Joe Meek, the murderous life of a trailblazing music pioneer
1967 was one of the big years in music: The Doors released their groundbreaking self-titled debut on January 4th and, a few weeks later on January 22nd, Simon & Garfunkel blew the lid off New York’s Philharmonic Hall in what is widely regarded as one of the greatest live shows ever. Shortly after, on the 3rd of February, pioneering music producer, Joe Meek, committed a murder-suicide. Robert George ‘Joe’ Meek was an English record producer, musician, sound engineer and songwriter, he pioneered the space-age sound distinct and prevalent amidst early pop-culture, and he near enough invented experimental pop music. Despite his creative achievements, Joe Meek also killed his landlady, Violet Shenton, before turning the shotgun on himself. There was more than a little trouble in this music luminaries paradise.
Meek, as a character, resided at the confluence where talent meets with terror and shines a light on the sins of societies prejudices. It is no news to anyone that he is not alone in this regard, they’re enough examples of deeply troubled geniuses within the art world to seed a school of thought that a sump pile of madness is the integral fuel to spark the creative flame. It is a school of thought that gains a lot of credence when you consider his American counterpart, Phil Spector, also lived a life of madness, masterpieces and murder. Aside from the biographical similarities, however, Spector and Meek were very different people, whose lives were spookily entwined nevertheless.
Born on the 5th of April 1929 in Gloucestershire, England, Meek was somewhat of a childhood prodigy and, at an early age, he developed an interest in electronics and performance art. During his childhood years, he is depicted by biographers as some sort of pre-teen shed-based Thomas Edison, playing with radio’s, electric circuits and even constructing what is believed to be the Gloucestershire region’s first working television, all at the bottom of his parents garden. It is a humble setting where genius flowered and fate began to construct its prognostic ways.
He would later go on to work as a radar engineer in the Royal Air Force as part of his national service, catalysing his fascination with space, an obsession that would ultimately result in the sound for which he is primarily known and also resulted in his first big hit as a producer. Following his time with the Air Force, he went on to work at the Midlands Electricity Board where his fate was finally sealed as he acquired a disc cutter and produced his first record.
By the mid-1950s, he was working as a fully-fledged audio engineer, a personal achievement long in the making that would change the broader world of music forever. He came into the profession a unique entity amidst producers at the time. He was a scientist of the studio, a protege of sound and sonics much more-so than a student of music. As session drummer Clem Cattini recalls: “Sound-wise he was a genius, musically he was a moron.” Regardless of whether he couldn’t tell a crotchet from a croquet stick, his genius presided over an era of early British sound, and he remains an influence on the great and good of today’s studios.
It was during these early days of his production career that the Edison-like image of his childhood returned, baffling jazz musicians in bids to ‘compress sounds’ and clashing with co-producers over what they saw as futile fussing in search of unachievable perfection. If the mad scientist of sound was going to have it his way, he’d have to create his own sonic highway. His childhood laboratory was a humble shed, and now his hit-making headquarters resided in the equally humble setting of a flat 304 Holloway Road, London — the sound empire above a handbag shop.
Although the image of one of music’s most influential producers scurrying around a bedsit trying to craft the perfect timpani roll is a comic tableau, it also represented an exile and journey into a dangerously personal realm. Although RGM Sound Ltd (later Meeksville Sound Ltd), financially backed by a toy importer named Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks, might sound like the most clownish partnership and place imaginable to be making records, it was from this very bedsit studio that the British Invasion of America began. In 1962, ‘Telstar’ by The Tornado’s became the first UK number one in the States, toppling Motown off the top of the charts and heralding the sonic transition from traditional techniques to formative newfangled ways. Bob Dylan’s debut was also released in the same year and, although he would struggle with the ‘voice of a generation’ tag bestowed on him thereafter, at least he didn’t have to contend with disgruntled landlords braying their ceiling with a broom handle while trying to irrevocably change the musical landscape. Beneath the more laughable elements of this slapstick setting, however, was the brooding of a dark destiny that lay ahead. Though Meek initially retaliated to the broom bashing by placing loudspeakers in the stairwell and turning up the volume, his descent into deepening personal problems meant that this fun wouldn’t end so well.
His journey into the world of sound became so insular and personal that even The Beatles couldn’t make an impression on him. When Brian Epstein asked for his opinion on the young lads from Liverpool, he told him not to bother signing them and, similarly, gave advice on another occasion to sign a band only on the condition that they drop their lead singer, who turned out to be a 16-year-old Rod Stewart. Among the ‘tea chest’ of master tapes discovered following his death were discarded works with David Bowie, Richie Blackmore and around 1,850 more. These glaring oversights were not simply due to a lack of an eye for the main chance but were also symptomatic of the fact that his concerns were not always with the music. For instance, Meek had become fascinated with the idea of communicating with the dead via his homespun studio. He would plant recording devices by graveyards, and he once captured the fateful sound of a cat’s gentle purr, interpreting it as speaking to him in human tones, pleading for generalised help. Buddy Holly took the brunt of his beyond the grave obsession, as he believed the bespectacled songsmith was visiting him in dreams, once again delivering nondescript messages. As his mental health deteriorated, Meek became a sort of prisoner to his ramshackle studio flat, claiming aliens were substituting his speech by controlling his mind.
The underlying cause for these delusions was multifaceted; firstly he suffered from bipolar disorder, paranoia and schizophrenia, all little known conditions by today’s standards, and none of which were helped by Meek’s frequent recreational drug use, and lastly, perhaps most troubling of all, he was plagued by the fears of being a persecuted and possibly prosecuted homosexual male.
These personal issues would begin to manifest in his life and work by the mid-sixties. Session musician Cattini recalls an episode in which Meek received a phone call from Phil Spector and ended up smashing the phone – at the time an expensive device – to smithereens. He believed that the American producer was stealing his techniques either via his landlady acting as a spy for Spector and co by eavesdropping down his chimney, or that the producer had invaded his bathroom studio by supernatural means.
Outside of Holloway Road, Meek tried to disguise himself, fearing retribution from local gangsters, The Kray Twins, owing to his homosexuality, despite the fact Ronnie Kray himself was homosexual. Meek developed an intense fear they would blackmail him or steal his prised master tapes.
Whilst there is an undeniable degree of nettlesome mirth entwined with the more harrowing details of the story, it also serves as a timely reminder of the very dangerous pressures societies flawed prejudices can place on the vulnerable.
The break-down in his mental health eventually culminated in the tragic deaths of his landlady, Violet Shenton, and then himself. The shotgun that took both of their lives had been confiscated by Meek only a few weeks earlier from Torando’s bassist Heinz Burt as Meek objected to him using it for hunting while on tour. They’re no further details regarding the tragic end to a troubled life and his final despicable act.
Although the legacy of Meek’s life is indelibly marred by trouble and terror, he is also unmistakably another example of where duality becomes an essential element in assessing art, which is so often only done by half. On this occasion, there also has to be a stern assessment of the society that spawned such a troubled man and what little was done to stop his self-evident slide. However, what is preserved on record and requires much less cautiously judicious interpretation, is the sound of a man who changed music forever. He was the overdubbing pioneering who, in some ways, is where the sampling craze began. As one of Britain’s current leading producers, Paul Epsworth, declares, “He was 60 years ahead of the curve.”