David Bowie’s favourite pocket synth at 50: a space-age musical moment lives on

David Bowie’s favourite pocket synth at 50: a space-age musical moment lives on

The year before David Bowie’s Space Oddity (1968) swept the galaxy, British engineer Brian Jarvis was trying to mend his niece’s piano. One circuit board and a stylus later, the unique monophonic organ was born, better known as the Stylophone. It was a hit.

‘Stylophone is the only instrument I take on holiday to compose on,’ said the late David Bowie in 2003. He famously first used the pocket synth on Space Oddity, which sparked a space-age tinged musical moment. ‘I watched David play with the Stylophone – something was cooking in his brain while he played with it,’ explains Tony Visconti, producer of Space Oddity. ‘It was a curious instrument that all rock musicians wanted to get their hands on. David immediately realised the potential of its unusual voice. It was the beginning of synth.’

Example of the original Stylophone branding, 1968

Example of the original Stylophone branding and promotional materials, 1968

Since, the Stylophone has held a particular fascination for musicians and producers: Visconti used the instrument with Sparks on their 1975 album Indiscreet; Kraftwerk featured it in the single Pocket Calculator (1981); while Pulp, Manic Street Preachers, White Stripes, Belle & Sebastian, Kid Koala and Raconteurs are among the headliners to make use of the miniature analogue stylus-operated keyboard.

This year, Stylophone turns 50, and is celebrating with a complete re-brand, orchestrated by cult illustrator Mel Elliott of I Love Mel. ‘I loved Stylophone as a child and so this was a fun project for me,’ he explains. ‘However, it was difficult as there are many audiences to try and please. There’s the fortysomethings like me who have fond memories and want one for themselves, then there’s the child and teen “toy” market, but there is also the professional musician who may use a Stylophone on-stage, or sample and record from it.’

The new Stylophone branding, 2018

Elliott decided that the retro element was crucial. After all, the tech world is currently torn by a desire to jump headfirst into the future, and an acute, Stranger Things-esque nostalgia, where vinyl is no longer obsolete and a watch without smart features is a novelty. Losing the throwback aesthetic would be to misread the moment. So Elliot opted for a classic CMYK colour palette, and a very simple graphic that is symbolic of vinyl, cassette and score. It could have been made contemporaneously to the original Stylophone, and respects its heritage and legacy.

At the same time, the re-brand looks to the future. Recently, new products have joined the Stylophone family, including the GenX-1, which offers more contemporary synth options for serious musicians. Producers using this model include Steve Levine, Steve Albini and Joe Chiccarelli. Whats more, its inclusion in the 2017 film Baby Driver gave Stylophone an extra push into the collective consciousness – not that it really needed one. With four million units sold worldwide, we’re pretty sure Stylophone is here to stay.

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