Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Moody Blues - 'Days Of Future Passed' Revisited

The calendar years 1987 and 1988 were unusual in respect to my patterns of music purchasing.  I bought my first CD player at the end of 1987 (with the third paycheque from my first fulltime job), and so for the first time dived into the digital world.  ‘Brothers In Arms’ by Dire Straits was my very first CD (I doubt I would have been alone in that).  But there was a problem - actually two problems with going hog wild on a CD spending spree.  The first problem was the limitation of material available on the (still relatively new) format  - some titles I would just have to wait for the respective label to release.  The second problem was the cost of buying a CD.  It was in most cases a prohibitively pricy proposition.  On average CD’s cost upwards of $30 - which in the late 80s still represented a reasonable amount of disposable income.  So I had to choose carefully as to which titles I would outlay the readies for.  For about 18 months I purchased a mix of CD’s, vinyl records, and cassettes.  Over time the balance shifted in favour of the digital format as more titles were released and prices slowly came down.  One of the albums I recall purchasing in 1988 was a Moody Blues’ ‘greatest hits’.  I was very keen on getting a number of songs in particular - but at the time I couldn’t find a Moody Blues’ ‘greatest’ on CD - this was before the age of the internet and being able to simply download music at my leisure wasn’t an option.  So, in lieu of a CD purchase, I invested about $12 on a vinyl album.  The CD compilation took its place in my collection a couple of years later.

One of the standout Moody Blues’ tracks that I played over and over was ‘Gemini Dream’ from 1981.  It’s worth delving into the world of the Moody Blues to present an overview of their stellar career, and a closer appraisal of ‘Gemini Dream’ and its 1981 source album ‘Long Distance Voyager’.

The 60s witnessed an unprecedented explosion of new bands and artists, and the pressure on each to jostle for a position of notoriety must have been immense.  Into this musical melting pot came an ingredient by the name of the Moody Blues.  The band’s roots lay in the Birmingham blues and R&B scene of the early to mid 60s.  The original quintet were Denny Laine (guitar/vocals), Mike Pinder (keyboards/vocals), Ray Thomas (flute, harmonics, vocals), Graeme Edge (drums), and Clint Warwick (bass/vocals), all of who brought considerable craft and experience to the table from previous bands.  The band’s name is a combination of blues (as in the style of music they loved), and Moody taken from Mike Pinder’s favourite song - Duke Ellington’s ‘Mood Indigo’.

After building up a solid live following with a combination of blues standards, Motown covers and some original material, the Moody Blues came to the attention of talent scouts and were soon signed up to the Decca label.  They released the single ‘Go Now!’ in late ‘64, and the song rocketed to #1 in the U.K. (US#10/OZ#14).  The band eventually released an album in July of ‘65, modestly titled ‘The Magnificent Moodies’.  But the band’s fortunes waned over the ensuing 18 months and by the end of ‘66, both Warwick and Laine had left the scene.  Denny Laine went on to be a core member of Paul McCartney’s 70s powerhouse Wings (and would on occasion sing ‘Go Now! During concerts).

Most groups would have folded completely at the loss of two key members, but the remaining Moody Blues opted to recruit some replacements.  In late ‘66, Justin Hayward (guitar/vocals), and John Lodge (bass/vocals) were both hired.  Their presence in the Moody Blues would not only radically change the stylistic direction of the band, but also their commercial fortunes.  The band signed a new recording contract with Deram and set about rebuilding their brand.

In 1967, the Moody Blues joined the wave of bands to become enamoured with the Mellotron (a keyboard able to recreate flute/violin and other instruments - think the Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields’).  It opened up a whole new suite of possibilities for the band, and soon they shifted away from straight up blues and rock, to a more psychedelic, classical amalgam.  They released the landmark album ‘Days Of Future Passed’ (UK#27/ US#3/OZ#18) in 1967, featuring, what would arguably be their signature song, ‘Nights In White Satin’ (UK#19/OZ#8), one of the most emotive songs of its time, or any time for that matter.

They followed up with a string of three albums in quick succession; ‘In Search Of The Lost Chord’ (UK#5/ US#23); ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’ (UK#1/US#20 - now on the band’s own Threshold label); and ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ (UK#2/US#14) - all serving to further enhance the band’s commercial fortunes and solidify their place among the pre-eminent British acts at the time (not a million miles away from the evolution of  Pink Floyd).  Their work during this time had evolved into a hybrid of rock and orchestral pop - they were in essence one of the first progressive rock bands (think Genesis - though arguably more on the commercial pop end of the scale).  In interview, Justin Hayward explained that in lieu of music videos (which were yet to evolve into what they are today), the band placed a lot of emphasis on the album’s cover art to evoke a sense of thematics.

The 70s started for the Moody Blues where the 60s left off, releasing the album ‘A Question Of Balance’ (UK#1/ US#3/OZ#4), featuring the epic single ‘Question’ (UK#2/ US#21/OZ#36).  The orchestral sections of the song have always put me in mind of the title music that might be used for a western - grandiose in scale.  By this time, critics of the band were levelling the charge of their music being bombastic and pretentious, with overly elaborate orchestral sections and overly verbose and obtuse lyrics.  But my view is the Moody Blues were far from pretentious in their music - they were ambitious and ground breaking in much of what they did.  They were one of the first ‘classical-pomp’ groups, that had graduated from playing clubs to filling arena’s and releasing albums almost at whim.

It would be wrong to categorise the Moody Blues as simply a ‘concept album’s band’, restricted to recording musically elaborate, and lyrically weighty songs.  They had the equally adept skill of penning more commercially accessible fare, without compromising the integrity of their work.  The early 70s saw the release of two more albums; 1971’s ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ (UK#1/ US#2/OZ#5 - which spawned the hit single ‘The Story In Your Eyes’ - US#23), and 1972’s ‘Seventh Sojourn’ (UK#5/ US#1/OZ#5) which yielded the hits ‘Isn’t Life Strange’ (UK#12/ US#29/OZ#39 - which is about as introspective as it gets), and the crowd pleasing ‘I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band’ (US#12/ UK#26/OZ#39 - perhaps a thumbing of the nose at critics, as if to say “we can play appealing commercial pop-rock as well as anyone”).

Having dominated album charts and established a massive live following over the previous six years, the Moody Blues took the decision in early ‘73 to put the band on hold for an indefinite sabbatical.  All five members actively pursued various and sundry solo projects, though Hayward and Lodge spent part of the time away working as a duo called the Blue Jays.  During their absence their record label released a best of compilation, and a live set to appease hungry fans.

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