Rethinking The Moody Blues

The Moody Blues: when did they get hip? Are they hip? When did I get hip to them?

As a young rock’nroll guy we all just assumed that these guys were total squares, and were instinctively dismissive. When your musical world is bracketed by Alice Cooper on one side and The Allman Brothers on the other, it’s easy to make those kind of judgments about anyone whose ambitions we couldn’t comprehend. So, other than occasionally hearing “Nights in White Satin” or “Ride My See-Saw” on the radio, I tuned out The Moody Blues for a few decades or so.

Somewhere along the recent way I ended up with three releases from their golden era of the late 60s, Days of Future Past, On The Threshold of a Dream and In Search of the Lost Chord. It was revelation time. The revelation was, essentially, how intoxicating the Moodies could be at their best, while still being a bit wanky or fussy at other times. Most of side two of Days of Future Past is seductive, although  “Nights in White Satin” is a little creepy, and side one is overburdened with concept and too much of The London Festival Orchestra. On The Threshold of a Dream has several terrific songs, a lovely psychedelic cover (all 3 of these have great covers) and an impressive display of mustached sartorial splendor on the inner sleeve. But the capper was In Search of The Lost Chord; specifically side one of 1968’s In Search of The Lost Chord.
These five tracks and the mood-setting spoken intro are top-shelf late 1960s British egg-head psych pop. This is heady stuff: cosmologically romantic, richly evocative and other-worldly. Along with the sophisticated arrangements and dreamy vocals, the sweetener that makes all the difference is the mellotron that Mike Pinder and Justin Hayward used to evoke that lovely, imagistic other-worldliness. Remember the mellotron, the lush, symphonic sounding cross between an organ and an early synthesizer? It was uniquely suited to the Moodies forte. Other than the Moody Blues and the Rolling Stones on “20,000 Light Years From Home,” early King Crimson were probably the most well known act (that I can remember) to use it liberally, and it was quickly eclipsed by the more versatile synthesizer. But here on “House of Four Doors,” “Legend of a Mind” with it’s “Timothy Leary’s theory” refrain, “The Best Way to Travel” from side 2 and other tracks, The Moody Blues succeed at creating or portal to another dimension in sound, a doorway to step back and forth between worlds through. This is tricky to pull off, and if they don’t always succeed, at least they always aim high and seem honest and thoughtful.

Even at their most sublime The Moody Blues have The Academy wafting off them like tweedy pipe smoke. Perhaps they got together in art school, like so many other British bands of the 60s? But while the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks would have been slumming it and ditching school, The Moodies would have been the serious, probably older guys who dressed up not down, had steady girlfriends, read music, rehearsed like mad and took it all seriously.
Visual clues to that end show in the inner sleeve of On The Threshold of a Dream. Other British bands at the time were preening in rock star boots and loud shoes from from Carnaby Street or King’s Row, but the five guys in the Moody Blues, dressed to kill in leather jackets and tasteful dark velvet, are all sporting shiny loafers. With buckles. Expensive, stylish loafers, for sure, but still loafers. The loafer wearing Moody Blues didn’t seem dangerous or revolutionary or any threat to the status quo back in the day; perhaps our parents might even have liked them. Well, I still like Alice Cooper (and Black Flag and Sonic Youth and Smegma), but it sure was a relief to grow up and out and be open to anything across the board, regardless of the strict dictates (as we perceived them) of rock’nroll, which now looks more restrictive and status quoted than the adventurous, tuneful  psychedelia of The Moody Blues. Or maybe that was just adolescence predictably throwing an elbow into the ribs of middle age, because that’s what adolescence does.

And, just as I’m finishing this I’m listening to On The Threshold of a Dream and thinking that it might be as good as In Search of The Lost Chord. It’s still revelation time. 

Carl Hanni is a music writer, music publicist,
disc jockey and vinyl archivist living in Tucson, AZ. He  hosts the
vinyl-only Scratchy Record Show every Tuesday night at the Red Room in
downtown Tucson, and spins records wherever and whenever he can. He
believes that in a better (all analog) world all records would be
released on vinyl, but takes good music from wherever he finds it–even
on CD. His feature piece on legendary bass player/record producer
Harvey Brooks was recently published in Goldmine.

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