When the state-of-the-art deco 1ZB Radio Theatre opened in 1941 on Durham Street, Auckland, among its features was an instrument that exemplified modernism. The Novachord was a keyboard that can be seen as a precursor to the Mellotron, the essential element of so many psychedelic recordings in the late 1960s. It was designed by the Hammond organ company, but was more of an orchestra in a box. In place of pipes and pedals, it had a single five-and-a-half octave keyboard. All electric, its 167 valves were the means through which the sounds of almost any instrument – or combination of instruments – could be reproduced.
1ZB’s master of the Novachord was Eric Bell, who was featured playing the instrument in countless programmes that were recorded and broadcast throughout the country. Above the keyboard were many switches that created the combination of sounds to emulate the tones of other instruments. Bell became very adept at meeting challenges, playing the Novachord as a straight church organ then converting the sound to, say, a cello and violin duet. In 1945, Maestro magazine reported on this phenomenon:
A flick of a few switches and there is the duet! Piano, vibraharp, music box, harpsichord, clavichord, banjo, French horn, trumpet, oboe, clarinet, harmonium, violin, cello, are all there at the touch of a switch, but the various combination require the application of suitable technique and common sense on the part of the player, who must have at immediate command both an organ and piano touch for legato or percussive work as required by the chosen combination.
Despite an occasional sniff from conservative musicians, the 1ZB Novachord is apparently in radio programmes to stay, and Eric Bell is one of the few musicians capable of “riding” the instrument, which is a capricious and temperamental animal quite likely to know the amateur and to backbite in unexpected ways.
1ZB’s Novachord was apparently the only one in Australasia. The new, modern Commercial Broadcasting Service (later to become NZBC, and Radio New Zealand) made a statement by purchasing it, just as Split Enz needed to buy a Mellotron in the band’s earliest days. The picture of Eric Bell at the 1ZB Novachord is from Voices in the Air, the 1975 radio history by Peter Downes and Peter Harcourt. In Blue Smoke there is a picture of Nancy Harrie giving the instrument a go, assisted by fellow pianist John Thomson, preparing for the 1952 programme Keyboard Capers.