An occasional series in which Gary Steel, for no rational reason, selects a relic from the history of recorded music for a critical overhaul. You in the back seats: stop sniggering.
IT ALWAYS HAPPENS when I’ve got a huge stack of new albums to wade through, and editors on tenterhooks. Just when I should be soaking in the bitter digital glare of the latest YouTube sensation’s first long player, and in response, articulating my bile, suddenly, an overwhelming urge commands the inexplicable, as if an order from the Lord himself: THOU SHALT FISH OUT THAT MOODY BLUES ALBUM, SON, OR SUFFER MY ETERNAL WRATH. Who am I do argue with Dog?
But The Moody Blues? Surely some kind of joke! Of all the beat groups to have come out of England in the mid-‘60s, ‘the Moodies’ (as they shall henceforth be name-checked) are perhaps the most lampooned, and the least valued by the critical establishment. So why do I – a card-carrying member of the anti-establishment corps of the critical establishment – love them so much?
Even on their first big hit, ‘Go Now’ (with a different lineup and guitarist/singer Denny Laine in the front line) in 1965, they sound somewhat stodgy and, well, square. The Moodies of ‘Nights In White Satin’ (1967) were radically reinvented, and even today, the song is unavoidable on any golden oldies station. But even here, for all the song’s obvious haunting qualities, there’s something about it that undermines any rock’n’roll credibility. While the Beatles, Pink Floyd and others were pushing boundaries with wild psychedelia that tested every parent’s patience, the Moodies were always parent friendly, complete with too-clear enunciation and a certain earnestness that sounds almost Christian, and that’s pretty damning.
The group themselves never sought rock’n’roll credibility, or saw that as a worthwhile pursuit, and really, that’s to their credit. Generations of young musicians have been lauded for have “garage” aesthetics, preaching rebellion, and performing a great PR job for the multi-billion dollar illegal drugs trade. I could never see what was so great about that. The Moodies, rather than citing “authentic” musical influences like old blues guys, infamously admitted an admiration for the honeyed, easy listening tones of the Lawrence Welk orchestra. I mean, honestly!
I first heard The Moodies as an adolescent visiting the Hamilton flat of my older sister, a rotting old villa with unleashed dogs and Che Guevara and Jimi Hendrix posters and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of mind-blowing albums spilling across the floor from the stereo. The group’s albums were amazing, with their surreal artwork and lavish, foldout covers, and the segued tracks and sustained concepts and lyrics that asked the Big Questions appealed to my tiny mind. I wallowed in the existential mire and soaked in what seemed like very heavy ideas to a 12-year-old, but somehow, never got around to acquiring their albums for my own collection.
I soon graduated to ELP and King Crimson and Henry Cow and Zappa, which made the Moodies seem a bit wafty and daft by comparison. And then there were the music papers, like my Bible the NME, which scoffed at the band relentlessly.
It wasn’t until the catalogue of The Moody Blues was remastered for the first time in 1997 that I finally succumbed, and acquired A Question Of Balance, from 1970, still the only Moody Blues album on my groaning shelves.
This was the Moodies’ sixth album, and after a run of elaborate, lush studio concoctions their idea was to make a record that they could go on the road and replicate live. It was their idea of a no-frills version of the group’s sound. To these ears however, it’s a landmark work that’s as special as it is precisely because of the way it manipulates the studio. You would never call this “live in studio”, or pretend that it was in any way naturalistic, and that’s just fine and dandy.
What a record! From beginning to end, A Question Of Balance is a masterpiece. ‘Question’ still sends shivers down my spine if I’m in the mood. What makes it so great? Opening with frantic acoustic strumming, and a the blaring “horn” call to arms that simply jumps out of the speakers, singer Justin Hayward soon leaps in with his tremulous but urgent, uh, questions, making it clear that this is an album that won’t be dealing with frivolities. The group have a unique, spooky choral signature that further imposes an apocalyptic vibe to the song, which soon slows down to a gentle few minutes of pontification (you can picture the hippy sitting and strumming by a river, under a tree: “I’m looking for someone to change my life/I’m looking for a miracle in my life”.) And then back into the stonking refrain. It’s brilliant: compositionally simple, yet the kind of thing that could have only ever been the product of a great recording studio, circa 1970, with the capacity to experiment and overdub. The way the drums “knock” at the appropriate moment when Hayward sings “why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door” [bang-bang-bang-bang]… so simple, but so effective. It’s truly a kind of folk/rock/orchestral hybrid, and it has a fantastic expansive soundscape that is, once again, very much the product of a studio, not a live performance space.
‘How Is It (We Are Here)’ again has simplistic questions to answer, and it’s easy to be cynical about this, especially when he briefly goes into a segment – if it weren’t for the SFX, could almost be Roger effing Whitaker, or some fireside folk concoction. But instead, it’s like a degustation menu full of small but wondrous taste explosions: a synth figure that’s fantastic, Panavision scale warping and shifting Mellotrons.
‘And The Tide Rushes In’ could almost be Pete Seeger or worse, Bill & Boyd, except for the gorgeous arrangement, which again has a Mellotron orchestra, harpsichord, Spanish guitar and harp. How could the listener not be dazzled by this picture?
‘Don’t You Feel Small’ is another triumph of recording studio technology; these guys know how to harmonise, but the studio allows them to have someone whispering at the front of the mix while someone soars and is echoed at the back of the studio. Then it takes off into a boisterous direction, with hippy flute, making it a close cousin to some of the more space-folk moments of Jefferson Airplane a few years previously, and it’s a sound that was taken wholesale and repurposed by the freak-folk Kraut rockers.
The harmony vocals are one of the genuine signature sounds, along with the surging Mellotron and the finger-picked acoustic guitar. ‘Tortoise And The Hare’ has all this and more, and in its own way, it rocks – there’s even electric guitar.
‘It’s Up To You’ shows the influence of magnum folk rockers Crosby Stills & Nash, which was so pervasive in 1970 – it’s almost like a Buffalo Springfield song with 1970 technology.
‘Minstrel Song’ is almost a sing-a-long. Lovely harmonies. “Everywhere, love is all around.” Indeed.
‘Dawning Of The Day’ is another wet Hayward song that’s absolutely gorgeous, and semi-acoustic. “Still we are free/No-one tells the wind which way to blow.” Some of their lyrics are laugh out loud funny.
‘Melancholy Man’ is still lovely, still haunting, with that descending line and ‘choir’ with almost orchestral drums.
And it finishes before it wears out its welcome, with ‘The Balance’, a cosmic piece with very proper narration that must have been an influence on our own classic, Blerta’s ‘Dance Around The World’, a couple of years later.
“And he learned… compassion! And he learned… love!”
Yes, it’s easy to take the piss out of the Moody Blues. They were never hip, and never will be. The way their lyrics deal with the Big Issues is simplistic, even for its time. And a lot of the time, the musical palette is more orchestral than it is rock’n’roll. But so what? A Question Of Balance, despite its flaws, is a rich and layered work that’s so much more than the sum of its parts, and like so many albums in the transition from psychedelia to prog-rock (1969 through 1973) in its own way it shows a terrific experimental energy that later generations of rock groups would never recover.
It’s impossible to exactly pin this record, or this band, except in time. Unlike their psychedelic brethren, there’s little of the wild psychosis or dissonant edges; and unlike their prog brethren, they’re more interested in painting large canvasses than filling in the dots with inconceivably finickity soloing. And while that canvas is a kind of orchestration achieved with rock technology, they’re not quite “classical rock” guys either. While the Moodies were hugely successful in their day, their influence seems minimal, and they rarely get mentioned in evaluations of great bands from past eras.
Still, I have no doubt that A Question Of Balance will remain one of my guilty secrets for many years to come, and reacquainting myself with this great record has finally spurred me on to checking out the rest of their catalogue. So watch out.
Sound quality? In 2006 the Moodies’ catalogue was revised again and re-released on SACD, but go online and you find that these releases were widely criticized for their inferior 5.1 mixes. The 1997 remaster sounds splendid on my rig. Maybe a forensic re-examination of the multi-track masters might reveal more detail, and even more depth (and probably distortion that wasn’t apparent previously) but heck, why would you bother? GARY STEEL