If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song playlist

Over the past six months, I’ve presented songs I would take with me on an imaginary trip to a desert island. There were some rules to the exercise. It needed to be a tune by a band or artist I had only rarely written about or even better not mentioned at all to date. And my picks needed to occur in alphabetical order by band or artist name (last name).

Last week, I finally reached the letter “z.” Of course, I could have started over with “a” but felt that 26 songs picked according to the above criteria were enough – as attractive as I find the thought to escape to a desert island on hump day! For today’s post, I thought it might be fun to present a playlist featuring all of my previous 26 selections.

While undoubtedly my choices would have been different, had it not been for the above restrictive rules, I’m still quite happy with my picks and this playlist. Following I’m briefly revisiting four of the tunes. At the end of the post, you can find all 26 of them in a Spotify playlist.

Atlanta Rhythm Section/Spooky

I’ve always loved Spooky by Atlanta Rhythm Section, so it was an easy decision to highlight this tune a second time. Originally, the song was written as an instrumental by saxophonist Mike Shapiro and Harry Middlebrooks Jr. Performed by Shapiro and released under the name Mike Sharpe, the track first appeared in 1967. The song’s next iteration occurred in 1968 when a band called Classics IV included it as the title track of their debut album and added the lyrics. Finally, Atlanta Rhythm Section recorded Spooky for their eighth studio album Underdog, which came out in June 1979. It became one of their best-known tunes and one of four top 20 singles they had in the U.S.

Los Lobos/Kiko and the Lavender Moon

Kiko and the Lavender Moon is perhaps the coolest tune I discovered in the course of this desert island song selection exercise. I’m still relatively new to Los Lobos and found that track while doing some research. Written by the band’s co-founding members David Hildago (guitars, accordion, violin, banjo, piano, percussion, vocals) and Louie Pérez (drums, vocals, guitars, percussion), the song was included on their sixth studio album Kiko released in May 1992.  It’s an unusual tune with traces of retro jazz and a dose of Latin groove – pretty neat!

The O’Jays/Back Stabbers

Another song I had loved for a long time but not covered prior to this feature is Back Stabbers by The O’Jays. There’s just something about smooth Philly soul sound! Back Stabbers, co-written by Philadelphia International label songwriters  Leon HuffGene McFadden and John Whitehead, is the title track of The O’Jays’ sixth studio album. Released in August 1972, it was their breakthrough and the first for Philadelphia International Records, a label that had only been founded in 1971. Check out the sweet harmony singing on that tune – sounds a bit like The Temptations!

XTC/Making Plans For Nigel

“Forced” to pick a band or artist whose name starts with “x”, I’m glad I finally got to take a look at XTC, a group I essentially had known by name only. And because of one tune: Making Plans For Nigel. The song was written by Colin Moulding (bass, vocals), one of XTC’s founding members. It first appeared in August 1979 on the group’s third studio album Drums and Wires. The following month, it became the record’s lead single and marked the band’s commercial breakthrough. Even though I find this tune somewhat odd, I think it’s quite ingenious!

And here’s a Spotify playlist of all previously selected 26 desert island tunes. Even though it’s safe to assume you wouldn’t pick many or perhaps even any of these tracks to take with you to an island in the sun, I hope you still enjoy the playlist.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

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If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by XTC

Welcome to another installment of my recurring Wednesday feature where I need to pick one song to take with me on an imaginary trip to a desert island. It must be a tune from an artist or band I’ve only rarely or not covered on this blog to date. And the picks are happening in alphabetical order.

This week, I’m up to “x”, meaning it needs to be a band or artist (last name) who starts with that letter. Frankly, how many such music acts you know? I only came up with two: XTC and X-Pensive Winos, a band Keith Richards formed in 1987 to back him on his solo efforts, which included Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville (keyboards), Bobby Keys (saxophone), Charley Drayton on bass and Steve Jordan (drums, percussion).

Kingclover, a frequent visitor and commentator who was aware of my challenge, also mentioned X, an ’80s punk rock band, and another punk band from the ’70s or ’80s called X-Ray Spex. He cheerfully added the latter really sucked! In any case, I don’t know any of them.

While I haven’t covered the X-Pensive Vinos per se, I’ve written multiple times about Keef and the Stones, so it really came down to XTC. But at this time, essentially, I know this English rock band by name only and that fellow blogger Graham at Aphoristic Album Reviews is a fan. He also noted the band’s only song I could name: Making Plans For Nigel. Since I happen to like that tune, this made my pick an easy decision.

Making Plans for Nigel was written by Colin Moulding (bass, vocals), one of the group’s founding members. The tune first appeared in August 1979 on XTC’s third studio album Drums and Wires. The following month, it became the record’s lead single and marked the band’s commercial breakthrough. In addition to reaching no. 17 in the UK, it also charted in Canada (no. 12), New Zealand (no. 29), The Netherlands (no. 32) and Australia (no. 94).

XTC were formed in Swindon, South West England in 1972. Initially, they were known as Star Park (1972–1974) and The Helium Kidz (1974–1975) before becoming XTC in 1975. Here’s more from their AllMusic bio: XTC was one of the smartest — and catchiest — British pop bands to emerge from the punk and new wave explosion of the late ’70s. From the tense, jerky riffs of their early singles to the lushly arranged, meticulous pop of their later albums, XTC’s music has always been driven by the hook-laden songwriting of guitarist Andy Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding. While popular success has eluded them in both Britain and America, the group has developed a devoted cult following in both countries that remains loyal over two decades after their first records.

In January 1978, XTC released their debut album White Music. Eleven additional studio releases followed. Eventually, Patridge’s and Moulding’s musical partnership unraveled, and the group effectively came to an end in 2006/2007. There was no official announcement of a breakup.

Following are some additional tidbits on Making Plans For Nigel from Songfacts:

This was XTC’s breakthrough single. It was written by bassist Colin Moulding, who shared vocal and songwriting duties with guitarist Andy Partridge.

Moulding: “Partly biographical, this one. My dad prompted me to write it. He wanted a university future for me and was very overpowering in trying to persuade me to get my hair cut and stay on at school. It got to the point where he almost tried to drag me down the barber’s shop by my hair. I know the song tells of a slightly different situation, but it all boils down to the same thing – parental domination.”

Partridge: “Quite early on it had been decided that Making Plans For Nigel was going to be the single. We spent five times longer messing with that song than any of my tracks. At one point I was fuming because my songs were being ignored.”

The Rembrandts, Primus and Robbie Williams all covered this.

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; Songfacts; 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