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The life and violent death of genius music producer Joe Meek

Fans remember record producer who took his own life 50 years ago after shooting landlady

10 February, 2017 — By Koos Couvée

Hitmaker Joe Meek. PHOTO: JOE MEEK SOCIETY

PIONEERING music producer Joe Meek was never going to die a natural death.

That is the verdict of Clem Cattini, drummer of The Tornados, for whom Meek produced the groundbreaking record Telstar in 1962 – the first British record to top the US singles chart – in his poky studio at 304 Holloway Road.

Fans of Meek, named by weekly music magazine NME as the greatest producer of all time, are celebrating his legacy on the 50th anniversary of his death.

But recognition of his creative genius has been overshadowed by the manner in which he died on February 3, 1967, at the age of 37 – he committed suicide in his studio after shooting his landlady, Violet Shenton, dead.

An inquest jury found Meek deliberately killed Mrs Shelton, who ran a leather shop with her husband downstairs.

Joe Meek. Photo: David Peters

But half a century on, those with intimate knowledge of Meek’s life say her death was no more than a terrible accident involving a man driven to despair by financial troubles, fears over blackmailers who threatened to expose his homosexuality, a dispute with the feared Kray twins, and police interest following the gruesome murder of a teenage rent boy.

Meek shook the music world by producing three No 1 hit records from his little studio, where musicians would play in the bathroom, on the staircase and in the living room with Meek twisting, cutting, slowing down, speeding up and subverting the tracks as they played.

Clem, now 79, who worked with Meek at the Holloway Road studio, recalled: “The studio was bizarre. I mean the drums were in the fireplace.

“But it was incredible, the sounds he could get out of that studio, the equipment he used and what he recorded Telstar with. Modern equipment could not get anywhere near it.

“Musically, Joe was a moron, and I don’t mean that in a mean way, but he didn’t have a clue. But in terms of sound production he was incredible, the forerunner of the independent producer. He was just a genius with sound.”

Joe Meek is celebrated in street art

In 1963, Meek was picked up by police for cottaging. He was fined £15 at Clerkenwell Magistrates’ Court after pleading guilty to “persistently importuning for an immoral purpose” in Madras Place, Holloway.

The story was covered in the press. From then on, everything started to go wrong.

Rob Bradford, chairman of the Joe Meek Society, said: “There were people who were blackmailing him, threatening to expose him.

“By the end he’d been beaten up a few times by mobsters, he was being blackmailed and had financial problems, and his run of successful records had come to an end.”

Jim Blake, who set up the Robert George Meek Appreciation Society (RGMAS) on the day of Meek’s death, says the record producer had got into a dispute with the Kray gangster twins after Ronnie Kray, who was also gay, demanded to take over management of The Tornados.

“Joe told them to f*** off,” said Jim. “That’s not really the kind of thing you did to the Krays.”

Jim and Rob believe it was the murder of 17-year-old Bernard Oliver in 1967 that tipped Meek over the edge.

A commemorative plaque

Police announced their intention to interview all gay men in London and Meek, who knew Oliver but had nothing to do with his death, was afraid of being questioned.

Having a long-standing interest in the occult, Meek had become obsessed with the spirit of the American singer Buddy Holly, who died on February 3, 1959.

Eight years later to the day, he shot Mrs Shenton and then himself in the head with a shotgun owned by Tornados member Heinz Burt.

“Whether he shot Mrs Shenton on purpose or not, who knows, but I could never see Joe die a natural death,” Clem said.

“There was a lot of pressure on him, especially with the finances. I think there was an element of planning because it happened on the same day Buddy Holly died.” Jim added:

“The pressures had sent him a bit mad. He felt he would meet the spirit of Buddy Holly [if he killed himself].

“I believe Mrs Shenton interrupted him and she tried to get the gun off him and the gun went off. What killed her is she fell down the stairs and broke her neck.”

Meek became a forgotten figure following his death. But thanks to RGMAS and the Joe Meek Society, which organised a music and charity event on Friday, his legacy continues to be recognised.

RGMAS will next meet at the Coronet in Holloway Road at 3pm on March 4, then again at 3pm on April 5, which would have been Meek’s 88th birthday.

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