It's July 10, 1962. Millions of people are watching television hoping to catch a glimpse of the first transmission from a tiny communications satellite called Telstar. Among those who are sitting glued to their TV sets is a British music producer named Joe Meek.
An avowed space buff, Meek watches with wonder as the first transmission is relayed and the first TV picture-an American flag-is beamed from space. The age of telecommunications has begun.
Meek is inspired by what he has seen. After the show ends, he begins work on a new composition he calls "The Theme from Telstar." The song has an infectious melody and Meek realizes it has all the makings of a hit.
The next morning, he gives a call to the Tornadoes, a crack instrumental outfit popular on the British club circuit. They trek up to Meek's studios at 304 Holloway Road in North London to give a listen to Meek's latest stab at pop immortality. Although they are not immediately impressed by "Telstar," they decided to give it a try anyway.
After the session is completed, the Tornadoes (below) leave Meek's studio and go back on the road. But Meek-a visionary producer with an abiding love for weird special effects-is far from done. He knows his ode to "Telstar" needs something extra. First, he overdubs the sound of a Clavioline, an electronic keyboard with an otherworldly sound.
And, finally, for extra effect, Meek adds the reverberation of a rocket lifting off (purportedly the sound of a flushed toilet played backwards).
In one frenzied burst, Meek creates a three-minute pop music masterpiece. Decca Records, hearing its potential, rushes the record out with the shortened title "Telstar" and, in short order, it vaults to number one on the British music charts. Eventually, it becomes the best-selling instrumental in the country's history.
Overseas, "Telstar" is an international sensation. When the single climbs to number one in the U.S., the Tornadoes achieve the notable distinction of being the first British group to top the charts in America, a full year before the Beatles and the British Invasion.
Meanwhile Telstar, the satellite, is making quite an impression in space. The 170-pound experimental "bird," created by AT&T's Bell Labs and launched into elliptical orbit by NASA, is transmitting international phone calls, television programs, radio signals, and newspaper stories. When a Washington dignitary accidentally rings up a bewildered woman in Texas, the satellite makes news again: Telstar has sent the first wrong number through space.
Telstar is considered an unqualified success for AT&T. But then, without warning, the satellite falls silent. Radiation from a nuclear test back on Earth has destroyed Telstar's delicate circuitry. The satellite that captured the world's imagination is suddenly nothing more than a very expensive piece of space junk.
Not long after the satellite is damaged, Meek's life, as if linked by fate, begins a long downward spiral. His obsessions with the occult and his sexual orientation make him an outcast in British society. An even-more devastating blow comes in the form of a frivolous lawsuit filed by a French composer who insists the melody to "Telstar" has been lifted by Meek.
Broken-hearted, disillusioned, and washed-up in the music industry, Meek takes his life in 1967. Despite the tragic ending, Meek's stature as a producer and songwriter continues; in particular, his contributions to the recording process-pioneering experiments in compression and close-miking-are belatedly been recognized by his peers.
A whole new generation of listeners pick up on the quirky, atmospheric quality of the "Meeksville Sound." Almost four decades after its release, "Telstar" is still one of the finest examples of instrumental rock ever created, evoking that brief moment in time when a telecommunications satellite could inspire a stirring anthem to the space-age.
Amazing but true: the Joe Meek Stereo Compressor recreates the fabled sound heard on "Telstar" and other fab hits. Get one today and make your own "Telstar."
The cult of Joe is also dissected at Meeksville. Great stuff here...all the lurid details and lots of informative essays.
Illustrations (top to bottom): Courtesy of AT&T Archives; Courtesy of Clive Bubley, ©1967-2003 Clive Bubley; Collection of Eric Lefcowitz; Courtesy of NASA; Courtesy of NASA; Courtesy of AT&T Archives.