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Telstar: the Joe Meek story

Andrew Low
Telstar: the Joe Meek story

Nick Moran’s film adaptation of Telstar documents the life and work of the innovative UK record producer and extravagant human being, Joe Meek.

The legacy of Meek’s recording changed the face of engineering and spawned a generation of followers. While most of Meek’s techniques are still unknown due to his attempts to keep them secret, musicians, engineers and producers have tried endlessly to piece together theories and duplicate his other worldly sounds.

Although the movie focuses mostly on Meek’s relationships, lovers and extreme paranoia, there are minor insights into Meek’s creative genius and work style. Most of the movie is set in Meek’s studio above a leather shop on North London’s Holloway Road where he turned one of the rooms of a three-story house into a control with a connecting live room. The bathroom and other rooms in the house were also used as isolation rooms.

Despite his troubled personal life Meek recorded over 600 songs at the Islington studio and employed many unorthodox techniques and ambient sounds that pushed the boundaries of the craft. Scenes such as the recording of John Leyton’s hit song, “Johnny Remember Me”, show Meek putting the female vocalist in the bathroom and then saturating her vocals with echo and reverb to produce the haunting effect that became a signature element of Meek’s sound.

Meek’s style is mostly remembered for his use of compression, limiting and applying unprecedented amounts of reverb, echo, delay, tape loops and other cosmic sounding effects to tracks. Meek and song writer Geoff Goddard drew inspiration for this sound from Meek’s interest in space travel and the occult and Goddard’s training to become a spiritual medium.

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One of the most charming moments of Telstar, from a production perspective, is the scene featuring Meek and Goddard writing the song "Telstar". Created as a theme song for the studio’s house band, The Tornadoes, Meek details his space travel theme for the song while humming melodies that Goddard immediately brings to life on the piano.

The song "Telstar" was released in 1962 by London’s Decca record label and became the first song to reach number one on the British and US charts and won Meek the Ivor Novello award. Meek’s biggest success, "Telstar" would become the pivotal point of his demise when a French soundtrack composer claims that Meek stole the song from him, thus beginning a legal battle that would freeze the song's royalties unti a week after his death.

The success of "Telstar" drives Meek’s ego to new levels and he begins to frivolously spend money promoting new recordings and creating extravagant images for the artists, namely his lover Heinz Burt who he lavishes with boats, cars and houses. Despite stern warning from his accountant Meek continues to spend all of his assets and fall into into debt, so much so that he falls late on payments of his studio equipment, which is eventually repossessed.

During his downfall Meek works endlessly on new recordings and manages to produce hits like "Just Like Eddie" by Heinz Burt’s and "Have I the Right?" by The Honeycombs, which took the number one spot in the UK and number five on the Billboard charts.

There are funny moments in the otherwise depressing and chaotic film. One scene shows Meek condemning manager Brian Epstein for not knowing what the “kids really want” after hearing a demo of his latest band, The Beatles. Meek throws the tape in the trash dismissing it as “a fad”.

Meek’s genius has been celebrated posthumously throughout the music and audio engineering worlds in the form of tribute albums, books, movies and a full line of namesake recording gear. It also seems that most of the people involved with Meek became successful musicians. Tornadoes' drummer and bandleader, Clem Cattini, became a successful session musician and holds the record for playing on more UK number one singles than any other musician. Other members of the band went on to success with bands like Chas and Dave, Deep Purple and The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

From an engineering perspective the film does not give away many secrets of Meek’s coveted techniques and equipment aside from showing him tweaking some knobs on the vintage gear in his control room. Viewers who are inspired to find out the full details of Meek’s style can learn all there is to know in Barry Cleveland’s "Creative Music Production: Joe Meek's Bold Techniques".

Tags: joe meek, telstar, the tornadoes

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