Exploring the popular and ear-shriekingly loud mini synth of the 1970s.
Several years ago, I managed to fulfill a childhood ambition by purchasing a stylophone. These mini electronic keyboards had been a source of some fascination since I was a kid, seeing TV commercials and comic book adverts featuring Rolf Harris, then still a national treasure rather than disgraced nonce – his close connection with the machine has, perhaps, rather unfairly tarnished it for some. But back in the 1970s, nothing seemed quite as fascinating as this portable synth. Here was a slice of futuristic electronica, perhaps second only to the theremin in terms of creating sci-fi soundscapes. It sounds unlike anything else ever invented.
A handheld analog keyboard that was operated by using a stylus from key to key, this was a new sort of musical instrument – somewhere between the moog, the mellotron and the electronic keyboards that would become musically widespread at the end of the 1970s. It was invented by Brian Jarvis in 1967, and used a printed circuit board and a voltage controlled oscillator, which sounds both futuristic and retrograde – the stylophone ought to be the musical instrument of the steam punk movement, if the members of that movement had ever heard of it.
Some three million units were shifted, though most were bought as children’s toys. Despite the sonic possibilities of the instrument, few professional musicians used it. But David Bowie featured it, suitably, on Space Oddity, while Tony Visconti played it on a Sparks album and Kraftwerk also toyed with it. A few bands, such as Pulp, have used it since, but the instrument never really took off with musicians. In 1975, production was ceased, and the stylophone was confined to the dustbin of history, a curious novelty. It wasn’t until 2007 that the instrument was revived by Dubreq, with new and increasingly professional versions released every few years after that.
My long sort after Stylophone was one of the 1970s original, which to my surprise was still in working order – a new battery was all that was needed to get it up and running. These things were obviously built to last. The package came with no less than three seven inch singles that featured various play-along tunes that included surprisingly complex music sheets. Rolf’s cheery grin on the covers couldn’t hide the fact that this was going to be a rather more complex affair than anticipated. Still, practice makes perfect.
Unfortunately, the major flaw of the the 1970s Stylophone became immediately apparent as soon as stylus hit keyboard. The instrument has only one volume, and that volume is ear shatteringly loud. The stylophone effectively sounds like a fire alarm going off, and I fear that it needs both a rigid tolerance of intense electronic shrieking and a location where there are no neighbours who would start banging on the walls as you struggle to play Hello Dolly on this unfamiliar machine. I’m afraid I had neither.
Still, as a slice of retro style, this can’t be beaten. The stylophone now has the look of something that is at once futuristic and vintage, and is a very desirable item. The current versions come with a volume control, which probably makes practising with it a bit easier, but has otherwise sensibly avoided changing the look too much
A part of me is still intrigued about the idea of using my vintage version in some sort of experimental musical performance. I admire those who have mastered the machine to play actual tunes, but I rather imagine that it is best suited to moments of extreme noise terror, and if I ever announce a gig, you should be warned that this is what I’ll be playing.