Why You Should Care About the Moody Blues
I must confess that I had big ambitions for this piece, which would be the definitive “defense” of the Moody Blues and a big push for their proper heralded place in the Rock Firmament. Now why, you may ask, would the Moody Blues need defending? Aren’t they one of the best pop bands to ever strut their hour upon the face of the Earth? Yes, they are –– but it’s just not so simple.
My perspective on the Moodies has been crudely warped, mainly by legions of punk rock pinheads and Rolling Stone gasbags who have long, so self-anointedly, sermonized that you just don’t go there with the Moody Blues. They are pretentiously arty and mystical. They intone poetry about seagulls in Brummie accents. They’re too something and not enough of many other things.
All of which may or may not be true, but the point of this particular tempest in a teapot is that such received wisdom has plagued music criticism far and wide, and down through time, mostly by the American practitioners of such. Their gist –– still the gist of why the Moodies have not and likely never will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame –– is that bands who don’t strum and warble populist anthems based on American blues and hillbilly folk chords are not legitimately rock & roll.
But, bless my leather jacket and greasy pompadour, the real subject at hand is the Moody Blues’ performance at Hollywood Bowl on June 17, when the veteran band will play their seminal (as rock critics like to say) Days of Future Passed album in its entirety, plus a selection of other things from their catalogue.
In a recent phone call, the main voice of the Moodies, singer-guitarist Justin Hayward, revealed the conceptual genesis for the 1967 album. “Some of the songs were done much earlier in the year,” says Hayward, “and the first recording of ‘Nights in White Satin’ was actually for the BBC, and that was in May of ‘67. [Keyboardist] Mike Pinder had written a lovely song called ‘Dawn Is a Feeling,’ and those two were the linchpins of this idea. We had a vague idea about half of our stage show being this story in the day in the life of everyman.”
That idea didn’t come into focus until the band’s label, Decca, suggested the Days of Future Passed album. It’s not that the label was so eager to promote the Moodies as such.
“It was an opportunity that we grasped at,” says Hayward. “We had no say in what was being done, nobody was listening to us about any concept or anything like that. In fact, we owed the record company money, and they wanted to make a demonstration record. They had a consumer division at Decca that sold record players, ‘stereograms,’ and they had at the time the second largest classical catalogue in the world. But they also had groups like the Stones and a few others; they were starting the Deram label, which was meant to be like Elektra or Atlantic, so that only really kind of tasty things would be on it.”
Thus Decca asked if the Moodies would contribute to this stereo demonstration album, which would present the case that stereo could be as interesting for rock and pop as it is for classical music.
“We went along with that,” Hayward says, “and we were assigned an executive producer who was on the board of Decca, and the label originally suggested that we take the melodies of Dvorak’s New World Symphony and do a rock version of them, and then we’d segue between these and [Decca staff arranger/conductor] Peter Knight’s orchestral passages from Dvorak.”
Yet Knight had come to see the Moodies at the 100 Club in London’s Oxford St., and said that while he liked the band’s songs, he couldn’t really see them setting themes of Dvorak in pop-song form. Why, he wondered, didn’t they incorporate their already perfectly good rock tunes into orchestral sections based on those songs?
Which they did, and when the whole thing was put together it was presented to Decca – who balked against it at first, as it wasn’t quite what they were expecting, nevertheless releasing it on their Deramic Sound System label. When “Nights in White Satin” started to get airplay and then went on to become a hit in France, everything started to move for the Moodies.
Days of Future Passed was the launch of a series of “Phase One” Moody Blues albums circa 1967-1972, massive-selling discs which, in their way, defined the early post-hippie era with seekers’ songs of elaborate instrumental arrangements, featuring the sweeping Mellotron of Mike Pinder and flute work by Ray Thomas, laced with bassist John Lodge’s rocky thumpers and Hayward’s dreamy-melodic pop-rock stuff. (Drummer Graeme Edge along with Lodge and Hayward are the remaining three members of this early lineup.) Technically speaking, their ambitious sound presaged the coming progressive rock era of bands like Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, or Gentle Giant. "Phase Two" came after the band took four years off, having, they felt, shot their creative art-rock bolt, regrouping eventually for several albums that featured a generally more straightforward rock-pop sound.
There is a feel at the core of the best Moodies songs – which emanates in particular from Justin Hayward’s songs – that could make even band’s harshest critics hear the music differently if they really dig into it. Hayward grew up in the Western England city of Swindon, and later spent formative years strolling the green hills of Cornwall farther west. A rolling expansiveness pervades his melodies and harmonies, similarly connected with both American country music and perhaps the spacious vistas of early 20th Century British composer Vaughan Williams.
“All I can say is that my father was a teacher who taught Latin, English literature and what was quaintly called divinity,” he says. “And then I also come from a family with a very strong faith, from an Anglican point of view, so I got used as a child to the songs from Hymns Ancient and Modern and The New English Hymnal. Those are the melodies that I really loved. But when Buddy Holly came along the whole thing was focused.”
At the Hollywood Bowl, Justin Hayward will be singing “Nights in White Satin” for possibly the 10,000 time. How in hell does he dig into that song and continue to draw from it, give it new life each time?
“Well, that’s a funny thing,” he says, “because even in sound check there’s something a little bit magic about it. And then the audience brings the magic to it. There’s some songs that you can do around the world and the room changes –– a dynamic changes when it has some meaning to people. That’s why it never gets old. About five years ago somebody sent me Bettye LaVette’s version of 'Nights in White Satin,' and I opened it up on my computer and listened to it. And I burst into tears. I suddenly heard it. I heard it for the first time.”