Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Rolling Stones: She's A Rainbow

It’s TV Thursday and today we feature a tune resurrected with introduction of the I-Mac availability in a variety of colors a few years ago – the Rolling Stone’s "She’s a Rainbow" — the song Apple fittingly used to market this product via American television.

See the commercial.

An ill fated attempt to join the psychedelic movement of 1967 produced, as critique Bruce Eder mused, the "Prettiest and most uncharacteristic song that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever wrote for the Rolling Stones." Charting in the US at 25, "She's a Rainbow" sold moderately well but failed to reach the chart success of the number one records of "Satisfaction," "Get off My Cloud," "Paint it Black," and "Ruby Tuesday" that preceded it. With the exception of "Ruby Tuesday," the previous number one tunes by the Stones had an edge. "Ruby Tuesday" was a fluke in the US due to self censorship by radio of the intended A-side, "Lets Spend the Night Together."

Known for its characteristic piano provided by session musician Nicky Hopkins (who also played on LPs by the Kinks, The Who, the Beatles, and others), the song also features Stones multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones playing the Mellotron.

 The late Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones


The Mellotron (and its forerunner and competitor Chamberlin) became a staple of psychedelic and progressive bands and provided orchestral, choral, and solo instrumental sounds without the cost of retaining a large company of sidemen for a tour. For bands such as the Moody Blues, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis; the Mellotron became an integral part of their overall sound.

The mechanics of these instruments were simple, yet unique. Sounds of instruments or choirs were recorded on magnetic tapes. Each note was recorded separately and these tapes were spliced into a loop that ran continuously after the machine was started. When a keyboardist depressed a key, the action pushed a pinch roller onto the tape loop so the tape and the playback head could make contact. When this occurred, the Mellotron replicated that note as played by an ensemble or solo instrument or as sung by an 8-voice choir.

Additionally, each tape loop was equipped with multiple instrument sounds that were on different tracks of the tape. A selector moved the heads so that they would come in contact with a different tape track. Sounds were available with strings, brass, chorus, flutes, cello, and percussion. Some models allowed for the tape loops to be switched out with a second rack of tapes with different sound combinations.

See the workings of a Mellotron

Mellotrons and Chamberlins were the only way orchestras could be emulated until polyphonic synthesizers arrived in late 1970s and provided similar, but not entirely exact sounds. Digital sampling keyboards arrived in the mid 1980s and provided real instrument sounds – this new generation of keyboards made Mellotrons and Chamberlins obsolete. In the 1960s and 1970s, they were a musician’s dream come true. Unfortunately, the instruments did not travel well and were prone to frequent problems and breakdowns. The Mellotron became the bane of keyboard techs and roadies everywhere.

Despite the availability of cheaper, lighter, and more reliable sampling keyboards, some bands still seek out these behemoths of a bygone era for that realistic boss nostalgic sound. Groovy.

One final note, on "She's A Rainbow," the Mellotron is used only for effects and not for the full orchestral treatment - the song features an actual orchestra.  The string arrangements were written by none other than future Led Zeppelin bassist, John Paul Jones.  The flip of "She's A Rainbow," "2000 Light Years From Home," features the Mellotron. While that song is interesting, it is probably not the best example of the Mellotron. You may experience the instrument in all of its electrifying glory with King Crimson’s "Epitaph." Believe it or not, I actually quoted this song in my dissertation.

King Crimson - Epitaph

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