Space the final frontier… It was the other-worldly sci-fi sound that changed music production forever, now Vintage Rock boldly goes where no magazine has gone before to tell the story of The Tornados’ Telstar… By Rob Bradford
Way back in August 1962, I had just celebrated my 10th birthday. Like so many wide-eyed youngsters of that time I was obsessed by all things connected with outer space. But nothing like Joe Meek. In that same month, the legendary producer would help create – almost “direct”, like a movie auteur – the defining ‘space age’ single of the 60s, The Tornados’ Telstar.
Meek had always been fascinated by both sci-fi and outer space and he found plenty of time to indulge his passion during his national service days (1948-50) as a radar operative. When he moved into music – first in radio broadcasting, then as an actual producer – he dived headfirst into cosmic, proto-electronica.
He built up a sound library of FX for his own 1960 project, I Hear A New World (An Outer Space Music Fantasy) – the few original copies pressed are a super-rarity. Meek soon had his own studio at 304 Holloway Road, on the busy A1 in North London.
It was in this tiny space he created records for Mike Berry, The Outlaws, The Flee-Rekkers, Michael Cox, John Leyton and more, and soon his main in-house studio band, The Outlaws, were overwhelmed.
Meek needed another band! So he placed advertisements in Melody Maker and the New Musical Express.
The young Heinz Burt was among the first to apply. Heinz wasn’t the greatest bassist (he was with an Eastleigh group called The Falcons) but he was keen: who wouldn’t want to quit a day job slicing bacon in a Southampton Co-op store? George Bellamy, who had played in various semi-pro groups auditioned, and was recruited as an ideal rhythm guitarist.
Meanwhile both Alan Caddy and Clem Cattini had both been part of Johnny Kidd’s Pirates (successfully) but had ill-advisably jumped ship to join Colin Hicks (Tommy Steele’s brother), with offers of more fame and fortune. They turned out to be false promises, and now the pair were broke.
“Alan Caddy saw an ad that Joe had placed [in Melody Maker] for a guitarist to join a session group,” says Clem.
“I went along to give him moral support. There was a drum kit in the studio and so I just started messing about playing a couple of numbers.
“Joe told Alan he was in and said: ‘Does your mate want a job as well?’ This was the beginning of what would become
Soon, they were backing other artists live as well as making records: Joe got them a gig to be Billy Fury’s new band.
A keyboard player was needed, so Heinz’s ex-Falcons colleague, Norman Hale, was summoned. Hale was a big Billy fan and, importantly for Fury, he was a fellow Scouser.
Meek duly christened his new charges The Tornados, after a line in the John Leyton song Six White Horses (“a tornado swept them away”), and off they went with Fury.
Meek also decided that he would record and release a new single solely with the group. He gave it an apt title, Love And Fury, and in many ways it set the blueprint for what was to come in Telstar – backwards tapes, slight speeding, cavernous echo plus tons of reverb and compression.
Meek’s final mix of Love And Fury was initially rejected by Decca executives who complained that there was far too much echo, reverb, compression and distortion.
Ever the maverick, Meek went away, later sent exactly the same master tape back to Decca (merely telling them that they were right and that he’d made changes) and it was released anyway. Time, then, to really get things going…
Shortly before the end of the Billy Fury tour, which ended in April 1962, Norman Hale was summarily dismissed at ultra-short notice. As Norman himself told me in 2007: “I was fired because Heinz and I were sleeping with too many women. For that era, there was nothing wrong with that. But we began to miss the occasional Tornados rehearsal and soundcheck because we were shagging when we should have been rehearsing.
“That didn’t go down too well with the others. The big problem came when we began missing rehearsals and soundchecks with Billy Fury for the same reason. It was stupid and unprofessional and I deserved to be sacked.
“Larry Parnes got to hear about it and went berserk. Joe didn’t actually want to fire me, but he had no choice. If he hadn’t been so besotted with Heinz, he would have probably fired him too. As it was, he was given a stern dressing down but he was allowed to stay.”
Meek was in a quandary. He had no keyboard player and over 20 Billy Fury dates to still fulfil. Enter Roger LaVern (born Roger Jackson), who had recently moved to London from Kidderminster. LaVern was only a few days away from penury, but on his latest ‘standard rejection’ letter from EMI, a junior aide had helpfully hand-written a brief addendum: “Try Joe Meek – 304 Holloway Road”.
Roger duly found his way to 304 just a day or two after Norman Hale had been fired and passed his audition with flying colours. He was quickly set to work learning Billy Fury’s repertoire. Thus the bemused Tornados finished one show with Norman Hale and, a short while later, started the next one with LaVern. The tour was a great success.
The Tornados’ own Love And Fury generated a certain amount of interest but wasn’t a chart hit. Undeterred, Joe forged ahead. He worked up a dramatic arrangement of Ernesto Lecuona’s The Breeze And I with the sessions taking place during May and June 1962. The band also did some preparatory work on a song called Jungle Fever, the eventual B-side of Telstar.
Telstar: Out Of The Shadows
We really have both The Fentones and The Shadows to thank for Telstar. Joe Meek was happy with the way things were progressing and The Tornados/Billy Fury alliance was proving to be very fruitful over a 10 week summer season at Great Yarmouth’s Windmill Theatre.
With up to a dozen acts who knew each other, parties and get-togethers were common on days off. It was Sunday 8 July when Cattini was chatting with members of The Fentones – an excellent guitar instrumental group in the manner of The Shadows – that he discovered some worrying news. The Fentones had also recorded an instrumental version of The Breeze And I and the single was already being pressed.
The Fentones, who backed singer Shane Fenton (later, Alvin Stardust) were already popular on TV and radio, whereas The Tornados were still relatively unknown. Telephoning his long-standing friend Bruce Welch of The Shadows, Clem hoped for a sympathetic ear for his tales of woe. But things were to get worse.
Bruce informed Clem that The Shadows had also recently recorded a version of The Breeze And I, and that it might be The Shadows’ next single release too. Cattini phoned Joe Meek to tell him the bad news. Apparently Joe was outwardly quite calm and just said: “Don’t worry about it Clem, I’ll come up with something else.” As Joe Meek biographer John Repsch aptly put it: “That ‘something else’ was to be his greatest work.”
As 11 July merged into 12 July, Joe Meek – like millions of others in the UK – watched transfixed as live TV images were beamed direct from the USA for the very first time. They were being transmitted by the Telstar telecommunications satellite. Joe went to bed and fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of Telstar hurtling through space as it orbited the earth transmitting its mysterious sounds and eerie signals back to earth.
Around 5am, after only having slept for three hours or so, he suddenly awoke with an insistent melody spinning around his mind. Over the next hour, he grabbed a microphone, set his tapes running and wailed his melody through cathedral-like echo to the backing of Geoff Goddard’s Try Once More – which really didn’t fit at all.
Apparently, Norman Hale (who Joe had redeployed into another of his groups) briefly dropped by the studio to pick something up on his way to a show in Leeds. He listened to Joe’s ‘demo’ and just had time to play an approximation of Joe’s melody (plus improvised chords) on the ‘jangly’ studio piano a couple of times. Nothing was recorded but it may have given Joe a few more ideas.
By the next day, after wailing an ‘improved’ melody over Mike Berry’s Every Little Kiss, Joe had Dave Adams listen to it a few times. Adams was a fine musician who had recorded many tracks and worked up lots of demos at 304 Holloway Road.
He also recorded for Joe Meek as part of the duo Joy And Dave, as well as in his own right. Subsequently, he recorded a vastly improved ‘second stage’ demo of the song on the clavioline. By now, Joe Meek was convinced that this was to be The Tornados’ brand new single – The Theme Of Telstar. He rang Clem Cattini and told him that the group had to be in the studio at 304 by 10am on Sunday 15 July.
The Space Race
It was quite an ask as both Clem and Roger recalled to their chagrin. Clem said: “We didn’t come off stage in Great Yarmouth until 11.15pm on the Saturday night. The summer season was pretty tiring, but we all piled into Roger’s little Austin A35 van and drove through the night to London.”
“In those days there were hardly any motorways to speak of, certainly not in East Anglia,” said LaVern. “It was
a pretty tiring drive through lots of country roads in the early hours. By the time I’d finally dropped everyone off – we all lived in different parts of London – I didn’t get to bed until about 4am. It was more like 10:30 before we finally started. We were still pretty tired, but Joe was really fired up and excited. Remarkably so, even by his standards.”
Incredibly – even though he had the Dave Adams’ demo of Telstar – Joe began by obliging the group to listen to his own ‘wailing demo’, which bemused them to say the least. But ideas soon formulated. Clem decided that the melody would benefit from a quicker tempo and a Wild Wind type of rhythm. Alan spent quite a bit of time working out the chord progressions – it was he who suggested the key change in the middle.
The opening sequence of chords at the start before the melody proper kicks in was LaVern’s idea. Soon, everyone was fired up almost as much as Joe. Bellamy practised the relentless rhythm guitar part assiduously. Meanwhile, Alan Caddy was painstakingly teaching Heinz the rudimentary bassline which he’d written. LaVern was already laying down layer after layer of both piano and organ as Joe somehow began to create a ‘wall of sound’ without all the facilities at Phil Spector’s fingertips.
Clem had several ideas about the drums and the drum sound but Joe simply recorded everything as he began to pile on overdub after overdub – cleverly built-up by his mastery of ‘sound-on-sound’ and bouncing tracks. On Telstar, Meek took these skills to astonishing heights. John Repsch relates that about 11 hours were spent on Telstar and about one hour on the B-side Jungle Fever.
The group had left Holloway Road very late that Sunday night. They returned to the studio at 10am the next morning, 16 July. They only had four hours, which was known well in advance – unlike the fictitious way the scene was portrayed in Telstar: The Movie – and had to leave London at 2pm in order to be back in Great Yarmouth for Billy Fury once again. Their first show started at 6.15pm and they only just made it in time. “Luckily”, recalled Clem, “we weren’t on right at the very beginning.”
A little more work was done on the backing for Jungle Fever (which was left unfinished until the next day when Goddard added a melody line to complete it), and at least another three hours were spent on Telstar. Caddy was certainly very busy. He persuaded Meek to let him record a completely different, and vastly superior, bassline, as he felt that Heinz’s playing simply wasn’t good enough.
Joe insisted that Heinz’s bass part should stay – but he dubbed Alan’s bass part on as well. He also doubled up George Bellamy’s acoustic rhythm by playing virtually the same on an electric guitar. By now, Caddy only had time to record the main lead guitar solo once through, one take. Joe told him not to worry as he’d simply ‘clone’ the solo for re-use, which indeed he did.
Following the Torandos’ departure for Great Yarmouth, Joe had arranged for his eminence grise and keyboard player extraordinaire Goddard to travel up from Reading on the afternoon of Monday 16 July (Geoff arrived about
30 minutes after The Tornados departed) in order to complete Telstar by laying down the lead melody on the clavioline.
Again, as described in John Repsch’s superb biography The Legendary Joe Meek, Geoff spent just over six hours playing the melody over and over, with Joe working his magic as well as double-tracking and then getting Geoff to play the melody at different settings – all the while thickening the sound (not to mention adding even more echo, reverb and other esoteric sonic trickery).
Geoff also added harp-like tinkling arpeggios using the ‘jangly’ studio piano. Finally Geoff added the otherworldly “Ah-ah-ah-ing”, also tracked several times, and then took a mere 30 minutes or so to finish off Jungle Fever.
By 10pm that night, Meek was experimenting with various mixes as a thunderstorm was raging (confirmed by meteorological records of the time). Joe didn’t know it, but in terms of sound production, he had just created arguably the greatest instrumental single ever released. Joe had also concocted an incredible array of bizarre, space-like sounds to begin and end the record, as well as speeding the whole thing up, thereby raising the pitch. It all helped to create an incredible end product.
Meek’s friend, the Ivy Music publisher Roy Berry, liked Joe’s acetate “The Theme Of Telstar” (which he played to him on the Tuesday of that week – 17 July) and nervously suggested that Joe should simply call the track Telstar. Remarkably, Joe agreed.
The next day, executives at Decca (especially in view of ‘Telstar mania’ and public interest) said they saw its potential, even if they had misgivings about the unheard levels of compression, reverb and echo: Roy Berry had to calm down a fulminating Meek after one Decca executive thought that the beginning of the record was scratched (clearly not fully cognisant of Joe’s marvellous opening FX).
But by Friday 20 July, slightly less than five days after The Tornados started work from scratch, Joe’s final master tape was with Decca. Three weeks later, Telstar was in the shops.
- Read more: Rock’n’roll instrumentals
To Boldly Go…
Five weeks later in September 1962 Telstar was a No.1 and its success was repeated on an international scale: in December 1962 it became the very first record by a UK group to top the USA charts – well over a year before The Beatles did so. In the Arena TV documentary about Joe Meek, Heinz related that The Tornados thought the finished article – which reached them as an acetate on 21 July in Great Yarmouth – was “crap!”
Certainly it would have been unrecognisable to them, and Cattini has always said that the main concern was not that they thought it was terrible, but rather how on earth they would ever be able to play it live with just five musicians onstage.
Of course, The Tornados all just dismissed the idea, never expecting their new single to be a hit at all… until, by mid-September, Telstar was in the Top 20 and still climbing. It’s a lovely story that, finally realising that they would have to play it live (and the acetates long having been discarded and/or worn out), The Tornados had to go to a local record shop in order to buy copies of their own record so that they could re-learn it for live shows.
Present estimated global worldwide sales of Telstar are circa 6,000,000, which is remarkable for 20 hours work. But Telstar was more than that, it was the distillation of Joe Meek’s vast experience of working on more than 1,500 commercially released tracks, 15 years expertise, and a primitive but unrivalled vision of ‘electronica’, all crammed in to just over three minutes of sonic genius.
Joe Meek biographer John Repsch sums it up perfectly: “Nothing like it had ever been heard before and, as intended, it conjured up the very image of a television satellite racing through space: stuttering to life with the noise of generators it built into a pulsating blast-off to the main theme, surging forward with the electronic clavioline, then easing into a calmer, cruising, silvery guitar break and finally soaring resolutely away on a crescendo of rampant energy and freedom. Not bad value for 6s.6d.”
Telstar still sounds as fresh today as it did 62 years ago. It continues to reverberate – stately and mysterious, timelessly working its magic and casting its spell. There are over 500 cover versions of Telstar worldwide but very few, if any, come anywhere close to Meek’s masterly original recording.
Cattini even told me this recently: “We’ve re-recorded Telstar ourselves several times – once even with the original musicians. The last time, we had a 48-track studio, all the latest up to date gadgets, computer technology, the lot! Musically it was great, but, even with all that modern equipment and recording/computer experts at our disposal, we simply couldn’t get anywhere near the sounds that Joe got on the original.
“To this day, I’ll never know how Joe did it all by himself. He was a sound recording genius, pure and simple.”
Rob Bradford has worked as a consultant for many reissue labels including Ace, Demon, EMI, Polygram and Western Star and was chairman for five years of The Joe Meek Appreciation Society. He was consultant to director/screenplay writer Nick Moran on the 2008 film, Telstar: The Joe Meek Story. Click here for more info.