And now, for the other side of ’68. The Moody Blues aren’t really the first name you think of when it comes to the golden age of progressive music, partially because they fall more on the “maybe this wasn’t such a good idea” side of the spectrum (along with ELP and Tull), partially because they seem to get caught in that boring “is this really prog?” discussion a lot (I think they’re at least as deserving as Pink Floyd, for what that’s worth). And yet it’s tough to argue with their pedigree; they’re widely considered the first band to really blend rock with classical music, by virtue of being the first rock group to use a full orchestra on an LP, before even The Nice did it. Granted, it’s something they sort of fell into (the band was originally asked to record Dvorak’s 9th as a stereo demo, but wound up recording Days of Future Passed instead), and the orchestral parts are mostly garbage, but this was a time when The Box Tops and The Monkees were dominating the charts. They released seven great albums in quick succession, scoring a bunch of charting singles along the way, as well as an audience that still hasn’t left them. I saw them play in Green Bay in 2005 and every seat was filled, with nearly every song being met with rapturous applause.
What was neat about the Moodies is that they were very democratic; all members contribute vocals, and there were four main songwriters, often splitting equal time. You had Justin Hayward, who probably wrote the prettiest tunes, Ray Thomas, who kind of wrote these sort of bouncy musical nursery rhymes, Mike Pinder, the trippy one, and John Lodge, who just wanted to rock n’ roll. Together, they were sort of a hippie supergroup; drummer Graeme Edge even contributes a little, though he was mostly known for the bits of spoken word poetry that would show up throughout the Moodies’ albums. Of course they aren’t the most distinctive voices; nearly everything the band does is pretty and trippy, and they rarely rocked nor rolled. Still, with everyone contributing like that, it’s no wonder they cranked out so much quality material so fast.
In Search of the Lost Chord was the first Moodies album I ever heard. I never had any interest in them before, but a friend had given me this big console turntable (translation: he needed to get it out of the house), and I became a bargain-bin vinyl collector. My Grandma catches wind of this and decides to give me a bunch of her old LPs, and this album was the first one I decided to listen to. I think that this can be important when listening to old albums sometimes; nowadays everything’s a digital file or a 5-second YouTube search, so actually having to “do the work” – pulling out the frayed, stained sleeve, figuring out which one is Side A, dropping the needle on the edge, trying to ignore the pops and clicks of the vinyl during the quiet parts…just as my Grandma did, with this very object in fact, when she was probably just about the age I am now. Almost like going back in time in a way, especially with music like this. The word “dated” is often a pejorative but in some cases a think a “dated” recording can really be a neat thing. It’s not like, say, those early techno records from 1990 where people were doing stuff in their bedrooms and waiting for better technology to come along. In Search of the Lost Chord is dynamic and lush, as colorful and trippy as the cover art.
The album is based off the 19th Century Sullivan poem “The Lost Chord”, about accidently hitting a chord that melts the heavens and earth and leads to spiritual enlightenment, and spending your life in vain trying to find it again. The quest for peace and the search for a higher consciousness is something that would appear often in the band’s work, but it’s especially present on this album. In the Moodies’ world, the lost chord is “OM”, not exactly the linker of perplex meanings into a perfect peace, but at least it gives the album some kind of ending. As you might have gathered, the band is quite intrigued by Eastern culture and philosophy, as so much of this LP has to do with oneness, or salvation through inner cleansing. (Or drugs. Can’t forget the drugs…) Instrumentally, too; you’ll hear sitars, tablas, a tambura, lots of flutes, and the almighty Mellotron, which isn’t exactly an “Eastern-flavored” thing per se but it does seem to give everything an otherworldly quality. There’s some trippy production effects too, man…lots of Beatles-esque stereo panning and double tracking, but in much larger quantities than the Beatles would ever use.
But the Moodies do have a real strength in doing things like this, because they’re aggressively tuneful, hence why they managed so many singles. There are just so many gorgeous melodies on this thing; the single “Voices in the Sky” is probably the most obvious one, but really take your pick (“Visions of Paradise”, “OM”). Even their attempt at rocking out is weirdly smiley-faced; “Ride My See-Saw” is full of major chords and has a bridge that resembles the Meow Mix theme. There were several bands making records like this in the late 60’s (see: The Zombies, The Beach Boys), but In Search of the Lost Chord lacks even a single moment of dissolution or melancholy; things do perhaps get a little creepy during “House of Four Doors”, but everything comes around to (yet another) upbeat, anthemic chorus.
I guess this is why the Moody Blues have such a polarizing reputation. I think the “prog backlash” has been way overstated, but if there’s one band from the whole movement that’s still deemed terminally uncool it’s the Moody Blues. I mean, ELP were almost endearingly ridiculous, and those Yes motherfuckers could play, and besides, they only had one Jon Anderson and not five. Nobody crawled down the psychedelic rabbit hole further than the Moody Blues did, but somehow they emerged from it unscathed, kind enough to let you know that “you can fly high as a kite”, but only “if you want to”. See how non-confrontational they are? They’re even too polite to write crudely about women, which even King Crimson did from time to time. Even though the band still has millions of fans and half a dozen radio staples, you don’t exactly hear their influence anywhere today. Part of that is because they’re a tough band to imitate – you could probably will yourself into becoming Keith Emerson if you tried hard enough, but no amount of practice is going to give you Justin Hayward’s voice, not to mention the ability to do those sort of massed harmonies. But the other part is that some trends just don’t survive, and by going full-bore into psychedelia and spirituality like this (the gatefold even has notes on meditation, for Christ’s sake!) the band was bound to get curbed eventually; a lot of bands went through a phase like this in the late 60’s, but the Moodies really tried to build a whole career out of it. Their last ‘classic’ album, Seventh Sojourn, was released in 1972, and by then they already felt dated. So the band took a break, reforming in 1977 without Mike Pinder, putting the one-time Yes keyboard player Patrick Moraz in his place. From there they put out an album every 3-4 years or so, actually scoring the occasional A.O.R. hit (“Your Wildest Dreams”, “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”), but of course it was never quite the same.
A number of summers ago, I was a meter reader who would sometimes have to pop into people’s houses. Once I knocked on a door and was answered by a man who appeared to be in his late 50’s, with long, wizard-like white hair, shorts, and a Moody Blues tie-dye shirt. On route to his basement I noticed that he had a number of framed t-shirts and concert tickets. I mentioned that I had seen them in Green Bay; of course, he was at the same show too, and he proceeded to speak for nearly 15 minutes about the philosophy of the band and all the different incarnations they went through (which is nothing compared to say, Yes, but suffice to say once their heyday was over things got weird). I wanted to stay for longer but I was still on the clock so I had to go. But I was really amused by him, first because he was quite a character, but also because I loved the idea that somewhere in the small town of Manitowoc lived a guy who still considered himself the world’s biggest Moody Blues fan, for whom the era of Woodstock never actually ended. Sure, they still get some radio play and you do see Days of Future Passed crop up on those “500 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die!” lists, but the Moody Blues really are a relic these days, with the kind of music that still sounds great but has almost no relevance today. That’s time travel, man.