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Tag Archives: 1960s

304 Holloway Road: Inside the Tortured Mind of the ‘Telstar Man’

At 304 Holloway Road you’ll find a 24 hour grocery store, above which sits a shabby three-storey flat, complete with decaying paintwork and a boarded up window.

304 Holloway Road

Despite its dilapidated state, the apartment on this north London road actually has quite a tale to tell… a story involving music, madness and murder.

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Between 1961 and 1967, the accommodation above 304 Holloway Road was rented out by a fellow named Joe Meek.

Joe Meek (photo: Getty Images)

Born in Newent in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean in 1929, Joe Meek’s early upbringing was rather bizarre- for the first four years of his life he was raised as a girl thanks to his mother’s intense desire to have a daughter.

Joe Meek first arrived in London in 1954 after landing a job as a sound engineer for Stones; a popular radio and record shop on the Edgware Road.

It was a job which suited him well. From an early Joe had been fascinated with electronics and was always scavenging components with which he could tinker. With these various bits and bobs he would experiment, cobbling together circuits, radios and so on.

Joe Meek was also fascinated by outer space; a passion which was nurtured when he became a radar mechanic for the RAF during his period of national service.

Joe Meek whilst serving in the RAF

After spending time working at Stones, Joe progressed to a new job, becoming a producer at Lansdowne Recording Studios, moments away from his home on Arundel Gardens in Notting Hill.

Confident in his new role, he wrote a letter home to his mother stating, “I’m sure your son is going to be famous one day, Mum.

Lansdowne Recording Studios (photo: Google Street View)

At Lansdowne, Joe Meek proved to be quite the maverick, frequently ignoring his superiors in order to pursue his quest of developing new sound techniques.

Whilst at the Notting Hill studio, he maintained a strictly guarded ‘secret box of sounds’; a container kept under lock and key which held all manner of unusual objects for creating unorthodox audio effects.

Before long, Joe became tired of working within a large organisation and decided to go it alone as an independent record producer.

In pursuit of his ambition, he moved into 304 Holloway Road where he set about creating a makeshift but innovative studio.

304 Holloway Road (marked in red) as it appeared in the early 1960s (copyright Jim Blake)

The independent label established in Holloway became known as RGM Records (Joe’s full birth name actually being Robert George Meek).

At the time, such a move was revolutionary.

In the late 1950s and early 60s, pop records were the domain of big corporations, tightly controlled by cigar-puffing businessmen. The sound engineers who worked for these companies did so in strict, clinical environments, armed with clipboards and donned in white lab coats.

Sound engineering in the traditional way

Joe Meek’s way of working was the complete opposite to this traditional method.

Packed with all manner of improvised equipment, his Holloway Road studio was easy-going and unconventional.

From the stairway to the bathroom, all rooms were made available for recording sessions. Joe would also use seemingly every day domestic items to create all manner of new sounds, the flat itself more or less becoming an instrument in its own right. He was particularly fond of stamping on the upper floors to enhance drumming effects.

As his experiments developed, Joe Meek’s work took on an eerie, futuristic sound; one which he hoped would define an era as the space-age began to grip the 1960s.

Joe Meek at work in his Holloway Road studio

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The first major hit to be produced at 304 Holloway Road was Johnny Remember Me, a song about a young man haunted by his dead lover. Sung by John Leyton, the single reached UK number one in July 1961.

The success of Johnny Remember Me was followed by an even bigger hit in August 1962… Telstar.

Written and recorded by Joe Meek at 304 Holloway Road, Telstar was an instrumental track created to celebrate the success of the radical new communications satellite which had been launched in July 1962.

The original Telstar satellite under construction

Played by Meek’s backing group, The Tornados, the ode to space technology featured all manner of sci-fi sounds which had been concocted in the unlikely setting of the north London studio.

The record was an instant success. As well scoring a number one in the UK, it became the first single by a British group to hit number one in the United States; a massive achievement.

Telstar is now considered to be Joe Meek’s masterpiece (it can be heard at the end of this article) and such was its popularity that it should have set him up financially for life.

However, a French composer by the name of Jean Ledrut claimed that Meek had pinched the tune from a score he’d written for the Napoleonic film, Austerlitz. This led to a lengthy legal battle which prevented Joe Meek and the Tornados receiving any royalties from their hit.

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Joe Meek continued to forge extraordinary new sounds in his cramped studio, but the stresses of life and business were beginning to take their toll.

Joe Meek in 1966; photo copyright David Peters (David managed a group called ‘Dannys Passion’ who recorded with Joe Meek. You can read about his memories here: http://www.dannyspassion.webeden.co.uk/)

Joe was homosexual- illegal in Britain at the time and something which led to the producer being blackmailed on numerous occasions.

By the mid-1960s, the music scene was changing rapidly and Joe Meek’s once innovative melodies were beginning to lose favour. The last major hit to be produced at Holloway Road was Have I the Right by The Honeycombs (a band noted for having a female drummer) which was released in 1965.

As the decade pushed on, RGM records began to struggle financially. Convinced he’d win the Telstar case, Joe had been spending heavily, confident that the money would eventually come through.  It didn’t though of course.

Friends of Joe Meek noticed a distinct change in his character.

Clearly under stress, he’d developed a short, volatile temper and, more worryingly, had become intensely paranoid, convinced that his Holloway Road flat had been bugged by rival companies in order to steal his ideas.

So paranoid was Joe that he refused to leave anyone alone in the studio for fear that they’d snoop on his work.

Joe Meek outside his Holloway Road studio

He was also becoming deeply obsessed with the occult and took to setting up recording equipment in graveyards, hoping that spirits from the other side would offer him guidance.

One evening, one of these graveyard recorders picked up the sound of a cat mewing- Meek was convinced that a human spirit was trapped in the feline body and that the cat-like noises were in fact desperate calls for help.

He even began to claim that his idol, Buddy Holly (killed in a plane crash in 1959) made frequent visitations to the Holloway Road flat late at night, offering snippets of musical wisdom.

The legendary Buddy Holly… whom Joe Meek claimed would regularly visit 304 Holloway in spirit form…

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Joe’s mental state was deteriorating rapidly.

in January 1967 things came to a head when the body of a 17 year old youth named Bernard Oliver was discovered in rural Suffolk. The victim had been murdered in a particularly gruesome manner; expertly cut into eight pieces before being packed into a suitcase.

Bernard Oliver had been working as a factory hand in North London and, prior to his murder, had been missing for two weeks.

When the Metropolitan police stated that they would be interviewing all known gay men in London, Joe Meek became terrified. Even though he had absolutely nothing to do with the case, his delusions were pushed to new heights as he became convinced that the police would somehow find a way of implicating him.

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On the morning of 3rd February 1967 (which happened to be the 8th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s tragic death), Patrick Pink who was a friend and studio assistant, called in to see Joe- who refused to speak and promptly stormed off upstairs.

Patrick mentioned the fact that Joe was in a bad mood to Violet Shenton, the long suffering landlady of 304 Holloway Road who often took to knocking the ceiling with a broom handle when the sound levels became too much.

Violet Shenton

In her typically blunt, but motherly and well-meaning manner, Mrs Shenton stubbed out a cigarette and told Patrick that she’d go and sort her tenant out. When she arrived upstairs, the last words Violet was heard to say were “calm down Joe”… a statement which was suddenly followed by two gunshots…

Using a hunting gun which had been left in the flat by singer, Heinz Burt, Joe Meek had committed both murder and suicide within seconds, shooting Violet before quickly turning the weapon on himself.

He was 37 years old.

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Just three weeks after the lethal shooting, a French court finally brought the Telstar case to a close.

They ruled in Meek’s favour, stating that he couldn’t possibly have plagiarised Jean Ledrut’s work as the film wasn’t released in the UK until 1965; three years after the success of Telstar.

Today, Joe Meek’s former home and studio sits quietly on the Holloway Road, offering little sign as to the creativity and tragedy which played out within decades before.

304 Holloway Road… a shadow of its former self

The only reminder of the premises’ former role is a black plaque… which, quite fittingly, is located right beside a derelict satellite dish; an item which Joe Meek would no doubt have taken great interest in.

A few hundred yards away, another small reference can be found… a Banksy-esque graffiti mural depicting Joe Meek on a grubby wall opposite Holloway Road tube station.

To listen to Joe Meek’s most famous work, click the clip below:

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