Sunday, August 17, 2008
One-Hit Wonder Week: "Telstar," by the Tornados
Joe Meek was a pop-music producer with one Top Ten U.K. hit under his belt, "Angela Jones" by a singer named Michael Cox, when he opened up his own recording studio, RGM Sound, a three-story flat over a leather-goods store in Islington, London. He almost immediately had a Nmber One hit in Britain, "Johnny Remember Me" by John Leyton, which never charted here in the U.S., but its ghostly echo and unearthly female vocals helped make Meek's reputation as the most exciting pop producer in England.
Meek's backing band was a group called the Tornados (in the U.S., this got translated as Tornadoes), who played on all the RMG songs much as the Funk Brothers did in Motown. Meek would also occasionally have them rip out an instrumental, and after AT&T launched the Telstar satellite (the first satellite to transmit phone communications) in July 1962, Meek wrote a song inspired by this, complete with rocket sounds and space-age keyboards. Meek played no instruments himself and never learned to read and write music, but he sang the melody into a recorder, added a drum track, and sent this to the Tornados at their summer-long gig in Great Yarmouth in northern England, leaving the band itself to work out the chords.
The song, also called "Telstar," was released on August 17, 1962, prominently featuring the clavioline, which was kind of halfway between an organ and a synthesizer. The solo on Del Shannon's "Runaway," from the year before, was played on a clavioline. On "Telstar," it provided a real Tomorrowland kind of feel, accentuated by special effects such as the rocket-launching sound in the opening, which was in reality the sound of a toilet flushing played backward. It got leaked to the press (I assume by Joe Meek himself) that he had actually transmitted the song to the Telstar satellite and back, and that was the real source of all the weird sounds.
I should pause here and note that Joe Meek was totally nuts. He was gay, which was not only difficult in early-60s England but illegal, and Meek was arrested at least once on a morals charge. He was, not surprisingly, paranoid, accusing his rival Decca Records of placing microphones in his wallpaper a la Gene Hackman in The Conversation. He would put tape recorders in graveyards, hoping to capture voices from the great beyond, and claimed Buddy Holly spoke to him in his dreams.
But he sure could make records. The technology of the day meant the Tornados had to play the song live in the studio, straight through. They showed up at RGM on a Monday morning in the summer of 1962 and played "Telstar" and its B-side, "Jungle Fever," over and over till 3:30 in the afternoon, when they had to drive back up to Great Yarmouth. Meek was left alone to do some primitive overdubbing to finish the track.
"Telstar" was released in England on August 17, 1962, and was a huge smash. It went to Number One on October 6 and stayed there for five weeks, becoming the biggest-selling British single of 1962. Here in the U.S., "Telstar" launched into the Top Forty on November 17th and cruised to Number One on December 22nd, staying there for three weeks, and thus becoming the last Number One hit of 1962, the first Number One hit of 1963 (it would be followed in the top spot by Steve Lawrence's "Go Away Little Girl"), and the first Number One hit in America for a British group.
That was the only U.S. hit for the Tornados, although they placed a handful of other singles on the British charts. Meek worked with a whole flotilla of British artists in the Sixties, although the only other song he produced that made a dent on the U.S. charts was "Have I the Right?," which went to Number Five for the Honeycombs in late 1964. Shortly thereafter, even Meek's U.K. hits stopped coming, and he fell into financial problems, in part because a French composer named Jean Ledrut accused Meek of plagiarizing "Telstar" from a song he write for the French film Austerlitz, which kept Meek from collecting royalties on his biggest hit. The suit was finally decided in Meek's favor in 1968.
But by then it was too late. On February 3, 1967, eight years to the day after Buddy Holly's plane went down, Meek swiped a shotgun from Tornados bassist Heinz Burt, shot his landlady, then took his own life.
"Telstar" lived on, in cover versions by dozens of artists, including none other than Duke Ellington. The Tornados broke up in 1965, except for a few fitful partial reunions. The band Muse, now best known for their hit "Starlight," is led by Matthew Bellamy, the son of the Tornados' rhythm guitarist, George Bellamy. But they've never topped "Telstar":