Behind the Song: The Tornados, “Telstar”

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The name Joe Meek doesn’t mean much to the casual music listener. But Joe Meek, in one way or another, began changing music as we know it in the 1950s and ‘60s as a revolutionary producer and engineer, a visionary who created numerous recording innovations and wasn’t afraid to use them. Before Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” or Eddie Kramer’s work with Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, there was Joe Meek. And before the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five invaded America, Meek had already done it as the writer and producer of the revolutionary instrumental “Telstar,” recorded by British group The Tornados.

“Telstar” was named for the experimental Telstar communications satellite that was launched into space in 1962. With a melody produced by the odd-sounding clavioline, a forerunner of the synthesizer, Meek and The Tornados created what some called “space rock,” featuring the overdubbed sound of a rocket leaving the launch pad that was purportedly Meek’s toilet recorded backwards. The record wasn’t completely about special effects, though. The Tornados could really play, and were the backing band for other acts that Meek successfully produced. While it became well-known as a favorite at roller rinks, “Telstar” sold millions of copies, and is said to be the first number one record in the U.S. by a British band. And it was taken seriously enough compositionally to be recorded by the Ventures and other acts.

Ah, but you say this feature is supposed to be called “Lyric of the Week,” so where’s the lyric? Well, Joe Meek, seeing the opportunity to capitalize on the success of “Telstar” while the song was hot, wrote some space-worthy lyrics and dubbed his new creation “Magic Star,” producing it with a vocal by young singer Kenny Hollywood. With words like Magic Star above/send a message to my lover/tell her that I’ll wait patiently/Sad and so lonely/Dreaming of her only/Swift and graceful as a dove way up above, it was maudlin to be sure, and didn’t sell anywhere near what “Telstar“ did.

Meek’s innovative recording techniques and “anything goes” attitude influenced an entire generation of engineers and producers. In the 1990s British singer Ted Fletcher created a company to sell compressors, pre-amps and other recording studio equipment, and, because of the influence that Meek had had upon his career, Fletcher named the company Joemeek. Countless major recordings of the past two decades have been recorded using Joemeek brand outboard studio equipment.

Considering that Meek really couldn’t sing or play an instrument, what he did with music is quite remarkable. His career didn’t last all that much longer, though, as he died less than five years after “Telstar” topped the charts from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. He will live on through “Telstar,” which will remain one of the best-known instrumentals of all time, especially now that popular instrumental music is pretty much a thing of the past. Tornados drummer Clem Cattini became a legendary session player on some of the biggest hit records of the 1960s, and played with Paul Weller as recently as 2010. And rhythm guitarist George Bellamy may be best known today as the father of Matt Bellamy, the front man for British rock band Muse. “Telstar” was exposed to a new generation via the 2008 film Telstar: The Joe Meek Story, starring Kevin Spacey and James Corden.

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