This is what the future sounded like in the past.
The British band the Tornados released “Telstar” in 1962 to cash in on the space-race zeal between the United States and the Soviet Union. Telstar was actually Telstar 1, a commercial satellite launched by AT&T in July 1962. For 20 minutes a day it could broadcast television images and telephone calls from an elliptical orbit above the earth, a remarkable achievement in its day.
Tornados producer Joe Meek, in a small workspace in North London, whipped up faux-cosmic sounds using keyboards, a clavoline and a little wizardry and painted in three minutes a space-like impression that reflected all the wonder and apprehension swirling around the outer boundaries of human exploration. The song’s buzzing, chortling and humming captures the glory of mankind’s greatest scientific undertaking, and still today “Telstar” echoes a sense of optimism that has long since been swept away along with the American drive to conquer new frontiers.
When I think of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969, I don’t hear “Telstar.” Though I don’t really hear anything. That image speaks volumes across the vaccum of space. But when I think of the generally hare-brained and coloful dream of rocketing away from Earth and sailing on a sea of stars, I hear “Telstar.” When I think of President Kennedy declaring the United States’ intention to blast off into the unknown above the clouds, I hear “Telstar.” When I imagine intrepid astronauts touching down on rocky green landscapes lightyears from home, I hear “Telstar.”
Joe Meek, incidentally, sank deep into debt and depression despite a well-regarded career as a music producer for skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan, the Honeycombs and others. In 1967 Meek, steeped in misery, used a shotgun to murder his landlady before turning the gun on himself. He was 37.
Much like Telstar’s successors broadcasting greetings from Earth and into the far reaches of the galaxy, Meek’s “Telstar” can still reach us from across the gulf of time.