The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Hope everybody is enjoying their Sunday and has had a good week. Time again to embark on another music journey where the only thing that’s certain is that nothing is certain. In other words, anything goes as long as I like it. Oftentimes, these posts are pretty eclectic, and this installment is no different, featuring country rock, progressive rock, rockabilly, synth pop, folk rock and Chicano garage rock.

Poco/What a Day

A recent post about Rusty Young and Paul Cotton by fellow blogger Mike from Ticket 2 Ride brought country rock pioneers Poco back on my radar screen – and the realization I’ve yet to take a deeper dive into their music. My first encounter with Poco was in the ’80s when a dear longtime music friend introduced me to the band with their excellent 11th studio album Legend from November 1978. After they had released records for nearly a decade, it finally gave them a top 20 on the Billboard 200, reaching no. 14. Poco were formed in 1968 by former Buffalo Springfield members Richie Furay (vocals, rhythm guitar) and Jim Messina (lead guitar, vocals), together with Rusty Young (pedal steel guitar, banjo, dobro, guitar, mandolin, vocals), Randy Meisner (bass, vocals) and George Grantham (drums, vocals). In addition to 19 studio albums, the band’s catalog includes multiple compilations and live recordings. Poco have continued to perform with many different line-ups, though with the death of Young from a heart attack at age 75 in April this year, their current status is uncertain. Here’s a tune I love off their debut album Pickin’ Up the Pieces that came out in May 1969: What a Day, written by Furay. You can read more about that album here.

Genesis/The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

Let’s move to the ’70s and a dose of prog rock, a genre I’ve never really embraced with a few exceptions. One of them are Genesis. I began exploring the British group in the mid ’80s back in Germany when getting access to many of their albums through my best friend whom I’ve known since the second school grade. Genesis were formed in 1967 by Peter Gabriel (lead vocals, flute), Tony Banks (organ, piano, backing vocals), Anthony Phillips (lead guitar), Mike Rutherford (bass, guitar, backing vocals) and Chris Stewart (drums), who all attended a boarding school in the English town of Godalming. By the time their debut album From Genesis to Revelation appeared in March 1969, Stewart had been replaced on drums by Jonathan Silver. After a hiatus following their last studio album …Calling All Stations… from September 1997 and occasional reunions, Genesis reformed in March 2020 and announced The Last Domino? Tour set to kick off in mid-September Dublin, Ireland, and currently including 40 dates across Ireland, the UK, U.S. and Canada. The line-up features Banks, Collins and Rutherford, along with various touring musicians. Here’s the title track from the band’s sixth studio album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, which was released in November 1974 and was the last to feature Gabriel. Like the remaining tracks, the tune was credited to all members of the band, which at the time included Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Rutherford and guitarist Steve Hackett who had replaced Phillips on lead guitar in late 1970. For some additional thoughts on the album, you can check here.

Carl Perkins/Matchbox

After nearly 5 minutes of prog rock, I’m sure y’all are ready for some great rockabilly, a genre I’ve been digging the first time I heard it. Most likely, that was sometime during the second half of the ’70s when I started listening to the radio more frequently, in particular an oldies show that aired on Sunday evenings on my favorite station SWF3 (now SWR3). And it may well have been Carl Perkins or Bill Haley or Elvis Presley – frankly, I don’t remember. Perkins, a rockabilly pioneer, started his recording career in 1954 at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. In February 1957, he released Matchbox as the B-side to Your True Love. Matchbox shares some lyric phrases with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 recording of Match Box Blues, though musically the tunes are different. Matchbox and Your True Love also appeared on Dance Album Of Carl Perkins, his debut full-length record from 1957. It’s probably best remembered by the classic Blue Suede Shoes, another Perkins song that became his only no. 1 on Billboard’s country chart. It also surged to no. 2 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100, his best-performing single there as well. Carl Perkins who passed away in January 1998 at the age of 65, was inducted into the Rock Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 by Sam Phillips.

Prince/1999

Prince needs no further introduction. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I’ve admired him for many years because of his incredible musicianship and remarkable versatility. And I definitely like some of his songs. I was tempted to pick Purple Rain, the title track of Prince’s 1984 album, which brought him on my radar screen, and a tune I love to this day. Instead, I decided to go with another title track, 1999, from Prince’s fifth studio album that appeared in October 1982. To me, it’s one of the most infectious dance tunes I know. According to Songfacts, Prince wrote the party-like jam during the height of the Cold War. But while acknowledging Everybody’s got a bomb/We could all die any day, he resorted to an optimistic stance, telling people to enjoy their remaining time on earth: But before I’ll let that happen/I’ll dance my life away.

Mumford & Sons/I Will Wait

After some country rock, prog rock, rockabilly and a synth pop party tune about nuclear Armageddon, I think we’re ready for a dose of English folk rock, don’t you agree? Mumford & Sons were formed in London in late 2007 by multi-instrumentalists Marcus Mumford (lead vocals, guitars, drums), Ben Lovett (vocals, piano, keyboards, accordion), Winston Marshall (vocals, guitars, banjo, bass) and Ted Dwane (vocals, bass, double bass, drums). After their successful debut album Sigh No More from October 2009, which topped the charts in Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands and hit no. 2 in the UK and the U.S., the band gained even greater prominence with their sophomore release Babel that appeared in September 2012. The record debuted at no. 1 on the UK Albums Chart and the U.S. Billboard 200 and also reached the top of the charts in many other countries. Babel became the fastest selling record of 2012 in the UK and was the biggest selling debut of any album in the U.S. that year. Mumford & Sons have since continued to enjoy success with two additional albums. Marshall left earlier this year, leaving Mumford & Sons as a trio for now. Here’s I Will Wait from the above noted Babel album. Written by Marcus Mumford, it’s the band’s most successful single to date and I assume the song most people have heard. Here’s the official video with footage captured at the breathtaking Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Morrison, Col.

Thee Midniters/Empty Heart

And, once again, this brings me to the sixth tune that will conclude this week’s musical excursion. Let’s go back to the ’60s where the post started with a pick inspired by my recent review of Los Lobos’ great new album. Native Sons, which largely features covers by bands and artists from L.A. or who ended up there, celebrates the city’s rich musical heritage. The covers include a tune by Thee Midniters, another Chicano rock band who like Los Lobos were from East Los Angeles. Formed in the mid ’60s, their members included Willie Garcia (lead vocals), George Dominguez (lead guitar), Roy Marquez (rhythm guitar), Ronny Figueroa (organ), Larry Rendon (saxophone), Romeo Prado (trombone), Jimmy Espinoza (bass) and George Salaza (drums). After releasing a few albums, the band split in the early ’70s. According to Wikipedia, The Midniters have continued to perform over the decades, led by original members Espinoza and Rendon. I haven’t been able to verify the group’s current status. Here’s their cover of The Rolling Stones’ Empty Heart. Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the Stones first recorded the tune for their second EP Five by Five released in August 1964. Check out this cooking rendition by Thee Midniters.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

By now it’s safe to assume more frequent visitors know what’s about to happen. To new readers, The Sunday Six is all about enjoying the diversity and beauty of music. I make a deliberate effort to feature different music genres including some I don’t listen to frequently. While the resulting picks, therefore, can appear to be random, these posts don’t capture the first six tunes that come to my mind. At the end of the day, anything goes as long as it speaks to me.

George Benson/Breezin’

Kicking is off is some groovy guitar pop jazz by George Benson. Benson started to play the guitar as an eight-year-old, following the ukulele he had picked up a year earlier. Incredibly, he already recorded by the age of 9, which means his career now stands at a whooping 57 years and counting! He gained initial popularity in the 1960s, performing together with jazz organist Jack McDuff. Starting with the 1963 live album Brother Jack McDuff Live!, Benson appeared on various McDuff records. In 1964, he released his debut as a bandleader, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, which featured McDuff on piano and organ. In the ’70s, Benson started to venture beyond jazz into pop and R&B. Breezin’ from May 1976 is a good example. Not only did it top Billboard’s jazz chart, but it also climbed to no. 1 on the R&B and mainstream charts. Here’s the title track, written by Bobby Womack who also originally recorded it in December 1970, together with Hungarian jazz guitar great Gábor Szabó. It appeared on Szabó’s 1971 album High Contrast. Here’s Benson’s version. The smooth and happy sound are perfect for a Sunday morning!

Steely Dan/Home at Last

Let’s stay in pop jazzy lane for a bit longer with Steely Dan, one of my all-time favorite bands. I trust Messrs. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. and quickly bonded over their mutual admiration for jazz and other music, don’t need much of an introduction. By the time they met guitarist Denny Dias in the summer of 1970, they already had written a good amount of original music. Steely Dan’s  first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter  (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters. It was also Katz who signed the Dan to the label. By the time their sixth and, in my opinion, best album Aja appeared in September 1977, Steely Dan had become a studio project by Fagen and Becker who surrounded themselves with a changing cast of top-notch session musicians and other artists. In this case, the latter included Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jim Keltner (drums) and Michael McDonald (backing vocals), among others. Here’s Home at Last, which like all other tracks on the album was co-written by Fagen and Becker. In addition to them, the track featured Carlton (though the solo was played by Becker who oftentimes left lead guitar responsibilities to a session guitarist like Carlton), Rainey (bass), Victor Feldman (vibraphone), Bernard Purdie (drums), Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals), and of course an amazing horn section, including Jim Horn (what an appropriate name!), Bill Perkins, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso, Chuck Findley, Lou McCreary and Dick Hyde.

The Temptations/Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone

Time to start switching up things with a dose of ’70s funk and psychedelic soul, don’t you agree? Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations is one of the coolest tunes I can think of in this context. Co-written by Motown’s Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song was first released as a single in May 1972 by the label’s recording act The Undisputed Truth. While the original to which you can listen here is pretty good as well, it’s the great rendition by The Temptations I heard first and have come to love! They recorded an 11-minute-plus take for their studio album All Directions from July 1972. In September that year, The Temptations also released a 6:54-minute single version of the song. While it still was a pretty long edit for a single, it yielded the group their second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the ’70s. It would also be their last no. 1 hit on the U.S. mainstream chart. By the time Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone appeared, the group already had seen various changes and only featured two members of the classic line-up: Otis Williams (baritone) and Melvin Franklin (bass). The other members were Dennis Edwards (tenor), Damon Harris (tenor) and Richard Street (second tenor). Amazingly, The Temptations still exist after some 60 years (not counting the group’s predecessors), with 79-year-old Otis Williams remaining as the only original member. I have tickets to see them together with The Four Tops in early November – keeping fingers crossed! Meanwhile, here’s Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, of course, the mighty album version, coz I don’t do things half ass here! 🙂

Peter Gabriel/Don’t Give Up (feat. Kate Bush)

Let’s go to a different decade with another artist I’ve come to dig, which in no small part was due to this album: Peter Gabriel and So, his fifth studio release from May 1986. It’s probably Gabriel’s most mainstream-oriented album. Much of the former Genesis lead vocalist’s other solo work has been more of an acquired taste. I also didn’t pay much attention after his follow-on Us that appeared in September 1992. Fueled by the hit single Sledgehammer, which topped the mainstream charts in the U.S. and Canada, peaked at no. 3 in Australia and New Zealand, and reached the top 10 in Germany and various other European countries, So became Gabriel’s best-selling solo album. I did catch him during the supporting tour in Cologne, Germany, and still have fond memories of that gig. Here’s Don’t Give Up, a haunting duet with Kate Bush. Inspired by U.S. Depression era photos from the 1930s Gabriel had seen, he applied the theme to the difficult economic conditions in Margaret Thatcher’s mid-1980s England. While the tune is a bit of a Debbie Downer, I find it extremely powerful. You can literally picture the lyrics as a movie. I also think the vocals alternating between Gabriel and Bush work perfectly.

The Turtles/Happy Together

I suppose after the previous tune, we all could need some cheering up. A song that always puts me in a good mood is Happy Together by The Turtles. Plus, it broadens our little musical journey to include the ’60s, one of my favorite decades in music. The Turtles started performing under that name in 1965. Their original members, Howard Kaylan (lead vocals, keyboards), Mark Volman (backing vocals, guitar, percussion), Al Nichol (lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Jim Tucker (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Chuck Portz (bass) and Don Murray (drums), had all played together in a surf rock-oriented band called The Crossfires. That group turned into The Tyrtles, a folk rock outfit, before becoming The Turtles and adopting more of a sunshine pop style. The band’s initial run lasted until 1970. Vollman and Kaylan subsequently launched pop duo Flo & Eddie and released a series of records between 1972 and 2009. In 1983, Vollman and Kaylan legally regained the use of the name The Turtles and started touring as The Turtles…Featuring Flo and Eddie. Instead of seeking to reunite with their former bandmates, Vollman and Kaylan relied on other musicians. The group remains active in this fashion to this day. Their website lists a poster for a Happy Together Tour 2021 “this summer,” though currently, no gigs are posted. Happy Together was the title track of the band’s third studio album from April 1967. Co-written by Alan Gordon and Garry Bonner, the infectious tune became The Turtles’ biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 2 in Canada, and reaching no. 12 in the UK, marking their first charting single there.

Simple Minds/Stand by Love

I can’t believe it’s already time to wrap up this latest installment of The Sunday Six. For this last tune, I decided to pick a song from the early ’90s: Stand by Love by Simple Minds. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the Scottish new wave and pop rock band and don’t follow them closely, I generally enjoy their music. I also got to see them live once in Stuttgart, Germany in the early ’90s and remember it as a good show. Simple Minds emerged in late 1977 from the remains of short-lived punk band Johnny & The Self-Abusers. By late 1978, the band’s first stable line-up was in place, featuring Jim Kerr (lead vocals), Charlie Burchill (guitar), Mick MacNeil (keyboards), Derek Forbes (bass) and Brian McGee (drums). That formation recorded Simple Minds’ debut album Life in a Day released in April 1979. Their fifth studio album New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84) was the first to bring more significant commercial success in the UK and Europe. This was followed by a series of additional successful albums that appeared between 1984 and 1995, which included the band’s biggest hits, such as Don’t You (Forget About Me), Alive and Kicking, Belfast Child and Let There Be Love. Today, more than 40 years after their formation, Simple Minds are still around, with Kerr and Burchill remaining part of the current line-up. Here’s Stand by Love, co-written by Burchill and Kerr, from the band’s ninth studio album Real Life that came out in April 1991. This is quite a catchy tune. I also dig the backing vocals by what sounds like gospel choir, which become more prominent as the song progresses.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Turtles…Featuring Flo and Eddie website; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Best of What’s New is hitting a bit of a milestone this week with its 20th installment. When I started 20 weeks ago, I didn’t expect the feature would become a weekly series. The fact it has turned into that tells me there’s more decent new music out there than I had previously realized. I also recognize my favorite decades in music, the ’60s and ’70s, are gone and won’t come back; still, at a time when the charts are dominated by music that feels largely generic and soulless to me, it’s reassuring to see not all new music is created equal.

I’m also happy about this latest installment, which among others features a psychedelic prog rock band from Norway. How many bands do you know from Norway? And how many of them play psychedelic prog rock? Or how about a multi-national pop prog rock (gee, try saying that quickly!) outfit from Belgium, the UK and the U.S.? Also, were you aware that in March The Boomtown Rats released their first new album in 36 years? But wait, there’s more. All you need to do to find out is to read on… 🙂

LeRoux/Lucy Anna

LeRoux, aka, Louisiana’s LeRoux, are a band from Baton Rouge, La., which have been around for some 45 years. From their website: Their 1978 Capitol press release read, “LeRoux takes its name from the Cajun French term for the thick and hearty gravy base that’s used to make a gumbo.”  LeRoux’s eponymous first album was a musical gumbo that blended various instruments and music arrangements into a spicy, mouth-watering southern rock sound. In fact, their Southern anthem ‘New Orleans Ladies’, voted Song of the Century by Gambit Magazine, simmered with the laid-back feel of the “Big Easy,” evoking images of Bourbon Street and the bayou…Over the years, LeRoux enjoyed performing with many of classic rocks’ greatest bands including The Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Journey, Kansas, Heart, The Doobie Brothers, Charlie Daniels, Foreigner, Marshall Tucker, The Outlaws, ZZ Top and many, many more…LeRoux was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame as their 50th inductee. Lucy Anna, co-written by Richard Ferreira and Solomon Paul Marshall, reminds me a bit of Little Feat. The song is from the band’s most recent, eighth studio album One of Those Days, released on July 24 – their first new album in 18 years. I really dig the harmony singing and warm sound. Check it out!

Nick D’Virgilio/In My Bones

Nick D’Virgilio is a session multi-instrumentalist, who according to Wikipedia is best known as the (studio) drummer of American progressive rock group Spock’s Beard, and is a member of Big Big Train, an English prog rock band – admittedly I had not heard of both outfits before, but my exposure to prog rock has been limited. Moreover, D’Virgilio has recorded and toured with artists, such as Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Sheryl Crow. And, you probably guessed it, he also has recorded some solo work. This included an album and an EP that both came out in 2011, and Invisible, his most recent album released on June 26. Here’s In My Bones, written by D’Virgilio. Part of the reason I decided to highlight this tune is the great organ and saxophone work.

Shaman Elephant/Ease of Mind

According to their Facebook page, Shaman Elephant are a Norwegian psychedelic progressive rock band. Ease of Mind is a tune from Wide Awake but Still Asleep, which a review by the blog The Progressive Aspect notes is their sophomore album. Their debut Crystals appeared in 2016. The review also lists Shaman Elephant’s members: Eirik Sejersted Vognstølen (vocals, guitar), Jard Hole (drums), Ole-Andreas Sæbø Jensen (bass) and Jonas Særsten (keyboards). I will say Ease of Mind falls outside my core wheelhouse, but there’s something about it I find intriguing. What drew me in initially is the acoustic guitar intro. Plus, other than synth pop band a-ha, I can’t think of any other group from Norway I know, so I’m happy to feature one here.

Fish on Friday/Mad at the World

On their Facebook page, Fish on Friday (FoF) describe themselves as “a multi-national (Belgium-UK-USA) Progressive Poprock oriented project signed to UK label Esoteric recordings-Cherry Red.” Their website lists their members as Nick Beggs (bass, Chapman stick, backing vocals), Frank Van Bogaert (vocals, keyboards, guitars), Marty Townsend (guitars) and Marcus Weymaere (drums and percussion). Mad at the World is a track from Black Rain, which the website’s “bio” section indicates is the band’s fifth album. Unfortunately, there’s no actual bio there, but a news statement about FoF’s second album points out the band was founded in 2009 “when Belgian Producer and musician Frank van Bogaert and keyboard player William Beckers established FISH ON FRIDAY as a studio-based Progressive Rock project.” The band released their debut album Shoot the Moon in 2010. Apparently, it received stylistic comparisons with the Alan Parsons Project. Having listened to some of the tunes from Black Rain, which appeared on May 15, if anything, I seemed to pick up some traces of David Gilmour/post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd, though not on Mad of the World. That tune may be a little bit closer to some of the previous music by the Alan Parsons Project. It doesn’t really matter – I like it and that’s good enough for me! Based on credits listed on Discogs, the tune was written van Bogaert, who also produced the album.

The Boomtown Rats/There’s No Tomorrow Like Today

How funny is that! I just finished publishing a mini-series to commemorate Live Aid and the next thing I come across is The Boomtown Rats released Citizens of Boomtown in March 2020, their first new album since 1984’s In the Long Grass! As I admitted in my Live Aid posts, other than Bob Geldof’s association with the band and I Don’t Like Mondays (and I should also add Banana Republic), I pretty much know nothing about this Irish band – rats! They initially formed in Dublin in 1975 and released six studio albums between 1977 and their first breakup in 1986. The band reunited in 2013 with a different line-up. But other than a few live records and two compilations, they did not come out with anything new – until March this year. Released on June 12, There’s No Tomorrow Like Today is the B-side to the album’s first single Trash Glam Baby; interestingly, it didn’t make the record. The tune is credited to Geldof, as well as the band’s other members Pete Briquette (bass), Simon Crowe (drums) and Garry Roberts (guitar). It’s a quite catchy pop rocker!

This post was updated on August 1, 2020 to correct information on There’s No Tomorrow Like Today, the above mentioned song by The Boomtown Rats. Bob Geldof-authorized fan site Bob Geldof Fans reached out to note that while the tune should have been on the album as my post had initially indicated, it was not. Instead, it became the b-side to the first single Trash Glam Baby.

Sources: Wikipedia; LeRoux website; Shaman Elephant Facebook page; The Progressive Aspect; Fish on Friday Facebook page; Discogs; 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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Genesis/The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

I never got much into progressive rock. One of the few exceptions I’ve further explored are Genesis. If I recall it correctly, it all started in my late teens through my best friend who knew a fan of Peter Gabriel and the English band. He borrowed all kinds of CDs from the guy and after he had taped them passed them on to me to do the same. We’re talking music cassettes here – remember MCs? I still have hundreds of them. While I can’t even remember when I last listened to one of them, I never throw them away!

Anyway, this is how I was introduced to most Genesis albums, including The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Released as a double LP in November 1974, their sixth studio album was the last with Peter Gabriel, who left after the supporting tour to launch a solo career. I randomly remembered all of the above earlier today – I suppose this is what happens when you spend a lot of time at home, as we all hopefully do during these unreal times of social distancing!

Genesis 1975
Genesis in the mid-70s (from left to right): Front: Phil Collins, Tony Banks and Peter Gabriel; Back: Mike Rutherford and Steve Hackett

The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is a concept album. According to Songfacts, it tells the story of Rael, a poor Puerto Rican boy from The Bronx. As “The Lamb,” Rael goes on an adventure in New York City. Peter Gabriel explained to The Daily Telegraph September 30, 2014 that the album “was intended to be an intense story of a young rebellious Puerto Rican in New York who would face challenges with family, authority, sex, love and self-sacrifice to learn a little more about himself. I wanted to mix his dreams with his reality, in a kind of urban rebel Pilgrim’s Progress.”

All tracks were credited to the band’s five members at the time: Peter Gabriel (lead vocals, flute, “varied instruments”, “experiments with foreign sounds”), Steve Hackett (acoustic and electric guitars), Mike Rutherford (bass, 12-string guitar), Tony Banks (Hammond T-102 organ, RMI 368x Electra Piano and Harpsichord, Mellotron M-400, ARP Pro Soloist synthesizer, Elka Rhapsody string synthesizer, piano) and Phil Collins (drums, percussion, vibraphone, backing vocals, second lead vocal on The Colony of Slippermen and Counting out Time). Most of the lyrics were written by Gabriel. The full story of Rael is in the liner notes of the album. Wikipedia provides a plot summary, which I’m using as I’m looking at each of the double LP’s four sides.

Genesis_The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Sleeves

Side One

One morning in New York City, Rael is holding a can of spray paint, hating everyone around him. He witnesses a lamb lying down on Broadway which has a profound effect on him. (“The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”) As he walks along the street, he sees a dark cloud take the shape of a movie screen and slowly move towards him, finally absorbing him (“Fly on a Windshield”), seeing an explosion of images of the current day (“Broadway Melody of 1974”) before he wakes up in a cave and falls asleep once again (“Cuckoo Cocoon”).

Rael wakes up and finds himself trapped in a cage of stalactites and stalagmites which slowly close in towards him. As he tries to escape, he sees his brother John and calls for him, but John walks away and the cage suddenly disappears (“In the Cage”). Rael now finds himself on the floor of a factory and is given a tour of the area by a woman, where he watches people being processed like packages. He spots old members of his New York City gang and John with the number “9” stamped on his forehead. Fearing for his life, Rael escapes into a corridor (“The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging”). Here’s the album’s opener and title track.

Side Two

Rael has an extended flashback of returning from a gang raid in New York City, (“Back in N.Y.C.”) a dream where his hairy heart is removed and shaved with a razor, (“Hairless Heart”) and his first sexual encounter (“Counting Out Time”). Rael’s flashback ends, and he finds himself in a long, red carpeted corridor of people crawling towards its exit via a spiral staircase (“Carpet Crawlers”). At the top, he enters a chamber with 32 doors, surrounded by people and unable to concentrate (“The Chamber of 32 Doors”).

The Carpet Crawlers was the album’s second single. According to Wikipedia, it charted nowhere, which I find hard to believe. At least in Germany, you could hear it many times on the radio. If I recall it correctly, it was around the same time when I’m Not in Love by 10cc was all the rage. Both of these tunes got plenty of air time. Anyway, here it is.

Side Three

Rael finds a blind woman who leads him out of the chamber and into another cave (“Lilywhite Lilith”), where he becomes trapped by falling rocks (“The Waiting Room”, “Anyway”). Rael encounters Death (“Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist”) and escapes the cave. Rael ends up in a pool with three Lamia, beautiful snake-like creatures, and has sex with them, but they die after drinking some of his blood (“The Lamia”). He leaves the pool in a boat (“Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats”). Here’s Lilywhite Lilith.

Side Four

Rael finds himself in a group of Slippermen, distorted, grotesque men who have all had the same experience with the Lamias, and finds that he has become one of them (“The Arrival”). Rael finds John among the Slippermen, who reveals that the only way to become human again is to visit Doktor Dyper and be castrated (“A Visit to the Doktor”). Both are castrated and keep their removed penises in containers around their necks. Rael’s container is taken by a raven and he chases after it, leaving John behind (“The Raven”). The raven drops the container in a ravine and into a rushing underground river (“Ravine”). Jeez, this is some crazy shit!

As Rael walks alongside it, he sees a window in the bank above his head which reveals his home amidst the streets (“The Light Dies Down on Broadway”). Faced with the option of returning home, he sees John in a river below him, struggling to stay afloat. Despite being deserted twice by John, Rael dives in to save him and the gateway to New York vanishes (“Riding the Scree”). Rael rescues John and drags his body to the bank of the river and turns him over to look at his face, only to see his own face instead (“In the Rapids”). His consciousness then drifts between both bodies, and he sees the surrounding scenery melting away into a haze. Both bodies dissolve, and Rael’s spirit becomes one with everything around him (“it.”). Here’s The Light Dies Down on Broadway.

While Genesis weren’t sure how the concept and extended format of the album would be received, it was met with critical acclaim from the time it came out. In 2015, NME included the album in its 23 Maddest and Most Memorable Concept Albums list for “taking in themes of split personalities, heaven and hell and truth and fantasy. The album also ended up at no. 9 in Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time, calling it “one of rock’ more elaborate, beguiling and strangely rewarding concept albums”. “Strangely rewarding” – that characterization kind of nicely sums up how I feel about this album!

In the U.S., The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway marked the first Genesis album to crack the top 50 on the Billboard 200, peaking at no. 41. On the other hand, in the UK, it climbed to no. 10, falling short of the chart success of the predecessor Selling England by the Pound, which had reached no. 3. In both countries, it ended up being certified gold.

About three weeks ago, Rolling Stone and other media outlets reported that Genesis are reuniting for a tour of England and Ireland in November 2020, their first since 2007. The line-up features Collins, Banks and Rutherford, along with touring guitarist/bassist Daryl Stuermer and Nic Collins, Phil’s 19-year-old son on drums. Nic also handled drums during his dad’s successful 2017-2019 solo tour, since Phil hasn’t been able to play drums due to extensive nerve damage to his hands. He performed the entire shows seated in a chair.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Aw, The ’80s (Part 1: 1980-1984)

A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade

I’ve mentioned my weak spot for ’80s music on a few previous occasions. My taste has since evolved, and I now find myself wondering more often than not how I could have liked certain songs as much as I did back then. Well, obviously, I was a lot younger (though of course, I’m still young at heart!), and that music was all around me. It also triggers memories of school, parties, the first vacations with friends (and without my parents or any adults for that matter), the first hangover…in other words, it really was the soundtrack of growing up – okay, call me a sentimental fool!

This morning, I rode the car with my wife and put on Duran Duran’s Rio album – she loves ’80s, so it was all her fault! 🙂 Anyway, listening to this 1982 record gave me the idea to reflect on music and some related events from that decade. Since it’s a big topic, I figured it would be best to divide my thoughts in two parts. Obviously, it’s still not possible to make this all-inclusive, so I’m going to be arbitrary and selective, focusing on things that are meaningful to me. Here’s part I spanning 1980 to 1984.

Prince_Purple Rain

Some of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the ’80s are Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, the death of disco, new wave, the advent of the CD, hair metal bands and Live Aid. Of course, I could add many other buzz words, e.g., music videos. At the time, we didn’t have cable or satellite television at my house back in Germany, so I missed out on MTV and VH1. In fact, believe or not, it wasn’t until 1993 when I first came to the U.S. that I watched VH1 and kind of got hooked, especially on their Behind The Music documentaries. For some reason, I never warmed to MTV.

1980

Some of the events I’d like to call out are Paul McCartney’s arrest in Tokyo for marijuana possession, which resulted in the cancellation of the remaining Wings tour that year (Jan 16); launch of Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour in Los Angeles (Feb 7); release of Back In Black, AC/DC’s first album with Brian Johnson who had replaced original lead vocalist Bon Scott (Jul 25); death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (Sep 25); and murder of John Lennon who was shot by deranged Mark David Chapman in front of his Manhattan residence after returning from the recording studio with Yoko Ono (Dec 8).

The biggest hit singles of the year were Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) (Pink Floyd), Woman In Love (Barbara Streisand), (Just Like) Starting Over (John Lennon), Funkytown (Lipps) and Upside Down (Diana Ross). I dug all of these songs at the time. While from today’s perspective my favorite is the Lennon tune, the track I’d like to highlight in a clip is Call Me by Blondie. Co-written by Debbie Harry and producer Giorgio Moroder (remember that guy?), the song was released as a single in February that year and was also included on the soundtrack for the 1980 picture American Gigolo. It became the band’s biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, as well as the charts in the U.K. and Canada, and scoring in the top 20 in many other countries.

1981

Notable events include the release of Face Value, the first solo album by Phil Collins – like it or not, the Genesis drummer was just everywhere in the ’80s – with Genesis and solo! (Feb 9); first break-up of Yes (Apr 18) only to reunite less than two years later and release their biggest-selling album 90125; U2’s television debut in the U.S. on the NBC late night program The Tomorrow Show (Jun 4); official launch of MTV in New York (Aug 1); Simon & Garfunkel’s free reunion concert in the Big Apple’s Central Park, drawing more than 500,000 visitors – no disputes over crowd attendance here! (Sep 9 ); and Rod Stewart show at Los Angeles Forum, broadcast live via satellite and watched by an estimated 35 million people worldwide – the first such broadcast since Elvis Presley’s 1973 Aloha From Hawaii special.

The top 5 hit singles of the year were Bette Davis Eyes (Kim Carnes), Tainted Love (Soft Cell), In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins), Woman (John Lennon) and Stars On 45 Medley (Stars On 45). Again, to me the Lennon tune holds up the best, though I also still like Bette Davis Eyes and have to admit In The Air Tonight is kind of cool. Even though I feel I’ve been over-exposed to Collins, I admit he’s done some good songs. Here’s a clip of Down Under by Men At Work. Co-written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, and released in October, the song was the second single from the band’s debut album Business As Usual that appeared the following month. It was cool then, and I still dig this tune.

1982

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the debut of Madonna with Everybody (Oct 2), the lead single from her first eponymous 1983 studio record, as well as the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (Nov 30), which remains the world’s best-selling record to date. Some of the other events include the death of comedian and Blues Brothers vocalist John Belushi (March 5); premiere of Pink Floyd – The Wall, a film adaptation of the band’s 1979 album with the same title, at the Cannes Film Festival in France; and start of CD mass production by Dutch technology company and disc co-inventor Philips in Langenhagen near Hanover, Germany (Aug 17).

Eye Of The Tiger (Survivor), Down Under (Men At Work), I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll (Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners) and Ebony And Ivory (Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson) were the biggest hit singles that year. Below is a clip of Come On Eileen, which appeared as a single in June. Co-written by Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams, the song was also included on the band’s second studio album Too-Rye-Ay, released the following month. I always found it cool how the catchy tune blended elements of Celtic folk with pop music.

1983

On March 2, CDs started to go on sale in the U.S., following their initial release in Japan the previous October. Some of the year’s other events in music include the debut of Let’s Spend The Night Together in New York, a film documenting the 1981 North American tour of The Rolling Stones (Feb 11); release of U2’s third studio album War, which debuts at no. 1 in the U.K. and features their first international hit single New Year’s Day (Feb 28); release of David Bowie’s commercially most successful studio album Let’s Dance (Apr 14); unveiling of Kiss’s faces without their make-up for the first time on MTV (Sep 18) – yes, I do seem to recall that seeing their actual faces was a pretty big deal at the time!; and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, the first heavy metal album to top the Billboard 200 (Nov 26).

The biggest hit singles of the year: Karma Chameleon (Culture Club); Billie Jean (Michael Jackson); Flashdance…What A Feeling (Irene Cara); Let’s Dance (David Bowie) and Every Breath You Take (The Police). Did I have all these songs? You betcha – in fact, I still do, mostly somewhere on music cassettes! Here’s Billie Jean, written by the King of Pop himself, and released as the second single from the Thriller album in January 1983.

1984

Some of the happenings in the music world that year: Announcement from BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read of this refusal to play Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood due to its suggestive lyrics (Jan 11), a ban that was put in place by the entire BBC around the same time – in a clear illustration that something forbidden oftentimes tends to make it more attractive, only 10 days later, the tune stood a no. 1 on the Official Singles Chart in the UK; death of one of the greatest soul artists, Marvin Gaye, who following an argument was killed by his own father with a gun he had given to him as a Christmas present the previous year (Apr 1); release of Prince’s sixth studio album Purple Rain (Jun 25), the soundtrack to the 1984 film of the same name – one of his most successful records and the third-best-selling soundtrack album of all time, exceeding more than 25 million copies sold worldwide; and the first annual MTV Music Awards held in New York, where Madonna raised some eyebrows with a racy performance of Like A Virgin (Sep 14) – Madonna being controversial?

The biggest hit singles of 1984 were Careless Whisper (George Michael), I Just Called To Say I Love You (Stevie Wonder), Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (Wham!), Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper) and Relax (Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Since I was a good boy and never listened to Relax and Like A Virgin, here’s a clip of Borderline, a song from Madonna’s debut record. On a more serious note, the tune that was written by producer Reggie Lucas still is one of my favorite Madonna songs. It became the album’s fifth and last single released in February 1984, peaking at no. 2 in the U.K. and reaching no. 10 in the U.S., less successful than the scandalous Like A Virgin!

Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover the period from 1985 to 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube