Telstar: The Joe Meek Story (2008)

As with Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film adaptation of the 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Jersey Boys chronicling the career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, I equally anticipated this rock bio concerned with British record producer Joe Meek. Sadly, as with Jersey Boys, I was left empty. Granted, the production designs of both films (as with Tom’s Hanks’s love letter to ’60s one-hit wonder pop-rock ditties, That Thing You Do!) are fantastic. However, the films underneath the period accurate sets and costumes are derivative raison d’être—despite their quality, one viewing is enough. And, for U.S. audiences, the thick British accents and harsh, Royal Shakespearean moments of actor-emoting can be a bit much to handle. Yes, this is purely meant for U.K. audiences, you yank rocker.

Joe Meek was an electronics-tinkering child prodigy who developed such sound engineering innovations as multi-tracking, overdubbing, sampling and reverb (with addition kudos to guitar and recording innovator Les Paul), and was the original trailblazer in viewing the recording studio itself as “a music instrument”—an instrument Meek skillfully mastered, regardless of his being tone deaf and lacking any playing or composition skills, into “Telstar,” the 1962 worldwide #1 instrumental hit by his assembled studio band, the Tornados.

Sadly, Meek was a tortured genius who suffered from bouts of depression and paranoia that led to fits of rage fueled by his closeted homosexuality (a punishable crime in the U.K. at the time) and his addiction to amphetamines and barbiturates (to fuel his maniacal quest for perfection). As result—even with the financial backing of ex-military officer and business entrepreneur Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks (Kevin Spacey nailing the demeanor and accent of an acidic, cultured British gentleman; but opinions on his performance vary)—Meek was never able to get out of his electrical hodgepodge of a studio on a cramped, second floor flat over a luggage store (and yes, he utilized the loo for recordings).

So acidic his personality, no labels, producers, or managers of note wanted to work with him; Meek was forced out of his business concerns with the U.K.’s pre-Beatles superstar, Billy Fury, (that the Tornados backed; by 1964, it was over for both artists); when Meek received offers to record bands from the likes of the burgeoning manager Brian Epstein, Meek dismissed the Beatles as “awful”; when fan Phil Spector reached out to work with him, Meek accused the “Wall of Sound” creator of plagiarism; Meek also turned away David Bowie and Rod Stewart (and told Rod’s then band, the Moontrekkers, to fire him); he also gave up developing a career for a Welsh lad by the name of Tom Jones—who soon became a star (“It’s Unusual,” “What’s New Pussycat,” “She’s a Lady”) after leaving Meek’s stable.

Outside of his own ego and arrogance, why did Meek turn away those future superstars: for love—the bleach blonde bassist of the Tornados, Heinz (Burt), in particular, with whom he became obsessed in transforming him into a solo artist that would crush the likes Billy Fury and Gene Vincent (who Meek admired-despised).

Sadly, in the end, Meek crushed himself.

When a copyright infringement lawsuit over “Telstar” held up 3 million pounds in royalties and his business partnership with the Major soured as result, Meek was drowning in debt. And because of his arrest for a homosexual-public toilet encounter, he was under suspicion in the 1967 Tattingstone Suitcase Murder.

Meek snapped.

He murdered his rent-griping landlady and turned the shotgun (that he used to threaten musicians into submission in the studio) on himself at the age of 37.

And now for the music trivia: The Tornados backbeat was handled by the portly Clem Cattini (portrayed by U.K. comedian James Cordon; of those annoying, faux-German dubbed coffee machine commercials and his NBC-TV late night gab fest). When it comes to drummers, no other (studio) drummer has appeared on more #1 chart-topping singles (42 in all) . . . and he was almost a member of the New Yardbirds. During his Joe Meek days, Cattini shared the studio/stages with a young Ritchie Blackmore (later of Deep Purple), along with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones who, at the time, were backing several Meek protégés (Screaming Lord Such in particular; a precursor to the likes of Alice Cooper). When the Yardbirds fell apart, with Page obligated to fulfill touring contracts, the first call he made to reform the band was to Cattini. Telling the story years later, he didn’t think much of the offer and failed to call Page back. He also turned down Paul McCartney’s request to join Wings. After he was sacked/quit the Tornados, Meek replaced Cattini in the studio with future Jimi Hendrix skinsmeister, Mitch Mitchell. Catttini published his memoirs, My Life, Through The Eye of A Tornado, in July 2019.

You can stream this as a VOD on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and You Tube Movies, but we found you a freebie rip on You Tube to enjoy. If you’d prefer a more straight ahead telling of Meek’s life, then check out British sound engineer Beth McGowan’s hour-long TV documentary, The Strange Story of Joe Meek (1991), on her You Tube page.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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