Musings of the Past

When The Beatles’ Revolver Turned 50

The other day, fellow blogger Max from PowerPop blog featured I Want to Tell You, a George Harrison tune from Revolver, rightfully noting the great opening riff and calling it very unrated. This reminded me of a post I originally published in August 2016 about the then-50th anniversary of what is widely considered one of the best albums by The Beatles.

I was about six weeks into my blogging journey. The blog was very bare-bones at the time with no embedded images or video clips in the posts. While my writing was also still evolving, I felt the content of this early post deserved to be republished. Unlike previous Musings of the Past installments, which essentially were straight reposts, I decided to enhance the Revolver post with both multi-media and some additional text at the end. I also slightly amended the headline. Here we go.

When The Beatles’ Revolver Turned 50

It was 50 years ago yesterday (Aug 5): The Beatles released Revolver in the UK, an album that is considered a leap from predecessor Rubber Soul, introducing more experimentation and innovative recording techniques.

On Aug 5, 1966, The Beatles released Revolver, their seventh studio album in the UK. Just the other day, a good friend of mine told me many experts consider it the best album of the Fab Four. Yesterday, I noticed a number of related articles from music sources like Rolling Stone and others commemorating the occasion. So I decided to take a closer look on this mold-breaking album.

On RevolverThe Beatles started experimenting with various new recording techniques, including tape loops, backwards recordings and varispeeding. The most significant innovation was Artificial Double Tracking (ADT), which was invented by Ken Townsend, a recording engineer at Abbey Road Studios. The technique essentially combines an original audio signal with a delayed copy of that signal. Previously, the effect could only be accomplished by natural doubling of a voice or instrument, a technique called double-tracking.

The invention of ADT mainly was spurred by a request from John Lennon who during the Revolver sessions asked for a less tedious alternative to double-tracking. ADT was soon adopted throughout the recording industry.

Revolver was also remarkable for other reasons. The title, by the way, had nothing to do with guns but was derived from the verb revolve. One of the album’s highlights is the string arrangement on Eleanor Rigby, which was written by George Martin. Otherwise, the tune was primarily penned by Paul McCartney. Blending classical and pop music broke conventions. It would take another four years before another British band, Electric Light Orchestra, would take this concept to the stratosphere.

Revolver also saw George Harrison take on a bigger role in song-writing and shaping the band’s sound: TaxmanLove You To and I Want to Tell You were all written by him. Love You To featured Indian classical instruments, which George had introduced on Rubber Soul with his use of the sitar on Norwegian Wood. On Revolver, he also introduced the tambura, another instrument used in Indian music, on John’s Tomorrow Never Knows. Another interesting tidbit I read: The guitar solo on Taxman was played by Paul after George had made multiple unsuccessful attempts.

Apart from the above, Revolver included other gems like Here, There and EverywhereGood Day Sunshine and Got to Get You into My Life. The sessions to the album also yielded the non-album single Paperback Writer with Rain as the b-side.

In the U.S., Revolver was released on August 8, 1966. The release coincided with The Beatles’ third and final concert tour in the U.S. and Toronto. Except for Paperback Writer, the band did not perform any of the songs from the Revolver sessions.

Revolver won the 1966 Grammy for Best Album Cover, Graphic Arts. The cover artwork was designed by Klaus Voormann, who had known The Beatles since 1960 when he met them during their time in Hamburg. While Revolver was well received in the UK, the initial reception in the U.S. was less enthusiastic due to John’s controversial statement that The Beatles had become bigger than Jesus. Eventually, the album was certified 5 times platinum in the U.S. and platinum in the UK.

– End –

The original post, first published on August 6, 2016, ended here. Following is some additional content about two songs that are among my favorites on Revolver.

First up: Taxman. According to Songfacts, George was a fan of the 1960s American television series Batman. The music for Taxman was inspired by the Batman Theme, written and first recorded by conductor/trumpeter Neal Hefti. It was subsequently covered in early 1966 by The Marketts, an American surf rock group. “‘Taxman’ was when I first realized that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes,” Harrison said. Subsequently, he changed his stance about money, telling BBC Radio in 1969, “No matter how much money you’ve got, you can’t be happy anyway. So you have to find your happiness with the problems you have and you have to not worry too much about them.”

Let’s wrap up with John Lennon tune And Your Bird Can Sing. From Songfacts: “Bird” is British slang for “Girl.” One theory is that this song is a scolding by John Lennon of his buddy Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, who loved to brag about his bird – Marianne Faithfull – who was great, green (jealous/young) and could sing. John made it clear that Mick and the Stones wear great but could never ever match up to John and the other Beatles...The signature dual-harmony electric lead guitar parts were played live (without overdubbing) by Harrison and McCartney. Lennon played the rhythm in the “D major” position with the capo on the second fret (to account for the song being in the key of E)...John Lennon said this was a throwaway song with random words of psychedelia added in designed to sound like it meant something. He considered it one of his worst songs. Not bad for a “junk tune”!

Last but not least here is a Spotify link to Revolver:

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by Donovan

Once again it’s time for tough decisions, decisions. The letter “d” in my music library revealed artists I’ve featured repeatedly here like Roger Daltrey, Dion, Deep Purple, Dire Straits and The Doors, to name some. And then there’s Donovan who by comparison I’ve covered less, so Donovan Phillips Leitch shall be the chosen one for my weekly desert island exercise.

While I can’t claim to be a Donovan expert, I can safely say I know more than two songs by the Scottish singer-songwriter, so I actually had to make a true decision which one to pick. If memory serves me right, Colours and Universal Soldier were the first two Donovan tunes I encountered. At the time, I was actively playing acoustic guitar and taking lessons. Especially Colours with its three chords was easy to learn, even if you didn’t have the skill set of a Jose Feliciano or Paul Simon – and I didn’t, not even at my best!

Back to the task at hand, which is answering the existential question, if I had to move to a desert island and could only take one Donovan song, which one would I pick? I decided to go with Sunshine Superman. I’ve always loved how this tune combines folk, blues and psychedelic music. It also turned out there’s a back story behind the song I had not been aware of.

Donovan wrote Sunshine Superman in response to the break-up with Linda Lawrence at the end of 1965. After the couple had dated for a short time, Lawrence, the former girlfriend of Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones, ended the relationship, not wanting to repeat getting the attention of being a music artist’s girlfriend.

Sunshine Superman first appeared as a single in July 1966, leading up to Donovan’s third studio album with the same title, which was released the following month, except for the UK. The tune became his first big hit and his only song to top the Billhoard Hot 100 in the U.S. Due to a contractual dispute, the single didn’t appear in the the UK until December 1966. The album was pushed back as well until September that year. Sunshine Superman (the single) still did pretty well, climbing to no. 8 of the Offical Singles Chart. Sunshine Superman also proved to be popular in Australia (no. 4), The Netherlands (no. 2) and Germany (no. 7).

Following is how Donovan played Sunshine Superman in January 2007 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. This is taken from a DVD, Donovan: Live in L.A. at the Kodak Theatre, which appeared in January 2008. It’s a more funky version – not bad!

What else is there to say? Let’s take a look at Songfacts:

It’s not a normal love song, the singer told Mojo magazine June 2011. “On the face of it, the song is about being with Linda again. But sunshine is a nickname for acid. The Superman is the person capable of entering higher states because it’s not easy to go into the fourth dimension and see the matrix of the universe in which everything is connected. The line, ‘everybody’s hustling’ referred to the pop scene at the time, where you could lose yourself very easily. Gyp (Mills – Donovan’s lifelong friend and tour manager) would always keep my feet on the ground; we had left home at 16 to busk so we could see fame for what it is.”

Donovan was good friends with The Beatles, and they were both making very innovative and trippy music at the time. Donovan’s producer Mickie Most told him not to play the Sunshine Superman album to Paul McCartney under any circumstances, because he knew McCartney would be tempted to do something similar.

Donovan, as pictured on his website

Donovan recalled to Uncut magazine: “My arse was being sued by Pye after Sunshine Superman so, my masterwork, sat on the shelves for seven months. If you date it, it was at least a year and a half before Sgt Pepper and I remember Mickie saying to me, ‘Don’t play it to McCartney’ but of course everybody was sharing with everyone else and nicking from each other.”

“I played it to McCartney anyway,” he continued. “But they were already there, anyway, and George Martin was doing something similar with The Beatles, working out arrangements from ideas they had in their heads. George Martin was The Beatles’ guy and John Cameron was my guy and they both had an appreciation of jazz which was key.” Originally, the “Sunshine Superman” single was subtitled “For John And Paul,” a reference to Lennon and McCartney.

A few additional tidbits:

A busy session guitarist called Jimmy Page played lead guitar on the recording of Sunshine Superman.

Sunshine Superman is considered to be among the first overtly psychedelic pop songs.

Apparently, the tune made The Beatles’ video for A Day in the Life, in which it supposedly can be seen to spin on a turntable. Of course, the nerd in me had to check it out. While there is very brief footage of a spinning record around the 4:00 minute mark, frankly, I find it impossible to name it. Perhaps you need to be on a controlled substance to see it! 🙂

The trippy clip also features other music artists like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. At around 38 seconds, there’s a guy on the left side, who could be Donovan, though I’m not sure – again, a mind-enhancing pill might help! 🙂

The story behind Sunshine Superman had a happy end. In October 1970, Linda Lawrence became Donovan’s wife, and they remain together to this day. How many other music artists can you name, who have been married for 50-plus years?

Donovan, now 75 years old, is still active and maintains a website, where you can listen to his most recent single Gimme Some of That, which came out in October 2021.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Donovan website; YouTube

Introducing: Musings of the Past…

To be or not to Be-atles

After more than five years and more than 1,000 posts, I’ve decided to launch a new feature. Ingeniously titled Musings of the Past, the idea is to repost select older content that was first published when CMM got lower traffic and/or posts I particularly like.

I don’t necessarily envisage straight reposts, at least not in all cases. In fact, when looking at old content, especially from the early days, oftentimes, I cringe at my writing and/or the execution of the post. As such, I will likely tweak some of the written content and accompanying multimedia. Think of it as the equivalent of album reissues that come with some additional bells and whistles!

If you’re a cynic, as I sometimes like to be myself, you may think, ‘oaky, CMM starting to repost previous stuff means he’s running out of ideas.’ While I can’t deny I’ve had phases during which I found it challenging to come up with new content, thus far, knock on wood, I haven’t encountered full-blown writer’s block – hopefully, I just didn’t jinx myself! 🙂

I will say the timing of introducing Musings of the Past isn’t entirely coincidental. My family and I temporarily needed to vacate our house and move to temporary quarters for about a week due to necessary mold inspection and remediation work. I hope it’ll be more of the former and less of the latter! Anyway, this may impact my time for blogging, so republishing previous content is coming in handy.

Without further ado, let’s get to the inaugural post. Of course, as a Beatles nutcase, I have no choice but to start with a post that’s related to The Fab Four. I bring to you the mystery story of Klaatu – again. Or was it The Beatles, after all? Is Paul really still alive or has he been in the twilight zone for the past 55-plus years?

To be or not to Be-atles

This post was originally published on February 19, 2019. It has been slightly edited.

Just before Christmas, I listened to a refreshing new album that sounded incredibly “Beatlish.” I checked the album, entitled Klaatu, for names or pictures of the musicians but there were none. All credits were given to Klaatu. Curious, I called Capitol Records and was told it was a “mystery group.” 

The above is the opening paragraph of a story written by Steve Smith, published on February 17, 1977 in the Providence Journal, a Rhode Island daily newspaper. I was reminded about the album, when it showed up as a listening recommendation in my streaming music service provider this morning. While I first covered the record in May 2017, I felt it was worthwhile revisiting what I would call one of the more intriguing rumors in rock music in an updated post.

In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss Smith as a writer who seemingly was chasing what would have been a potentially career-defining scoop. British magazine New Music Express, now simply known as NME, was quick to dismiss the piece with a story titled Deaf Idiot Journalist Starts Beatles Rumor. Rolling Stone subsequently called it the “hype of the year.”

I agree while sounding Beatlesque, if you listen closely, it is pretty clear the vocals weren’t performed by The Beatles. Still, Smith made some valid points in his story. For example, I agree with his observation that the tune Sub-Rosa Subway sounds like The Beatles from 1968/69. Plus, something that in my opinion got a bit lost is that Smith didn’t firmly conclude Klaatu were The Beatles. Instead, he identified four possibilities. To quote: 1. The Beatles. 2. A couple of The Beatles with other people. 3. A Beatle-backed band. 4. A completely unknown but ingenious and talented band.

Klaatu (from left): John Woloschuk, Terry Draper and Dee Long

Also, let’s not forget the other actors in this story. The obvious place to start here is Klaatu. Named after the extraterrestrial character in the motion picture The Day The Earth Stood Still, the Canadian trio included John Woloschuk (bass), Terry Draper (drums) and Dee Long (guitar). During a 1980 interview with former Capitol Records editorial manager Stephen Peeples, which is posted on Klaatu’s website, Draper said, “I think we were flattered more than anything. Surprised, though, considering that it was totally regardless of us that it happened. We didn’t perpetrate it. It just sorta came to pass by an article written in Providence [Journal] by Steve Smith. We were surprised as everyone else.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t entirely buy the above. While Klaatu may not have planned the plot, they didn’t do anything while the rumors were unfolding. The band essentially attributed their silence to a desire to remain anonymous musicians, which is why they had not included their names, photos or any biographical information on the album cover. Did they think they would generate “Klaatumania” with fans running after them wherever they would go? I feel the following commentary Woloschuk made during the above interview is more insightful: “We got more hype out of that than you could have manufactured with 15 promo records directors. I mean, it backfired on us. While we were looking for anonymity, we got more exposure than we could have dreamed was possible.”

Then there was Frank Davies, president of Klaatu’s label Daffodil Records, which had a distribution deal with Capitol Records. When Smith called him, Davies reportedly told the writer everything “you’ve summarized is pretty accurately all around” and “everything that is there, can and will be identified even without, perhaps them, the people being seen.” Capitol Records certainly added to the rumor by calling Klaatu a “mystery band.” Meanwhile, they were likely laughing their assess off and watching sales of the album pick up.

Eventually, Dwight Douglas, program director at radio station WWDC in Washington, D.C., put the mystery to an end. He checked the records at the U.S. Copyright Office and uncovered the band members’ real names. As soon as Klaatu’s identity became known, the album’s sales started to tumble and started the band’s slow decline. Time for some music.

Here’s the opener of the record, which in Canada was titled 3:47 EST. When Capitol Records released it in the U.S., they decided to rename it Klaatu.  Co-written by Woloschuk and Draper, Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft is one of tunes that have a very strong Beatlesque vibe. While it’s fairly obvious to me that the voices aren’t The Beatles, the singing style definitely is reminiscent of The Fab Four. Even more so is the instrumentation. It’s actually a great song you could imagine having been written by John Lennon and appearing on an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Magical Mystery Tour.

California Jam starts out with a George Harrison-style electric slide guitar. The harmony singing is reminiscent of The Beatles and sometimes also sounds a bit like The Beach Boys. The song was co-written by Woloschuk and Dino Tome, a close friend.

Next up is the above-mentioned Sub-Rosa Subway, also a Woloschuk-Tome co-write. It strikingly sounds like a Paul McCartney style composition, in particular the melody, the piano part and the melodic bassline.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Doctor Marvello. It has a bit of a George Harrison feel, both in terms of the singing and the sitar. In his story, Smith compared the tune to Blue Jay Way, which I think is a fair comparison.

Here’s a Spotify link to the entire album. If you haven’t listened to it and dig Beatlesque music, I’d encourage you to give it a spin!

After 3:47 EST/Klaatu, Klaatu released four additional studio albums and eventually disbanded in August 1982. They had two brief reunions in 1988 and 2005. In March 2011, Klaatu announced the launch of their own label Klaatunes Records. They reissued a 2009 compilation titled Solology. In addition, Klaatu have released remastered editions of their first three albums 3:47 EST/Klaatu, Hope and Sir Army Suit.

What if anything did the former members of The Beatles have to say about the whole Klaatu saga? A December 2013 story published in music magazine Goldmine quoted Long who recalled an encounter with Paul McCartney in the late ’80s while working as an engineer at George Martin’s Air Studios in London. “Later, when I was working in Studio 5, there was a knock on the door, and in comes Paul,” Long said. “He introduced himself (like he needed any introduction) and said, ‘So you’re the chap from The Beatles clone band.’ He explained that he was on a TV talk show and the host played a bit of ‘Calling Occupants’ and asked Paul if that was him singing! Paul had never heard the song and said so…We talked for at least an hour, and I explained that we were never a clone band but just heavily influenced by The Beatles. We talked about music and life…He came back many times to hang out and jam and talk about writing songs. Again, he was just a wonderful person — easy to talk to, and full of positive energy. An experience I will always treasure.”

During another interview posted on Klaatu’s website, which was conducted by David Bradley in September 1997, Woloschuk was asked whether he would have done the Klaatu album again. ” Yeah, I think I would have done it again,” he answered. “When I was 17, I bought my first copy of “Sgt Pepper’s,” and I was blown away by it…And within 10 years, the whole world was claiming the group that I was in was the Beatles.  And that’s got to be looked at as an achievement, I think, one way or the other.”

I think Woloschuk is partially right. There’s no question that musicians who write music that could have been created by The Beatles are talented. The album is a lot of fun to listen to. But why conceal your identities? It was incredibly naive to think they could get away with it. Plus, including their names on the record would not have taken anything away from the great music. Yes, it’s safe to assume Klaatu wouldn’t have received the publicity they did. And while it helped the band in the short term, unfortunately, it tainted them and eventually led to their demise.

-END-

Update: After Klaatu dissolved, Terry Draper returned to his roofing business, and launched a career as a restaurateur while continuing music on the side. Starting with a 1997 album titled Light Years Later, which featured his former Klaatu bandmates Dee Long and John Woloschuk, Draper has released a series of CDs. His most recent one, The Other Side, appeared on November 5, 2021. You can learn more about what he’s been up to on his website.

Dee Long also stayed in the music business. According to his AllMusic bio, he initially focused on production work, first at his own studio in Canada, and subsequently after his relocation to England as a project sound engineer. As noted above, this included working for George Martin and meeting Paul McCartney. Since 1998, Long has released various solo albums. Other than occasional appearances on Terry Draper albums, I don’t know what John Woloschuk has been doing post-Klaatu. I haven’t found any obvious traces.

Sources: Wikipedia; Could Klaatu be Beatles? Steve Smith. Providence Journal, Feb 17, 1977; Klaatu website; Goldmine; AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify

Musings About “The Beatles: Get Back”

After weeks of publicity and anticipation, Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back finally premiered on Disney+ last week. As I started watching the first episode on Thursday, two things became clear to me. As a long-time fan of The Beatles, it was a foregone conclusion I would write about the film. I also decided not to do a review. If you’re looking for the latter, I’d like to refer you to fellow Beatles fan and blogger Angie Moon who pens the excellent Diversity of Classic Rock blog and did a great job summarizing each of the three episodes here, here and here. Instead of a review, I’d like to share some of my takeaways.

Perhaps most importantly, I was glad to see The Beatles: Get Back is not an attempt to whitewash the band’s late-stage history. Instead, I feel it’s an effort to paint a more balanced picture of what was shown in the original 1970 documentary by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. While the majority of Peter Jackson’s film features “happy footage”, it also captures the tensions between The Beatles. That’s especially the case in the first episode where you can see George Harrison’s growing frustration – even more so in his facial expressions than his actual words. There’s also a candid conversation between John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the second episode. I’ll come back to that shortly.

george harrison left the beatles

The task of having to complete 14 new songs for an album and a live TV show in just three weeks with no real plan looked pretty daunting, even for great writers and musicians like The Beatles – especially when you consider not all was easy-peasy between them. I also find it pretty remarkable how in spite of all the drama with George’s walkout seven days into the rehearsals at Twickenham Film Studios and the uncertainty of his return, the entire project didn’t completely get derailed then and there.

One of the documentary’s most intense moments happens off-camera and is the above-noted conversation between John and Paul in a cafeteria, presumably at Twickenham. They had no idea the filmmakers had placed a microphone in a flowerpot on the table to secretly record them. That was really pushing the envelope, to say the least! Here’s a transcribed excerpt:

John: ‘Cause there was a period when none of us could actually say anything about your arrangements…
Paul: Yeah.
John: ’cause you would reject it all.
Paul: Yeah, sure.
John: I’d have to tell George and I would just say, you know, like you do about me…
Paul: Oh yeah.
John: …you know, I’m Paul McCartney, and a lot of the times you were right, and a lot of the times you were wrong. Same as we all are, but I can’t see the answer to that. Because you…you’ve suddenly got it all, you see.
Paul: I really don’t want you…
John: Well, alright. I’m just telling you what I think. I don’t think The Beatles revolve around four people. It might be a fuckin’ job.
Paul: You know, I tell you what. I tell you one thing. What I think…The main thing is this: You have always been boss. Now, I’ve been, sort of, secondary boss.
John: Not always.
Paul: No, listen. Listen. No. always!
John: Well, I…
Paul: Really, I mean it’s gonna be much better if we can actually stick together and say, “Look, George, on ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’ I want you to do it exactly how I play it” and he’ll say, “I’m not you, and I can’t do it exactly like you do it.”
John: But this, this year, what you’ve been doing and what everybody’s been doing…I’ve not only felt guilty about the way we’re all guilty about our relationship to each other ’cause we could do more. And look, I’m not putting any blame on you. I’ve suddenly realized this, because that was my game, you know, but me goals, they’re still the same. Self-preservation, you know. I know what I like, I’ve let you do what you want and George too, you know.
Paul: Yeah I know.
John: If we want him, if we do want him, I can go along with that, because the policy has kept us together.
Paul: Well, I don’t know, you know. See, I’m just assuming he’s coming back.
John: Well, do you want…
Paul: If he isn’t, then he isn’t, then it’s a new problem. And probably when we’re all very old, we’ll all agree with each other, and we’ll all sing together.

Billy Preston’s appearance at the Apple studio on Savile Row, to where The Beatles had relocated from that awful Twickenham location, was truly priceless. He wasn’t called a “Fifth Beatle” for nothing – frankly, something I had not fully appreciated until I watched Jackson’s documentary. You can feel the immediate positive vibes created by Preston’s presence. Obviously, his keyboard work was great as well, especially on tunes like Get Back and Don’t Let Me Down, using a Fender Rhodes electric piano.

I don’t mean any disrespect to Yoko Ono. I realize how much she meant to John, but I just have to say I found her constant presence right next to him really odd. Of course, she wasn’t the only guest. There was also Linda Eastman (soon-to-become Linda McCartney), but at least she appeared to have a purpose to be there taking pictures. Later on in the film, one can also see Ringo Starr’s then-wife Maureen Cox and Paul’s brother Peter Michael McCartney. By far my favorite guest is Linda’s giggling daughter Heather who was about to turn seven years old and who subsequently became Paul’s adopted daughter. I love how at some point she’s hitting Ringo’s snare drum when he didn’t expect it, clearly scaring him!

The first and only time I saw the original Let It Be documentary was in Germany, which I believe was in the late ’70s. Perhaps I should have watched it again before seeing the Jackson documentary. I didn’t recall that until the morning of the rooftop concert, The Beatles still had not made their final decision whether they wanted to move forward with what would become their final public live performance. Lindsay-Hogg, George Martin and all other production staff seemed to take it in stride – that’s just remarkable!

The Beatles: Get Back gave me a new appreciation of the Let It Be album. Don’t get me wrong: I always considered it a decent record, but if asked for my top picks, I’d mention Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road and Revolver. Now I would add Let It Be to that group.

I think the Jackson documentary is mostly suitable for Beatles fans. Folks who are new to the band or who are casual listeners probably won’t get as much out of it. While as a longtime fan and hobby musician I find it fascinating to watch John, Paul, George, Ringo and Billy in action, it’s safe to assume the constant rehearsals and even their goofing around aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. Even as a Beatles fan, I have to say I’m glad this documentary is presented as a three-part docuseries, given its total running time of close to eight hours. In fact, I think they should have broken it up into four episodes of two hours each.

Sources: Wikipedia; Disney+; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: America/ History: America’s Greatest Hits (Re-Post)

America’s vocal harmonies and smooth folk rock sound make for one of the best ’70s greatest hits compilations

On Monday, I found myself listening to America. I realize the trio has been dismissed by some critics as a Crosby, Stills & Nash knockoff. If anything, frankly, I would consider sounding like one of the best harmony-singing bands of all time as a compliment. But that may just be me. In any case, I’ve loved America’s music for many years and always enjoy revisiting it.

My listening experience made me want to post about the album that started my America journey as a nine- or 10-year-old back in Germany: History: America’s Greatest Hits. Then, I nebulously recalled a previous musing about their first compilation from November 1975. Checking my blog revealed a post from September 2018. Yes, I sometimes have to search my own stuff to remember what I previously wrote! 🙂

When it comes to old posts, sometimes, I wish I had written them differently. My views may have evolved. I also guess there’s a certain learning curve here. In this case, I was happy to see that I continue to fully stand behind each word I wrote almost three years ago. Therefore, I decided to do something I rarely do: Re-publish a previous post.

– Re-Post –

I was nine or 10 years old when I listened to History: America’s Greatest Hits for the first time. The album grabbed me right from the beginning. It was one of the vinyl records my older sister had, which among others also included Carole King’s TapestryCrosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu; and Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits – all albums I dig to this day.

Recently, I rediscovered History. To me, it’s one of the best greatest hits compilations I know, which were released in the ’70s. Others that come to my mind are Neil Young’s DecadeEagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), Santana’s Greatest HitsSteely Dan’s Greatest Hits and the aforementioned Simon & Garfunkel album. There are probably some others I’m forgetting – in any case, it’s not meant to be a complete list.

I recall reading somewhere that America were dismissed by some as a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young knock-off. While I generally don’t think highly of music critics in the first place, I feel this notion is silly. Yes, America’s three-part harmony vocals are reminiscent of CSN/CSNY, but this doesn’t make them a copycat or somehow bad artists! On the contrary, if anything, the vocal similarity to CSN/CSNY is a huge accomplishment – after all, there aren’t many bands that can harmonize like CSN/CSNY did! On to History.

America
America (from left): Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek & Dewey Bunnell

Released in November 1975, History encompasses America’s 11 most successful singles at the time, plus an edited take of Sandman from their December 1971 eponymous debut. In addition to that album, History includes material from four additional studio records: Homecoming (November 1972), Hat Trick (October 1973), Holiday (June 1974) and Hearts (March 1975).

History opens with one of my favorite America tunes: A Horse With No Name from their debut album. It was written by Dewey Bunnell, who formed America with Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley in London in 1970. The three had met there in the mid-’60s as high school students whose fathers were stationed on a nearby U.S. Air Force base.

A Horse With No Name became America’s most successful single topping the Billboard Hot 100. It also stirred some controversy due to the similarity of Bunnell’s voice to Neil Young, and what some viewed as mediocre lyrics. Coincidentally, the song knocked Young’s Heart Of Gold off the Billboard Hot 100 top spot. I really don’t care whether it sounds like Young, who by the way is one of my favorite artists. With its two chords and killer harmony vocals, this tune simply gives me goosebumps each time I hear it.

Ventura Highway, another Bunnell composition, is from the Homecoming album. When I listen to this song and close my eyes, I can literally picture myself in an open convertible driving on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from L.A. up north to San Francisco. I actually did that trip in 1980 as a 14-year-old, together with my parents. Even though we had a lame station wagon as a rental, not some hot convertible, it was an unforgettable experience! Ventura Highway became a top 10 Billboard single for America, reaching no. 8 and no. 3 on the Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts, respectively.

Another beautiful tune is Lonely People, which was credited to Dan Peek and his wife Catherine Peek. The song was written a few weeks after their marriage. An obituary in TMR that appeared in the wake of Peek’s death in July 2011 at the age of 60 quotes him: “I wrote it probably within a month of getting married to my long-lost love Catherine…I always felt like a melancholy, lonely person. And now I felt like I’d won.” America  initially recorded Lonely People for their fourth studio album Holiday. It topped the Billboard Easy Listening chart and peaked at no. 5 on the Hot 100.

One of my favorite songs on History written by Gerry Beckley is Sister Golden Hair. Recorded for America’s fifth studio album Hearts, the tune also became the band’s second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics were inspired by Jackson Browne. In this context, John Corbett’s America Revisited quotes Beckley: “Jackson Browne has a knack, an ability to put words to music, that is much more like the L.A. approach to just genuine observation as opposed to simplifying it down to its bare essentials… and it was that style of his which led to a song of mine, “Sister Golden Hair,” which is probably the more L.A. of my lyrics.” I guess this means in addition to CSN/CSNY, America also stole from Browne – unbelievable!

The last song I’d like to call out is the final track on the History compilation:  Woman Tonight. It’s another tune from the Hearts album and was written by Peek. Released as the third single, it charted within the top 50 in the U.S.

History was produced by none other than George Martin, who had started working with America on their fourth studio album Holiday. Martin also remixed the first seven tracks on History, which he had not produced originally. The compilation became a huge success in the U.S., giving America a no. 3 on the Billboard 200. In October 1986, the Recording Industry Association of America certified the album 4X Multi-Platinum.

Since History, America have released 12 additional studio albums, 10 live records and numerous other compilations. Now in their 51st year [updated from original post – CMM], America continue to perform, featuring co-founders Beckley and Bunnell. Peek left the band in May 1977, long before his death, after he had renewed his Christian faith.

– End of Re-Post –

Apparently, America will be touring the U.S. starting in late summer. According to their current schedule listed on their website, things are set to kick off in North Bethesda, Md. on August 13. Some of the other gigs include Hyannis, Mass. (Aug 27); Mulvane, Kan. (Sep 11); Lawrence, Kan. (Sep 25); Reno, Nev. (Oct 2), Mankato, Minn (Oct 22); and San Antonio (Nov 14). The last currently listed show is Sarasota, Fla. (Nov 21). I saw America once in the late ’90s on Long Island, N.Y., and they sounded fantastic.

Sources: Wikipedia; TMR; John Corbett: “America Revisited”, AccessBackstage.com, May 29, 2004; RIAA Gold & Platinum certifications; America website; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 9

This is the 60th installment of my music history feature, which explores select happenings on a specific date over time, mostly focusing on the ’60s and ’70s. While not surprisingly by now I have a well-defined system in place how I go about gathering facts for these posts, I still enjoy writing them. So let’s embark on another time travel journey and take a look back at some of the events on March 9 throughout rock and pop music history. As always, the selections reflect my music taste and, as such, are not meant to be a complete list.

1967: The Beatles began work on Getting Better in Studio 2 of Abbey Road’s EMI Studies as part of the recording sessions for their next studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The song was mainly written by Paul McCartney with some lyrical input from John Lennon. During the late evening session, the tune’s rhythm track was recorded: McCartney’s rhythm guitar and Ringo Starr’s drums on track one; McCartney’s guide vocals on track two; a pianette (type of electric keyboard) played by George Martin on track three; and some additional drums on track four. Subsequently, a so-called reduction mix was created to free up additional tracks on the tape (eight-track recording would only start to become available in 1968). The Beatles and the studio crew called it a night, or I guess I should rather say an early morning, at 3:30 am (March 10). They devoted three additional sessions to the tune, evidently figuring it was getting better all the time. How do I know all of that? I don’t! Wait, what?! Well, there’s The Beatles Bible that captures all these details for the music geeks among us. 🙂

1973: American blues and boogie rockers Canned Heat released their ninth studio album The New Age. It was the first to feature guitarist James Shane and keyboarder Ed Beyer. At that time, Canned Heat had already lost key co-founder Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson who had died from a drug overdose in September 1970. Wilson had written and co-written the band’s biggest U.S. hit singles Going Up the Country and On the Road Again, respectively, and sung lead vocals on both. Here’s the opener Keep Clean written by Bob Hite, the band’s other key co-founder who since passed away as well in April 1981, also due to drugs. Unfortunately, Canned Heat has been hit hard with drug-related deaths. Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, renowned rock critic Lester Bangs was fired by Rolling Stone for writing a “disrespectful” review of the album at the time it came out.

1987: Irish rock band U2 released their fifth studio album The Joshua Tree. Fueled by hit singles With or Without You, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and Where the Streets Have No Name, it topped the charts in more than 20 countries and became U2’s all-time top-seller. With over 25 million copies sold, it’s also one of the world’s best-selling albums. Produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, The Joshua Tree yielded two 1988 Grammy awards for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. While it undoubtedly created over-exposure for U2, I feel The Joshua Tree is holding up pretty well to this day. Here’s one of the tunes that wasn’t released as a single, which I’ve come to dig over the years as one of my favorites: Red Hill Mining Town. Like all other tracks on the album, Bono provided the lyrics, while the music was credited to the entire band.

1993: Sting put out his fourth solo album Ten Summoner’s Tales, which remains my all-time favorite by the ex-Police front man. If I see this correctly, it became Sting’s best-selling album. It also received six 1994 Grammy nominations and won three: Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, Best Music Video, Long-Form, and Best Vocal Performance, Male (for If I Ever Lose My Faith in You). Here’s the beautiful Shape of My Heart, co-written by Sting and his longtime sideman, guitarist Dominic Miller.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: November 26

After more than three months, I felt it was time for another installment of my recurring music history feature I started shortly after launching the blog in June 2016. While I previously did a post about music happenings on Thanksgiving (with different dates over the years), I had not specifically covered November 26. Yes, looking at a certain date is kind of arbitrary, but I continue to find it interesting what comes up. And in theory I still have many other dates to cover to make up the full year – 310 to be precise! 🙂

1962: The Beatles recorded their second single Please Please Me during a three-hour session at Abbey Road studio two. The tune was written by John Lennon but credited to him and Paul McCartney, as usually. After capturing 18 takes, George Martin was, well, pleased, telling John, Paul, George and Ringo, “Congratulations, gentlemen, you’ve just made your first number one.” It’s all documented on The Beatles Bible, which may not be quite as popular as Jesus but is the ultimate source of truth about The Fab Four! Please Please Me topped the lists of Melody Maker and New Musical Express and Disc and rose to no. 2 in the Record Retailer chart. When the song was released on January 11, 1963, the UK didn’t have a standard singles chart yet. By the time The Beatles‘ third single From Me to You came out, things had changed, and that tune ended up being their first no. 1 on what became the official UK Singles Chart.

1968: Cream played their final farewell concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, the second of two sold out gigs at the venue. Both concerts were captured for a BBC documentary and released on video as Farewell Concert in early January 1969. While the two concerts received more attention than other Cream concerts, supposedly, they didn’t show the band at their best. “It wasn’t a good gig,” stated Ginger Baker, according to Wikipedia. “Cream was better than that…We knew it was all over. We knew we were just finishing it off, getting it over with.” Here’s an excerpt from the film featuring Sunshine of Your Love. Co-written by Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, the tune first appeared on Cream’s sophomore album Disraeli Gears from November 1967. Frankly, if this was Cream “sucking”, just imagine how amazing they must have been when they were at their best.

1969: The Band’s eponymous second album was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, which means it had reached one million sold copies in only just a little over two months after its release. Also known as The Brown Album, The Band features gems like Rag Mama Rag, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and Up on Cripple Creek. The album peaked at no. 9 on the Billboard 200 and has been on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, reaching no. 57 in the most recent update from September this year. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, Up on Cripple Creek, written by Robbie Robertson. The tune was also released as a single on November 29, 1969 and climbed to no. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

1976: The Sex Pistols released their debut single Anarchy in the U.K. Credited to all of the British punk rock band’s original members John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten (lead vocals), Steve Jones (guitar), Glen Matlock (bass) and Paul Cook (drums), the song caused controversy in England over its lyrics some viewed as advocating violence against the government. The tune was also included on the band’s only studio album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – and part of the reason it almost took one year for that record to appear in October 1977. The controversy didn’t do much damage to the song. It peaked at no. 38 on the official UK Singles Chart, came in at no. 53 on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day In Music.com; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day In Rock.com; YouTube

When the Music Does the Singing

A collection of guitar-driven instrumentals

Frequent visitors of the blog and others who have a good idea about my music taste know I really dig vocals, especially multi-part harmony singing. In fact, when it comes to artists like The Temptations, I could even do without any backing music. That’s why felt like shaking things up a little and putting together this collection of tracks that shockingly don’t have any vocals. Once I started to reflect, it was surprisingly easy to find instrumentals I really like – yes, they do exist and, no, I don’t miss the vocals!

Since I still play guitar occasionally (only to realize how rusty I’ve become!), I decided to focus on primarily guitar-driven tracks. While I’m sure you could point me to jazz instrumentals I also find attractive, the reality is I’m much more familiar with other genres, especially in the rock and blues arena. Most of the tracks in this post came to my mind pretty quickly. The John Mayall and the Blues Breakers and Steve Vai tunes were the only ones I picked from a list Guitar World put together.

The Shadows/Apache

I’ve always thought Hank Marvin had a really cool sound. Here’s Apache, which was written by English composer Jerry Lordan and first recorded by Bert Weedon in 1960, but it was the version by The Shadows released in July of the same year, which became a major hit that topped the UK Singles Chart for five weeks.

John Mayall and the Blues Breakers/Steppin’ Out

Steppin’ Out is a great cover of a Memphis Slim tune from the debut studio album by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers from July 1966. It was titled Blues Breakers with Clapton featuring, you guessed it, Eric Clapton, who had become the band’s lead guitarist following the release of their first live album John Mayall Plays John Mayall that appeared in March 1965.

Pink Floyd/Interstellar Overdrive

My Pink Floyd journey began with their ’70s classics Wish You Were Here and The Dark Side of the Moon. Much of their early phase with Syd Barrett was an acquired taste, especially experimental tunes like Interstellar Overdrive from Floyd’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn released in August 1967. It’s one of only two tracks on the album credited to all members of the band at the time: Barrett, Roger Waters, Richard Wright and Nick Mason.

Deep Purple/Wring That Neck

Wring That Neck is a kick-ass tune from Deep Purple’s sophomore album The Book of Taliesyn that appeared in October 1968. As was quite common for the band, Jon Lord’s mighty Hammond organ pretty much had equal weight to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar. That’s always something I’ve loved about Deep Purple, as much as I dig guitar-driven rock. Wring That Neck was co-written Blackmore, Lord, bassist Nick Semper and drummer Ian Paice.

Fleetwood Mac/Albatross

Yes, I know, I featured this gem only recently on July 25 when Peter Green sadly passed away at the age of 73. I’m also still planning to do a follow-up on this extraordinary guitarist. But I just couldn’t skip Albatross in this collection, which Green wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac in October 1968. The track was released as a non-album single the following month. It’s a perfect example of Green’s style that emphasized feeling over showing off complexity, speed and other guitar skills. With it’s exceptionally beautiful tone, I would rate Albatross as one of the best instrumentals, perhaps even my all-time favorite, together with another track that’s still coming up.

The Allman Brothers Band/Jessica

Jessica first appeared on The Allman Brothers Band’s fourth studio album Brothers and Sisters from August 1973. It also became the record’s second single in December that year. Written by lead guitarist Dickey Betts, the tune was a tribute to jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Betts named the tune after his daughter Jessica Betts who was an infant at the time. When you have such beautiful instrumental harmonies, who needs harmony vocals? Yes, I just wrote that! 🙂

Santana/Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)

Santana’s Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile) is the other above noted tune, which together with Albatross I would perhaps call my all-time favorite guitar-driven instrumental. In particular, it’s the electric guitar tone that stands out to me in both of these tracks. Co-written by Carlos Santana and his longtime backing musician Tom Coster who provided keyboards, Europa was first recorded for Santana’s seventh studio album Amigos from March 1976. It also appeared separately as a single and was also one of the live tracks on the Moonflower album released in October 1977.

Steve Vai/The Attitude Song

When it comes to guitarists and their playing, I’m generally in the less-is-more camp. That’s why I really must further explore Peter Green whose style should be up right up my alley. Sometimes though shredding is okay. I was going to include Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but it’s really more an over-the-top guitar solo than an instrumental. So I went with Steve Vai and The Attitude Song, a track from his solo debut album Flex-Able from January 1984. I definitely couldn’t take this kind of music at all times. In fact, as I’m listening to the tune while writing this, it’s actually making me somewhat anxious. While the harmony guitar and bass action sound cool, like most things, I feel it should be enjoyed in moderation! 🙂

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Scuttle Buttin

Scuttle Buttin’ by Stevie Ray Vaughan isn’t exactly restrained guitar playing either. But while like The Attitude Song it’s a shredder, the tune has never made me anxious. I think that’s largely because I really dig Vaughan’s sound. Yes, he’s playing very fast and many notes, yet to me, it comes across as less aggressive than Vai who uses more distortion. Written by Vaughan, Scuttle Buttin’ appeared on his excellent second studio album Couldn’t Stand the Weather released in May 1984.

Jeff Beck/A Day in the Life

The last artist I’d like to feature in this collection is another extraordinary guitarist with an amazing tone: Jeff Beck. His unique technique that relies on using his thumb to pick the guitar strings, the ring finger to control the volume knob and his pinkie to work the vibrato bar of his Fender Stratocaster creates a unique sound no other guitar player I’ve heard has. Here’s Beck’s beautiful rendition of The Beatles tune A Day in the Life. It was included on In My Life, an album of Fab Four covers compiled and produced by George Martin, which appeared in October 1998.

Sources: Wikipedia; Guitar World; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Paul McCartney/Tug of War

As a huge fan of The Beatles and Paul McCartney, I was really excited when Tug of War was released in April 1982. Catching Take It Away on the radio yesterday prompted me to revisit McCartney’s third solo album, which I had not listened to for many years. It turned out I still dig it, though not for the primary reason that initially attracted me back then: Ebony and Ivory, a smash hit in Germany, as well as many other countries.

While McCartney’s duet with Stevie Wonder isn’t a bad tune, I think it’s fair to say both artists have written better songs. One also must remember the ’80s were a time period when high profile duets were very much en vogue. I still like the ballad’s message, as well as the idea to use the black and white keys on a keyboard as a metaphor for perfect harmony – sadly a state of affairs that nowadays seems to be more elusive than ever.

No matter how you feel about it, Ebony and Ivory was the big hit single from Tug of War, which came out about a month prior to the album. I have to say I wasn’t particular impressed with McCartney II and that record’s hit single Coming Up, even though both had impressive chart success as well. I thought Tug of War was a far superior album. I think I still do but like to caveat the statement by adding that I haven’t listened to McCartney II in a long time.

Tug of War was McCartney’s first album after the breakup of Wings. It also was his first record following the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, which not only impacted the record’s timing but also its content. Initially, McCartney’s plan was to make another album with Wings, but then things changed.

While apparently he had grown weary about continuing his band, McCartney started rehearsing songs with them in October 1980. He brought in George Martin as producer, but they both felt McCartney’s latest compositions weren’t a good fit for Wings and decided to pursue a record without the band.

The project was paused for two months after Lennon had been killed. In February 1981, work on the album resumed. Between February 3rd and March 2nd, recording sessions took place in the Caribbean at AIR Studios in Montserrat, which included Wonder, bassist Stanley Clarke, Carl Perkins and Ringo Starr.

During Tug of War recording sessions at AIR Studios in Montserrat: Paul McCartney with Ringo Starr and I believe Eric Stewart.

Additional sessions at Martin’s AIR Studios in London followed over the summer. They also yielded songs McCartney would use for Pipes of Peace, the follow on to Tug of War from October 1983. Apparently, McCartney and Martin weren’t in a huge hurry and used the remainder of 1981 to put the finishing touches on the record. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above noted Take It Away. Like all other tracks on the album except for one tune, it was written by McCartney. In June 1982, Take It Away also was released separately as Tug of War’s second single. While it charted in many countries, including the UK and the U.S. where it climbed to no. 15 and 10, respectively, the power pop tune didn’t match the success of Ebony and Ivory. It features Ringo Starr on drums, George Martin on piano and 10cc’s Eric Stewart on backing vocals. Take it away, boys!

In addition to Ebony and Ivory, Tug of War included a second duet with Stevie Wonder: What’s That You’re Doing. Apart from providing vocals, Wonder also co-wrote the funky tune with McCartney. In fact, to me it sounds more like a Stevie Wonder song. Stewart made another appearance on backing vocals.

Here Today is a moving tribute to John Lennon, which can still make me emotional. It may not be quite as compelling as Elton John’s Empty Garden, but I still find it beautiful. When I saw McCartney live last time in July 2016, he performed the tune solo with just his acoustic guitar – a quite powerful moment!

Next up: Ballroom Dancing, a nice pop rocker. Guests on this tune include Starr (drums), Stewart (backing vocals) and former Wings band mate Denny Laine (electric guitar).

The last track I’d like to call out is McCartney’s great duet with Carl Perkins, Get It. I love the tune’s rockabilly retro vibe and Perkins’s electric guitar work, which he provided in addition to vocals. You can also literally feel the fun they had when recording the track, and it’s not only because of Perkins’ laughter at the end.

The final words of this post shall belong to Paul McCartney. “I think, you know, with my songs, I have my own approach,” he told Andy Mackay in an in-depth interview about the album in August 1982, which is transcribed on fan website The Paul McCartney Project. “I’ll tell you the way I see it: the thing I like about my stuff, when I like it, is that the listener can take it the wrong way, it may apply to them, you know.”

Sources: Wikipedia; The Paul McCartney Project; 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