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On 'Mellotron Variations,' A 1960s-Era Instrument Makes A Comeback

From left to right: Musicians Robby Grant, Pat Sansone, Jonathan Kirkscey and John Medeski perform in April 2018.
Jamie Harmon
Courtesy of the artist
From left to right: Musicians Robby Grant, Pat Sansone, Jonathan Kirkscey and John Medeski perform in April 2018.

"It is an iconic part of so much pop and rock music, but it's also an instrument that's yet to be fully explored," says jazz keyboardist John Medeski.

Medeski is talking about the Mellotron. In addition to using the Mellotron on his own records, last year he collaborated with Pat Sansone of Wilco, Jonathan Kirkscey and Robby Grant to put on a concert in which all four musicians played original compositions together on the instrument. This summer, they released Mellotron Variations, a live album of that concert performance, and its accompanying film comes out this week.

The way Medeski uses the instrument might sound unfamiliar to its usual fans. "There's a wheel, a spinning wheel that controls the speed of the tapes and I started to realize that you can actually touch the wheel and change the speed and effect the sound," Medeski says. "It gave me the ability to sort of do stuff that a DJ does — you touch a record, you slow it down, you change the speed [of the music]. So I started using the Mellotron like that, as an expressive instrument of its own, not trying to imitate strings."

<em>Mellotron Variations</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Mellotron Variations

The Mellotron debuted in 1963. With its two keyboards, the instrument looked a lot like an organ, but on the Mellotron they were side by side — the keys on the left gave you rhythms and backing tracks, while keys on the right called up woodwinds, strings and other instruments. Music producer Tony Visconti — who's worked with artists including David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Angélique Kidjo — is a fan.

"The people who invented it wanted this to be for home use only, so they didn't care too much about high fidelity," Visconti says. "The fidelity was so low, and you had this wobble in the sound. So when you pressed the key, the tape of that one note started to play. Towards the end, you'd hear a bit of a flutter, an out of tuneness..."

Musicians soon figured out how to turn these quirks into art. The Beatles used the Mellotron on "Strawberry Fields Forever" and The Moody Blues used it on several songs, including "Tuesday Afternoon."

But Visconti says the Mellotron wasn't really built for the road.

"My friends, the Moody Blues, they had maybe four Mellotrons that they went on the road with, and at least two were in constant maintenance," he says.

Today, Alison Stout knows all about that constant maintenance. She restores old Mellotrons at her Philadelphia-based workshop, Bell Tone Synth Works, and it isn't like the mass-produced synthesizers she's used to working with. "This was just a small company making a niche product with limited resources," she says.

Stout explains that the keys often get stuck. The tapes inside stretch and wear out, leaving behind pop and dropouts. "There are all of these alignment issues, and things have to be demagnetized, lubricated..." she continues. "It's all just kind of rickety."

Even though British manufacturer Streetly Electronics suspended manufacturing of the Mellotron in the mid-1980s, it remained popular, popping up in the 1990s in music by Oasis, Radiohead and Blur. Today, several companies make the instrument (including Streetly, which debuted a new model in 2007). There are also digital versions, software plugins, and even Mellotron apps. But for musicians like Medeski, nothing compares to crafting sound by hand on the old analog machines.

"I have dedicated my life to instrumental music because I do feel it's a language of its own. The Mellotron adds another level of communicating in that language because it really opens up a door to a completely new and bizarre universe: new sounds, new colors, like an orchestra," he says.

Mellotron Variations Concert Film will premiere Nov. 8th at the Crosstown Arts Theatre in Memphis, Tenn., and you can catch them on tour at the Oz Arts in Nashville on Dec. 7.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allyson McCabe
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