1963, he was arrested and fined £15 for cottaging at a gents’ toilet in Madras Place – “obviously a set-up,” says Rochford – making the front pages of national papers and opening him up to the possibility of blackmail, real or imagined. Around the same time his royalties from “Telstar” were frozen by a legal dispute with French composer Jean Ledrut, who claimed the melody was stolen from his soundtrack to the 1960 film Austerlitz. And according to the Joe Meek Society, the Kray twins did make underhand efforts to wrestle control of The Tornados from Meek.

“It’s beyond doubt that he was threatened by the Kray twins,” says the society’s Rob Bradford, “[Tornados’ keyboardist] Dave Watts was actually sent to see the Krays, not surprisingly crapping himself. He had to take a message to the Krays from Joe, and Joe told the Krays to ‘f*** off’. That’s indisputable, and probably not the best of moves.”

According to Bradford and others, Meek was beaten up by mobsters in his final years and, following a split with his financial backer Major Wilfred Banks, bailiffs certainly called at 304 Holloway Road in 1966. Meek’s drug-taking intensified, as did his delusions. Particularly paranoid about his ideas being stolen, he began to believe that rival record labels were bugging his studio, that Phil Spector was tapping his phone or supernaturally inhabiting his bathroom, and that his landlady was listening to his conversations through the fireplace downstairs. Shortly before his death he began to believe that aliens were controlling his thoughts, the studio was haunted by a poltergeist and that photographs in the flat were trying to communicate with him.

Joe Meek in his bedroom studio in Holloway Road, London, 1963
Joe Meek in his bedroom studio in Holloway Road, London, 1963 (Getty)

The final straw, many believe, was “the Suitcase Murder” of 16-year-old Bernard Oliver, who had been rumoured to work at Meek’s studio as a tape-stacker. Oliver had been assaulted, murdered and cut into eight pieces, his remains dumped in two suitcases in a field near Tattingstone in Suffolk. Police declared their intention to question every gay man they knew of in London, which would include Meek. Though there has never been any suggestion that Meek was linked to the murder, something snapped.

On 2 February, the day before he died, he turned up at a friend’s house dressed in black, claiming to be possessed. That night he conducted a long-promised demo session with his studio assistant Patrick Pink, communicating largely through handwritten notes because, Meek said, “they’re watching us through the walls, they’re watching and listening.” During the night he collected the single-barrel shotgun from under Patrick’s bed.

Pink’s account of the following morning had Meek waking angry and paranoid, burning documents, letters and paintings in a metal bin in the studio. Again, he communicated by note, burning them as he went. The last read: ‘I’m going now. Goodbye.’ Dismissing his tape-stackers for the day, he asked them to send Mrs Shenton up to the studio. Pink, in the office below heard Meek shouting at Shenton – “Have you got the book?” – then several loud bangs. He rushed from the office to find Shenton falling down the stairs, bullet holes “smoking” in her back. Pink raced upstairs only to witness Meek, outside his control room, reload and take his own life.

The studio apartment above AH Shenton on Holloway Road, where Joe Meek lived and died
The studio apartment above AH Shenton on Holloway Road, where Joe Meek lived and died (Getty)

Meek biopic Telstar depicted Shenton’s death as an accident, the gun misfiring following an argument over Meek’s unpaid rent. Jim Blake of the Robert George Meek Appreciation Society gave the Islington Tribune another possible sequence of events. “The pressures had sent him a bit mad,” he said. “He felt he would meet the spirit of Buddy Holly [if he killed himself]. I believe Mrs Shenton interrupted him and she tried to get the gun off him and the gun went off. What killed her is she fell down the stairs and broke her neck.”

Rochford, however, believes Shenton was caught up in a gangland hit. “I don’t blame Patrick Pink, he was a young man at the time, he’s got to protect himself, but I do believe Patrick Pink was told to say that story,” he says. “Joe did receive two threats as far as I’m aware of… There were intentions of taking Joe but unfortunately Mrs Shenton was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and she was taken care of as well.”

No one could have reached the trigger of the shotgun with the muzzle under their chin, Rochford argues, and he claims to have seen a solicitor’s letter proving that Meek wasn’t behind on his rent at the flat. He’s also suspicious that the legal case over “Telstar” concluded just three weeks after Meek’s death, finding in his favour, and the frozen royalties – worth the equivalent of £3 million today – were finally released. Meek had left his company, RGM Sounds Ltd, to Pink, who was charged with double murder. By the time the charges were dropped, the company had gone into liquidation and every penny to official receivers.

Bradford, too, has doubts about the accepted events. “There are lots of suspicions around the coroner’s courts and the police as well. It all reeks of some kind of cover-up.”

“I’d love to see Joe’s name cleared publicly,” says Rochford, “because I strongly believe that he was a victim that day, as poor Mrs Shenton was.” His legacy? “He showed people that you don’t need this great big building [and] thousands and thousands of pounds. He proved that you could do it in just a bedroom. There’s hundreds and thousands of independents doing it these days and Joe was doing it 60 years ago.”

Whatever the truth, the fact of Meek’s pioneering talent as the first independent music producer is undeniable. Not least since almost 2,000 reels of unreleased music recorded by Meek, purchased for £300 at his estate sale in 1967 and known as the Tea Chest Tapes, are being restored and scoured for treasures to be released on Cherry Red Records, starting with a 10-inch version of “Telstar” in July. “There is so much material here, far more than anybody has ever realised,” says Bradford, who is working on the project and expects to uncover David Bowie’s debut recording, playing saxophone with his early band The Konrads, tapes of Marc Bolan when he was still performing as Marc Feld aged 15, unheard sessions with Ray Davies and Gene Vincent and possibly even the ill-fated Rod Stewart audition. Meek’s music will out, even if the truth about his death may never be known.

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