An eccentric London-based record producer and former RAF radar operator, Joe Meek, utilised the primitive technology of his home studio for the distinctively strange sounds conveyed in ‘Telstar’, an opportunistic celebration of the launch of the communications satellite of the same name in 1962, which relayed the first live transatlantic television feed. The song – bizarre even to modern ears – an instrumental featuring the Clavioline, also spanned the Atlantic, reaching no. 1 in both UK and US pop charts on its release the following year. Meek, a troubled character, never reaped the rewards of his innovation, becoming embroiled in a legal dispute on the origins of ‘Telstar’, eventually settled in his favour in 1967; tragically Meek had killed himself (and his landlady) three weeks earlier. To some extent ‘Telstar’ and its composer suffered from the taint of the novelty record, of which there were a profusion on space themes on both sides of the Atlantic.
Joe Meek in his studio
The sub-genre known as Space Age Pop music in the late 1950s and early 60s was largely an American phenomenon, capitalising on the commercial production of ‘stereo’ records from 1958 onward. These early discs were often advertised as maximising the stereophonic potential of the home hi-fi system (envisioned as taking pride of place in the hi-tech ‘space age bachelor pad’ of its modern male consumer), a rapidly expanding market in the post-War USA. The style and content of the genre itself, as practiced by artists such as Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Esquivel was essentially conservative, often using traditional instrumentation for adaptations of standards interspersed with original compositions and more in the nature of ‘easy listening’, ‘lounge’, or ‘mood’ music, which it is now generally designated as. Clarity of sound was its main selling point, with occasional effects in the mix to display the latest advances in recording technology, serving to demonstrate the overall aural superiority of stereo to mono discs.
Two sides of Space Age Pop
Slightly more adventurous, and operating at a tangent to these artists, were Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley, credited as being among the “first to create electronic music for the general public,” at a time when it was still either the preserve of the academic avant-garde, or fodder for novelty records. Perrey had been introduced to the Ondioline, one of the instruments that succeeded the Theremin, by its French inventor, Georges Jenny, and was working in the USA as a salesman and demonstrator of that unusual instrument when he met Kingsley, a German-Jewish refugee and self-trained classical musician. Without the advantages of digital technology, the two worked with tape loops and meticulous splicing, each tune taking weeks to produce. This painstaking work was unveiled in the 1966 debut Perrey-Kingsley album, The In Sound from Way Out, which influenced future generations of musicians from the Beastie Boys to Stereolab, containing such inventive space-titled tracks as “Unidentified Flying Object”, “The Little Man From Mars” and “Visa to the Stars.” They later embraced the Moog synthesizer and went on to productive and innovative careers as solo artists.
The influential first Perrey-Kingsley album, and a performance at the end of this US TV clip