Papernut Cambridge play the toy Mellotron

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I was a bit skeptical to a ‘Mellotron Phase Volume 2.’ After all the idea of library music seems almost meaningless today when YouTube can present you with any sound in a second. And whereas a first volume was both fun and refreshing, making an actual series out of this is something else.

But as it happens, this is totally different from the first instalment. At first, I thought this was just another Mellotron album – after all, there is a picture of one on the cover. So I was quite confused when I could not find my bearings. Sure, there are swaths of the typical wobbly strings here and there that we all know and love. But mainly there are other things going on here.

And most of that is about the early 70s rather than the 60s. Thankfully, as it is less explored.  It wasn’t until I heard the track ‘Parker’s Last Case’ that I realised what was going on. I perked my ears and thought “Hey, they use that sound on the Persuaders’ signature tune!”

So the 70s it is and that’s where this gets really interesting and totally new for me. It turns out that the toy company Mattel, who makes Barbie dolls and whatever, for some unknown and unknowable reason had purchased the Chamberlin patents as well as some other organ technology related patents. Now the Chamberlin was actually the pre-cursor to the sacred Mellotron and here we have a giant toy maker trying to turn it into a entertainment thing for every family. 

Their little frankensteinian monster was called the Optigan and you could load it with celluloid LPs containing pre-recorded accompaniments. The buttons that marked these accompaniments were marked in three rows of “Major,” “Minor” and “Diminshed.” All keys were numbered so you could literally play by number-sheets and there were also buttons for effects and even reverb on some models. 

The Optigans didn’t sell well of course as they were probably all too advanced for kids anyway and all too shoddy sounding and plastic to be considered by grown-ups as instruments in their own right.

So Mattel dropped the whole thing after a while – and being the kind of dinosaur they are, they are probably sitting on those patents even to this day, not knowing what to do with them and not even caring.

But the thing is that there were as many as 40 of those plastic discs made; each containing a single lead sound and a grab bag of accompaniment rhythms and effects. Luckily, the majority of those discs have now been collected in an OptiTron Expansion Pack for the M-Tron Pro – and that is actually what Ian Button and his parpernutty bandmates are using on this disc. More specifically, they have taken one such rhythm accompaniment as the basis for each track and then added Mellotron and Chamberlin sounds as well.

So here you have a record that is guaranteed to confuse you if you are in any way a Mellotron lover. The sounds here are simply subverted and transformed. For starters, there is much less wobble – probably an effect of switching from tape to disc. And out with the wobble goes the darkness. Instead you get a range of more preppy and happy sounds; while others have a whooshing quality to them that is quite nice. It is like meeting the Mellotron’s unknown sibling at a cocktail party.

Altogether amazing!

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