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Telstar and the Lunatic


I was fortunate to be a teenager in the 1960’s. It was a time of great change and optimism, even in Ireland. After years of what seemed to be the cold, wet and miserable weather of the 1950’s, the sun had finally appeared in a clear, blue sky.


When I was 15, in August 1962, a little-known English pop group, called The Tornados, released a 45rpm record called “Telstar”. Unusually for the time, it was an instrumental recording. This was very rare in a music world dominated by the harmonies of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the exquisite voice of Elvis Presley. Despite lacking vocals, it became a world-wide success and sold over 5 million copies.


The actual word, Telstar, was the name of a communication satellite that had been invented by the Americans and had been launched on top of a Thor-Delta rocket a month previously on July 10, 1962. It was used to relay, through space, the first television pictures, telephone calls and fax images. It also provided the first live transatlantic television feed. Effectively, it gave birth to modern electronic communication and, by eliminating distance, turned the world into a global village.


The record called “Telstar” was produced by an eccentric genius called Joe Meek and released by the five-member pop group, The Tornados. The music, with its space sounds, was produced by guitars, drums and a clavioline, a keyboard instrument with a distinctive electronic vibe.


For the teenager that I was at the time, “Telstar” captured the excitement of the 1960’s. This was the decade when the world finally woke up after the dreary, post war years. Following great advances in rocketry, space exploration began. On April 12, 1961 the Soviet cosmonaut, Uri Gagarin, became the first human to travel into space and orbit the earth. Before the decade was out, Neill Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module on the moon. That day, July 20, 1969, opened up a new chapter in world history: the serious exploration of outer space.


For me the 3 minutes and 19 seconds long recording called “Telstar” has a soaring quality. The music lifts us up and points us onward. It opens up history and time and hints at a world of infinite possibilities. It shows the wonderful things than mankind is capable of creating. It has, what I can only describe as, a transcendental quality. To this day it’s my favourite piece of music and every time I hear “Telstar”, it brings back all the excitement and wonder of those glorious years.


Joe Meek, who created this marvellous piece of music, was an Englishman, born in 1929. He was a record producer and sound engineer. He pioneered experimental pop music and developed practices like overdubbing and reverberation.  He became one of the most influential sound engineers of his time, a fact acknowledged in 2009 when the Music Producers Guild created “The Joe Meek Award for Innovation in Production”.


Unfortunately, Joe suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This led to bouts of paranoia, depression, severe mood swings and psychotic delusions. To compound his medical problems, he abused barbiturates. Amphetamines caused him to fly into rages with little or no provocation. This made life more and more difficult for him, and those associated with him, as time passed.


When he was only 38 years old, his unhappy life came to an end. He had a recording studio at 304 Holloway Road in London, above a leather goods shop, and was often in conflict with his landlady in the shop due to the sound of his experimental recordings. As his delusions grew, he was convinced that she was eaves dropping on his phone calls through the chimney. During a psychotic fit, in February 1967, he shot her with a gun he had confiscated from one of the band members, and then turned the gun on himself. He died in the very room where he had created “Telstar” 5 years earlier.


In the last century, Joe Meek would have been classified as a lunatic and confined to a lunatic asylum or mental hospital. The word derives from “lunaticus” meaning “of the moon” or “moonstruck”. Philosophers, such as Aristotle, argued that the full moon induced insane people with bipolar disorder by providing light during the night and affecting them through the well-known route of sleep deprivation. This was also known as the “Transylvania effect”- the belief that in a dark sky, if the clouds shifted, the full moon’s eerie silver gleam, would send people mad. However, over the years, researchers have checked out hospital and criminal records and come to the same conclusion – the full moon does not affect human behaviour.


In the UK, as late as 1930, people of unsound mind, were legally referred to as “lunatics”. Only at the end of 2012 was the word removed from federal legislation in the US. It was 2015, before the “Lunacy Regulations Act of 1871” was finally repealed in Dail Eireann. These changes reflect the fact that science has confirmed that there is no link between mental disorders and lunar influence.


It is deeply ironic that a man who wrote such sublime music, inspired by outer space, should have suffered such interior, mental disorders. Perhaps John Dryden, the English poet, had people like Joe Meek in mind, when he wrote in 1681:


“Great wits are sure to madness near allied

And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”


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