Telstar!

The quality of a song can often be reflected in the number and variety of cover versions it prompts. Think of tunes that have become jazz standards, or key songs like “Yesterday” or “My Way” which have become some of the most covered compositions in the pop canon. Sometimes, the original can be overshadowed by a later interpretation, to the point where it becomes the definitive recording. (For me, John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” outclasses both the original and later, more popular renditions). Too often, though, cover versions are pale imitations, mere pastiche or karaoke cannon fodder for TV talent shows.

One of the first records I am conscious of hearing at home and playing on the family Dansette is “Telstar” by The Tornados (the 7″ version with the deep blue Decca label, and distinctive striped orange and white sleeve). Although the main melody is quite simple (and total ear-worm), the original 1962 version features strange noises and curious effects, while the overall instrumental tone is appropriately other-worldly. Both of its time (reflecting the emerging space age) and timeless, “Telstar” has given rise to numerous versions, and thanks to the current lock-down in Melbourne and the wonders of YouTube, last week I killed a few hours searching and compiling this playlist.

I’m sure there are many more tributes out there, but this list comprises 20 or so key recordings I came across during my internet trawl:

Chronologically, the first couple of tracks on the playlist are quite faithful renditions by The Tornados’ contemporaries, The Ventures and The Spotnicks. (Strangely, the latter put out a later, and rather pointless “updated” version.)

The record’s initial success led to a vocal version by Bobby Rydell which has a certain naive charm. This in turn inspired (directly or indirectly) a couple of wonderful European vocal recordings – by Slovenia’s Marjana Deržaj and Finland’s Laila Halme. They both stay just the right side of kitsch, and bring some unique elements of their own.

These vocal recordings are followed by a cluster of orchestral/easy listening renditions, typical of the time both in style and context: there’s Billy Vaughn‘s big band recording, featuring sax and guitar; The Hawaiians‘ exotica; and James Last‘s cheesy string arrangement. All great examples of the hits of the day played in styles to suit all tastes…

We shift gears for The Pyramid‘s ska take, followed by Al Casey‘s faithful version from the early 70’s, that features an interesting opening. Also around this time came Hot Butter‘s sanitized synths, that feels like a missed opportunity to go further out in space…

If we take “disco” to be a broad church, then the oddities by Venus Gang and Ovni would just about qualify in that category – while The Shadows‘ early 80’s take sounds like those awful Stars on 45 records.

Also in the 80’s, we find a couple of versions that are either ironic, or so post modern it hurts. The Models‘ 1981 recording attempts to add some new wave atmosphere, while Ad Infinitum‘s 1984 effort is notable for coming out on Manchester’s very hip Factory record label. (It also features a tongue-in-cheek piano bar version on the b-side.)

Finally, a couple of more recent versions that each add another dimension. First, from 1997, Takako Minekawa‘s neo-loungecore interpretation (very on message for the time), which would appeal to fans of Saint Etienne and Stereolab alike. Lastly, from 2014, Bill Frisell‘s restrained but lush slide guitar that presents a fitting tribute to this classic space age instrumental.

[“Telstar” cover versions that I wish existed: the outake from Bowie’s “Low” sessions; Kraftwerk’s 1975 sound check from London’s Festival Hall; Esquival’s bachelor pad stylings; Jacques Loussier channelling Bachian counterpoint; and Marlene Dietrich’s vocal rendition…]

Next week: Living in limbo

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