King Crimson & the Mellotron
In 1968, a trio of young men from Dorset snappily named Giles, Giles and Fripp recorded a rather strange album called The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp. Possibly the first album ever recorded by a firm of solicitors (?!), it's best described as psychedelic vaudeville, sounding vaguely like a cross between The Bonzo Dog Band and Sgt.Pepper. 'Of its time', is, I believe, the expression. Surprisingly, one of its less notable features is the presence of a Mellotron on a few tracks, apparently played by Robert Fripp himself.
The following year, two thirds of this outfit became half of the fledgling King Crimson, beginning rehearsals in January; the full line-up consisted of Fripp, Greg Lake, Ian McDonald and Michael Giles, with Pete Sinfield as honorary fifth member. Fripp obviously hadn't forgotten using a Mellotron the previous year, and Crimson purchased a Mk.II, to be played by McDonald when he wasn't playing sax or flute. Fripp is rumoured to have contributed 'Tron to the line-up's sole album, but there is no actual evidence to back this up (see the interview segment further down).
In the Court of the Crimson King featured Mellotron heavily on two tracks, the (almost) title track and 'Epitaph', with lesser use on 'Moonchild'. Unsurprisingly, the classic 'strings' patch (three violins, to be irritatingly exact) is the most heavily used, and remained so throughout the first phase of the band's career. Despite Ian McDonald's fine flute playing, the band obviously wanted the polyphony of the Mellotron flutes on 'Moonchild' (the 'song' part, before the fairly excruciating eight or nine minutes of improvisation). Interestingly, on 1991's Frame by Frame box set, Fripp included almost the entire album on the first disc, but faded Moonchild before the improv part. Good move, Robert...
Incidentally, there's an amusing anecdote doing the rounds concerning the apparently pretentious 'subsections' of all but one of the songs on the album. After being derided for years on the issue, the truth leaked out: due to the bizarre reckoning of album royalties in the States, all releases are judged on the 'ten tracks' rule, which appears to penalise acts whose albums contain less than this optimum number! (Don't ask; I haven't got a clue why anyone would invent such a patently ludicrous system). I've no idea how they treat albums with more than ten tracks... Anyway, as Crimson's first only contained five pieces, they invented some completely spurious 'subtitles' for four of them to ensure they got their full share of royalties. Truth sometimes is stranger than fiction... This doesn't, by the way, excuse the overall album's subtitle, 'An Observation by King Crimson'. I suppose it was 1969...
The band gigged heavily, picking up a good following at home and abroad; their Mk.II was a familiar sight at gigs, being used on various songs that remained unofficially recorded, as well as on the improvisations that were already becoming a staple of their live sets. One piece in particular was entirely based around it; their adaptation of Holst's 'Mars' (from his Planets suite), varying in length from night to night, consisted of guitar, bass and drums holding down the 5/4 rhythm, while the 'Tron provided all the harmonic and melodic content, ending with McDonald running his hand up and down the keyboard with considerable gusto. The effect is cataclysmic, sounding like the Mellotron is about to explode. Unbelievably, no version of this track was officially available until the Frame By Frame box set in 1991. 1997's Epitaph box provides several versions for the connoisseur.
According to Fripp (in the Epitaph sleeve notes), the band ended up using two, then three Mk.IIs in the States, due to reliability problems. One of these extra machines is rumoured (again!) to have been sold to Genesis a year or two later, from whence it was sold to UK band England in the mid-'70s.
Unfortunately, the first Crimson line-up imploded at the end of 1969, leaving the uneasy alliance of Fripp and Lake to record In the Wake of Poseidon the following year. This is one of those albums that crops up every now and again that appears to be an almost straight copy of its predecessor. It's a very good album, but it copies In the Court... almost track for track. Fripp took over Mellotron duties officially on the album, with the haunting title track (very 'Court...') and 'The Devil's Triangle' on side two. The latter was close enough to 'Mars' for Holst to sue, had he still been around to do so, but without Crimson Mk.I's awesome power. There are some new sections in the piece, with Fripp playfully messing around with some of the Mk.II's lesser known sounds, including the 'guitar'.
The line-up on ...Poseidon was never going to be a touring unit, so after Lake's departure to the inexplicably vastly popular ELP, Fripp recruited a new set of of musicians to record Lizard. A dense, 'difficult' album that still leaves fans divided, Lizard features Mellotron on several tracks, notably 'Cirkus', a live favourite, with Fripp now firmly in charge of keyboard duties. After vocalist Gordon Haskell 'didn't work out' (there is apparently some considerable acrimony on both sides to this day), Fripp recruited Boz Burrell, later of Bad Company, considering it worthwhile teaching him to play bass from scratch after being unable to find a suitable bassist. This line-up, generally regarded as 'Crimson Mk.II' toured throughout 1971 before recording Islands, with both Fripp and saxophonist Mel Collins playing new Mellotron M400s. The tapes in these machines consisted of M400 violins (re-EQ'd Mk.II violins)/cellos, then flutes on one machine and mixed Brass B on the other. This brass sound is apparently unique to the M400 and is not the original sound used on the albums up to and including Lizard. (Thanks, indirectly, to Martin Smith for that information). Crimson carried on using these machines until the original band's demise three years later.
Until recently, the only officially available live recording of this version of Crimson was the appallingly recorded Earthbound (from the 1972 tour), long unavailable and only finally (officially) released on CD in late 2002. However, Fripp has admitted that Crimson Mk.II was 'not so much an improvisational outfit as a jamming band', which is certainly borne out by the audio evidence. As well as Earthbound, there are to date four live King Crimson Collector's Club (see below) releases featuring this line-up. Startlingly, one hour-long CD features no Mellotron whatsoever; coincidentally (possibly...) it's also the least interesting of the three. Their early sets still featured some Mk.I material, but apart from the ubiquitous '21st Century Schizoid Man', this was replaced by current material as time went on; surprisingly, maybe, this is the only Crimson line-up to have no generally available live recordings.
Fripp dissolved this line-up in mid-'72, realising it was going nowhere. He recruited an entirely new bunch of musicians (again), consisting of the prodigiously talented drummer Bill Bruford from Yes, bassist/vocalist John Wetton, the very strange Jamie Muir on percussion, and violinist David Cross substituting for a saxophonist, also doubling on keyboards. This line-up is regarded as Crimson's peak by many, and recorded two studio albums proper, one live and one pseudo-studio utilising overdubbed live tracks, á la Zappa. Mellotron highlights from this period include 'Exiles' and 'Easy Money' from '72's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (with stupendous live versions on the posthumous USA from '75, again only released on CD in late 2002), 'Trio' from Starless and Bible Black and 'Fallen Angel' and the impeccable 'Starless' from '74's Red. The band was already disintegrating by this point, with Cross only credited as a guest musician. 'Starless' is a monumental piece of work; the opening section, apparently written by Wetton, is a tour de force of Mellotronness, probably one of the most haunting pieces ever written for the instrument. The 'Tron is reprised near the end of the twelve minute plus piece, repeating its earlier themes over a backing of extraordinary intensity. There has been some debate over whether or not the cellos in Red's title track are Mellotron, as there's no cellist credited, but apparently it was an unknown cellist working in an adjoining studio.
The release of the The Great Deceiver box set in 1992 gave fans a chance to hear this version of Crimson live at length. Four full-length CDs taken from gigs between '73-'74 show what an incredible live band Crimson Mk.III were. As with the previous line-ups, Mellotrons were used extensively, including during improvs, with the 'strings' sound far more evident than any other. The sleeve notes to this box contains Fripp's witticism/truism that "tuning a Mellotron doesn't". Despite the difficulty of touring two machines, not to mention trying to keep them in tune, the original Crimson persevered with them until the band's demise in 1974. Another archive release from this period is The Night Watch, the complete recording of the Amsterdam concert from which many of the tracks from Starless and Bible Black were taken. Stripped of their overdubs, one wonders why they were ever tampered with in the first place.
In 1998, Fripp started the DGM Collector's Club (later the King Crimson Collector's Club), a subscription-only series of archive releases of Crimson and other related artists. The first three CDs (one from each of the first three touring line-ups) all feature Mellotron heavily, and are all recommended to devotees (of both Crimson and Mellotrons...). Incidentally, they're all excellent albums, too.
Fripp's 1980 Discipline project became King Crimson Mk.IV, with a completely different (though still excellent) sound, with not a trace of Mellotron anywhere. In the intervening years, Fripp had been experimenting with Frippertronics (later to mutate into Soundscapes), and this line-up's more reflective moments were based more on this concept than on the earlier versions' washes of Mellotron.
The Crimson Mellotron story had not quite ended, however. Crimson Mk.IV took some 'time off' in 1984, which ended up lasting until the early '90s, when Fripp reformed the Mk.IV musicians with an extra drummer and stick player, forming a supposed 'double trio' formation, which in practice never really fulfilled its potential in this form. After a tentative start with the mini-album VROOOM, the full-length THRAK in 1995 featured (if only in places) Fripp playing a Mk.II 'Tron. Unfortunately, in places it is so heavily effected as to make it sound nearer to a contemporary strings sample, rather defeating the point. There are, however, some nice oboes, which earlier Crimson had never really used. There was a promo video produced showing Fripp playing the Mk.II during recording, though it's almost certainly a staged shot.
Sadly, in 1997 Robert Fripp announced on his website his decision to sell all five of his Mellotrons. Bidding is still taking place on some machines at the time of writing, with ridiculous figures being bandied about, especially for the In the Court... Mk.II. It would seem that the individual instruments' provenance counts for more than their potential. Let's hope that they are bought by musicians rather than collectors who will probably squirrel them away as museum pieces. Note: they were never sold, as Robert apparently received no 'suitable' bids.
Incidentally, after the 1974 split, John Wetton remained a 'Tron fan for a few years, playing one with Phil Manzanera and Uriah Heep, among others. In recent years, he's been heard to play 'Starless' on stage, often using IQ's Martin Orford, himself an ex-'Tron owner. They generally only use samples, although their appearance at Progfest '95 featured the real thing, but when push comes to shove, samples are better than no 'Tron at all...
Back to the topic of 'so did Fripp play 'Tron on the first album or not?' Here's an interview segment with engineer Geoff Workman on the subject:
Asked if recording an instrument as notoriously quirky as a Mellotron posed special problems, Workman replies,
"Not really. We used to take them DI because the early models like they used in King Crimson and in the Moody Blues were so noisy. The later ones were smaller and quieter and had interchangable racks of tapes and various other features. But these first ones were so noisy that if you put them through any kind of amp pre to getting to the console, you didn't have a signal-to-noise ratio, you had a noise-to-signal ratio! You'd hear this great, 'Shhhhhhh' all through it. 'Wait, I think there's a little string part in the background of all that noise!'"
"One of the things that was interesting about Crimson is that they often used two Mellotrons at the same time; both McDonald and Fripp would play them. The thing about the Mellotron is the tape loop lasts just shy of eight seconds, so if a chord needs to be held down for more than eight seconds, you have to lift your hands off and let the springs pull the tape back so the loop can start again. So on songs that needed more sustained chords we'd use two, with one player holding the chord for seven seconds or so and then the other coming in to keep it going - we used to call it 'duelling Mellotron'"
So! Proof? I wouldn't like to argue with the redoubtable Mr.Workman, but I've never heard this story anywhere else. Unless you know better...
This page updated 30.5.06; many thanks to Dave Revelle for correcting me on a couple of points!
|The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles & Fripp; 1968|
|In the Court of the Crimson King; 1969|
|In the Wake of Poseidon; 1970|
|Larks' Tongues in Aspic; 1973|
|Starless & Bible Black; 1973|
|The Great Deceiver; 1992, recorded 1973/4|
|Epitaph - Live 1969; 1997|
|The Night Watch; 1997, recorded 1973|
|Live at the Marquee 1969; 1998 [collectors club release]|
|Live at Jacksonville, 1972; 1998 [collectors club release]|
|The Beat Club, Bremen 1972; 1999 [collectors club release]|
|Live in Central Park, NYC, 1974; 2000 [collectors club release]|
|Live at Plymouth Guildhall, 1971; 2000 [collectors club release]|
|Live in Mainz, March 30 1974; 2001 [collectors club release]|
|Live in Detroit, MI, December 13, 1971; 2001 [collectors club release]|
|Live at the Zoom Club, October 13, 1972; 2002 [collectors club release]|
|Live in Hyde Park, July 5, 1969; 2002 [collectors club release]|
|Ladies of the Road; 2002|
|The Joy of Molybdenum; 2000|
|David Byron: Take no Prisoners; 1975|
|Phil Manzanera: Diamond Head; 1975|
|Uriah Heep: Return to Fantasy; 1975|
|<||Uriah Heep: High & Mighty; 1976|
|John Wetton: Caught in the Crossfire; 1980|