Telstar – The Tornadoes
The idea of penning and recording your own hit record from a room above a shop in Holloway Road London, sounds like the story of modern DIY computer based recording rather than a global hit from 1962, but that is exactly how this ground-breaking single was made.
Writer & Producer Joe Meek had set up his own production company RGM Sound Ltd and built a home studio at 304 Holloway Road, the first number one record recorded here was Johnny Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me” in 1961. At ten years old Meek had been given a gramophone and was fascinated by discovery that he could shout into the machine when the stylus was in the run-out groove and he could hear it back. His love for electronics was exploited during National Service by The Royal Air Force, working as a radar technician after which he worked for the Midlands Electricity Board before becoming an audio technician for a production company in 1954. By this time he had already acquired a disc cutter and produced his own records.
Fascinated by Outer-Space, Meek’s production of the Clavoline Keyboard (an early type of synthesiser that uses valves to produce a square wave) that plays the main melody is given a gargantuan amount of compression that made it jump out of the small speakers of transistor radios at the time. Meek said that his music was “completely pop minded”; the antithesis of the uncorrupted and transparent sounds of classical and jazz recordings of the time. Even pop music had a more natural sound, listen to former number ones of 1962 such as Acker Bilk’s Stranger On The Shore & Cliff Richard’s The Young One’s and you can begin to understand how revolutionary and exiting this must have sounded as it was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
The song starts with mechanical effects, before a chromatic lift off takes you on a Flash Gordon adventure; with the actual Telstar satellite orbiting overhead it must have felt like the future had arrived. Not only did the British public embrace this shiny new rocket shaped sound, it became the first US number one for a British band. (The first artist was Vera Lynn in 1952, second the aforementioned Acker Bilk in 1962).
Sadly, Meeks love for Outer Space & the Occult (he would regularly set up tape machines in graveyards to capture voices from the dead) along with a plagiarism lawsuit from French composer Jean Ledrut that stopped Meek from earning any royalties from Telstar and the belief that Decca placed “secret” microphones in the walls of his studio, all fuelled his depression and paranoia which culminated in him shooting his landlady and himself in 1967.
The Tornadoes themselves would limp on through the sixties with various line-up changes, eventually reforming for a remake of Telstar in 1975 which lacks the atmosphere & vibe of the original.