Perhaps you have seen the cover of the album Goodnight Vienna. It pays homage to the 1951 Sci-fi classic movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. There in the doorway of the prototypical 1950’s flying saucer stands the nine-foot tall robot Gort. Next to him, with helmet tucked under the arm of his silvery spacesuit stands (no not Michael Rennie who played Klaatu the spaceman in the movie) none other than Ringo Starr. Goodnight Vienna was, after all, Ringo’s 1974 solo album so it does make sense that it isn’t Rennie gracing the cover. This image of Ringo as Klaatu was one of the first clues that reporter Steve Smith used to kickstart gold record level sales of an eponymous album by a band that no one outside of their parent record company had even seen. How Smith came to be the catalyst that would help propel this mystery album by the equally mysterious band Klaatu into the stratosphere, if not at least low Earth orbit, is indeed a long and winding road.
Smith told Classic Rock Magazine that the Rhode Island newspaper he worked for, The Providence Journal, would receive stacks of albums from labels hoping the paper would publish a review of one of their records. The piles of LPs leftover were there for the taking and he picked up the 1976 self titled release by Klaatu in part because he liked the stylized sun artwork on the cover. Unbeknownst to him, the same record had been released in the band’s native Canada under the title 3:47 EST (the time the Earth stood still in the movie) and had already garnered some favorable reviews: “An impressive sci-fi answer to Bowie,” is how The Trouser Press called it and Record Monthly said it was “a terrific concept album.” What Smith heard was an album that sounded a lot like the Beatles, so on February 17, 1977, he published a review under the title, “Could Klaatu Be Beatles? Mystery is a Magical Tour.”
CRM quoted Smith’s 1977 review as saying, “The track Sub-Rosa Subway is completely Beatlish. The vocals are ‘exactly like McCarney’s’, the drumming ‘like Ringo Starr’s’ and ‘the guitar work like George Harrison’s and John Lennon’s’. (The song) Doctor Marvello sounded like Blue Jay Way-period George Harrison ‘with the rest of the Beatles backing’. Other songs had ‘digs from The Beatles’ past, such as singing through fuzz effects, Yeah, Yeah Yeahs, and unmistakable harmonies. Summing up (and hedging his bets), Smith concluded that this mystery band could be 1. The Beatles. 2. A couple of The Beatles with other people. 3) A Beatles-backed band. 4) A completely unknown but ingenious and talented band.”
When Smith contacted Capitol Records (hmmm – also The Beatles’ U.S. label) to learn more about this band, they told him they had no information about Klaatu. Naturally Smith didn’t believe them for a minute, thereby fanning the flames of his theory that Klaatu was actually some sort of covert Beatles project. Capitol did tell Smith that they had signed Klaatu from Frank Davies whose Daffodil Records label had released the band’s record in Canada.
Smith contacted Davies and learned that Klaatu had recorded at Rush producer Terry Brown’s studio in Toronto. When word got around that Terry Brown had worked as an engineer at London’s Olympic Studio’s (home to some legendary Beatles recording sessions) and that Davies was originally from the UK and worked for EMI Records (The Beatles European label), the rumour mill began to grind furiously. The mystery train that was Klaatu began to gain momentum, spurring the previously sluggish Klaatu album sales began to soar.
Capitol Records execs hadn’t lied to Smith when they said they had no information about the band. When Davies was shopping the band for a US label, A&R rep Rupert Perry only had to hear a few tracks to convince himself that he wanted to sign them. When he requested a meeting with the band to sign the contract, Davies refused. He explained this refusal to bring Klaatu in thusly: “I’d warrant that they were signed to me, my label and my production company. The lawyers will be involved – my lawyers, their lawyers. They’re signed to you through me and that’s that.” While it was an unusual moved for Capitol to sign an unknown band sight unseen, they liked the record enough to send it off to radio stations with Smith’s glowing review. It was a bit of a gamble, but odds are they were hoping the ‘Is it or isn’t it The Beatles?’ mystery would fuel album sales. Luckily, the gambit worked for the label, but it would turn out to be a less than fortuitous turn of events for the band’s future album sales.
Klaatu came about when John Woloshuk and guitarist Dee Long began working at Terry Brown’s Toronto studio in 1974. By the time drummer Terry Draper joined the project in February of 1975, they were already deep into recording the Klaatu album. Knowing they would not be able to tour the album as a three piece band, they made a conscious decision to not identify themselves on the album sleeve. Starting with this little air of mystery wasn’t at all intended to be a PR move. As Davies told CRM, “Klaatu weren’t going to go down the tried and tested route. The guys wanted to try a new approach. They wouldn’t do photos, or interviews, or have a bio. I was cool with that. It was different. They weren’t going to play live, either.” Woloshuk, the band’s bassist, vocalist, and keyboard player summed it up pretty well: “We were three unknown guys from Toronto and didn’t want the focus to be on us as individuals. We really wanted the music to be the focal point. Also, we knew that the music we wanted to record couldn’t possibly be replicated on stage by three people.” Smith shared some of his Beatle clues with Davies who told him coyly that he’s “pretty accurate.” Davies wasn’t about to squash a PR juggernaut with a little thing like the truth or facts.
Word of The Beatles-Klaatu mystery finally reached The Fab Four themselves. Paul McCartney sent his old EMI colleague Davies a postcard that said he was, “having a laugh watching all the rumours swirling.” Capitol was keeping its cards close to the vest by saying as little as possible, but they did take out some music trade magazine ads showing the Klaatu Sun from the album cover with the cryptic slogan, “Klaatu is Klaatu”. A radio station program director in Washington, DC finally took the matter to Congress; the Library of Congress, that is. A little research revealed the songs on Klaatu were copyrighted to Draper, Long, Woloschuk and Dino Tome, not The Beatles. Klaatu had caught wind of The Beatles thing while they were in England recording. Upon returning to Toronto, they found the whole thing had exploded beyond anything they had imagined when they laughed off the first hints they heard about themselves being The Beatles. Even though the music was good and sounded Beatley, the magic PR mystery bubble burst and as Terry Draper says, “When people found out we weren’t The Beatles, they thought we’d perpetuated the rumour and duped them, and that came back to haunt us.”
Woloshuk goes on to say, “The whole world resigned themselves that we weren’t The Beatles. Rolling Stone magazine gave us their ‘Hype of the Year’ award!” The album they were working on in England when The Beatles myth exploded was called Hope and it was released in September of 1977. It was a good album, but every good review was countered with two articles decrying them as a “Hoax!” or a “Scam!”. Again, Woloshuk reflects back at the whole affair with a great deal of honest irony: “To engineer the press furor that happened was way beyond our level of intelligence. Nobody could have planned that. We were the victims to the rumour. I see the gold records on my wall and I know what we accomplished. We got very good at what we were doing. It’s a shame that we weren’t allowed to have a place in the music industry workforce. We were forced out of it.”
As for the man who stated the whole “Is it the Beatles?” ball rolling, Steve Smith still likes the band and wishes that they had been given a more even chance: “I feel kind of bad about what eventually happened when they got pooh-poohed. After it came out that they weren’t The Beatles, nobody wanted to hear it any more, I thought they were a really talented band.” Klaatu can’t be too hard on Smith. If he hadn’t plucked their album off the discard pile at the Providence Journal at the start, Klaatu’s first album wouldn’t have made a blip on the music business radar to begin with.
Capitol still had faith in the band. Unfortunately, they tied conditions to their support of the band’s future recordings. Rather than have Klaatu continue their successful path aping Lennon and McCartney, they hooked them up with producers and studio musicians while pushing them to make more of a pop record. It didn’t work. Another album was tied to a requirement that they tour behind their next record. They expanded their line up with three members of the defunct Canadian band Max Webster and spent nine months touring as an opening act for Prism or headlining their own shows. While they had fun touring, Draper says, “We couldn’t make the leap from playing in bars to seated venues. We filled seats because people came to see the novelty act that was once thought to be The Beatles.”
Someone in the Capitol Records marketing department really disliked the band so they sat on the records. They were able to climb into the Canadian Top Forty with their song Knee Deep from their 1980 release Endangered Species, but it is hard to sell records that are not shipped. By 1982, they were done.
The Beatles influences came honestly. As Woloshuk puts it, “I’m probably one of the biggest Beatles fans in the world.” Draper adds, “If you are going to steal – or learn – you steal from the best. Nobody’s going to steal from a bad band.” Klaatu’s members still make music and manage the affairs of the band (visit www.klaatu.org if interested in remastered albums or DVDs). The resurgent interest in the band started in the 1990s and continues up to the present. Frank Davies points out that, “They held a convention in 2005 here in Toronto for Klaatu fans. People came from all over the world. The band played unplugged and the fans loved it.” “Our fans tend to stick with us even though we haven’t had any new Klaatu product out in decades. Our fans are extremely loyal,” is Woloshuk’s final word on the state of the band.
Prior to seeing the CRM piece on Klaatu, I only knew the name from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Richard and Karen Carpenter (yes, the sticky sweet singing siblings from The Carpenters)
heard a track from 3:47 EST called Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft brought in by their guitar player. They covered it and Klaatu’s members are still earning royalties from this unlikely recording of one of their tracks. The track became an international hit for The Carpenters and appears on their Greatest Hits album. As Woloshuk points out, “It took a lot of courage for them to do that. It definitely been our most successful earner from our entire catalog.” Now that I have ordered Klaatu’s debut album we will get it on the air so we can all see and see what we missed!
Top Piece Video: The 1974 touring version of Klaatu performing California Jam on Keith Hampshire’s Music Machine