Recorded music history is filled with instruments that appeared for a brief time, then were never heard from again—relegated to the dustbin of too-quirky, heavy, awkward, tonally-unpleasant, or impossible-to-tune-and-maintain. Then there are instruments—once they assumed their basic shape and form—that have persisted largely unchanged for centuries. The Mellotron falls into neither of these categories. But it may in time transcend them both in a strange way.
“Of all of the strange instruments that've worked the edges of popular music,” writes Gareth Branwyn at Boing Boing, “the Mellotron is probably the oddest. Basically an upright organ cabinet filled the tape heads and recorded tape strips that you trigger through the keyboard, the Mellotron is like some crazy one-off contraption that caught on and actually got manufactured.”
First made in England in 1963, it appeared in various models throughout the seventies and eighties. It has reappeared in the nineties and 2000s in improved and upgraded versions, all leading up to what Sound on Sound called “the most technologically sophisticated Mellotron ever,” the 2007 M4000. In the video above Allison Stout from Bell Tone Synth Works, a music shop in Philadelphia, PA, demonstrates a much earlier, far less advanced M400 from 1976.
Not only did the Mellotron beat the odds of remaining an unworkable prototype; the proto-sampler became a psychedelic signature: from “Strawberry Fields Forever” to the Moody Blues and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” It populated early prog rock, thanks to Yes’s Rick Wakeman, who played on Bowie’s space rock classic in 1969, and to Ian McDonald, who fell for the instrument that same year as a founding member of King Crimson. (See enthusiastic YouTuber “Doctor Mix” play Mellotron parts from well-known songs above.)
The instrument’s slightly cheesy, Lawrence-Welk-orchestra-like sounds somehow fit perfectly with the loose, spacious instrumentation of prog and psych rock; its sound will live as long as the music of The Beatles, Bowie, and everyone else who put a microphone in front of a Mellotron. Yet in most of its iterations, the Mellotron has lacked the characteristics of a melodic instrument that survives the test of time. It is finicky and prone to frequent breakdowns. It is limited in its tonal range to a series of tape recordings of a limited number of instruments.
In the case of the Mellotron M400 at the top, those instruments are violin, flute, and cello. Do the sounds coming from the Mellotron in any way improve upon or even approximate the qualities of their originals? Of course not. Why would musicians choose to record with a Mellotron at a time when analogue synthesizers were becoming affordable, portable, and capable of an expressive range of tones? The answer is simple. Nothing else makes the weird, warm, warbly, whirring, and entirely otherworldly sound of a Mellotron, and nothing ever will.