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The Mellotron

as published in the Classic Rock Society Magazine by Ashley Franklin


John Shaw, the presenter whose seat I warm every Sunday night on Saga Radio, has got into the delicious habit of playing me a special track as I drive home. Nepotistic, I know, but I also know that any classic rock lover would wholeheartedly approve.
This weekly ritual was initiated when John stumbled on a rare 1971 single by Dutch proggers Earth & Fire. He said I'd aired it once, back when I was a spotty teenager on Radio Nottingham. "Earth & Fire? Never heard of them, John", I spouted at my car radio, yet I'd apparently declared on air that it was the greatest thing since acne cream.
Then I came to understand perfectly why I'd said those words nearly 35 years ago. This Earth & Fire single was Memories. Turning up the volume in breathy anticipation, sudden thunderous chords began to rattle my memory banks as well as my Ford chassis. It had now become the greatest thing since anti-wrinkle cream.
The following Sunday, John played me Greenslade's Joie De Vivre from Spyglass Guest, then Seven Stones from Genesis' Nursery Cryme. I realised a pattern had emerged or, more specifically, that John had struck a chord - and it was coming from a Mellotron.
What marked out the Earth & Fire track was that its anthemic powerhouse feel was enhanced through being smothered in marvellous Mellotron. Seven Stones is perfectly pleasant understated Genesis ultimately lifted to greatness by a final minutes'-worth of sweeping 'Tron from Tony Banks. But what's my favourite track from Nursery Cryme and probably the greatest tune the band ever gave life to? Fountain Of Salmacis. Why? Mainly for that repeating Mellotron surge. I'm a man of simple pleasures. And a sucker for that soaring, sweeping, celestial string sound. Give me Mellotron!!
And John did, again... last Sunday. This time, though, he surpassed himself by surprising me with something new. Something old, too, in its analogue sound make-up; and something borrowed, from late '60s Floyd. Something blue? More like red hot, actually. It was Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung from the new Flaming Lips album At War with the Mystics. This didn't so much rattle my chassis as shatter it into a thousand pieces, strewing debris across the carriageway. I was left clutching what remained of the steering wheel but I still had a smile as wide as a Pacific sunrise. This Flaming Lips track is colossal, overblown, psychedelic prog pomp of Olympian order; a mass of searing guitar, pulsating bass and - the icing on this thick fruitcake of a sound - a sonorous Mellotron. I bought the album the next day.
After Pompeii's outpourings, I pawed my record collection like a feverish addict needing a fix. My first high came with
King Crimson's debut In The Court of the Crimson King. There's nothing like Epitaph for a massive soaking of Mellotron. Then some hand-picked Genesis: Watcher Of The Skies, Salmacis - more sun-drenched Mellotron but also more subtle traces of 'Tron on Mad Man Moon and Entangled.
Mind you, the Mellotron wasn't really intended to be used in this way. It was a happy accident for which we can thank Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues. Pinder effectively hijacked the instrument for rock and pop use as the Mellotron was originally conceived by grey-suited men looking to create a Wurlitzer-style 'one-man-band' keyboard for acts who toured the social clubs. Paul McCartney got it right when he refers to the Mellotron sound as, "Very sleazy, very cabaret".
Not for nothing is a Mellotron compilation album entitled Rime of the Ancient Sampler. Musicians literally 'play' their own orchestra by pressing the Mellotron keys, triggering a tape recording of real instruments. To cut a long story short, the Mellotron came to be developed in Birmingham where Mike Pinder found himself a tester at the end of the assembly line and fell in love with the sound. The rest is glorious history...
The Mellotron's role in rock and pop history is fascinatingly laid out in a website called Planet Mellotron created by Mellotron player Andy Thompson [aw, shucks - ed.]. Mixing anal-retentiveness with full-blown fanaticism [OK, I take that back - ed.], Andy has compiled a list (continually being refreshed) of over 4,000 albums containing Mellotron. A mere browse of the letter S reveals surprising Mellotron use by Santana, Bob Seger, Scorpions and Springsteen (on The Rising). I've also pulled out my copies of albums by Semisonic, Split Enz and Sparks with the fresh excitement that Mellotrons lurk within. I'm sure also that John Wetton will be delighted to hear that his song Cold Is The Night is in a female 'Tron fan's Top 10 because it's "knicker-wettingly good".
That same moistness can be experienced at any gig by electronic band Radio Massacre International, whose 21 albums containing Mellotron come second only to King Crimson's 28 (thank you, again, Planet Mellotron). RMI's improvised gigs are veritable 'Tron fests, not least because their two keyboard players, Steve Dinsdale and Duncan Goddard, are quite fond of the water the Mellotron walks on. As Steve declares: "When it's played, it creates instant magic. It always adds a thick slice of beauty, a slab of gorgeous, textural analogue sound which seems to complement anything around it in the sonic picture from electronic soundscapes to epic Progressive Rock through to simple pop".
It's a bugger to tune, though. Robert Fripp famously once said: "Tuning a Mellotron doesn't". Steve will also tell you it's a bastard to haul around gigs and Duncan will tell you that maintaining it is like tinkering with a classic car. "It really does have good days and bad days", says Steve. "Sometimes it shines and plays beautifully, other times it says 'leave me alone, I'm having a bad day'. It may even turn out to be female".
But the real beauty of the Mellotron, they reckon, lies behind those keys pressing an analogue tape sound into action. "The Mellotron uses recordings of actual instruments and voices", Steve points out, "But it has a uniquely identifiable sound of its own. It also plays the sounds back in an unreliable way, and when you factor in the sometimes unreliable mechanics and wobbly motor speeds, it really is a law unto itself. It is the true embodiment of character in a musical instrument".

Best Ten 'Tron Moments (in no particular order)