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The instruments of Prog: the Mellotron and the mini-Moog

I’ve been lucky enough to play around on a Mellotron but I didn’t have the foresight to buy the Beast. The instrument was in a music shop on Mitcham Road in Tooting called Session Music if my memory serves correct, near where I worked at the time. The store had a Mk II Mellotron which seemed like something for display rather than sale and a white M400 in the window which had attracted my interest, so I went into the shop one lunchtime and tried it out. The time restriction imposed by the tape loops meant that holding chords involved adding inversions or sevenths but the most incredible thing about it was the feel. It was heavy and clunky and you could feel the mechanism when you depressed the keys but it produced some gorgeous tones. It felt substantial compared to the range of readily affordable synthesizers available and playing it made me realise just what an awesome instrument it was. The asking price was around one month’s salary and though I’d recently acquired my first credit card, money was still tight. The deciding factor was the sheer impracticality of owning such a Beast. If owning it had been practical in any way I’d have bought it. I should at least have looked into the instrument’s history to find out its previous owners.

I tend to regard the Tron (as it is known to the initiated) 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 progressive 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 and a good picture of the instrument. The competition had a simple multiple choice question and the tie-breaker was a ‘describe the music of ELP in 20 words’. I answered the question and submitted a pithy verse extolling the musical virtues of the band members for the tie-break but didn’t win. The inside sleeve of Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII 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 synthesizer (after Alan Robert Pearlman) doesn’t seem to have been as extensively used as a Moog, though they did have notable proponents such as Tony Banks, Rick van der Linden and Dave Greenslade. The classic ARP synthesizers were monophonic, like the mini-Moog. They fulfilled a lead solo instrument role and if used in conjunction with other keyboards with a polyphonic ability, the piano, the electric piano, the organ, the Mellotron, this didn’t pose any problem. However, developers seemed to think polyphony was an advantage and with competition increasing, Moog came up with the Polymoog in 1975. I was never a fan of this keyboard but that might have been the way it was used by Rick Wakeman on Yes’ Going for the One and Tormato, where the tones used tend to be less full, almost like a string synthesizer. Moog Music was bought out in 1981 and production of the mini-Moog stopped until Robert Moog bought back the rights to the name in 2002 and released an updated version of the mini-Moog, the Voyager.

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. Launched in 1963, the Mellotron was an updated and reconfigured version of the Chamberlin, named after its inventor Harry Chamberlin in 1946.

Chamberlin didn’t have the financial backing to mass produce his keyboard, or the marketing skills to successfully sell the few models he made but in 1962 two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600s crossed the Atlantic with sales agent Bill Fransen from the US to the UK, where Fransen was searching for someone to make 70 matching tape heads, eventually ending up at Bradmatic Ltd, a tape engineering company in Birmingham. Mellotronics was formed to market the instrument, and Bradmatic, who manufactured the instrument rebranded as a Mellotron, was renamed Streetly Electronics in 1970 – only after some legal wrangling between Harry Chamberlin and Mellotronics because Fransen had neglected to tell his UK partners that he didn’t actually own the rights to the instrument.

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 Edgar Froese solo albums, and this sound is also used to great effect by the 72-74 incarnation of King Crimson during 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 Mellotron. The Machine and the Musicians that Revolutionised Rock (Desert Hearts, 2008), 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, quipping “Tuning a Mellotron doesn’t”. 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, with the rise and subsequent critical acceptance of prog in the early 90s, a trend 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.

Streetly went into liquidation in 1986 and in 1989 the bankrupt estate of Mellotron in the US and the remains of all the associated UK companies were acquired by David Kean. He resurrected the Mellotron brand and provided needed parts and tapes to Mellotron enthusiasts. Markus Resch became a partner in this venture, eventually producing the Mark VI Mellotron, a new and improved tape-replay instrument in 1999.

I got to see some of the work done by Resch at King Crimson’s The Night Watch playback in London in 1997 where a couple of reconditioned analogue Mellotrons were on display, though the Swedish factory now only manufactures the digital M4000D, M4000D Mini, M4000D Rack and the Micro models. Streetly Electronics reformed in 1989 and apart from repairing old machines, they’ve come up with the M4000, an analogue instrument combining a series of improvements with the classic looks of the M400 and innovations from the Mk II, all of which means the future is looking rosy for the Mellotron, whether it’s digital or analogue. Though also used by artists you wouldn’t associate with the genre, the resurgence of prog has reintroduced the instrument to the sonic arsenal of bands requiring 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.

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