Telstar: The Bird and the Birdsong
The music and flight of the birds has long remained an inspiration to the human musician. It is impossible to know how many ancient musicians mimicked the notes of their fluting from the songs of the birds, or just how many folk songs have been inspired by birds. In Western classical music birdsong has been used from Jehan Vaillant in the 14th century to Oliver Messiaen in the 20th with his masterful Catalogue d'oiseaux ("Catalogue of birds") for solo piano. As rock ‘n roll became the default soundtrack for the youth of the 60’s, the birds found their way into that genre of music as well. So did the chirping mechanical birds that fly around the earth in elliptical or geosynchronous orbit. Yes, I’m talking about satellites.
Since they first took flight above our atmosphere the birds have been inspiring humans with their own songs. Telstar, written and produced by studio maverick Joe Meek and performed by the Tornadoes was one of the first and followed the launch of its namesake satellite in 1962. The cut remains a recognizable classic with its jangly yet triumphant song lines. It is the soundtrack to space age communication. And Joe Meek was the perfect producer for the song. No one else could have recorded it to the same effect, or put the same effects on it in the studio. That’s because Meek was a firm believer that our space brothers lived on the moon and elsewhere in the solar system, and he saw the launch of the satellite as a stepping stone, part of humanities glorious ascent to the stars.
"This was one of the first sci-fi-influenced pop songs," observed Tim Wheeler of the Irish alt-rock band Ash. "For its time it was so futuristic and it still sounds pretty weird today." Indeed the song is timeless, while the technology that inspired it has been outgrown and superseded by new generations of sats. The first two Telstar satellites still orbit the earth as techno relics, great grandpas of space/time communication. They would be lonely if not for all their engineered offspring. But how did they get out there, into orbit, and what about that strange bird, a man named Joe Meek whose song came to dominate charts?
Telstar 1, the first of a new breed of communications satellites, launched on top of a Thor-Delta rocket on July 10, 1962. It lived up to the star in its name via the successful transmission through the vacuum of space the first television pictures, telephone calls, and telegraph images, and provided the first live transatlantic television feed. Another “first” in this story is the fact that it was also the first space launch to be privately sponsored.
Another exceptional product created by AT&T and the researchers at Bell Labs. Project Telstar was also part of a multi-national agreement, in a spirit similar to that of ham radio that encouraged cooperation and communication between nations. Besides AT&T, Bell Labs and NASA in the U.S. other key players were: GPO (United Kingdom) and the National PTT (France) tackling experimental satellite communications over the Atlantic Ocean. Six ground stations were built in six countries in order to track and converse with the bird. There was one in the US, France, the UK, Canada, Germany and Italy. The American ground station, Andover Earth Station, was built by Bell Labs in Andover, Maine. The BBC was the international coordinator and their ground station was at Goonhilly Downs in southwestern England. The BBC, as international coordinator, used this location. The standards 525/405 conversion equipment necessary for the project filled a large room and was researched and developed by the BBC and located in their TV Centre in London.
Any project of this size needs a team to see it birthed from the dream and into reality. Headquartered in Bell Labs John Robinson Pierce helmed the project and Rudy Kompfner invented the special traveling-wave tube transponder while James M. Early designed the transistors and the solar panels. Those panels drank in the sunlight to keep the bird alive and capable of generating 14 watts of electrical power.
Telstar’s single transponder had an innovative design. Because of all they were trying to accomplish, it needed to be able to relay data, a single television channel, or multiplexed telephone circuits. As Telstar traveled on its orbit it around the earth it also spun and needed an antenna array around its own midsection or "equator" to provide continuous communication with Earth in the microwave portion of the spectrum. These small cavity antenna elements received 6 GHz signals and relayed them back to down to one of the six ground stations. Meanwhile the transponder converted the frequency down to 4 GHz and amplified the power of the signal before pushing it into Kompfner’s traveling-wave tube for omnidirectional retransmission via an adjacent array of larger box-shaped cavities. Telstar also had a helical receiving antenna which caught the telecommands from the ground stations.
Telstar completed its elliptical orbit every 2 hours and 37 minutes. This is in contrast to the 1965 Early Bird Intelsat which was geostationary. This made transatlantic transmissions via Telstar similar to the way a ham would work a bird, though with a bit more leeway in terms of time. The engineers had about 20 minutes in each two and a half-hour orbit when the bird was over the Atlanatic Ocean to make the connection and the tracking antennas had to be very accurate. The tracking antennas also had to be very big and powerful because the receiving antennas were not. The brains at Bell Labs created a horizontally polarized conical horn antenna with parabolic reflectors at the mouth to re-direct the beam. These beasts were 177 feet long and a special steering system was designed and built for them by Morimi Iwama and Jan Norton. All of this was housed in a radome the size of a 14-story office building. One of these was located at the Andover station in Maine while another was in France at Pleumeur-Bodou. The antenna at the Goonhilly Downs station in Great Britain was a conventional 26-meter-diameter parabolic dish.
After all this work the space age gizmo got pressed into service and relayed its first test transmissions, a tv picture of a flag outside Andover Earth Station to Pleumeur-Bodou on July 11. Twelve days later the first public live transatlantic signal was broadcast. The video was shown on Eurovision in Europe and in North America on the big three, NBC, CBS, ABC and up north on the CBC. The program featured Walter Kronkite and Chet Huntley in New York, and Richard Dimbleby of the BBC in Brussels, and showed pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower.
President John F. Kennedy was supposed to have given the very first remarks of the broadcast but the signal was acquired before he was ready. Instead the lead-in time was filled with a short segment of a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The batter, Tony Taylor, was seen hitting a ball pitched by Cal Koonce to the right fielder George Altman. From there, the video went on a journey, switching first to Washington, DC; then to Cape Canaveral, Florida; to the Seattle World's Fair; then to Quebec and finally to Stratford, Ontario. The Washington part included the now prepared Kennedy and he talked about the price of the American dollar, which was causing concern in Europe. Kennedy denied that the U.S. would devalue its currency and this had the galvanizing effecting of strengthening the dollar in the world markets. "We all glimpsed something of the true power of the instrument we had wrought," Walter Cronkite said later.
Continuing its impressive run of “firsts” Telstar 1 made the first satellite telephone call between U.S. vice-president Lyndon Johnson and the chairman of AT&T Frederick Kappel later in the evening. Next it successfully transmitted faxes, data, and both live and taped television, including the first live transmission of television across an ocean from Andover, Maine, US, to Goonhilly Downs, England, and Pleumeur-Bodou, France. In August 1962, Telstar 1 became the first satellite used to synchronize time between two continents, bringing the United Kingdom and the United States to within 1 microsecond of each other (previous efforts were only accurate to 2,000 microseconds). Telstar 1 also relayed computer data between two IBM 1401 mainframe computers. The test, performed on October 25, 1962, sent a message from a transmitting computer in Endicott, New York, to the earth station in Andover, Maine. The message was relayed to the earth station in France, where it was decoded by a second IBM 1401 in La Gaude.
As a communications device that was birthed during the Cold War, its death was caused by advances in Soviet technology and testing. Just the day before it was launched. Telstar 1 was born during the Cold War and it died less than a year old due to the testing of military technology. Just one day before Telstar 1 launched the U.S. exploded a high-altitude nuclear bomb called Starfish Prime. This energized the Earth's Van Allen Belt where Telstar 1 went into orbit. The surplus of radiation in the belt combined with further high-altitude nuke blasts. Of course the Soviets were also in on the game. In October one of their tests overloaded Telstar's transistors and they couldn’t be brought back to life. It had handled over 400 telephone, telegraph, facsimile and television transmissions before its untimely demise. The bird was resurrected by a clever hack in early January 1963, but additional radiation associated a return to full sunlight once again caused the transistors to die, this time forever. Telstar 1 became a silent key on February 21, 1963.
Yet even after its death, the bird had been a major success and lives on in the legacy of children and grandchildren that came after it to inhabit Earth’s orbital space with its floating shell. But before these other upstart birds could bask in the glory, Joe Meek made a song that gave the satellite a shot at immortality.
No other musical writer/producer could have made the song Telstar. Meek was suited to the task in a number ways. In the same way that the satellite showed off a number of “firsts” Joe was the same in the realm of the studio engineer. He was the first to use distortion on a recording as an intentional technique because fuzzy guitars sound so dope. Before Brian Eno made the concept popular he thought of his studio as an instrument in itself and was an early proponent and developer of sampling, overdubbing and the extensive use of effects such as reverb, echo, and delay. He worked on 245 singles; 45 of these ranked in top fifty charts.
As a kid Meek had a pronounced interest in electronics, and even had something of a ham shack, utilizing his parents garden shed as a space to work on circuits and various electronic projects. In this space he spent his hours working on components, building radios, and the region’s first working TV set. As a young man he worked as a radar technician during his national service time spent in the Royal Air Force. This further cemented his abilities at working with, building and modifying the latest gizmos, but also contributed to his fascination with aviation and outer space exploration. In 1953 he got a gig working for the Midlands Electricity Board. The resources made available to him through the company allowed him to continue developing his interest in all things electronic. A big fan of pop and rock music, he was developing an interest in sound recording and music production. His work for the Electricity Board enabled him to acquire a disc cutter and he produced his first record.
From there Joe went on to get a job as a bona fide audio engineer at an independent production company that worked on programs for Radio Luxembourg. In the mid-fifties he started showing his technical chops on cuts like Ivy Benson’s Music for Lonely Lovers, and using compression techniques and modifying the piano sounds on Humphrey Littleton’s jazz single Bad Penny Blues. This became a hit number and he started scoring more work as an engineer. He worked with a variety of different acts and partnered up with different studios and labels such as Landsdowne Studios and SAGA Records. In 1960 William Barrington-Coupe left SAGA and started an independent label with Meek, Triumph Records.
Joe Meeks' inability to actually play a musical instrument or write notation never stopped him from realizing his musical dreams. As Nigel Ayers says, “You don’t have to learn anything to do art or music. You learn by doing them. They are the most natural things to do in the world”. To help him write songs he had the help of musicians. Dave Adams, Geoff Goddard and Charles Blackwell were all in his corner and worked with him to transcribe the crazy melodies that burned through his head, the songs he would sing and hum to himself, the songs he would give to the world. Now with his own studio he had full creative reign when producing and cutting his own tracks to wax. Besides his manic imagination one of the things that set him apart from other producers and engineers of the time was the way he searched out the right sound for a song, and not afraid to get dirty in the process. Distortion, reverb, compression, echo, whatever was needed to give the song that extra bit of pizazz, he threw into the mix with wild results. He was able to fit his technical skills and repertoire of effects to whatever was at hand. He loved rock ‘n roll and it is evident in the way you can hear his unique sonic signature on every song he produced.
It was in the space of his beloved studio that he was able to give free reign to his creative genius, and from it was born the album I Hear a New World. Rod Freeman & the Blue Men as the players who helped bring it to life, but it was mostly just Joe getting them to do his bidding. Another energy besides his love of music was poured into what seem deem was the first concept album ever made; that was his obsessiveness about outer space, space travel, and aliens. It was 1959 and Joe really believed that “little green men” as extraterrestrial life forms were alive and well in the universe, and probably on the moon or a nearby planet. As such I Hear a New World is a sci-fi space record, which to some may sound just like a radiophonics sound effects record with pitched up chimpunks style voices singing little marches and ditties. The reality is that it is a sonic masterpiece, a voyage to an alien planet and the listener is transported there by the wizardry of the studio maestro. A handful of these songs came out as EPs, or were reworked onto other albums he was making. Joe never got the pleasure of seeing it make the waves it would in later decades. The full masterpiece of I Hear a New World only existed in a few scattered white label copies made by the record company. In 1991, 24 years after Joe’s violent and tragic death, it finally got a full LP release. Since then it has since gained a large cult following, and its opening and eponymous number was my opener during the years I hosted the radio show On the Way to the Peak of Normal.
Due to the vagaries of the music business, and Joe’s increasingly unstable temperament, Triumph Records collapsed as a going business concern, despite the number 1 hits Joe had produced. Demand for some of their songs remained high but as an independent it was often difficult to get enough copies of a 45 made. Other obstacles included managing distribution networks. In the end running a business wasn’t Joes strong point. He was much better suited to be in the studio.
The end of the label didn’t stop Joe’s ambition or keep him from making records though. He set up shop in a studio he built and dubbed RGM Sound. As one of the first home studios all the equipment was in his three-story flat above a leather company at 304 Holloway Road. It was in this legendary space where Telstar was hatched, and later nudged out of the nest to achieve flight, and hit number 1 on the charts.
The instrumental was launched on the radio waves and in the record shops in December of 1962, just as the satellite it was named after was experiencing its technical difficulties due to all the bombs the superpowers were exploding in the atmosphere. Telstar soared to number one in the US Billboard Hot 100 that month and also number one in Meek’s home country on the UK singles chart. It remained in the US charts for sixteen weeks and in the UK for 25. It is still heard with fondness or even religious zeal by Meek devotees to this day.
What gave Telstar some extra appeal was the use of a Clavioline or Univox (the two were possibly overdubbed together in the mix) as the lead keyboard instrument carrying the thrilling melody. Invented by the French engineer Constant Martin the Clavioline consisted of a keyboard and a separate amplifier and speaker unit. The keyboard usually covered three octaves, and as any engineer would like, it had a number of switches. These altered the tone, added vibrato, and provided other effects. The Clavioline used a vacuum tube oscillator to produce a solid buzzing waveform, almost a square wave. Using high and low-pass filtering, as well as the vibrato, it could be made to sound very unique. Its amplifier also lent to its signature tone with deliberate distortion, something Joe would have loved.
It’s hard to believe it but Joe Meek was a man ahead of his time. His life ended too soon under tragic circumstances that have been well documented elsewhere. Instead of focusing on the mess he made, I like to think of the beauty he left behind. Telstar is just one of the many gems he put into musical orbit.
References & Resources:
Joe Meek: I Hear A New World CD, 2001 RPM
Telstar :communication break-through by satellite by Louis Solomon, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1963.
The Legendary Joe Meek: The Telstar Man by John Repsch, Cherry Red Books, 2001
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of the Q-Fiver.
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Announcement: The Radiophonic Laboratory goes Shortwave
DJ Frederick’s Free Radio Skybird returns to the shortwaves on Sunday August 4th 2019 via http://www.channel292.de/ on 6070 kHz at 1900 UTC (8pm UK time).
With a mixture of features and music, the hour transmission will include our friend One Deck Pete’s “Soul on shortwave” and my own first episode of the Radiophonic Laboratory on Shortwave! I'm so stoked to have a segment on this show, presenting some of the material I've been writing about. #freeradioskybird
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.