When someone generically refers to a ‘60s organ, by and large, it’s this instrument or one of its relatives they’ll be talking about.
I missed out on the original wave of bands who used the Vox Continental II, so my introduction to the model came in the late ‘70s, when keyboardists such as Steve Nieve (The Attractions), Jerry Dammers (The Specials) and Mike Barson (Madness), used it extensively. The debut Madness album was actually the first LP I ever bought with my pocket money (ah, pocket money – they were the days), and it was absolutely deluged with the bold, toppy tones of the Vox. I liked the music, but didn’t particularly pick up on the organ sound with the first Madness stuff. However, in the new year of 1980, I saw a televised Rock Goes to College performance by The Specials (from the Colchester Institute in Essex), in which Jerry Dammers was using a Vox Continental through a rotary speaker. I was blown away by the sound of that. I didn’t know anything about rotary speakers at the time. I just saw the organ, with the reverse black/white keys, and thought: When I grow up, I’m gonna get one of those…
And on Monday 11th August 1986, I did. I bought it from a small and now long, long gone shop in West Bromwich (near Birmingham, England), called Musicstore. I was alerted to the presence of this organ by a guitarist mate, who knew what my tastes were and thought I’d be interested. But even by ’86 I hadn’t done much homework on Vox organs, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. I did know about rotary speakers by this time, so I knew I wasn't going to get the sound I'd heard on Rock Goes to College, but playing the organ for the first time in the shop I still found it really exciting. The personality was extremely lively and the vibrato rate was set much faster than on the Continental IIs I'd heard on record. I loved the fast vibrato, and keyboard parts from the original material I was playing on stage at the time worked brilliantly.
The Continental II is a twin manual expansion on the single-manual Vox Continental, and the Continental II moniker alone ties the product to the mid 1960s, giving it a year of birth between 1965 and 1967. The model I bought was in fact a Continental Super II, with percussion and a grey top, as opposed to the regular orange-top Continental II, which came minus the perc section. I later covered the grey top with material, which I thought looked much better than the rather cheap matt finish of the original lid.
These organs were built to sound toppy through a valve (guitar type) amp – which naturally lacks the highest frequencies. They accordingly have a very strong treble bias. Feed one into a stereo or directly to a mixing desk and you get overwhelming and frankly quite ridiculous levels of treble with all drawbars out. The Vox Continental is the only keyboard I’ve ever had which needs to go through a guitar speaker simulator for direct injection recording.
The Vox drawbar system was different from that of the Hammond. The Continental II sported white-tipped and maroon-tipped bars. The white-tipped bars essentially did what Hammond drawbars did, except they had the potential to produce a brighter and more complex tone, and some bars were alloted more than one pitch. The Hammond system was strictly one pitch per drawbar. Vox grouped some pitches together – presumably to save on space and hardware. Fans of classic Hammond sounds should note that one of the pitches Vox grouped into a set combination on the Continental II was the 5 1/3’. Because this pitch was inseparable from the 1 3/5’ pitch it was grouped with, the seminal Hammond jazz tone (produced with a tonewheel organ’s first three bars full out) was impossible to get.
The Continental II’s maroon-tipped bars were really not drawbars at all, but master volume controls. Per manual, there was one maroon bar for sine waves, and one for triangle waves. With both maroon bars pushed right in to zero, there was no sound at all. Pull out the sine bar, and all the white drawbars produced sine waves – roughly similar to the Hammond tone, but ineitably with a much more ‘electronic’ quality. Pull out the triangle bar, and all the white drawbars produced much brighter triangle type waves. You could mix the sine waves with the triangle waves by pulling out both maroon bars, but the bright triangles would overpower the sines, so all the sine bar really did in that context was add a little extra depth to the tone.
The percussion is as organ players would expect. The traditional two pitches of attack tone, plus Long or Short selections for the decay. Vibrato is either on or off, and has only one rate of cycle, albeit a rate which can be adjusted internally between slow and fast, via a trimpot. And that’s pretty much it. It’s a very basic instrument – although to look at the ‘telephone exchange’ of wiring inside you’d think it could single-handedly run a space mission.
Within days of buying it in ‘86, I began using my Continental II on stage. I also bought a Yamaha DX7 in 1986 (costing nearly ten times what I paid for the Vox), but over time I got fed up with the DX and found the Continental to be much more of a player’s instrument at gigs. Overall, though, I think the association of the Continental II with the keyboardists I’d admired as a kid was what implored me to hang onto the organ after I’d stopped playing it on stage in the 1990s.
It’s hard to be decisive about whether or not these golden oldies are worth big money today. They are very, very highly prone to malfunctions of one sort or another. At best, they can lose their tuning and be difficult to retune. Tuning is done internally, for each of the twelve notes, via small screws on the individual note circuit boards. For reasons of safety as much as anything else, this should be left to a professional. More seriously, their delicate old electrical components can pack up, brittle printed circuit channels can crack open, and the unprotected key contacts can get dirty, causing notes to play intermittently or not sound at all.
The older the organs get, the more of these problems you can expect to potentially occur at once. I lost patience with mine in 1996 and decided to convert it for use as a MIDI controller for the Hammond XM1 module. It can still function as a Vox Continental, but the old circuits have really got a mind of their own now. If you repair one problem, another one crops up elsewhere, and it just seems like an endless battle. Of course, some Continental IIs will probably have had an easier life than mine and been better looked after. I don’t know what sort of stresses mine went through before I bought it. But even in a best case scenario, I’d say one of these is likely to need at least some cursory attention on perhaps an annual or six-monthly basis after forty-five years. If you’re unable to undertake maintenance work yourself, keeping a Vox Contintental fit could prove very costly.
Each note had its own individual circuit board. This one produces an F.
That’s the negative stuff. On the positive side, these organs are an important piece of pop music history, with associations which include the Beatles, the Stones and many other iconic 1960s acts – not to mention a host of more recent luminaries. To me, their primary value today is definitely focused around their 'museum' properties. If you can afford to shell out, and want what’s arguably THE organ of the 1960s in your lounge to impress guests, go for it.
But buying one to take out on the road and use as a hardworking main keyboard strikes me as misguided – particularly as their sound is so straightforwardly simulated on fairly cheap synths these days. Gigging and touring with a Vox Continental II was fine in the ‘70s – they were only just over a decade old back then. But as we approach 2012, and some of them come within three years of chalking up the half century, these quirky relics can no longer be seen in that light. Immensely cool to look at, unmistakable in tone, but not (speaking from personal experience, and based on the accounts of others) likely to be in the best of health.
If you use the VST virtual recording environment on a PC, you may be interested in this site's own freeware '60s organ - the VSTV2 (depicted above). If so, it's still available for download via the Virtual Organs page, or directly from the VSTV2 1960s Organ post.