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Published in PM October 2008
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Mellotron: The Machine And The Musicians That Revolutionised Rock
by Nick Awde
Book
The Mellotron is a musical icon for fans. Its very image can set hearts aflutter in the same way that a Les Paul, Strat, Marshall amp or Moog modular synth may capture the imagination. The sound of the Mellotron is something imperfect, unique and quintessentially human, with all its vices and foibles. For the futurist brigade it's a piece of junk that passed its sell-by date decades ago, and with the advent of digital sampling can be confined to the history pages of rock as being associated with that politically incorrect musical form: prog rock.
But here we are, towards the end of the 21st century's first decade, and interest in the Melly not only shows no signs of abating, but (thanks mostly to the Internet) is undergoing a resurgence quite against the technological thrust of the decade — more than a few ad soundtracks are using Melly sounds (almost certainly samples) and you can hear those dulcet tones in TV soundtracks increasingly these days. Even more startlingly, prog is rearing its head as a truly underground movement: bands want to play it and fans want to listen to it, despite the blanket condemnation and almost total rejection by mainstream media.
So what's the appeal and why is the combination of the Melly and prog coming back into view? Nick Awde, who has a peerless track record as an author, takes a drastically different view of the instrument and the music. He's interviewed the musicians who used the Mellotron, looking at not only their experiences with it but also their own musical careers and thoughts on music. In effect this takes a far more considered, thoughtful and profound approach than any previous books.
All the usual (and some surprising) candidates are here: John Bradley and Martin Smith of Streetly Electronics, Mike Pinder of the Moodies, Woolly Wolstenholme (Barclay James Harvest), Tony Banks from Genesis, Bill Bruford of Yes and King Crimson fame, David Cross, Greg Lake and John Wetton (all from King Crimson), Nick Magnus (Steve Hackett), Tony Clarke (the Moodies' producer), Dave Cousins, Blue Weaver, John Hawken and Robert Kirby (all of the Strawbs), Robert Webb (England), Doug Rayburn (Pavlov's Dog), Dave Gregory (XTC), Andy McCluskey (OMD), Martin Orford (IQ), Ronnie Stolt (Flower Kings), Jakko Jakszyk (Level 42, 21st Century Schizoid Band) and Andy Thompson (the genius behind the definitive Melly resource, www.planetmellotron.com).
Each musician's interview makes for entrancing reading, showing their individual progressions in music and their professional careers. One total revelation is the interview with Mellotronics demonstrator Geoff Unwin (you can see him in action on the YouTube 1965 Melly demo footage), who recounts the extraordinary story of the original company in great detail and his experiences amongst the great and the good of the mid '60s. Also, there's the full story of Peter Sellers and Princess Margaret's ownership of Mellotrons, previously only mentioned in the biography, Peter Sellers: The Mask Behind The Mask.
The one thing that becomes clear from reading the interviews with all the musos here is that each one has a different take on the Melly. Some hated it for its unreliability and have horror stories of tapes hanging up in the heat, while OMD's Andy McCluskey claims that it was the most reliable instrument they ever used (Radiohead feel the same way). But all of them attest to the fact it was all down to one factor: the sound, in all its majesty and power, and the resulting effect on the listener. Interestingly enough, some of the early samplers that were supposed to replace the Melly's inconsistencies are reported here as being even more unreliable by comparison! Add to that the imperfect nature of the sound (that actually gives the Melly its character) that was ironed out in sampler-based versions to mixed reactions: some listeners hated the results (in fact Dave Cousins of the Strawbs claims that the decision to abandon the Mellotron for the Nomadness album resulted in a plummeting of sales). So as always with the Melly, it was a love-hate relationship: loved the sound, but the means of production could be a nerve-jangling exercise for the player.
Running concurrently with the use of the Melly is the whole story of prog in the lives of the players: how they started, why and how it developed and the fact that it was (with a very few exceptions) a uniquely English musical phenomenon. Here the author argues cogently and in great depth — probably for the first time — the full musical, historical and social heritage (stretching back centuries) of English prog, its virtues and vices, why it fell from grace and the reason it's undergoing a long-overdue period of reassessment and rebirth. And while we're on the subject, prog's nemesis, punk, gets a well-argued revision, showing that prog actually outlasted the effects of punk and that punk was in many ways a media-hyped phenomenon. As you might expect, the interviewees here don't all agree with each other: some think punk was a good thing, others not, while it's pointed out that dance music has (with supreme irony) hardly progressed at all in the last two decades.
So is there a future for a large-scale revival of prog? Probably not, with the fragmentation of musical styles, the current lack of creative expression over formulaic marketing and the downgrading of music from an essential part of one's life to a merely disposable lifestyle statement. But as an expression of the golden era of music (1966-75) when anything was possible, both the Melly and prog rock stand as icons.
So really this book is like a Mellotron itself in many respects. It's large and heavy (600 pages with a smaller typeface to get in the phenomenal amount of information presented here), it's epic in nature and covers a musical history and heritage that can be traced back through centuries rather than decades. It doesn't make for quick reading either — just like prog itself, where you actually have to listen attentively to perceive the musical power and gold contained therein, this book will take time and concentration to fully appreciate the staggering breadth and scope of the subject (the footnotes alone are the most comprehensive I've ever seen). And of course, like the Melly itself, it's slightly flawed: there's no interview with Rick Wakeman (AWOL due to professional commitments although fully sympathetic to the project), there are a few others who are missing (I would have loved an interview with Patrick Moraz, Tomita and Gentle Giant's Kerry Minnear), some of the pics are a little low in resolution (but an author has to make do with what he's given) and I would have preferred them to be in colour.
Likewise there are a few typos, but I defy anyone to proofread a book of this size and scope without getting the literary equivalent of shell shock!
Corrections, additions and further pics can all be looked forward to in a subsequent edition, but even as it stands in its current massive form, it provides a long-overdue analysis of the Melly, not from a technical standpoint (although there's a good amount here) but about its effect on musicians and audience, while prog finally gets a superb and intelligent analysis that will redress its reputation as the unwanted child of rock music. In a word: magnificent — just like the Mellotron itself, and a defining book. — David Etheridge
Mellotron: The Machine And The Musicians That Revolutionised Rock by Nick Awde £19.95
Stuff Good Piano Players Should Know
by Mark Harrison
Book & CD
When studying the piano, there's the kind of material that you'll see in the piano methods, and then there's the kind of stuff you actually need to know if you're not committed to life as an exclusively classically minded player. This sort of material many students have to find out for themselves, and it can take a long time to get a good grounding in many genres when you've been bashing your way through Hanon for the past few years.
Stuff Good Piano Players Should Know distils the essence of different playing styles into one book, and adds a CD's worth of play-along recorded material that shows how the exercises in the book are played. But it's far more than that: it covers a truly comprehensive range of information on styles (blues, rock, ballads, gospel, funk, jazz and more), playing techniques (arpeggios, crossover licks, soloing, left-hand patterns and more), music theory (chords, triads, modes, voice leading, comping and more) and even an overview on keyboards, from classic pianos to workstations and soft synths. The whole style of presentation is superbly clear, and you'll have fun with many of the exercises working out what well-known and classic tracks they are pastiches of (James Brown, Abba, Supertramp, Hall and Oates are just some of them, and there are no prizes for guessing the rest). With the exercises you'll find background information on the genres, playing styles and how the techniques work, so you'll come away with a full understanding of not only what to play, but also why it all works. This in turn helps you to come up with new ideas and playing approaches of your own.
I showed this book to a piano teacher friend who immediately grasped the idea of the book and was seriously impressed — she's ordered a few copies for her students, which says it all: essential reading for all keyboard players, whether teachers or students.
Stuff Good Piano Players Should Know by Mark Harrison £12.95
Jawbone Press/Backbeat UK
+44 (0)20 7720 3581
Antonio Sanchez: Hudson Music Master Series
DVD
Antonio Sanchez started playing drums at the age of five, taking the familiar course of playing along to records in his formative years. Having satisfied himself that he sounded just like the players, he then moved on to study piano and discovered jazz while at music conservatory in Mexico, listening to fusion and most notably Dave Weckl. By the time he got to Berklee, Antonio was in for a big shock: his teacher, Ron Savage, quickly started dismantling his kit while he was playing with the college band, forcing him to ditch the power and flash, and get back to basics. Antonio realised that in fact he was a mediocre drummer who previously thought he was great. As his teacher pointed out, "You've worked too much on the drums, and not enough on the music." This masterclass DVD shows Antonio's subsequently developed style after this cautionary tale for all drummers who might hold flash and chops above everything else. His basic tenet now is that every kind of music has its own specific language, vocabulary, syntax and grammar, and that tradition and language helps you to sound musically authentic, coherent and fluent.
On this DVD, Antonio plays tracks from his solo album, Migration, featuring Chick Corea and material from the Pat Metheny Group's Speaking Of Now. Here, he describes in great detail and in front of an invited audience his approach to all aspects of drumming, with the emphasis on the musical approach. He looks in depth at dynamics and contrasts (many drummers underestimate the dynamic range that they can use) and keeping things interesting. Interaction, where you're holding a musical conversation with the other members of the group, is also covered, as is constantly listening and looking for spaces in the music to answer questions. He discusses orchestration, where every section of a piece can be made different by what you play and how you change the groove, and motif development, where you develop ideas and see where they take you, both in groove playing and soloing.
The meat of this DVD, however, lies in the Q&A section, and here Antonio covers a massive amount of material including grooves and styles and how to change smoothly between the two, technique, practicing, and independence. I'll guarantee that you'll find something here that you didn't know, from the different amounts of bounce on drum surfaces and how they affect the clarity of rolls, to working with clicks, and how to achieve total independence in your technique. Above all, Antonio emphasises spontaneity and musicality in drumming, rather than relying on your most impressive fills and licks, and seeing where the music takes you.
At the end there's an important and timely section on professionalism and concentration, finding your own voice by embracing all your influences and mixing them up in genres, embracing what you are as a musician and being in your own time and place.
There's also an e-book included on the DVD, with PDF transcriptions of the exercises (which are also indicated on screen as the footage plays), grooves and phrases. As usual with Hudson titles, there's a terrific amount of practical and philosophical information here for all drummers, explained in a disarming and humble style by one of jazz's great drummers and musicians.
Antonio Sanchez: Hudson Music Master Series £19.95
Hudson Music Europe
+44 (0)1474 708065
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Published in PM October 2008