Saturday, July 9, 2011

Last thoughts on the Moody Blues

I got in a cab the other night, here in the 'Gene, and inside it was like a time warp. It was an old Lincoln, I think, with red leather interior, and the driver, a shaggy guy in his '50s, was playing an honest-to-god cassette. It was the Moody Blues - '80s Moodies. The stuff I grew up listening to, before I discovered their first-run stuff: "The Voice," "Gemini Dream," "Sitting At The Wheel." The band played here a few weeks ago - I skipped them out of lack of interest; the cabby skipped them out of lack of money, he said. We talked about the band for a while, and it was apparent he wasn't a sick music geek - he didn't know that the band today only includes three of the guys who were in it in its prime. He was just somebody who loved that tape, hiss and all, and had done for twenty years or more.

There are a lot of hippies in Eugene. Young ones, too, but in particular lots of aging, or aged, hippies. Sometimes it disconcerts me how much I feel at home here: like in that guy's cab, humming along to "Blue World."

I don't know how my wife can stand me sometimes.


So, the Moody Blues were basically an album band, and so I've only been looking at their original studio albums. But they had a few significant non-album tracks, and a couple of live things worth mentioning.

Live work: The Moody Blues got in on the archival thing early. In preparation for their 1978 comeback they released a double-lp called Caught Live + 5. Wrapped in a Hipgnosis cover so that it looked more like a Pink Floyd record than a Moodies disc, it contained three sides of the band live at the Royal Albert Hall on 12/12/69, plus a fourth side of stray studio tracks.

The concert is taken from the Children's Children's tour, but the only song from that record they perform is the opener, "Gypsy." The rest is from their first three records; a nice cross-section of their work up to that point.

Unfortunately, the sound quality isn't very good, and the performance is dicey. The Mellotron is out of tune for much of it, as was wont to happen to those beasts; worse, the singing goes in and out of tune. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to approximate their studio discs' pristine harmonies in the chaos of a live setting; nevertheless, it makes for a less than stellar listening experience. It's interesting to hear how much of their records they could and couldn't pull off live, and some of the songs gain a certain transformative energy (I find "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume" actually listenable here - it turns into a psychedelic hoedown).

But overall it's strictly for the faithful. So much so that I haven't even bothered to hear the other complete live disc they've released, from the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Nor have I picked up the obligatory BBC Sessions disc; a few of these sessions are on the 2008 remasters I have, and they don't really interest me.

What do interest me are the small cache of non-album studio tracks the band has released over the years. Not alternate takes, but actual songs that slipped through the cracks. The Moody Blues, like most of their peers in psychedelic/serious pop/prog, approached their music in the album unit, but (like more than a few of their peers) might have done better to think in terms of singles. The ur-Moodies were a singles band, and even in their prime the Moodies were seldom truly consistent across a whole album; meanwhile, isolated cuts could always deliver.

Thus it's not at all surprising to find that, before embarking on Days Of Future Passed, they cut a couple of singles as calling cards, and that these were left off the album. They're on the remastered version, and they're a big reason why it's worth picking that up, even if you already have the record.

The first single was "Fly Me High" c/w "I Really Haven't Got The Time," released in May 1967. The a-side, a Hayward number, is key, if you care about this band: it's the real missing link between the old beat group and the new symphonic-pop outfit. The entire rhythmic underpinning - tambourine, funky piano, bluesy acoustic-guitar fills - is very 1966 London r&b. But the vocals - not just the harmonies on the refrain but the soaring "ahs" in the middle section and the outro - are classic Moody Blues. Very nice. The b-side is by Pinder, and it's, well, a b-side. Very vaudeville-y. Best forgotten.

The second single, released in September 1967, was Pinder's "Love And Beauty" c/w Hayward's "Leave This Man Alone." The a-side introduces the mellotron, and the band's trademark moodiness; it's not half bad, but not as immediately winning as the first a-side. Plus, it has way too much bad echo. Sounds like it was recorded in an empty ice rink. The b-side is Hayward at his most agressive - not saying much, I know, but this is almost a garage-rock track, despite the harmonies.

The band's third single was "Nights In White Satin," and we know how that goes. The b-side was a non-album track, though, and it also shows up on the remaster. "Cities," it's called, and it's another Hayward number. It's a product of the sessions for the second single, though, and sounds like it; the distance between what they could do in June and what they learned to do during the Days sessions is considerable. This is why I love hearing obscure tracks by bands I like.

Two more tracks have emerged from those summer '67 sessions: Hayward's "Long Summer Days" and Pinder's "Please Think About It." Both were among the studio tracks on the fourth side of Caught Live + 5. They're striking in that both sound a great deal like prime-era Moodys, but they were passed over for the single. They sound ahead of their time, in other words.

The other big concentration of non-album tracks is associated with their second album. In early '68 they recorded the three tracks that fill out Caught Live + 5: Hayward's "What Am I Doing Here" and "King And Queen" and Lodge's "Gimme A Little Somethin'." The liner notes to the remastered In Search Of The Lost Chord imply that these were the first sessions for that album, and maybe they were, but according to the dates in those notes, it seems more likely that the album sessions proper didn't start until later in the spring, and that the January and February sessions that resulted in these three tracks were meant to produce an interim non-album single, as was still the practice in England at that time. It didn't happen, but at least one of these tracks is worthy.

"King And Queen" is probably a little close in feel (not to mention lyrical subject matter) to "Nights In White Satin" to have been acceptable, but "What Am I Doing Here" is brilliant, better than a half-dozen album cuts I could think of right off hand. It's an anti-war number, about a dead soldier - even though it's couched in fairy-tale terms, the relevance to 1968 is unmistakeable, and it gives Hayward's trademark melancholy some heft for a change. The lyric is married to one of his best melodies, and some excellent playing - Edge's drumwork is fantastically sensitive, lending of urgency and tension at just the right moments, and Pinder makes his mellotron outmuscle any orchestra.

That should have been an a-side, and the b-side could have been "Gimme A Little Something." Hayward sings it, but it has a poppy sunniness that marks it as Lodge's - it's really a nifty number, with a catchy little piano-flute riff underpinning the verse.

The last time they'd do any studio sessions not directly related to an album project was at the end of 1968, months after the release of In Search Of. A session in October produced Pinder's "A Simple Game," which, all hyperbole aside, belongs on any short list of the Moody Blues' best songs. It appeared on the flip side of the "Ride My See-Saw" single, but it deserved better. It would have overpowered any of their albums, though: in one cut it concentrates all the epic emotion of their best work and weds it to the always-lurking r&b sensibilities they had once traded on. It's easily Pinder's best song.

Once they got going, the Moody Blues don't seem to have generated much in the way of unused material. Very few outtakes - at least, the remasters only include a grand total of three unused songs for the band's last five albums. A Question Of Balance didn't include (but now does) Pinder's "Mike's Number One," while Every Good Boy Deserves Favour gave (and now gives) the same treatment to the Hayward/Thomas composition "The Dreamer." Both deserved their fates.

Far more interesting is the song "Island," which graces the Seventh Sojourn remaster. It's not an outtake from that album; rather, it is (the notes say) the only finished product of an early-1973 attempt at recording another album with the classic lineup. It's unclear why they didn't go any farther; they kept touring together with this lineup until early 1974. And "Island" is a strong number. It doesn't break anything even resembling new ground - it's a standard Hayward sigh-fest. But it's quite nice, with its Chamberlin polish and harpsichord touches.

What's so intriguing about it is that the chord progression under the refrain is a quote from the James Bond theme. Uncredited, but unmissable. And, Bond aficionado that I am, I can't help but wonder: was this an attempt to actually record a theme song for a Bond movie? In early 1973, that would have been Live And Let Die - which, let's not forget, was the first 007 to sport a theme song by a rock artist. And which, let's also recall, was set in part on an island...

It's not as far-fetched as it may sound. We know that through the years the Bond producers have commissioned theme-song candidates from multiple artists: Dionne Warwick famously recorded one for Thunderball that was never used, and it seems more than likely that the Pretenders songs buried beneath the action in The Living Daylights were written with a more prominent placement in mind.

And the Moody Blues might well have seemed, to some producers older than the rock generation, to be the "acceptable edge of the unacceptable stuff" (as REM once described themselves) - their symphonic polish, their undeniable pop songcraft, and their lack of interest in the more in-your-face elements of the counterculture may have made them look like good candidates for Bond's rapprochement with the music he once disparaged.

Anyway, I'd like to think so. It makes my interest in the Moody Blues slightly less indefensible. (Alright, it really doesn't. Two dweebs don't make a hipster.)

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