Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Moody Blues: Days Of Future Passed (1967)

I think I'm on record, somewhere on this blog, as saying that I have no guilty pleasures, because I refuse to feel guilty about art that honestly gives me pleasure. I may have spoken too soon. At the end of last year I suddenly decided to pick up some discs by a band (like PP&M) of whom, back in my vinyl and cassette days, I used to have everything, but had neglected to replace on compact disc. This would be the Moody Blues. At one point I had all their Main 7, and a few of their '80s albums as well; I can remember listening to them a lot in high school and college. A lot.

And so I bought Days Of Future Passed, their debut, and popped it in the stereo one bleak December day, and closed my eyes and really enjoyed it...until I looked up and saw Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki giggling into her sleeve.

You've got to understand: she generally likes whatever I bring into the house. She wasn't really into music much before we started going out, just whatever was on the radio, but she has displayed remarkable patience not only with my collecting obsessions but with my nerdathon discussions of them. And I guess some of it has rubbed off - because her tastes have become pronounced enough to find the Moody Blues ridiculous. And not just ridiculous, but ridiculous in the context of what she knows about my musical tastes: as in, you like this? Like, with every new mellotron chord she was visibly losing faith in my discernment.

How embarrassing.

But here we are.


There was a band called the Moody Blues in Birmingham, England, in the mid-'60s. They were part of the British Beat Boom, and they played r&b. Pretty typical of their time and place, actually. They had one big hit in late 1964 with "Go Now," a cover of an American soul number. At the time, one hit single was, evidently, good enough for a couple of years' worth of bookings, and the Moody Blues toured on it until the summer of 1966, while all their attempts at a follow up (they recorded about an album's worth of material) stiffed. At this point it was apparent that the group had run its course, and two key members left: lead singer and guitarist Denny Laine (who would go on to join Wings) and bassist Clint Warwick.

The other three - keyboardist/vocalist Mike Pinder, vocalist/utility man Ray Thomas, and drummer Graeme Edge - decided to stay together, and they recruited a new singer/guitarist, Justin Hayward, and a new bassist/vocalist, John Lodge, to round out the quintet.

This was a new band. What they played had very little in common with what the old band had played. The new band went on to infinitely greater commercial success than the old band, and a great deal of that success was due to the contributions of the two new members. In retrospect, in other words, a name change would have been in order. But at the time, this would have involved discarding whatever commercial value was left in the Moody Blues name, and essentially starting from scratch. You can see why they decided not to make the change: they must have felt they needed every leg up they could get.

But as a result of that decision, if decision it was, every subsequent history of the Moody Blues (like this one) has started by mentioning the Denny Laine band and their hit "Go Now," as if it had anything whatsoever to do with the group that wrote and recorded Days Of Future Passed.

It didn't.


So, yeah, I've been thinking a bit lately about the idea of the middlebrow, and whether it has any meaning beyond the derogatory. If it does, it probably fits Days Of Future Passed.

The story behind the album, as it's always been told, sounds too good to be true. Decca/Deram has a new recording technology, and to sell it to the public they decide to have one of their pop groups collaborate with a symphony on some sort of hybrid work. So far it makes a certain amount of sense, I guess. What doesn't, really, is why they'd pick the Moody Blues - a washed-up R&B outfit now missing their most recognizable member - to invest in like this. Maybe they figured nobody else would be desperate enough to risk their youth-culture cred on such an idea?

What they probably hadn't been counting on was the fact that youth culture, that is the generation of listeners who had cut their teeth on the Beatles, was growing up. (Or maybe the Deram suits did know this, and it was all a brilliant plan based on a keen understanding of the marketplace. Could be.) The album's timing was perfect. It appeared in November of 1967, after Sgt. Pepper's had turned the world on to concept albums (it was one, and that's nothing to be ashamed of) - to ambitious art statements in a rock context - to unusual sounds wedded to beat-pop - to psychedelia. That opus had ended with an astounding mini-suite called "A Day In The Life."

Surely somebody else has remarked that Days Of Future Passed is an attempt to make an entire album on the theme of that song?

But whereas the Beatles were a bit cagey about who it was a day in the life of - a normal working stiff or a closet stoner? (okay, not that cagey) - the Moody Blues made it explicit: "the Moodys," read the liner notes, "have chosen to paint their picture of everyman's day, which takes nothing from the nostalgia for the past - and adds nothing to the probabilities of the future."

I'd argue that the particular mixture of high-concept ambition and near-patronizing embrace of mundanity marks the work as middlebrow. Even, or perhaps almost, self-consciously middlebrow. But to be fair, you have to ask: is this the Moodys or the shamefaced Deram suits talking?

According to the liner notes in the 2008 reissue (the one worth getting), the band was already playing all the songs in their live set, and assuming they didn't rewrite the lyrics in the studio, that must mean they had been toying with the idea of a "day in the life" sort of project. But then the gorgeously schlocky poem that begins and ends the record was written after the songs had been cut and the orchestral parts worked out - and that poem, as much as anything, ties the concept together. (That poem, separated into "Morning Glory" and "Late Lament," is a perfect example of 1967 middlebrow, by the way: poetry as imagined by somebody who had read the Romantics in school, and probably no poetry written by anyone living. It addresses "Brave Helios," ferchrissake.)

So: the Moodys have a set of songs that loosely move you through the moods of a working day. They've been given a chance to make a record out of those songs (the tale that they were first ordered to make a rock version of the New World Symphony is, supposedly, a myth), on condition that they use an orchestra, to fully demonstrate the potentialities of Deram's new recording technology. So they work with arranger Peter Knight and a pickup orchestra.

This is another key to the middlebrow nature of the record. Peter Knight was a TV composer and conductor. Doesn't that make perfect sense? Listen to the orchestral parts on the album. They're lush, visual, harps and bells and whatnot everywhere, all triumphal flourishes and heart-rending swoops and sweeps. Extremely romantic, in a '60s TV sort of mode. It's like the poetry: classical music as heard through that most middlebrow (to be charitable) of media, television.

The thing is, it all fits together pretty perfectly. The orchestral parts, the poetry, the songs: they're all on the same wavelength. From the first invocation of that "cold-hearted orb" to the three question marks following "which is an illusion," it's a seamless whole. You either dig it or you don't.

I dig it - though not without some reservations. I don't pretend those reservations make me cool...


Unfortunately, it turns out the Moodys only had eight songs ready for the Day In The Life concept - not including the poems. By the time all the orchestral interludes are included the album comes out to standard length for the time, but it is true that the band itself is only supplying a little over half the music on the record. And not all of what they do provide is up there with their best work.

Most of the first side is pretty weak, actually. It starts off with an orchestral overture, setting the stage for the album and introducing the musical themes (srsly, it does), then we get the poem, then we get a little more orchestra. In all we're a third of the way through the side before we hear the Moody Blues playing.

And when the band does kick in it's with a curiously mopey Mike Pinder ballad, sung by Justin Hayward. "Dawn Is A Feeling;" and I guess it takes brass for them to introduce themselves, and the Day, with such an anticlimactic number. It has some nice vocal lines in it, but it can't hold a candle to the balladry to come... And this is followed, inauspiciously enough, by one of Ray Thomas's most cloying numbers. He'd develop quite a line in children's songs by the time the band was through; sometimes they'd work, but this one, "Another Morning," just doesn't have a lot to offer...

Luckily, the side closes with a winner. The listener has noted that the songs, properly speaking, are intro'd and outro'd by orchestral sections; for the most part they sound like connectors, either foreshadowing or echoing the melodies of the songs. But the final band track on the first side is preceded by a truly groovy orchestral piece called "Lunch Hour": it sounds like it was composed as the music for some kind of City of the Future documentary circa 1957. And it blasts us straight into "Peak Hour," John Lodge's second-finest moment (his finest being the last track on their seventh album). With this song, suddenly, abruptly, the album comes to life.

It's a forgotten classic of psychedelia, and really should have been a hit single. It has it all: agile, radio-friendly rhythm work, Ready-Steady-Go-ready guitar lines, trippy vocal harmonies, a stop-in-your-tracks-then-accelerate instrumental break, a mind-warping mellotron solo. It explodes off your portable turntable and sets off fireworks behind your eyes, kiddies. It's the real deal.

And it makes the second side a little bit less of a surprise. Here we have five real, actual songs, and -

And this is where I'm going to embarrass myself. I've shown, I think, a dignified disdain for the loopy numbers on the first side, and only waxed enthusiastic about the proper psychedelic track, which is, after all, a relatively safe position to take. But on Side 2 we have romantic tragedy galore, high queenly drama, knights in armor, not to mention a side-trip into full-bore cast-of-thousands orientalism. There's nothing dignified on the second side of this record, nothing you can hold your head up in sophisticated company and admit to being moved by. God help me, I love it.

So we start out - lunch being concluded - with "Tuesday Afternoon," or, to give it the proper album title, "Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)." Lyrically, it's a typical bit of autumn-of-love psychedelia: simultaneously whimsical and contemplative, somehow winning in its jejune thoughtfulness. Youth incarnate. But Justin Hayward's particular genius is to wed these lyrics, not to some mind-blowing piece of far-outitude, but to a melody of sublime melancholy that also happens to be a sturdily-crafted pop song. Dig the way the tension of the verse swings gently into the long-legged easy stride of the bridge. The arrangement is perfect, by the way: comfortable piano and acoustic guitar tastefully deployed to set off the focal mellotron lines.

The mellotron. The Moodys deserve respect for their pioneering use of the mellotron, if for nothing else. (It was Pinder who, according to reports, turned the Beatles on to the instrument: he used to work for the company that made them.) On "Tuesday Afternoon" its sounds provide a ghostly focal point for the song: it's a commanding sound, yet somehow elusive, compelling like a siren's song but just as hard to grasp.

Everything works here, even the orchestral outro, which subtly takes over from the beat-group and repeats, then varies, the melody, finally bringing it to a glorious climax. Is it silly? Yeah, I guess so. But it's extremely...effective silliness?

The next three songs are apt to be overlooked in the rush to the closer, but they're worth remarking on. "Time To Get Away" shows another side of John Lodge's songwriting, the side that seems to want to be Justin Hayward. More melancholy, in other words. The band already had one Justin Hayward, and rather than another, what it always needed was more rockers like "Peak Hour." Still, this is probably Lodge's strongest Haywardesque number, and it works well in this position: after the daydreams of afternoon, the hush of evening.

"The Sun Set" is the first of a good many puzzlers by Mike Pinder. He's chosen to depict a sunset as Delacroix might have, if he were a pop musician instead of a painter. We have here the musical equivalent of minarets and odalisques: sitars, tamburas, snake-charmer flourishes, sunset-prayer cantillations. It should be embarrassing - and, okay, it is. But it's not hard to appreciate that, underneath all that - worse, within it - is a nice melody, a careful and effective arrangement, and some excellent playing. In the romantic, dreamy context of the album, it works.

"Twilight Time" is the other side of Ray Thomas's talent (all the songwriters took care, it seems, to contribute two mostly divergent numbers to this album, interestingly). Onto a pounding r&b basis it builds a space-rock superstructure with soaring vocals. It works almost as well as it sounds like it might.

And that brings us to the masterpiece that culminates this album, and indeed, Everyman's Day. If you will. "Nights In White Satin." If "Tuesday Afternoon" was sublime melancholy, I guess this is sublime hysteria: melancholy raised to a pitch of delirium. It's velvet sturm and drang, it's every tortured fifteen-year-old's unsent love letter and the armored horsemen who he fantasizes delivering it, it's glorious death by mellotronic martyrdom and flights of angels scream thee to thy rest.

Like "Tuesday Afternoon," this one is best heard in full: with the orchestral intro and outro. Peter Knight is really on Hayward's wavelength on Side 2, writing links that amplify and complete his ideas. The song isn't over until the low brass has blatted.

After all that, the poem almost makes sense.


The album finishes so strongly that it almost sells the concept, and the collaboration. The unevenness of the first side, a function both of the overwhelming schlockiness of the orchestration and the overall weakness of the band's material, is redeemed by the stellar second side. I don't think it's the Moodys' best album, but it's unquestionably their most influential. Not only does it include their two biggest hits, but it functions, I think, as a real and valid extension of what the Beatles, everybody's gurus, were doing a few months earlier. I'm not sure if the Moody Blues should be considered prog rock or not, but I do think Days Of Future Passed is how you get from Sgt. Pepper's to In The Court Of The Crimson King.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The King's Speech (2010)

David Edelstein calls The King's Speech a "middlebrow masterpiece." That phrase, which comes at the beginning of what seems like a fairly positive review (might just be snark), really bothered - after I'd seen the movie and liked it. That is, I knew exactly what he meant, and felt myself safely remote from it, until suddenly I found myself tarred with that middlebrow brush (middle browbrush?). Then - ouch.

But hey: Madame Bovary, she's me, eh? That is, I still know (I think) exactly what he meant, and I think (I know, I know) I agree. The film is middlebrow because, thematically, contentually, it's not challenging, subversive, or otherwise difficult enough to make it highbrow: it is, in movie jargon, a feel-good movie, which usually doesn't make for art. At the same time it's clearly more serious, thoughtful, and in every way grown up than yer average blockbuster, aimed at yer average teen, which is to say, it isn't lowbrow. Stylistically you can say the same: it's too carefully made - too many off-center compositions, stifling but meaningful closeups, contemplative pauses - to be lowbrow, but certainly not experimental enough to be highbrow. So: middlebrow. I admit it.

And: masterpiece? Well, it's pretty impeccable. It's not experimental, stylistically, but it is extremely effective. The camerawork, for example: it crowds you right up in the king's face, or against his back, very obtrusively, but very effectively, because it forces you to confront what he's confronting (and not confronting): his fears, his block.

Other aspects of the film are just as good. Primary among them, of course, is the acting. It's mostly a two-man show: Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth. They're perfectly balanced, each performance perfectly attuned to the other. Rush, as the unconventional, Australian, slightly disheveled but dashing Logue brings in just a devilish hint of Barbossa. Firth, who specializes in trapped, frozen, suffering decency (his Mr. Darcy is the template, but his turn in A Single Man was the true heartbreaker), brings us that here, but with the slight variation of an unpredictable rage that lends the character complexity.

And the feel-good-iness. It's there. I mean, it did it, for the wife and myself. Maybe a fully historically accurate dissection of George VI, like what Christopher Hitchens desires, would have been equally engrossing. Now that I've seen this film, I'd see that one, if it got made. But does being aware of the potential for that one mean we can't have this one? Maybe I don't take history seriously enough...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Syd Hoff/A. Redfield

This has been pinging around what passes for the left wing of the blogosphere the last few days. Seems famed New Yorker cartoonist and children's-book author Syd Hoff also worked under the name A. Redfield, cartooning for The Daily Worker. He did a series called "The Ruling Clawss."

I'm including one cartoon as a taster. There's background and more cartoons here, and more cartoons and some 2011 context here.

I have to say, these are pretty refreshing. They come out of a time when the Left in America actually stood for something - when there really was a Left in America.

Obviously, I'm pretty excited by what's going on in Wisconsin. Has anything like this happened in my lifetime?