Not moody, not blue, not cool
After their heyday in the early 1970s the Moody Blues never seemed to be a ‘cool’ band. The 1977 punk attack on progressive and hippy music of course put them in the firing line. But even as retrospect has showed artists from the Sex Pistols to Nick Cave and Elbow talking of their admiration for the likes of King Crimson and Genesis, you rarely see the Moody Blues cited as an inspiration.
I include myself in this. While I absolutely loved their music as a teenager, I turned my back on them later, and found them faintly embarrassing. Why? It could be the lyrics. Maybe I felt betrayed when the lyrics that spoke to me as a 15-year-old of cosmic insight and knowledge seemed to my older eye stoned doggerel that pretended to understand the Big Questions but said very little if anything. Or maybe their appearance, always the well-groomed un-rock’n’roll sheen of a bunch of dads playing the cabaret clubs. It just seemed to me that everything I got from them musically was done better – I.e. with more power and grit – by King Crimson and Genesis and the spiritual insights delivered more credibly by the Incredible String Band, Dylan, Cohen and Richard Thompson. I was guilty of dismissing the Moody Blues undeservedly from my ‘inspirations’ – a poor man’s King Crimson in the way that Barclay James Harvest were often dismissed as a poor man’s Moody Blues.
Voices in the Ayr
It was very different when I discovered them, courtesy of a friend at school in Ayr whose big brother owned In Search of the Lost Chord. We spent so many afternoons and evenings playing and replaying the album, with no stimulants other than our imagination, and poring over the sleeve with its imagery of blissful release from the cycle of birth and death. From that entry point we explored their previous Days of Future Passed and eagerly snapped up their subsequent collections with their Phil Travis paintings – On the Threshold of a Dream, To Our Children’s Children’s Children and A Question of Balance.
From the Clubs to the Cosmos
I began to find out a bit about them from music press articles. They’d been a Birmingham pop group long before, with Denny Laine as the lead singer. They’d been playing the working men’s clubs recreating Go Now and other hits to diminishing audiences. They’d been rejuvenated by recruiting Justin Hayward as lead guitarist and singer and decided to go for broke on their own material – heavily influenced by psychedelics – or call it a day. A lucky fluke got them the chance to record a set of songs with an orchestra as a technical experiment for the new Deram label, which resulted in Days of Future Passed and the immense hit Nights In White Satin, which gave them not only stardom but the budgets to explore their vision of strings and harmonies over a rock backing. The strings, of course, came from Mike Pinder’s ubiquitous Mellotron, a keyboard which ‘played’ tape loops of strings and flutes. The Beatles were inspired by the Moodies* to use it but the Moodies made it their trademark. Pinder had worked in the factory that made Mellotrons and was able to modify it to become a working, gigging instrument. (Not without some stress – it was heavy and unreliable. Little wonder that modern musicians who want its unique, cold sound use samples.)
All five of the band wrote songs. I gravitated towards those of Mike Pinder – they seemed the most outwardly ‘spiritual’ and had the most unusual instrumentation, like the timpani beat of Sunset or the cosmic extravaganza of Have You Heard? Ray Thomas tended to produce fairly jocular, light-hearted pop with that 1960s Granny Takes a Trip type of nostalgia. John Lodge and Justin Hayward were equally at home with big ballads and melodic rockers, but Hayward had the upper hand with his distinctive, plaintive voice. Graeme Edge wrote the poems that tended to launch or close each album, usually spoken by Pinder, perhaps because Edge sounded too Brummie for the serious subject matter, I don’t know.
If you gotta go, oh you better go now …
Gradually, as my musical taste widened and evolved, I began to be disappointed in Moodies releases. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Seventh Sojourn seemed like rehashes of everything they’d done before, and sounded muddy and overdone where their classic albums had sparkled. I lost interest and never listened again. As I discovered better lyricists I looked unkindly on the Moodies’ lyrics and parcelled them up in my memory as ‘stuff I liked before I knew better’.
The band themselves drifted apart, Pinder moving to California and Hayward and Lodge continuing to work together. Like most 70s bands they’ve reformed several times with fewer and fewer of the original band. Thomas passed away a few years ago and Edge retired, leaving the Moody Blues as Hayward and Lodge plus whatever session musicians they choose for a tour.
Recently I’ve been listening to the Moody Blues again. With fresh ears. I’ve got over myself with regard to the lyrics. I don’t think they’re great but I’ve written worse! And there’s more to song than lyrics anyway. The main difference now is how I hear the music.
When I was a fan at age 15 I knew nothing about how songs were produced and arranged. I knew the sound of an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, a piano and, of course, the Mellotron, but nothing else. I knew they played all the instruments on their albums and that was somehow clever, but I just appreciated the overall sound, without really hearing what was going on. Now, with years of listening to records, and having made albums myself, many of them on my own using multitracking, I hear the Moodies stuff in much richer detail. And I love it!
The arrangements are sublime, building from simple guitar or keyboard backing to rich harmony choirs and soaring guitar and flute duets (Thomas’s flute contributes far more than his songs do). And it’s not just ladled on the way I did when multitracking was first available to me. Credit must go to their producer, Tony Clarke for the exquisite sound up till Question of Balance. Every instrument has its space, the acoustics sparkle and Lodge’s bass lopes through the songs in an incredibly melodic, McCartneyesque way. Rediscovering his bass, which I’d never really noticed before, was the biggest part of my Moodies rediscovery.
The other part was Justin Hayward’s voice and songs. In the early days he was always cited by journalists as the outstanding talent of the band, and I used to grumble about that, preferring Mike Pinder. In retrospect, however, I get it. His songs carry an authority, both in construction and vocal delivery, that is unmatched by the others.
I regret my musical snobbery, dismissing the Moody Blues as pretentious or cabaret or whatever. I’ve been listening to them a lot lately and enjoying every minute. I’ve found the Lost Chord of my past.
Have you ever dismissed something as a youthful whim, or guilty pleasure, before finally appreciating it? *Thanks to Glenn Condrey for pointing out that the Beatles use of the mellotron followed the Moodies’ use.