14 Jun 2009

Biopic of pop mogul and producer Joe Meek

+ posted by FlamingWhopper

Equal parts visionary and psychopath, Joe Meek is British pop’s darkest secret. Meek was many things ­ he revolutionised the way pop sounded at the start of the 1960s, composing and producing huge hits yet his volatile, paranoid nature meant he could only go out with a bang. Literally: on February 3, 1967, he shot his landlady, then himself.

Opening his jerry-built recording studio in a flat above a handbag shop on Holloway Road, north London, in 1960, Meek was the UK’s original freelance music producer and independent record-label magnate. His most famous production, 1962’s Telstar, was the first British record to top the US charts, but his Icarus-like plummet saw him written out of popular music’s history. A slow resurrection finds many a hip indie-rocker and dance-music producer now swearing by Meek’s legacy. With the release of Telstar, a film based on his life, he looks set to win the recognition he always craved.

Telstar is a biopic in the tradition of Ray and Walk the Line, sharing with those films a volcanic central performance, this time from Con O’Neill as Meek. Yet, where the American films provide a sanitised depiction of a superstar’s rise, fall and redemption, Telstar is a darker work. “Those American films... well, they’re pony, ain’t they?” says Telstar’s director, Nick Moran. “They all go ‘boy takes drugs, meets girl, happy ending’. I hate that crap.”

Telstar offers no happy ending and many surprises, not least that it was written and directed by Moran, the star of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. That Moran has directed a movie may initially induce snorts of derision, but Telstar can’t be dismissed. Moran’s film artfully re-creates early-1960s London and serves as a vehicle for some of the best ensemble acting seen in a British film in recent years. “Yeah,” Moran laughs when I confess amazement at just how good his film is, “we’ve been getting that response a lot.”

Moran, still boyish at 39, shrugs off the instant celebrity (and tabloid infamy, due to his tendency to punch paparazzi and date models) that surrounded his younger self. He has, he insists, been acting regularly, largely in low-budget films, and this is where he learnt to direct. “On a big-budget film you hide in your trailer, whereas the type of film I’ve been appearing in, you’re on the set all day, and I’ve been paying attention, seeing what works.”

Moran’s driven nature he expresses himself in a relentless stream of estuary English suggests he found in Meek a spiritual kinship of sorts. “This isn’t some new thing I’ve stumbled on,” Moran says of Telstar. “I’ve been working on it since the early 1990s. See, one night, me and Jim [his co-writer, James Hicks] and another mate piled into a taxi, and as we headed along the Holloway Road, our mate starts shouting, ‘That’s where this mad old poof lived who killed people an’ made brilliant pop records!’ Jim and I had been searching for a subject to write a play about, so we started doing research, and it turns out Jim’s grandmother’s best friend knew Meek. This led to us attending Joe Meek Society get-togethers, and we began meeting his old associates.”

“We had our first read-through in 1995. It was a mess of a script, 3 hours long, with Con O’Neill as Meek, Jude Law reading Heinz, Kathy Burke reading Mrs Shenton and Samantha Morton reading stage directions. We kept working on it, then Lock, Stock happened and it became a back-burner. Whenever I had time, I’d organise a reading. The Arts Council picked it up as a stage play to tour, and I always knew Con was Joe. He did the 2005 tour and the West End.”

Telstar is superbly cast: alongside O’Neill’s bravura Meek, Kevin Spacey (as Meek’s financier), Pam Ferris (as the doomed landlady, Mrs Shenton) and JJ Feild (as Heinz, the talentless singer Meek loved obsessively) all deliver formidable performances. “I fought for the actors I knew would do it proud. Originally, we were hearing, ‘If you cast Tim Roth as Meek...’ ‘No! It’s Con.’

“See, when I came out of drama school I was Con’s understudy on Blood Brothers. Standing ovations every night. He won an Olivier for it. And Kevin (Spacey) is such an actor. When he turns up for work, there’s no airs and graces, no Hollywood nonsense. Telstar’s his first British film. ”

Meek’s eccentric nature meant he championed the likes of Screaming Lord Sutch (an OTT turn by the former Darkness vocalist Justin Hawkins) while rejecting teenage wannabes Rod Stewart and David Bowie. More woundingly, he dismissed a demo sent by Brian Epstein featuring the then unsigned Beatles. Addicted to amphetamines, sued by a French composer over Telstar, gay when homosexuality was still illegal, raided by Customs & Excise, Meek saw his life spin out of control. His final No 1 was with the Honeycombs’ Have I the Right? in 1964. After that, Meek, unable to develop his sound, vanished from the charts.

“He signed Tom Jones when Tom arrived in London,” Moran says, “but he tried to kiss Tom behind studio screens. Tom was a bit tasty, an’ Joe was insane, so they had a massive punch-up.”

Moran laughs, then gets serious. “Telstar’s a Greek tragedy. How a man’s talent and self-belief just turn on themselves and become arrogance and conceit, and bring about his downfall. The great thing about it is, it happens to be the early 1960s. Everyone remembers Telstar. This idea that you can take something everybody knows, yet they don’t know the story behind it that appeals to me.”

But does the public really recall those songs? Meek’s hits are nearing half-century status, and while he commands a loyal cult, who, I wondered, beyond Meekites will go to see Telstar? “Anyone who’s cool. This is a film for people who go to festivals, who like Radiohead, who want to be informed and entertained. Also, I think Joe’s very relevant to the UK pop scene now. I mean, look at X Factor and consider Joe he did the same thing. And Joe’s music’s still sounds great. We’ve got Duffy singing his tune Please Stay. The Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker they’ve been in contact, all huge Meek fans.”

Yet when Meek self-destructed in 1967, he was very much a man out of time. “Bob Dylan and the Beatles destroyed guys like Joe. The music impresarios went out the window they had to adapt to just being managers la Brian Epstein. We’ve got a scene where Joe goes out and wanders around London, the first time in four years he’s done it, and he’s a dinosaur. There’s mods, hippies, and Joe doesn’t recognise them, their environment. He’s thinking, ‘What’s happened?’ It’s like he closed the door on Holloway Road when every­one was listening to Billy Fury and Cliff Richard, then opened it again and it’s the Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Hendrix. That was a revolutionary four years in British culture, and Joe completely missed it.”

Meek’s legacy lives on in many ways, not least thanks to his teenage studio musicians. The guitarist Ritchie Blackmore went on to form Deep Purple, the drummer Mitch Mitchell joined Hendrix and the bassist Chas Hodges became half of Chas & Dave. “Chas loves Telstar,” Moran notes. “He says we’ve captured the madness that used to go on in 304 Holloway Road.”

Telstar is released on June 19

Credit: timesonline.co.uk
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