There’s something adorable about this little instrumental, one of those instrumentals you’d see in the surf-rock era, a little composition that goes on exactly as long as the melody can sustain it and then stops. It’s named after the first commercial comms satellite, and it’s got a rockets-and-rayguns kind of feel to it.
This is a significant piece of music in a number of regards. It’s got an early use of an electronic instrument (the clavioline that would later feature on “Baby, You’re a Rich Man” by the Beatles and probably “Icky Thump” by the White Stripes), it’s probably the first song we could call space-rock in good conscience, and so it’s an important precursor to the earlier acid-rock/prog-rock complex that would develop later in the decade, and finally, it’s the first US number-one hit by a British band. (Individual artists had had chart-toppers in the US before, but not many of them.) In a way, we can see this song as prefiguring the British invasion(s), although this might be a bit of an overstatement.
It’s got a troubled history, too. The producer, Meeks, later shot his landlady and himself with a band member’s shotgun, apparently driven to the breaking point by fear that his homosexuality would be discovered in a legal climate where he might conceivably be forced to undergo hormone treatment or else spend a long time in prison. (Alan Turing killed himself with a poison apple not too many years before under exactly those circumstances.)
The guitarist, by the way, was George Bellamy, father of the famous Muse guitarist Matt Bellamy. What I think of as their most famous song (though I’m probably wrong about that,) “Knights of Cydonia” is a bit of a Telstar tribute, with an intro section that copies part of the melody on a similar-sounding instrument, and a chorus that uses the melody as well. Still, given the choice, I prefer Telstar. Muse… well, they’re Muse.
The B-side is not particularly spectacular. It’s called “Jungle Fever,” and it’s about what you would expect to hear in a period British movie about brave white adventurers hacking their way into a savage jungle somewhere in Africa or East Asia. It has vocal effects at the very beginning and throughout that I want to imagine are supposed to be gorillas or other dangerous jungle animals, but I have this uncomfortable sensation that they’re the snarling sounds of the indigenous. Eesh.
So the A-side definitely wins.