Monday, December 29, 2008

The Moody Blues

TWO works made the Moody Blues massively important in the late 1960s. Many would suggest Nights In White Satin is the ultimate Moody Blues song, but, while an important single, it does not rate as highly in my mind as the anti-Vietnam War protest song, Question.

And then, among their albums, none that I have heard can really compare with In Search of the Lost Chord (1968), which kicked off with another highly spirited song, Ride My Seesaw. And the album cover, with a surrealistic design ala Salvador Dali, made such an impression that, during our high school years in the 1970s, my eldest brother, Ian, was commissioned by one of his classmates to paint the image on his motorbike crash helmet.

Thanks to the modern miracle of the Internet, and in particular Wikipedia, I am able to find out, without much ado, a little bit more about a band which were such a key component of the great renaissance, or flowering, of talent which, I suppose, really took off in the 1950s, but reached its high point in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So who were the Moody Blues? As has happened with the other groups and soloists I have looked at thus far, I have spent a few minutes on YouTube, where, for the first time in my life, I was able to see the band performing live, from a concert in 1971. That’s 37 years ago, as I write. So, here I have been living on the southern tip of Africa and one of the major players in the history of modern music has existed, for me, in the form of a couple of their albums, a heap of memories, the photographs of the band on the album sleeves and nothing else. What struck me, on seeing the band performing Nights In White Satin, is just how youthful and goodlooking they were, especially lead singer Justin Hayward.

But, I learn, the founding members of what was originally a rhythm and blues-based band, in Birmingham in 1964, were Michael Pinder and Ray Thomas, along with Graeme Edge and others. John Lodge and Hayward joined them later, as the band’s rock sound became increasingly progressive.

So where did the band get its name? It evidently arose from a planned sponsorship from the M&B Brewery, says Wikipedia, and was “also a subtle reference to the Duke Ellington song, Mood Indigo”.

Down this end of the earth, I don’t think too many people paid attention to the band’s early endeavours, after London-based management company Ridgepride, under Alex Murray (Wharton) helped them secure a recording contract with Decca in the spring of 1964. While the first single, Steal Your Heart Away, did make the charts that year, it was apparently its successor, Go Now, also from 1964, which really gave them their big break. An interesting aspect is that a promotional film (like today’s videos, no doubt) for TV was among the first of its kind in the pop era. The song, which I don’t believe I know, became a top hit in the UK and US.

The big transformation in the band came in 1966 when bassist Clint Warwick and guitarist/vocalist Denny Laine left, to be replaced by Pinder and Lodge, as well as Hayward. They decided to abandon the American blues covers and novelty tunes they were playing and create a unique new sound, based on the symphonic sounds of the mellotron and the flute of Ray Thomas.

Days of Future Passed

Days of Future Passed, their first and highly innovative album, from 1967, was a pioneering work combining rock and orchestral sounds, after Deram Records commissioned them to make an album to promote “Deramic Stereo” to offset several thousand pounds in advances the band owed Decca, of which Deram was an imprint. The original brief was a rock and roll version of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, but the band soon arranged that they be left to their own devices. Days became one of the most commercially successful albums of all time. It also marked the start of a lucrative 11-year partnership with producer Tony Clarke. Engineer Derek Varnals was another key member of the team.

While we never “got into” this album, it was from it that Nights In White Satin emanated, along with another massively popular single, Tuesday Afternoon.

The album, released in 1967 and with a somewhat naïve psychedelic sleeve design, succeeded their debut rhythm and blues offering, The Magnificent Moodies, but was the first of their iconic seven concept albums. It uses the London Festival Orchestra for what Wikipedia calls “epic instrumental interludes” between songs, and helped pioneer classical and progressive rock. Instead of a rock Dvorak, the concept revolves around a stage they were working on, tracing an “everyman’s day” from morning till night. Bizarrely, Tuesday Afternoon was originally titled The Afternoon: Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?), which wouldn’t have gone down well on the hit parade.

In Search of the Lost Chord

We caught up with the Moody Blues with the follow-up album, In Search of the Lost Chord, from 1968.

This, for us, was the big one. It was a real concept album, with all the songs seemingly linked along the issue of a quest for spiritual fulfilment, although they covered diverse subjects, among them another quest: for the mythical “lost chord”. This is given dramatic effect in Edge’s poem, The Word: “To find the chord is important to some / So they give it a word, and the word is Om.

Unlike on their previous album, the band plays all the instruments on this, some 33 of them, including the sitar by Hayward and the tamboura by Pinder. A cello tuned as a bass guitar by bassist Lodge and an oboe played by flautist Thomas also feature. Pinder’s mellatron fills in string and horn sections.

Few who have heard this album will know the song titled Legend Of A Mind – until you tell them that’s the song about Timothy Leary, the man who led the LSD crusade. “Timothy Leary’s dead / No, no, no, he’s outside, looking in.” I think everyone who heard this in the late 1960s and early 1970s knew that the album was primarily about the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, or simply about the powers of meditation: “Thinking is the best way to travel,” the band sing at one point. Coincidentally, Leary is indeed “outside looking in”, his ashes having been launched into space in 1997.

The album kicks off dramatically, with the Edge narration, in beautifully spoken English it must be said, of his poem, Departure, which suggests a “trip”, something that in drugs parlance you did (I didn’t, confining myself to marijuana, or dagga) when taking LSD or similar substances. Anyway, there is a burst of energy as the sound carries you ineluctably forward, like a rocket launched into space. Then, out of this come the words, the first of which I only really learnt after finding the lyrics on the Web: “Be it sight, sound, smell or touch / There’s something inside that means so much / The sight of the touch / Or the scent of the sound / Or the strength of an oak / With roots deep in the ground”. The poem seems to escalate in intensity, along with the music, as one is catapulted heavenwards: “The wonder of flowers to be covered / And to burst up / Through tarmac / To the sun again”. Those words seem as strong as when I first heard them in the late 1960s, without really getting their meaning. This is rare, since often I have found the actual lyrics disappointing, not quite living up to what one thinks one’s hearing. The poem continues, with the beautiful lines: “Or to fly to the sun / Without burning a wing / To lie in a meadow / And hear the grass sing / To have all these things / In our memories hoard / And to use them / To help us / To find …”

The mark of a great “concept” album is how well each song runs into the next, and in this case the result is superb. Because, as Departure takes one into the stratosphere, so, in the next song, you are airborne, carried away on a, well, on a see-saw, no less. “Ride, ride my see-saw / Take this place / On this trip / Just for me.” John Lodge’s lyrics are equally crisp and to the point. Indeed, a notable feature of this album is that the songwriting is shared almost equally between all five band members, making them a true “supergroup”.  In the next verse he offers his seat, saying “It’s for free”. This is a time of change: “Left school with a first class pass / Started work but as second class / School taught one and one is two / But right now, that answer just ain’t true / Ahh, Ahh, Ahh / My world is spinning around / Everything is lost that I found / People run, come ride with me / Let’s find another place that’s free”. Here the free refers not to gratis, but freedom; freedom from the strictures, it would seem, of humdrum existence.

Then, from this celestrial “trip”, we are taken on another much more terrestrial journey, in the form of Ray Thomas’s Dr Livingstone, I Presume, based on Henry Stanley’s famous salutation. “Dr Livingstone, I presume / Stepping out of the jungle gloom / Into the midday sun / What did you find there? / Did you stand awhile and stare? Did you meet anyone?” Livinstone replies: “I’ve seen butterflies galore / I’ve seen people big and small / I’ve still not found what I’m looking for”. Then the chorus, “We’re all looking for someone”, repeated three times. Succeeding verses “interview” Captain Scott “looking rather cold, out there in the snow”, who saw “polar bears and seals” and “giant Antarctic eels”, but still did not find what he was looking for. Then it was Columbus’s turn: “Where are you bound? So you think the world is round, sail off in the blue”. He found “Indians by the score”, but still not what he was looking for. It may be quite naïve, but it does underscore the theme of seeking meaning in life. And of course the song itself has a wonderfully melody and is beautifully sung.

Only a recent relistening to this album revealed precisely what is happening in House Of Four Doors, the next song, which flows into Legend Of A Mind, and then back to House Of Four Doors (Part 2). Look, there is no getting away from the fact that using a creaking door sound to illustrate a door opening is a rather gauche step, but it somehow works within the context of this composition which, of course, echoes the rationale behind the naming of The Doors. Another dimension was being sought as people questioned their existence on an earth threatened at any time by nuclear destruction, and which had known only war for much of the 20th century. John Lodge’s House Of Four Doors is a bit of poetic genius, as far as I’m concerned. “Mystery spread its cloak / Across the sky / We’d lost our way / Shadows fell from trees / they knew why”. Immediately, you are drawn into the intrigue, particularly since this all happens within music that is progressive and sitar-laced. So finally they reach a house with four doors, “I could live there forever / House of four doors / Would it be there forever?” Through the first door they found beauty, through the next love of music. Finally, a door leads … into Timothy Leary’s dream world, Legend Of A Mind, a Thomas composition. For all its serious subject matter, this is a fun song with a lovely lilt. “Timothy Leary’s dead / No, no, no / He’s outside, looking in”. Again, I had only given the words superficial thought, so it is interesting to see precisely what they say about the LSD guru: “He’ll fly his astral plane / Takes you trips around the bay / Brings you back the same day / Timothy Leary / Tomothy Leary”. It’s not grammatically brilliant, but sounds very good when sung. Then there’s a change of mood, as they proclaim, at a quicker tempo: “Along the coast you’ll hear them boast / About a light they say that shines so clear / So raise your glass, we’ll drink a toast / To the little man / Who sells you thrills along the pier”. This homage to an LSD trip continues unashamedly: “He’ll take you up, he’ll bring you down / He’ll plant your feet back firmly on the ground / He flies so high, he swoops so low / He knows exactly which way he’s gonna go / Timothy Leary / Timothy Leary”. Once the trip is over, we return to that house of four doors. The mystery of life only seems to have become more obscure. “Walking through that door / Outside we came / Nowhere at all / Perhaps the answer’s here / Not there anymore”. There is a sense of revelation: “Then in our hearts, the light broke through / A path lost for years is there in view”. But are we nearer a solution? “House of four doors / You’ll be lost now forever / House of four doors / Past’s not life, life’s forever”. These lyrics may seem dry, but when placed within that world of flute and acoustic guitar, the inimitably gentle Moody Blues sound (I detest the abbreviation Moodies), you really get sucked into the mood of the thing. This is a timeless reflection of the era when the danger of hallucinatory drugs was not yet evident, and when LSD had only just been outlawed and was still seen as the innocent preserve of hippie culture.

Side 2 is no less impressive, with Hayward’s Voices In The Sky again constituting a riveting combination of words and music. Again it is the quintessentially gentle Moody Blues sound featuring flutes, vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar which render this a melodic masterpiece. “Bluebird, flying high / Tell me what you sing / If you could talk to me / What news would you bring / Of voices in the sky”. The next verse is equally pleasing: “Nightingale, hovering high / Harmonise the wind / Darkness, your symphony / I can hear you sing / Of voices in the sky”. As someone who loves bird-watching in southern Africa, these references to bluebirds and nightingales give me a yearning to see and hear these birds which are such an integral part of, particularly, English literature. But then comes a change of mood: “Just what is happening to me? / I lie away with the sound of the sea / Calling to me”. It is art for art’s sake.

Mike Pinder’s The Best Way To Travel is an answer to those who say you need drugs to go on a trip. Naught, says Mike, just meditate. Indeed, meditation was the subject of some ridicule while we were growing up. The real hip ous who insisted there was some value to sitting for hours with your legs crossed doing nothing seemed altogether too odd for words. Anyway, this song seems to endorse the practice, so let’s find out why. Again, it is just good poetry set to very pleasing music, beautifully executed. I like the way it starts with “and”, giving one the sense of being caught in mid-flight: “And you can fly / High as a kite if you want to / Faster than light if you want to / Speeding through the universe / Thinking is the best way to travel”. There is then a period of reflection: “It’s all a dream / Light passing by on the screen / and there’s you and I on the beam / speeding through the universe / Thinking is the best way to travel”. Further on he asks, as “we ride the waves … will we find out, how life began, will we find out?”.

Visions Of Paradise, while again most melodic with sitar, flutes and violin, did not impact me much lyric-wise, but The Actor was another of those superb songs which, to my mind, really make this album. You can just hear the dancing rhythm as Hayward’s words are sung: “The curtain rises on the scene / With someone chanting to be free / The play unfolds before my eyes / there stands the actor who is me”. The next verse contains a wonderful line: “The sleeping hours take us far / Through traffic, telephones and fear / Put out your problems with the cat / Escape until a bell you hear”. This is a lovely love song, a song about enjoying indoorsy weather with someone. “The sound I have heard in your hello / Oh, darlin’, you’re almost part of me / Oh, darlin’, you’re all I’ll ever see”. Then a reflection on life: “It’s such a rainy afternoon / No point in going anywhere / The sounds just drift across my room / I wish this feeling I could share”. So he’s alone. And what of her? “It’s such a rainy afternoon / she sits and gazes from her window / Her mind tries to recall his face / The feeling deep inside her grows”. There is much longing in these lyrics – the sort of words only the young can really write with true meaning. Older, more cynical souls don’t seem to have this clarity of emotional vision.

But all this has been leading to The Word. And this is not the word of Bible, Koran or Talmud. No, it is Graeme Edge’s word on the meaning of life itself. How beautifully recited isn’t this piece on the album: “This garden universe vibrates complete / some, we get a sound so sweet / Vibrations reach up to become light / And then through gamma, out of sight”. He then expounds on “the sounds of colour and the light of a sigh”. “And to hear the sun, what a thing to believe / But it’s all around if we could but perceive / to know ultraviolet and X-rays / Beauty to find in so many ways / Two notes of the chord, that’s our full scope / But to reach the chord is our life’s hope / And to name the chord is important to some / so they give it a word, and the word is …” We were just kids when this was going down, to use that odd American turn of phrase. Because the word, the key, Mike Pinder tells us in the next song, is: OM. Pronounced: OHUUUUM! Between flutes and haunting cello sounds, the lyrics again are impressive: “The rain is on the roof / Hurry high, butterfly / As clouds roll past my head / I know why the skies all cry”. Then the resounding: OM / OM / Heaven / OM. This was one of the key albums of my youth, and it sounds as good today as it did nearly 40 years ago. Has anyone in recent decades done anything nearly as creative?

Imagine, as an early teen, without such distractions as cellphones, television or PC games, listening to that album as it launched you into a new dimension.

The album reached No 5 in the UK and 23 in the US, though neither of the singles off it, Ride My See-Saw and Voices In The Sky, made the Billboard top 40. For us it was our first and last real obsession with the band. I have recently given some of its successor albums a listen, and while they are good, and still have that distinctive Moody Blues sound, they somehow lack the vitality and freshness, both lyrically and instrumentally, of Lost Chord.

On The Threshold of a Dream

Their next album, On The Threshold of a Dream (1969), continued the progressive rock experiment. It was not part of our growing up, although certain songs were generally known. Indicative of the classical roots of, especially Mike Pinder, the climax Voyage suite is inspired in part by Strauss’s Sprach Zarathrustra, Wikipedia assures me. Just looking at the track listing again, it becomes evident that the album did have a dream-like quality – as opposed to a straight-forward drug-induced “trip”.  Dear Diary is one song that sticks in my memory.

To Our Children’s Children’s Children

To Our Children’s Children’s Children (also 1969, they were on a roll), eschews the sitar and is more symphonic. A concept album, it is apparently a celebration of the first lunar landing. Wikipedia says it reportedly even went to the moon on Apollo space missions.

The fourth of their “core seven” albums from 1967 to 1972, this album was also only of peripheral interest to us – meaning we never had a copy, so only knew it from listening to it at other people’s homes. The space travel concept lends itself to a psychedelic approach, with all five again writing the songs. Again lush orchestration was the order of the day. Here, only Eyes Of A Child rings bells as one of the Moody Blues classics, but again the album is one of their key works.

A Question of Balance

As the 1970s rolled along, we had lost touch with the Moody Blues. It is interesting to note that, despite their psychedelic sound having helped define progressive rock or art rock, they then opted to record only albums they could play in concert, which meant losing the full-bodied orchestral sound on A Question of Balance (1970), which reached No 3 in the US and No 1 in the UK.  And the reason for its great success has to lie in their UK No 1 hit, Justin Hayward’s Question. This, as noted earlier, for me was probably the great Moody Blues song. Characterised by rapidly strung acoustic guitar and high-pitched choral backing, it was an existentialist exploration of life at that time, instigated by the ongoing angst surrounding the Vietnam War. Where, one wonders, are the great questioning hit songs of today in the face of the Iraq War, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the Zimbabwean disgrace, and so on? If they’re happening, the message isn’t getting through. “Why do we never get an answer / When we’re knocking on the door ?/ With a thousand million questions ? About hate and death and war / It’s where we stop and look around us / There is nothing that we need / In a world of persecution / That is burning in its greed…” On the strength of this song, I’d certainly like to give the album a fresh listen.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

Having ditched their heavy over-dubbing and orchestration for Balance, they returned to their original sound for Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971) and Seventh Sojourn (1972), which topped the charts in both the US and UK. The former was the last by the group to feature the mellotron, which was replaced on Seventh Sojourn by a thing called the Chamberlin, says Wikipedia. This is another device that uses recorded tape to generate sound. For those, like myself, who have not studied music but have at least tinkered on the guitar, the letters EGBDF should at least ring some sort of bell. The album’s name is a mnemonic for the lines of the treble clef. Again, it is one I’d love to hear, with the opening track, Procession, the only track written jointly by all five band members, evidently tracing the history of music.

Seventh Sojourn

I always loved the cover of Seventh Sojourn, with its panoramic sweep of sculpted rocks. Indeed, since we never had the album, for years I thought the album was Severnth Sojourn, a play on the name of the Severn River. Instead, it was their seventh and last core album.

One noticeable aspect of the album is that it is a Threshold Records production, this being the record label the band started themselves, but which failed to make it commercially, causing them to eventually return to traditional recording methods. The mystical Moody Blues sound continued on this album, and its two singles, Isn’t Life Strange? And I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band) were well known at the time. Ironically, both were overshadowed by the band’s US release of their greatest money-spinner, Nights In White Satin (from 1967’s Days Of Future Passed) in 1972, where it reached No 2, the best the band was ever to achieve in the States. I am glad to see, reading Wikipedia, that the album again had a political message. Lost In A World says “Revolution never won / It’s just another form of gun”, while You And Me again targets the Vietnam War.

Nights In White Satin

According to the Songfacts website, Nights In White Satin reached No 19 in the UK. And The London Festival Orchestra who played with them never existed, says the site. It was just the name given to the musicians who joined the band for the album. Hayward got the idea, says the site, after someone gave him a set of white satin sheets. He wrote it in his bed-sit in Bayswater. It fitted the concept of different times of day on the album, Days Of Future Passed, providing the night following Dawn Is A Feeling and Tuesday Afternoon.

Considered by many to be one of the all-time classics of modern popular music, this song, which is nearly six minutes long, is an interesting musing about the passage of time. “Nights in white satin / Never reaching the end / Letters I’ve written / Never meaning to send. / Beauty I’d always missed / With these eyes before, / Just what the truth is / I can’t say anymore.” Then the immortal chorus: “Cause I love you / Yes, I love you, / Oh, how I love you”. I remember getting the chords for this song and in my inexpert way trying to replicate those amazing vocals – an impossible task. The words also spoke to one struggling with the whole issue of love and truth: “Gazing at people / Some hand in hand / Just what I’m going through / They can’t understand.” 

Thanks, no doubt, to the massive cash generated in the US by the re-release of this single, the band took a long break in 1973, which is probably when we took a break from them.  Hayward and Lodge did a duo album, Blue Jays, in 1975, which was “very successful”, according to Wikipedia. They also released solo albums. All, I am sure are very listenable, as no doubt are Edge and Pinder’s solo efforts.

There were, I read, failed and successful reunions down the year, with the 1986 album, The Other Side of Life, proving a success, thanks in part to new producer Tony Visconti.

And, just to prove their longevity, the band released Strange Times in 1999, which made the UK Top 10.

Then, in 2002, Thomas retired, leaving Hayward, Lodge and Edge to continue, with Norda Mullen taking over the flute role in the studio. This outfit released December, in 2003.

So it’s been a long and productive road for this gifted group of men. But their success was really sealed, for me, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the produced their seminal seven albums, culminating in Seventh Sojourn, and a string of singles which are intrinsic to the tapestry, the multifaceted fabric, of the world’s rock and roll legacy. These songs are Nights In White Satin and Tuesday Afternoon from 1967, Voices In The Sky and Ride My See-Saw from 1968, Question from 1970, The Story in Your Eyes from 1971 (which I don’t recall off-hand), Isn’t Life Strange from 1972, and then the more commercial I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock-n-Roll Band) from 1973.

The Moody Blues brought a unique sound to the world of music as the 1960s blossomed into the 1970s. As pioneers of the progressive rock genre, they will remain essential stars in the rock firmament.


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