(Edited to add link below.)
In 1976, an album called Klaatu landed in American record stores. The band that made it was also called Klaatu, and the whole thing was quite mysterious. There were no pictures of the musicians or information about them on the record. The music was odd, richly layered with sound effects and unusual instruments, and incorporated styles ranging from surf music to children’s songs. Most intriguing to some listeners were the tracks “Sub-Rosa Subway” and “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,”on which the singers sounded a bit like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. A swirl of rumors ensued claiming that Klaatu really was the Beatles. Fans quickly concocted a list of reasons why it could be true. Many of these reasons were even more insane than those used to “prove” Paul was dead. Not only that, but fans continued to dream them up long after the players’ real identities were revealed to be three Canadians named Terry Draper, John Woloschuck, and Dee Long.
Klaatu would release four more albums before breaking up in 1981; Allmusic.com blames their failure on a backlash generated by the idea that Klaatu was the Beatles, although the members themselves never actually claimed to be. It’s more likely that the succeeding albums failed because they weren’t all that good. Even “Sub-Rosa Subway,” the best candidate for being the Beatles in disguise, feels trivial in a way that the Beatles’ most trivial music does not (although on its own merits, it’s fine). I can’t imagine how anybody listening beyond “Sub-Rosa Subway” or “Calling Occupants” could have ever believed Klaatu was the Beatles in the first place. I listened to their 1978 album Sir Army Suit the other day (which featured a sugary single called “Juicy Lucy”), and it’s clear that the only people still capable of believing Klaatu was the Beatles in 1978 were in a high orbit around Planet Crazy.
One song from Klaatu actually became a hit—the Carpenters did a reverent cover of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” and took it into the lower reaches of the Top 40 at the end of 1977. (Video here.) The single version was backed by their version of “Can’t Smile Without You,” which would become a hit for Barry Manilow a few months later, making it one of the weirder 45s ever released.
(More about Klaatu and the Beatles hype is here.)
Linkage Left From Last Week: I’m a maker of mix tapes from a long way back—back to my first car with a tape deck, circa 1977. Addicted to Vinyl is asking readers to send mix tapes (well, mix CD’s actually) and will be featuring some of them on the blog. If I get the time, perhaps I’ll get busy. Also, One Poor Correspondent linked to a website where you can watch the first 24 hours of MTV programming from August 1981. The list of songs that got on the air that day is pretty weird, with the likes of Lee Ritenour, Carly Simon, and Juice Newton mixed in alongside Rod Stewart, REO Speedwagon, and David Bowie. But it makes the music mix pretty democratic, as pop radio itself used to be, although that era was already dying in 1981 in favor of a fragmented marketplace full of stations programming to tiny demographic slices (which to a certain extent, MTV helped to bring about). Of course, maybe MTV wasn’t thirsting for musical democracy at its birth. Maybe those were all the videos they had.