What I’ve Been Listening to: Klaatu/3:47 EST

In August 1976, a then-obscure band from Canada released their debut album and sent the music world on a magical mystery tour.

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“Could Klaatu be Beatles?” With this headline and his accompanying album review in Providence Journal in Feb 1977, writer Steve Smith started what Rolling Stone magazine would later call the “hype of the year.” While British magazine New Musical Express unkindly dismissed the article with a story titled, “Deaf Idiot Journalist Starts Beatle Rumor,” it’s not very hard to see why Smith was puzzled about the record and saw four possibilities who could be behind the mystery band: The Beatles, a couple of Beatles with other people, a Beatle-backed band, or a completely unknown but ingenious and talented band.

Providence Journal Klaatu Review

To start with, there were no music or writing credits on the cover of 3:47 EST, which in the U.S. was simply called Klaatu. There were also no photos or any background on Klaatu’s musicians: bassist John Woloschuk, guitarist Dee Long and drummer Terry Draper. There was no producer identified either; instead the record simply indicated, “produced by Klaatu.” The big sun on the front side of the cover could easily be associated with the late Beatles tunes Here Comes the Sun and Sun King. The album was put out by Capitol Records in U.S., which had released most of the Beatles’ American records.

And then, of course, there was the music. For the most part, the vocals didn’t sound much like The Beatles, but the way the harmonies were done and the music on various songs certainly were very Beatlesque. It wasn’t a stretch of imagination to picture the fantastic opener Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft on Sgt. Pepper or Magical Mystery Tour. Perhaps the tune that sounded most like a Beatles song is the beautiful Sub-Rosa Subway. The melody easily could have been written by Paul McCartney. The piano part and bass and even the vocal sounded very similar to Paul.

Klaatu 2

So how did Klaatu feel about the rumors? During a 1980 interview with former Capitol Records editorial manager Stephen Peeples, which is posted on Klaatu’s web site, Draper said, “I think we were flattered more than anything. Surprised, though, considering that it was totally regardless of us that it happened. We didn’t perpetrate it. It just sorta came to pass by an article written in Providence [Journal] by Steve Smith. We were surprised as everyone else.”

At the time the rumors started, Klaatu was in England to record their second album Hope. The band essentially attributed their silence to a desire to remain anonymous musicians, which is why they had not included their names, photos or any biographical information on the album cover. At the same time, Klaatu recognized the debate gave the album a degree of exposure it would not have received otherwise. “We got more hype out of that than you could have manufactured with 15 promo records directors,” commented Woloschuk in the above interview. “I mean, it backfired on us. While we were looking for anonymity, we got more exposure than we could have dreamed was possible.”

Klaatu 3

I think it’s fair to conclude that Klaatu were pretty naive to think the story wouldn’t generate the type of backlash it eventually did. But in my opinion, it was Capitol Records that played the most incredible role in all of it. Apparently realizing all the mystery and swirling Paul-is-dead-like conspiracy theories were driving up the album’s sales, they did nothing the dispel the rumors. In fact, according to his above article, when Smith called Capitol Records, he reportedly was told Klaatu were a “mystery band.”

For his story Smith also talked to Frank Davies, who represented the band. At one point, Davies confirmed to the reporter Klaatu were not The Beatles and that the only connection was “inspirational.” But when Smith asked whether any former members of The Beatles played on the album, Davies reportedly said, “that everything ‘you’ve summarized is really pretty accurate all the way around’ and that ‘everything that is there, can be and will be identified even without, perhaps them, the people, being seen.'”

Eventually, Dwight Douglas, program director at radio station WWDC in Washington, D.C., put the mystery to an end. He checked the records at the U.S. Copyright Office and uncovered the band members’ real names. As soon as Klaatu’s identity became known, the album’s sales started to tumble and started the band’s slow decline. Klaatu released four additional albums and eventually disbanded in Aug 1982. They had two brief reunions in 1988 and 2005.

I could not find any official reactions from John, Paul, George or Ringo to the whole Klaatu saga. The closest is a Dec 2013 story about Klaatu, published by music magazine Goldmine. The feature includes an interview with Long, who met Paul in the late ’80s while working as an engineer at George Martin’s Air Studios in London. “Later, when I was working in Studio 5, there was a knock on the door, and in comes Paul,” Long recalled. “He introduced himself (like he needed any introduction) and said, ‘So you’re the chap from The Beatles clone band.’ He explained that he was on a TV talk show and the host played a bit of ‘Calling Occupants’ and asked Paul if that was him singing! Paul had never heard the song and said so…We talked for at least an hour, and I explained that we were never a clone band but just heavily influenced by The Beatles. We talked about music and life…He came back many times to hang out and jam and talk about writing songs. Again, he was just a wonderful person — easy to talk to, and full of positive energy. An experience I will always treasure.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Providence Journal, Klaatu web site, Goldmine

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