Not much is known about Bernard Oliver. This London worker, only 17 years old, disappeared at the end of December 1966, but his body was not found until the beginning of January 1967, cut into eight pieces. Quickly, the police address the public, saying that they will carry out interrogations within the homosexual community of the English capital.
When he learns this, Joe Meek panics. In the grip of severe mental disorders, he swears that the authorities will come to arrest him. He has nothing to do with this murder, but his paranoia is put to the test. He locks himself in his apartment at 304 Holloway Road, transformed into a recording studio, rehashing his delusions. On February 3, 1967, one of his assistants and friends, Patrick Pink, tried to talk to him. But the door remains closed.
Without a clue, he smokes a cigarette in the street with Violet Shelton, the landlady of the apartment who lives downstairs. She is determined to kick Joe Meek out. She climbs the stairs in turn, and pronounces, without knowing it, her last words: “Calm down, Joe!” She receives two shotgun bullets in the body. Then Joe Meek turns the gun on himself. He was 37 years old.
Phil Spector better
This is the tragic outcome of a tormented life, between genius and resignation, between madness and success. Joe Meek was, in the early 1960s, one of the most prominent sound engineers of the new English rock scene of the time. By developing a sound that many observers will qualify “from beyond the grave”he was a sort of discreet and subtle English counterpart to Phil Spector, the star American producer of the sixties.
Joe Meek, he worked more in the economy, in more rudimentary, more cerebral conditions. However, both have in common an innovative technical side and a propensity for delirium and violence. Phil Spector lived to be 81. Joe Meek was not so lucky.
Born on April 5, 1929 in Newent near Gloucester, a few kilometers from the southern border between England and Wales, Joe Meek never knew how to read music or play an instrument. On the other hand, electronics, waves and radars fascinate him. As a child, he was passionate about these areas, explored them as an amateur during adolescence, worked for a time at the Royal Air Force, and ended up being hired by the local electricity network company.
It is there that he borrows without authorization some tools and materials to satisfy his true passion: sound engineering. He changes jobs and works for a time as a technician for a local radio station. It allows you to eat your fill, to pay the bills. And to realize his dream: to produce records.
He participated in the development and recording of the success “Bad Penny Blues” by Humphrey Lyttleton, released in 1956 and which, it seems, will be the main inspiration for the title “Lady Madonna” of the Beatles twelve years later. The characteristic, compressed piano sound is his work. Already, Joe Meek is struggling to manage his emotions. He feels permanently cheated, persecuted. He is homosexual, some say it shows, see it as a reason to mock and discredit him. Reality and paranoia already coexist in him.
Above all, he was an outstanding technician, totally focused on electronics and the sound itself, and had, according to several of his collaborators at the time, a tendency to put these aspects of the job before any musical consideration. A peculiarity, almost an obsession, which will be summed up a few years later by Clem Cattini, his favorite drummer during the 1960s: “Sound-wise, he was a genius. Musically, he was a moron.” He falls out with his colleagues and launches into the production of jazz and calypso titles.
In 1961, Joe Meek, who had become a successful independent producer, moved to 304 Holloway Road, London. He set up his studio there, between DIY and expertise, all at the service of a singular sound that would deeply mark the canons of English production in the sixties. He first set up his own label, Triumph Records, but ended the adventure after a year. His great achievement is to have created The Tornados, a handful of session musicians who play on the majority of his productions, including drummer Clem Cattini and a bassist named Heinz Burt, who will have a decisive importance in the life by Joe Meek.
At 304 Holloway Road, one of the most important pages of English music from the early 1960s will be written. After the failure of Triumph Records, Joe Meek creates RGM Records. You should know that at the time, launching independent labels of this kind was far from common. But the free spirit and the experimental tendencies of the boss of the place had to have a field of expression worthy of the name, free from the strict constraints posed by the major record companies.
He installs the string quartets in the bathroom of his apartment, the windows of which he blocks to perfect the acoustics, to the great displeasure of his landlady, Violet Shelton. She suffers, not without protest, the incessant noise of the recording sessions. The first success of RGM Records is the title “Johnny Remember Me” by John Leyton, which reached number one in sales in August 1961.
In a video shot at the time, a scopitone, we certainly see the singer and his choristers sing this tune, a bit western with an assertive sound depth, and Joe Meek, at work in the studio. He appears clean on him, focused but smiling. Off camera, however, things are much more complex.
Joe Meek is sensitive, unstable. In his lair, he develops his sound obsessions, but also psychic ones. Totally whimsical, he builds a universe made of machines, flesh and bone at his service, which he pampers, of course, but which he also abuses very often. His very limited musical knowledge poses some problems: he struggles to explain to his musicians what they should play, throws anger, and cultivates a certain frustration.
Totally devoted to the search for a singular sound, he even refused the offer of Brian Epstein, manager of the very young Beatles, to work for the liverpuldian group. In the middle of this organized chaos, more than 500 songs will be recorded. Among them, “Telstar”. A huge commercial hit released in 1962 by The Tornados, his session band that became a full-fledged band.
The trial of too many
“Telstar” is entirely instrumental. Revolutionary by its futuristic, psychedelic aspect before its time and by its superpositions of gently saturated guitar sounds and clavioline (a synthesizer created in 1947), it explores new musical tracks, straight out of the foggy brain of Joe Meek. At the same time, the latter fell deeper into madness, but also fell in love with his bassist Heinz Burt, whom he pushed to go solo.
Haunted by the idea that the major record companies are trying to steal his production secrets, he is also terrified that his homosexuality will be revealed. When in 1963, he was caught by the police in the middle of a relationship with a man in a public toilet, his fears became very real. And stronger still.
Independent, Joe Meek keeps his business at arm’s length. The success of “Telstar” allows him to secure his back, to give solid foundations to RGM Records. But a famous French film music composer, Jean Ledrut, recognizes the melody of the piece. It is in many respects similar to that of his piece “La Marche d’Austerlitz”, recorded in 1960 for the film Austerlitz by director Abel Gance.
The trial is not long in coming, the income is stopped dead. After his death, Joe Meek will win his case. Too late. This blow to his finances and his balance has the effect of making him sink even more into his delirium. Gradually, the members of The Tornados left 304 Holloway Road. In 1965, all the original musicians were replaced.
At the end of madness
It was in the mid-1960s that Joe Meek definitively linked his sound research to his unmistakable madness. He sometimes wanders in cemeteries, installs microphones there in order, he says, to capture the singing of the dead. When he listens to the tapes again and hears a cat meowing, he is convinced that one of them is calling and communicating with him.
One day, when Heinz Burt’s career had taken off, Joe Meek went on tour with him. In the bus that takes them from scene to scene, a shotgun accompanies them. Heinz uses it to shoot birds, which annoys Joe Meek. The latter confiscates the weapon and stores it at his home. Forced to hide his sexuality, he frequents places sheltered from persecution by the authorities.
Some ill-intentioned people take advantage of this underground and isolated life to blackmail him, to extract money from him. In 1966, he no longer leaves his apartment. Drugs accompany his last sound experiences, badly experienced by his landlady Violet Shelton. Until February 3, 1967, the date of the ultimate tragedy.
Shortly after his death, Cliff Cooper, bassist of the band The Millionaires produced by Joe Meek, goes to the apartment to retrieve studio equipment. He wants to train in sound engineering and has a treasure at his disposal. He certainly finds priceless machines, but also a large number of recorded tapes. He acquires these for the sum of 300 dollars [265 euros, ndlr]and keeps them for fifty years.
In January 2021, fifty-four years after the death of Joe Meek, Cliff Cooper joined forces with the English label Cherry Red, specializing in reissues, to digitize the tapes. On these, there are songs recorded by Gene Vincent, Ritchie Blackmore (future guitarist of Deep Purple), Jimmy Page (who will found Led Zeppelin), David Bowie or Marc Bolan.
If any doubts still existed about the reputation of the 304 Holloway Road studio and the talents of Joe Meek, they are eclipsed for good. Violet Shelton, his victim, is forgotten, little information about his life having survived the legend and the genius of his killer.