This month records featuring the unmistakable and somewhat wobbly tones of the Mellotron come under the gaze of our resident archivist

I thought I’d dig out a few records made with Mellotrons this month. The precursor to the Mellotron was the Chamberlin, which was designed by Harry Chamberlin in the late 1940s. He wanted to make an instrument that would be a kind of home entertainment system. Using strips of tape, you could press a key and have it play rhythms and the sounds of violins and other instruments, like an early sampler. The Chamberlin was quite successful, and Harry grew the business as a cottage industry. His children worked for him, and his window cleaner, a guy called Bill Franson, became his salesman.

Franson would travel the United States selling Chamberlins to music shops, nightclubs and indviduals. But then he disappeared, and Chamberlin couldn’t get hold of him. It turned out that Franson had gone to the UK with a couple of Chamberlins where he rebadged them as “Franson” and sold them to a company called Bradmatic. They developed the design into the first Mellotron in 1963 and later changed their name to Mellotronics. There was some trouble between them and Chamberlin, as you’d expect, but they agreed to stick to their own territories and that was that.

The first record to feature a Mellotron was by Graham Bond in 1965, ‘Baby Can It Be True’, which was a track on the album ‘There’s A Bond Between Us’, and then Manfred Mann used it in 1966 on a couple of singles, ‘Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James’ and ‘Ha! Ha! Said The Clown’. The most famous use of a Mellotron came in 1967 when The Beatles used it on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.

But my favourite Mellotron record is Edgar Froese’s ‘Ypsilon In Malaysian Pale’, or ‘Epsilon In Malaysian Pale’ if you bought the Virgin release rather than the German edition, which came out on the Brain label. David Bowie was very keen on it, too. He listened to it all time when he was living in Berlin, apparently. Released in 1975, it’s a dark ambient album with just two tracks, each one taking a side each. The second side is more classic Berlin school electronics, but the first side is Mellotron-heavy. The Mellotron was Froese’s main instrument. He used it on his first solo album, ‘Aqua’, too, and it’s all over Tangerine Dream’s ‘Rubycon’. There’s some great footage of them at The Manor Studio in Oxfordshire recording ‘Rubycon’ where you can see him playing the Mellotron.

Mellotrons were infamous for causing havoc on the road. They weren’t that big, but they were really heavy because of the mechanism inside them to play the tapes, and the tapes themselves were on looms. There was an attempt to create a lighter more portable Mellotron, called the Birotron, which used eight-track cartridges.

Rick Wakeman, who played Mellotron on Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and used them all the time with Yes, was a major investor in the Birotron, but the company collapsed. The instrument was manufactured, but it never made it to market, and now they are one of the rarest manufactured keyboards in the world. I think there are only two in existence.

We used a Mellotron on the Meat Beat Manifesto album ‘Satyricon’ in 1992, and I’d tried to use one with my previous band Perennial Divide. We recorded a 12-inch called ‘Beehead’ in Swindon with XTC’s Andy Partridge producing. There was actually a Mellotron in Swindon, but we couldn’t get it up the stairs to the studio. Later on I got all the sounds on a DVD, which you could load into an Akai sampler. When XTC recorded ‘Skylarking’ with Todd Rundgren producing, they used a Chamberlin on the track ‘Dying’, the clarinet solo towards the end. It belonged to Rundgren, and apparently was one of the two Chamberlins Bill Franson had brought from America to the UK back in the 1960s. A mouse lived in it. There was a little hole in the bottom where it would come and go.

You’d think that there are plenty of Mellotron demonstration records out there, but I haven’t found any. Apparently there is a Chamberlin one, but I’ve never managed to track down a copy. If you want to see a Mellotron in action, I’d recommend searching on YouTube for a Pathé news film with the magician David Nixon showing off his. It is quite odd, but he was a major investor in the Mellotronics company.

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