So Said the Lighthouse Keepers

For a brief moment in 1977, Klaatu were possibly the biggest band in the world. What people didn’t know was that they were one of the best.

Klaatu, a trio of Canadian songwriters, worked on borrowed studio time to craft an epic album of whimsical ’60s-inspired pop music that — a year after its 1976 release — became wrapped up in a rumor so powerful, it would make them the most talked-about band in the world one month, and the most hated the next. Somehow they had managed to get themselves mistaken for the Beatles. Here’s a band that Ozzy Osbourne loved, the Carpenters covered, Mick Jagger questioned, and Paul McCartney himself (jokingly) threatened. What’s worse? They had nothing to do with it.

Why did everyone think that Klaatu were a reunited Fab Four? Here, you’ll hear the band tell the story in their own words. And with their final studio album the subject of a reissue earlier this year (and with a live CD/DVD set on the near horizon), it’s a perfect time to reevaluate a group that so often gets marginalized as a rock history footnote.

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The group’s humble beginnings were, in fact, humble. John Woloschuk brought some self-penned lyric sheets to a 1972 interview at a Canadian recording studio. He didn’t get the job he was looking for, but he was asked to bring in some song demos to go with those lyric sheets. John then found a perfect musical counterpart in his electronics-factory co-worker Dee Long. Dee had played in a lot of rock groups throughout high school and was more than happy to flesh out John’s demos. When turned in, John and Dee’s bedroom tracks appealed to studio owner Terry Brown. With the later addition of drummer Terry Draper, the group was complete. As sci-fi nuts and fans of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, they decided to take their name from the movie’s immortal line “Klaatu barada nikto!”

John Woloschuk: I think that the most fun was making the first album, over almost a three-year period from 1973 to — I think we did the very final mix of “Calling Occupants” in January of ’76. Mind you, it wasn’t continuous time — it was sporadically done throughout. In the early days, we’d go as long as six months before we got back in the studio. But those days, we had a lot of fun discovering when we were doing the recordings in those days because it was our first. And the first is always I think dearest to you. I think David Bowie said you have 25 years to make your first album and six months to make your second.

Dee Long: We were finishing the first album, and we were listening back to the mixes and we had the lights dimmed and all the control lights were flickering. It took us three years to make that first album, but when we came to the end of it, somebody said we need a cover and I said, “A cover?” And there was that revelation in that moment that we’d actually finished something.

That debut album was known to Canadians as 3:47 E.S.T. and simply Klaatu to the rest of the world. The group had toiled for months, culling inspirations from their favorite artists, and the band’s studio perfectionism paid off in droves. Woloschuk threw all of his favorite bands of the Woodstock era together into one irresistible jam called “California Jam”. Dee made a crunching 70s riff-rocker called “True Life Hero.” And the album contained “Sub-Rosa Subway”, one of the finest songs ever penned about a subway station.

Yet what’s remarkable is that the rest of the world actually got to hear this album.

One song that got credit for its immaculate construction was Dee Long’s space-rock epic, “Little Neutrino”. Terry Draper (who I ran into while he was feeding the turtles near his lake house) remembers a particularly unique occurrence during the recording of that number:

Terry Draper: During the fadeout of “Little Neutrino”, there’s a series of rocket ships that go shooting around and what they are actually are cymbal rolls. I just took a big fat cymbal with mallets and play a cymbal roll. John and Dee are in the control room changing the pitch of the tape recorder, changing the speed of the 24-track. During the recording, Mick Jagger walked in with the studio manager. They wanted to look at the place. They were going to do the gig at the El Mocambo. So when Mick walked in, there’s this hokey tracked music changing pitch and shooting violently all over the place with this little moron out in the studio playing a cymbal roll! And that’s what Mick heard when he came in and we got to meet him. He must’ve walked in and said, “Who are these guys? Are these guys on LSD or what? What is happening here?”

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Klaatu came out in 1976 on Capitol Records. Island has previously released “California Jam” as a single, but it didn’t garner much American airplay. As former manager Frank Davies explains in the liner notes to Sun Set, “There was one, bizarre but pivotal — to the band — requirement implicit in any possible future relationship between us; namely, that in the marketing and management of their career there were to be no bios, no photos, no personality descriptions, no interviews, no appearances, no names or album credits even, except the bare minimum required for copyright purposes. The music alone would be the only tool I would have to market and promote their career.”

The album was well received (even making a few year-end Top 10 lists by some noted music publications), but critical raves did not equal triumphant sales. In fact, by the end of 1976, the album hadn’t even moved more than 15,000 copies.

But unbeknownst to Davies and the band, gears were set in motion that would soon change their lives forever. In February 1977, Steve Smith, a staff writer for the Rhode Island newspaper The Providence Journal, penned an article with the headline “Could Klaatu Be Beatles? Mystery is a Magical Tour.” In the Sun Set liner notes Smith explains, “I was never a reporter, I just happened across that album and did the story. It piqued my interest, so I started making some phone calls to Capitol Records, and I didn’t get anywhere. Eventually, roads lead to Frank Davies and Ken Berry of Capitol Records Canada. But when I got through to Ken, he had to put the phone down because he could not believe I had gotten as far as I did. After I wrote the article, I got calls from all over the world, and I was even on Australian radio. I was getting calls from everywhere. I was even getting calls from people that had clues. When Capitol Records put out that press release that contained my whole article, it just mushroomed from there.”

So what evidence was there that Klaatu was the Beatles? The clues were just so obvious: the lack of any credits on the album (except that the album was “written and performed by Klaatu”), the fact that the words Klaatu and Beatle have the same number of vowels and consonants, and — most especially — the observation that the cover of Ringo Starr’s 1974 album Goodnight Vienna was, in fact, a recreation of the famous scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still where the character Klaatu exits the UFO for the first time. Isn’t it obvious that we’re talking about the ever-so-cryptic Beatles here?

Yet the biggest clue of all was the music itself. After all, weren’t the Beatles planning a back-to-their-roots album shortly before they disbanded? People could point to certain moments on Klaatu’s debut that were reminiscent of the craftsmanship of John, Paul, George and Ringo, especially “Sub-Rosa Subway”. Wasn’t that Paul’s bassline? John’s piano stylings? The song was extracted as a single and reached #62 on the pop charts. The sci-fi epic (and B-side) “Calling Occupants (of Interplanetary Craft)” also gained radio airplay. In many ways, “Calling Occupants” was Klaatu’s big hit, being used in all sorts of places, including the soundtrack to the 90s television show Due South. The song even managed to reach the ears of Richard Carpenter, who decided to record it for the Carpenters’ 1977 release Passages, with orchestrations by Peter Knight, of the Moody Blues fame. The Carpenters version pleased Draper, who confesses, “I was a closet Carpenters fan: I’m in a rock band. I can’t go around singing ‘Close to You.’ ” With the Carpenters’ version becoming a hit (you can find it on most of their ‘Greatest Hits’ albums today), the Beatles-are-Klaatu fever was at its peak. In the Sun Set liner notes, Davies says, “The sales skyrocketed. Capitol worldwide could not keep the album in the stores.”

Of course, given that this was America’s hot topic, it wasn’t long before the Beatles themselves were asked about their mysterious album. Davies says he received a postcard from McCartney saying he was “having a laugh watching all the rumors swirling.” In his 2004 interview with Eric Abrahamsen of ProGGnosis, Dee Long recalls a much more personal encounter:

John Jones and I had been running Studio 5 at AIR studios in London England for a year or so. AIR was located on the fourth floor on Oxford Circus and there was pretty strict security, I had to sign in with a guard at the entrance to AIR. He told me he had a message from Paul McCartney for me. The message read “I’m going to do you!” In British “do you” means “beat you up.” A short while later Paul knocked on the door. His first greeting was something to the effect of ‘so you’re the guy from the Beatles clone band that I’ve heard about’. This with a big smile on his face. Apparently he had been on a talk show, the host had played a bit of “Calling Occupants” and asked him if he recognized the music. They even asked him if he had played on the disc.

At this point, Klaatu was faced with a difficult choice: either come out and tell the truth or remain in hiding and work on a follow-up album. When the rumor hit, the group decided to keep mum and use the time to enhance their second album with even more lush orchestrations than before. Capitol, rolling in dough, was happy to oblige. Their second disc was a concept album about a fictional planet that was shattered to pieces.

Draper explains how the second album came together:

I was always a big fan of those concept albums. And I had this idea — it’s actually a real theory — it’s called Bode’s Law, and it’s that the planets are equidistant from one another from the sun in a formula. But the fifth planet is nonexistent; it’s an asteroid belt. The theory is that there used to be a planet there and it exploded. So I took this theory and turned it into this planet that was so violent that it destroyed itself and all we’re left with is a lighthouse keeper to guide space travel through the shards and the remnants of his planet. I proposed this to John and Dee, they thought, That’s kinda cool, and everybody went home and wrote songs, and a year later the Hope album was ready to hit the streets.

Riding on Klaatu’s sudden notoriety, Hope charted at number 83 — not bad, but still not near the peak that 3:47 E.S.T. reached earlier in the year. Yet the album was ripe with first-rate material: “Madman” was a song that impressed Ozzy Osbourne when he (inexplicably) crashed the studio, and “Prelude” was an instrumental rock epic recorded with a full 83-piece orchestra. Yet one of Hope‘s greatest moments remains “Around the Universe in 80 Days” — a powerful pop ballad that Dee Long built around a gorgeous piano melody.

“Around the Universe in 80 Days” is a fine example of effortless pop-rock craftsmanship; producer Terry Brown even won the Juno Award for Recording Engineer of the Year for his efforts. But despite making such worthy music, when the public found out that Klaatu weren’t the Beatles, they felt duped. When that backlash hit, it wasn’t long before things turned grim.

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So how did everyone find out that Klaatu were not the Beatles? The truth is rather anticlimactic: a music director from a radio station in Washington went to the Library of Congress on his lunch break, asked to see the public copyright registration record for “Sub-Rosa Subway”, and saw the names and Canadian addresses of all the guys in Klaatu. That was it. Word broke out, and indeed, people felt like they had been duped. Terry Draper says, “When the Beatles rumor came out, we should’ve just stood up and said, ‘Hey, we’re not the Beatles. We’re three losers from Toronto. Get over it.’ Instead we let that rumor ride and watched the sales climb. In retrospect if we just stood up and said, ‘No, we’re not the Beatles, but thanks a lot anyway and here we are’ and then maybe hit the road? That’s the biggest regret: that we didn’t stand up and say who we were.”

Regardless of what the public thought, the group soldiered on. Their third release, 1978’s Sir Army Suit found the band trying its hand at disco rock with the infectious “Juicy Luicy” (complete with that very unfortunate typo) and featured Dee Long’s bouncy “Perpetual Motion Machine” and the dark-edged guitar crunch of “Mister Manson”. Sir Army Suit was unabashedly pop, geared for radio a lot more than their previous two albums were. Unfortunately, the backlash had already set in, and the album failed to even make the Billboard album charts.

No doubt disappointed with the band’s deteriorating album sales, Capitol had much more of a hand in Klaatu’s fourth album, giving the group a list of outside producers to choose from. The eventual choice, Chris Bond — best known for his work on Hall & Oates “Rich Girl” — brought in studio musicians to record a lot of the band’s parts, sometimes even re-recording parts that the group had already done themselves. In the end, Endangered Species was a middling affair, and the songs aren’t up to the group’s usual standards. It did, however, end on a strong note. There’s one song that John had kept in his pocket for a while called “All Good Things”, a sweet, touching ballad about companionship that doubled-over as a sad closing note, with the chorus of “all good things must end”. This gem stands as one of the greatest songs that Klaatu ever put out.

Endangered Species came out in 1980, receiving some radio play in Canada while being virtually ignored in the U.S. entirely. After parting ways with Capitol, the group decided that it couldn’t just call it quits and have Endangered Species be their swan song. Ignoring budgetary constraints, Klaatu brought itself to make one final stand … they were going to end their career the way they wanted, critics and sales be damned.

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Having become interested in music production, Dee had formed his own E.S.P. Studios in Ontario. The group put the whole album budget they received from their Canadian label toward studio improvements, giving them unlimited time to record. The result, the band’s first self-produced effort, Magentalane, marked a return to their pop roots, and served as a retrospective on the past 20 years of psychedelic pop. “Blue Smoke” was a bluesy beer-rock number with sitar sprinkled throughout, and “Mrs. Toad’s Cookies” could’ve easily found a spot on 3:47 E.S.T. “December Dream” was a eulogy for the recently slain John Lennon, and actually became a Top 10 hit in Taiwan when the album was released on CD in 1996).

After a brief touring stint to promote the LP, Canadian record label Bullseye eventually got the rights for Klaatu’s music straight from the band themselves and gradually began to reissue these nostalgic 70s gems. What’s more, people were buying. With Klaatu’s albums being reissued, was there any chance for a reunion tour? “I think, you know, there’s nothing worse than an anticlimax,” says Woloschuk. “I’ve been to concerts of groups I revere when they were doing their second-wind type thing. And more often than not, you often come away disappointed saying ‘Gee, I should have stayed home.’ I really don’t want to do that. I’m quite content to sit on our record, pardon the pun. We had a heck of a time playing down some of the negative press we were getting over the years and that would come back and haunt us.”

Still, in 2005, a Klaatu*Kon was organized in Canada, and the group, which originally planned to appear only for a Q and A, was impressed enough by the turnout — some came from as far as Switzerland — to play a brief acoustic set, marking the first time they performed together in more than 23 years. In a PopMatters exclusive, here’s “I Don’t Wanna Go Home”:

Klaatu is often regarded as a one-off pop-culture phenomenon, a novelty act that had an unusual gimmick of masking its identity. But their music has survived to this day. What’s more? Their music still sounds great. It has always been my long-running theory that your personal “favorite” album of all time already exists; you just may not yet have found it. For some people, that album could be something by Klaatu.

Terry Draper: The highlight is probably close to hand: any one of those discs that you pick up, especially the first two and the last one. That’s what it’s all about. No matter what happens in your career, and no matter how sour it went, I know what we accomplished, and it’s on those discs, and that speaks for itself. You listen to “Doctor Marvello” and those really cool mellotron parts that John and I did, and the vocals and the whole thing. You listen to that, and you go, “Okay, it didn’t make Top 10 radio, but you know what? It’s totally cool.”

History will always be kind to music that matters, and — for this reason — history will always be kind to Klaatu.