Early 1960s’ British rock n’ roll in “Telstar”

Five weeks at #1 in England, and Margaret Thatcher's favorite pop song.

English record producer Joe Meek (1929–67) is best remembered for “Telstar,” an instrumental hit that made it to #1 in both the U.K. and the U.S. in 1962. Written by Meek and performed by the Tornados, today “Telstar” sounds like the definitive space age anthem, embodying a spirit of JFK-era optimism and technological progress. Meek’s production now sounds conspicuously dated, but in a good way — the mad scientist keyboards and tinny sound of the electronics are part of the song’s daffy charm. It’s as if Meek wedded surf guitar and the backing vocals of a cowboy song to a low-budget take on futurism, and the result sounds like Robby the Robot’s favorite hit single.

The English term “boffin” could have been invented to describe Meek, a onetime radio operator for the Royal Air Force who became a stubbornly independent record producer. On his tracks, the recording studio is the star. There’s no attempt to capture a live performance; instead every note is subject to Meek’s experiments with echo, reverb and primeval sampling. Every sound is treated and distorted.

The 2008 British biopic Telstar depicts Meek as a flamboyantly gay, pill-popping visionary who was too eccentric even for the 1960s music industry, which is saying a lot. Despite the presence of Kevin Spacey in a supporting role, the movie never got U.S. distribution; you might assume that that was because the average moviegoer today has no idea who Joe Meek was. But the more likely reason is because Telstar is a mess. At times it’s a fascinatingly bad movie, but a mess all the same.

For about an hour, Telstar is entertaining, despite how miscast Con O’Neill is in the lead role. There’s no doubt he’s committed to the part: he brings a diva-like intensity to Meek, emoting fiercely in every scene. Telstar began life circa 2005 as a play by James Hicks, starring O’Neill as Meek. It’s as if neither the actor nor director Nick Moran thought to recalibrate the performance in its transition from the stage to the screen, where close-ups are unkind to the spectacle of an actor unmistakably working. An even more basic problem is that O’Neill is too old for the part. As soon as we meet the adult Meek in the film there’s a false note that never goes away.

What makes the first half of Telstar watchable is the milieu of the English music biz circa 1962–63. The session musicians who come jobbing in and out of Meek’s home studio respond to his fiery temper with plenty of rude wit of their own, and much of the dialogue consists of colorfully profane insults. (Even a mild epithet like “dozy bastard” delivered in a thick working-class accent brought a smile to my face.)

The scenes of the musicians in Meek’s studio eventually settle on Tornados bassist Heinz Burt (JJ Feild), whom a smitten Meek tries to mold into a pop star, despite Heinz’s conspicuous lack of anything like singing talent. The movie briefly breaks free of Meek’s studio to follow Heinz and the other Tornados on tour around England as they open for Gene Vincent (played by Carl Barat, formerly of the Libertines). As shown here, rock n’ roll is still defined by a giddy sense of novelty. We watch English musicians still very much under the sway of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis acting out a stylized pose of larger-than-life ‘American-ness’ — a little rockabilly, a little Hollywood. The concerts and even the backstage fistfights look very innocent in retrospect.

The other intriguing side of the milieu in Telstar is how the British music industry is like a kind of haven for gay men. It’s hardly news that the early to mid 1960s scene in London was rife with well-groomed young pop singers and their older gay, Svengali-like managers; Heinz and Meek play out their own version of this common scenario with unique pathos. As Heinz, JJ Feild gives the most successful performance in the movie, as he makes Heinz’s opportunism and later desperation uncomfortably believable.

But even beyond Meek and his untalented protégé, it’s eye-opening to see how “camp” behavior suffuses the English music industry as early as 1962. The arch wit and mannerisms of Meek and various managers we encounter is both overt and a kind of code, and it makes this rendering of the early 1960s feel refreshingly worldly.

The interesting aspects of Telstar come across practically in spite of Moran’s direction, which is a mish-mash of tones that rarely coheres: Moran is fond of haphazardly dropping in quick flashbacks that punctuate the present-day drama in a glib, jokey manner, like inserts from a TV sitcom. Similarly, while O’Neill acts the role of Meek with a straining, pumped-up version of naturalism, as Meek’s financial backer Major Wilfred Banks, Kevin Spacey gives a broad performance that’s pure musical theatre, especially in his introductory scenes.

A 1960 British release, with a title that's the perfect epitaph for Joe Meek.

In its last half hour, Telstar takes a sharp turn for the worse. Moran futzes around with color filters, distorted angles and digital effects as he depicts Meek’s descent into addiction and paranoia. It all feels overdone — a movie that earlier, for all its flaws, buzzed with a certain rude vitality now feels pretentious and overwrought. It doesn’t help that the storytelling beats are so familiar. If during the last 20 years you’ve seen almost any film based on the rise and fall of a rock star or drug kingpin, you know what you’re in for here.

Telstar makes a surprisingly weak case for Meek. Apart from “Telstar,” the excerpts of Meek’s hits that we hear barely escape the status of novelty records. Every summer Steve van Zandt devotes a segment of his Underground Garage radio show to exploring Meek’s legacy, with van Zandt walking his listeners through some of Meek’s songs, pointing out what was noteworthy about the production. That segment, lasting no more than 15 or 20 minutes, is a more convincing testimony to Meek’s importance than the histrionics on display for two hours in Telstar. If you’re a pop fan, Van Zandt’s commentary is even kind of stirring, whereas the movie is just wearying.

You can listen to “Telstar” here:

One thought on “Early 1960s’ British rock n’ roll in “Telstar”

  1. I am one of those few American fans of Joe Meek and not only due to the hit Telstar, which I could listen to ad nauseum and not get nauseous in the least. I love it. Also, there is the modestly successful Honeycombs, the only British Invasion group I am aware of that had a female drummer, and with a beehive hairdo! I don’t think of myself as a Meek completist, but then, why do I have “I Hear A New World” on CD? Anyway, I want to see this movie, whatever the quality. Seriously, you can’t go in to a subject this obscurely obscure and expect a critical jewel in the rough.

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