Mr. Acker Bilk may have been the first U.K. musician to top the Hot 100, but he didn’t quite launch the British Invasion. His easy listening, clarinet-based instrumental “Stranger on the Shore” is miles away from the revitalized version of rock and roll that would be shipped back to America a year or two later. But The Tornadoes’ surf-rock-in-space epic “Telstar” provided early evidence that there was something going on abroad more exciting than what passed for rock at home. (It’s only fitting that the namesake satellite transmitted the first transatlantic television signals.) “Telstar” is far too eccentric to be considered of a piece with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, but it’s at least in the same musical universe, so to speak.
Of course, the real story behind “Telstar” is not about session players The Tornadoes but about the producer, Joe Meek. Meek was essentially the British counterpart of Phil Spector: a genius producer with a fascinating yet highly disturbed (and murderous) personal life. Like Spector, he worked with girl groups but never quite achieved the former’s success with them. He instead made his mark with mostly anonymous bands and not-quite-top-drawer singers that wouldn’t divert attention from his vision. In contrast with the organic, symphonic Wall of Sound, Meek built his soundscapes out of electronics and distortion. His tastes would seem to run too weird to be embraced by the mainstream, yet he netted a few huge hits. The greatest of these is “Telstar,” an instrumental that derives influence from Meek’s partially-released concept album I Hear a New World (subtitled “An Outer Space Music Fantasy”). “Telstar” is the nexus between Moog- and Theramin-heavy space age lounge pop of the 1950s and astrally-themed psychedelic rock of the late ’60s, without being as kitschy as the former or as noodling as the latter. Despite Meek’s liberal use of handmade sound effects and bizarre aural treatments, it’s easy to see how the record earned its number-one spot. The melody of the track is strong enough to stand on its own, but Meek’s inventive production puts it over the top. While the underpinnings may be drawn from the familiar, there have been few pop singles before or since that have so eagerly embraced the weird. 8
Hit #1 on December 22, 1962; total of 3 weeks at #1
82 of 976 #1’s reviewed; 8.40% through the Hot 100