Joe Meek - The Middleton Connection
by Danny Hardman
On the 19th June 2009 Aspiration Films are to re-release ‘Telstar’ a biopic about the legendary record producer, Joe Meek the flawed genius of the early sixties music business who murdered his landlady before taking his own life. What it will not mention are the two young lads from Langley who were artists and songwriters at Meek’s RGM studio at that time.
RGM Sound Ltd was a homebuilt studio situated above a leather goods store owned by his landlady, Violet Shenton at 304 Holloway Road, London. Meek used the rooms, including the bathroom, in his tiny flat like the sound booths of today to get the best possible sounds from each instrument in preparation for the final mix. Joe Meek was a ‘sound engineer’ in every sense of the word, a pioneer of stereo sound who radically changed the art of recording, which at the time was in real time and en masse, Meek’s technique was to build the finished sound from individual tracks.
Joe Meek’s production methods proved very successful and in July 1961 one of his first releases, the haunting Johnny Remember Me sung by John Leyton, topped the singles chart and stayed there for four weeks. His second hit was a self-penned instrumental called Telstar performed by The Tornados. It was named after the first transatlantic communication satellite launched 10th July 1962. Telstar the record was launched five weeks after the satellite and was the first single by a British group to reach number one in Great Britain and America, a feat not repeated until The Beatles I Want To Hold Your Hand in1964. Telstar stayed top of the British chats for six weeks and is estimated to have sold over five million copies worldwide.
Meeks other two number ones were Just Like Eddie a tribute to Eddie Cochran, by the Tornadoes ex-bass player, Heinz. RGM had many top ten singles but the last number one Have I the Right? a foot tapping pop-ditty released in 1964 by the Honeycombs’, a band remembered more for Honey Lantree it’s female drummer than its musical ability.
Lee Paul and Les Hall
That same year a bunch of young Middleton lads: Len Moseley, Les Hall, Phil Carney, Graham Rains and Drachen Theaker were making a name for themselves on the northern club circuit has The Wheels. An article in the Liverpool Echo reported the band as having three and a half hours worth of original material written by the lead guitarist and singer, Les Hall and Len Moseley (stage name Lee Paul) respectively. Their first creative success was Foolin’, Lee Castle and the Barons first single. The Wheels were hoping to record their own single Whispers in the Wind, which sadly didn’t happen.
The Wheels on stage at the Star Club, Duisburg
In 1965 The Wheels landed a residency at the New York City Club in Germany. Unbeknown to them the club was in the middle of a turf war and under constant assault from racketeers, which resulted in a change of venue after the clubs plate glass doors were remodelled with a sledgehammer. They moved to the relative serenity of the Star Club, Duisburg where the young lyricists could concentrate on their song writing between shows.
On their return to England they came to the realisation that London not Manchester was the place to be if they wanted to make a living as songwriters. They moved to the capital as a folk duo hoping the money they earned would house and feed them until they could support themselves with their writing talent.
Before going to Germany Lee met and fell in love with a beautiful, young girl called Angie who he married. Angie played an important part in the boy’s success. Born in Essex, she previously dated Heinz then the bass player with the Tornadoes and was a regular, if not always welcome, visitor to the RGM studio.
Sadly it was a relationship doomed from the beginning as unbeknown to herself or Heinz, Joe Meek and Angie where in love with the same man. Resentful of Angie’s relationship with the blond haired, young pop idol, Meek arranged a long tour with the intention of splitting the couple up. It worked.
As they were loading up the tour bus Meek found a shotgun belonging to Heinz, it was allegedly used to relieve the monotony on the road by shooting birds. Meek was horrified at the thought of it and confiscated the weapon, which kept it under his bed along with several cartridges.
When Lee and Les moved to London Angie reluctantly gave them Meek’s telephone number and a meeting was arranged.
Lee recalls, “Joe came to the door in a mohair suit and a dicky bow looking like a band leader and invited us into the studio, known as the ‘bathroom’ because of its size”.
Lee recalls Joe bringing the studio alive with the flick of a few switches and asking them to run through a number.
“We played one of our songs with Joe busy tweaking the recording equipment. We expected the music would have to be backed up by a sales pitch but Joe was very enthusiastic when he found out we had a large portfolio of material. We stayed until late into the night going through the rest of our songs. Joe was very enthusiastic and told us he would make us famous all over the world”.
Lee and Les signed with Joe Meek’s, RGM Sound Limited on the 29th November 1966 and the song writing team of Moseley and Hall were officially born. They spent long hours at the studio working on their album as well as writing for other artist including Glenda Collins who recorded Self Portrait. A reviewer of Glenda Collins anthology, This Little Girl Gone Rockin’ wrote, “The most impressive prize for me, was Self Portrait an unreleased gem unlike any other I've heard from Meek”. Ritchie Blackmore was one of the session men on this track; he also plays on many more of their recordings.
By the winter of 1966 Joe Meek was becoming increasingly unstable and his excessive use of barbiturates was playing havoc with his bi-polar disorder, in conjunction with that were reports of blackmail related to the illegality of his sexual orientation and increased paranoia - he thought Decca had hidden microphones behind the wallpaper to steal his ideas.
To compound matters French composer, Jean Ledrut had the profits from Telstar frozen for years in a case of plagiarism against Meek, claiming the melody had been lifted from his score of the 1960 film, Austerlitz. Joe Meek vehemently denied the charge and his fury and frustration on the matter surfaced on a regular basis.
Angry outburst between the producer and his landlady, who lived downstairs, were now a frequent occurrence. To show her disapproval at the ‘noise’ Violet Shenton would bang on the ceiling with a boom handle, to which Meek’s reply was to place a speaker in the stairwell on full volume.
Meek was obsessed by the occult and is reputed to have set up a tape machines in various cemeteries in an effort to record the uttering of the dead. He was reputed to be in love with Buddy Holly and was convinced he was receiving guidance from the dead rock and roll star. Lee Moseley recounts a dinner at Joe’s flat to which a prominent DJ was invited in an attempt to introduce and push his two new prodigies and hopefully gain them more airplays but the self-obsessed DJ grew increasingly irritating until he was asked to leave. Joe suggested getting help from another source, the ouija board.
Lee recalls, “ Joe suggested we use it to get help from the spirit world but Les and I were a bit sceptical, but that turned to alarm when he tried to invoke the spirit of Buddy Holly”.
Buddy Holly died on the 3rd February 1959. Exactly eight years to the day Moseley and Hall were working on some songs in the latter’s flat, they took a short break and Les telephoned the RGM studio to enquire about the date and time of their next recording session, an unknown voice at the other end of the phone told him he could not speak to Joe and put the phone down. Lee phoned a moment later and was told, in no uncertain terms, not to ring again. When Lee returned home that night Angie informed him that Joe Meek was dead. The 37 year-old had shot his landlady then killed himself. The news was all over the papers the following day.
Joe Meek’s death brought the end of the Moseley and Hall song writing partnership. Shortly after Les Hall returned to Manchester and joined Tamla Express while Lee Moseley signed with prominent record producer Shel Talmy whose stable of artist included The Kinks, The Who, Manfred Mann, The Easy Beats and Pentangle.
Further success was to come with Carlin Music, where a group called Wild Silk released two of Lee’s songs, Vision in a Plaster Sky and Crimson and Gold. He also had a solo career as Steven Lancaster; his first single was San Francisco Street. Lee’s biggest writing success came when American singing star Lee Hazelwood recorded The Night Before, which was a big hit in the States.
The case of plagiarism brought by Jean Ledrut was discredited in court and the royalties from Telstar released, but sadly that was twelve months after Joe Meek’s death.
Lee Moseley signing a contract with Tony Hays (far right) who wrote 'Black is Black'.
Lee Moseley is now a devout Christian who writes songs regularly for the church he and Angie attend in Ashford in Kent. Les Hall also aspires to a more tranquil life in a small hamlet on the Isle of Barra, Scotland.
That said, rock and roll is in their blood and next year will see a collaboration when, ‘Rock of Ages’, a band that Les still plays with occasionally, perform a song by Lee Moseley at the annual Dusting of the Plaque. The song is about their old friend Peter Cowap and some of the musicians that helped make Middleton what it was, ‘Music Town’.