There’s a special place in the constellations for the brilliant British pop producer and innovator Joe Meek and his 1962 instrumental hit “Telstar.”
Britain’s musical eccentrics and studio experimentalists did not enjoy the same host of independent labels that America’s did in the 1950s and ‘60s. Joe Meek’s vision of pop sonics was so strong and so distinct – and his production techniques so eccentric – that he chose to, or rather had to, work outside the conservative studio system then dominating the British music scene. And so, after a few fairly constrained years as an engineer in London’s IBC studios, Meek set up shop in his own London flat, recording on his home-made equipment and recording very much on his own terms, leasing the masters he made to the big British labels. His maverick studio shop was a bold move, but the Joe Meek sound proved not only immediately identifiable but also quite successful. Many of his recordings were British hits, and some, like the Honeycombs’ “Have I the Right,” charted in America as well.
His sound ultimately fell out of favor with the advent of ‘60s psychedelia, but Joe Meek’s body of work has earned a fair amount of deserved attention in the past decade or so. It’s not really his prodigious recording or the bizarre, dramatic arc of his personal life that this week’s Office Naps is devoted to, however. Rather, it’s the one song which was far and away his biggest international hit, and the song for which Meek is best remembered: “Telstar.” (Listen to an excerpt of “Telstar” here.)
“Telstar,” performed by Meek’s house band the Tornados, topped the American pop charts for five weeks in 1962, and occasionally you’ll see it described as the first hit of the British Invasion. That’s a bit misleading, though, as “Telstar” is wholly dissimilar from the groups of the British Invasion – the song truly belongs to the preceding years of space age pop and guitar instrumentals. And though it’s pretty singular to that era as well, “Telstar” was typical of the Joe Meek sound: multi-tracked musical parts, echo, a shrill and “compressed” production, electronic gadgetry and home-made sound effects, an outer space aesthetic, and weird, exotic instruments (like the clavioline keyboard heard prominently).
The Space Race, that ominous amalgam of astrophysics and Cold War ideology, may have spooked some. Meek, though, saw the Space Race not for its undercurrent of nuclear annihilation but rather for what it really was: pure, exhilarating pageantry.
(I do not even begin to adequately describe the Joe Meek saga. John McCready’s excellent Mojo article is a good place to start for that.)
1. The Vulcanes, Twilight City (Capitol)
The Vulcanes were a studio-bound instrumental group in early ’60s Los Angeles; they released a few big-production instrumentals on Capitol Records with help from industry producers and players like H.B. Barnum and Joe Saraceno.
“Twilight City,” from 1964 (along with the excellent “Moon Probe,” its flipside) is the most interesting of the lot. It doesn’t copy the “Telstar” riff, exactly, but the anthemic thrust and the reverbed guitars are there, and so is the effect: the cold majesty of outer space. Of course, you could have named this track “Wave Rider” or “Surf Whip” and it would have made a great surfing paean, too. That’s what’s endearing about a lot of ‘60s guitar instrumentals: so much depends upon the title.
Sharp-eyed readers may have spotted the name David Axelrod for his producer credit. It’s not the sublime orchestrated funk for which he later earned the lasting support of DJs and funk collectors, but the echo and crystalline production style are quintessential Axelrod.
Thank to former Vulcanes saxophonist Don Roberts for the information on the Vulcanes.
2. The Astronomers, Relay – Son of Telstar (Ember)
“Telstar” done in the style of definitive ‘60s guitar instrumental group the Shadows, Britain’s tasteful, glasses-wearing counterparts to the Ventures.
“Relay – Son of Telstar,” released on New York City’s Ember label around 1963, was recorded in Britain. I suspect this is the Shadows themselves, actually, playing under an assumed name. Not only does “Relay” sound exactly like the Shadows’ handiwork, but the songwriters involved – Ray Adams, Elaine Murtagh, and Valerie Murtagh – also penned songs for the group.
On final note, “Relay”’s producer, Gerry Bron, is perhaps best known today for his legacy of producing and wrangling British hard rock dinosaurs Uriah Heep
3. The Double IV, Magic Star (Capitol)
Electronic flourishes, crushingly white vocals and trebly, glass-shattering production – “Magic Star” is exactly how you’d write the vocal vision of Meek’s big hit.
The Double IV were not a Joe Meek vehicle, though, just a impeccable simulation. A Los Angeles studio group, the Double IV were assembled by Jimmie Haskell, who, in addition to a long, ongoing career in the Los Angeles studio world as a for-hire pop arranger, composer, and conductor, himself cut a fascinating album of knob-turning pop-electronica in 1957 entitled Count Down.
Haskell and company’s “Magic Star” was released around 1963.