Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Stylophone Mania

My Raconteurs Stylophone arrived today. Yes, there is such a thing – apparently it's used on Consolers of the Lonely (although I can't make it out in there) and a Raconteurs Stylophone was sold on the subsequent tour. Their website still has them – that's how I got one, in fact. Forty bucks. It came with a free iron-on Raconteurs transfer which I am having difficulty deciding what to do with. Iron it on what?

What I didn't realize when I was buying it, because I always do my homework afterwards, is that it's a reproduction Stylophone, not the same circuitry as the original. The originals were analog devices made by Dubreq between 1968 and 1975. I had one myself, and I believe 1970 was the year I got it. They came, as do the reproductions, with the music for Silent Night and I remember charming the socks off of locals with my rendition when I went out caroling at Christmas. No, it's not that the locals were good actors; generally speaking Yorkshiremen do not feign delight with any degree of verisimilitude.

The Stylophone was associated with Rolf Harris, Australian wobble-board maven, kangaroo bondage artist and painter, who was a fixture on TV at the time. There were a number of records, books and pamphlets on playing the Stylophone available back then, all with Mr. Harris's smiling face on the front. I can't remember ever thinking Rolf was cool, but I immediately realized the instrument was cool.

My dad used to love it – not me playing Silent Night per se, but the concept. He was an electronics engineer and actually enjoyed electronic music, so the Stylophone floated his boat. It was a true synthesizer, and remarkably compact with it. The stylus, which is the end of a lead from the battery, connects a circuit when you touch the metal keyboard. Each key has a different-value resistor attached, so each key puts a different voltage through the Stylophone's single voltage controlled oscillator, and bingo, you get a handful of (monophonic) notes.

There's even a Marc Bolan connection. David Bowie famously used a Stylophone on Space Oddity, and apparently the instrument was a gift from Marc, who favored the strange (such as pixiephones) on his own albums.
“I remember David playing me ‘Space Oddity’ in his room and I loved it and he said he needed a sound like The Bee Gees, who were very big then. The stylophones he used on that, I gave him. Tony Visconti turned me on to stylophones."
(From Nickel In the Machine.)

Here are some famous Stylophone tracks.

The White Stripes- Icky Thump

Space Oddity, David Bowie

Kraftwerk, Pocket Calculator

Manic Street Preachers, Why So Sad

Anyway, my original Dubreq Stylophone was lost to me when I put away all childish things – at one point I piled just about all my toys, including Mr. S, into a bag and swapped them for my first guitar. And look how far that took me!

The re-imagined Stylophone seems to be the same size and weight, but is in cool Raconteurs Bronze/Copper colors. It comes with the sheet music for Silent Night (of course) and Londonderry Air (which I don't remember ever playing), but also, as a special bonus, the music for Seven Nation Army and Salute Your Solution. I would not know how the keyboard feels because, as soon as I opened it and realized it actually was a special edition, and not just shipped in a box stamped Raconteurs, I got all Comics Guy about it and put it away in its box to become a collector's item. I've already seen one going for $250 on Ebay, but I don't know if that was the beginning of collector's-item-hood or just someone out to relieve of the low hanging fruit of the internet of their hard earned cash.

Now, since I can't play my Raconteurs Stylophone (it would mean getting screwdriver marks on the back when I put in a battery), I have a hankering to have a playable Stylophone. I have a couple of choices. I can buy the repro, same as the one I have, but in a less-ossum color and without an ornate "R" on it, for about $20, or I can buy an actual refurbished Dubreq from a dealership that sprinkles originals with loving-caredust and then ships them out again. These are $119, or fifty-five pounds sterling. (Either their website is not terribly well designed or perhaps I'm tired, but I can't work out how much it will be if I pay in sterling but live in the US. Now, that's a difficult question for any website. More significantly, I can't figure out how to order a unit at all from this site. I may try again in the morning.)

What shall I do? I want a seventies one with a picture of Rolf on the box, but if I get it, it will be a collector's item too and I'll have to buy the cheap repro as well for my daily player. Because, you know, even though I haven't, like, touched one in forty years, I am so going to play it daily. I am.

Edited to fix links 07/18/17

No comments:


Blog Widget by LinkWithin
I sometimes mention a product on this blog, and I give a URL to Amazon or similar sites. Just to reassure you, I don't get paid to advertise anything here and I don't get any money from your clicks. Everything I say here is because I feel like saying it.