Look at it anyway you want, we all know the Beatles are the best band the world has ever seen, right? Well, whether or not that’s the case it can’t be denied that they’ll be one of the most important for as long as humans have ears and, y’know, music is still a thing. Admittedly, under this odious shitshow Conservative government it may not be a viable thing for much longer… but hey, that’s another tale for another time.
Anyway, we all know the story: four men (well, three and a seventeen-year-old George Harrison) from Liverpool get together, go off to Hamburg and play several hours every night, come back to England, get rejected by Decca, signed by George Martin, make pop hit after pop hit, become a worldwide sensation, quit touring, start making great records, take ALL the drugs, make unbelievable records, and eventually split up. At this point all four members go on to have successful solo careers too. It’s crazy to think that Plastic Ono Band, McCartney, and All Things Must Pass – all legitimate classic records – came out so soon after Abbey Road. Yes, Beatles aficionados, before you blow your top, I know Let It Be was technically the last one to be released. But in real terms, Abbey Road is where the Beatles ended. That glorious final track, The End, where Ringo gets his only drum solo, and John, Paul, and George gloriously trade off guitar solos before the famous “And in the end, the love you take / Is equal to the love you make“. It is perfect.
For fuck sake, Beatles aficionados, yes, I hear you. I see you there clutching your Brian Epstein travel mug thinking BUT IT DOESN’T FINISH WITH THE END, DOES IT? THIS JUMPED UP SHIT DOESN’T HAVE A FUCKING CLUE. EVERY ONE KNOWS THAT ABBEY ROAD FINISHES WITH HER MAJESTY! Calm down, man. It’s ok. The point I was trying to make (if you’ll let me) was that the greatest band of their generation – possibly of every generation – went out with, if not their finest album, then certainly with one of their finest. As endings go, side B of 1969’s Abbey Road ain’t too shabby. Amirite amirite?
Well, for a brief time in 1977, Abbey Road wasn’t the last Beatles album. Hear me out. A journalist named Steve Smith, writing for the Providence Journal, happened to find a peculiar looking record in a pile that was hanging around the paper’s Rhode Island offices. Often labels would send, or drop off, records in the hope that papers would run a review. Of course, with limited column space available most of these would literally be binned. This is where things get interesting.
Drawn to its proggy, mystical sleeve featuring an image of the sun and the strange word ‘Klaatu’, Smith picked it up and took it home. No individual musicians were credited on the record, only the name Klaatu. Now, you’ve got to remember the context here. This is 1977. The first Sony Walkman is still two years away. You get your music news from the New Musical Express (long before they became exclusively an advertising tool for hair gel) and Melody Maker. Even Smash Hits is a year away. Now That’s What I Call Music 1 is still six years away. Elvis sits atop his golden throne, having cheeseburgers flown in and hand delivered so that he can eat and ablute without leaving the room. You get the picture. For all intents and purposes, looking back through the insane prism of 2020, it’s the fucking dark ages.
Smith listens to 3:47 EST in disbelief. This strange record seems somewhat familiar: there’s something about the songwriting and the production that rings a bell. The guitars sound a little too Harrison-esque – with spindly melodic lines and precision slide work – and the drumming seems to eschew the obvious in favour of unorthodox fills and lopsided rhythms. Front and centre are some very familiar vocals, often distorted by studio wizardry. It dawns on Smith that what he’s holding is a new album by the world’s biggest pop group and somehow it’s slipped by everybody. It wouldn’t be the first time that they’d flirted with the idea of being a different band (Billy Shears and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) but this time they’d ditched the old one completely. Out with Beatles, in with Klaatu. After all, it was John who famously sang “I don’t believe in Beatles“.
Soon after, the story is picked up by other publications and becomes a global phenomenon. Listening now, it’s clear that Klaatu are not the Beatles, although it’s fairly easy to see how the story gained traction. There are some extraordinarily Beatles-like tracks, and it’s clear to anybody listening to the end of the album’s seven-minute opener, Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft, that the band were directly referencing material like I Am the Walrus. (Check out the very Lennon-esque “We’ve been observing you…” lyric and the electric piano sound in particular). Seeing the controversy that the record had caused, Capitol Records (who conveniently happened to have released a number of the Beatles’ North American LPs) seized the opportunity to drive sales and made a point of neither confirming nor denying that the mysterious band were in fact John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Statements given to the press were deliberately vague and open to interpretation. A number of coincidences also helped to drive the theory – from the sun on the album’s sleeve being a not-so-subtle nod to Here Comes the Sun (or perhaps Sun King) to a rumoured translation of the name Klaatu as something along the lines of “been here before”.
Not long after, the bubble was well and truly burst by Washington’s WWDC radio station when they checked the records at the U.S. Copyright Office and uncovered Klaatu’s real identities: Canadian musicians John Woloschuck, Dee Long, and Terry Draper. The reason for the lack of information was pretty simple. The band wanted their music to speak for itself. Once the ambiguity around the band disappeared, record sales took a dramatic dive, and after five LPs Klaatu disbanded.
Looking at it now, it’s crazy to think that anybody could believe that Klaatu were the Beatles. That said, 3:47 EST has stood the test of time and sounds great to this day. It’s an interesting record, clearly in thrall of late-era Beatles and Beach Boys, but also very reminiscent in places of bands like Caravan and King Crimson. Introducing it to my friend recently, I said it was kind of like Steely Dan making Sgt. Pepper’s… but then again, even Lennon and McCartney at their most stoned would never write a song called Anus of Uranus. Anyway, it’s quite something. Check it out.