Joe Meek - a portrait
Part 6: Being Meek
Meek's personality was extreme and excentric in severals aspects. The previous chapters already showed this. But excentrics have a great tradition in Britain, and besides this, a lot of stuff that can be found about Meek is unproven or overstated. In the following you'll find some remarks about a couple of subjects coming up constantly.
Under normal circumstances Meek was a friendly guy who remained reserved as long as he didn't know how to rate his counterpart. He always was dressed immaculately, his suits were perfect, nobody ever saw him wearing jeans, his hair was well-cut with a perfect quiff. Meek sometimes shaved up to five times a day, he always trailed an intensive cloud of aftershave, and if someone paid close attention he could note that Meek used facial powder and decent eye make-up (which he later usually hid behind sunglasses).
As a child, Meek had performed theater plays of his own making with the neighbour's children; whenever possible, he himself played the princess. Of course his classmates bantered him about that, as well as his brothers did. That's why Meek more and more backed out into his own fantasy world - and into the shed his granny had placed at his disposal. Soon he began to tinker with electronics there; he never ran out of ideas.
Tea cups and distrust
Meek had a good sense of humor, and if he trusted someone, he was known for being a sort of snickerpuss; self-mockery indeed was not just his strong point. But he didn't trust most people, and it was this distrust (which probably always had been there latently) that made it hard to deal with him. He always lived under the suspicion the competitors were going to steal his ideas, he never lost this fear, it grew with every year. In addition to this there was his impulsitivity that often passed into waywardness. And there was a remarkable lack of self control (something that apparently several members of the then Meek family had in common with him). If he didn't like somebody or was unable to push through his will against co-workers or musicians, he had a very short fuse. He could get not only loud then, he was able to throw anything from tea cups to tape reels or whatever else was in reach. And if finally all this didn't help, he sometimes burst into tears.
It's quite clear that these were disturbing factors at IBC studios and also later during Meek's Lansdowne time. If he had to leave the control room for some reason, he often covered the slider positions on the mixing desk - somebody could have taken a picture during his absence. Because he feared to be overheard or watched by competitors, he tamped keyholes or used a contact microphone at the wall to check whether somebody was in the next room listening. There are several reports about incidents like these, and it's quite clear that no employer could accept this behavior in the long run. (It has to be said anyways that Meek's boss at IBC couldn't stand him and bullied him over and over again in presence of co-workers with silly instructions and impertinent comments.)
But when there are biographies or blogs claiming that Meek broke a partition wall by throwing a typewriter, or that he threw a heavy tape recorder through a window and by hairbreadth missed drummer Clem Cattini who was leaving 304, or that again and again he broke down doors, destroyed pieces of furniture in excessive fits of rage, or threw the complete equipment of bands down the stairwell - then we are well advised to attribute this to the world of fairytales.
Also into the land of fairytales belongs the recurrent statement that music producer and pop composer Joe Meek was "tone deaf". That sounds funny and would be wonderfully curious, but: Is it seriously imaginable that someone being tone deaf could have the inner ear to write more than 200 songs?
The only truth in this seems to be that Meek simply couldn't sing. And his - indeed strange - demo singings appear in a different light if one keeps in mind what they were made for. Meek, as several other pop composers, didn't play any instruments and wasn't able to write music. To make note of an idea there was no other way for him but singing it onto a tape. As background music he usually used records or backing tapes just lying around, without paying attention to their harmonic structures, and so his melodies often didn't match with the harmonies. But finally in most cases it becomes clear what his idea was - clear enough at least that his preferred arrangers Ivor Raymonde or Charles Blackwell or his studio buddies Dave Adams or Geoff Goddard were able to sit down with him at the piano, listen to the recordings, find the melody lines he meant and develop the correct harmonies.
Whoever is going to mock Meek's strange singing (or adds it as bonus track to CDs) may keep in mind that these tapes were simply acoustic notebooks and as such part of a multi-level working process. Neither were they meant to be heard by ears outside the studio nor to be used for public funtainment.
Meek's acoustical and musical imagination was excellent, that's for sure. Especially when it came to transposition and modification of sounds by tape manipulation, he was in full cry - his ability to imagine how any given recording would sound when played backwards and at half speed is nothing to sneeze about. He was able as well to analyse the acoustic of any given room just by looking closely at it, no matter it was a studio or a marquee. He must have seen quasi three-dimensionally how sound waves would dispread in this room and was able to deduce from this imagination where to place which microphones best.
Buddy Holly, Ouija-Boards and police
As a child, Meek was a dreamer, and also as an adult he always had his head somewhere up in the clouds. Already in his younger days he was convinced to die an unnatural death until being 40. He loved death songs, space- and horror movies. And he believed in the truth of the tarot. In fall 1957, the tarot cards told him that his big idol Buddy Holly was going to die on February 3rd. He trusted so firmly in this prophecy that with great probability he sent a warning message to Holly. It's attested that Meek spent February 3, 1958, seriously concerned and didn't calm down until it became clear in the evening that Holly was still alive. Right on the day one year later, on February 3, 1959, he heard on the news that Buddy Holly had died in a plane crash, and his shock was so much the worse. For several days he ran around completely headless, then he draw the conclusion that obviously he was a medium.
Meek never got under way from this belief. The before mentioned skiffle musician Jimmy Miller introduced him to séances and the usage of the ouija board; every couple of weeks he went to see a fortune teller. From his IBC time there's the story that Meek, when he had to work there alone late at night, head over heals ran out of the building, leaving the equipment on and the door unlocked, because he felt deadly scared by a ghost coming up the wooden spiral staircase. With his spiritistic soul brother Geoff Goddard (who was even more serious about the world of ghosts) he tried to contact deceased people; at séances they consulted Ramesses The Great, singer Al Jolson and - of course - Buddy Holly for the hit chances of Meek's latest recordings. From time to time they took a tape recorder and went to a cemetery to record voices of the dead. Goddard told the press that the inspiration for his successful composition Johnny Remember Me came to him from the other side (singer John Leyton was not just too happy about being publicly connected with ghost-seeing); besides this, the both of them were convinced that soon visitors from outer space would come to planet Earth. Goddard musically groomed the mankind for this event with his wonderful strange record Sky Men from 1963:
Meek himself had stated his belief in extraterrestrial life already in 1960 with his "space fantasy" I Hear A New World (more about it here).
And neither law nor restrictive police operations of the 1950s and 1960s could stop Meek from being gay. Nothing about this is known exactly, but probably it was during his military time that he fully awakened to this. Usually he didn't make a big secret about it if he trusted someone, but at that time homosexuality was banned by law in Great Britain and a punishable offence up to 1967. This of course affected Meek's life; in detail it will be dealt with later on.
Uppers & Downers
From 1960 to 1966 Meek produced about 700 music recordings. Circa 250 of them he composed himself and wrote the lyrics (a detailed chart see here). First, as depicted above, he had to record his demos, then the demos had to be made into valid recordings, and these recordings again had to be sold to record labels and to be promoted to the radio stations. In addition he had to do the management for several of his artists. In short: Meek worked like obsessed, and he did it for years.
About this he got into amphetamine, also called "speed". The most widespread compounds at that time were Dexedrin and Preludin, both available as "slim pills" over the counter. Meek was a bit corpulent, and like many people in the early 1960s, he used them just to get rid of some kilos. But apparently they also helped to increase performance and concentrativeness, and so he came to rest upon them. It didn't take long until slowly but surely the well-known vicious circle started: He took uppers to get awake in the morning or for long recording sessions, and downers (suppressants) to calm down at night. As we will see, the consequences didn't take long to appear.
Booze and other drugs
Meek didn't smoke, and apart from his abuse of uppers and downers there are no signs that he tended to heavy boozing or drugging. He was no anti-alcoholic, but there are no reports about him being tanked up very often.
But there's musician Tony Grinham. In an article by music journalist John McCready he says that Meek entrusted him with an apparently bad LSD trip on which he saw himself lost on a raft somewhere on the ocean. - Apart from this sort of sledgehammer metaphore: Meek and LSD? Does this really go together?
It's assumed that from around 1964 every so often somebody happened to keep LSD with him into the studio, anything else would simply be unrealistic. So it may be possible indeed that Meek gave it a try. If this was the case then probably it did him no big favour because at that time his psychic state wasn't at the best anymore. But McCready's article adds something more: Meek apparently had moments of absence when he simply stared into the air for several minutes, and McCready tries to explain these moments also with LSD trips. With all due fantasy, this is not very realistic - simply for that reason alone that hallucinogenic drugs and concentrated work don't go well together. (In view of his behaviour and his speed habits one could see Meek much more as a coke user, but there are no reports about that.) But finally, as there is no second source confirming Meek's alleged LSD consumption, we don't know anyway.
Gun nut Meek?
Every now and then there are articles or blog entries describing Meek as manic "gun nut". Especially this appears in stories comparing Meek and Phil Spector. Mainly this is based on two incidents.
One incicdent is set in 1965 and told by keyboard player Dave Watts in John Repsch's Meek biography; also journalist John McCready mentiones it in his "Mojo" article: When drummer Mitch Mitchell played a drum sequence a couple of times too wild during a recording session, Meek, inflamed with rage, suddenly held a shotgun against Mitchell's head, screaming: "If you don't do it properly, I'll blow your fucking head off!"
Of course this story appeared promptly (and intensified) in 2005 in Nick Moran's stage play "Telstar" and was carried tearfully into his 2008 movie. But we can confidently forget about this: In a letter to the Mojo editor Mitchell made immediately clear that this incident never happened.
The second gun story is about a starting pistol lying around for anyone to see in the studio. It is mentioned in a couple of reports, the newest so far comes from singer Tom Jones who said in a BBC talk in March 2009 that Meek threatened him with this pistol. Also Vernon Hopkins, bass player in Jones' then band The Senators, claims in an interview with "Wales Online" that Meek held him at gunpoint with a pistol which later turned out to be a starting pistol.
We can be sure that Meek wasn't serious about this, but apparently - for what reason ever - he went too far in this very recording session. Tom Jones (and even more his bass player who talks of "gun terror") may dramatize the story, but there's no reason to impute that they made it up. Meek probably wasn't aware of it, but his reputation was not the best anymore at this time; often he was described as wayward and explosive, and that was what Jones knew about him. So when suddenly he had to look into a muzzle, he probably was frightened to death, as well as his bass player.
In addition there are statements that this starting pistol can be heard on at least one demo recording from the t-chest tapes (more about these tapes here). Indeed "Thunderbolt", the Joe Meek Society magazine, claims that Meek never had a starting pistol. But there's no evidence named for this (and it's in the nature of things that such an evidence is hard to imagine). In general, a starting pistol or a blank pistol wouldn't be a too surprising finding in a sound recording studio; most studios in the pre-sampling era had noise instruments of all kinds.
Meek himself, as far as we know, never owned a real gun. There is of course no proof for this, but there are musicians and collaborators who, by their own statements, never saw a gun in the studio and don't remember Meek ever talking about guns or their use. The wild shooting at the beginning of Ambush by The Outlaws (May 1962) was recorded from television. And it's well known that Meek hanged loudspeakers into the cherry trees in his parent's garden to choo away the birds acoustically to keep them away from being shot by his brothers.
Meek's temporary flatmate Heinz (more on him in the following chapter) was a hobby rifleman and had a shotgun. But apparently he used it quite responsible; if he wanted to hunt (clay) pigeons or rabbits, he asked the farmers or foresters for permission, and there's evidence that he never left his shotgun unattended. So it's hardly assumable that this shotgun was lying around in the studio, available for everyone. (Wikipedia claims that Meek "confiscated" the gun to prevent Heinz from taking it along on a concert tour and shooting birds.)
However, when Heinz moved out in 1965, he forgot this shotgun. But even then the gun didn't lie about in the studio for anyone to see; Meek kept it in his private rooms in the upper floor under his bed. His studio assistant Patrick Pink said he didn't even know that this shotgun was in the house (which means, by the way, that the sequence in Nick Moran's "Telstar" movie when Pink kicks Heinz out of 304 with Heinz' own gun is all made up). There are no reports that Meek used or even fetched the shotgun earlier than in February 1967, and he had no ammunition for it as well.
"They need me, I don't need them."
At latest in 1965, Meek had to battle against the fact that more and more the record companies lost their interest in his productions. But the more this became obvious, the more he became obsessed with the above saying. This way of overestimating himself is typically for Meek. On the other hand, many people who had to do with Meek mention his spontanteous helpfulness and his generosity. That Meek financially as well as ideally supported people released from prison is widely unknown. And the few people who knew him for a longer time usually liked him very much, despite all his quirks, obsessions and his waywardness. Meek was a walking contradiction.
Except for some short moments, there was probably never a time in his life when he was really happy. The love that was shown to him wasn't the love he was looking for, and the love he was looking for he never found. That's why for all his lifetime he more and more trailed away in the creative chaos he generated. It's not a good idea to read his lyrics as a sort of diary, but sometimes one can hear his increasing despair in lyrics like, for example, Loneliness, recorded in December 1962 with Mike Berry & The Outlaws and released as a flip side:
It's not possible to name the exact moment, but at some point of time his suspiciousness, his mood swings and his choleric outbursts became so heavy and so absurd that finally even the most well-meaning companions wasn't able to tolerate them any longer. Besides this, his imagination of competitors bugging his studio to steal his ideas became an idée fixe. In the end all people in the studio had to stop talking about important things and use notepads instead.
Strange, irritating behavior, for sure. But is it admissible and justified anyway to describe Meek as "mentally ill", as Barry Cleveland in his Meek biography does? Wasn't it simply the long-lasting abuse of uppers and downers and the extreme performing pressure Meek used to inflict upon himself? At least I for my part would be careful with such an attribution.
Sources see chapter 13
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© 2006 Jan Reetze
last update: March 25, 2014