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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Day of the Mellotron (Restored)

 

‘I am willing to claim that almost every exotic instrument played by whomever in the Rolling Stones, and recorded after they entered the Olympic Studios in November 1966, actually were played on the keyboard of the Mellotron. Whether it was a trombone, saxophone, French Accordion, you name it. Even the much debated lead guitar on Let It Loose. Yes, and even the percussion track on Sympathy For The Devil. When the Rolling Stones left Olympic Studios for the basement of Nellcote, the Mellotron was gone. Left behind. Because Brian Jones was dead. Nobody needed the sounds of the sixties anymore. If it, the Mellotron, turns up on later albums, then you know the track itself probably was recorded in the sixties.’ — godgammeldags.nu

 


Inside the Mellotron

 

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Intro

‘The Mellotron is an electronic musical instrument invented around 1960 to provide the sounds of violins, cellos, flutes, choirs, horns, pretty much anything, from a keyboard. Given the technology of the day, the reasonable way to do this was with strips of magnetic tape. So the Mellotron uses a strip of magnetic tape, a pinch roller, tape head, pressure pad, and a rewind mechanism for each note on the keyboard. ‘The heart of the instrument is a bank of parallel linear magnetic audio tape strips. Playback heads underneath each key enable the playing of pre-recorded sounds. Each of the tape strips has a playing time of approximately eight seconds, after which the tape comes to a dead stop and rewinds to the start position. ‘A major advantage of using tape strips, as opposed to tape loops / cassettes (cf the Birotron) is that the Mellotron can reproduce the attack and decay of the instruments recorded on the tape. ‘A consequence of the eight second limit on the duration of each note is that if the player wants to play chords that last longer than eight seconds, he/she has to release different notes in sequence in a process that has been compared to a spider crawling across the keyboard. ‘To our modern day technological sensibilities this cumbersome mechanical contraption seems kludgy as can be, especially you’re watching the tape rewind operation, but the fact is that no modern technology keyboard can come close to the quality of presence so characteristic of the Mellotron sound. Why is this? Because the tape playback mechanism is the musical instrument. It matters less what is recorded on the tape. ‘Among the early Mellotron owners were Princess Margaret, Peter Sellers, King Hussein of Jordan and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The instrument was, and still is, a centerpiece of the psychedelic rock, art rock, and progressive rock movements.’ — Don’s Mellotron Page

Read a economical but comprehensive history of the mellotron here

 


Trailer: ‘Mellodrama’

 

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Users

 

‘The Beatles were introduced to the Mellotron by Mike Pindar of the Moody Blues who are thought to be the first rock band to employ the instrument in a popular song. The Beatles’ first use of Mellotron sounds was on the song Tomorrow Never Knows where they used reel to reel recorders to record Mellotron brass and string sounds which, along with other sounds, were then brought into the studio. The heavy weight of the Mellotron prevented the machine from easily being transported. The Beatles hired in a machine and subsequently (and more prominently) used it on their single “Strawberry Fields Forever” (recorded November-December 1966). The Beatles continued to compose and record with various Mellotrons for the albums “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Magical Mystery Tour”, and “The Beatles” (White Album). ‘Other artists utilizing the Mellotron on hit records in this period included The Zombies (“Changes”, “Care Of Cell 44”, “Hung Up On A Dream”), Donovan (“Celeste”, “Breezes of Patchule”), Manfred Mann (several Mike D’abo-era recordings, including “So Long Dad”, “There Is A Man” and “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James”), The Rolling Stones (“2000 Light Years from Home”, “We Love You”, “Stray Cat Blues”), Deep Purple (“Anthem”), The Bee Gees (“World”, “Every Christian Lion-Hearted Man Will Show You” & “My Thing”), Traffic (“House for Everyone”, “Hole In My Shoe”), Pink Floyd (“A Saucerful of Secrets”, “See-Saw”, “Julia Dream”, “Atom Heart Mother” and “Sysyphus”), Procol Harum (“Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone)”), The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow, Cream’s “Badge”, “Anyone for Tennis”, The Left Banke’s “Myrah”, Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (Chamberlin), Nilsson’s “The Moonbeam Song”, and The Kinks’ (“Phenomenal Cat,” “Autumn Almanac,” “Sitting By The Riverside,” “All Of My Friends Were There,” “Animal Farm,” “Starstruck,” “Days,”), David Bowie’ “Space Oddity”. ‘The Mellotron was crucial to shaping the sound of the progressive rock genre, and it featured in the sound and recordings of more bands of that era than not. Among the more prominent examples are King Crimson, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Genesis, Hawkwind, ELP, and Tangerine Dream, but even such unexpected bands and artists of the period as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan used the instrument in their recordings. After all but dying out during the punk and New Wave era, the instrument had a great rebirth of popularity in the ’90s that continues until today. Some of the recent and current artists who have used the Mellotron extensively include Guns N’ Roses, The Mars Volta, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Sigur Rós, Dinosaur Jr, Pulp, U2, Primus, The Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Counting Crows, Oasis, Barenaked Ladies, Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Lenny Kravitz, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Modest Mouse, Ayreon, Muse, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Prick, Grandaddy, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Charlatans, Paul Weller, Radiohead, Porcupine Tree, Anekdoten, Air, and Opeth.’ — 120 Years of Electronic Music

The site Planet Mellotron has an extensive discography of all known post ’50s recordings using the Mellotron that in some cases include reviews and anecdotal evidence.

 

(top to bottom: Robert Fripp, Tarantula, ELP, John Lennon, Mike Pinder (Moody Blues), Barclay James Harvest, Tangerine Dream, Rick Wakeman/Yes, Ian McDonald/King Crimson, Brian Jones, Michael Quatro, PJ Harvey, Paul McCartney, Peter Baumann, John Paul Jones/Led Zeppelin, Jon Lord/Deep Purple, Julian Cope, Graham Bond, Geddy Lee/Rush, David Sylvian, Tony Banks/Genesis, Rick Wright/Pink Floyd

 

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The instrument

 

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Further

Mellotron Information Central
The Melloman – DIY Mellotron
All Things Mellotronic
Make a Mellotron out of four Walkmans
Tapeworm, a Mellotron-like synthesizer
Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie
The Mellotron Symposia
Mellotron Sounds
How a Mellotron works @ candor chasma

 

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Examples


Robert Wyatt ‘Seasong’


John Lennon’s Mellotron experiments circa ’68


The Flaming Lips ‘Race for the Prize’


Rolling Stones ‘We Love You’


Big Star ‘Kangaroo’


Moody Blues ‘Legend of a Mind’


Blur ‘Badhead’


Bee Gees’ ‘Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You’


Dinosaur Jr. ‘Thumb’


Kinks ‘Phenomenal Cat’


Dzyan ‘Khali’


King Crimson ‘The Court of the Crimson King’


Roxy Music ‘Street Life’


Family ‘Peace of Mind’


Pavement ‘Transport Is Arranged’


Genesis ‘Watcher of the Skies’


Tom Waits ‘In the Colosseum’


Led Zeppelin ‘The Rain Song’


Daniel Johnston ‘Syrup of Tears’


Family ‘Voyage’


Fiery Furnaces ‘Restorative Beer’


Hawkwind ‘The Golden Void’


Sparks ‘Thank God It’s Not Christmas’

 

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p.s. As foretold, I’m away from the blog today doing casting auditions for Zac’s and my new film. Newness and I will be back tomorrow. In the meantime, please enjoy your journey into and with a majestical musical instrument, the Mellotron.

7 Comments

  1. Hello again, Dennis.
    I hope that the auditions went well and were fruitful. I don’t think I’d quite appreciated the Mellotron before today, so thanks. It’s like some sort of sixties comic book idea of an instrument of the future. I fully enjoyed actually being able to listen to all the songs for once. This laptop is reopening vistas of sheer pleasure.
    I’ve been pondering your Bowie question all day. It’s tough. I’ll answer it tomorrow.
    Happy Friday. What you up to?
    Lots of love to you,
    Jamie

  2. There’s one of these things up for sale on eBay just now, as used by Ray Davies, and I gotta say £4250 seems like a good deal if that’s your sort of thing.

  3. The Moody Blues keyboardist was Mike Pinder, not ‘Mike Pindar’.

  4. As I’m sure you’ve heard, there was a a major snowstorm over the Northeastern US. I haven’t been outside since about noon – I spent my day watching screeners and finishing my article on the “Film Comment Selects” series. (From what I saw, it’s kinda dull this year, apart from the Amat Escalante film, although the section of obscure ’60s films shot by Raoul Coutard is exciting.) It’s supposed to get down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit tonight, and tomorrow will be very cold during the day as well. But this is our first real snow of the year – everything else was 1 or 2″ and melted the next day – so I can’t really complain about being stuck inside.

  5. Hey Dennis, great to see this old favorite again. Look forward to hearing good news about the auditions.

    Do you know the Paris-based video artist Antoine Schmitt? I caught his set yesterday:
    http://grayarea.org/event/tempest-live-av-performance/

    Some pretty nice stuff.

    Bill

  6. Hi Dennis,

    As Steevee has mentioned above, New York has been snowed today and it’s become colder this evening and night. If you remember, I used to live in a blizzard town (Buffalo), so it puts me in a haze of nostalgia interspersed in eerieness of a quiet city here just at the moment. Finding a nice moment to comment on your blog has become quite difficult, but snow put me in a mood. Hope your audition of actors went very well, and that you felt auspicious for the film. I also hope your skin ailment already left you alone.

    PS. Oh, I’m jealous that you met Jess. I don’t really like Duncan’s poetry for its tone. But strangely, I like Jess’ work. I won’t explain it much about it, but I love this sentiment that Jess reminds me of Lyn Hejinian though with more visibly erotic textures. I don’t write about them together, but I guess that resonance pointing to (homo)eroticism brought me to this project. And, at the same time, I’m writing a piece on Ashbery’s Some Trees, which keeps me happy. I heard Ashbery biography is coming out soon, so I’m excited for that too. (Did you know that, right? Feels like my comment is very late for you to catch up. I might repeat this book news some other day)

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