In 1978, a band I was working with was recording an album at A & R Studios in New York City. In the studio was the keyboard called a Mellotron. We never did use it on the album, but I liked to hit the key that made a dog bark because it sounded just like the dog barking at the end of “Caroline No” from Pet Sounds. I was pretty sure that the thing could do more than that, but I didn’t know how to use it, and I didn’t know anything about the years of innovation that led to my smile when I heard that dog bark.
Now, thanks to the new documentary being released today, cleverly titled Mellodrama, at least I’m clued in to the instrument’s history. I know how a military electronics technician by the name of Harry Chamberlin built and marketed a keyboard that bore his name back in 1948. I know that he used members of the Lawrence Welk orchestra to record the eight second tape snippets that the machine would use to replicate various musical sounds. Then his salesman, a man named Bill Franson, basically stole two of the keyboards, took them to England and passed them off as his own creation. There he sold them to the Bradley brothers, who had a company called Bradmatic. They created their own version, better built and more reliable (though still not very reliable at all), and called it the Mellotron. They weren’t as careful with the recording of their tapes, however.
Both instruments used tapes. On these tapes were the recorded sounds of various instruments. When a key was struck, a tape would play. By combining keys, you could ostensibly recreate the sounds of an orchestra. In actuality, it was a pretty pale substitute, but it did have a sound of its own, and many musicians liked it. Mellotron users like Brian Wilson, Michael Penn, Al Kooper, Tony Banks of Genesis, Ian McDonald of King Crimson, Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, and Rod Argent of the Zombies, are on hand to discuss the instrument. While Wilson found it lacking on its own, he found value in using the Mellotron to enhance the real strings he would record. Others, like Argent, used it instead of real strings when budget issues intervened on Odessey & Oracle. Still other composers found the sounds useful in the music that they created for Italian horror films.
Both Mellotron and Chamberlin kept issuing new models every few years until the 1980s, when the advent of analog and digital synthesizers nearly marked the end. Both companies shut down, and it looked like the end for the idiosyncratic instruments. Then a funny thing happened; producers like Mitchell Froom and musicians like Matthew Sweet rediscovered the Mellotron in the ’90s, and before you knew it, new models were being produced again, beginning with the Mellotron MK VI in 1999.
Mellodrama, a film by Dianna Dilworth, knows its audience. I’m not sure that it’s going to be of interest to a general audience, but musicians, and especially gear geeks are going to enjoy it. Some of it was over my head technically, and some of it just wasn’t interesting to me, but when the film stuck to the history of the instrument, it was entertaining enough. The bonus features on the disc include 16 shorts in which some of the musicians mentioned above get up close and personal with the Mellotron. I know some keyboard players who are going to lap this up like warm milk, and if the people marketing this DVD create a nice display in the keyboard section at Guitar Center, they’ll sell a ton of these.