The evolution of synthetic instruments is an interesting development. Over the course of 50 years or so, the process went from its initial gestation to infinite possibilities. In the case of the unique sound of synthesized playback, the wow and flutter of analog keyboards can only be approximated now, as the real thing can be very pricey.
Arguably the biggest casualty in the movement of synthesized convenience over the real deal is the case of the Mellotron. A keyboard that triggers a set of pre-recorded tape loops for each note, the Mellotron (and its predecessor, the Chamberlin) create a unique, decayed sound that evokes a warped natural beauty – the audio equivalent of a sunny day shot on 8MM film.
The sounds typically emitted from a Mellotron have an origin in organic instrumentation, but its re-creation through analog tape creates a sound that the original instrument could never accomplish. One of the first instances of its use in pop music was by The Graham Bond Organization’s ominous 1965 single, “Baby Can It Be True.” The shaky samples came from a Mark II, one of the earliest models of the machine, and its sound and whirling string samples achieved elements of oddness that no set of strings could ever hope to achieve. While not a huge hit, the song was an early entry into the psychedelic era, which would soon follow with countless late ‘60s psych folk artists that would use the instrument and the Hammond Organ to create a surreal aural experience likened to an LSD trip.
The biggest coup for the Mellotron was by its use in “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles, which came out in February of 1967. Although previously used by the fab four on “Tomorrow Never Knows” as a way of adding to that song’s ambient clutter, the “Strawberry Fields” intro may be the most prominent use of the instrument on a Top 10 single, “Nights in White Satin” notwithstanding.
The widespread exposure that The Beatles brought to the machine made it an inquiry for all musicians looking to venture into new sonic territory in rock & roll, and at the turn of the late ‘60s into the ‘70s, the most boundaries were being pushed by prog-rock. King Crimson, Yes, and Genesis all released their debut albums in 1969, and it signified a turning of the tide into heavy art in music. “In the Court of the Crimson King” was as densely layered as its matted front cover, and its titular track fashioned the woody haze of the Mellotron into a medieval lurch, its usage being the first major stake in the instrument being tied in with fantasy and folklore. This association with the fantastical and grandiose would eventually be the death of the instrument.
Artier, long form rockers tended to be the main users of the instrument in the ‘70s, it being a staple on records by The Moody Blues, Rush, and the The Alan Parsons Project, with even rootsier bands like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd taking a stab at it here and there. The birth of punk rock struck as an unofficial end to the instrument’s reign however, which likewise brought about similar fates to its contemporaries such as the Moog , ARP, and Optigan. Punk quickly beget post-punk and synth pop, but the genres’ interest in keyboards were for their sharp and precise capabilities, not the soft sweeping grandeur that the Mellotron had to offer. There were some exceptions – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark initially set themselves apart from their synth-using colleagues with the wobbled layering heard on their “Architecture & Morality” album, and New Order’s single, “Run” had uncharacteristically uplifting use of the sound, which was especially unusual for anything in 1989.
For the most part though, the 1980s were a dead period for the Mellotron which unfortunately lead to its growing scarcity. Years of disinterest led to decreased production — the keyboard was particularly expensive to make and difficult to maintain. In the early 1990s, interest surged back in waves but by then, the damage had already been done. Obtaining an actual functioning Mellotron cost a small fortune and alternate means of achieving the warped classical sound were being explored, such as using sampled programs that imitated it albeit without its natural imperfections. For those who shelled out the clams to get the actual sound on their record, going the extra mile has been dully noted. “Spaceboy” by Smashing Pumpkins for instance, might be the most accomplished use of the actual instrument on anything made in the past 20 years with the choir setting on Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” coming in at a close second. The processed digital version that has cropped up on tracks such as Modest Mouse’s “The World at Large” are nice colorations but contain a flatness that comes with the digital facsimile. While it’s gratifying to hear a sound as beautifully flawed as the Mellotron existing if only in an artificial manner, the grainy lushness of the original sound may unfortunately become a mere relic living on solely in vinyl collections and romanticized essays.