Today The Beatles went about their usual business, adding new bass and drum overdubs to “A Day in the Life.” Meanwhile, in another part of town, the life of an influential but unsung musical innovator was coming to a sad and violent end.

Joe Meek is probably best remembered for the Tornados’ “Telstar,” which he wrote and produced. Inspired by the launch of the communications satellite of the same name in 1962, “Telstar” is an irresistible slice of lo-fi futurism that sold over five million copies. Meek recorded that song and thousands of others in his home studio in an upstairs flat on Holloway Road in London. He was sort of the Brian Eno of his day, a non-musician whose instrument was the recording studio, a pioneer in the use of overdubbing, reverb, and an early form of sampling.

Meek was friendly with Brian Epstein, with whom he had a lot in common; in addition to being in the same business, both were gay in an England where it was still against the law. When Epstein was debating whether to become The Beatles’ manager, he played a demo for Meek, who gave it a big thumbs-down. (Epstein apparently didn’t value his opinion that much.) Meek also turned down an opportunity to record David Bowie — as, to be fair, did a lot of other people.

By 1967 Meek had long been walking the line between creative and mentally ill. This is a well-worn trail, of course; and his state of mind was certainly not helped by being arrested and then blackmailed for homosexual acts. Also his career was in the doldrums and his finances were in bad shape; because of a plagiarism suit concerning “Telstar,” later dismissed, he had been unable to collect royalties for his biggest hit.

Then, in January 1967, a 17-year-old warehouse worker from Muswell Hill named Bernard Oliver was found chopped up into eight pieces divided between two suitcases. For reasons that are not readily apparent from what’s on the record, police decided the killing was somehow linked to London’s gay underground. Devoid of any good leads, they then set about interviewing every gay man in London — or at least every one they knew about. This included Joe Meek, who was already paranoid, believing that Decca Records had put hidden microphones in his walls to steal his ideas. (He also believed that the ghost of Buddy Holly talked to him at night, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Some of the accounts I read claim that this encounter with the police started a downward spiral that sent Meek over the edge. There’s no way of knowing that for sure, but on February 3, he snapped. When a studio assistant showed up for work, Meek refused to admit him. The assistant talked with Meek’s landlady, who lived downstairs; when she went to investigate, Meek shot her and then himself.

It’s not clear if his choice of victim was entirely random; Meek and the landlady had long battled over the noise from his studio. But it’s not really relevant either, and at this point we’re pretty far off on a tangent to a tangent. That will be all for today, but as a footnote, the Bernard Oliver case remains unsolved and was recently reopened; as true-crime stories go, it makes for an interesting read.

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