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Will the Meek Inherit at Last?

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ON 3 February 1967 Robert George 'Joe' Meek ended one of the most extraordinary stories in popular music with a shotgun – killing Violet Shenton, landlady of the world's most unlikely hit factory, at the same time.

Forty years on, Meek's extraordinary life and undoubted sonic achievements will come under the spotlight as never before with a biopic and documentary feature focusing on the troubled life of 'The Telstar man'.

As part of a series of programs commemorating the 40th anniversary of The Wolfenden Report – which legalized homosexuality in the United Kingdom – BBC Four kicked off the Meek inheritance with a reshowing of the excellent Arena documentary based on John Repsch's definitive biography The Legendary Joe Meek.

The Arena show was my own accidental introduction to Meek and a genuine piece of serendipity.

At home on study leave I was watching test match cricket on telly, or would have been had the rain not intervened. As I flicked between the channels I did a double-take when BBC2, forced to fill a weather wrecked schedule with repeats, showed a lingering shot of a signpost to my home town, Newent. Naturally I stayed tuned and had my first introduction to our most fabled son, his enormous unprecedented talent and his tragic and equally out-of-control personal life.

Watching the show again was sad. A parade of disappointed people, most, at the very least eccentric and brought up short on the fringes of real success. Spiritualist and co-writer Geoff Goddard is a lively and open contributor illuminating the Holloway Road recording process and Joe's obsession with Buddy Holly, whose death he believes he predicted and, indeed, tried to warn Holly of danger.

Goddard's finest achievement (and my Meek favorite) must be the extraordinary Johnny Remember Me, the perfect conjunction of a hugely melodramatic lyric, voices from beyond the grave and a perfectly pitched production.

Joe's brothers Eric and Arthur are the stars, however, mourning a brother who they seem to have had trouble understanding.   

Joe was gay; that is a possibility Eric and Arthur, almost certainly reflecting the standards of rural little Newent in the 1940s and 1950s, are unable to entertain. 
He was 'an indoor boy' they explain, and Arthur insists he had girlfriends and his arrest for importuning was a terrible shock.

Eric goes further in clips from the new documentary, Something I've Got To Tell You: A Life In The Death Of Joe Meek, saying "He was a weirdo to us, he was doing something we didn't understand."

But there is no feeling they felt anything other than love for him and sadness for the end he came to, there's a shake of the head when they say that London is another world – one where there brother was free to live his 'other' life, which he kept assiduously hidden from his family.

"He was a sick man for the last six months," Arthur sadly recalls, "He should have come home and had a rest."

I remember the Meek brothers. Arthur lived a couple of hundred yards from my childhood home and I can recall him promenading slowly around our block in a decidedly retro and definitely flash car which I think I convinced myself was a Cadillac.

A parade of greyhounds up the street was another Meek signifier. Eric, who died recently, was a successful greyhound trainer whose funeral was a national event for enthusiasts of that sport. It was a skill he has passed on to his son Rob; a genuinely lovely bloke who couldn't do too much for you, and a fine footballer, too.

Poor old Joe never adapted to the 1960s beat revolution – stomping number 1, "Have I The Right" by The Honeycombs was a glorious exception – and, as a result remains a cult and a curiosity.

Historian can now extended the 19th Century to 1914, and as Philip Larkin said, the 1960s didn't really begin until 1963, leaving Joe and his carefully groomed crooners and instrumental groups marooned as far as the cultural commentaries and historians are concerned.

'Modern' music was Beatle-born and while you can still hear the sound of the Fabs on the radio today, listening to Meek sounds like a trip to another planet.

But there lies Joe's second life – the genius, the innovator, the Godfather of British electronica.

Who needs bass drums when you can stamp on the floor of 304 Holloway Road with a mic swathed in felt in your hand?

The inventiveness in the studio that made The Beatles' psychedelic masterpieces such ear-openers came naturally to the boy who started by taking radios to pieces in his shed, and I have read that when he died he was due a renaissance at the epicenter of the progressive universe that was Abbey Road.

You can make claims for Meek – the first independent record producer? (He allegedly unleashed the famous Meek temper on an inquiring Phil Spector, informing the Wall of Sound man he was a thief). Telstar is still played to this day and remains the world's biggest selling instrumental single and his pioneering Blue Men album – a conceptual fantasy of life on the moon – is certainly ahead of its time. 

Add to this his extraordinary life – the spiritualism (the Arena show features tape of Meek 'talking' with a cat in a graveyard, believing it is asking him for help), the rumors of involvement with archetypal East End gangsters the Kray family, the drugs the paranoia and the terrible end to it all make for a compelling story. 

There have been rumors of a biopic for years, Stephen Fry's Sprout Productions was involved in one attempt, but the final appearance of the film owes much to the persistence of James Hicks and Nick Moran.

Moran is probably still best known for his role in Brit gangster effort Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels but scored a critical success with Hicks when his take on the last days of Joe Meek, Telstar, hit the stage in 2005.

Their play is the source of the new movie and it's pleasing to note that despite a cast with plenty of eye-catching names they've left Joe in the hands of the play's Con O'Neill –  a very well-regarded and versatile British TV and stage actor who may get a much-deserved shot at the real big time with a role which must be an actor's dream. Kevin Spacey, playing financier Major Banks, should guarantee some U.S. publicity and market.

Darkness founder Justin Hawkins and ex-Libertine Carl Barrat have plenty of inside knowledge of musicians, unhappiness and drugs to bring to their respective roles as Screaming Lord Sutch and Gene Vincent. Author Jake Arnott is an intriguing cameo, Meek featured very briefly in his swinging 60s gangland novel The Long Firm.

The documentary is an interesting proposition, too. Repsch's exhaustively researched biography and the Arena show based upon it were works of real fan-obsessive enthusiasm which effectively made further works unnecessary and many of their sources are now only reachable with Meek's beloved Ouija board. Joe's tangled personal and financial affairs and the possibility of libeling associates have often been cited as reasons for the difficulty in telling his story on film. 

But that his genuinely stranger-than-fiction life would tempt new storytellers was inevitable and Howard S. Berger and Susan Stahman of Palm Door films should have a hit on their hands. 

Their research has been extensive too – traveling to Newent to talk to Eric and Joe's niece Sandra Meek Wilson, the family's chief cheer-leader for Joe's reputation. There's also plenty of musicians ready to sing his praises, can you hear a Joe Meek influence in the sounds of Franz Ferdinand? Leader Alex Kapranos is a fan, as is Huw Bunford of Welsh experimentalists Super Fury Animals – the Telstar movie should have no difficulty in tracking down soundtrack contributors, my personal vote would see Meek obsessives St. Etienne and Sonic Boom featuring heavily.

Sandra is now involved in the Newent festival but however much time heals and production achievement is recognized, Joe's story will always be painful for the family and his home town – he was after all a homosexual who was involved in an innocent woman's violent death.

On tape, she demurred from being filmed by Berger and Stahman, Sandra remembers, "There were two Joes one that I knew and the one that I called Robert."

Filming has taken place for the feature and the documentary is now in post-production promising a feast for fans of this most extraordinary man.  

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About ColinRicketts

  • JC Mosquito

    Meek was an unknown pioneer of r’n’roll – perhaps the movie will change that.

  • I must apologise. Daily Show satirist Jon Stewart will NOT appear in the Meek movie, it’s an actor of the same name and I repeated the error from the IMDB.