Steve Smith never saw it coming.
It was December 1976, just before Christmas. The Rhode Island music scribe was rummaging through a stack of unclaimed vinyl at the Providence Journal office when he was struck by an album with this eye-catching sleeve:
3:47 EST was the debut album of the little-known Klaatu, named after the otherworldly humanoid ambassador played by Michael Rennie in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. (3:47 EST was a reference to the spaceship’s arrival in Washington, D.C.) The record was then a few months old, mostly unheralded, largely ignored.
Mysteriously, Klaatu seemed little-known almost by design. Their bio yielded little information beyond the note: “They want to be known for their music and not for whom they are.” There was no publicity photo, no listed personnel. Smith found it all peculiar.
Then he dropped stylus to wax, and something clicked.
“[I]t did pique my interest,” he recalled 20 years later, “so I started making phone calls to, like, Capitol Records [Klaatu’s label] and I didn’t get anywhere. Eventually, roads led to Frank Davies and Ken Berry of Capitol Records Canada.”
Davies was Klaatu’s manager, the man who brought them to the label. He listened with some amusement as Smith presented a most interesting theory. The music, Smith said, bore a very distinct, very familiar sound. It made no sense that a band so new would be so publicity-shy. Unless, perhaps, it wasn’t so new. Maybe, he mused, it was actually quite famous.
According to Smith, 3:47 EST was riddled with clues as to Klaatu’s true identity. That it was released on Capitol was curious as well. Why would a major label not only back this unknown entity but also willingly maintain a near-suicidal air of anonymity around it? Also worth considering: Capitol was the longtime home of a certain culture-defining quartet, and Davies had been an on-staff employee during said quartet’s popular peak.
Had Smith unwittingly stumbled onto the scoop of the year, if not the decade, or, hell, the century? Was it possible that Klaatu were, in fact…
At first, Davies was dismissive. But then, perhaps sensing a publicity bonanza, he began playing along. His answers became vague and playfully coy. “Everything you’ve summarized,” he told Smith after the reporter had exhausted his list, “is really pretty accurate all the way around.” He even offered a copy of the LP and assorted memorabilia to the first Journal reader to successfully unmask his mysterious client.
The story ran on Sunday, February 13, 1977. And although Smith didn’t baldly call 3:47 EST a record by The Beatles returned, he definitely made a case for it (read the entire review here), plumbing lyrics, melodic tics, and track titles for evidence. His swings were often wild, but he did cite one most convincing coincidence: the cover of Ringo Starr‘s Goodnight Vienna (1974), which employed a famous still from Earth to cast the former Fab drummer as…Klaatu.
Like any sensible pontificator, Smith covered all his bases, concluding that, yes, Klaatu could be The Beatles. They could also be a few Beatles. Or a couple Beatles. Or completely Beatle-free, an “unknown but ingenious and talented band.”
Naturally, once they caught wind of this story — and it traveled fast — most music fans failed to entertain any possibility but the first. It was too sexy to ignore, the answer to their prayers, that their heroes, after a half-decade of litigation and primary communication through solo-album snark, had secretly reconvened to astound the world once more. 3:47 EST was instantly granted heavy-rotation radio status. In the Journal‘s hometown of Providence, Brown University‘s WBRU added the disc to their regular diet, and nearby WGNG hosted a special “Is This The Beatles?” weekend, mixing Klaatu with Fab fare. In Hartford, Conn., WDRC‘s jocks wondered on-air, “Who are Klaatu? Are The Beatles really back?”
Record stores began replenishing their quickly diminished stock as the news continued to spread, finally reaching the opposite coast. Billboard tracked its progress. A single released the week of Smith’s expose, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” floated to #62 Pop in late April. The Carpenters took their own cosmic ride with it to #32 that winter.
Capitol had transformed a modest, near-forgotten yet brilliant record into a respectable hit, dining on rumor and speculation. But eventually, the mystery came to an end.
As it turned out, Klaatu were not The Beatles. They weren’t even from England. They weren’t even a quartet. No, they were a prog-rock trio from Toronto, whose members were just awestruck kids during the Liverpudlians’ reign. John Woloschuk had launched the group just four years earlier, first as a duo with Dee Long, then adding schoolmate Terry Draper on drums in 1974.
A Beatles influence was undeniable; Woloschuk readily admitted in a 1997 interview that he’d been tremendously affected by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a teenager, as was most anyone of his generation. But there was no attempt on Klaatu’s part to pass as the more fabled group. Their philosophy, ” they want to be known for their music and not for whom they are,” was not purposely deceptive marketing, but a genuine sentiment.
“We had said all along, from day one, before we had even put the first note to tape, that we wanted to remain anonymous,” Woloschuk explained. “Not because we were trying to fool anybody, just because we wanted the music to speak for itself. And we were young and idealistic. … [T]hat was the beginning of the glamour-rock era, where everybody was wearing outlandish clothes and makeup, and the music seemed to be taking a secondary seat. … [U]nfortunately, our silence was misinterpreted as complicity in this [Beatles] rumor.”
Klaatu did pay dearly for this perceived fraud. Perhaps Beatles-based pop was still such a novel (if arcane) concept in 1977 that the idea of a group so practiced in that proto-psychedelic majesty — and not actually be The Beatles — was sacrilege, chicanery. And to deny fans a possible Beatles reunion, especially at a time when all four members were still living, seemed unnecessarily cruel. That Klaatu never claimed any Fab association, and that their debut was nonetheless an impressive and timeless accomplishment, was completely forgotten. Rolling Stone pilloried them as 1977’s “Hype of the Year.” Album sales fell. And their four subsequent endeavors, despite their astonishing musicianship, were forever marked by that persistent blemish. The trio slowly dissolved until evaporating completely in August of 1982.
Headaches and disappointments aside, Woloschuk was refreshingly sanguine in 1997 when asked if, knowing the band’s fate, he’d voluntarily relive the experience.
“[I]n ten years,” he marveled, “I went from, like, being just a young guy who was a big [Beatles] fan to writing material that was of good-enough quality that people actually mistook it for being written by probably two of the greatest writers in pop music that ever lived, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. So, I look at that as an achievement.”
Hold that thought, John. Apparently, your story’s not over yet…
Official Klaatu Home Page (Exhaustive, most extraordinary)