With a name like a laid back 60s robot, the Mellotron has been most closely associated with psychedelic pop like The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin,” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” But the early sampling keyboard, an electro-acoustic device that used pre-recorded tape strips mounted inside an organ-like keyboard, was first marketed, Gordon Reid writes at Sound on Sound, to “old-time/modern/Latin dance audiences.” It was supposed to convincingly replicate an orchestra.
The Mellotron, built and sold by Mellotronics, Ltd., was based on an earlier instrument, the Chamberlin MusicMaster, which used recorded notes from members of Lawrence Welk’s band—hardly the hippest sounds on the scene when the Mellotron MK1 debuted in 1963. By the time of the MK2, however, the device developed into a powerful multitimbral machine, with a dual keyboard, “containing more than 70 3/8‑inch tape players, a reverb unit, amplifiers and speakers.”
The rock world “took the Mellotron to its heart,” Reid comments, “and it was this that ensured its success.” It could simulate other instruments, but it did so with its own distinctive flavor (providing not only the flute intro to “Strawberry Fields” but the Spanish guitar at the beginning of The White Album’s “The Continuing Story of Buffalo Bill”). Brad Allen Williams sums up the slightly more portable Mellotron M400’s limited operations succinctly at Flypaper:
Due to the rather primitive tape mechanism (and the inherent challenges of keeping 35 playback heads and pinch rollers in good condition), Mellotrons are a little unpredictable and can be quite characterful. The action of the keyboard is stiff and unusual-feeling, so virtuosic playing is not usually in the cards. All of these “bugs” somehow become “features,” however — the quirks add up to a sonic character that’s iconic and instantly recognizable!
Like so many distinctive analog instruments from pop music’s past, the Mellotron has returned in Nord’s updated Mellotron MK VI, which “uses new mechanics and state of the art technology, but original unused stock tape heads.” That’s groovy news for musicians who dig the Mellotron’s dated idiosyncrasies. In the short film above, however, from 1965, British TV personalities Eric Robinson and David Nixon introduce the instrument to viewers as a first-rate new “musical computer.”
With built in rhythms and a wide selection of sounds—including trombone and French accordion—the Mellotron was on the cutting edge of its day. Robinson and Nixon put the device through its paces, show its internal operations, and generally show off what essentially looked like a novelty organ built for living rooms and cabarets before Lennon/McCartney & Co. got their hands on it in 1967. Just above, see McCartney give a modern audience a different sort of demonstration.