Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Mellotron

The Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that was featured in early psychedelic music and later became an essential fixture of “Progressive” bands, was made possible by one of the spoils of World War II—electromagnetic tape. As Michael Jarrett notes in Sound Tracks (1998), "When U.S. troops invaded Radio Luxembourg, they "liberated" a tape machine and shipped it to the Ampex Corporation; further development was financed by Bing Crosby" (214). Technically considered, the Mellotron is a polyphonic, sample-playback keyboard system, the basis of which is a large bank of pre-loaded electromagnetic audio tapes, each of which consists of a pre-recorded sound. Each of the several magnetic tapes has roughly eight seconds of playing time: early user manuals strongly recommended that no key should be held for more than ten seconds. Playback heads underneath each of the keys allowed for the playing of the pre-recorded sounds, hence the reason it is considered a "sample-playback" system. Early Mellotron models, the MK-I and the MK-II, contained two keyboards set side-by-side: the right keyboard consisted of various selectable "instrumental" sounds (e.g., strings, flutes, various brass instruments), while the left keyboard consisted of rhythm tracks. The first Mellotrons--intended for the home, not for the arduous rock concert circuit--were made in Birmingham, England (although the prototype was initially developed in the United States), the reason why the earliest uses of the instrument were by British bands. Musician Mike Pinder (pictured above in the foreground, with the Moody Blues, playing a Mellotron MK-II) worked for Streetly Electronics, the company that manufactured the Mellotron, for about a year and half before joining the Moody Blues in 1967; he and the band are largely responsible for popularizing the Mellotron in popular music. Like the Moog synthesizer, also an electronic instrument, the Mellotron underwent development and refinement. The years of manufacture of the various models of the Mellotron are as follows:

Mellotron Mark-I (1962-63)
Mellotron Mark-II (1964-67)
M-300 (1968-70)
M-400 (1970-86)

The M-400 model, first sold in 1970, become part of the signature sound of the so-called “Progressive” bands of the 1970s. This model included tape banks that could be removed with relative ease and loaded with banks containing different sounds, including percussion loops, sound effects, and other noises. Hence, like pop music itself, the Mellotron is a consequence of electromagnetic tape.

Ten representative rock songs featuring the Mellotron, 1967-1973:

1. The Beatles - “Strawberry Fields ForeverSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
2. The Moody Blues - “Nights in White SatinDays of Future Passed (1967)
3. The Rolling Stones - “2000 Light Years From HomeTheir Satanic Majesties Request (1967)
4. The Zombies - “Brief CandlesOdessey & Oracle (1968)
5. Cream - “BadgeGoodbye (1969)
6. David Bowie - “Space OdditySpace Oddity (1969)
7. King Crimson - “EpitaphIn the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
8. Genesis - “Watcher of the SkiesFoxtrot (1972)
9. Lynyrd Skynyrd - “Tuesday’s Gonepronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd (1973)
10. John Lennon - “Mind GamesMind Games (1973)

For those interested, a short demonstration from the mid-60s of the Mellotron MK-II, can be found here, while an interesting history of the Mellotron, by Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, can be found here.

1 comment:

Fred said...

Cool blog, but I have one little correction. Actually, Michael Pinder was one of the founding members of the Moody Blues (along with flutist Ray Thomas), and co-wrote most of the songs on their first album (released in 1964) with original guitarist and lead vocalist Denny Lane. John Lodge (who was a pre-Moodies bandmate of Thomas and Pinder) and Justin Hayward joined the band in 1967. Pinder eventually left the group (or got the boot, depending on the side of the story) after he refused to participate in the reunion tour in 1978 with the release of Octave. Sorry to be a little persnickity, but the Moodies have always been one of my favorite groups.

As for Badge, I didn't know that Cream used a mellotron in that song. I know that the effect in the bridge of the song came from Clapton playing through a Leslie speaker (and the title came from Ringo's awful handwriting of the word "bridge").