Today I would like to shine the spotlight on what I consider to be the coolest sounding instrument in rock history. The mellotron. And you probably would never have heard of it were it not for The Beatles. But first, to give you an idea of what this instrument is let’s dust off an old demonstration reel from the very earliest days of the mellotron.
Despite the corny presentation you get a sense of what the mellotron is. Put simply it is one of the first sequencers ever invented (having been created in the early 1960s as a rival instrument to a similar machine called The Chamberlin, which was in production between 1949 and 1956). It is a keyboard connected to a series of prerecorded tape loops. The machine could be loaded with various tape banks, giving the player a number of different sound options with the flip of a switch. This differs from the more modern synthesizer in that the synthesizer creates the sound whereas the mellotron contains recordings of the actual instrument it is intending to reproduce.
Anyone who has ever owned a cassette player will identify the flaws in this arrangement. Since the machine’s sound comes from a section of tape, when the tape ends the note ends. Mellotron tapes lasted around eight seconds. If the operator wished to hold a note for longer than 8 seconds they had to release the key and re-press it. This is why mellotron string sections tend to sound like they are “rolling” -the keyboardist is most likely releasing and re-pressing the notes in the chord at different times to avoid having the tape stop on him.
Cassette machines are also notorious for their tendency to play slightly faster or slower than intended (almost every walkman I have ever owned is an example of that). This tendency of the tapes to lose their pitch gave the mellotron an eerie, warbly quality that far from being a liability became an endearing quality of the instrument and helped it find its place in the psychedelic music movement in the late 1960s and even more importantly in the progressive rock movement in the early 1970s.
But how did the mellotron find its way into rock music? The answer, as usual, involves The Beatles. While The Beatles were not the first band to use a mellotron in a pop record (that honor would go to the Graham Bond Organisation with their 1965 single “Baby Can It Be True,”) they were by far the most prolific. And in those days when The Beatles put their stamp of approval on a sound or an instrument the rest of the rock world followed suit. John Lennon is said to have purchased a mellotron in August of 1965 (possibly on the advice of The Moody Blues’ Mike Pinder). While The Beatles did not record with a mellotron until the following year, the idea of tape loops creating electronic music took hold and The Beatles began recording their own tape loops at home. This manifested itself in the groundbreaking track “Tomorrow Never Knows” on the Revolver album (1966). A masterpiece in psychedelic music, the song contains 5 repeating tape loops that which run behind the main track (these were faded in and out of the mix by The Beatles in one take making the tape loops a kind of “live” performance). Two of those tape loops were recordings from John’s mellotron. While use of the mellotron on Revolver was not immediately apparent to listeners and the music world in general, The Beatles next single, recorded in November-December of 1966 would put the mellotron on the map in rock music.
The early demos of “Strawberry Fields Forever” feature just John and his guitar. But as was common for John in 1966-1967 he was looking for a different sound. In those days John was constantly imploring George Martin to make his voice sound different or to create some unique sound that had never been done before on a rock record. He needed look no further than his Mellotron MK II. While the first take of the song (a different approach to the song, but nearly perfect in its own right) featured a different mellotron setting, the flute setting used on take 2 and subsequent takes is perhaps the most famous mellotron sound of all time. The following studio outtakes from the November 1966 recording sessions capture this sound perfectly (and in a more audible fashion than was made available on the finished single).
On the heels of “Strawberry Fields Forever” bands rushed to buy or rent a mellotron to use in their songs. The Moody Blues (whose keyboardist Mike Pinder had been an early proponent of the mellotron) released the single “Love and Beauty” and the Days of Future Passed album in 1967. The Rolling Stones released the single “We Love You” in the summer of 1967 and followed that up with Their Satanic Majesties Request in December, 1967. The Kinks began recording with a mellotron in the spring of 1967 and featured the instrument prominently on The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society LP in 1968. The Bee Gees, The Zombies, The Small Faces, The Pretty Things, Deep Purple and Family (among others) all released songs featuring a mellotron in 1967 or 1968. The Beatles continued using it on the Magical Mystery Tour album and The Beatles (the “White Album”) as the mellotron’s reputation in “psychedelic” rock was solidified. That would soon change.
In 1969 a small collection of groups were recording what was then called “Art Rock” (later to morph into Progressive Rock -the lines of this transformation are not easily defined). Bands such as The Nice, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple were experimenting with longer song structures and classical music references (if not recording with orchestras outright as The Nice and Deep Purple did). David Bowie used a mellotron on his UK hit “Space Oddity” in the summer of 1969. But it was King Crimson that arrived on the scene in the fall of 1969 and released their mellotron-heavy debut album “In The Court of the Crimson King” and changed the course of the mellotron forever.
The mellotron which just the year before had been instrumental in creating the “psychedelic” sound was now an instrument of the Progressive Rock movement with King Crimson as the standard-bearer for the mellotron. Prog rock bands that achieved success after King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Uriah Heep, Roxy Music (but strangely not Emerson Lake & Palmer) all had a mellotron in their act. Later models of the Mellotron such as the M300 created different, yet still distinctly mellotron sounds. Take, for example the beautiful mellotron intro to “Watcher of the Skies” from Genesis’ 1972 album, Foxtrot (an intro that has inspired dozens of YouTube videos of people trying to play it).
Sadly the mellotron’s time in the sun ended at roughly the same time as the Progressive Rock movement. By 1976 the punk movement had successfully labeled many of these bands “dinosaur acts” and the grand stage productions of Rick Wakeman and ELP, the long and arguably self-indulgent albums of Yes (Tales From Topographic Oceans) and the bizarre costumes of Peter Gabriel sat in bizarre contrast to the stripped down sound of punk rock. It was at about this time that the mellotron (via a strange sequence of events and legal proceedings) was forced to change its name to the Novatron. Parts for the mellotron became harder to find and people able to service them even harder. With more modern synthesizers able to perform the same functions, the mellotron became a relic of a bygone musical era. It was not until the 1990’s that the mellotron made a small comeback with bands like The Flaming Lips, Radiohead and famously in the hit single “Beautiful Stranger” by Madonna. Modern computers and sequencers can recreate the mellotron sound digitally and with much less maintenance (retuning mellotrons mid-concert was practically a necessity). But the place in music history for this odd little instrument is fixed. The next time you hear an oddly inhuman sounding choir or an ominously out of tune string section in a song you may just be listening to a mellotron.