Zero to 180 – Three Minute Magic

Discoveries of a Pop Music Archaeologist

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“M1”: Modern Sound for a Modern Roadway

From Sound on Sound‘s wonderfully detailed history of the Clavioline (the otherworldly keyboard sound that steals the show on Beatle B-side, “Baby You’re a Rich Man“) we learn that “electrical instruments first appeared at the close of the 19th century.”  However, it was only with the introduction of the Clavioline in 1947 by French company, Selmer, that “an affordable and widely distributed electronic keyboard became available.”


Fascinatingly, the Clavioline was originally built to be attached underneath the keyboard of a piano and “used to imitate orchestral solo instruments.”  Even though Selmer “offered suggested voicings,” there was nothing to prevent musicians from creating new sounds by combining the stops in novel ways, while at the same time employing the instrument’s knee lever to surprisingly expressive effect.

1962’s soaring #1 instrumental hit, “Telstar,” propelled the Clavioline onto the international stage thanks to producer/songwriter, Joe Meek – but was that the first time the distinctive and futuristic sound of the Clavioline made it onto a pop record?  The Ted Taylor Four, believe it or not, beat Joe Meek to the punch two years prior with their instrumental ode to the newly-opened M1 motorway that features a rather delightful romp on the Clavioline:

“M1”     The Ted Taylor Four     1960

According to 45Cat contributor, Klepsie, the tune was “originally called ‘Left Hand Drive’ but renamed before release to ride the coat-tails of the publicity surrounding the opening of the M1 motorway.  Despite being voted a majority ‘hit’ on Juke Box Jury for 29 October 1960 (where Ted Taylor was the artist ‘behind the screen’) it missed the charts.”

However, “M1” is not the first appearance of a Clavioline on record – at least, in the UK.  According to Wikipedia, that honor goes to Frank Chacksfield and His Orchestra with “Little Red Monkey” which peaked at #10 in April, 1953 on the UK pop chart:

“Little Red Monkey”     Frank Chacksfield & His Orchestra     1953

Meet the Musitron – The Clavioline’s Kissing Cousin

Del Shannon‘s #1 1961 hit, “Runaway,” features a prominent keyboard line that music scholars have long assumed to be a Clavioline — Sound on Sound helpfully informs us:

“The instrument used to create the track’s instrumental break — possibly the first ‘synth solo’ ever released on record — was not a Clavioline, but a custom instrument called a Musitron, which was assembled by Shannon’s keyboard player and co-writer, Max Crook.  Based on a Clavioline, the Musitron incorporated numerous other unspecified electronic bits and pieces that made it possible for Crook to create a wider range of tones and special effects.  Later, he was to build another hybrid, which he dubbed the Sonocon.  This had pitch-bend and was also capable of generating percussion sounds that the Clavioline could not.”

According to Del Shannon’s website, keyboardist and electronics wizard, Max Crook, took a Clavioline (itself adapted from the Ondioline, also French) and modified it by (1) “expanding the octave range to infinity” and (2) incorporating a “spring echo reverberation unit,” as well as (3) additional outboard effects, such as “mechanical vibrato” and tape delay (i.e., “Echoplex”), while also inserting (4) “extra resistors, pots & capacitors” into the mix.  Most interesting – for historical sake – is Crook’s assertion that his keyboard’s inescapable sound directly influenced Joe Meek to use the Clavioline on that following year’s equally-unavoidable radio hit, 1962’s #1 “Telstar.”

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