Tag Archives: Moody Blues

Blue Monday

In the years before his death on May 25, 1965, harp virtuoso Sonny Boy Williamson was one of the chief beneficiaries of the British blues craze. He toured the U.K. and Europe on the roster of the American Folk Blues Festival tours, where performers who had been largely forgotten in the U.S. found themelves greeted by cheering crowds, attentive audiences and a level of respect never accorded to black musicians back home.

Williamson stayed in the U.K. for a while, serving as a living touchstone of authenticity for young Brits gutsy enough to approach him. There are early recordings of Williamson performing with the Animals and the Yardbirds during their Eric Clapton-led phase, and I’ve heard that he played at least a couple of gigs with the Moody Blues, who began in 1964 as an R&B obsessed Merseybeat group. Their first album, The Magnificent Moodies, closed with Williamson’s “Bye Bye Bird,” which Williamson performs above and which the Moodies perform below:

This is the era when the Moodies were still led by guitarist Denny Laine. Bassist Clint Warwick had already been replaced with Rod Clarke, and in due course Laine and Clarke would be succeeded by guitarist Justin Hayward and bassist John Lodge. A few years later, Sonny Boy would be replaced by Sgt. Pepper as the band’s key influence, and the rest is prog-rock history.

 I’ve returned to this era few times because, aside from having grown up with the rock music the English developed from their inspirations, I’m fascinated by the idea of teenaged Brits in the Sixties adopting the decades-old music of black Americans for their own. Even the Who, probably the least bluesy sounding band in the classic rock canon (their “Maximum R&B” slogan to the contrary), gave Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” . . .

. . . a place as the only non-band composition on the rock opera Tommy.

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Blue Monday

Few bands have retooled their sound as completely, or as lucratively, as the Moody Blues. After trying to make a go of it as a not-bad Merseybeat group with decent taste in R&B (they even backed Sonny Boy Williamson for a time during his stay in the U.K.) they took the sound of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and ran with it. Starting with Days of Future Past, released in 1967 only a few months after Sgt. Pepper, they racked up big sales as progressive rockers, packaging their albums along lose conceptual lines, enhanced with the trippy artwork of Phil Travers. The foundation of their new sound was the Mellotron, a proto-synthesizer that used tapes of string instruments to approximate the sound of an orchestra. In this 1970 clip of the band performing “Tuesday Afternoon,” you can spot bandmember Mike Pinder on his Mellotron, which he had extensively tweaked for the band’s purposes.

It’s hard to believe that anyone ever took that thin, reedy whine for a string section, but as this MetaFilter link package reminds us, the Mellotron was quickly taken up by the Kinks and other bands looking for a progressive flavor.

At the risk of losing whatever hipness credentials I may possess, I confess to a lingering fondness for the Moody Blues. Chalk it up to those first couple of years in high school, when I thought Every Good Boy Deserves Favour was the most profound set of songs ever scratched onto both sides of a black vinyl disc. By my junior year I’d come to think there was something a bit . . . overripe about their Rod McKuen versifying, and Graeme Edge’s poetic musings could have been dropped into This Is Spinal Tap without anyone being the wiser. But there was a lot of pop songcraft beneath the overdubs, and there’s a decent single-disc compilation to be culled from their bulky catalogue. But please, make sure you cut out the poetry.

One of the sins on my conscience is having participated in the one time that I witnessed Moody Blues lyrics being used as an instrument of torture. I was at a party long ago with a couple of acquaintances, one a hipper-than-thou type, and when he learned that the other acquaintance had been a Moody Blues fan, he showed no mercy.

“Breathe deep the gathering gloom,” Hipper Than Thou rumbled.

“Yeah, okay, I never liked that one,” the victim sighed.

“With the force of a million butterfly sneezes,” Hipper Than Thou continued, “man has conquered the wayward breezes.”

“Oh come on!” the victim protested. “Enough! I give up.” He turned to me, obviously hoping to change the direction of the conversation.

I looked him in the eye and intoned: “When the white eagle of the north flies low overhead, and the leaves of autumn lie in the gutter, dead . . .”

The victim went howling off and I never saw him again that night. I think he changed his name and signed aboard a tramp steamer, trying to escape the shame and make a new life somewhere. I’m not proud of what I did, but I wont deny it was fun at the time.

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