Working feverishly in his North London studio in 1962, Joe Meek created the sound of the space age and a tribute to the first global communications satellite, Telstar. Charles Monagan describes how the song perfectly captured the arrival of JFK, the Peace Corps, the space program and the optimism for an era of global harmony, even while the dark clouds of Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, et al. loomed. We know now how things played out. But we didn’t know it then. So…
Submitted for your approval: the thundering instrumental “Telstar” by the Tornados.
Do you know it? It was a big hit back in 1962, when I was 12. I thought at the time that it was a great song. In fact, for quite a while it was my favorite song. It was powerful, stirring and even transforming. At its beginning and end, it included the cool effect of what sounded like an actual rocket rising from the launch pad. The upward mounting music was clearly meant to provide a soundtrack for rocket launches, specifically the launch of Telstar, the global communication satellite, the first, and one that both President Kennedy and I felt confident would tie the world together in a compact of lasting peace and prosperity. But the music was good enough to accompany other launches, too, including those with astronauts aboard. Every time I heard the song on the radio, I could imagine men soaring up toward the heavens, carrying the American flag to bold new destinations, where they would make discoveries that would benefit all of humanity. “Telstar” made me feel proud. It was the theme song for America’s undimmed future, and mine, too.
That was the thing about 1962: Everything seemed to be heading in the right direction. If you were willing to ignore things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the growing stream of U.S. advisors entering Vietnam, and continual hellacious nuclear bomb testing on the part of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the world could seem like a wonderful place. America had a youthful, forward looking leader, one we could all be proud of. The Peace Corps was sending earnest, idealistic kids into foreign jungles that otherwise might fall into scheming Communist hands. To great acclaim, John Glenn had just become the first American, if not the first human, to orbit the earth. The glow from the International Geophysical Year was still detectable, with its vision of undersea trains, solar-powered cities, and the peaceful parceling out among nations of the virgin real estate of Antarctica.
“What a glorious time to be free,” Donald Fagen was later to sing, and so it was.
And then along came Telstar, perhaps the most auspicious development of all. The satellite was the size of a beachball and weighed 170 pounds. It was launched on July 10, 1962, from Cape Canaveral, FL, atop a Thor-Delta rocket. The project was sponsored not by the U.S. government but by AT&T, the communications monopoly, whose Bell Labs had designed Telstar and given it its futuristic name. The idea was that Telstar and its successors would orbit the earth, sending and receiving images and telephone communications using a network of six enormous satellite dishes that stretched from Maine to Italy.
That was the thing about 1962: Everything seemed to be heading in the right direction.
Telstar couldn’t achieve continuous coverage, only 18-minute bursts. Its first public transmission came on July 23. President Kennedy was to lead things off, but the feed was ready before he was, so instead Europe saw a live picture from Wrigley Field in Chicago, where the Cubs were playing the Phillies – Tony Taylor hit a pitch from Cal Koonce to Cubs right fielder George Altman. Then the feed jumped to Kennedy’s press conference, where he hailed Telstar as “an essential requirement for peace,” one that would “increase the security and well-being of all people.” From there, the program swung to live images of Niagara Falls, the World’s Fair in Seattle, a rehearsal among actors at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and finally close-ups of the faces on Mount Rushmore as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Three hours later, as Telstar made its way around the globe and back into position, it was Europe’s turn to show off, with set-ups from the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, the Tower of London, a Sicilian fishing village and a selection from “La Tosca” amid ancient Roman ruins, among others.
To viewers everywhere it all seemed miraculous, but perhaps no more so than to one feverish brain working in his North London recording studio. Joe Meek was already something of a legend as a sound engineer and producer. He was regarded as an unstable genius, one who couldn’t hold down a job at a traditional recording studio, but whose willingness to throw anything at hand – instrument, idea or kitchen sink – into a record helped him become a pioneer of space age and experimental pop. His fascination with space at times took him several steps too far (at one point he claimed aliens were substituting his speech by controlling his mind), but one can imagine him wanting to capture the thrill, the power, the thrust of the space age. He was as far out as Telstar was.
Meek came up with the basic idea of “Telstar,” and brought his bizarre, wildly off-key demo to his studio’s 5-man session band, the Tornados. He knew they could make something of it. To better capture the spacey sound he was looking for, he also brought in musician Geoff Goddard to play the clavioline, the forerunner to the analog synthesizer. He patched in other sounds, too, including, it was reported, a flushing toilet played back in reverse, to simulate the sound of a rocket taking off.
By the time “Telstar” fell off the charts, the satellite itself had lost its ability to transmit back to earth.
Meek and the musicians worked fast. They wanted to capitalize on the world’s sudden infatuation with the new satellite and its lofty aspirations. The single was launched by Decca on August 17. It soon reached No. 1 on the charts in England, Ireland, Belgium and South Africa. In the U.S., released on the London label, it hit Billboard’s No. 1 in December and spent 16 weeks on the magazine’s Hot 100 chart. Overall, “Telstar” sold some 5 million copies worldwide.
By the time “Telstar” fell off the charts, the satellite itself had lost its ability to transmit back to earth. Ironically, this humble symbol of global cooperation and good will was done in by overdoses of radiation brought on by the insane testing of high-altitude nuclear bombs by the U.S. and U.S.S.R.
Meanwhile, the music lived on. “Telstar” went on to be recorded any number of times over the years (my favorite remake has long been Ronnie Montrose’s powerful 1988 version). The Tornados original was used to end an episode of Mad Men.
The song is still, at age 57, used as the walk-out song for several European soccer teams. Margaret Thatcher, of all people, once named “Telstar” as one of her all-time favorite pop songs.
As for me, I can still be moved by the original, not only for its urgent, trashy, uplifting power and glory, but also for my own lost days, the dreams of youth, and of a country still young and big-hearted enough to imagine and work toward a more harmonious world.