A week or so ago I posted on the way 1970s Brit prog rockers adapted to changing tastes in music – underscoring the fact that writers, too, should adapt inside their own field and genres.
I made a couple of statements that were deliberately hyperbolic, to underscore the point. I thought they were obviously so OTT that the irony was obvious, but a couple of readers who responded thought I was being literal. I fielded a tweet correcting me for suggesting that Genesis played dribbly 20-minute Mellotron solos before breaking into pop. They hadn’t.
Quite right. And I knew that. It was hyperbolic. I like hyperbole. I like Genesis. I also like the Mellotron. It was a simply amazing piece of mid-twentieth century tech – doing pretty much what digital samplers do today, but the idea was invented decades ahead of digital sound being developed, still less marketed in hardware. How awesome is that? I never played one, though one time I played one of the first digital keyboards that did something similar – the Ensoniq DSK-8 Mirage. I was right into prog in the 1970s, probably because it extended the classical Royal Schools stuff I was learning, along with a course I did on electronic music. In point of fact, I’ve spent more time learning music than anything else (including history and writing).
Mellotrons (a portmentau of ‘melody’ and ‘electronic’) were made by Bradmatic Ltd in the UK from the early 1960s, using a system developed from 1949 by Harry Chamberlin as a home ‘self-accompaniment’ keyboard. Plus side was the huge richness and ambience of the totally real analog sounds, which it made by playing back especially recorded 3/8″ tapes. Hit just one of the piano-type keys on the Mk IV/400, for instance, and you could trigger a real 8-voice choir at that pitch. Or a string section. Or a full band.
This was awesome for the day, but the tech still had its down sides. The main one was that the ‘tron had never been designed to be dragged around gigs and biffed into trucks and shaken a lot, and all the other things that happened on the road, and when that happened it had a tendency to break. This wasn’t surprising when you consider each ‘tron packed up to 36 precision-engineered individual tape players (depending on model), into a box with a keyboard. One note per tape machine. That system demanded a lot of maintenance to keep the up-to-36 playback heads, rollers, pinch-wheels and return springs in exact adjustment. And there was more. Each Mk IV/Model 400 ‘tron offered up to three voices pre-mounted on a tape frame, which it did with one linear and un-looped length of tape per voice, per note on its 35-note keyboard – 105 tapes altogether. The tape was dropped loose into a hopper as it played and then whipped back for replay by the spring, hopefully not tangling or breaking on the way.
This meant the system had severe performance limits. The ‘tron couldn’t play any single note for more than eight seconds. Musicians also had to wait for the tape to snap back on that mechanical spring before they could play a note again. If the tape hadn’t returned to zero (which happened when the springs were out of adjustment), the sound started part-way with a click. If someone played a huge handful of notes, the pitch dropped. Despite the care taken with the engineering, all the things that happened to tape players also happened to the Mellotron – wow, flutter and so forth. And under stage lighting, the ‘tron sometimes heated to the point where the tapes stretched when they were tensioned, doing really odd things to the pitch.
Rick Wakeman (who played the Mellotron on Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and a lot of other stuff) apparently found ways around its worst quirks, but the ‘tron was always finicky, and he eventually burned his (this is a 31 second clip, and very funny):
So twenty minute Mellotron solos? Not really. But the instrument could make some truly amazing sounds for the day, and was one of the four types of keyboard that defined Brit seventies prog – the others were piano (acoustic or electric), various models of Hammond organ (L100 and variants, or the B3, or the C3) and Minimoog Model D (which I’ve played), joined later mainly by the Polymoog Model 203a (which I’ve played), which itself fed into early synth-pop (especially Gary Numan).
If you want to hear a Mellotron, incidentally, check out the Beatles ‘Strawberry Fields’, which opens with Paul McCartney playing a two-keyboard Mk II. Here he is demoing that model:
The mellotron fell on hard times in the 1980s, but in recent years the original company has been refurbishing surviving instruments. And since 2010 a Swedish company has been making digital versions of them new. Yes! Do I want one? Hell yeah. A digital ‘tron would sit very nicely with the Nord C2, Minimoog Voyager and new-build Emerson Modular Moog I also don’t have. Send cash.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015