Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Tornados: Telstar

Back before the British Invasion of 1964, an act from Great Britain had the opportunity to achieve number one status in their native land. In addition, the song crossed the Atlantic and was the first British recording to top the American charts - this was 18 months before the Beatles had their first American #1 with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” For a non American act in 1962 to achieve number 1 was quite a feat; however, when you consider the song also being an instrumental – the chart action is impressive. Released five months after the launching of AT&T’s telecommunication satellite “Telstar,” a song named in its honor was recorded by the Tornados.

I can remember this song very well as my brother John and I, who shared a bedroom at the time, would listen to Pittsburgh’s KQV. While most stations concluded their broadcast day with the National Anthem, this was not the case for KQV. In late ’62 and ’63, KQV signed off at midnight by playing “Telstar.” When KQV went off the air, we down tuned the radio to 1020 and caught Ed and Wendy King and their call in show “Party Line” on KDKA. That was an unusual show in that you never heard the callers only Ed and Wendy's side of the conversation, which they would then relate to the audience what had been said. Ah yes, those were the days.

“Telstar” had a unique blend of instrumentation. I particularly liked the concert harp that is heard throughout the song as well as the guitar. If you were to ask most anyone else, they would remember the unusual keyboard instrument – the Clavioline – that is featured on “Telstar.” This little vacuum tube tone generated precursor to the analog synthesizer made its way onto several records. It had a unique timbre, and like its descendant, it could only play one note at a time.

Joe Meek demonstrates the Clavioline

Besides “Telstar,” other notable songs featured Clavioline type instruments. One of these, Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” utilized a Musitron for its signature keyboard lead. The Beatles also employed a Clavioline for the strange Indian influenced bagpipe like sound on “Baby You’re a Rich Man” from “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Yellow Submarine.” The Clavioline was not alone in the marketplace. There were others that were similar in sound such as the Ondioline, the Pianoline, the Univox, and the Solovox. All of these seminal synthesizers added to the progress that would be later replaced by names such as Moog, Arp, Roland, Korg, and Sequential Circuits.

The later instruments allowed greater control over the sound – but required a little bit of practice and patience to learn what all their many controls and patches could do or not do. It would be a few years later when Oberheim and Sequential Circuits both released polyphonic synths that had programmable sounds – which returned the ease to playing with different sounds at a touch of a button – much like their ancestor the Clavioline.

Del Shannon: Runaway

The Beatles: Baby You’re A Rich Man

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