Satellite transmission of audio and video is no big deal anymore. You’ve probably seen or heard a dozen things already today—or a hundred—that were delivered to you by a satellite of some sort. ‘Twas not always thus, of course. Once, the idea that audio and video could be shot into space and bounced back down, instead of being sent over wires, represented the bleeding edge of technology. I can remember seeing hazy pictures from across the ocean on the family black-and-white, emblazoned with the words “via Early Bird.” The Early Bird satellite was one of the first to be parked in geosynchronous orbit and used to send and receive TV signals. It was launched in 1965 and operated until 1969, being shut down after it played a small role in the flight of Apollo 11. It was briefly reactivated in 1990 for the anniversary of its original launch.
But Early Bird (officially Intelsat I) was not the first satellite to relay TV pictures—that was Telstar. The first Telstar was developed by an international consortium to transmit phone calls and video across the Atlantic, and was launched in July 1962. Two weeks after the launch, an international TV broadcast relayed pictures and sound to viewers in the United States and Europe. Telstar lasted only about seven months before its circuits burned out, partly because of high-altitude nuclear weapons tests. Telstar II operated from 1963 to 1965, before being replaced by Early Bird.
Telstar had its impact on popular music. Within weeks of the launch, British producer Joe Meek rushed out an instrumental called “Telstar,” performed by the Tornadoes. It used a keyboard instrument called a clavioline to get its unique sound, as well as some “space” effects created by recording mundane household sounds (including a flushing toilet), and then manipulating the speed and direction of the tapes. It became a Number-One single in the UK in October, and in the States come December of 1962. (You might also know the cover version by the Ventures.)
But that famous production is not the only single inspired by the satellite. Meek also put words to “Telstar” and called it “Magic Star.” It was first recorded in the UK by somebody named Kenny Hollywood, who was rumored to be Meek (and also Marc Bolan, later of T. Rex) but was not. American country singer Margie Singleton cut a version that was a vast improvement. The Gee Sisters worked a different set of lyric changes on the same concept—please fabulous high-tech satellite, help bring my baby back to me—although not the same tune, on “(Help Me) Telstar.” Minor teen idol Frankie Calen recorded exactly the same song, but it was released under the title “Telstar Help Me.” None of them made the Hot 100, although Singleton’s shows up on a few surveys at ARSA from early 1963.
I was going on three years old at the end of 1962, so I can’t say from direct experience how “Telstar” was received. I’m guessing, however, that people responded to it as though it were the sound of the 1960s to come. John F. Kennedy had taken office in 1961 resolutely pointing toward the future, and had challenged America to reach the moon over a year before Telstar was launched. But Kennedy would never see the future he imagined; the sound of the 1960s was being made by four British kids at Abbey Road Studios, and few Americans had heard it at the end of 1962. Yet “Telstar” remains as an artifact of that optimistic period—as do the Telstar satellites themselves, still orbiting the earth, deaf and blind now, nearly 50 years after their launch.