On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 21

Dare I say it, it looks like my irregularly recurring music history feature is becoming more frequent. But with nearly 300 dates left to cover, I still have a long way to go, so it’s safe to assume this series won’t end anytime soon. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the events in music that happened on January 21 over the past six decades or so. I would also like to briefly acknowledge the untimely death of operatic rock artist Meat Loaf, which was reported overnight. He was believed to have been 74 years old. The cause of death has not been revealed.

1963: Since nearly everything in my little music world starts or finishes with The Beatles, let’s get this bloody item out of the way. According to The Beatles Bible, the ultimate source of truth about the band, On this day The Beatles appeared on the EMI plug show The Friday Spectacular, at EMI House, 20 Manchester Square, London. They chatted to hosts Shaw Taylor and Muriel Young, and studio recordings of ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Ask Me Why’ were played. The show was recorded before an audience of around 100 teenagers, and was broadcast live on Radio Luxembourg. The overwhelming crowd size tells you this was still pre-Beatlemania. Though their press officer Tony Barrow said that during the recording, “I was finally convinced that The Beatles were about to enjoy the type of top-flight national fame which I had always believed that they deserved.” Side note: Three years later on that same date, George Harrison married his first wife Pattie Boyd, with Paul McCartney serving as best man.

1966: The Trips Festival, a three-day landmark event in the development of psychedelic music, kicked off at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, Produced by Ken Kesey, Ramon Sender, and Stewart Brand, the event is largely recognized as the first to bring together what would be called the “hippie” movement. The sold-out festival, which drew 10,000 people, featured the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane, among others. And some 6,000 people drinking punch spiked with LSD, who witnessed one of the first fully developed light shows of the era. I also found this trippy clip!

1978: Saturday Night Fever, the soundtrack album of the 1977 motion picture starring John Travolta, stood at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first of 24 weeks on top of the U.S. mainstream chart. It also reached no. 1 in Canada, the UK, Australia and many other countries. Saturday Night Fever became one of the best-selling albums in music history. With more than 40 million copies sold worldwide, it remains the second-biggest selling soundtrack of all time after The Bodyguard. But, as oftentimes is the case, what goes up must come down. Not even three years later, the Bee Gees, the group most associated with the soundtrack and disco, called it quits, finding themselves caught in the furious backlash toward disco including bomb threats – something you could sadly picture nowadays as well! I said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care whether you call Bee Gees music disco, R&B, disco-influenced or anything else – I dig it!

1984: British progressive rock stalwarts Yes hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Owner of a Lonely Heart. Co-written by band members Trevor Rabin (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Jon Anderson (lead vocals) and Chris Squire (bass vocals), together with co-producer Trevor Horn, the catchy pop rocker was first released in October 1983 as the lead single for the group’s 11th studio album 90125, which came out the following month. Owner of the Lonely Heart became Yes’s first and only no. 1 on the U.S. mainstream chart. It also did well in Europe, especially in The Netherlands where it peaked at no. 2. While earlier singles like Yours Is No Disgrace, Roundabout and And You and I are great songs as well, they simply weren’t radio-friendly. Yes, Owner of a Lonely Heart has a commercial ’80s sound, but it’s a hell of a catchy tune!

1987: Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul”, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame by Keith Richards during the Rock Hall’s second annual induction ceremony. Here’s what the Rock Hall posted on their website: Lady Soul. The first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin was an artist of passion, sophistication and command, whose recordings remain anthems that defined soul music. Long live the Queen. And here are The Rolling Stones guitarist’s live remarks from that night – let’s just say it was a classic Keith Richards speech!

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts Music History Calendar; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Welcome to another Best of What’s New, my weekly revue of newly released music. This time, my picks include some alternative, rock, country and prog rock from a stalwart of the genre. All featured tunes except for the last one are on albums that came out yesterday (October 8).

Scott Hirsch/Big Passenger

Kicking off this week’s post is new music by Scott Hirsch, a producer and singer-songwriter I first featured in a Sunday Six installment last month with a tune of his then-upcoming new album Windless Day. Borrowing again from his Facebook pageYou’ve heard the sound of Scott Hirsch. You might not know it, but his audio production has lurked deep in the cut of many admired recordings from the late 1990s to the present. A founding member of Hiss Golden Messenger, he was integral to the band’s formative years in the studio and on the road. His sonic imprint remains on their productions; most recently mixing the forthcoming album Quietly Blowing It. He recorded and mixed a Grammy nominated record by the legendary folk-singer Alice Gerrard and has produced and played on records by William Tyler, Mikael Jorgensen, Orpheo McCord and Daniel Rossen. Here’s Big Passenger, another track from Hirsch’s above noted new album. To me it’s got a J.J. Cale vibe with an updated contemporary sound. Check it out!

The Wild Feathers/Side Street Shakedown

Here’s another group I first encountered in the context of Best of What’s New: The Wild Feathers, which I first featured in this installment from last December. According to a bio on AllMusic, they prefer the term “American” over Americana when describing their sound, which falls somewhere between the earnest, neo-Southern rock of the Black Crowes, the bluesy swagger of the Black Keys, and the wide-open-road country-rock of the Eagles. Founded in 2010 in Nashville, Tenn., the band’s current lineup features founding members Ricky Young (guitar, vocals), Taylor Burns (guitar, vocals) and Joel King (bass, vocals), as well as Ben Dumas (drums). The Wild Feathers began touring frequently in 2013, playing with artists like Bob DylanWillie Nelson and ZZ Ward. Their eponymous debut album appeared in August 2013. Side Street Shakedown is a track from the band’s fifth and new album Alvarado. This nice rocker was co-written by King, Young and Burns.

Natalie Hemby/It Takes One To Know One

Natalie Hemby is a country singer-songwriter who is also based in Nashville. According to her Apple Music profile, she first gained notice as a hit songwriter for Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, and Toby Keith, penning the hits “White Liar,” “Only Prettier,” and “Automatic” (all recorded by Lambert), “Pontoon” and “Tornado” (two hits by Little Big Town), and “Drinks After Work” (Keith). After establishing this résumé, Hemby struck out as a recording artist, releasing her debut, Puxico, early in 2017. She became a Billboard 200 Top Ten-charting artist as a member of the Highwomen (Hemby, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires), who topped the country chart with their self-titled debut in 2019. Here’s It Takes One To Know One, a tune from Hemby’s new sophomore album Pins and Needles.

Yes/Minus the Man

I’d like to conclude this post with new music by progressive rock stalwarts Yes, who I trust don’t need an introduction. They are among a handful of bands I warmed to in prog rock, a genre I haven’t fully embraced. Since they were formed in 1968 by Jon Anderson (vocals), Peter Banks (guitar), Tony Kaye (keyboards), Chris Squire (bass) and Bill Bruford (drums), Yes have seen numerous line-up changes. The group’s last original member Squire passed away in 2015. The current line-up includes Jon Davison (vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Geoff Downes (keyboards), Billy Sherwood (bass) and Alan White (drums). Howe, White and Downes are longtime members who first joined in 1970, 1972 and 1980, respectively. Last Friday (October 1), Yes released their 22nd studio album The Quest, their first with new music in seven years. “Much of the music was written in late 2019 with the rest in 2020,” Howe who produced the album said in a statement. “We commissioned several orchestrations to augment and enhance the overall sound of these fresh new recordings, hoping that our emphasis on melody, coupled with some expansive instrumental solo breaks, keeps up the momentum for our listeners.” Let’s check out Minus the Man, which was co-written by Davison and Sherwood. Davison’s vocals sound remarkably similar to Jon Anderson, even more so on some of the other tunes I’ve sampled thus far.

Sources: Wikipedia; Scott Hirsch Facebook page; Apple Music; Yes website; YouTube

The Hardware: The Mellotron

The electro-mechanical keyboards are known for amazing sound capabilities and quirks

Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, I came across this YouTube demo of the Mellotron. It reminded me what a cool musical instrument this type of keyboard is and that I hadn’t done a “hardware” post since this one about the Vox Continental from August 2018. Two great reasons for a new installment, don’t you agree? 🙂

I realize writing about musical gear can quickly get you into geeky territory. As a hobby musician, I can’t deny I get easily excited when it comes to instruments and their sounds and looks. I guess you could call that geeky. At the same time, I’m not exactly a tech wiz – in fact, far from it! As such, I mostly approach gear posts from the sound (and looks) side and keep the tech side relatively light.

Which brings me to the Mellotron. The first time I ever heard this marvelous keyboard in action, I didn’t realize I was listening to a Mellotron. Clever, huh? Well, it’s true. I suppose more frequent visitors of the blog may already have an idea where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a hint: Four lads from Liverpool…

Strawberry Fields Forever. Undoubtedly, my fellow Beatles fans already knew that! 🙂 This John Lennon gem from 1967, which was co-credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, is perhaps the most famous example in pop rock of a Mellotron in action. I’m particularly referring to the beautiful flute sound intro, which was played by McCartney. According to The Beatles Bible, George Martin and Lennon also played two Mellotron parts, using the ‘swinging flutes’ and, towards the end of the song, ‘piano riff’ settings.

U.S. picture sleeve of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, released as a double A-side single with “Penny Lane” in February 1967

I could easily dedicate an entire post to Strawberry Fields Forever, which was one of the most complex tunes The Beatles ever recorded. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, let’s get back to the Mellotron and some history, as well as an attempt to explain how the mighty instrument works, based on my ingenious tech understanding. 🙂 And, of course, I’ll wrap things up with some examples that illustrate what Mellotron keyboards can do!

Let’s start with the technology. Fortunately, there’s Wikipedia! Basically, the Mellotron is what’s called a sampler, meaning it samples music instruments and other sounds, but instead of relying on digital sampling like the modern samplers do, it’s based on analogue samples recorded on audio tapes – essentially like an old-fashioned tape deck! When a player presses a key, a tape that’s connected to it gets pushed against a playback head, which in turn generates the sound. Once released, the tape moves back in its default position.

The tapes in a Mellotron include recordings of actual instruments, voices and other sounds, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Each tape recording lasts for about 8 seconds. This means a player cannot indefinitely hold down a key and get a sound – one of the instrument’s many quirks. There are others. As Sound on Sound explains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.

Inside of a Mellotron M400. The tapes are underneath the brown-colored key extensions.

For example, if the springs that pull back the tapes to their start position malfunction, this could mean the sampled sound only starts in the middle of the tape, and a player would have even less than 8 seconds of sound; or I suppose no sound at all, if the spring gets stuck in a completely extended position. There are different Mellotron models, so I’m not sure they all have 35 tape heads. My point here is to illustrate the instrument’s delicacy!

As you’d expect, the Mellotron offers a variety of sounds. From Wikipedia: On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together.

Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in both pitch and tempo. Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.

Okay, I promised to keep it “light” on the technology, so the above shall be sufficient. Next, I’d like to touch on the Mellotron’s history. While tape samplers had been explored in research studios, it wasn’t until 1962 that the instrument’s commercial concept originated. And it took a little help not exactly from a friend, as would become clear later.

Bill Fransen, a sales agent for the California-based maker of the Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboards, took two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600 instruments to England to find a suitable manufacturer that could make tape heads for future Chamberlin keyboards. He met Frank Bradley, Norman Bradley and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. in Birmingham. The Bradleys told him they could advance the original instrument design, and keyboard history started to change.

The Bradleys subsequently teamed up with BBC music conductor Eric Robinson, who not only agreed to arrange the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds for the tapes but also to help finance the effort. They also pulled in English magician and TV personality David Nixon and formed Mellotronics, a company to produce and market the Mellotron.

Bill Fransen with the first Mellotron off the production line, 1963. Photo credit: Sound on Sound

In 1963, Mellotronics started making the Mk I, the first commercially manufactured model of the Mellotron. The following year, the company introduced the Mk II, an updated version featuring the full set of sounds selectable by banks and stations. There are multiple other models that were developed thereafter, including the M400, which is pictured on top of this post and became a particular popular version.

There was only one hiccup. Fransen had never told the Bradleys that he wasn’t the original owner of the Chamberlin concept. Suffice to say the California company wasn’t exactly pleased that a British competitor essentially had copied their technology. After some back and forth, the two companies eventually agreed that each would be allowed to continue manufacture instruments independently.

In the ’70s, the Mellotron name was acquired by American company Sound Sales. After 1976, Bradmatic that had renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970, manufactured and sold Mellotron type keyboards under the Novatron brand name. But eventually, the advent of modern electronic samplers caught up with both companies. As a result, they found themselves in dire financial straits by the mid ’80s. In 1986, Streetly folded altogether.

In 1989, Les Bradley’s son John Bradley and Martin Smith, who had built Mellotron keyboards for the Bradleys at the original factory in Birmingham, England, revived Streetly Electronics as a Mellotron support and refurbishment business. The company exists to this day. In 2007, they also developed a new model that became the M4000. It combined features of several previous models with the layout and chassis of the popular M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.

If you’re still with me, let’s now move on to the post’s final and actual fun section: Seeing and hearing Mellotron keyboards in action. And while many things in pop music start with The Beatles, the Mellotron is one of the exceptions that prove the rule! Apparently, in the mid ’60s, English multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond became the first rock artist to record with a Mellotron. He also was an early user of the legendary Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combination. Here’s Baby Can It Be True from The Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 sophomore album There’s a Bond Between Us. Per Wikipedia, the tune was the first hit song to feature a Mellotron Mk II.

Another early adopter of the Mellotron was Mike Pinder, who had worked as a tester at Streetly Electronics (then still called Bradmatic) for 18 months in the early 1960s and became the keyboarder and co-founder of The Moody Blues in 1964. Pinder started using the Mellotron extensively on each of the band’s albums from Days of Future Passed (1967) to Octave (1978). Here’s one of the former record’s absolute gems written by Justin Hayward: Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon). In addition to Mellotron, the album used plenty of actual orchestration.

And since it was Pinder who introduced The Beatles to the Mellotron, now it’s time to come back to Strawberry Fields Forever. Notably, George Martin was less than excited about the Mellotron, reportedly describing it “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard” – ouch! Probably, he was referring to some of the instrument’s quirks I mentioned above! The Beatles still ended up using various Mellotron keyboards on their albums Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album.

Another well-known user of the Mellotron was Rick Wakeman. Before joining Yes in 1971, Wakeman was a full-time session musician. Among others, this included work with David Bowie on his second eponymous studio album and the mighty Space Oddity. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, the initial idea was for Wakeman to play a guide track with the Mellotron that would be replaced by an actual orchestra. But producer Tony Visconti decided to keep Wakeman’s Mellotron part.

Let’s do a few more Mellotron examples from the ’70s. These selections are taken from the previously noted Ultimate Classic Rock piece. First up: And You And I, a tune from Close to the Edge, the fifth studio album by Yes released in September 1972. The more than 10-minute track was co-written by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe (except the Eclipse section), Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Wakeman used the Mellotron to capture stings, brass and flutes sounds, especially during the tune’s Eclipse section.

One month later, in October 1972, Genesis released their fourth studio album Foxtrot. Here’s the opener Watcher of the Skies, which like all of the record’s tracks was credited to all members of the band. Ultimate Classic Rock notes the sound of the Mellotron created by Tony Banks turned out to be so popular that the manufacturer introduced a “Watcher Mix” sound on the next version of the keyboard – pretty cool in my book!

Since all things must pass including epic gear blog posts, let’s wrap up things with one final – and I might add particularly mighty – example of Mellotron use: Kashmir, from Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, which came out in February 1975. Credited to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham, the closer of Side 2 of the double LP features plenty of orchestration arranged by John Paul Jones. This includes both Mellotron strings and an actual string and brass section. While this makes it tricky to distinguish between the Mellotron and “real instruments”, Ultimate Classic Rock notes, The consensus is that Jones’s fake strings are heard during the “All I see turns to brown…” bridge (starting around 3:25) and join up with the actual strings in the tune’s closing minutes, adding a weird and wonderful effect.

This post focused on the use of the Mellotron during its most popular period from the mid ’60s to the second half of the ’70s. One can also find occasional examples thereafter like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and XTC on albums they released during the first half of the ’80s, as well as Oasis and Radiohead on recordings made during the second half of the ’90s. I think it’s safe to assume some keyboarders continue to use Mellotrons to this day, though with the modern digital samplers, it has to be a niche product.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Sound on Sound; Streetly Electronics website; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube

Celebration Day All Over Again

Led Zeppelin’s 2007 tribute concert at London’s O2 arena to stream on band’s YouTube channel this Saturday

In 2007, the surviving members of Led ZeppelinRobert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – reunited for a tribute concert for Ahmet Ertegün, which they performed on December 10 that year at London’s O2 Arena, together with drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham. This Saturday, that show will stream live on Led Zeppelin’s YouTube channel at 8:00 p.m. BST (3:00 p.m. EST).

Ertegün was the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, the label that issued the band’s first five albums. Zep’s tribute gig was their first full-length show in almost three decades. The tribute opened with an all-star band, including Keith Emerson, Chris Squire, Alan White and Simon Kirke, who were backed by the brass section from Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. The concert also featured Paul Rodgers, Paolo Nutini and Foreigner as supporting acts, who played together with the Rhythm Kings as well. Other guests on the Rhythm Kings’ set were Maggie Bell and Alvin Lee.

Zep’s show, the headliner of the event, has been captured in various formats, including a limited big screen release in October 2012, DVD, home audio and CD. My streaming music provider includes the latter, and I listened to it this morning. While perhaps not quite as outstanding as Cream’s 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, I think it’s pretty great stuff, especially, once you get past the opener Good Times Bad Times, where to me Plant sounds like he’s holding back a bit.

I’m certainly planning to watch this Saturday. Apparently, the stream will be up for two or three days. Here are two clips – a little appetizer, if you want! First up: Black Dog, from Led Zeppelin IV, the band’s forth studio album released in November 1971. The song was co-written by Page, Plant and Jones.

And here’s Kashmir, from Physical Graffiti. Co-written by Bonham, Page and Plant, I’ve always found this tune both a bit weird, yet brilliant at the same time. Physical Graffiti, which appeared in February 1975, was Zep’s sixth studio album, and the first record they released on their own label Swan Song Records, which the band had launched in May 1974.

Sources: Wikipedia; Facebook; YouTube