The Mellotron on Garden Shed
by Robert Webb
Why The Extensive Use of Mellotron on the Garden Shed album
The Mellotron is the bee’s knees of keyboard instruments.
Why? Essentially because in keeping with over 600 years of successful musical keyboard inventions* the Mellotron equips the musician with an array of previously unavailable sounds via interesting and restrictive control mechanisms. In the case of the Mellotron the new sounds were the playback of (mostly) orchestral instruments and these ‘frozen performances’ were governed by mechanical restrictions, i.e. the attack envelope characteristic of tape playback (where the tape is ‘bitten’ by the capstan and pulled across the head) and the time length of the recording determined by the length of tape available.I used a number of keyboard instruments on Garden Shed, but during the two year period leading up to the album’s release in 1977, I was particularly impressed with electro-mechanical and electro-acoustic keyboards (it wasn’t just me of course, other musicians and music appreciators had influenced my keyboard-playing career). In contrast to this, I also saw the creative potential in the pre-digital (i.e. analogue) synthesiser. Indeed, in many ways, I could see myself in my role as composer/performer for England as a kind of Janus figure: looking both backwards (retrospective) and forwards (futuristic?) at the same time. It was clear from the 18 banks of sounds available on the Mk II Melloton (an instrument of the mid-60s) that only three particularly appealed to me: the brass (2C, not 4A), the flutes (1A) and the strings (2A) in the lower registers. The flutes didn’t feature on the material chosen for Garden Shed, but the other two, together with timpani, which I spliced into Station 5 of the Mk II (see later on Modifications), became powerful tools within the keyboard rig.
The idiosyncrasies of the Mk II Mellotron: its polyphonic nature, its ear-shocking attack characteristic, its frighteningly inestimable 8-second note duration, and its slightly unstable mechanical temperament (especially at half-speed), helped the Mellotron to become a key player in the composing of Garden Shed. Notes can be heard: ‘running out’ (for example on Poisoned Youth‘s half-speed strings section), ‘milked’ for their fast attack (the brass on the verses of Midnight Madness) and employed for their unique effect (the timpani rolls and individual strikes on Poisoned Youth‘s bridge to the drum cadenza).
* For the history of keyboard inventions check out: Clavicytherium (14th Century), Clavichord (15th – 18th Centuries), Claviorganum (16th – 17th Centuries), Geigenwerk (16th – 18th Centuries) and Lutenwerk (18th Century). I’ve not space to list 20th-Century inventions here.
How I happened upon the Mellotron
My acquaintance with the Mellotron began when I hired a Mellotron 400 in 1972 for the recording of an album at Landsdown Studios with my first progressive-rock group, Angel (produced by Zack Lawrence, album unreleased, but tracks featured on a ‘bumper’ EMI export). It had strings/flutes/cellos tapes and I featured the strings sound on various tracks.
I hired one again for the track Sunshine, a self-funded recording session with Jamie Moses and Robin Freeman in 1973 (Jamie became the England guitarist prior to Garden Shed and Robin engineered the same).
Probably the biggest influence on me for creating these background strings textures was David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Genesis’s Nursery Crime. But I should add that there were many new and mysterious sounds on recordings from the 60s onwards and many musicians and most of the public didn’t know how they were achieved. A year after this Ken Freeman was hired by the producer to add his own invention a ‘string synthesiser’ to one of my own songs, Pictures In My Mind on the Merlin recordings for CBS (album Merlin 1974). I didn’t know at this time, for example that Arthur Brown’s 1968 hit record, Fire (an influential single) was a Hammond organ, even though I had one myself.
Beatles recordings had used many beautiful and strange sounds, yet again it was difficult to know whether these had been achieved by Lowery organ, Modular Moog or a trick of sound engineering (pre-echo, flangeing, etc.). Only the few people who were involved at the time would know how those sounds were made. Also, technology was rapidly advancing in the electronics field: why use an old device when there were knew ones arriving? For example, the very Moog used on Abbey Road was sitting in Air Studios dormant in 1976 when we finalised Garden Shed.
When Jamie Moses (guitarist/singer) and I joined up with Mark Ibbotson (drummer/singer) to form what was to become the group England in 1975, we moved lock, stock and barrel into a rented house in the middle of nowhere (Flimwell in Sussex). Mark, who had initially rented the house, had assembled quite a large collection of animate and inanimate objects: a half-empty P.A. system, several old Jaguars, a 3-ton truck, a hobo, a sound engineer, a £20,000 debt, etc. The sound engineer, Nigel Jopson, said that there had been at least two other England band projects before us. But it was here during the summer months of 1975 that the three of us gave birth to the musical venture that culminated in the release of Garden Shed.
In the back of the 3-ton truck, which stood long awaiting usage on the drive at Flimwell was a Mk II Mellotron in pristine condition. For months no-one wanted to take it out because it was too heavy (I had enough keyboards of my own!). But eventually of course, it was brought into the house and we fired it up. Mark said, (and a word of caution here: it had been pointed out to me that Mark had a long history of incredible storytelling), that he had bought the Mellotron from the parents of the late Brian Jones, guitarist with the Stones. It was this instrument that became the Half-a-Tron, or as we were eventually to call it, the Black Melly. This instrument (serial number 109) was used on the Garden Shed album and, thanks to its being appreciated and safely stored from 1982 to 2004 by Dillon Thomkin, is now owned by the keyboardist Gordon Reid. This (originally) Mk II Mellotron was not the instrument that I was later to own —the white-painted Mk II used by Genesis for touring c.1972-76 and pictured on the Genesis Live album. The ex-Genesis instrument, which I bought directly from a band member of Capability Brown, who as far as I recall were also part of Charisma Records, has never turned up (although there is another white one claiming to be that model in the US).
The ex-Stones Mk II (and Streetly Electronics agree that it could have belonged to Brian Jones since the rest of the Stones seem to have had one each) became part of the stage equipment when England gave two gigs at the Hazlett Theatre in Maidstone in 1975. When Mark left the band, in charactaristically spectacular fashion (during a showcase recital for a Record Company he jumped over his drum kit from the stool and was never seen again!), he later sent his right-hand man to collect his equipment. Being somewhat disappointed with his behaviour, we’d decided to hide the Mellotron for fear of losing it at a time when we were so close to securing a record deal. We got the deal (it produced Garden Shed and a single) and during the next phase, which involved finding a new drummer (Jode Leigh), we set about modifying the Mellotron.
The Half-Speed Switch and other Modifications to the Half-a-Tron
The Mk II Mellotron (No. 109) used on Garden Shed had been taken out of its beautiful highly-lacquered casing early in 1976. It was then divided vertically into two separate keyboard instruments and one half was fitted into a newly-made plywood case. This was done to make the instrument more portable for gigging and also to enable other keyboards to be mounted above it. In those days we referred to it as ‘The Black Melly’ but subsequently Mellotronists have called it the ‘Half-a-Tron’.
Cutting a Mk II in half might seem extravagant but the basic concept wasn’t new to me: I had already sawn three Hammonds and a Lowrey organ in half since becoming a keyboard player at age 16 in 1970. Hammond organs were quite commonly and very easily cut horizontally to reduce their bulk (London-based Electronic Organ Engineers like Bill Dunn, and Moore-Randells of New Malden did this kind of work regularly). But I once agreed to cut a brand new Lowrey GAK in half for a customer when I was working at Selmer Musical Instruments in The West End’s Charing Cross Road. One of the drum salesmen in the shop, Tom Wilkinson, has never forgotten seeing me standing over what was the newest model in the shop, cutting my way round it with a handsaw. The woodworking aspects of the task didn’t worry me, but I didn’t really know whether the fitting of multi-pin sockets and re-wiring were going to work. Fortunately they did. The customer, a gigging organist, who always wanted a portable Lowrey, had already paid the £1,100 for the organ and now gave me £200 for a successfully modification. I suppose it gave me confidence and also caused me to look for modification opportunities.
The Half-a-Tron needed its capstan wheel, a long rod of nickel-silver, shortening and one or two other relatively simple modifications i.e. fitting the large and heavy transformers into a separate case. But with the instrument apart, this was an opportunity to incorporate other features. I had been up to Mellotronics in Portland Place, WC1, and it was suggested that I purchase the latest Mellotron servo-motor, the SMS2, for smoother and more stable tape speed control. I must have talked about wanting to adjust the tape speed right down an octave (Mellotrons only had incremental adjustments for tuning) for I knew it was only a matter of fitting a fader to set the pitch at precisely half speed. The half-speed idea was later taken up by Mellotronics fitted to the 300s and as a mod for 400s.
The controlled slowing down of Mellotron tapes can be heard on Garden Shed during Poisoned Youth when the taped timpani roll closes off the “How I wish…” section, just before the a-temporal drum cadenza. The following drum section is accompanied by half-speed strings from the Mellotron. Although, in truth, we actually edited this break in the recording, the composition was created and performed live based upon the idea of the Mellotron’s idiosyncrasies. The timpani roll would only last for somewhere between 8 and 16 seconds, depending on when and how I slowed it down to half speed. The cue for switching across on the same tapes from half-speed timpani to half-speed strings was visually dependant on us both (Jode and I) being in accord. The same applies to the chord changes during the drum cadenza: Mellotron notes (half-speed strings) can be heard reaching the end of their tape lengths.
The Half-a-Tron was also fitted with an extra pre-amp. One was its original valve pre-amp and the other a custom-made transistor one with parametric EQ. The latter, together with a unique sine-wave oscillator for vibrato on the Mini Moog, was made to my design by Mark Hunt, the resident electronics engineer at Maurice Plaquet’s Musical Instrument Hire Company, where I had worked during 1975/6.
Finally there were the extra Mellotron tapes which I spliced into Station 5 of the Half-a-Tron.
A set of spare Mellotron 400 tapes featuring choir/timpani/strings had become available and I decided to try to splice these into Station 5. This was probably because Station 5 contained the least desirable recordings. It would have been a little easier to splice them into Station 6, the last station, since they were the on the end of the tape roll, but I quite liked the organ sound on Station 6. Anyway, it was a time-consuming job which involved: reeling off Station 6 onto the spare drum which came from the unused half of the Mk II, winding the Half-a-Tron on to Station 5, cutting the start of each tape at precisely the start point and splicing the new tapes into place. I then rolled the new Station 5 through by hand until the ends could then be spliced to the front of the Station 6 tapes. Anyway, after some minor adjustments, it actually worked well and I was able to fine tune Station 5 so that each tape started immediately a key was depressed.
People have commented on the precision of the Mellotron work on Garden Shed. I believe that having an understanding of the workings of this remarkable keyboard, and being aware of its mechanism helped me to create some interesting music. I also recently learned from Martin and John at Streetly Electronics that Mk II serial number 109 was in fact the companies ‘demo’ machine. It was only the ninth Mellotron in production and must have sat in the showroom to sell others from. It would have had to have been a fine example of what their keyboard invention could accomplish and it is likely to have been set up particularly well. Certainly the very early Mk II models, it is said, have a very comfortable and positive action to their keyboards, all of which contributed to the creating of a very special and well-liked album.
Robert Webb – 2005