Sunday, July 25, 2010

June 1, 2010: 15 Amazing Uses of the Mellotron

Like the sitar or the Theremin, the Mellotron is an instrument with such a unique sound that contributed so integrally to the atmosphere of psychedelia that it has developed a cult as devoted as any that follow the various bands who dabbled in Mellotronia. And this is not limited to cult acts like The End, Tintern Abbey, and Family. Giants from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd worked this proto-synth into some of their best-loved creations.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Mellotron (and if that is the case…boy, have you stumbled across the wrong site!), the keyboard utilized analog tape loops of actual instruments, the most popular being flutes and orchestral strings. Artists often used the Mellotron as a substitute for pricey session musicians, although its wavering, ethereal tone has a charm that is quite distinct from any of the instruments it mimics. Here are 15 of the finest uses of the Mellotron in classic pop songs…

1. “Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles (1967)

The Beatles were not only one of the first bands to get hip to the unique beauty of the Mellotron, but they were also one of the first to understand that it was more than a money-saving tool. After all, they still sprung for studio string and brass players to complete “Strawberry Fields Forever”. On what many agree is their best recording (and as far as I’m concerned, the greatest single recording of the pop era), The Beatles set their Mellotron to mimic flutes, launching legions of Mellotron enthusiasts.

2. “2000 Light Years From Home” by The Rolling Stones (1967)

As always, what’s good for The Beatles is good for The Stones, and as always, The Stones nearly best The Beatles at their own game. If we’re talking about The Beatles’ Mellotron-rich psych masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band vs. The Stones’ Mellotron-richer Their Satanic Majesties Request, I nominate The Stones as the victors. Not only did they create an intricately detailed psychedelic landscape that gets better and better with age, but they made some of the most diverse and creative use of the Mellotron ever. The way-heavy “Citadel” employs Mellotron to stand in for mandolins and saxophones. “She’s a Rainbow” blares with Mellotron trumpets. The controversial experiment “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” even parodies the Mellotron line on their rivals’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”. But the greatest use of the instrument on Satanic Majesties is the swirling Arabesques Brian Jones conjured for the stunning “2000 Light Years From Home”. Jones’s faux strings are as integral to the track’s spooky alchemy as the fuzzy/funky rhythm section or the outer-space blips and beeps Mick coaxed out of his moog synthesizer.

3. “Beeside” by Tintern Abbey (1967)

It’s a testament to the immense quality of their “Vacuum Cleaner”/“Beeside” single that Tintern Abbey has built up a cult following even though this is the only record they officially released. A-side “Vacuum Cleaner” is a roiling, Who-like rocker. B-side “Beeside” is even better; a smoky, psychedelic ballad that might float away if not for a bedrock of searing Mellotron.

4. “Changes” by The Zombies (1968)

Too tastefully produced to compete with the Sergeant or the Satan in terms of psychedelic grandiosity, The Zombies’ swan song , Odessey and Oracle, still makes room for massive amount of Mellotron. Perhaps the instrument is most boldly showcased on the gorgeous “Changes”. Each section of the song is a duet between The Zombies’ glorious vocal harmonies and a select instrument: piano during the verse, congas during the chorus, and Mellotron for the intro and the interludes that link verses and choruses. Vocals, piano, and conga finally co-mingle for the last heart-stopping refrain, but the Mellotron is allowed the final word.

5. “S.F. Sorrow is Born by The Pretty Things (1968)

The Mellotron is most often used to create fluid, entrancing washes of sound, but on occasion, a player has turned it into a more aggressive instrument. A good example of this is Brian Jones’s violent stabs on The Stones’ terrifying “We Love You”. Another is the fierce shrieks John Povey tears out of the instrument on the opening track of The Pretty Things’ masterpiece, S.F. Sorrow. The subject of “S.F. Sorrow is Born” is pretty self-explanatory, and Povey’s robust Mellotron could be an approximation of Sorrow’s cry as he’s born into a miserable life rocked by war, drugs, death, and loneliness. Somehow this is also one of the most joyous songs on this list.

6. “Blackberry Way” by The Move (1968)

The Move’s “Blackberry Way” is a cheeky parody of The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”, chronicling the various tragedies occurring on a particular rainy street on a particularly “terrible day”. For its arrangement, “Blackberry Way” draws on the flipside of “Penny Lane”, appropriating the Mellotron that helped make “Strawberry Fields Forever” the unique track it is. A weary Mellotron line mopes along beneath a largely acoustic arrangement providing The Move’s tale of woe with a touch of elegance.

7. “Mellowing Grey” by Family (1968)

Family’s 1968 LP Music in a Doll’s House is an underrated gem, nearly as eclectic as The Beatles’ “White Album” released the same year (an album that was almost titled A Doll’s House itself!). Family’s debut doled out nuggets of blues, classical-rock, hard rock, prog, country, psych, raga, Sgt. Pepper’s-style big band rock, and avant experimentation. Such an album could hardly have been made without ample assistance from the Mellotron in 1968. The instrument is used generously throughout Music in a Doll’s House, but makes its most majestic appearance on the chiming “Mellowing Grey”.

8. “Animal Farm” by The Kinks (1968)

Of all the major acts of the mid-60’s, Bob Dylan and The Kinks were the ones who most defiantly resisted the fashionable trappings of psychedelia. Dylan even managed to avoid that psychedelic totem, the Mellotron, completely. The Kinks, however, used it indulgently. Unlike quite a few of their contemporaries, The Kinks most often used the Mellotron because their waning commercial success prevented them from hiring string sections and other sessionmen while recording The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. On “Animal Farm”, Ray Davies incorporated the Mellotron into the mix so adeptly that it could almost pass for actual strings.

9. “See Saw” by Pink Floyd (1968)

As fundamentally psychedelic as The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was, there is little to recommend it to Mellotron-enthusiasts. This wrong was seriously righted on Pink Floyd’s Mellotron-heavy sophomore disc, A Saucerful of Secrets. Rick Wright soars through this stellar assemblage of space rock using a Mellotron that once belonged to Princess Margaret! The royal keyboard is at its most evocative on Wright’s own composition, the sadly nostalgic “See Saw”.

10. “Cardboard Watch” by The End (1969)

While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were spending much of ’67 in courthouses and jail cells, The Stones’ stalwart rhythm section did a lot of thumb-twiddling. Only under such extreme circumstances could Bill Wyman have slipped one of his own compositions—“In Another Land”—onto a Stones album—Their Satanic Majesties Request. He otherwise busied himself with The End, a Surrey-based group that he managed, produced, and composed songs for. Although their one album, the astonishing Introspection, was not released until 1969, its recording began during the protracted sessions that eventually spawned Satanic Majesties. As such, some of the Satanic-era accoutrements made their way onto The End’s album, even though the overall results are far-poppier than the Stones’ nightmare carnival. One such accoutrement is the Mellotron, which is all over Introspection. The climbing lines on “Cardboard Watch” are particularly enchanting.

11. “Space Oddity” by David Bowie (1969)

By 1969, the psychedelic era was basically gasping its last, which could have meant bad news for our old pal, the Mellotron. But as we shall see, prog rockers (and the occasional sexy soul star) were more than happy to give the instrument a second life. “Space Oddity” is one of the last great psychedelic records of the ‘60s, and the first significant statement by former mod/Anthony Newley-clone, David Jones. Rechristened David Bowie, he’d only occasionally revisit this brand of spacey psych, so the Mellotron would not become a significant element in the man’s repertoire, but it certainly does its part to help stir images of a whimsical space cowboy floating through the cosmos on “Space Oddity”.

12. “Epitaph” by King Crimson (1969)

Perhaps no other band is as closely associated with the Mellotron as King Crimson. The doomy prog rockers had one of the most distinct and creative guitarists in their ranks with Robert Fripp, yet their first few albums are dominated by monstrous slabs of Mellotron. This is particularly true of their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. Nearly any of the album’s five tracks could have earned a spot on this list, but I’m going with “Epitaph”, which is as complete a summation of the Crim’s Grimm fairy tale imagery, po-faced attitude, and Mellotron-centricness as you’ll ever hear.

13. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” by Marvin Gaye (1971)

In 1971, Marvin Gaye helped Motown to finally make the transition from a singles-driven label to one that could produce some truly memorable LPs, as well. He did so with What’s Going On, an album so seamlessly constructed that it’s amazing the label was able to cull any singles from it at all, but the title track and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” were, indeed, released on 45 and became two of Gaye’s hugest smashes. What’s Going On was also the culminating work of Motown’s dalliance with psychedelic soul in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, so it makes sense that the record would also make use of one of psych’s most distinguished hallmarks: the Mellotron. Gaye uses the instrument in a suitably unique manner on “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. The strings that soar throughout the track are the real deal, but the creepy wordless voice that appears in the coda is a Mellotron fabrication.

14. “And You and I” by Yes (1972)

Yes is often held up as exhibit A during debates regarding the icy, bloated pretentiousness of prog rock, but much of their music delivers way more melody and genuine feeling than the naysayers would have you believe. Granted, no one but the most masochistic Middle Earth resident ever needs to sit through all four sides of Tales from Topographic Oceans, but The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge are all enjoyable records. Culled from the latter, “And You and I” takes a speedy space shuttle from delicate prettiness into pop transcendence when Rick Wakeman unleashes his fiery Mellotron during the song’s second passage.

15. “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin (1975)

The classic era of the Mellotron received a powerful send off with one of the hugest songs by the hugest band of the ‘70s. Led Zeppelin had already used the instrument to stunning effect on their 1973 ballad “The Rain Song”, but it was on the monolithic “Kashmir” that it really exploded. John Paul Jones creates massive blocks of pseudo-strings and pseudo-brass to further augment acoustic strings and acoustic brass, as well as Jimmy Page’s lazy strumming, Robert Plant’s shrieks, and John Bonham’s metronomic drumming. The results are a track that truly bears out Zeppelin’s mythic persona as perhaps no other does. “Kashmir” also essentially marked the end of the Mellotron’s run as a major piece of pop ornamentation. As more sophisticated synthesizers came into use, the Mellotron—ever ornery and difficult to keep in tune—fell by the wayside… that is, until the ‘90s when droves of acts from Radiohead to Smashing Pumpkins to R.E.M. to Pulp revived the instrument to add a retro touch to their latest discs…

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