By ProgBlog, Jul 13 2014 01:00PM
I’ve been lucky enough to play around on a Mellotron but I didn’t have the foresight to buy the beast. I tend to regard the Tron (as aficionados apparently prefer to call it) as one of the two instruments that define prog. Though not strictly true, it did form an integral part of the sound of most symphonic prog bands that were around during the ‘golden era’, whether adding strings, flute or choir. The other instrument that has a very strong association with progressive rock is the mini-Moog.
As a youth I used to scour the music press and album sleeves for information about instruments; I understood that Chris Squire’s use of the Rickenbacker, for instance, was a key part of the sound of Yes but at the time it was something that not many rock bassists were using. My research into the mini-Moog and the Mellotron followed these lines. I remember a competition in (I think) the NME to ‘win a £400 Moog’, illustrated with a picture of Keith Emerson that clearly showed the instrument’s controls. The competition had a simple multiple choice question and the tie-breaker was a ‘describe the music of ELP in 20 words’. I submitted a pithy verse that didn’t win. The inside sleeve of Six Wives was another frequently referenced insight into keyboard instruments and the probable source of my earliest understanding of the Mellotron, with Wakeman’s two 400-Ds used for brass, strings and flute, and vocals, sound effects and vibes respectively. What I found incredibly neat was the way that a mini-Moog would sit on top of a Mellotron, as though the two instruments were made for each other. As multiple keyboard usage became the norm, this was a frequently observed set-up.
The versatility of the mini-Moog and, to a lesser extent, the VCS3 and the ARP Odyssey or ARP 2600, encouraged bands to embrace synthesizers. Whereas a Moog was a lead instrument, putting the keyboard player on the same footing as the guitarist and marking the beginning of the era of the keyboard wizard, the Mellotron was an instrument that allowed a band to enhance their overall musical presence; it was simply too clunky and mechanical to be used as an instrument for solos. This shift of emphasis from vocalist/guitarist dominance, evident in almost all straightforward rock bands, was one of the democratic facets of progressive rock; promoting a greater equality which in turn allowed more influences and subsequently, more musical possibilities.
The ARP synthesizers (after Alan Robert Pearlman) don’t seem to have been as extensively used as Moogs, though they did have notable proponents such as Tony Banks.
It’s not strictly true that the Mellotron was only used for symphonic or choral fills; after all, the nature of the beast was as a sampler, based on recordings of any manner of instrument or sound effect committed to tapes. It’s possible to discern Mellotron sounds from the real thing and I find that part of the attraction. The flute tone is one of the best known sounds and its haunting quality is what sets it apart from the woodwind; there’s an ethereal element to it that defines the mid-70s Tangerine Dream and this sound is also used to great effect by the 72-74 incarnation of King Crimson in their improvisational flights (on Providence, for example) and on Drum Folk by Greenslade. As much as I like Crimson’s doom-laden Mellotron chords I think I prefer it used for melody lines. Having sad that, the Cross-era Crimson were hardly a keyboard band and used their two Mellotrons quite differently from most bands because of the quantity of improvised material they played. Trio, from Starless and Bible Black, is an almost fragile piece, where Robert Fripp plays delicate Mellotron in response to David Cross’ plaintive violin. This track, an improvisation from the Amsterdam Concertgebouw gig of November 23rd 1973, stands out because Bill Bruford didn’t touch his drum kit and he’s credited, quite rightly in my opinion, as a composer; his decision not to add anything to the piece really enhances what must be the most sensitive track Crimson have ever recorded. Cross, in a chapter in Nick Awde’s excellent book Mellotron, describes how Crimson used to abuse their machines by jamming the selector between two settings and Trio may be an example of this, where the sound seems to hover between flute and strings.
It was Fripp who most fully documented the lack of reliability of the Mellotron during tours, especially to destinations with different mains voltages. Reliability issues, coupled with its intrinsic mass meant that many exponents ditched their Mellotrons when more portable and more reliable string synthesizers started to appear in the mid 70s. I think it’s interesting that the decline of the use of Mellotron coincides with the end of the first wave of progressive rock and, conversely, the rise and subsequent critical reacceptance of prog in the early 90s was spearheaded by bands that appreciated the analogue sounds of the bands from the 70s, such as Ånglagard and Finisterre. 1976 seems to have been a turning point; the sleeve notes of Wind and Wuthering reveal Tony Banks played both Mellotron and Roland string synthesizer, and I regard Wind and Wuthering as the last of the progressive Genesis albums.
I feel rather dismissive towards the string synth. The sound was thin and, compared to the Mellotron, lacked warmth and timbre but it also had an unforeseen economic effect. When Mellotronics went bankrupt in 1978, manufacturer Streetly Electronics were no longer allowed to use the trademark name Mellotron and had to rename the M400 model they were producing at the time the ‘Novatron’. Rick Wakeman invested heavily and unsuccessfully into a cassette-based version and his Birotron features on a handful of albums, most notably his 1977 release Criminal Record.
Mellotron restoration was featured at a King Crimson playback event in London in the late 90s and there are Mellotron conventions; I attended MelloFest 2 at the Luminaire in 2009, featuring (amongst others) Robert Webb from England and Martin Orford. The future is looking more rosy for the Mellotron. The resurgence of prog has dragged the instrument back into the sonic requirements of bands that want a fuller sound, which includes old exponents and a younger generation of musicians who appreciate the possibilities of one of the instruments that defined prog.