Thanks to computers and synthesizers, today’s musicians have countless ways to create instrumental sounds. Two Memphis musicians are now planning a concert using one of the first electronic keyboards to replicate real instruments – the Mellotron. Take a listen to this technological marvel of early modern music.
It takes just two fingers to play a song -- complete with rhythm section, horn solos and vibraphone. That was a big selling point of the first Mellotron, invented in the early 1960s. If you could afford it, you could play it.
Mellotrons are rare these days because their analog tape technology is obsolete. For that reason, they represent a special breed of instrument, beloved by musicians looking for a retro sound.
Being hard-to-get also makes them popular with collectors like Winston Eggleston, who owns six of them.
Eggleston recently loaned two machines to a pair of Memphis musicians – Robby Grant and Jonathan Kirkscey – who are working on a concert called "Duets for Mellotron."
Grant is a guitarist and songwriter, and Kirkscey is a composer and cellist. They’ve played together in the band Mouserocket.
For the last couple of weeks, they’ve been rehearsing in a gallery space at Crosstown Arts. The instruments are white, made in Sweden, and their inner machinery is visible through clear panels. Imagine Stanley Kubrick and Ikea teamed up to invent a miniature piano. It’s a contradiction of design and technology: sleek Mid-Century minimalism conveying a sense of futuristic possibility, yet clunky and limited in terms of today's digital capabilities.
Mellotrons function like giant cassette tape players, with one 8-second piece of tape connected to each key on a keyboard. Push a key, and it plays whatever sound has been recorded on that strand of tape.
In some models, the large cassette can be swapped out for different sounds.
“With a touch of a key you could have a car horn or a door slam or a locomotive,” Eggleston said. That made the Mellotron one of the first sound effects machines for radio dramas on the BBC.
While designed as the original band-in-a-box, perfect for upscale cocktail parties at home, rock and roll musicians quickly picked up on the potential.
The first flute notes in the beginning of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” were played on a Mellotron. Numerous progressive and glam rock bands of the 1970s used them, including Genesis, Yes, Tangerine Dream, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Elton John.
“It’s the nostalgia for me,” said Grant of wanting to perform a Mellotron concert. “Also, I like to work within limitations, so when we first started talking about doing this concert, we said, ‘let’s ONLY use Mellotron.’”
The duo did augment the show with the addition of two digital Mellotrons so they could have a wider range of original sounds to work with. (Classic Mellotrons only have three different sounds in each each casette, often flutes, violins and cellos).
But perhaps the Mellotron’s most signature sound is irony – the artificiality of real instrumental recordings played back on a machine that wants to simulate real life, but doesn’t quite get there.
An example of that can be heard on Radiohead’s album OK Computer. The real human voices recorded as Mellotron samples sound robotic and unnatural – a perfect complement to the song “Exit Music (for a Film).”
Eggleston says he’s looking forward to Grant and Kirkscey’s musical collaboration on his Mellotrons, which will be recorded and released on vinyl in the fall.
Does Eggleston think he’ll ever get all six of his machines on stage at one time? Say, in a Mellotron orchestra?
“It would be a really acquired taste, but you could probably talk a few people into it,” he says.
Duets for Mellotron have two performances at Crosstown Arts, Saturday April 16 (SOLD OUT) and 7:30 p.m. Sunday April 17. Tickets are $15, and $30 for the concert and a copy of the record. Click here for more information.