22. Moody Blues

This image has nothing to do with this post; I just thought it was funny. But it is from Dazzler #5 (©1980 Marvel Comics), and Dazzler is an X-Men character, and I mention X-Men below, so maybe it’s all related. Whatever.


I wanted to take a break from really aggressive stuff for a sec. Moody Blues were in the queue and their number is up. After Deep Purple and Moody Blues, maybe I should listen to Simply Red, Green Day, Yello, and… is there an “orange” band? I did Black Sabbath, so maybe Average White Band, Grey, and James Brown too?

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Moody Blues? Their singer is Justin Hayward. No idea who any of the other players are. There is an awesome record called Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. This two-LP set dramatizes H.G. Wells’ famed novel about Martian invasion, set to anthemic symphonic rock music that seems lifted right from the heyday of Jeff Wayne’s almost-namesake Jeff Lynne. Richard Burton narrates it, and Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy plays a part. Justin Hayward does some of the vocals. Other than that, the only times I’ve heard Hayward’s voice is on “Nights in White Satin” (which has a nice wintery atmosphere to it), “Tuesday Afternoon”, and a much later track “The Voice” which I kinda like because it may as well be an E.L.O. tune (speaking of Jeff Lynne…). Oh, and this band had a really syrupy ballad that was a hit in the middle 1980s. What was that called? Maybe I don’t want to remember.

Chose Days of Future Passed (1967) because it has both “Nights” and “Tuesday” on it, and because it was clearly an inspiration for one of the most famous X-men comic book stories of the 1980s (not to mention one of the X-men movies), Days of Future Past (sic). I read X-men religiously from about 1979 to about 1997, so I’ve been curious about what might have inspired X-men scribe Chris Claremont to borrow the title. Yes, so it only took me like 40 years to get around to finding out.

As always, I’m listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today. Going in with nothing but the meager info about this music that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I’m taking it at face value. The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity. Since I’ve got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I’ll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production. For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Moody Blues
Days of Future Passed (1967)
Version: DERAM 4767 (1997); this version wasn’t carefully selected, it was the one that happened to be available.

The Day Begins
Ok, judging by these song titles, it looks like we’re in for a concept album about – let’s just say it – “A Day In the Life”. Days of Future Passed came out in November, 1967, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles had been released in May of that year. Clearly 1967 was the year of peak Beatles, and they were influencing everything. This borrowing of ideas seems a little blatant on Moody Blues’ part though. But we’ll try to listen to it as its own thing. First ten seconds: nothing. Then – as if we’re slowly waking up – a really slow backwards cymbal swelling into a lush orchestra. Full pop orchestra. The orchestration feels a bit cinematic. Well-recorded. Present and clear, with just enough ambience. Material is vaguely sentimental though; I suspect this will be the tone for the whole record. Yeah, these skipping strings and happy flutes are already starting to creep up on being a bit “mid-century musical theater”. Just a little. Nice presence in the basses and cellos though. The winds and the strings give us a little melodic preview of “Tuesday Afternoon”, and then “Nights in White Satin”. Maybe they gave us a preview of the other songs too, but I didn’t recognize them. But where’s the band? We haven’t heard them yet. Four minutes in, we get a snippet of the same spoken verse that we’ll also hear in “Nights”, then some other bits of poetry. This feels a little self-serious. A shade pompous. Maybe the artist is trying too hard.

Dawn; Dawn Is a Feeling
More of the same, then, finally the band. Piano, drums, voice, bass. This piece still seems to be all about the voice and orchestra; the singer is really way out front. The rest of the band seem perfunctory, until 1m 50s, when they finally come to the fore. At that point, the voice becomes really thin and super-sibilant, and the strings get pulled back a bit, but then after a bit the old mix comes back. That’s weird. A bad edit or a dodgy artistic choice? It doesn’t work. Really jarring and it just sounds bad. Then the band vanish altogether and the instrumental orchestra comes back. We’re almost ten minutes into this record, we’ve heard the band for less than two minutes, and they’re not doing much.

The Morning; Another Morning
More sprightly flutes and harps. Some of this feels like it’s going to veer into Bob Thompson territory. A real populuxe vibe, like “Starfire” or “On the Rocks”. The song moves into double-tracked and hard-panned vocals about being a kid and flying a kite, with a vaguely country bass line. Ha! He sings “Her palace is an orange box” – there’s my orange! Speaking of oranges, isn’t it lunch time? This record isn’t doing a lot for me. The tone is just so campy. Mid-century mood music, a decade after its sell-by date. It’s like something that Danny Elfman would parody in a Pee-Wee Herman film score. Maybe it will pick up after lunch.

Lunch Break; Peak Hour
Oh man, this is even more Bob Thompson-ish! This belongs on one of those great 1990s Ultra-Lounge CDs from Capitol. There is a time and place for that stuff (vintage lounge and exotica is great to listen to when working on bigger writing projects), but the pop musicians called The Moody Blues and their songs are being totally sidelined here. Where are THE MOODY BLUES on this record? What exactly did the The Moody Blues have to do with this record? What was their contribution? Someone orchestrated this material and had Hayward(?) sing on it a little, and then let the band into the studio to do a few distant overdubs that are really inconsequential. It would not be surprising at all if this material had already been scored for some other project and was sitting on some composer’s shelf, and they just repurposed it when they got the gig to orchestrate this record. Ok, this is totally jarring: at 1m 52s the space-age lounge pop orchestra fades out (we’re still in the same “song” here though) and the band actually kicks in, for real, for the first time on this record. They’re playing something absolutely, totally different from the random lounge orchestra music that lead into this. They sound like an average 1960s pop band, bathed in reverb, playing a forgettable song. The band reach a climax, really rockin’ for the only time on this record. They’re recorded poorly, in stark contrast with how nice the orchestra sounds. This may be the only song on the record with electric guitar on it.

The Afternoon; Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?) – Time to Get Away
This must be the beginning of Side Two. Here we are right into “Tuesday Afternoon”, with no extended orchestral stuff, just the song. This is a modestly pretty ballad, a product of its time. Acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and Mellotron. My regular readers know that I’m always up for a Mellotron. Then acoustic piano, all heavy left hand in the right channel, while Hayward sings in the left channel, before he’s quite conspicuously panned center, mid-word. Geez. Lay off the drugs guys. That doesn’t sound good. At 4:09 the band are abruptly cut; mid-phrase the orchestra picks up the song and carries on. This time, the orchestra is definitely playing music written specifically for this record, the melodies and harmonic structure are clearly the same. But it’s just not a great idea to have a band play for four minutes and then have them stop while the orchestra starts, in the middle of a bar, within the space of a beat. This record is so piecemeal. Fragmented, random. The orchestral stuff sounds nice, and the orchestrator and conductor knew what they were doing, even if their arrangements were a decade out of date. The issue here is that the band is not integrating into it. It’s like two very different records that were hamfistedly merged. After a bit, the orchestra vanishes again as band come in with another ballad, a completely different song. This one is a bit dark; Hayward is singing about the evening even though the next song is called “Evening”. He is also singing falsetto, with a melodic jump of a full octave that just sounds weird (between “live – all”, “see – where”, and “real – ly”). When the drums kick in and the tempo picks up, there’s a weird jerky rhythm; the tambourine is out of sync with the drums.

Evening; The Sun Set – Twilight Time
This one gives us another ultra-lounge theme with the orchestra then some interesting ethnic percussion. Sounds like an African talking drum and some kind of really high metallic-like thing. Hayward gives us an odd monotone vocal, then there’s some strings… weird squealy Mellotron, flutes, this song is odd and surprising. It also integrates the orchestra and band better than on any of the others, even if the band are playing unusual things that veer pretty far from pop or rock (with the band being simply percussion, bass, and Mellotron). This gives us a bit of an orchestral exotica flavor, once again recalling styles from the previous decade (listen to some 1950s Yma Sumac or Les Baxter). The song switches up again, with a groove that reminds me of “Don’t Bring Me Down” by ELO, a filtered vocal, and a soup of swirling layered reverberated backing vocals. This three-part segment of the record (it’s unfair to refer to it as a “song”) is the most interesting and musically diverse piece, from both a musical and sonic perspective. Then we get another clumsy fade out of the band and into the orchestra. Man, these people were really, really over-reaching. As this album progresses, I think I’m getting a grip on what they were trying to do. It’s ambitious and probably worthwhile, but due to either limits of 1967 technology, or limits on the musicians or technicians’ own skill sets, it just doesn’t work. It jumps all over the place really haphazardly.

The Night; Nights in White Satin
Here’s the big ballad. So much reverb. So much. But it works. The song has a fair bit going on, but also so much space. Those Mellotron strings. Acoustic guitar lost in space. The drums are way back there on the moon. A flute solo. Where’s Ian Anderson when we need him? (Oh, he’s in post #17). For once, the orchestra and band are playing together here, and this is really the only time on this record when it works. For the rest of this album, they either alternate, or one is maladroitly overdubbed on top of the other. There are some clashes between the Mellotron strings and the live string players, and the mix really is a struggle, but here at the end, someone is getting a grip on how to make the idea of this record work. But it’s still not quite there, and these efforts are too little too late. At about 4m 30s the band vanishes again, and the orchestra takes over until it’s time for another poetic voice-over. Really, when the orchestra plays by itself, this is an impressively well recorded record. But the parts with the band are the exact opposite, they sound so messy. Maybe it’s for the best that the band don’t do that much. If we got rid of all the orchestral bits, it seems like the band bits wouldn’t even fill one side of this album. Then this poem, so self-serious. The dramatic music that ends the album seems like it’s inspired by “Mars” or some other part of Gustave Holst’s The Planets. Actually wait, that ultra-lounge space-age pop stuff is, in itself, sometimes reminiscent of Holst’s “Jupiter” movement. Maybe that was the actual inspiration. It’s all coming together. A big cymbal crash ends the record as it began, and reminds us of the big piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life”. We could loop this record, fading the starting and ending cymbals in and out of each other to make a continuous… no, let’s not.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape: I’m not sure if that’s applicable here.

Next: Boston, coming March 15, 2022

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