Mellotron and the Endangered Species

Posted by on December 6th, 2010 with 0 Comments

On my first day of composition class at UNC, years ago, I had a bit of a verbal joust with Roger Hannay (who was later to become a good friend). I made some fond comment about Mellotrons, and he replied that they should be banned, as they were going to put orchestras on the breadlines when record producers realized that they could save money by just pressing the sluggish keys of this new invention, which had been popularized by the Beatles and prog-rock bands such as Yes and Glass Moon. And I don’t think he was alone in this, it was a real worry at the time in academic quarters.

Yet, if you’ve ever heard the lofi, tape-strip, warbly sound of a Mellotron, you’d realize this is a bit like worrying about the kazoo wiping out the trumpet population! It’s a great sound, but it’s not an orchestra.

And this had come up before, in the 1940s, when the Ondioline came on the market. It was advertised as re-creating “all the sounds of the orchestra”–which was true, as long as your orchestra was comprised solely of slightly tipsy oboists!

Ardent, where the Big Star records were made, has had a Mellotron almost from the beginning, and it makes dramatic appearances on the albums, starting with songs such as Another Chance and continuing on through the pitchbends on Kanga Roo.

We didn’t have a Mellotron, though, and they are rare birds indeed these days. I wrote out some of the glissandos for our strings–which actually sound fantastic, but (as I said) nothing like a Mellotron.

The news is, late last week the R.E.M. folks volunteered to drive their real Mellotron (well, put it in a vehicle and drive it here, they are not going to threaten the auto industry either) to us! And the same exact model as was used at Ardent. Hard to say no to such largesse. We said “yes please.”

And last night at rehearsal it was good to hear a hearty collective “hell, yes” from the string players, who no longer perceive it as Weapon of Mass Unemployment.

Look for it over on the left this week at the shows, it’s the white wooden pulpit. Testify!

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