Fans of the Beatles were excited by a strange new album in 1976 – long after the band had split. Tony Barrell discovers why
THE SUNDAY TIMES, 2016
Myths cling to the story of the Beatles like stubborn barnacles on the hull of a weathered old galleon. There’s that utter nonsense about Paul dying in the 1960s and being replaced by a man who not only looked identical, but also played left-handed and somehow had just as much musical brilliance as the original. Then there’s that supposed put-down of Ringo Starr – “He isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles” – which is often wrongly attributed to John Lennon.
In 1976, there was suddenly a big fuss about a new album by a mysterious band called Klaatu. Strangely, there were no band members listed or pictured on the sleeve, and the record was released on Capitol Records, which just happened to be the Beatles’ US label.
An American journalist called Steve Smith started the rumour mill grinding when he asked the question: “Could Klaatu be the Beatles?” The legendary British band had split up over six years before, but soon people started raving that they had secretly re-formed, or that the Klaatu record was a lost Fab Four LP, perhaps recorded sometime in 1966. For some unknown reason, the band had decided to veil their true identity for this new release. (This wasn’t a completely implausible idea: Paul had once written a song for the duo Peter and Gordon under a pseudonym, as an experiment to see how well it would do without the famous Lennon–McCartney imprimatur. And, of course, the Beatles had semi-pretended to be a different group, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for the legendary 1967 album of that name.)
Klaatu was the alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the 1951 film referenced on the cover of a Ringo Starr album
Speculation that Klaatu were the Beatles was fuelled by some tantalising details of the Klaatu record. One of the song titles, ‘Sub-Rosa Subway’, was strangely similar to the name of Paul McCartney and Wings’ LP from three years before, Red Rose Speedway. Klaatu was the name of the alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the 1951 film that was referenced on the cover of Ringo Starr’s album Goodnight Vienna, and another of the songs mentioned a “sentimental journey”, the title of another Ringo LP. The Klaatu album was originally titled 3:47 EST, and the running time of one of the Beatles’ finest songs, ‘All You Need Is Love’, just happens to be 3 minutes and 47 seconds.
Not everybody believed the hype, and some people had fun with it. A British music paper demonstrated how easy it was to infer Beatle connections just about anywhere, when it jokingly seized on a terrible album of music from The Waltons TV series as another “secret Beatles LP”. The reviewer pointed out that Paul McCartney had been born at Liverpool’s Walton Hospital, and that one of the tracks on the Waltons record was ‘Mimicry’, in whose title was concealed the name of the aunt who had brought up John Lennon.
Klaatu hadn’t meant to cause such a brouhaha: they had merely wanted their prog-rock music to speak for itself
In fact, the Klaatu album was made by three little-known Canadians called John Woloschuk, Dee Long and Terry Draper. They hadn’t meant to cause such a brouhaha: they had merely wanted their prog-rock music to “speak for itself”. But the controversy ensured that their LP received a lot of attention. And the year after its release, the album’s best track – ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’ – was covered by the Carpenters, and became the weirdest hit that the middle-of-the-road brother-and-sister duo ever had. ♦
© 2016 Tony Barrell
Tony Barrell’s acclaimed new book, Beatlemania, is available across the world.