Thursday, July 08, 2010


In 1962, the British pop group The Tornadoes, released the instrumental "Telstar," named after an AT&T communications satellite orbited to relay radio and television signals. The instrumental, which featured an electronic device, the claveoline, that sounded rather like an anemic roller-rink organ, shot up with a bullet to become number #1 in the U.K. and the first record by a British group to hit #1 on Billboard's Top 100 in the U.S., a precursor of the British Invasion led by the Beatles a couple years later. Other British groups had hits in the U.S., but "Telstar" was the first trickle of the eventual flood from the U.K.

The Telstar satellite was launched in July, and the record hit the stores five weeks later, in August. Fast turnaround in those days.

Written and produced by Joe Meek, who was reportedly tone-deaf, the novelty tune was meant to evoke the new space age, and welcome to the future. Meek, a workaholic producer, tried to turn The Tornadoes into The Shadows, another U.K. group that was hot at the time, and considered the only British group worth listening to, according to John Lennon. The Shadows had a lot of hits in the U.K. and are probably best known in the U.S. for Jørgen Ingmann's cover version of their guitar instrumental, "Apache."

The Tornadoes didn't make it. "Telstar" was the only song the original group had chart in the U.S. though they did have a couple moderate hits in the U.K., and they broke up when the bassist, Heinz Burt, embarked on a solo career. (Meek had fallen in love with Burt, dyed his hair white and tried to make him a rock star, but couldn't pull it off.)

Burt apparently lived with Meek for some years. Meek was in the closet, and Burt always claimed there was no physical relationship between them, and his family denies it -- he married a woman, didn't he?

Vernon Hopkins, who was for a while Tom Jones's bassist, says he didn't know Meek was gay until he saw Burt naked in Meek's bed.

Burt died in 2000 following complications from a stroke.

I thought "Telstar" was the cat's pajamas and the bee's knees when I heard it, that would have been the summer I was mostly fourteen. (I have worked up a fingerstyle version of it on my own guitar I've almost gotten down.)

Joe Meek, who had been a radio engineer in the military and something of an electronics wizard -- he hand-built one of the first TV sets in the country -- was also dyslexic, and prone to depression. (One of his productions for The Tornadoes, "Do You Come Here Often," is touted as the first openly gay record, with a dialog between two queens toward the end of it, following what sounds like a-couples-only-skate number at the roller rink.)

Meek was sued by a French composer, Jean Ledrut, for stealing the tune for "Telstar," and royalties were tied up. The suit ended with the judges deciding there was no intentional plagiarism, but that those four bars did seem the same. Ledrut got 8500 quid. But by then, Meek had been dead for a year.

When the Beatles came along and rock music changed, Meek was unable to keep the hits coming. He did produce "Have I the Right?" by the Honeycombs, a one-hit-wonder group known for having a girl drummer. After he was arrested while "cottaging," a term used for secret trysts by the gay community, his reputation suffered.

In February, 1967, after an argument with his landlady, he took a shotgun owned by Heinz Burt, murdered the landlady, then killed himself.

It was the eighth anniversary of the death of Buddy Holly, one of Meek's musical heroes. Bad day to ask for the rent, apparently.

Couple years back, somebody did a movie about his life, Telstar: The Joe Meek Story.

Instrumentals rarely make it to the top of the Billboard pop charts. In fifty-odd years among thousands of songs, only nineteen instrumentals have hit #1:

Billboard Hot 100 #1

Billboard Top 20 Instrumentals

1 comment:

Olli said...

Meek had his first number one in the UK with Johnny Remember me, and he had a huge number of songs that didn't quite make the UK number 1.
The Honeycombs had four successive number ones in Sweden and Japan al produced by Meek. To say that The Beatles came along or that music had moved on is a bit of an oversimplification. There have been innumerable number ones since Telstar or Have I The Right that were musically more simplistic and frankly trite. The reasons for Meek's arguably limited success were many and varied. But an interesting article nevertheless.