Telstar: The Weird and Wonderful World of Joe Meek

If you’re not aware of Joe Meek, you are in for a treat. This guy was a pioneer, one of the most influential sound engineers of the fifties and sixties. He worked with stars and turned out some serious hit records.

But it’s his personal life that’s so fascinating, unsettling and, at times, downright bizarre.

Don’t just take my word for it. Since his death there have been several documentaries made about him, plus a stage play that was adapted into a feature film starring Kevin Spacey and Pam Ferris. Plenty of artists (including Frank Black, Dave Stewart, Sheryl Crow and Swing Out Sister among many others) have written songs inspired by his life.

The Swing Out Sister reference is my personal favourite — they included a short instrumental called Joe Meek’s Cat on their 1997 album Shapes and Patterns. It was inspired by Meek’s ghost-hunting expeditions to Warley Lea Farm, where he is said to have made recordings of a talking cat who was possessed by the spirit of the farm’s former owner.

A talking cat possessed by a ghost.

And this isn’t even the most interesting story about Meek.

Let’s rewind a little.

Meek was born in the New Forest and spent his youth knocking together circuits and radios in his parents’ garden shed. Already he showed signs of being a little different to your standard neighbourhood nerd — urban legend claims he constructed the region’s first working television.

Meek was a radar technician in the RAF for some years before he started working for a radio production company in London as an audio engineer. His inventive recording methods started generating hits and his career rocketed.

Here’s one of his first successes — the Humphrey Lyttelton track Bad Penny Blues. Meek’s compression of the piano sound was groundbreaking at the time.

He went on to work with some of the biggest artists of the era, household names like Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Gene Vincent, Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan, and Lonnie Donnegan.

Although he was undeniably a genius engineer, Meek’s musical spidey-senses were pretty shocking. He famously told Brian Epstein not to bother with the Beatles, and stated he would only work with The Moontrekkers if they binned off their rubbish singer, Rod Stewart. They dutifully did.

Song-wise he’s probably most famous for writing and producing the Tornados song Telstar, which was number one for five weeks in the UK in October 1962. It’s known for being the first single by a UK group to take the number one spot on the US billboard charts — and for being Margaret Thatcher’s favourite song.

Take a listen. Recognise it?

Playwright and director Nick Moran describes the man who inspired him to write Telstar: The Joe Meek Story as “a speed-addicted, devil-worshipping, tone-deaf Gloucester farmhand who built a little recording studio over a shop, and made one of the biggest-selling records of all time”. Possibly a little sensationalist, but it’s also true.

The studio Moran’s talking about was on Holloway Road, a cramped flat littered with leads, wires and other strange contraptions Meek used for creating his echo and reverb effects— some as basic as a spring on a plank of wood. There was just enough room for bands to squeeze inside to do their thing. Sometimes they’d put somebody in the bathroom to stamp up and down, adding extra percussion.

Unbelievably, Meek recorded three UK number one singles in the flat — including Telstar — and many more hits besides. All the while dealing with the ire of his neighbours who would bash on the floor with a broom on a regular basis to tell him to shut up. Meek responded by pointing his speakers down the stairwell and cranking the volume.

image: geograph.org.uk

The “devil-worshipping” phase is where things start to get really weird and slightly tragic. A huge fan of (everybody’s favourite satanist) Aleister Crowley, Meek became increasingly obsessed with the occult as the years went by. He was fascinated with the idea of communicating with the dead, setting up tape recorders in graveyards to capture their voices. He was determined to contact the spirit of his hero, Buddy Holly.

Meek’s speed addiction and worsening mental health played in tandem to his ghost-fixation and things quickly started to spiral out of control. He experienced psychotic delusions and was highly unpredictable, once holding a loaded gun to Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell’s head for an entire take to give his playing a little more edge. He also became convinced that his landlady was eavesdropping on him through the chimney.

Meek’s paranoia increased as life seemed to close in around him. He was fairly broke anyway, but then got sued by French composer Jean Ledrut, who accused him of plagiarising his work for the Telstar melody. It meant Meek couldn’t even take royalties from his biggest success.

He was also a gay man in a homophobic world — homosexuality was still an illegal act at the time he was alive. Meek was terrified that he would be outed as gay and lived in constant fear of his parents finding out.

On 3rd February 1967, eight years to the day after his hero Buddy Holly died, Meek got into yet another fight with his landlady Violet Shenton about the noise levels and the amount he owed in back rent. He shot her with a single barrelled shotgun — belonging to the Tornados bass player Heinz Burt, Meek’s protégé and lover. Meek then turned the gun on himself.

Three weeks after his death, the Telstar lawsuit was settled in Meek’s favour. A tragedy within a tragedy.

But what a remarkable story.

This post is part of the #write52 project, a writing initiative to encourage lazy writers like me to bust out some content instead of sitting around nursing a hangover and eating Seabrooks lattice crisps (8/10 would recommend). Credit to my dad for inspiring this post with his knowledge of sixties pop trivia.

Write52 now has its own twitter account, run by the esteemed Ed Callow and you can sign up for the newsletter right here.

What, me? I’m Penny Brazier, a freelance writer who is now planning to watch Telstar: The Joe Meek Story this weekend. Here is my Twitter where I like to procrastinate and here is my Instagram which isn’t much better.

--

--

--

Copywriting | Content Strategy | Comms

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

The Today of Music: Online Musical Notes

Noname Is the Physical Manifestation of Happiness (Live Review)

As Hamilton said, “Work! Work!”

In the mind: R Kelly

Hip-Hop Gives Chinese Dialects Fresh Expression

This One Guy’s Opinion About Music Still Blows My Mind

How Long Can I Listen to The White Stripes Without Losing My Mind?

Why the hate with Park Jimin

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Penny Brazier

Penny Brazier

Copywriting | Content Strategy | Comms

More from Medium

Accor: UK spend on travel set to increase

Social Media in Today’s Environmental Activism

Game of Thrones Season 8: What went right?

Knicks Stun Heat and St Peter’s Continues Stunning NCAA Tourne