Nov 04

THE TORNADOS – “Telstar”

Popular36 comments • 9,008 views

#141, 6th October 1962

“Telstar” leads the instrumental beat boom to the wonderful land, packs it on a rocket and sends it to the stars – its all-or-nothing optimism is inspiring and bittersweet. Inspiring because Joe Meek wrote a hymn for a better future than he or we got, and the world heard it. Bittersweet because the valves and echo chambers, the clockwork, spit and blu-tack that Meek built his future out of were already beginning to creak and decay. “Telstar” – a beautiful modernist shock to the charts – still sounds thrilling now but also seems ancient and time-lost, as proud and sad as old Dan Dare comics.

But the thing with satellites is how many of them never come back to Earth. They just stay up there, blinking silently in the dark – the professionals forget about their signals and move on, leaving amateurs and enthusiasts to pick up the traces briefly through the static. Telstar itself went dead less than a year after launch; but “Telstar” was a sort of satellite too, opening channels back to America and rising up that country’s charts while its namesake beamed live into British living rooms. And after Joe Meek faded and died his satellite kept on transmitting, telling anyone who could pick it up (an Italian songwriter in Munich, a floppy-haired Sheffield fop, a Cornish mentalist) that here was a different way to make pop music. “Telstar” promised music which would walk forward hand in hand with technology, using it to do what pop does best – amplify the buzz of being alive. Here comes tomorrow!



  1. 1
    Joe Williams on 29 Aug 2005 #

    A good record forever tainted by Margaret Thatcher mentioning that she liked it. Evil bitch.

  2. 2
    Dave on 25 Sep 2005 #

    Over 40 years on, Telstar still stops me when ever I hear it, as then just a teenager, it sparkled to me with such promise , which as has been said, never materialised. Maggie did her job as was needed. Look at Europe now to see where we would have become without her!

  3. 3
    Anonymous on 23 Oct 2005 #

    So the Cornish mentalist is Richard James, I assume the Sheffield-based fop is Philip Oakey, but who’s the Italian-in-Germany? Giorgio Moroder?

  4. 4
    Lena on 14 Feb 2006 #

    Look at it this way: it’s a song so good that even Thatcher can like it. Kind of a clock-stopped-is-right-two-times-a-day thing.

  5. 5
    Lena on 19 Feb 2006 #

    And wow, this was #1 when Plath was writing all her great Ariel poems – here comes the future indeed…

  6. 6
    Doreen Collinson on 28 Feb 2007 #

    I first heard this absolutely fabulous tune played on a car radio on the way to Manchester Airport following my Wedding on 1 September 1962. We were on our way to fly to the Isle of Man (UK) which was quite an experience in those quite early days of flying. The tune was scintillating and stopped me talking in the car. It was “our tune” until the early demise of my husband in 1994.

  7. 7
    Marcello Carlin on 28 Feb 2007 #

    I’m sorry to hear that, Doreen.

    Certainly I think “Telstar” still my favourite of all the number ones. It sort of wordlessly says everything.

    There was an interesting three-part documentary on Meek on Radio 2 recently, during which Dave Stewart demonstrated exactly how “Telstar” was built up. Made me wonder how someone so lucid and knowledgeable could come up with such rubbish music (Dave Stewart, that is).

    Oh, and it’s worth missing a meal or two to buy the Joe Meek Story box set if only to hear Meek singing the demo of “Telstar” with his, er, unique sense of pitching…

  8. 8
    Grant on 29 Aug 2007 #

    Makes you wonder if this sort of musical backdrop might have inspired the son of Tornados’ guitarist, George Bellamy, to become hailed as the greatest guitarist since Hendrix. Matt Bellamy’s band, Muse, already the biggest act in Europe and now ruthlessly conquering the States, is said to be one of the greatest live acts around. Go to Youtube.com, listen to Knights Of Cydonia and tell me that Telstar didn’t inspire the opening sequence to this fine song.

  9. 9
    Lena on 30 Aug 2007 #

    Who is the Cornish mentalist?

  10. 10
    Marcello Carlin on 31 Aug 2007 #

    Aphex Twin.

  11. 11
    Alan on 4 Oct 2007 #

    You can hear the Tornados perform Telstar live at the Joe Meek festival weekend on 27/28th October at Newent, Gloucestershire (Joe’s birthplace). See Newent web pages for detail of events.

  12. 12
    BYRON ELWELL on 4 Feb 2008 #

    As a point of interest I write and record Joe Meek inspired instrumentals under the guise of the Space Babes. I have released two 21 track instrumental cd albums. Full reviews in JMS Thunderbolt magazine and Tom Hammonds Tornado’s web site. All details and a jukebox page on my web site at http://www.chestnutbankproductions.co.uk
    Relive the Telstar era.

  13. 13
    Volkan Gorsel on 3 Aug 2008 #

    Even it was released 12 years before I was born, Telstar has a strange affection on me. It leads me to distant images of my beloved, when they were young and full of life. I would love to live in 1962…

  14. 14
    Matthew on 12 Jan 2009 #

    This is the first record, from years before I was born, that Popular has encouraged me to archaeologise that brings tears to my eyes with how amazing it is. Thank you.

  15. 15
    Mark M on 15 Apr 2009 #

    pˆnk s lord sükråt cunctør, re: the Yes/Meek connection:


  16. 16

    oo thanx mark! (apologies i wz so monosyllabic this eve, i was quite tired)

    one thing the meek film does not really get across was HOW MANY RECORDS HE MADE — i have been reacquainting myself with that fact

  17. 17
    lonepilgrim on 16 Apr 2009 #

    this tune plays at the end of the latest Mad Men episode (season 2, episode 10) as the golden glow of the morning sun fills the airplane window while Don Draper lights up another cigarette and heads west to a ‘space age’ aeronautics convention in California 1962 – giving some sense of it’s thrilling modernity at the time.

  18. 18
    steve on 27 May 2009 #

    Pub Quiz time!

    Who was the first ever British pop group to reach No 1 on the American billboard charts?

    Answer – The Tornados, with “Telstar”

  19. 19
    tim davidge on 3 Jul 2009 #

    19th June of course saw the release of “Telstar” the film, which centres around the comings and goings in Joe Meek’s ramshackle studio where they pour black goo down the floorboards to damp vibration, blank off windows with that perforated hardboard stuff and drop marbles down toilets to create sound effects (“It’s your turn to fish ‘em out again….”), along the way creating some major (and a few minor) pop phenomena. The film concentrates at least as much on Meek’s mental health issues as it does on his achievements, and ends with his inevitable unpleasant demise. The performances of Con O’Neill (Meek) and J.J. Feild (Heinz Burt) are commendable, and in many ways the best part of the film. The same can’t be said for the period reconstruction, which had the odd glitch which smacked of carelessness. The whole thing left me feeling harrowed and disturbed rather than entertained. Most reviewers gave it three stars out of five, which is generous though not excessively so.

    Tom, you review of this tune was spot on – this was just one of those flashes of brilliance that pop comes up with from time to time, and for me it’s probably the best single of that particular year and also better than a lot of the thumping that was to come in ’63-’64. It has a “Song of Joy” quality about it and maybe, just maybe, people will be humming it centuries from now, perhaps wondering about the context and the circumstances of its creation.

    One further point about “Telstar”: When Radio 1 decided to feature the 100 best-selling singles of the previous ten years in 1972, “Telstar” just made it into the chronology, being ten years old at the time. It made something like number twelve on the list.

  20. 20
    Erithian on 13 Sep 2010 #

    As featured in “Oil City Confidential”, Julien Temple’s marvellous documentary showing occasionally on BBC4, Heinz Burt was on the bill at the rock’n’roll revival festival at Wembley in 1972 alongside Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley, and his backing band were the quartet later to be known to all and sundry as Dr Feelgood. Apparently Heinz asked the Feelgoods if they would change their name to the Tornados, but they declined.

    Wilko Johnson adds in the documentary, “And guess what age Heinz was when he died? Yeah, 57.”

  21. 21
    swanstep on 14 Sep 2010 #

    Amazing record this one, great review of it by Tom, and some nice comments. I *love* the way the timeless melody (as timeless as Ode to Joy or Simple things really) emerges out of the static. To Tom’s list of Aphex, Human League, Moroder etc. people who were right on this frequency I’d definitely add OMD. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that a lot of their experiments with noise+naive melodies (esp. things like Radio Waves) are kind of warmed-over Telstar.

    Must second lonepilgrim’s Mad Men ref above…Season 2 ep. 10 The Inheritance was a cracking ep. but going out with Telstar made it a bona fide classic.

    Anyhow: 9 or 10

  22. 22
    Chelovek na lune on 6 May 2013 #

    Absolute timeless classic of electronic space-age futurism, indeed; a sure-fire 10 for me. I have to agree with #19 that the relatively recent film that sort-of told the story of Meek really didn’t cut the mustard. (Heinz was good though) But the tune…well..unsullied, and quite, quite, brilliant.

  23. 23
    swanstep on 6 May 2013 #

    Apparently Radio 2 has a new hour on Telstar tomorrow (May 8) as part of their ‘The People’s Songs’ series:

  24. 24
    weej on 7 May 2013 #

    I picked up a torrent of ‘The People’s Songs’ so far – 1 hour a week on the social / political context of a pop song, seems like the kind of thing people round here would be interested in. In reality it’s a bit too lightweight – in that particularly Radio 2 way – and you can’t help wishing they’d done more with the material. On balance it’s still worth a listen though.

  25. 25
    Patrick Mexico on 7 Oct 2013 #

    [removed at poster’s request]

  26. 26
    Jimmy the Swede on 8 Oct 2013 #

    [referred to deleted posts, seemed best to cut it also, apologies to JtS]

    [this is an admin note^^^]

  27. 27
    Patrick Mexico on 3 Nov 2013 #

    [removed at poster’s request]

  28. 28
    Patrick Mexico on 24 Nov 2013 #

    Admin, please can you remove comments 25 and 27. I’m adamant linking to those threads, rather than simply being a fun distraction, undermines the hard work Tom has put into this. Cheers.

    P.S. I won’t ask for this cleaning up any more. From now on, I will never ask anything else I write on Freakytrigger to be deleted or retconned. Sorry for any inconvenience and thanks for your understanding.

  29. 29

    I’m Adam Ant!
    No, I’m Adam Ant!

  30. 30
    Jimmy the Swede on 25 Nov 2013 #

    And I am not responsible for the comment at #26.


  31. 31

    Apologies Jimmy, the admin note was not clearly written. #26 was removed because it referred only to the vanished #25 and now made no sense.

    This is why we dislike doing this.

  32. 32
    Jimmy the Swede on 26 Nov 2013 #

    Thanks, Mark. J

  33. 33
    hectorthebat on 8 Mar 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    San Antonio Express-News (USA) – Rock ‘n’ roll timeline (2004)
    Shredding Paper (USA) – The 50 Greatest Singles Ever (2002) 14
    Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields) – The Best Recordings from 1900 to 1999
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1960s (2008)
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 51
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 18
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  34. 34
    lonepilgrim on 22 Jan 2015 #

    this still sounds thrillingly modern – somehow it manages to harness a rock and roll energy to something streamlined and futuristic

  35. 35
    Phil on 20 May 2015 #

    A 10 from me, because of how wonderful it is.

    When my father died I wasn’t able to do very much for a few days – everything seemed either far too hard, far too distressing or far too trivial. By chance I found some score-writing software that I’d installed and forgotten about, and spent two full days writing out the whole of Telstar from memory, drum track, guitar solo, key change and all. I survived, and – perhaps surprisingly – so did Telstar; it still sounds utterly wonderful, like the fulfilment of a promise of something indescribable. Thanks, Joe.

  36. 36
    Gareth Parker on 8 Jun 2021 #

    (#7) Dave Stewart has more talent in his little finger than you have in your entire body. 8/10 for the Tornados imho.

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