141. The Tornados – Telstar (1962)

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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 ten 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.

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. 5 October saw the release of the first James Bomd film, Dr No, starring Sean Connery, and the Beatles first single in their own right, Love Me Do, was also released.

Written & produced by: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 5 (4 October-7 November)

Births:

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

Deaths:

Activist Hugh Franklin – 21 October
Journalist Percy Cudlipp – 5 November 

124. John Leyton – Johnny Remember Me (1961)

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With the exception of the Everly Brothers’ Cathy’s Clown and Temptation, we’ve yet to have any number 1 singles that showed any sign of evolution in production techniques. Pop had simplified since the inception of the charts, and most producers simply got the act in a studio and recorded live or as close to as possible, in as few takes as they could. Eccentric genius Joe Meek helped to change all that, and broadened pop’s horizons. And all from a flat above a leather goods shop in Islington.

Meek had been interested in electronics most of his life. Growing up in Newent, Gloucestershire, he filled his parents’ shed with old radios, circuitry and random electronic paraphernalia. He worked as a radar technician during his national service, and then in 1953 he worked for the Midlands Electric Board, using their resources to produce his first record. Meek later became an audio engineer, at first for a radio company, before first making his presence felt in the charts in 1956, upsetting jazz musician Humphrey Lyttelton by compressing the sound of his single Bad Penny Blues. Despite this, it became a hit. He was also involved in Anne Shelton’s number 1, Lay Down Your Arms, but I won’t hold that against him too much (I decided this was the worst number 1 single of 1957, here).

Meek co-founded Triumph Records in 1960, and the company had a top 10 hit with Angela Jones by Michael Cox, but Meek’s fiery temperament combined with distribution issues meant the label lasted less than a year. Soon after he conceived and produced concept album I Hear a New World, years before the term even existed. I first heard this around 13 years ago, and didn’t appreciate it anywhere near as much as I should have. I’ve just re-listened to prepare me for writing about Meek, and while the album (that was shelved for decades) is so primitive as to be amusing in places, it’s also astounding to think such a thing was being worked on as early as 1960. At times the album resembles ambient music, again, decades before the term existed. With the help of financial backing from a fellow eccentric, Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks, he set up his own production company, RGM Sound Limited, and ran it from his flat at 304 Holloway Road. One of Meek’s acts, Geoff Goddard, had tried to become famous under the alias Anton Hollywood (!) but fame eluded him. One night, a haunting song came to Goddard in a dream. He woke with a start and immediately sang it into the tape recorder he kept by his bedside. In an era in which teenage tragedy songs were performing so well, Johnny Remember Me could potentially be a huge hit. This gothic tale of a man haunted by his love’s spirit had a memorably eerie chorus. They just needed Meek to work his magic, and find the right singer.

John Leyton was an Essex-born actor who had worked his way up from bit parts on television and in films to becoming well-known due to his part as Ginger in Granada’s adaptation of Biggles. His good looks even earned him a fan club. Leyton’s manager was Australian-born entrepreneur Robert Stigwood, who went on to manage Cream and the Bee Gees. The Robert Stigwood Organisation, or RSO, eventually went into film production and was responsible for Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here… Stigwood thought Leyton should record a cover of Tell Laura I Love Her with Meek, but Ricky Valance reached number 1 in 1960 with his version, and Leyton’s was withdrawn from sale. Clearly thinking that Leyton could portray the camp drama needed for their own death disc, Meek gave Leyton another shot and recorded Johnny Remember Me with him. Charles Blackwell looked after the arrangement. Leyton later recalled that the kitchen sink production involved Meek actually producing from the kitchen, with him in the sitting room, backing singers in the bathroom and string players upstairs.

With its urgent, galloping rhythm, courtesy of backing band the Outlaws, Johnny Remember Me begins like a theme from a western (a clever touch – this genre was still very popular in the UK), but the lyrics suggest a very British drama, with references to mist and the moors bringing to mind Wuthering Heights. When the ghostly wail of Lissa Grey takes over in the chorus, you’re aware you’re listening to a pretty special song. I’m not sure what the sounds are that Meek conjures up in the instrumental break, but I haven’t heard anything that unusual in a number 1 up to this point. Meek’s production is perfect, managing to sound ghostly without sounding cheesy. British pop had just taken a leap forward, and on a shoestring budget.

Stigwood’s idea to promote Johnny Remember Me was a masterstroke, and will have played a key factor in its success. Leyton had just bagged a role in ITV drama Harpers West One. He played rock star Johnny Saint-Cyr, and in one scene he had to perform in front of adoring female fans. Stigwood suggested he perform his new single, and the plan paid off. Leyton took Johnny Remember Me to number 1 for three weeks, before Shirley Bassey took over, but Leyton then went back to the top for a fourth week.

Leyton’s follow-up, Wild Wind, went to number 2, but the following year his association with Meek and Goddard ended. He took on more acting work to stay busy (including a part in 1963’s The Great Escape), but by the 1980s he had retired from showbusiness. However, in the 90s he began performing on the nostalgia circuit, which he still does to this day, with his backing band the Flames. My parents have seen him, and my dad says he looks ridiculously young despite being 82. As we know, Meek didn’t go on to enjoy a long life, but that’s a story for another time…

Although Meek was gay, in 1961 such matters were still considered something to be ashamed of in mainstream culture. But things were slowly changing. On 31 August the movie Victim was released, and made history as the first film to feature the word ‘homosexual’. The subject matter also came up in A Taste of Honey, a cinematic adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s kitchen sink play, that was released on 14 September. Also that month, a stand collapsed during a match involving Glasgow Rangers at Ibrox Park on 16 September. Three people died and 35 suffered injuries.  The following day, police arrested over 1300 protestors during a CND rally in Trafalgar Square.

Oh, and a brief snatch of Johnny Remember Me made a cameo appearance in Bronski Beat and Marc Almond’s version of I Feel Love in 1985. Quite why they two acts decided to stick the chorus to this in the middle of a medley of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and Love to Love Your Baby, I do not know, but the video makes for an amusing watch. Enjoy Jimmy Somerville and Marc Almond trying to out-camp each other here.

Written by: Geoff Goddard

Producer: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 4 (31 August-20 September, 28 September-4 October)

Births:

Actor Kevin Kennedy – 7 September
Author Tom Holt – 13 September

Deaths:

Scottish sculptor Sir William Reid Dick – 1 October