The Tornados: “Telstar” (Decca F11494, 1962)
While Gary Numan’s “Are Friends Electric” is generally considered to be the first synth-pop song to hit #1 in the UK, it occurred to me after I posted “Cars” yesterday that Numan may have been beaten to the punch by nearly 20 years.
“Telstar” is one of those rare creations that is at once completely of its time and completely out of time. It was released a month and a week after the launch of the Telstar 1 communications satellite, the first satellite ever to relay television, phone calls and faxes. Compared to modern telecommunications satellites, the thing was a piece of space junk—it didn’t have a geosynchronous orbit, so its signal wasn’t available to the ground stations in the US and UK all the time—but it still managed to relay the very first live transatlantic TV feed and captured people’s imaginations at a time when people really believed you and I, in 2010, would most likely be accustomed to space travel as a routine activity.
So in that sense, “Telstar” the song is all about the zeitgeist of its era—the Space Race was on, and Joe Meek wasn’t about to be left behind. The song was credited to and played by the Tornados, but it was really a creation of Meek, an oddball UK record producer who’d already had his head in the stars for a few years: he produced the weird and wonderful “I Hear A New World” EP series in 1959 (more on that tomorrow).
The thing about “Telstar” that makes it sound so out of time to me is the actual sound of it, which is nothing like anything else that was going on in 1962. That sweeping verse melody is played on a clavioline, a forerunner of the analog synthesizer that had been used on only a few pop songs to that point, most notably Del Shannon’s 1961 hit “Runaway,” which used a modified version dubbed the Musitron. Its tone is weird and wonderful and makes it sound quite modern—it’s maybe the best example of the paleo-future in music. And the melody Meek wrote for it is an ecstatic, soaring thing. It celebrates the triumph of space travel very literally—the sound effects in the intro give you the launch, the clavioline gives you the arc of the escape, and the guitar chorus is the weightless drift around the home planet.
Fittingly, it was the first single by a UK band to hit #1 in the US (fourth UK single overall), which means that a song celebrating the first satellite to relay a transatlantic TV feed also became a transatlantic smash, topping both charts at the same time. Meek, always reaching for the cutting edge, had a Scopitone video produced for the song. The original Scopitone video for “Telstar” doesn’t seem to have survived, though this charmingly corny video for “Robot” has.
Oh, and about those Tornados: they’re never talked about much on their own terms because Meek was so responsible for their output, but they were a good band, backing most of Meek’s acts in the studio and at one point challenging the Shadows for Britain’s best instrumental act. Their lineup on “Telstar” was George Bellamy* on rhythm guitar, Clem Cattini on drums, Heinz Burt on bass, Alan Caddy on lead guitar, Roger LaVern on keyboards, and non-Tornado Geoff Goddard playing clavioline and adding those worldess vocals that double the clavioline in the last verse.
This band began to fragment in 1963, and the Tornados became a name for whatever band Meek had together at the moment. The last single ever credited to the Tornados was 1966’s “Is That A Ship I Hear?” It’s not musically notable, but its b-side, an otherwise forgettable lounge instrumental, is interesting for being perhaps the first released British popular song to feature gay subject matter. “Do You Come Here Often?” features a brief conversation between two men that probably sounded banal enough to the average censor but would have been recognized for what it was by a gay man of the time.
Meek himself was gay, and it was no easy thing to be homosexual in 1960s Britain. The country’s retrograde sexuality laws made homosexual acts between two men in private illegal until 1967’s Sexual Offences Act, which itself only partially rectified the problem and maintained some inequalities. As one can imagine (and there are many who don’t have to imagine, even today), a law that makes your sexual preference illegal places you under enormous pressures. By all accounts, Meek was already a pretty tightly wound guy, and it seems certain that his inability to live openly weighed very heavily on him. This, combined with his financial losses as his success waned in the mid-60s, sent him into the depression that ultimately led him to murder his landlady, Violet Shenton, and take his own life in 1967. He was 37.
Meek’s violent end leaves an unfortunate cloud around his life, but he left behind some really stunning and inventive music that still sounds strange today. Not bad for a guy who was completely tone deaf.
*Fun fact: George Bellamy is the father of Matthew Bellamy, the lead singer and guitarist of Muse.
Also: don’t confuse this band with the Tornadoes, who were an American surf band.