Mellotron History

The immediate predecessor to the Mellotron is a musical device called a Chamberlin, designed by Harry Chamberlin in Wisconsin between 1949 and 1956. Although there were several models, it was basically a 2-manual device, with the left-hand manual playing pre-recorded rhythms and the right-hand manual playing pre-recorded sounds (flutes, strings, etc.) Harry’s window-cleaner was a bloke called Bill Fransen, who became a salesman for Harry.

In 1962, Fransen disappeared. Apparently, he went to England, taking with him two Chamberlin 600s, with all labels and markings removed, and asked around for a manufacturer who could supply 70 matched magnetic tape heads. The Birmingham firm, Bradmatic, responded to the request, correctly guessing that the heads were for a musical instrument. Fransen sold the Chamberlins to Bradmatic, who designed a slightly improved version called the Mellotron Mk1 and established a production facility to make them.

Bill Fransen, and the first ever Mk1 Mellotron, less its keyboard.

The company (owned by Frank, Norman and Leslie Bradley) then created ‘Mellotronics’, to deal with selling, distributing and marketing the Mellotron. They also renamed the Mellotron manufacturing side of the company to Streetly Electronics and developed what became the Mk2 Mellotron. Streetly (and Harry Chamberlin) discovered what Bill Fransen had done when US agents for Streetly went with a Mk1 to a music industry trade fair called NAMM. Harry Chamberlin looked at it and realised it was a copy of his invention. Streetly realised that they had unwittingly infringed copyright, so they made reparations with Harry Chamberlin’s company to the tune of about £32,000, which was a huge amount of money in the mid-1960’s and presumably gave Fransen the biggest bollocking of his life! In addition, they agreed that Chamberlins would be confined to America, and Mellotrons would stay in the UK, though the latter part of the agreement ‘expired’ in the late 1960’s. After coming into contact with each other, they did exchange technical data and some taped sounds.

The pre-recorded sounds for each and every Mellotron were specified by the customer, but Streetly also had a basic set of 18 sounds which formed the basis of the tape-set. The first single to feature the Mellotron was “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James” by Manfred Mann, and the first album to use the Mellotron was “There’s a Bond Between Us” by the Graham Bond Organisation. Both recordings, using Mk2 Mellotrons, were first released in 1966.

The sounds for the Mellotron were recorded by the Eric Robinson Organisation at IBC Studios, 35 Portland Place in London, adjacent to offices owned by Streetly. Eric Robinson was a conductor, band-leader and broadcaster who promoted the Mk2 Mellotron via a film…

Robinson introduces the film, but the bloke actually playing it is David Nixon. He was a magician who had several series on BBC TV, and was Basil Brush’s first ‘straight man’! He was also Eric Robinson’s son-in-law.

The Beatles, arguably, went through their most artistically productive phase from the “Rubber Soul” album to “The Beatles” (a.k.a. ‘The White Album’). All 4 Beatles each bought a Mk2 Mellotron (McCartney also bought a custom made LEFT-HANDED Mellotron), and its debut was on the introduction to “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

A few bands dabbled with the Mellotron, but it really took off when The Moody Blues were looking for a new musical direction. They scored a hit in 1964 with “Go Now”, but subsequent singles sunk without trace. The guitarist (Denny Laine, who later cropped up in Paul McCarney’s Wings) and bassist Clint Warwick (who became a carpenter) left, being replaced by Justin Hayward and John Lodge respectively. During this fallow period, the keyboardist, Mike Pinder, worked for Streetly for 18-odd months, doing quality work on Mellotrons. On his return to the Moody Blues, he asked Streetly for a Mk2, and was pointed in the direction of the Dunlop Company, who had a huge tyre-making plant in Birmingham. Their social club had an unused Mk2 Mellotron, which Pinder bought for a pittance. He used it to devastating effect on the single “Nights in White Satin”, which was a huge hit, even when it was re-released 10-odd years later.

In the late 1960’s it received a further nudge when new band Giles, Giles & Fripp recorded their one and only album at the same studio where the Moody Blues recorded their albums (Both bands were on the Deram label, who owned the studio). Fripp used it on the GGF album, though it was wasted, given the somewhat whimsical nature of the music. With the inclusion of Ian McDonald and former Fairport Convention singer, Judy Dyble, GGF metamorphosed into King Crimson, who used the Mellotron extensively from 1969 until 1974, but that is another story!

Several bands noted King Crimson’s use of the Mellotron, and bought one for themselves, notably Genesis (who bought their first ‘tron from King Crimson) and Yes. Other bands experimented with the Mellotron, such as The Rolling Stones (“2000 Light Years from Home”), Manfred Mann (a few singles), The Kinks and Barclay James Harvest.

Bands were touring with the Mk2, but it was a pig to move. It was very heavy (taking 3 roadies to shift one) and it was extremely fragile. Streetly responded to this by making the M300, then the M400. Essentially, the latter was the melodic half of a Mk2, with the minimum of controls. About 1800 M400’s were made by Streetly, but EMI made about another 100 under licence.

In 1977, Bill Eberline, of Dallas Musical Instruments, offered to act as worldwide distributors for the Mellotron. Streetly agreed to this and sales did pick up for a time, but other products marketed by D.M.I. did poorly, resulting in DMI going bust, taking Mellotronics with them. Streetly Electronics were hit hard but continued to build Mellotrons, but under the name ‘Novatron’, because Bill Eberline somehow acquired the name Mellotron in all of the legal wrangling that ensued. Bill then created a company called Sound Sales to sell mellotrons and its tapes. The name now resides with a bloke called Dave Kean, who really should return the rights to its morally correct owner.

This gave rise to the idiotic situation, where Streetly would build a Mellotron, call it a Novatron, sell it for £3,500 to Sound Sales, who would take shipment of that same machine, re-label it a Mellotron and flog it for £4,500! Streetly went out of business on February 13th 1986 after trying to compete with synthesizers.

Streetly Electronics were reactivated in about 1990 by John (son of Les) Bradley and Mellotron enthusiast Martin Smith. As well as repairing, restoring and upgrading old Mellotrons, they have designed a new Mellotron, with assistance from American Norman Leete. This new Mellotron, the M4000, has 24 sounds (compared to the 3 in an M400) and it looks like an M400, but is slightly taller. The basic technology is much the same as a Mk2. See…

Markus Resch took an M400 and ‘improved’ it. He re-named it a Mk VI and is currently in production in Stockholm. I believe that someone in Calgary,Canada is/was making copies of the M400 in the late 1990’s, but I cannot find any corroborating evidence of this.

Streetly also collaborated with someone to put the Mellotron sound on the iPad – see…

As well as still making M400’s, Markus Resch has designed and put on sale a digital version of the M400, called the M4000D – see…

There is another digital Mellotron, called the Memotron, made by someone in Germany. I do know that Oasis bought 4 of them for touring, retaining a proper Mellotron in the studio – see…

There are a number of PC software packages that have the Mellotron sound. One of them is M-Tron. Check out…

From personal experience, ‘traditional’ instrument makers (Korg, Yamaha, Casio and probably a few others) have the Mellotron sound available. I saw a gig in 2003 of a band called “21st Century Schizoid Band”, composed of former members of King Crimson and they played King Crimson songs that they were personally involved with. To simulate the sound of a Mellotron, they used a pair Korg Triton Pro’s, which produced an excellent representation of a Mellotron.

At the present time, the Mellotron is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Among the top bands using one (or more) are…

1)    OASIS – as mentioned above, they use an original M400 in the studio, but use Memotrons on the road. The cello on “Wonderwall” is actually a Mellotron – I didn’t believe it either! Since leaving Oasis, Noel Gallagher continues to use Mellotrons, and one can clearly be heard on his initial recordings.

2)    MANIC STREET PREACHERS – they’ve been using ‘trons for quite a while. It is clearly audible in the background of the single “If you Tolerate this, then your Children will be next.”

3)    PAUL WELLER – owns a Novatron and sporadically adds it to his output. I haven’t heard any of it, as I’m not keen on Paul Weller!

4)    RAZORLIGHT – occasionally use a Mellotron, and appeared with one at the “Live-8” concert at Hyde Park,London in 2005, using it on at least one song.

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