Inside the reception room of a large house somewhere in London is Eric Robinson; a musical composer and BBC television personality. A slow instrumental plays in the background. But, as Robinson tells us from his armchair, the song is not a record, it’s the Mellotron.
It’s 1965, and the Mellotron is not a mild-mannered robot, but a musical computer for your home. In this British Pathé video, the two men behind the development of this new instrument show how it works. “It makes the actual sounds of the orchestra,” says Robinson.
Robinson and David Nixon, his son-in-law, stand proudly next to the contraption. Nixon is frustrated, musically. The Mellotron, if nothing else, frees the musically inept among us. The right-hand side of the keyboard plays lead instruments, and the left-hand supplies the rhythms. To show this in action, Nixon plays his party piece.
Nixon was one of Britain’s most beloved magicians. So you’re right to be suspicious when he plays a multi-instrumental version of the blues with two fingers. It could be magic. That aside, we’re all thinking the same thing: what does this tune sound like with a trombone background? Nixon hears our thoughts, and the ditty is instantly improved. The machine works because each key is connected to a tape, which plays the sound.
Nixon demonstrates the full range of the musical computer and bangs out a Viennese waltz. The magic man is then replaced by an actual pianist who will “really show what the Mellotron can do,” says Robinson. A cool mod-styled man appears out of thin air, and plays out the video, furiously tinkling the ivories.
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