The Stylophone beloved of Bowie is back on sale

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The Independent Culture

Is it a keyboard? Is it a circuit board? Or is it just the worst noise you've heard in your living room since the Furby? No, it's the Stylophone, the cult Seventies pocket organ, which HMV is bringing back to the delight of retro music fans – and the despair of parents.

The music retailer hopes the idiosyncratic instrument, which uses a metal stylus and exposed circuitry to create a series of tinny notes, will provoke a similar following to lava lamps and chopper bikes.

HMV Entertainment products buyer Fran Jones said she thought the music toy, which will cost £14.99, would tap into a wave of nostalgia. "It goes back to the Seventies, and there's always a great response when we sell retro items", she said. "The original version has already been selling pretty well on eBay, and I reckon people of my generation who had one as a kid will want one for themselves, and probably another for their children."

At the peak of its popularity, the organ's single-setting speaker was seen by enthusiasts as a veritable asset, and maestros from David Bowie to Rolf Harris cupped their hands over it to create a "wah-wah" effect. But , unlike the Seventies version, the 21st-century model comes with a volume control and headphone socket. In a move towards the digital age, the latest incarnation of the toy also comes with an mp3 function. Enthusiasts will be able to plug in their mp3 player, and play along to their music through the same speaker.

The cult electronic music maker was invented by accident in the 1960s, when soundtrack dubber Brian Jarvis was mending his niece's electric piano. Some of the keys had come off, and he discovered they could all be put on one circuit, with a metal pen that completed the circuit to make different notes.

Jarvis called his invention the Dubreq Stylophone, and marketed it as a musical instrument that anyone could master. And just as the screeching of recorders has tormented parents before and since, its monotonous tones became the bane of parents everywhere.

The "Dubreq" name came from the company Jarvis owned with his brother Ted, and friend Bert Coleman, who thought up the title as a combination of the words "dubbing" and "recording". Presumably the "q" was to give their soundtrack firm an air of continental mystique.

In their heyday some three million of the bleeping instruments were sold, but by the early 1980s Dubreq Stylophones disappeared from the shelves. The instrument's latest incarnation is the product of a buyout by the games company ReCreation.

The synthetic pianos, which were marketed as children's toys, were initially snubbed by the music world. But once David Bowie had used the organ for his popular "Space Oddity" track, he ensured the Stylophone's place in music nostalgia.

The most fervent advocate of its droning charms was Rolf Harris, whose show gave the Stylophone its public debut. The children's entertainer had been approached to use the device on his Saturday evening programme, The Rolf Harris Show, and within weeks he had commissioned another six to be specially made. Soon he was handing them out to his eccentric support band so they could combine its sounds with his didgeridoo and wobble board.

In fact, Harris's face was so frequently plastered on all the advertising and packaging that many children assumed it was his own invention. It was with some embarassment that the Australian had to admit it was not his. Since then, the dance world has embraced its monophonic sound, with bands like Kraftwerk and Orbital using it as part of their electronic sound.

You heard it here

* David Bowie

"Space Oddity" and "Slip Away" include the Stylophone. "Space Oddity" is probably its most high-profile song, but it only features one note and a glissando from the machine.

* Kraftwerk

The German electro group used the Stylophone extensively in their concept album Computer World.

* Erasure

The synth pop duo used a vintage Stylophone in 1997 for their electronic single "Don't Say Your Love is Killing Me".

* Pulp

Pulp's album His 'n' Hers features the souped up Stylophone350S, which had three different sound settings.

* Marilyn Manson

The buzzy notes of the Stylophone can just be made out in his song "You Me and The Devil Makes 3".

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