It was a message on the Flower Kings newsgroup that sent me to Mike Dickson’s web site. “Listen to his Mellotronworks” it said. I’ve long enjoyed the sound of the mellotron, from listening to the Moody, Blues, Strawbs, Yes, and in particular Tangerine Dream and King Crimson. Mike Dickson’s Mellotronworks is a loving crafted rendition of some glorious classical pieces, all performed on his mellotron. It’s a work of wonder.
As I listened, I read his notes, how he chose the pieces, how he arranged them. At the bottom of the page he named his home city: Edinburgh – a fine coffee splurting moment. Not some distant state in the USA, nope: Edinburgh in Scotland – my home town.
My fingers tapped out the email before my brain had truly engaged – can I meet your mellotron – and you?
A few days later I was ushered into the room with the mellotron by a very obliging and enthusiastic Mike Dickson.
Meeting a Mellotron
– Noel Chidwick
It’s a simple, scuffed white painted wooden box, like something out of a 1960s kitchenette. But where the cutlery drawer should be is a little scruffy-looking piano keyboard of just 35 notes.
Mike lifted off the top panel. inside was a neat row of wooden levers, and a fair amount of space. Mike switched it on, and a big steel wheel down the side began spinning to a whirring sound, the capstan ready to engage the loops of tape.
With the lid off, Mike placed his fingers on the keys and played a few notes and a chord or two of string sounds used by Tangerine Dream, Phaedra era. Ye gods! The room instantly filled with that unearthly swirling sound, violins of bronze cast in ancient times. I was transported back to my 14 year old self, to those many hours in my bedroom where I lay reading Asimov, Clarke or Wyndham. Science Fiction and Edgar Froese: faraway planets and otherworldly music. I was back there.
Mike stopped. The vision vanished. He played again, A modulation, and I was spirited back to Birmingham Odeon, with the air full of sweet smelling smoke scythed by green and red blades of lasers, and down on the stage, encircled by stones of synthesizers, were Baumann, Froese and Franke, huddled over their keyboards.
Mike pulled away, took a sip from his mug of tea, while I hurtled forward through time and space.
“Wow,” I said. Eventually.
My first look at the innards of a Mellotron M400 just increased my sense of the character of the sound. Seeing how mechanical it all is, how basic; just strips of tape held in place by clamps. Mike unscrewed the tape frame, a little like a beekeeper pulling out a tray from a hive, dripping with honey. 35 lengths of tape gripped in a mount of wood and metal, each containing the sounds we know and love from those wonderful albums of the 70s – Court of the Crimson King, Foxtrot, Grave New World.
There are three sounds possible with one tape loom; three sounds recorded on adjacent tracks on a tape. Each sound is chosen with a switch which shifts the block of wood on which the tape heads sit- 35 of ’em, one for each note – by a couple of millimetres.
Mike returned the tape loom carefully back into place, turned the switch and played the opening bars of Strawberry Fields Forever, the famous flute-like sound. This is not a song that means much to me, but yet, there it was, unfairly dragging me back to a time when I was a 6 year old. It’s such a rich, grainy textured sound. It’s full of character, like the granite faced uncle who comes back from the war with all his tales of lives lost, battles fought and women wenched on whisky-sodden nights. Memories of a time both harsh and glorious.
Another turn of the scratched plastic switch, and the tape heads twitch. There’s the choir sounds, so mournful, a yearning cry for release, for freedom. Mike’s fingers coaxed and cajoled the keys, encouraging the sounds to shyly emerge, to sing.
He stopped. Each time Mike played, the sound lured me away into worlds suddenly remembered, longed for. He stopped, again for a slurp of tea. I returned to a harsh Edinburgh winter’s night of February 2010.
Mike said : go on have a go. I was unsure at first, reluctant to touch the delicate looking keys. I placed a finger on the A in the middle. At once it responded with a cry of banshee strings and from inside the box there was a whirr of tape. I quickly released the note and the sound crept away to hide behind the skirting board; inside the mellotron there was a flurry and a scampering and a clatter as the tape was yanked back by its spring.
Wow. I played a few more notes: instinctively I stayed in a minor key, pulling out a melody from some dark mythical time. to play, you have to press the keys, encouraging the instrument to release its music. It’s the first time I have felt as if I have played with an instrument, and not on. With, as in a team, together, joined in harmony. You can’t race up and down the keyboard. You can’t lightly skip over the notes, you have to gently ease out the music, but firmly, and the mellotron responds with a sound that says more than you could imagine. Before long we were improvising on something I had in the back of my mind for a kind of Mike Moorcock Tanelorn, Elric song, something I’ve had lurking there for many years. The mellotron pulled it out, a swirl, a weaving of otherworldly yet deeply personal sweep of strings and distant flutes.
At last I stopped, but the echoes rang in my skull. I muttered a quiet thank you. To the mellotron – Mike had gone off to make another pot of tea.
Mike took the time to insert all his tape banks, and tell me a story about each one. Another favourite was a flute bank, played by Ian Macdonald of King Crimson. This one was in tune, and you could hear the vibrato coming in after a few seconds. Playing this sound was uncanny. It’s richness was beyond doubt, and it felt like you were asking the musician, through the mellotron, to play. For a few minutes I was in the Court of the Crimson King.
Mike had a fund of stories both about the original recordings. On one note of one sound used in a famous piece (sorry Mike, forgot which one!) you can hear the squeak of a violinist’s chair being pushed back.
Mike’s particular mellotron belonged to Cream producer Felix Pappalardi, but it has, like most of the mellotrons still around, been repaired with bits from others. That key, Mike told me, pointing at the Bb in the middle, was in the mellotron used on King Crimson’s Red. That very key.
I played it, bringing out a warm mellotron-cello. I have now played the same key as used in the mellotron on Red.
Mike was patient, courteous and very proud of his mellotron and delighted to play it and let it be played.
The mellotron is like no other instrument in this world, and there will not be the like again. I am privileged to have played one, and one maintained, cared for and played by someone who clearly cherishes it.
I came home, and tried to express to my wife and son what I had just experienced. I failed with words. My son said to his Mum: “we might as well leave the room, Mum, as Dad is going to carry on talking even when we’ve left”.
He was right. But I have the fond memories of a mellotron – and I think it liked me.
Many thanks to Mike Dickson.
visit Mike Dickson’s site at www.mikedickson.org.uk where you can hear all sorts of wonderful music, and especially Mellotronworks.
UPDATE: Mellotronworks II is now available on Mike’s site.
Note: this was first published on our Arbelos website in 2010, but has slipped off the page. I thought I’d give it a home here.