The author of this week’s post is Carter Rawson, a digital projects coordinator at the National Library Service, music enthusiast, and recovering indie record label factotum.
As the nation prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, which topped off a decade-long space race, the NLS Music Section looks at developments in popular music from that era and highlights songs available from our collection. The late 1960s saw many composers actively courting the public with the infinite possibilities of symphonic rock and newfound multi-tracking capabilities in professional studios. While Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film classic 2001, A Space Odyssey was captivating U.S. movie-goers by forever synching outer space with classical music, a quiet music revolution was taking place across the pond thanks to an innovative musical invention known as the mellotron.
The arrival of this electronic keyboard caused a sensation in the music industry by offering the user a sort of personalized orchestra-in-a-suitcase. Practitioners only needed one device to access a range of pre-recorded strings and orchestrated effects on magnetic tape capable of transforming a three-minute pop song into a symphony of sound. As a forerunner to the common practice of music sampling, the mellotron was dynamic enough that it could produce either bombastic or pastoral effects relative to how much the player desired to overwhelm the listener.
For listeners accustomed to fast-rising young British R&B bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, or the Yardbirds, the introduction of the mellotron probably came across like an episode of Anglican Choir Boys Gone Wild (if such a program existed). An example being the Rolling Stones’ deployment of the mellotron on the 1967 hit “She’s a Rainbow” and even more fantastically the B-Side, “2000 Light Years from Home” — which may or may not have found its way onto film director Stanley Kubrick’s turntable.
Something of a novelty, “2000 Light Years from Home” is, in the opinion of your humble scribe, as sonically experimental as anything in the Stones canon. Containing lyrics replete with sci-fi imagery, the song was atypical for the band but undoubtedly signaled a group destined for greater things. While the Stones never used a mellotron again, the instrument became integral to the sound of many new bands intrigued by its capacities.
Much of the unsuspecting listening public became acquainted with the mellotron’s effects through the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which unleashed a cacophony of atmospheric embellishments that typified the release of the Sgt Pepper album in the summer of 1967. But with production wizard George Martin at the helm of that record, the mellotron might have gone unrecognized as mere studio magic, had it not been for other bands bringing the keyboard on tour. For it was a portable, but notoriously heavy, piece of equipment popularized chiefly by the Moody Blues and later King Crimson.
Seemingly overnight, the Moody Blues transformed their sound after 1965’s big soulful hit “Go Now” to find stardust with 1967’s “Nights in White Satin” from the album Days of Future Past. This single is decidedly clever for alternating Mike Pinder’s mellotron with an actual orchestra which performs the introduction. King Crimson’s 1969 LP masterpiece, In the Court of the Crimson King, pretty much enshrined the mellotron as a fixture of orchestrated rock, a genre-bending trend that seemed to pick up the baton from third stream jazz.
Mellotron-infused pop hits perhaps reached their apogee in 1969, with David Bowie’s breakthrough single “Space Oddity” being the most memorable. Released to coincide with NASA’s successful voyage to the moon in July of that year, the song catapulted Bowie to pop stardom and provided the young songwriter with the first of many space-themed hits. Bowie cites the aforementioned 2001, A Space Odyssey as his inspiration.
By 1970, the pastoral vibe and general tunefulness of the Moody Blues was being displaced by virtuoso artists such as Frank Zappa and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who specialized in complex time signatures, an avant-garde mindset and, later, jazz fusion. Subsequent technological advances such as the Moog Synthesizer soon relegated the mellotron to a back seat in popular music. Below is a list of songs the Moodies and others taught us featuring this legendary instrument.
Guitar Course 2 by Bill Brown. Includes instruction for “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. (DBM03276)
Lovely to See You. Bill Brown teaches this song in the style of the Moody Blues. For guitar. Available on digital cartridge. (DBM03821)
Ride My See-Saw. Bill Brown teaches this song in the style of the Moody Blues. For guitar. Available on digital cartridge. (DBM03832)
Beatles. Ausgewählte Beatles-Songs für Piano und Orgel. Selected Beatles songs for piano and organ. Includes “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Section by section format. (BRM34937)
Bowie, David. “Space Oddity.” For voice and piano; chord symbols included. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM24105)
Great Songs of the 70’s: 81 Songs for Voice, Piano and Guitar. Includes chord symbols and guitar chord diagrams for “Space Oddity” by David Bowie and “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM27690)
More from the National Library Service
NASA: Fiftieth Anniversary of the Moon Landing–On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 became the first manned mission to land on the Moon. This minibibliography, created by Wolfner Library in Missouri, lists NLS books on the Moon Landing and other NASA programs. It is divided into three sections: Astronauts, Ground Crew and History, and Unmanned Missions.
Clarke, Arthur C. 2001, A Space Odyssey. With a new introduction by the author. (DB 58814)
Zimmerman, Robert. Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8. (DB 49671)