The Hardware: The Mellotron

The electro-mechanical keyboards are known for amazing sound capabilities and quirks

Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, I came across this YouTube demo of the Mellotron. It reminded me what a cool musical instrument this type of keyboard is and that I hadn’t done a “hardware” post since this one about the Vox Continental from August 2018. Two great reasons for a new installment, don’t you agree? 🙂

I realize writing about musical gear can quickly get you into geeky territory. As a hobby musician, I can’t deny I get easily excited when it comes to instruments and their sounds and looks. I guess you could call that geeky. At the same time, I’m not exactly a tech wiz – in fact, far from it! As such, I mostly approach gear posts from the sound (and looks) side and keep the tech side relatively light.

Which brings me to the Mellotron. The first time I ever heard this marvelous keyboard in action, I didn’t realize I was listening to a Mellotron. Clever, huh? Well, it’s true. I suppose more frequent visitors of the blog may already have an idea where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a hint: Four lads from Liverpool…

Strawberry Fields Forever. Undoubtedly, my fellow Beatles fans already knew that! 🙂 This John Lennon gem from 1967, which was co-credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, is perhaps the most famous example in pop rock of a Mellotron in action. I’m particularly referring to the beautiful flute sound intro, which was played by McCartney. According to The Beatles Bible, George Martin and Lennon also played two Mellotron parts, using the ‘swinging flutes’ and, towards the end of the song, ‘piano riff’ settings.

U.S. picture sleeve of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, released as a double A-side single with “Penny Lane” in February 1967

I could easily dedicate an entire post to Strawberry Fields Forever, which was one of the most complex tunes The Beatles ever recorded. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, let’s get back to the Mellotron and some history, as well as an attempt to explain how the mighty instrument works, based on my ingenious tech understanding. 🙂 And, of course, I’ll wrap things up with some examples that illustrate what Mellotron keyboards can do!

Let’s start with the technology. Fortunately, there’s Wikipedia! Basically, the Mellotron is what’s called a sampler, meaning it samples music instruments and other sounds, but instead of relying on digital sampling like the modern samplers do, it’s based on analogue samples recorded on audio tapes – essentially like an old-fashioned tape deck! When a player presses a key, a tape that’s connected to it gets pushed against a playback head, which in turn generates the sound. Once released, the tape moves back in its default position.

The tapes in a Mellotron include recordings of actual instruments, voices and other sounds, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Each tape recording lasts for about 8 seconds. This means a player cannot indefinitely hold down a key and get a sound – one of the instrument’s many quirks. There are others. As Sound on Sound explains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.

Inside of a Mellotron M400. The tapes are underneath the brown-colored key extensions.

For example, if the springs that pull back the tapes to their start position malfunction, this could mean the sampled sound only starts in the middle of the tape, and a player would have even less than 8 seconds of sound; or I suppose no sound at all, if the spring gets stuck in a completely extended position. There are different Mellotron models, so I’m not sure they all have 35 tape heads. My point here is to illustrate the instrument’s delicacy!

As you’d expect, the Mellotron offers a variety of sounds. From Wikipedia: On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together.

Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in both pitch and tempo. Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.

Okay, I promised to keep it “light” on the technology, so the above shall be sufficient. Next, I’d like to touch on the Mellotron’s history. While tape samplers had been explored in research studios, it wasn’t until 1962 that the instrument’s commercial concept originated. And it took a little help not exactly from a friend, as would become clear later.

Bill Fransen, a sales agent for the California-based maker of the Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboards, took two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600 instruments to England to find a suitable manufacturer that could make tape heads for future Chamberlin keyboards. He met Frank Bradley, Norman Bradley and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. in Birmingham. The Bradleys told him they could advance the original instrument design, and keyboard history started to change.

The Bradleys subsequently teamed up with BBC music conductor Eric Robinson, who not only agreed to arrange the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds for the tapes but also to help finance the effort. They also pulled in English magician and TV personality David Nixon and formed Mellotronics, a company to produce and market the Mellotron.

Bill Fransen with the first Mellotron off the production line, 1963. Photo credit: Sound on Sound

In 1963, Mellotronics started making the Mk I, the first commercially manufactured model of the Mellotron. The following year, the company introduced the Mk II, an updated version featuring the full set of sounds selectable by banks and stations. There are multiple other models that were developed thereafter, including the M400, which is pictured on top of this post and became a particular popular version.

There was only one hiccup. Fransen had never told the Bradleys that he wasn’t the original owner of the Chamberlin concept. Suffice to say the California company wasn’t exactly pleased that a British competitor essentially had copied their technology. After some back and forth, the two companies eventually agreed that each would be allowed to continue manufacture instruments independently.

In the ’70s, the Mellotron name was acquired by American company Sound Sales. After 1976, Bradmatic that had renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970, manufactured and sold Mellotron type keyboards under the Novatron brand name. But eventually, the advent of modern electronic samplers caught up with both companies. As a result, they found themselves in dire financial straits by the mid ’80s. In 1986, Streetly folded altogether.

In 1989, Les Bradley’s son John Bradley and Martin Smith, who had built Mellotron keyboards for the Bradleys at the original factory in Birmingham, England, revived Streetly Electronics as a Mellotron support and refurbishment business. The company exists to this day. In 2007, they also developed a new model that became the M4000. It combined features of several previous models with the layout and chassis of the popular M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.

If you’re still with me, let’s now move on to the post’s final and actual fun section: Seeing and hearing Mellotron keyboards in action. And while many things in pop music start with The Beatles, the Mellotron is one of the exceptions that prove the rule! Apparently, in the mid ’60s, English multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond became the first rock artist to record with a Mellotron. He also was an early user of the legendary Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combination. Here’s Baby Can It Be True from The Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 sophomore album There’s a Bond Between Us. Per Wikipedia, the tune was the first hit song to feature a Mellotron Mk II.

Another early adopter of the Mellotron was Mike Pinder, who had worked as a tester at Streetly Electronics (then still called Bradmatic) for 18 months in the early 1960s and became the keyboarder and co-founder of The Moody Blues in 1964. Pinder started using the Mellotron extensively on each of the band’s albums from Days of Future Passed (1967) to Octave (1978). Here’s one of the former record’s absolute gems written by Justin Hayward: Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon). In addition to Mellotron, the album used plenty of actual orchestration.

And since it was Pinder who introduced The Beatles to the Mellotron, now it’s time to come back to Strawberry Fields Forever. Notably, George Martin was less than excited about the Mellotron, reportedly describing it “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard” – ouch! Probably, he was referring to some of the instrument’s quirks I mentioned above! The Beatles still ended up using various Mellotron keyboards on their albums Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album.

Another well-known user of the Mellotron was Rick Wakeman. Before joining Yes in 1971, Wakeman was a full-time session musician. Among others, this included work with David Bowie on his second eponymous studio album and the mighty Space Oddity. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, the initial idea was for Wakeman to play a guide track with the Mellotron that would be replaced by an actual orchestra. But producer Tony Visconti decided to keep Wakeman’s Mellotron part.

Let’s do a few more Mellotron examples from the ’70s. These selections are taken from the previously noted Ultimate Classic Rock piece. First up: And You And I, a tune from Close to the Edge, the fifth studio album by Yes released in September 1972. The more than 10-minute track was co-written by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe (except the Eclipse section), Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Wakeman used the Mellotron to capture stings, brass and flutes sounds, especially during the tune’s Eclipse section.

One month later, in October 1972, Genesis released their fourth studio album Foxtrot. Here’s the opener Watcher of the Skies, which like all of the record’s tracks was credited to all members of the band. Ultimate Classic Rock notes the sound of the Mellotron created by Tony Banks turned out to be so popular that the manufacturer introduced a “Watcher Mix” sound on the next version of the keyboard – pretty cool in my book!

Since all things must pass including epic gear blog posts, let’s wrap up things with one final – and I might add particularly mighty – example of Mellotron use: Kashmir, from Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, which came out in February 1975. Credited to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham, the closer of Side 2 of the double LP features plenty of orchestration arranged by John Paul Jones. This includes both Mellotron strings and an actual string and brass section. While this makes it tricky to distinguish between the Mellotron and “real instruments”, Ultimate Classic Rock notes, The consensus is that Jones’s fake strings are heard during the “All I see turns to brown…” bridge (starting around 3:25) and join up with the actual strings in the tune’s closing minutes, adding a weird and wonderful effect.

This post focused on the use of the Mellotron during its most popular period from the mid ’60s to the second half of the ’70s. One can also find occasional examples thereafter like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and XTC on albums they released during the first half of the ’80s, as well as Oasis and Radiohead on recordings made during the second half of the ’90s. I think it’s safe to assume some keyboarders continue to use Mellotrons to this day, though with the modern digital samplers, it has to be a niche product.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Sound on Sound; Streetly Electronics website; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genesis_The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Sleeves

Side One

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

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

Side Two

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

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

Side Three

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

Side Four

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Rolling Stone; YouTube