Music

The Moody Blues: Masters of the Mini Epic

While so many of their progressive rock contemporaries were writing novels in the form of side-long suites, the Moody Blues were masters of the short story.

The Moody Blues have not aged particularly well.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

To be sure, more than a handful of their songs are as timeless as any rock music can be, whatever that actually means and for whatever it’s worth.

But the Moody Blues, as much as any other progressive band, invoke a specific era, and genre, when the type of music prog bands were making made sense in ways that would never fly, these days. And if that makes some of us nostalgic for the great old days of prog rock, so be it.

Music aside, so many of the progressive acts of this era were aspiring to write poetically (the results, of course, were all over the map); the Moody Blues were actually writing poems (the results, of course, were all over the map). It would be a tad too much to decree them the thinking man's prog band (unless the opinion was offered, derisively, by those who feel the mere word progressive could, and should, be replaced by the word pretentious. In any event, if any band was trying to elevate the lyrical and conceptual discourse, The Moody Blues certainly threw their chapeaus in the ring, for better or worse.

In addition, the Moody Blues, who came into their own several years before the bigger and better/badder bands that followed, such as Yes, ELP and Rush, are perhaps the only act to be pre- and post prog. In the aftermath of their breakthrough, 1967’s Days of Future Passed, a proto-prog, pseudo-symphonic masterpiece combining pretension, audacity and excellence, the Moody Blues helped define the soundscapes for the post-Summer of Love letdown.

The Grateful Dead established themselves (in large part due to their dead-icated fans) as the de facto curators for altered states of consciousness (nevermind what an uninspired cop-out that’s always been, anointing one band, ostensibly because of their noodling excellence, as the soundtrack for getting stoned, even as Pink Floyd is the more satisfactory choice in any event). The Moody Blues had grander aspirations, and came as close as any of their peers to approximating, musically, what such experiences could feel like, and signify.

The Moody Blues projected a more cerebral sensibility, even by prog-rock standards. While some of this was, clearly, by design, some of it had to do with other unavoidable factors. For one, several band members were already in their mid-to-late ‘20s by the time the band became famous. Obviously, that's not "old" for most of us, but it's but practically ancient by rock music standards. There's also the not insignificant matter that, like some of their prog-rock compatriots, the Moody Blues looked (and sounded) more like college professors than Tiger Beat pin-ups. When it comes to art in general and music in particular (and progressive rock most especially) looks could not be less relevant. But let’s face it: no musician (or artist) has ever been hindered, at least early in a career, by being super easy on the eyes.


So in that regard, the Moody Blues were very much like their closest prog cousins Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson Lake and Palmer. That is; faceless for the most part on their album art, and their emphasis was squarely on their music as opposed to band members' personalities. They were, in short, the kind of band ideally suited for the genre that placed integrity above all other concerns.

None of this, of course, would matter one bit if the band was not capable of making memorable music. And for a run that lasted from 1967 to 1972 (seven albums in six years!), the Moody Blues evolved from being perhaps the earliest practitioners of the prog aesthetic to, in their finer moments, some of its more brilliant ambassadors.

While so many of their contemporaries were writing novels in the form of side-long suites, the Moody Blues were masters of the short story. Occasionally hinting at magnificence, most fully realized on Days of Future Passed and nearly there on In Search of the Lost Chord and On The Threshold of a Dream, many of their better songs function as condensed epics like “Legend of a Mind”, “Isn’t Life Strange” and “Melancholy Man”.

In a sense, they avoided the pitfalls of pretension by keeping it (relatively) simple. Of course, at times they were not quite ambitious enough; as many of their albums are laden with listless ballads (Justin Hayward giveth and Justin Hayward taketh away). There are also, inevitably, the numbers that are inseparable from the era of their conception, in all the bad ways (a cursory glance through the song titles will give these away without requiring a single note played).

Other than the category-merging masterpiece Days of Future Passed, they never had the one indelible album that we can reference as an unassailable selection for the canon. In Search of the Lost Chord came closest and On the Threshold of a Dream might be their most consistent stylistic statement, but virtually each album has at least one if not several definitive, top-tier tracks. Taken together they comprise a very worthy and vastly underrated addition to the prog idiom.


First, a few words about their 1967 attempt at immortality, an album that holds up quite nicely, especially compared to so much of what was being made at the time (including certain songs from the sacrosanct Sgt. Pepper). Thinking big, and very much outside the box, the band commissioned session musicians -- cheekily dubbed The London Festival Orchestra -- and borrowed a page from the Beatles, letting these seasoned classical players do with their straightforward songs what George Martin did so often for Lennon and McCartney. The conceit, a definite candidate for their first fully realized “concept” album, is a day in the life (no, really), and the sections are broken into morning, afternoon and evening.

While the songs that found their way to radio, “Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)” and “Nights in White Satin”, both written and sung by the always reliable Justin Hayward, laudably represent the whole, a deeper dive, as usual, reveals the treasures unfairly obscured by the hits. The extended sequence that takes us from “(Evening) Time to Get Away”, through “The Sunset” and into “Twilight Time” (the sections bridging the aforementioned tracks that open and close Side Two) showcase the considerable strengths of the band.

Hayward’s range and ebullience are easy to notice and gravitate toward, plus his unerring sense of songcraft never hurt, as the tunes that became hits underscore. But Mike Pinder, Ray Thomas and John Lodge, all excellent vocalists (and writers) in their own right, provide some welcome contrast and color to Hayward’s golden glow. Pinder in particular functions as a solemn alter ego for Hayward, and is responsible for some of the band’s more somber and enduring songs. As the orchestra swells and harp chords wind down the excitement, the music (and lyrics, and voices) echo the gradual onset of evening. Pinder’s “The Sun Set” is modest in scope, compared to the awesome if ever-so-slightly overwrought ballads that precede and follow it, and the singer, as he would in subsequent efforts, brings exactly the “voice of God” authority the material compels.

A few words about the poetry. Everyone who has heard “Nights in White Satin” -- in other words, everyone -- has heard “Late Lament”. You know, “Breathe deep, the gathering gloom…” The words are courtesy of drummer Graeme Edge, resident poet and deep thinker. Although Pinder typically recited the poems on the albums, Graeme’s contemplations became thematic touchstones that the band used to open and close their first three albums. Dated? Yes. Well-intended? Certainly. Worthwhile? Of course, though it’s hard to not smell the patchouli and envision the flared trousers while listening.


Confident and determined, the group set out to make an album even better than Days of Future Passed. In some regards they succeeded, and if the second and third efforts, In Search of the Lost Chord and On the Threshold of a Dream aren’t start-to-finish masterworks, they certainly contain some of the band’s all-time best work. In addition to John Lodge’s slight but irresistible “Ride My See-Saw” and Hayward’s vocal tour-de-force “The Actor”, we have the one-two (or one-two-three) punch of “House of Four Doors” (parts One and Two) and “Legend of a Mind”. If Lodge’s mellotron-laden meditation on art, existence and epiphany practically screams ’60s!! it does so with eloquence, spectacular harmonies and genuine feeling. Indeed, Thomas’s “Legend of a Mind” is one of the band’s ultimate triumphs: an ostensible shout-out to Timothy Leary. It really uses the controversial doctor (and how ecstatic he must have been to hear himself immortalized in such fashion) as a commentary on the possibility of expanded consciousness, not yet a cliché in 1968.

The even more ambitious, follow-up On the Threshold of a Dream sort of combined the thematic twists and turns of the previous two albums, looking at a day, only instead of taking it on literal terms (as with Days of Future Passed), a single day might be said to represent eternity. Or something. Edge's “In the Beginning” mixes hippie ruminations with Strangelovian cynicism; if you could smell the hash before, you can taste the acid now. And this is definitely the band’s psychedelic album: it’s not so much that the material deals with the obligatory inner-space explorations, it tries to capture, with words and music, elements of the sounds, colors, shapes and emotions these journeys can encompass.


The Moody Blues go for broke, aesthetically, on the psychedelic suite that closes Side Two: “The Dream” (another poem from Edge) into Pinder’s stirring and profoundly affirming “Have You Heard” (Parts One and Two, naturally). And in between, the interlude/centerpiece “The Voyage”. A bit of avant-garde whimsy, a touch of Stravinsky, a full measure of aspiration, more mellotron than you can fit in a freight train, chirping flutes and crashing snares, et cetera. If you think it sounds hopelessly dated, well, you're right. You should also consider what today’s pre-programmed beats and auto-tuned atrocities are going to sound like in 40 (or four) years.

After this, it wasn’t a case of diminishing returns so much as a steady stream of solid releases with at least one and up to three real keepers per album: some obscure, others everyone who ever listened to classic rock radio in the ‘80s or ‘90s has heard a thousand times. For evidence of the former, consider Hayward’s downright rocking “The Story in Your Eyes” and Lodge’s insufferable “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)”; for the latter, “For My Lady” (Thomas) and “Isn’t Life Strange” (Lodge), which uses strings and sweet-and-sour harmonizing as effectively as anything from Days of Future Passed. It's a genuine epic in miniature if ever there was one.


From the uneven but typically worthwhile A Question of Balance, we have the two songs that truly comprise the yin-yang of this band at their best. First, Hayward’s finest moment, album-opener “Question”. If he had his moments where he veered altogether too close to melodrama, he hits the mark, for all time, on this miniature epic (those words again). It’s a vocal performance that can sing alongside anything anyone else in rock music has put on record. I tend to feel about Justin Hayward as a singer the way I do about Keith Emerson as a keyboard player: they both could have received acclaim and professional approbation for lending their talents to orchestras and/or operas, but how wonderful that they made their own mark, unwilling to live a preordained existence. For whatever crimes of pretense or however much some of the material, inevitably, sounds tied to the time of its creation, they were put on this Earth with a gift, and they proved more than equal to the challenge.


On the other extreme, Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” is not only the reliably subdued counterpoint to Hayward’s irrepressible conviction, it might be the best thing the band ever did. As has hopefully been established already, the Moody Blues made scaled-down extravaganzas their calling card, and in hindsight their restraint and dexterity seems almost valiant. On “Melancholy Man”, the music matches the mood, and Pinder manages to sound commanding and vulnerable, sometimes at the same moment. And special kudos to the man who did as much as anyone to introduce our beloved mellotron to popular culture; where would progressive rock be without this quirky, uniquely bizarre instrument?

Arguably, in the final analysis, though a second-tier prog act in comparison with titans like Jethro Tull, Yes, King Crimson and, of course, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues brought a seriousness, and influential craftsmanship to rock 'n' roll composition. The result: a handful of near-misses (or second-tier prog masterpieces) and over a dozen tunes that, taken together, constitute quite a career. These songs, as a collective statement, stand tall amongst work done by their prog brethren. If, at times, they are inexorably tied to a different time, they certainly made definitive statements of purpose. At other times, more than a few of their songs sound as fresh, original and evocative today, and will resonate during any decade.

Splash image from the cover of Days of Future Passed (remastered)

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