Whenever I listen to the classic instrumental Telstar, it immediately fills me with a sense of time and place that is truly unique. Released in August, 1962, just five weeks after the successful launch of the communications satellite for which it was named, it became the first single by a British band to reach number 1 on the US pop charts. Recorded by the London Tornadoes and produced by the troubled genius Joe Meek, Telstar blasted out of the radio like nothing we’d ever heard before.
And it was music made for its time. President Kennedy was in office and at the height of his popularity. The civil rights movement was gaining ground. The Free Speech Movement was catching fire on the west coast. And the United States space program was moving ahead rapidly. It seemed like a time of unbridled optimism. And you can hear it in the music.
Telstar’s unique sound is literally uplifting with its weird space sounds, rolling synthesizer, and that great male chorus backup on the final turn. Not only that. It was over three minutes long which was a real anomaly for Top 40 radio. Listened to today, the music is rather poignant considering all that happened in its immediate aftermath....the loss of a president, escalation in Vietnam, more assassinations and riots ahead. Even Telstar’s creator Joe Meek ended up killing himself in 1967. In all of that, the initial joy of Telstar was lost. But those of you who are old enough to remember can listen to it now and still feel that unmitigated hope and joy that we seemed to be on the brink of back in 1962.
I can’t think of another musical piece that captures an era’s fleeting moment as well.