There’s barely another producer or sound engineer that’s had as profound an impact on song-making as Joe Meek, the pioneer who turned production into artistry and whose life tragically ended in 1967 when he was just 36.
Those aware of Meek adore him; those who aren’t will almost certainly have heard his work: the yearning call-and-response of John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me; the bristling sass on The Honeycombs’ Have I The Right?; or the stirring space age futurism of The Tornados’ Telstar. In creating these and his other numerous hits, Meek forged new territory in making pop songs from his flat-turned-studio on the Holloway Road in north London. While most songs at the time were made in formal settings with professional sound booths, Meek instead reconfigured his flat so that the space itself became instruments: stamps on the bathroom floor were drum beats, trays of gravel were percussion, the bathroom itself created his distinct reverb, and his former career as a radar technician informed the creation of multifarious electronic music-making devices.
For all his prodigious talent, Meek was a troubled soul. Gay when homosexuality was still illegal (in another tragic twist, the Sexual Offences Act that partiality decriminalised it was passed just months after his death), Meek’s life fell apart when a newspaper published a piece about his arrest for “importuning for immoral purposes” in a public toilet. While he’d long been paranoid, convinced his flat was bugged by rival producers or record companies looking to steal his ideas, the shame he felt catalysed his mental decline, which culminated in him shooting his landlady before turning the gun on himself.
This month, Meek’s life and incredible talent are to be celebrated in a new series of multimedia art installations and performances titled Joe Meek – 304 Holloway Road, created by London-based live artist Julie Rose Bower. The pieces form a trail around the Holloway Road area, with the route ending outside Meek’s former studio, at 304 Holloway Road. The site will be showing digital projects and a live performance created by Bower with the community to I Hear a New World, Meek’s deliciously strange “outer space music fantasy” from 1960 that still manages to sound disquietly ahead of its time, even 57 years later.
Bower started working on the project in May this year, having pitched the project as part of Heritage Open Days’ Unsung Stories arts programme, which highlights personal histories from the LGBTQ community to coincide with this year being the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. “It’s also 50 years since Joe Meek died, so it felt like something cosmic was going on,” says Bower, a longtime fan of Meek’s music. “When I went outside of 304 Holloway Road, it gives a real frisson when you think about what happened there.”
She adds: “It’s a funny project as when you say you’re doing a piece around LGBTQ heritage, people respond with ‘that’s fantastic’, but it’s never that simple and this is a particularly controversial history. He killed his landlady, committed suicide, had mental health and addiction issues and wasn’t always the most pleasant person to be around. There are people around who remember it happening and remember him, so it’s a tricky one as it’s so complex and controversial. I have to do my best to get people to know it’s about the whole thing – I came to it from being interested in the music, but who’d have thought there was so much behind it. You can hear the uncanny things going on behind the music.
“Sometimes art is one of the only ways we have to speak about complex and controversial histories. It’s not a one-dimensional story, and the installations themselves are very poetic and gentle, they aren’t macabre or grisly or obscene.”
Meek’s former home studio bears an unofficial heritage plaque erected by the Joe Meek Society, bearing the inscription “The Telstar Man.” As such, Bower has marked each of her pieces in a similar vein, taking names such as The Green Door Man (as a reference to the Meek-produced song The Green Door, itself a nod to a west London gay club), and The Reverb Man, which takes the form of a 1960s shower cubicle. Visitors enter the shower and hear a male voice emerge from the plug hole, and the dulcet tones of Meek’s “heavenly choir” of female voices rain down from the shower head. Another installation uses a pair of Meek’s recognisable sunglasses, with music and video footage projected onto the backs of the lenses. The AV pieces were developed with sound designer Rob Hart; while Nina Gerada and Nick Wood worked on set designs, Joshua Pharo on projections, and costumes were created by Ameena.
Installation sites include Holloway’s Coronet Wetherspoons pub, a former cinema that Meek was known to frequent; and a 24-hour Turkish supermarket beneath his home studio that was once a leather goods store. It’s a befittingly eccentric approach to art-making, and also a refreshingly accessible one. “First and foremost it’s important to think about people who live locally and know nothing about Joe Meek, as it’s such an interesting local story,” says Bower. “Knowing more about the place you inhabit gives a profundity to your experiences and helps you see why things are the way they are. for me, those are the things that give life colour – knowing what happened previously gives a sense of where you are.”
So what does she hope people will get from seeing the work, and taking an aural and visual glimpse into the magic of Meek? “It rises above the pell-mell of the everyday. When you have that knowledge of certain histories it can be quite profound, but it’s also a series of novelties that will bring surprise and delight, and also LGBTQ heritage stories.
“Everybody will get something different, it’s that quixotic combination of the profound and the novel.”
The Joe Meek – 304 Holloway Road installation trail is in place from 7 – 9 September from 11am – 7pm, with performance and building projects on 8 and 9 September at 7.30pm