Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet
Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie
Directed by Diana Dilworth
Bazillion Points, 2009
80 minutes, USD $24.95
While the name of this documentary is clever, it is actually a misnomer as the film covers not only the Mellotron, from Britain, but equally its precursor and competitor, the Chamberlain, invented in the United States by its namesake, Harry Chamberlain.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about the Mellotron or Chamberlain, as it has been used for both good and evil in music, much like the AutoTune. While present in such great tunes as the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” and the Moody Blues’ “Night in White Satin,” it has also been the basis of many a prog band, a genre that I have never learned to appreciate, though I’ve tried.
Let’s get to basics first. The Chamberlain / Mellotron looks like a stand-up organ, but behind each key is 8 seconds worth of magnetic tape on which one can record anything, so when you play it like a synthesizer, it can sound like a flute, a wind instrument, or a car horn. As put here, it’s the “first instrument to replicate the sounds of other instruments.” But no matter what is played, it produces a very distinct sound of its own. As is pointed out a number of times here by various musicians and producers, this was the first use of sampling, and again, the Faustian bargain comes into play of positives and negatives.
Harry Chamberlain invented the instrument in the late 1940s, but it did not really come into popularity until the ‘60s, where it was adopted by a number of rock and roll bands. The key to its true success lies in a negative act, where the key salesman of the Chamberlain took the plans over to England, presented them as his own, and the Mellotron becomes a reality, with adapted additional features not on the original. Which one is better is like someone arguing between the Harley Davidson and the Indian motorcycles, the beta or VHS, or the Mac and the PC: it’s a matter to personal preference. The Mellotron was arguably more popular, though, as it was adopted by British prog musicians more than the few Americans who participated in its usage.
Actually, the event made the Mellotron famous was the Beatles using it on “Strawberry Fields,” to give it that swirling sound. Also, the guitar opening of “Bungalow Bill” is not George or John, but what is packaged for the bottom key of the Mellotron.
After that, many bands are listed on a timeline here that used the instrument, decade by decade, including the Stones, Kinks, Bowie, Cream, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Big Star, Roxy Music, Elton John, Lou Reed (on Berlin), T-Rex, Abba, Kraftwerk, Tom Waits, Pearl Jam, Elliot Smith, Nine Inch Nails, U2, ex-Bernie Kugel bandmate Vincent Gallo, Johnny Cash, and even through Kanye West (would he be “bad” or “bore”?). The list is much longer, and I only touched on those presented on this documentary.
There are a number of presentations of facts here that keep the pace of the story going, and interesting. For example, along with the many photos of Harry and the dastardly salesman, Bill Franson, Director Dianna Dilworth employs animation (such as timelines), song clips, and one of my favorites, side by side comparisons of the Chamberlain and the Mellotron, sometimes employing split screens.
However, the fulcrum that keeps the story going is the use of interviews for the film, such as Harry’s son, Richard Chamberlain (not the actor). Many musicians who used the contraptions are presented, such as singer-songwriter Michael Penn, Rod Argent (The Zombies; Argent), Ric Neilsen (Cheap Trick), Ian McDonald (King Crimson), Tony Banks (Genesis), Al Kooper (session musician extraordinaire), Patrick Moraz (Moody Blues; Yes), Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath), Matthew Sweet, and the master of the studio himself, Brian Wilson (do you need to ask?). There are also studio engineers, collectors, and historians included. Two interesting choices for interviews that raised eyebrows in excitement for me were Claudio Simonetti (composer for the group Goblin) and Fabio Frizzi, who used the Mellotron’s spooky aspects for their work with the Italian masters of horror, Dario Argento and Leo Fulci, respectively. Yes, that eerie sound that raised the hairs on the back of your neck was the Mellotron. In this case, the shrill, weird, almost electro-Theremin sound of the instrument is truly a case of the medium being the message.
Speaking of McLuhan, he once also stated that when a technology is replaced, it comes back again eventually as art. This is true of both the Mellotron and Chamberlain, which have become collectors’ items over the years, since they stopped being produced in the 1980s. That coda topic is covered here as well.
Along with the trailer, the extras include 16 shorts, which consist of either extended interviews, or deleted ones. All of them are equally interesting.
Whether you believe the instruments are a force for good, evil, or both (I’m for the latter), the Mellotron and Chamberlain have their rightful place in rock and roll (and giallo films), and I am grateful to learn more about them in such a delightful and fascinating fashion.