It must have sounded to many like their record players or radios were malfunctioning at first. Telstar slowly fades in like no number 1 had ever done, to the sound of white noise, conjuring up images of the satellite the song was named after, before the clavioline begins and the tune gallops into life. Joe Meek’s imaginative masterpiece was a futuristic, optimistic anthem promising (like popular culture did so much at the time) a bright space-age future. But for its creator, it ultimately resulted in his life spiralling out of control, leading to murder and suicide.
Meek was obsessed with technology, so the launch of the Telstar communications satellite was a natural source of inspiration for him. He had become intrigued by the sound of the clavioline on the Dave Cortez hit The Happy Organ, and must have felt the instrument would help his new instrumental sound suitably space age. He gave the song to his group The Tornados, who formed in 1960, before providing backing for rock’n’roller Billy Fury. Like The Shadows with Cliff Richard, they also recorded instrumentals under their own name. In 1962 the group consisted of Clem Cattini on drums, who had already recorded several number 1s and would go on to perform more than anyone else, George Bellamy on rhythm guitar (father of Muse frontman Matt Bellamy, and very possibly an influence on that band), bassist Heinz Burt, lead guitarist Alan Caddy and Norman Hale on keyboards.
Meek produced Telstar in his usual (or unusual) way, recording the bulk of the track with the band in his flat. After laying down the main instruments, his associate Geoff Goddard, who had written Meek’s previous number 1, Johnny Remember Me added the clavioline that made the tune so unique, Meek was then in his element, adding the effects that were his signature. That sound of a spacecraft taking off at the beginning is in fact his toilet flushing, in reverse. Meek was achieving backwards effects four years before George Martin and The Beatles were experimenting along similar lines. Deciding that this new song needed something to help bring it to a climax, he hit upon the idea of adding a wordless vocal to mirror the clavioline, which Goddard also provided. The Tornados thought this was a bad idea, and you can’t blame them, as such a technique wasn’t well known at the time. Who’d heard of an instrumental with singing on it? At some point, the group also filmed a primitive video, with film clips of astronauts interspersed with the Tornados playing along. So much for Bohemian Rhapsody being the first music video.
Ever since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the US became obsessed with the space age, and sure enough the UK followed suit. Telstar tapped into this feeling like no other song had even attempted at that point. Listening to this joyous sound, record buyers must have felt the future was now, and that it would only be a matter of time before they or their children would be living on the moon. 56 years later, it’s truly remarkable that such a song could come from the troubled mind of a schizophrenic in his independent home studio. The charts had come a long way since Al Martino’s Here in My Heart, nearly 10 years previous.
Telstar was one of the biggest-selling singles of the year and became the first US number 1 to come from a UK group. Capitalising on its success, Meek produced a new version, with lyrics, entitled Magic Star, sung by Kenny Hollywood, but the lyrics took away some of the song’s mystery.
Sadly, the original single was caught up in a legal battle when French composer Jean Ledrut accused Meek of plagiarising La Marche d’Austerlitz, a part of a score he had composed for the 1960 film Auschwitz. Meek claimed to have never seen the film (it hadn’t been released in the UK at this point), but the lawsuit prevented him from receiving any royalties for his biggest hit. Come 1967, this would have fatal repercussions.
In 1963, with Beatlemania on the rise (Meek had turned down the chance to work with the Fab Four), instrumental groups were losing ground, and The Tornados began to fall apart. This was in part due to Meek’s growing obsession with the bassist Heinz, who he had convinced he could make a solo star. Unfortunately, Heinz couldn’t sing, and the vocals on his solo debut were over-dubbed. Audiences weren’t keen, and poor Heinz would be attacked on stage, with beans thrown over him (Heinz Baked Beans, y’see). Eventually Heinz and Meek fell out, with Heinz leaving behind a shotgun…
In 1965 Clem Cattini left The Tornados to go on to a safer and hugely successful career as a session drummer, and the band were left with no original members. In 66, the band made history again, releasing the first openly gay song, Do You Come Here Often? as a B-side The organ-led instrumental featured a casual conversation between two seemingly-homosexual men. The Tornados would do what countless 60s bands went on to do, namely reforming in a million different line-ups, and recorded various versions of Telstar. The original will always be the best. It was also one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite songs, but don’t let that put you off.
Written & produced by: Joe Meek
Weeks at number 1: 5 (4 October-7 November)
Presenter Caron Keating – 5 October
Actress Nicola Bryant – 11 October
Artist Naive John – 18 October
Comedian Boothby Graffoe – 20 October – t
Presenter Nick Hancock – 25 October
Actor Cary Elwes – 26 October
Activist Hugh Franklin – 21 October
Journalist Percy Cudlipp – 5 November
5 October: The day after Telstar reached number 1, the public were served notice that soon the worlds of music and cinema would be changed dramatically, heralding the start of the 60s, two years after they’d actually began. The first James Bond film, Dr No, starring Sean Connery, and The Beatles’ Love Me Do, were released.