When Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour documentary The Beatles: Get Back came out in 2021, it did much more than draw a haunting portrayal of a mega-band on its last breath. It offered a rare peek into a moment of music history, a time that served as a short bridge between analog and digital music technology. In the film, legendary session keyboardist Billy Preston plays with what looks like a little toy. He squints at it; he pokes at it with a Stylophone, a stylus prominent in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Someone asks George Harrison about his “Leslie guitar,” hooked up as it is to a Leslie loudspeaker surrounded by a rotating drum, giving the input instrument a warbly, wobbly sound.
There’s another quirky tool in the film that’s used extensively on previous Beatles albums, though not at the rooftop-concert rehearsal sessions, for reasons that become obvious later in this story. It is the Mellotron, the ultimate representation of this moment in music. Think you’re unfamiliar with its genius? Think again. The Mellotron is responsible for one of rock and roll’s most iconic intros, in “Strawberry Fields Forever,” from 1967.
But “Strawberry Fields” isn’t the only place you’ll hear one in the rock canon. Far from it. Conceived as a parlor instrument, it made its way into countless formative hits that continue to define classic rock stations today and laid the groundwork for some of our most common studio tools.
In essence, the Mellotron was a primitive sampler, born as a blatant rip-off of the Chamberlin, an instrument introduced in the late 1940s in California by its inventor Harry Chamberlin. The Chamberlin was an orchestra-in- a-box; meant for home entertainment, it featured a black and white, piano-like keyboard, each key of which was linked to a piece of audio tape. The different pieces of tape held varied musical samples—a single note on a flute, for instance, or a trio of violins running a scale. Users could select a setting—a pre-set backing track—and press keys to create a rudimentary kind of synthesized music.
In the early ‘60s, Chamberlin employee Bill Fransen went to Birmingham, England, long an industrial hub, to seek out machine parts. Somewhere along the way, he decided to go into business with Frank, Norman, and Les Bradley, the three brothers who ran Bradmatic—manufacturer of the parts he had come to England for in the first place—and produced a British version of the Chamberlin. There’s debate about exactly where the name comes from; some say it’s a portmanteau of “melody” and “electronics,” others say it derives from “mellifluous.” Either way, the “tron” suffix was meant to invoke technological advancement. The first model, the Mk I, debuted in 1963. Its analogue tape strips held recordings from bandleader Eric Robinson in his London studio.
But the MkI was delicate. Its outer casings didn’t adequately protect the tape inside from heat and humidity—making the Mellotron a tough sell to owners of smoky bars and cramped studios—and replacement parts were hard to come by. After some tinkering, the more reliable, tricked-out Mk II was released. And there its story really begins.
The Mellotron’s debut took place just at the time that the mystical and the mind-bending was trending in rock music, materializing in records like Cream’s Disraeli Gears, Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Once a bug, the variations in sound afforded by finicky analog technology were now a positive attribute of the Mellotron: The ghostly, uncanny quality caused by natural wear on the tape or external irritants created a perfectly trippy ambience on songs like “Nights in White Satin,” from the Moody Blues, the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow,” and Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
The Mellotron was at the right place at the right time to become a distinctly British instrument. Part of this was practical: tape loops were heavy, and therefore difficult to export or take on tour. Very few of them left Britain. But the Mellotron’s swift adoption by British bands may also have to do with the country’s musical history, which has always gravitated toward novelty. Beatles scholars have noted the influence of British music hall on the British Invasion catalog, a campy, silly style that hearkens to Victorian Britain’s industrial and colonial prowess. The Mellotron’s debut also coincided with a British trend of marrying American blues with a predilection for the nostalgic and the absurd; this sonic union asserted a quintessential, mostly invented national identity.
The Mellotron’s popular flute setting is unsettling in its imperfections but can also be described as “pastoral”—as in the gentle, lilting introduction to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” On another Mellotron-powered album from the late ‘60s, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the flute tape helps weave together Ray Davies’ idyllic world of small-town churches, steam trains, and other emblems of treacly nostalgia. These examples in addition to The Who Sell Out (a concept album containing fake radio jingles for real British products), and even, to a degree, high fantasy-inspired works by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd have informed how many Americans see the United Kingdom today—a place of rolling green hillsides, cozy pubs, and coal-stained cities where people speak in rhyming slang. It goes without saying that there’s far more to the country than what’s reflected on the Village Green. The dreamy sounds of the Mellotron provided the perfect vehicle to export a British sense of self, however one-dimensional.
But like a dream, the Mellotron’s time was fleeting. Just as it proliferated in psych-rock, what we know as the modern synthesizer was coming into its own. Machines that synthesize existing sounds, in the most literal sense, have been around since the late nineteenth century. But the celebrated Moog synthesizer, released in 1964, turned out to be a much more effective at conjuring transportive creepiness, and offered a playground of aural options rather than a handful of pre-selected samplings. As the rest of the world turned to burgeoning digital technology in all other facets of life, the clunky, temperamental Mellotron soon became dated. It popped up every now and then on singles, but the last Mellotrons—due to a copyright dispute, sold under a new name—rolled off the factory floor in 1986.
Though its heyday was short-lived, its impact is vast. The Mellotron primed the public to welcome synthesized sounds in pop music. Just as the Mellotron was being absorbed into prog rock, used by bands including ELO and Genesis, pioneering synth composer Wendy Carlos released Switched-On Bach, an album of Bach tunes performed entirely on a Moog. It won three Grammys.
But what the Mellotron did clearly do is help automate the art of sampling. Sure, you can hand-select your music samples, as was done in the early days of hip-hop. But these days, most musicians opt to use pre-programmed recordings contained in a single instrument as the Mellotron did, reflected in today’s synths, samplers, and loop pedals. Within a few years of the Mellotron’s disappearance from pop music, inventors harnessed digital technology to create tools like the Fairlight CMI, an all-encompassing digital sampler, synthesizer, and workstation favored by Stevie Wonder, and the TR-808, the drum machine that revolutionized ‘80s hip-hop. Samples from these machines appear on many ‘80s and ‘90s tracks, especially that include the ubiquitous “orchestra hit:” a brief sample of Stravinsky’s The Firebird that came pre-loaded in the Fairlight, where it could be manipulated and pitched up and down. Like the Mellotron, these tools contain samples of pre-recorded works or were made to emulate existing instruments with long, revered histories in Western music, but rarely are used to do such a thing. Instead, they’ve been folded into new genres entirely and combined with other sounds to create radio-ready pop.
Gone are the days of the Mellotron solo, but that’s not to say the instrument itself has disappeared forever. It’s famous amongst music gear nerds as a kitschy toy, and these days, adds a cheeky wink to the past when it’s used. Rock values “authenticity,” and the use of the Mellotron endows songs with that coveted stamp, not only because it incorporates “traditional” instruments, but simply by virtue of being old.
Though the Mellotron’s glory days are behind it, it lives on. Oasis included it on two of their biggest hits, “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” both from their 1995 album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? A little more than a dozen years later, Vampire Weekend availed itself of the Mellotron in its song “A-Punk.” Then, in 2010, a much smaller Mellotron-like format was released as a keyboard offering digitized versions of those original 1963 samples as well as those from the Chamberlin sample library. It’s also available as an app and software, making it appealing to independent artists working on a tight budget. And, in the last decade, niche indie-rock artists have repeatedly turned to it for assists. Artists like Perfume Genius, the War on Drugs, Clairo, Lana Del Rey, and Father John Misty have used the Mellotron tech in their work, though these days it’s more likely to be part of an arrangement of instruments than to be the focal point of a song or album. Yet throughout the Mellotron’s lifespan, it has been used less for its intended purposes—to earnestly replicate the instruments on it—than to set a scene. And it’s still at it—creating the eerie, ethereal atmospherics for which it has been beloved since its beginnings.