Their Just Due: The Moody Blues in Their Time

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During a fifteen-minute break from working at a local market after school each day in 1971, I used to dart to the local record store and peer at the over-sized display window for the latest LP releases. Like countless adolescents who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, album art back then invariably piqued my interest. After all, it was the initial artistic expression of the music that lay inside of each record jacket. At the time, a long-playing record cover measured 12.3 inches squared. Thus, how an album was marketed mattered a lot to nearly everyone. As former Columbia Records President Don Ienner revealed to me years later, “In 1964, when Capitol (Records) marketed the Beatles’ first LP release in the US with the black-and-white photo montage for their American début, Meet the Beatles, that LP-cover sold thousands of more records. Of course, it was a brilliant marketing ploy.”

Thus, when I sprinted to my local record store during a work break In September 1971, I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw the latest album that was featured in the front window of the Music Box in Wellesley, Massachusetts. There, prominently displayed so that all could see it was a record cover that was so distinctive, surreal, and hypnotic that I was instantly mesmerized. The Moody Blues, the album read at the top, and then the age-old, mystifying Anglo-Saxon aphorism, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

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With artwork by contemporary English artist, Phil Travers, the lettering, Bocklin (comparable to Expo today), was based on a typeface design initially introduced by the Otto Weisert foundry of Stuttgart, Germany in 1904. The assumption, of course, was that the archetypal music buyer would be pushed to believe that the music within the enchanted record jacket would also contain 42 minutes of wonder.

I immediately plunged into the music store, purchased the LP, and returned to work, counting off the minutes until I could barge home and give it a listen. As a relentless fan of the Moody Blues since the 1967 release of their groundbreaking album, Days of Future Passed, I knew that this could be another precarious endeavor by a band that specialized in transcendence.

Because of the theatrical, ethereal, and almost childlike virtuousness of their multi-dimensional series of concept albums that framed the Moody Blues from 1968-73, more than a few rock fans during that time dismissed them as cosmic lightweights. To most of my hard-rock friends back then, the Moodies were Pink Floyd-lite; muzak for the soft-rock crowd, unsubstantiated nothingness with pretty melodies, sappy lyrics, and lush but saccharine orchestration. This was primarily because their first two substantial hits as a reformed band, “Tuesday Afternoon,” and “Nights in White Satin,” were quickly labeled as “high priests of trippy, high-art pomp” in an infamous review in Rolling Stone.

In reality, the Moody Blues were venerable pioneers of progressive rock. Still, the original group had one more rhythm and blues British Invasion band that had followed the template of the Stones and the Animals. Even though the band from Birmingham, England had a top ten hit with their 1964 single, “Go Now,” the Moodies went through a series of changes until they reinvented themselves three years later by adding wunderkind Justin Hayward as both lead guitarist and lead vocalist and the multi-talented John Lodge on bass. It was the equivalent of Fleetwood Mac adding Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham a few years later.

Throughout much of 1967, the Moodies composed, rehearsed, collaborated, and eventually recorded their concept-album masterwork, Days of Future Passed, with the 133-member, London Festival Orchestra, deftly conducted by Peter Knight. When it was released that fall, musicologists recognized that the group had invented a new musical genre – art rock – a potent combination of psychedelia, classical, and R&B that gave their sound a celestial undertone. Because the band deemphasized the kick in their rock sound throughout the album, many rock fans dismissed them as quintessential soft rockers. I stood my ground with the naysayers and pleaded with them to “give a listen to the brilliance.”

The pretense of Days of Future Passed was simple and yet onerous – the Moody Blues attempted to capture a day in the life of people living and surviving in the modern world – from dawn to eventide. While “Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon”), and “Nights and White Satin” were both top-ten hits, the magic of the album could be found in the interludes in-between.

This was not a head-banging experience; it was both cerebral and whimsical, heady fare for the common man. When it was released, New York Magazine dismissed it as “a ponderous mound of thought-jello.” Ultimately, though, their music has aged well. The ‘band’s reassessment is such that they finally garnered a well-deserved spot as group members in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018. Rather than followers without originality, they are now viewed as visionaries who had enough talent, ingenuity, moxie, and élan to create their own musical universe. Interestingly, Rolling Stone, which trashed Days of Future Passed in 1967, hailed it five decades later as…”one of the most endearingly popular albums of its time.” In the end, it is one of those concept albums that begs to be played in one listen.

In musical history, the Moodies, of course, were one of the first bands to fully employ the Mellotron in their music, which helped them build multilayered soundscapes. Invented in their hometown of Birmingham in 1963, the Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic tape replay keyboard. (John Lennon first made it famous in 1967’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.”) This dynamic musical force would lie at the heart of their second major masterwork, 1968’s In Search of the Lost Chord, an album that sought to encapsulate a voyage of discovery in people everywhere. (Talk about a cosmic undertaking!) Because the Moody Blues were no longer working with a full orchestra, the Mellotron, under the creative genius of keyboardist Mike Pinder, took center stage for them over the next six original albums. Justin Hayward’s collaboration with Pinder on “Voices in the Sky,” is typical of the sweeping melodic and lyrical sounds the group came up with in terms of vocals, guitars, and Pinder’s Mellotron prowess.

Another quintessential Moody Blues’ attribute, the use of the narrative voice, through the distinct, Oxfordian-affected tenor of percussionist Graeme Edge, provided the bookends for the album in the form of an introduction and an epilogue. Edge’s poetic salvo, which opens In Search of the Lost Chord proved to be one of his more beloved openers (in this case, to their top ten single from the album, “Ride My See-Saw”) of any in the Moody Blues prodigious catalog.

The same force frames the prologue, “The Word,” featuring Edge, and “Om,” a luminous, collaborative effort, which features the unmistakable Eastern sound of the sitar along with a hypnotic, otherworldly chant framed in Western-based imagery. Justin Hayward’s sitar-playing is a revelation and radiantly supports vocals from all five members of the band. As George Harrison stated later on, “In terms of combining Western and Eastern sounds, only the Moody Blues and the Beatles were stirring both components together in the late sixties.”

On the heels of In Search of the Lost Chord, the Moodies plowed right into On a Threshold of a Dream, which sold more records for the band than any disc until their 1981 comeback album, Long Distance Voyager. Considered their most conspicuous hard-rock album, the record is full of surprises, most notably the soulful tune, “So Deep Within You,” which was later a hit single for the legendary Motown group, the Four Tops. Compared to many of their progressive and psychedelic contemporaries, in retrospect, the Moody Blues sound like a band that was making profoundly experimental music at the time. The LP also contains the Top 20 hit, “Never Comes the Day,” featuring the acoustic guitar of Justin Hayward and the Mike Pinder’s seamless Mellotron work. The vocal lead by Hayward here is considered the finest of his long public career. For many longtime fans, “Never Comes the Day” is their favorite Moody Blues tune ever.

After the success of both In Search of the Lost Chord and On a Threshold of a Dream, the Moodies were ambitious enough to then compose an entire album in order to celebrate the impending Apollo 11 moon landing. While To Our Children’s Children’s Children sold well at the time, it was dismissed by some rock critics for being too far-reaching and offbeat. In addition, it was the fourth major LP release by the band in a bit more than two-years. Thankfully, as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, the Moody Blues’ To Our Children’s Children’s Children is beginning to receive some well-deserved airtime once again. After all, a band that sells 75 million albums worldwide over the last 50 years is nothing to sniff at, right?

Throughout this remarkable LP, the Moodies describe a species capable of both astonishing accomplishment with a deep-seated urgency to destroy anything in its wake. As humans climb higher, the band infers, there are still many who have been buried beneath the stuff of ambition. The group’s connecting ballads, “The Eyes of a Child” and “I’d Never Thought I’d Live to be a Hundred,” speak directly to the bookends of innocence and malice. (And on Side 2, when humankind is about to land on the moon, the band update the ballad and sings, “”I’d Never Thought I’d Live to be a Million” – a nod to the fact that the human race has not only endured and thrived over time.)

The first side of To Our Children’s Children’s Children ends with a transcendent instrumental by Graeme Edge, a cosmic gallop into the outer galaxy, which then leads to Mike Pinder’s “Out and In,” whose inspiring Mellotron work here matches his seamless vocals. One of the aspects of the band’s success, of course, is that most fans have their personal favorites from each album. There are very few universally popular tunes out there by the Moody Blues because each song is enduring in its own way. For me, “Out and In” is one of those gems, a purposely understated ode to wonder.

The most best-selling single of the album, Justin Hayward’s “Gypsy,” begins the second side of To Our Children’s Children’s Children with aplomb. From Ray Thomas’s lilting flute to Pinder’s exquisite Melotron to Edge’s buoyant percussional work, this is an aggregate tour de force, which has remained near the top of any Moody Blues playlist. In the end, though, it’s Justin Hayward’s virtuosity as a lead singer/guitarist who drives the engine here. His paean to exploration is unreservedly sublime and evocative.

Written out of the same pocket of dreams as “Nights in White Satin,” “Watching and Waiting,” the concluding song of To Our Children’s Children’s Children is a nostalgic and yet haunting tune is one of the most revered ballads in that larger-than-expected network known as MoodyHeads. Throughout the ballad, a pensive Justin Hayward ponders the meaning of life given our newfound status as space travelers. Given how spiritual many of their tunes were, you could make a case that “Watching and Waiting” is on top of the pile under the classification of “heartfelt and ascendant.” As usual, Hayward is radiant on every note, both as the song’s lead guitarist and primary vocalist. And when he speculates on landing on an alien planet, well, his extraterrestrial plunge into speculation is inspired: “‘Cause here – there’s a lot of room for doing/The things you’ve always been denied/So look – and gather all you want to/There’s no one here to stop you – trying.” It was the faultless closure of an aspiring release that ultimately fulfilled such exhilarating ambitions.

Over the next three years, the Moody Blues continued their sustained inventiveness by releasing the fetching albums, A Question of Balance; Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Seventh Sojourn. In A Question of Balance, the band focused on the power of the individual against a society that seemed both indifferent and all-powerful. The Moodies purposefully stripped down their sound and reinvented themselves for this disc without the layer-upon-layer approach, which had come to define them in the previous four albums. The release begins with the title track, “Question,” which turned out to be a Top 20 hit for the band in the winter of 1970. An astutely layered anti-war ballad, it is clothed by a Segovia-like acoustic riff by lead guitarist Hayward, followed by a thunderclap of horns and strings, which then pushes the relevance of the tune to its lyrical center: “Why do we never get an answer/When we’re knocking at the door? With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?”

However, it is the bridge of the song, which remains both transcendent and life-altering.

I’m looking for someone to change my life

I’m looking for a miracle in my life

And if you could see what it’s done to me

To lose the the love I knew

Could safely lead me to

The land that I once knew

To learn as we grow old

The secrets of our souls…”

This is one of those meaningful ballads, which has received considerable airplay over the years. When Justin Hayward asks his questions, there’s percussionist Graeme Edge responding in a primal-drum response that is so dynamic that it propelled the tune, “Question,” into the classic rock category.

In their celebrated 1971 follow-up, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, the group opens up with one of their most memorable song/poems: “Procession,” which includes the sounds of rain, wind, and a Gregorian-like call-response in order to capture the pathos they were seeking to record. “Desolation! Creation! Communication!” This musically sublime accumulation of sound connects primitive to modern humankind like very few works of art have in recent times. It all leads into the album’s most beloved song of the LP, “Story in Your Eyes,” which opens with a prodigious guitar lick by Justin Hayward and a tum-tum roll by drummer Graeme Edge that is worthy of Dave Clark. The uplifting string lines of the Mellotron soar above the three-harmonic voices of Moody Blues vocalists Justin Hayward, Mike Pinder, and John Lodge creating a sonic landscape that frames the rest of the album. Despite the contrast between ancient and new, the one prevailing human emotion has been love.

“I’ve been thinking about our fortune

And I’ve decided that we’re really not to blame

For the love that’s deep inside us now, is still the same

And the sound we make together

Is the music to the story in your eyes

It’s been shining down upon you now, I realize.”

The band’s septenary release since 1967, Seventh Sojourn, proved to be a prophetic, cultural sigh to an epoch framed by political assassinations, war, inequality, and the wasting away of both human and earthy resources. It was clear that both the Moody Blues and the culture that had framed them were exhausted after listening to a record that turned out to be a discordant mixture of regret, hope, and anger. Still, there were moments of genuine lucidity. In their first single from the album, “Isn’t Life Strange?” the Moodies ask an eternal question then give the immutable response – human need. The interplay between John Lodge and Justin Hayward is lovely here, as is the group’s impeccable musicianship, something that has been profoundly underappreciated over the years by many.

Seventh Sojourn closes with a final exhalation, “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band.” It was the Moody Blues attempt to tell their fans that they weren’t gurus or messiahs. You won’t find the eternal answers with them. You will only find them within your own heart and experiences. While some critics called the song, the band’s “washing their hands” moment, the fidelity behind it was just too profound to deny or misconstrue.

“I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band” wasn’t just the final song of their seventh album in six years, it turned out to the band’s finale to their pronounced classic-rock period. Like their American contemporaries, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Moody Blues were too exhausted to conjure up any more creativity from their collective wellspring of for five years, until their 1978 comeback album, Octave. That same year, Justin Hayward and company recorded their most exquisite number since “Tuesday Afternoon,” which was featured on the Jeff Wayne War of the Worlds album, “Forever Autumn.” A single that made it to the number 5 spot on the US Billboard Top 40 in October 1978, the ballad is now considered one of the best songs written and recorded about the most bittersweet of seasons.

Three years later, the band would produce an album worthy of their work in the late ’60’s, Long Distance Voyager, which sold more units than any disc they ever produced. Despite the premature retirement of Mike Pinder and the recent death of Ray Thomas, the Moody Blues still perform in concert, a half-century after they reached the ultimate pinnacle of success. In 2018, the group finally was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an injustice that left fans like me perplexed for more than two decades.

Thirty years ago, Justin Hayward paid a visit to a Boston FM station for a scheduled interview before a summer concert on the Boston Common. When I heard that the leader of the Moodies was going to be on the air, I eagerly tuned in, anxious to hear the normally humble lead guitarist and vocalist answer a plethora of questions in a crowded hour. As the interview concluded, Justin Hayward admitted, “Over the past twenty years, our band has ventured around the sun more than a few times, but after a while, we’ve stopped, not wanting to repeat ourselves in any way. Like a beating heart, we’re here. We’re still here.

Maybe that’s been their point all along.

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3 thoughts on “Their Just Due: The Moody Blues in Their Time

  1. Dan Riley says:

    Very perceptive, thoughtful and well written overview of one of the most underrated bands of the last fifty years. A lot of rock bands “tell it like it is” – The Moody Blues have always sought to “tell it like it SHOULD be”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Shaun L Kelly says:

    Thank you, Kevy and Dan! I can’t tell you how much fun it was doing research for this piece! I appreciate your positive feedback.

    Like

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