The story of the temperamental, eccentric and otherworldly music instrument.
The Mellotron, along with its predecessor and ‘rival’ the Chamberlain, is one of those oddball musical instruments that you can immediately recognise, even if you’re not sure what it actually is. Sold as a one-stop replacement for an orchestra, the machine sounds nothing like the instruments it was designed to replace – inconvenient if you’d just fired your entire band perhaps, but an unexpected bonus for musicians who discovered that the weird, sometimes unpredictable sounds of his hulking, spit and sawdust machines was something fresh and original. Close enough perhaps to help fill out the spaces that an orchestra might fill in a rock song, but not quite the same.
This thoroughly entertaining documentary film follows the story of the two musical miracles – the Mellotron coming into existence in the UK thanks to a shifty Chamberlain salesman taking a couple of machines over to England and passing them off as his own invention – charting their rise, fall and hipster revival (and seriously – a couple of people interviewed here could give a masterclass in hipstering). Originally invented by the eccentric Harry Chamberlain, the first machines used tape recordings of members of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra playing single notes; through the wonders of arcane technology, these tape samples – and yes, this where sampling began, back in the 1940s! – could be played back via a keyboard in various combinations. Over the ensuing the decades, the two machines were refined to the point of the iconic white M400 Mellotron that became a popular addition for any band in the Prog Rock era after being popularised by the Beatles – that strange sound you hear on Strawberry Fields Forever? That’s the Mellotron.
Of course, the machines were bulky and temperamental. Lives shows could grind to a halt or be cancelled entirely because the Mellotron’s tapes had become tangled. If it got too hot or too cold, disaster was sure to strike. In short, the player never knew exactly what sounds they would get. And with the dawn of the 1980s, with more sophisticated synthesisers offering a variety of sounds and the Fairlight providing digital sampling, the Mellotron fell out of favour. But it’s never gone away entirely – even today, its distinctive, oddball sound can still be heard on records – sometimes from the real thing, sometimes from digital emulators.
Dianna Dilworth’s documentary Mellodrama is endearingly rough around the edges, but any technical faults can be forgiven thanks to the sheer volume of information and interviews. She’s gone for an impressively eclectic number of interviewees – prog acts like King Crimson, Yes, The Moody Blues and Genesis are represented, as well as members of The Beach Boys, Cheap Trick, Opeth and Maroon 5! Euro horror fans will be thrilled to see interviews with Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Frizzi (who teases us with a snippet of the Zombie Flesh Eaters score!). It’s a shame that the budget didn’t stretch to much music clearance – it would’ve been good to hear the tracks being discussed by the artists. But that’s the only complaint really. Otherwise, this is a fascinating look at a much-maligned instrument that will make you desperate to own one yourself! And with 25 minutes of extra material and beautiful sleeve design, this is a fantastic package for lovers of musical esoterica.