Before we can finally kiss this dismal year goodbye, I wanted to squeeze in another installment of my recurring rock/pop music history feature. Without further ado, here are some of the events that happened in the music world on December 29.
1965: American rock band The Sir Douglas Quintet were busted for marijuana possession in Corpus Christi, Texas. They got probation when they appeared in court with short hair, wearing suits. “I’m glad you cut your hair,” the judge told them. “I saw your pictures in the paper when you were arrested and I don’t go for that stuff.” The episode came in the wake of the band’s best-known song She’s About a Mover, written by their founder Doug Sahm.
1966: The Beatles were at EMI Studios at Abbey Road, working on three songs during three sessions: When I’m Sixty-Four, Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. None of the four mono mixes of When I’m Sixty-Four they made that day was used. The work on Strawberry Fields Forever included a tape copy of a December 22 mono mix, as well as creating the final stereo mix. I’ll skip the details, which laid out in The Beatles Bible. Paul McCartney also recorded the first takes of Penny Lane, working into the early morning hours of the following day. Here’s the magnificent Strawberry Fields Forever.
1967: Dave Mason left Traffic barely three weeks after the English rock band had released their debut album Mr. Fantasy. Only eight months earlier, Mason had been one of Traffic’s co-founders, together with Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. Apparently, Mason didn’t have much interest in collaborating on songs. “We all [Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood] tended to write together, but Mason would come in with a complete song that he was going to sing and tell us all what he expected us to play,” Winwood later recalled. “No discussion, like we were his backing group.” Mason would rejoin Traffic in 1968 while they were recording their eponymous sophomore album only to leave again after its release. Here’s House for Everyone, one of three tunes on Mr. Fantasy written by Mason.
1968: Led Zeppelin performed at Civic Auditorium in Portland, Ore. on their first 1968/1969 North American tour, opening for Vanilla Fudge. According to setlist.fm, their set included The Train Kept a-Rollin’, I Can’t Quit You Baby, As Long As I Have You, Dazed and Confused, White Summer/Black Mountain Side and How Many More Times. Here’s a clip of Dazed and Confused from 1968, or as somebody in the comments pointed out 1969. In any case, it’s probably reasonably close to how Zep sounded that night in Portland.
1973: Time in a Bottle, one of my favorite songs by Jim Croce, hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. Sadly, Croce was no longer around to witness the success. On September 20, 1973, he died at the age of 30 when his chartered plane crashed into a tree during takeoff from Natchitoches Regional Airport in Natchitoches, La. All other five members on board of the plane were also killed: Pilot Robert N. Elliott, Maury Muehleisen, comedian George Stevens, manager and booking agent Kenneth D. Cortese and road manager Dennis Ras. Time in a Bottle became Croce’s second and last no. 1 hit in the U.S. after Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, another great tune he had first released as a single in March of the same year.
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; The Beatles Bible; Setlist.fm; This Day in Music; YouTube
Inspired by Hans Postcard’s fun 2020 album draft, where 10 participants pick albums in 10 rounds for a total of 100, I decided to put together my list of 10 albums I would take on a desert island. Essentially, I already came up with such a collection in May 2018, but some things have changed in the meantime and this list features five new picks, including three different artists.
While each of the albums are longtime favorites, I still can’t exclude the possibility that my picks might be different in a month or two. Since I couldn’t figure out how to rank my selections, I ingeniously decided to put them in chronological order. Conveniently, this means kicking things off with my favorite band of all time.
The Beatles/Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (May 1967)
While I dig all albums by the Fab Four, on most days, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is my favorite. The innovative use of recording technology, the cover art and the combination of different music styles like vaudeville, circus, music hall, avant-garde and traditional Indian music with pop and rock make Sgt. Pepper a true masterpiece. The first album after The Beatles had stopped touring was influenced by The Beach Boys’Pet Sounds, which Brian Wilson had created in response to Revolver, as well as Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention. Had it not been because of silly pressure from EMI to issue Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane as a single, Sgt. Pepper hands-down would have been the strongest Beatles album. Still, with tunes like the title track, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Within You Without You and the magnificent A Day in the Life, there’s lots of great music.
Carole King/Tapestry (February 1971)
Carole King’sTapestry perhaps is the ultimate singer-songwriter album. Her sophomore release from 1971 featured 10 new tunes and two reinterpretations of songs King had written together with her former husband and lyricist Jerry Goffin in the ’60s. Like many of their other songs, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman became hits, in these cases by The Shirelles and Aretha Franklin, respectively. There’s really no weak tune on Tapestry and I could have selected any. It’s Too Late has always been one of my favorites.
The Rolling Stones/Sticky Fingers (April 1971)
I know many fans of The Rolling Stones consider Exile on Main St. or Some Girls as their best albums. While I can’t claim to know all of their records in detail, my favorite is Sticky Fingers. This was the second full-length record with Mick Taylor who had replaced Brian Jones in June 1969. Between Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Bitch, Sister Morphine and Dead Flowers, there are so many classics on this album. I just think the Stones never sounded better. And interestingly, it’s the country-influenced Dead Flowers that has become one of my favorite Stones tunes. I just love the guitar work!
Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On (May 1971)
I think Marvin Gaye had one of the most beautiful soulful voices I know. This artist was a smooth operator, even when he sang about serious issues like on this album. …(Oh, crime is increasin’) Oh, woo/Trigger happy policin’/panic is spreadin’/God knows where we’re headin’/Oh baby/Make me wanna holler/They don’t understand/Make me wanna holler/They don’t understand…It’s remarkable these lyrics were written almost 50 years, yet they sound frighteningly relevant in America in the year 2020.
Neil Young/Harvest (February 1972)
I dig a good number of Neil Young songs and feel his first compilation Decade is one of the best greatest hits collections I can think of. When it comes to his albums, my favorites are Harvest from 1972 and Harvest Moon from 1992. While I think the title track of the latter is among Young’s best tunes, I have a slight preference for Harvest from an overall album perspective. Featuring David Crosby, Graham Nash, Stephen Stills, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt as guests, it became Young’s most successful record and the best-selling album in the U.S. in 1972 – in part thanks to Heart of Gold, which remains Young’s only no. 1 song on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 to this day. There are many other gems on the record, including The Needle and the Damage Done.
Deep Purple/Machine Head (March 1972)
I don’t listen to hard rock a lot these days, but when I do, Deep Purple remain my favorite choice, especially their sixth studio album Machine Head from March 1972. I’ve always thought one of the cool things about this band are the equal roles the guitar and the keyboards play as solo instruments. Jon Lord was a true master of the Hammond organ who skillfully blended blues, hard rock and jazz with elements of classical music. Lazy is one of the tracks on which Lord shines in particular.
Pink Floyd/The Dark Side of the Moon (March 1973)
First, I was going to pick Meddle, Pink Floyd’s sixth studio album from October 1971. With the great Echoes, it foreshadowed the band’s classic mid-’70s sound on The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. All three albums are among my favorite Floyd records. Eventually, I settled on The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s a perfect album for headphones, and I’ve listened to it countless times at night in bed. The sound is just phenomenal. One of the standout tracks is The Great Gig In the Sky and the amazing vocal performance by British singer Clare Torry.
Bruce Springsteen/Born to Run (August 1975)
Bruce Springsteen entered my radar screen in 1984 with the Born in the U.S.A. album. While I’m still fond of that record, I subsequently explored and came to appreciate his earlier work. To me, Born to Run turned out to be Springsteen’s Mount Rushmore. After two albums that were critically acclaimed but not successful from a commercial perspective, he really needed a hit. Born to Run would turn out to be exactly that and catapult Springsteen to fame beyond the U.S. Apart from the title song, my favorite tracks on the album include Thunder Road, Backstreets, Jungleland and the beautiful soul-oriented Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.
Stevie Wonder/Songs in the Key of Life (September 1976)
Stevie Wonder has been one of my favorite artists for 40 years. I dig many of his songs starting from when he was known as Little Stevie Wonder. But it’s his classic period in the ’70s I like the most, especially the albums Talking Book (October 1972), Innervisions (August 1973) and Songs in the Key of Life (September 1976). The latter became the best-selling and most critically acclaimed album of Wonder’s long career. Here’s his beautiful tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington who had passed away in May 1974.
Steely Dan/Aja (September 1977)
I’m wrapping up this list with Steely Dan. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen made many great records, but it’s this gem from September 1977 that’s my favorite: Aja. As usual, Becker and Fagen assembled top-notch session musicians to record the album. There were also prominent guests, including Michael McDonald and Timothy B. Schmit. All of the tracks on this album are great. Deacon Blues is my favorite Steely Dan song, but since I previously featured it more than once, I’m going with the closer Josie.
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 YouTubedemo 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.
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 Soundexplains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.
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.
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