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

My Playlist: 10cc

The other day, Apple Music served up the eponymous debut album from 10cc as a suggestion, based on my listening habits. It’s actually a bit strange since I don’t recall having listened to similar music recently, as it’s generally not part of my core wheelhouse, at least nowadays. However, the British art pop rockers were on my radar screen for sometime during my teenage years in Germany when you couldn’t listen to the radio there without encountering I’m Not In Love and Dreadlock Holiday.

So I decided to listen to the above album and kind of liked it, even though I’d call tracks like Donna and Rubber Bullets “goof rock.” But they are brilliantly executed and undoubtedly catchy. I think Apple Music’s description perfectly captures this: “Above all else, 10cc valued fun. This band loved motion and color and humor. Even within the complexity of its arrangements and the elasticity of its vocals, the group radiates a giddiness rarely seen in rock music, especially during the cement-footed ’70s.”

After listening to 10cc’s debut album, I started sampling some of their other studio records, as well as a live album/DVD titled Clever Clogs. While doing this, I rediscovered a good number of their tunes and, voila, this triggered the idea to put together a playlist. But first some background on the band, which came into being in Stockport, England in 1972, when four musicians who had written and recorded songs together for a few years started to perform under that name: Graham Gouldman (bass, vocals guitar), Eric Stewart (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Kevin Godley (drums, vocals) and Lol Creme (guitar, keyboards, vocals).

10cc
Left to Right: Kevin Godley, Graham Gouldman, Lol Creme and Eric Stewart

By the time they became 10cc, the four artists had experienced some initial success. Gouldman had established himself as a hit songwriter with tunes like For Your Love, Bus Stop and No Milk Today he had penned for The Yardbirds, The Hollies and Herman’s Hermits, respectively. Godly and Creme had recorded some songs together and secured a contract with Marmalade Records. Stewart had scored two hits as a member of Wayne Fontana And The Mindbenders (later known simply as The Mindbenders) with The Game Of Love and A Groovy Kind Of Love.

In July 1968, Stewart became a partner in a recording studio in Stockport, which in October that year was moved to a bigger space and renamed Strawberry Studios. Gouldman, Godley and Creme also wound up at the studio, and by 1969, the four founding members of 10cc were working there together frequently. They wrote, performed (as session musicians) and produced a serious of singles, which were released under different names through a production partnership Gouldman had established with American bubblegum pop writers and producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz of Super K Productions.

Strawberry Studios

After the production partnership had ended, Gouldman worked as a staff songwriter for Super K Productions in New York, while Stewart, Godley and Creme continued outside production work at Strawberry Studios. Following Gouldman’s return to Stockport, they co-produced and played on the Neil Sedaka studio album Solitaire. The record’s success prompted the four musicians to start recording their own material as a band. An initial tune, Waterfall, was rejected by Apple Records, the label that had been founded by The Beatles in 1968. Success came with Donna, which the band presented to producer Jonathan King, who signed them to his label UK Records in July 1972. It was also King who came up with the name 10cc.

Donna was released in September 1972 and climbed all the way to no. 2 on the UK Official Singles Chart. While the follow-up single Johnny Don’t Do It indeed didn’t do it, that is match the success of Donna, the band’s third single Rubber Bullets became their first no. 1 hit in the U.K. and also performed well internationally. 10cc’s eponymous debut album appeared in July 1973. The band has since released 10 additional studio albums, three live records and multiple compilations. Starting with Godley’s and Creme’s departure in 1976, 10cc has had different line-ups and was disbanded from 1983 to 1991 and 1995 to 1999. In 1999, Gouldman revived the band with a new line-up that he continues to lead to the present day. It doesn’t include any of the other three co-founding members. Time to get to the playlist!

I’d like to kick things off with the above mentioned Rubber Bullets from 10cc’s eponymous debut album. Co-written by Godley, Creme and Gouldman, the tune is a satirical take of a prison riot one could picture in an old movie. The music is reminiscent of The Beach Boys. Songfacts quotes an excerpt from an interview Godley gave to Uncut: “We were big movie buffs in those days, me and Lol, so it was one of those kind of films… you know, with a prison riot, and there’s always a padre there, and a tough cop with a megaphone. It was caricaturing those movies.” The song created some controversy at the time, since the British Army was using rubber bullets to quell riots in Northern Ireland. As a result, some radio stations refused to play it.

The Wall Street Shuffle, one of the best known 10cc songs, appeared on the band’s sophomore album Sheet Music, which was released in May 1974. Featuring one of the most catchy rock guitar riffs of the ’70s, the tune was co-written by Stewart and Gouldman and became the best-performing of the album’s three singles. The lyrics were inspired by the hefty fall of the British pound against other currencies at the time.

In May 1975, 10cc released I’m Not In Love, the second single from their third studio album The Original Soundtrack, which had come out in March that year. Co-written by Stewart and Gouldman, the ballad became the band’s second no. 1 single in the U.K. and their breakthrough hit worldwide. Among others, it also topped the charts in Canada and Ireland and peaked at no. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. One of the song’s distinct features are the lush backing harmonies, which according to Songfacts encompass some 256 dubs of the band’s vocals. Largely fueled by the tune, the album was a major commercial success for 10cc.

Arts For Arts Sake was the lead single from 10cc’s fourth studio record How Dare You!, released in November 1975, two months prior to the album – the last featuring the band’s original line-up. The song was written by Stewart and Gouldman. According to Songfacts, the title referred to the values of the music business and was inspired by Gouldman’s father who used to say, “Boys, art for art’s sake. Money for God’s sake, okay!”

Following the release of How Dare You!, Godley and Creme left 10cc to form the duo Godley & Creme. Stewart and Gouldman decided to keep the band going and brought in Paul Burgess (drums, percussion). They recorded 10cc’s fifth studio album Deceptive Bends and released The Things We Do For Love as its lead single in December 1976. Co-written by Stewart and Gouldman, the catchy tune became another hit, reaching no. 1 in Canada, No. 2 in Ireland, No. 5 in the U.S. and no. 6 in the U.K.

By the time of their sixth studio album Bloody Tourists from September 1978, 10cc had become a six-piece band. The new members included Rick Fenn (guitar, backing vocals, saxophone, keyboards), Stuart Tosh (drums, percussion, backing vocals) and Duncan Mackay (keyboards, violin, percussion, backing vocals). The album’s lead single was Dreadlock Holiday, another Stewart-Gouldman co-write that appeared in July that year. It became the band’s last major hit, topping the charts in the U.K. and several other countries and pushing the album to no. 3 on the U.K. albums chart. According to Songfacts, the lyrics are inspired by actual events that happened to Stewart and Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues during a vacation in Barbados.

One-Two-Five is from 10cc’s seventh studio album Look Hear?, released in March 1980, and became the record’s lead single. It was co-written by Stewart and Gouldman. The album was significantly less successful than its predecessors, reaching no. 35 in the U.K. and no. 180 in the U.S.

In November 1981, 10cc released their eighth studio album Ten Out Of 10 in the U.K. The U.S. version, which only shared four tracks with the U.K. edition and included six different songs, appeared in 1982. The album didn’t chart in any of the countries. Here’s Don’t Ask, which was penned by Gouldman and the opener of both versions.

…Meanwhile from May 1992 was the band’s 10th studio album and the first following its recess that had started in 1983. It brought together the four co-founding members one last time. It also featured many guest musicians, who among others included David Paich and Jeff Porcaro of Toto, Dr. John and Paul McCartney. Here is Don’t Break The Promises, a Stewart-Gouldman-McCartney co-write. Stewart had a previous working relationship with McCartney and had appeared on the ex-Beatle’s solo albums Tug Of War (1982), Pipes Of Peace (1983) and Press To Play (1986), as well as the soundtrack Give My Regards To Broad Street (1984).

The last song I’d like to call out is from 10cc’s most recent studio album to date, Mirror Mirror, which appeared in June 1995 and was their first not to be released on a major label. Like predecessor …Meanwhile, it failed to chart and led to Stewart’s departure from 10cc and their second disbanding. Here’s Yvonne’s The One, another co-write by Stewart and McCartney, which appeared on the record’s European version. There are also U.S. and Japanese editions.

In 1999, Gouldman put together the current line-up of 10cc, which in addition to him features Fenn (guitar, vocals), Burgess (drums), Mike Stevens (keyboards, vocals) and Iain Hornal (guitar, vocals). As recently as this April, 10cc was touring. Currently, Gouldman is taking a break from the band. Last December, he announced he had accepted an invitation by Ringo Starr to join his All Starr Band for a summer 2018 European tour. Ringo and his All Star Band including Gouldman will also perform 20 dates in the U.S. in September.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apple Music, Songfacts, Graham Gouldman website, Ringo Starr website, YouTube

Memorable Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Performances

Last evening’s HBO broadcast of the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction ceremony gave me the idea to take a look at previous inductions and highlight some of the performances there. I’m not getting into the nomination and selection process, the judges, which artists who currently aren’t in should be inducted, etc. – topics that undoubtedly will continue to be discussed. This post is about some of the great music that was performed at the induction festivities over the years.

I’d like to start with the 1999 induction ceremony that featured a great performance of In The Midnight Hour by Wilson Pickett and Bruce Springsteen, one of the inductees that year. They were backed by The E Street Band. Springsteen, a huge fan of Pickett, frequently performs some of the soul legend’s tunes during his shows. Recorded at Stax studios in Memphis, the song was initially released in June 1965 and became Pickett’s first hit for Atlantic Records. He co-wrote the tune with Stax session guitarist Steve Cropper.

In 1993, The Doors were inducted into the Hall. The band’s then-living original members Ray Manzarek (keyboards), Robbie Krieger (guitar) and John Densmore (drums) teamed up with Pearl Jam lead vocalist Eddie Vedder, who did a fine job singing the parts of the charismatic Jim Morrison. Here’s Light My Fire, one of my favorite Doors tunes that appeared on their eponymous debut album from January 1967. Like each of the original songs on the band’s first two records, the tune was credited to all members.

The 1993 inductees also included another legendary band: Cream. Jack Bruce (lead vocals, bass), Eric Clapton (guitar) and Ginger Baker (drums) reunited for the occasion. One of the songs they played was the terrific Sunshine Of Your Love from Cream’s second studio album Disraeli Gears, released in November 1967. The tune was co-written by Bruce, Clapton and Pete Brown. To this day I think Sunshine has one of the coolest guitar riffs in rock.

Among the 2018 inductees were The Moody Blues, a band whose second studio album Days Of Future Passed became one of the first successful concept albums and put them on the map as pioneers of progressive rock. They played the mighty Nights In White Satin from that record, but the first tune they performed was I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock & Roll Band). That song is from their seventh studio album Seventh Sojourn, which appeared in October 1972. It was written by John Lodge (vocals, bass, guitar), who together with Justin Hayward (lead vocals, guitar) and Graeme Edge (drums) is one of the remaining original members who performed at the induction.

Last but not least, here is a clip of what may be the best Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame performance to date: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, played during the induction of George Harrison as a solo artist in 2004. The performance featured Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Dhani Harrison and Prince, among others. It will forever be remembered for Prince’s incredible guitar solo. While My Guitar Gently Weeps appeared on the “White Album,” the ninth studio album by The Beatles from November 1968.

Source: Wikipedia, Legacy.com, YouTube