When I listened to Light My Fire by The Doors the other day, I was reminded of Ray Manzarek’s distinct keyboard on that tune, a sound I’ve always loved. It also came to me that I hadn’t done a post on important music hardware in a long time – two good reasons to write about the Vox Continental, a handy and cool-looking organ that became popular in the ’60s and can be heard on many songs released during that decade and thereafter.
For those who are visiting my blog for the first time or haven’t seen one of my previous hardware posts, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not an engineering guy; in fact, having two left hands, it’s more of the opposite! As such, one could say there’s a certain degree of irony that I write about the subject. But while I’m not exactly a techie and therefore don’t go deeply into the technical aspects, music gear can still excite me like a little child, primarily from a sound and visual perspective. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.
Prior to the Vox Continental’s introduction in England in 1962, the Vox brand name had been synonymous with guitar amplifiers, especially the Vox AC30 used by The Shadows, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and other ’60s bands. However, as its name already indicates, the company that made the amps, The Jennings Organ Company founded by Thomas Walter Jennings in Kent, England after the Second World War and renamed Jennings Musical Industries (JMI) in 1957, started out as a manufacturer of home and church organs. Their first successful product was the Univox, an electronic keyboard similar to the Clavioline.
The Vox Continental is a so-called combo keyboard. Does it come with French fries and a Coke you might ask? Well, not quite. Combo actually is another (British) term for band. Okay, it’s a keyboard for a band, but so is a Hammond or a regular piano, so what’s the big deal? While pianos were frequently used in the recording studio, amplifying their sound during live performances was tricky. Hammond organs like the mighty B3 certainly could meet volume requirements, but they were pretty clunky. A compact combo keyboard like the Vox Continental offered a great solution. It also looked pretty cool!
The Vox Continental was made possible by the invention of transistors that were less heavy and smaller than the electron tubes used in big electronic organs. The handy keyboard came in two basic variations, a single manual and a dual manual. One of the Continental’s distinct visual features is its reversed colored keys: what on a regular keyboard are the white keys are black, while the traditionally black keys are white (see image on top of the post). The top part covering the electronics with its orange or grey finish stands out as well. The curving and removable chrome stand is another distinct feature. Without a bass section, no bass pedals, no percussion, no sustain and only a single-speed vibrato, the Vox Continental was fairly archaic. Yet because of its sound and the aforementioned design features, the instrument became very popular.
Initially, Vox Continental keyboards were made at two plants in Kent: JMI’s facility in Dartford and the Vox Sound plant in Erith. In 1964, Jennings signed a licensing deal with the Thomas Organ Company in the U.S. JMI and Thomas subsequently also formed EME (Elletronica Musicale Europea), a joint venture with Italian guitar and keyboard manufacturer EKO. With the advent of the Moog and other more elaborate keyboards by the early ’70s, the appeal of Vox Continental organs started to decrease, and production was phased out. While it continued to have a significant following and remains sought-after, it took until September 2017 that Vox revived the Continental with an updated version. Since 1992, the company has been owned by Japanese electronics corporation Korg.
As noted at the outset, the Vox Continental is featured in many songs released during the ’60s and thereafter. This post wouldn’t be complete without some examples.
The House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals)
The version of the traditional by The Animals featuring Alan Price on keys is one of the most compelling showcases of the Vox Continental, in my humble opinion as somebody who isn’t a keyboard player. Sure, the sound isn’t as fat and growling as the Hammond B3; in fact, it’s rather thin by comparison, and yet it still sounds awesome at least to my ears!
Because (The Dave Clark Five)
Written by Dave Clark, Because was recorded for the band’s third U.S. studio album American Tour from August 1964. The song also appeared as a single and became the band’s second most successful hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a nice clip of an appearance on American music variety TV program Shindig! from 1965. While it is much less dominant than in The House Of The Rising Sun, one can nicely see Mike Smith playing the organ.
I’m A Believer (The Monkees)
I’m A Believer appeared on More Of The Monkees, the band’s second studio album released in January 1967, and as the record’s lead single in November the previous year. Written by Neil Diamond, the song became the band’s most successful hit, topping the charts in many countries, including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and Germany, among others. While Peter Tork had known how to play keyboards, the keyboarder on the studio recording was Stan Free. Initially formed a musical acting quartet for a TV series, all of The Monkees eventually learned how to play their instruments. Here’s a TV clip from 1966, which looks like the guys know how to play for real; if they’re faking, it’s certainly done well!
Light My Fire (The Doors)
Credited to all members of the band, Light My Fire was included on The Doors’ eponymous debut album issued in January 1967. It also became the record’s second single released in April that year. It was the first of their two no. 1 U.S. hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune is another great example where the Vox Continental is quite dominant.
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly)
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is the title track of Iron Butterfly’s second studio album from June 1968. It was written by the band’s lead vocalist and keyboarder Doug Ingle. Clocking at more than 17 minutes, the track makes up the record’s entire side B. Iron Butterfly also released a single version, which was shortened to just under three minutes. Here’s a clip of the track in its entire mighty.
Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello)
After production of Vox Continental keyboards had seized, the combo organs remained popular, as previously noted. One of their champions was Steve Nieve, who among others became known as keyboarder in Elvis Costello’s backing band The Attractions. Here’s a clip of Watching The Detectives from Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True, released in July 1977. Written by Costello, the tune became his first hit, peaking at no. 15 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart.
Don’t Do Me Like That (Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)
Don’t Do Me Like That, the last song I’d like to highlight in this post, is another post ’60s example featuring a Vox Continental, played by Benmont Tench in this case. It appears on Damn The Torpedoes, the third studio album by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers from October 1979. In November that year, the song also came out as the record’s lead single. Written by Petty, it became the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., reaching no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Sources: Wikipedia, Engineering And Technology History Wiki (ETHW), Combo Organ Heaven, YouTube