You may not know the melodica by name, but you might have seen one or, more likely, heard one at some point in your life. Essentially, the melodica is a wind-powered keyboard that sounds much like a harmonica:
Wikipedia tells me that the “modern version” of the melodica (also known as the “pianica” or “blow organ”) was invented by Hohner in the 1950s, although its more primitive forebears go back to 19th-century Italy, apparently.
I first encountered the instrument in the 1980s during college via Joe Jackson’s ska-inflected “Pretty Boys” and the great side-two opening track off New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies album, “Your Smiling Face.” Around the same time, someone lent me an album by Augustus Pablo, a dub reggae musician and producer who almost single-handedly popularized the melodica and inspired others to see it as something beyond simply being a “kiddie instrument.”
Wikipedia also tells me that composer, Steve Reich, was the first to use the melodica as a “serious” musical instrument in his 1966 composition entitled, “Melodica.” Fortunately, serious music is outside the scope of this blog – and besides, as the person behind the electronic music blog, Orpheus Music, even admits, Reich’s piece is “certainly not among [his] better works”. Moreover, I have discovered another musical artist who committed the melodica to tape around the same time as Reich but utilized the instrument within a composition that was aimed at a broader audience. Who, you might ask, first pushed the boundaries of pop to include the lowly melodica? Incredibly, it’s the Bee Gees. Their second album – originally released in Australia in 1966 under the title, Monday’s Rain (later Spicks & Specks) but repackaged here in the States on Atco as Rare, Precious & Beautiful – includes a catchy, Beatles-y track, “Tint of Blue,” that features an instrumental break whose haunting melody is played on the melodica:
The first person who can find a melodica on a pop recording prior to 1966 wins the lucky two-dollar bill that I keep in my wallet.