A highly specialized record guide is the wonderful Planet Mellotron, devoted to cataloging every appearance of the Mellotron in recorded music. The Mellotron, the forerunner of digital samplers, is a keyboard instrument where each key plays an eight-second tape loop of a pre-recorded sound, such as strings, cello, flute or an eight-voice choir. The idea for a musical instrument playing tapes by using a keyboard dates back to 1948 when Harry Chamberlin patented and began selling the Chamberlin. In the early 1960s a company in the UK began producing the Mellotron (melody + electronics = mellotron), an instrument that has been used widely in popular music. For a thoroughgoing history of the Mellotron, check out Streetly Electronics. To hear the individual sounds of a Mellotron, check out the Mellotron Listening Room at Mellotron.com.
Though expensive, the Mellotron became a popular instrument in psychedelic recordings in the late 1960s (most notably by the Beatles on “Strawberry Fields Forever”), and played a major role in the progressive rock genre in the 1970s. In fact, the Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock calls the Mellotron “The quintessential prog rock keyboard instrument.” The Mellotron went out of favor in the 1980s with the advent of cheaper digital synthesizers, but it has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years, including Mellofest and a documentary film about the Mellotron called Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie.
Planet Mellotron appears to be the labor of love of one person, Andy Thompson, whose ambition is to provide a comprehensive list of every appearance of a Mellotron in recorded music (Thompson acknowledges that his quest is “Madness. Utter Madness.”), and his website is loaded with fun-to-read reviews. Thompson rates albums on two scales: a five-star scale for the quality of the music and a five-T scale for the “Mellotronness” of the music. When I first discovered Planet Mellotron, I picked out some of my favorites and compiled the following Cloudcast:
I have discovered one Mellotron track that doesn’t seem to be on Planet Mellotron, the wonderfully trippy “Fire! Fire!” by My Brother the Wind (2011). The Mellotron begins more than 10 minutes into the track.
As a companion to my previous post listing the best albums and EP/7″ releases that came out in 2012, I have put together a CD-length mix of some of the best tracks released last year. There seems to be an ever growing wave of excellent garage and psychedelic music being released and it was hard to make this collection of tracks come in under the 80-minute mark. Adding to this difficulty was my determination to close out this mix with the insanely great 23-minute track “Living in the Cosmic Nod (Improvisations)” by Earthless, who demonstrate superhuman psychedelic stamina. Other than the Earthless track (which defies ranking) the tracks are arranged roughly in order of preference, and I’d give the nod to Still Caves for “Dutch” as the Turn Me On, Dead Man track of the year.
Some time back I went looking for a YouTube clip from an episode of Space: 1999. All I could remember about that episode was that one of the residents of Moonbase Alpha entertained the rest of the crew hurtling through space with a sitar. Turns out it wasn’t a sitar, but rather an electric sitar, or more precisely a Coral sitar. And it wasn’t just any old member of the crew, but sought-after British session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan. In the 1960s and 1970s. Jimmy Page, who was also in demand as a session guitarist during this time, was referred to as “Little Jim,” so as not to be confused with Big Jim Sullivan. Jimmy Page is well known for playing on any number of British pop recordings before his days with the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin. In a 1973 interview, Ritchie Blackmore doesn’t refute Jimmy Page’s claims to having played on many recordings, but he states that Jimmy Page played rhythm guitar in some instances. One specific example Blackmore cites is “The Crying Game,” in which Jimmy Page played rhythm guitar, while the lead guitar part was taken by Big Jim Sullivan. The lead guitar part was a “reading part,” a skill possessed by Big Jim Sullivan but not Jimmy Page, apparently.
So anyway, after a little Googling I found the clip of Big Jim Sullivan playing the electric sitar on Space: 1999. In this episode, called “The Troubled Spirit,” a horribly disfigured figure is roaming the halls of Moonbase Alpha, and this is somehow related to a botanist using the hydroponics lab to conduct experiments on telepathic communication between humans and plants. Not a good idea, apparently, particularly when someone is playing a trippy solo on the electric sitar.
Seeing this clip again confirmed that Big Jim Sullivan’s performance on Space: 1999 was as good as I had remembered–ethereal and mesmerizing. I wanted to hear more electric sitar, so, of course, I next read the Wikipedia entry on the electric sitar, which was, of course, informative. A number of different manufacturers have tried to make electric guitars sound like sitars. In 1967 Vincent Bell invented the Coral Sitar, which is essentially an electric guitar with a couple of adaptations designed to replicate the sound of a sitar. The unique design of this guitar feaured a set of sympathetic strings mounted on the body of the guitar and a “buzz bridge.” You can zoom in for a close view of a Coral sitar used by Rory Gallagher on The Rory Gallagher Instrument Archive. Vincent Bell recorded an entire LP cover versions of hits of the day using the electric sitar to demonstrate that instrument’s capabilities.
Even though guitar-sitars may not sound exactly like sitars, the results never fail to be interesting, at least to my ears. The Wikipedia article helpfully listed several recordings that used an electric sitar. The electric sitar enjoyed great popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it was featured on several hit songs. The novelty of it wore off and tastes changed, but the electric sitar never really went away (I never would have guessed that Eddie Van Halen had used an electric sitar for the solo in “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”). It seems that the electric sitar has made a resurgence of sorts in recent years, and I found several tracks featuring the electric sitar from the last ten years or so.
So I put together a compilation of tracks using electric sitar and posted it on Mixcloud. I couldn’t leave out “Green Tambourine,” because Vincent Bell played on that track. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that all of thes tracks use an electric sitar (as opposed to a real sitar) but the sitar sounds add to the allure of these tracks.
1. The Lemon Pipers – Green Tambourine [Green Tambourine (1967)]
2. The Black Angels – Manipulation [Passover (2006)]
3. Miles Davis – Black Satin [On The Corner (1972)]
4. The High Dials – Our Time Is Coming Soon [War of the Wakening Phantoms (2005)]
5. Marshall Crenshaw – Terrifying Love [Downtown (1985)]
6. Richie Havens – Run, Shaker Life [Somethin’ Else Again (1968)]
7. My Brother the Wind – Pagan Moonbeam [I Wash My Soul in the Stream of Infinity (2011)]
8. The Higher State – The Electric Cowboy [Darker By The Day (2009)]
9. Redd Kross – Play My Song [Neurotica (1987)]
10. Rory Gallagher – Philby [Top Priority (1979)]
11. Steely Dan – Do It Again [Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)]
12. Dinosaur Jr. – The Wagon [Green Mind (1991)]
13. The Delfonics – Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) [The Delfonics (1970)]
14. The Clash – Armagideon Time [London Calling (B side) (1979)]
15. P – I Save Cigarette Butts [P (1995)]
16. Andy Partridge – Open A Can of Human Beans [Fuzzy Warbles Volume 7 ((2006, originally released 2003 on the MS benefit compilation Wish List))]
17. Van Halen – Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love [Van Halen (1978)]