Woolly Wolstenholme and the Mellotron
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Woolly Wolstenholme and the Mellotron
This page is adapted from an article which originally appeared in issues 55 of the fan club magazine, Nova Lepidoptera, in December 2001
The Mellotron Mark II
Everybody reading this article will have certain personal times, places, people and things which will forever be associated in their minds with Barclay James Harvest. Few of these, though, will be common to all fans of the band - in fact it seems likely that apart from the individual band members and their songs, the only things which have become synonymous with BJH are the butterfly and the Mellotron. This is the story of that instrument and how it came to be inextricably linked with our favourite band.
The Mellotron story actually goes back to early 1962 when an American called Bill Fransen contacted Midlands-based engineering company Bradmatic Ltd (run by three brothers, Les, Frank and Norman Bradley) to see if they could produce seventy matched tape heads.
The Bradleys were naturally curious as to why someone would want all these tape heads and were shown an American keyboard instrument called the 'Chamberlin', which had been made by Harry Chamberlin and replayed pre-recorded tapes, one per key, of real instruments. The Chamberlin (once described as "a sideboard with keys on"!), had many shortcomings, but the Bradleys were impressed by the concept. The Chamberlin was also very difficult to produce in large numbers so the Bradleys refined and added their own innovations to the design and produced a new instrument that was named the Mellotron Mark I (The name came from MELOdy and elecTRONics but was finally spelt with two “L”s).
By the end of 1962 a factory was opened in Streetly, Birmingham. The first Mellotron produced was the Mark I and was designed as a home instrument along the lines of an electronic organ. Fifty-five of these mighty (and heavy) beasts were made in 1963. The Mark I was quickly followed in 1964 by the improved Mark II. Most Mark I's were converted to Mark II spec as well. Having, like the Mark I, two thirty-five note (G - F) keyboards side by side it looked very similar. About two hundred an fifty were made between 1964 and 1968, and it’s at this point that our heroes enter the story: towards the end of 1967 Granada TV made a short film depicting the band’s music and lifestyle. To record the music for the film, the band hired a Mark II Mellotron in order to produce an orchestral sound. At the time, very few bands were using Mellotrons, the most notable exponents being The Beatles (the classic example being the opening bars of “Strawberry Fields”) and The Moody Blues. The Birmingham dealer from whom they had hired the instrument was surprised when they were the first customers who wanted to tune it, and asked if they’d like to buy it - they got not only a good deal, but also a very distinctive sound which would rapidly become a BJH trademark.
In the early days both Les and Woolly mastered the cumbersome beast, and as late as Baby James Harvest Les was credited with Mellotron on “Crazy (Over You)” and part of “Summer Soldier”. However, as Les began to concentrate on his songwriting and singing in addition to becoming the band’s bass supremo, Woolly gradually became the unchallenged wizard of the Mellotron.
The M300 followed the Mark II and BJH were amongst the first in the queue. The Mark III was the only production model that used 1/4" tapes and about sixty were produced between 1968 and 1970.
The M300 was followed by the most well known and successful model, the M400. By now Mellotronics had realised that the main customers for the instruments were rock bands so this was the most portable and oft-gigged version. Around two thousand M400s were produced between 1970 and 1986. This includes all Novatrons and a one-off teak-finished batch of a hundred produced by EMI in the mid seventies.
A variation on the 400 was the Mark V that was basically two 400s side by side with a common capstan but only thirty were produced before disaster struck and the parent company Mellotronics went bust. Although Streetly, who were actually producing the instruments, were still financially sound, they were no longer allowed to call the instruments they produced 'Mellotrons'. The reason for this is that the registered name 'Mellotron' was sold by accident along with the other assets of the company 'Mellotronics'. The M400 was quickly re-christened the 'Novatron' and was produced until the sad (but temporary) demise of Streetly Electronics in 1986.
Amongst the many bands who have used Mellotrons to greater or lesser effect are The Beatles, King Crimson, The Moody Blues, Genesis, The Strawbs and Led Zeppelin, plus, more recently, bands like Suede, Radiohead and Oasis.
Today, Streetly Electronics is in business again, restarted by Les Bradley's son John and Martin Smith of Rime Of the Ancient Sampler fame. As the unique sound of the Mellotron becomes fashionable again, so demand has increased. Sadly this has caused a considerable hike in the price of a Mellotron, so if you’re in the market for one, expect to pay around £3,000 for an M400 that has been professionally restored by Streetly - get yours now!
Woolly's current Mellotron M400
[With acknowledgements to Norm Leete’s Mellotron Page at http://members.aol.com/tronpage/]