Klaatu was a progressive rock band from Canada. Formed in 1973 by the duo of bassist/keyboardist/vocalist John Woloschuk and singer/guitarist Dee Long, they named their group after the extraterrestrial by the same name portrayed by Michael Rennie in the motion picture The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The duo put out a couple of singles–“Hanus Of Uranus/Sub-Rosa Subway” and “Dr. Marvello/For You Girl” on GRT Records. This would bring them to the attention of Frank Davies the president of Daffodil Records. Percussionist/vocalist Terry Draper was added to the line-up and two more singles–“California Jam” and “True Life Hero” soon followed.
Their singles met with limited success as the group struggled to gain recognition. It would not be until 1975, however, that Davies and record producer Terry Brown would land the band a record deal with Capitol Records in America. The following year (1976), as your favorite crusty chronicler to be was being awarded Eagle Scout, Klaatu’s initial American album, 3:47 EST (named Klaatu in America because execs at Capitol thought 3:47 EST was too obscure) hit the record racks.
The reviews were neither praiseful nor damning and by the end of the year record sales had stalled. Fortunately, the recording had a Beatlesque sound to it. One song in particular, “Sub-Rosa Subway”, would sound so much like a Lennon-McCartney tune that Steve Smith of the Providence Journal wrote (the following year) that the platter had to be an anonymous project by the anonymously-reunited Beatles.
Before all was said and done, this album came to be regarded (along with their next album) as one of the group’s best. The band played Beatlesque psychedelic rock (in the style of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour) with the notable additions of vocal distortion, backwards instruments and some then obscure musical instruments such as electric sitars. The disc contained eight songs including “Anus of Uranus” and “Little Neutrino” and concluded with a mouse squeak. A friend of the group, Canadian artist ted Jones, painted the album cover.
The fact that the disc contained no band biography simply added fuel to the fire. Before anyone could say “let it be”, this rumor went global and the print media and radio stations alike were feeding hopeful Beatles fans with numerous “clues” to support this mistaken belief. It was that same year that their most famous tune, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (the Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day)”, was covered by none other than The Carpenters.
Their follow-up album, Hope, released in 1977, included noteworthy orchestral contributions by the London Symphony Orchestra and is generally considered to “be equal, if not superior, to the first album.” It was a concept album about the only survivor of an arrogant race of beings, who warns space travelers of hazards in the final days of his life. This was, perhaps, one of the group’s most creative platters.
This work was also contained only eight cuts including the vaguely Beatles-like titled “Around the Universe in Eighty Days” and “Prelude”. This project also had a painted cover by Ted Jones. It won a Juno Award for “Best Engineered Album” as well as a Canadian Music Critics award for “Best Album” in 1977.
Their third release, Sir Army Suit, hit the stores the next year in 1978. Considered by some online critics to be Klaatu’s “antepenultimate album”, it was a bit different from their two earlier albums because the group recorded music that had more of a pop feel. In fact, the song “Juicy Luicy” was actually a disco track.
Much of the material here was actually left-overs from early demos. The only reason these songs were used for this disc was because Woloschuk had spent an entire year writing and arranging the material on Hope which had left him creatively drained. Long, the group’s other songwriter, filled the gap with his own new compositions and ultimately co-produced and engineered the record while the group’s regular producer, Brown, was occupied working with Max Webster and Rush. Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone magazine saw this as and attempt to make “a Northland Sgt. Pepper’s and that it was “good for a laugh”.
In spite of all of this, though, the recording is still generally well-regarded by the group’s fans. An animated music video for the album’s lead-in, “A Routine Day,” was the first of six vids created for the bands ambitious, but incomplete, Happy New Year, Planet Earth half-hour animated special. This is the only record to not have a Jones-painted cover.
The tenth and final cut on the album is “Silly Boys”. This song actually eventually became a favorite among some more progressive college radio DJs. The tune included all the lyrics from “Anus of Uranus” backwards-masked and interspersed between the “Silly Boys” lyrics.
The keyboardist of Ian Thomas band, Hugh Syme, known mainly for his Rush covers, painted the cover for Sir Army Suit. This cover would be one of the first clues to their true identities since the trio actually appeared on the back cover. The front cover is actually a self-portrait of Hugh Syme and, oddly enough, the band’s previous artist Ted Jones.
As the new decade dawned, Klaatu put out their fourth studio album Endangered Species. Before 1981 would begin, all the “anonymously-reunited Beatles” rumors would quickly come to an end as the group members true identities would be revealed. As critic Marsh put it “reality asserted itself”. The band had no artistic control at this point in their career and Capitol had forced the trio to record all nine songs in Los Angeles with additional studio musicians. Today one can’t help but wonder if the feelings of disappointment over Klaatu not being the anonymously-reunited Beatles didn’t have some negative effect on some of the reviews especially those given by Rolling Stone writers who claimed the band “perpetuated a scam”.
As stated on the band’s website: “An outside producer was brought in, most of the instruments were played by Los Angeles based session musicians, and the band members were asked to add their voices and (usually) one lead instrument per song. The band was sent home before the album was even mixed.” The powers that be at the label had hoped that this would shore up the group’s commercial chances.
The difference between this work and the previous platters was immediately apparent. The group resented the label’s actions enough to produce the song “Sell Out, Sell Out”. It was a searing attack on the label’s attempts to “jump on the bandwagon.”
Capitol Record’s attempts to make the group a more conventional and radio-friendly pop/rock band were completely in vain. The album was a commercial and critical failure. Marsh said that “mediocrity (ran) rampant” and described the band as little more than “Canadian session players”. The label dropped the band.
Draper and Long decided to start a top 40 cover band named FUNN in order to get the bills paid. Luckily, the band was soon signed by Capitol’s Canadian division and before 1981 came to a close they released their swan song disc, Magentalane. The record was originally only released in Canada and Mexico. Critics considers this recording to be superior to Endangered Species as the boys were back to playing their own brand of “Beatles-influenced pop/rock.”
The mouse squeak from Klaatu’s prior albums was reprised, followed by the sound of a springing mousetrap. There’s also the sound of a mouse running away. According to Woloschuk, this was meant to let Klaatu’s fanbase know that Magentalane was likely to be Klaatu’s farewell studio album.
Despite that fact, the year also saw the release of the Klaatu Sampler. This was a 12″ white label promo record which was basically an obscure compilation of “greatest hits” meant to showcase Klaatu’s “Softer” and “Harder” songs in advance of their single upcoming tour.
Due to contractual obligations to Capitol-EMI in Canada, the trio was required to tour from November 1981 and expanded to a sextet (using members of the groups Max Webster and Nightwind) for live performances. The next year, 1982, Long—who really didn’t like playing live to begin with—quit the band. Woloschuk and Draper struggled on with the tour for a few months after that but the group would officially disband before the end of the year. Fans found some small consolation in the release of Klaasic Klaatu, complete with a cover by Dean Motter, this was to be the first of the three “greatest hits” collections. Oddly,it has yet to be released on CD.
Several years later in 1988 Klaatu would reunite for a short time at George Martin’s Air Studios in London to record the single, “Woman,” though no one was overly happy with the results since the song was written by someone outside of the band (Paul Vincent Gunia) for a German TV show named Tatort. Only released in Germany, the single did not make it onto the charts.
This, did however, make the record a rare collector’s item since it was not even included in either of the two later rarities collections. In 1993 Klaatu put out another compilation titled Peaks which received limited critical or commercial attention. While Magentalane was reissued worldwide in 1995 on CD by Permanent Press Records, the band itself had disbanded shortly after the release of “Woman” and would remain so for years to come.
The new millennium would witness the release of the majority of Klaatu’s albums on CD although up until sometime after 2000 several companies including Capitol Records would put out the recordings with incorrect track orders. Only through the efforts of Bullseye Records and the band itself were the records finally released with their original track listings. Bullseye also put out a tribute album to Klaatu named Around the Universe In Eighty Minutes.
2005 saw Bullseye releasing a 2-CD collection titled Sun Set: 1973-1981 which compiled a number of demos, rarities, early singles, and other odds and ends recorded during the band’s career. Perhaps most notable was the original version of Hope which included the previously-unheard complete contributions made by the London Symphony Orchestra which had largely been removed from the version which was originally released. It also included a previously-unreleased tune, “Epilogue” which was first meant to be slotted between the songs “So Said the Lighthouse Keeper” and “Hope”. The set also contained a 40-page booklet which had interviews with all of the former members of the group.
The same year Klaatu fans were thankful for the release of Raarities, also on the Bullseye label. For reasons unknown, this compilation was originally only released in a vinyl LP format. Klaatu would once more get together that year for a brief – and mainly acoustic – performance at Toronto’s KlaatuKon. The play-list included “At the End of the Rainbow,” “I Don’t Wanna Go Home,” “Cherie,” “Magentalane,” “Little Neutrino,” and “All Good Things.” They would also permit the film, Happy New Year, Planet Earth to be screened in its uncompleted state at the KlaatuKon convention in Toronto, Canada.
Just last year, 2009, a CD called Sology was put out. It includes the Raarities LP as well as concert recordings. Since most of the music here is made up of alternate mixes and single versions of album tracks, this recording was most well-received by the band’s hardcore fans as opposed to Sun Set, which focused mainly on unreleased tunes and the alternate version of the Hope album.
For those who wonder: “Where are they now?” as of this writing Long is a record producer and has also created a drum loop program called the DeeSampler. Long also did several solo records and has even started to play live again. Draper became a roofer after the band disbanded and presently is employed as a bar manager in Ontario, Canada. Draper also worked as a producer with and without Long and has even done a couple of solo albums featuring the ex-members of Klaatu and a live album with a rather short-lived band called The Twilight Zone.
After the group broke up Woloschuk recorded a now-rare children’s disc titled Robotman, but then soon retired from the music business. Today he is employed as a music industry accountant in Toronto, Canada. Fans often refer to him as a puzzling recluse. Nevertheless, various interviews with Woloschuk reveal him to actually to be friendly and open to discussions about Klaatu.
According to Woloschuk “the only reason (he) retired from music was because (he) felt (he) could be a good musician, or a good accountant, but not both at the same time.” He also added that he gets “together with friends occasionally to play for the fun of it”, but a Klaatu reunion with full orchestral backing–apart from the occasional fan club gig such as those in 2005–is “tantalizing” but extremely unlikely at present due to Woloschuk’s work commitments. Perhaps to Klaatu fans, hope springs eternal.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.