The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Happy Sunday and welcome to another trip into the beautiful and diverse world of music, six tracks at a time. Hop on, fasten your seatbelts and let’s go!

Miles Davis/So What

Today, I’d like to start our journey in August 1959 with some early Miles Davis. I have to admit I find this more accessible than Bitches Brew and other of his later more experimental music I’ve heard. I guess I’m not alone. According to Wikipedia, many critics regard Davis’s Kind of Blue album as his masterpiece, the greatest jazz record, and one of the best albums of all time. In 1976, it became his first album to reach Gold certification in the U.S., and as of 2019, it has reached 5X Platinum. More importantly, the album’s influence reached far beyond jazz. None other than the great Duane Allman, guitarist of The Allman Brothers Band, said his soloing on songs like In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, “comes from Miles and Coltrane, and particularly Kind of Blue.” Pink Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright noted the chord progressions on Kind of Blue influenced the structure of the introductory chords to the song Breathe on their 1973 gem The Dark Side of the Moon. Meanwhile, Davis ended up viewing Kind of Blue and his other early work differently. During a 1986 interview, he said, “I have no feel for it anymore—it’s more like warmed-over turkey.” Here’s the album’s opener So What composed by Davis. BTW, Davis (trumpet) was in formidable company on the album, including saxophone greats John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, as well as Paul Chambers (double bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums).

Christine McVie/One in a Million

For our next stop, we’re jumping 25 years ahead to January 1984. I trust Christine McVie (born Christine Perfect) doesn’t need much of an introduction. It’s safe to assume most folks know her as a long-term member of Fleetwood Mac. She joined the group as keyboarder and vocalist in 1970 after her departure from blues band Chicken Shack and the release of her first solo album Christine Perfect. Following the Mac’s 13th studio album Mirage from June 1982, they went on a temporary hiatus, giving McVie the time to record her second eponymous solo album, Christine McVie. She was backed by Todd Sharp (guitar, backing vocals), George Hawkins (bass, backing vocals) and Steve Ferrone (drums, percussion) who 10 years later would join Tom Petty’s band The Heartbreakers. Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham (guitar) and Mick Fleetwood (drums) had guest appearances on certain tracks, as had Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. Clearly, McVie didn’t have any challenges to secure high-caliber talent for the album. Here’s One in a Million, co-written by her and Sharp. It’s one of the tunes featuring Winwood who in addition to synthesizer also provided lead and backing vocals. Nice pop-rocker!

The Moody Blues/Watching and Waiting

This next pick has been on my list of earmarked Sunday Six songs for several months – not quite sure what took me so long! Watching and Waiting is the beautiful closer of the Moody Blues’s fifth studio album To Our Children’s Children’s Children, released in November 1969. Co-written by band members Justin Hayward (vocals, guitar, sitar) and Ray Thomas (vocals, flute, tambourine, bass flute, oboe), the tune also appeared separately as a single. It didn’t chart, unlike the album, which climbed to no. 2 in the UK, no. 11 in Canada and no. 14 in the U.S. The band’s remaining members at the time were Mike Pinder (Mellotron, piano), John Lodge (bass) and Graeme Edge (drums, percussion). During a 2014 interview Hayward said, “when we heard that song in its studio beauty, we thought, “This is it! All of those people who had been saying to us for the past 3 or 4 years, “You’ll probably just do another Nights in White Satin with it” — no! We had shivers up the spine, and that kind of stuff. But when it came out and you heard it on the radio, you kept saying, “Turn it up! Turn it up!! Oh no, it’s not going to make it.” So it didn’t happen.”

Tom Faulkner/River On the Rise

On to the ’90s and Tom Faulkner, a great American singer-songwriter who isn’t exactly a household name. My former bandmate and longtime music buddy from Germany brought him and his excellent 1997 album Lost In The Land Of Texico on my radar screen last year, and this is the second track from that album I’m featuring on The Sunday Six. To date, Faulkner has only released two albums. His most recent one, Raise the Roof, appeared in 2002. For the most part, he has made his living with commercial music for radio and TV. According to this bio on last.fm, Faulkner has created hundreds of national jingles and scores, including some of the most memorable commercial music on television and radio. Most notably, he composed and sang the wildly popular “I Want My Baby Back” for Chili’s, a jingle that has since found its way into motion pictures (Austin Powers) and over a dozen major network TV shows. He also created the multi-award winning music theme for Motel 6 and Tom Bodett, the longest running commercial campaign in the history of advertising (23 years, 5 CLIOs, and counting). Check out River On the Rise, a nice bluesy tune!

Joe Jackson Band/Take It Like a Man

It’s time to feature a couple of songs from the current century, don’t you agree? First, let’s go to March 2003 and Volume 4, the 16th studio album by versatile British music artist Joe Jackson, released as Joe Jackson Band. For this project, Jackson (piano, organ, electric piano, melodica, lead vocals) brought back together his original backing band of Gary Sanford (guitar, backing vocals), Graham Maby (bass, backing vocals) and David Houghton (drums, backing vocals). And there’s definitely some of that cool vibe from Jackson’s first three albums Look Sharp! (January 1979), I’m the Man (October 1979) and Beat Crazy (October 1980). Over his now 50-plus-year career, Jackson has touched many different genres ranging from pub rock, new wave, swing, and jazz-oriented pop to even classical music. Here’s the album’s great opener Take It Like a Man, which like all other tunes was penned by Jackson.

Candy Dulfer/Jammin’ Tonight (feat. Nile Rodgers)

And once again, it’s time to wrap up. For this final track, we’re traveling back to the present and a funky tune by Dutch jazz and pop saxophonist Candy Dulfer: Jammin’ Tonight featuring Mr. funky guitar Nile Rodgers. Dulfer, the daughter of Dutch tenor saxophonist Hans Dulfer, began playing the drums as a five-year-old before discovering the saxophone a year later. Since the age of seven, she has focused on the tenor saxophone. By the time she was 11, Dulfer made her first recordings for her father’s jazz band De Perikels (the perils). Three years later, she opened up two European concerts for Madonna with her own band Funky Stuff. Two years later, in 1989, she duetted with Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics) on the worldwide instrumental hit Lily Was Here, from the motion picture soundtrack of the same name. The following year, she put out her solo debut album Saxuality. The above tune Jammin’ Tonight is from Dulfer’s forthcoming album We Never Stop, which is scheduled for October 28. Funky!

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist featuring all of the above tunes. Hope there’s something for ya!

Sources: Wikipedia; last.fm; YouTube; Spotify

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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