A British ante-invasion: “Telstar,” 17 August 1962
By Gordon Thompson
Many describe the 1964 arrival of the Beatles in New York as the beginning of the “British Invasion,” but UK rock and pop had begun culturally infiltrating our consciousness much earlier. Indeed, a London instrumental group topped American charts in the fall of 1962 with a recording that celebrated the first telecommunications satellite. Launched from Cape Canaveral on 10 July, Telstar initiated transatlantic telephone, television, and image transmissions by relaying beamed signals. The pace of multidirectional globalization in popular music increased almost immediately.
Joe Meek — one of the most iconoclastic figures in British music history — had managed to be fired by almost every employer he had ever had the opportunity to offend, even though his audio engineering intuition lay behind some notable hits, albeit hitherto only on British charts. He had designed the mixing board at Lansdowne Studios, one of London’s most successful independent recording facilities, and in 1960, he set up his own idiosyncratic studio on Holloway Road in North London. Here, he could experiment with the audio possibilities he heard in his head and not have to answer to anyone about how he achieved them.
The launch of Telstar appealed to Meek’s obsession with space travel and science fiction, nurtured in part by his National Service deployment at a radar station. He imagined the roar of the rocket, the missile racing into the sky, and a satellite perched high in the atmosphere. Wanting to capture and to transform this vision, Meek created a musical metaphor with a series of upward melodic leaps, but he lacked the skills to realize the song fully. Rummaging through his tape library, he came across the backing track to a recording (“Try Once More”) that had about the right tempo for his proto melody and superimposed his warbling voice over the music. He then turned to the Tornados, a group that normally backed the Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Billy Fury, but whom Meek often hired as session musicians for his studio. He expected them to translate his efforts into music and to realize his song.
Listening to the bizarre pastiche recording, the band members commenced to reworking the melody, realizing a harmonic structure to support it, and developing a rhythmic groove that articulated Meek’s optimistic excitement. Drummer Clem Cattini remembers that the band had to come to grips with a “melody that… had nothing to do with the actual chord structure that was on the backing track.” Nevertheless, none of the Tornados would receive any composing credit for their contributions, even though they were responsible for transforming Meek’s howls into music.
To add a futuristic touch to the recording, Meek had another musician, Geoff Goddard, double the melody on an early electronic keyboard, the Clavioline. The bright buzzing sound (already heard on recordings such as Del Shannon’s “Runaway”) helped to capture the spirit of the moment, but Meek still felt something lacking. Where was the rocket? Playing with a tight echo, he created a loop between the tape deck’s playback and record heads that transformed what sounds like rushing water (a flushing toilet?) into the roar of a Thor-Delta missile.
The recording soared to the top of the charts when released fifty years ago on 17 August 1962. Along with it, the Tornados rose to stardom in their own right and were excited to learn that they had an invitation to tour the United States to promote the disk; but their manager, Larry Parnes, insisted that the only way they could go would be as the backing band for Billy Fury. Given that few on the western side of the Atlantic knew or cared about Fury, tour dreams fizzled for the Tornados and, one by one, they disappeared into London’s session scene.
Although clarinetist Acker Bilk would have a transatlantic hit in 1963 with “Stranger on the Shore,” he hardly qualified as a rock musician and he certainly failed to generate much excitement. It would be over a year before another British recording would shatter the American musical consciousness when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” subverted its way into the Billboard charts. But in 1962, “Telstar” demonstrated what could be and hinted at what would be.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.