(Pictured: Ray Thomas of the Moody Blues onstage in 1981.)
It’s not a rock-critic wisecrack: the Moody Blues’ Michael Pinder once claimed Mantovani as an influence. It seems to me that if the Moodys hadn’t adopted the style of highly orchestrated rock that became their trademark, somebody else would have.
In 1972, I was hooked by the AM-radio version of “Nights in White Satin.” When I finally heard the whole thing, including the poem “Late Lament,” I was in the middle of my teenage bad-poetry-writing years, and it blew my mind. (Today, I cringe almost as hard at “Late Lament” as I do at my own poetry.) Several of the Moodys’ most iconic performances had come between 1968 and 1973, but apart from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Steppin’ in a Slide Zone” in 1978, they were not in current radio rotations for most of the 70s.
Then came 1981, and Long Distance Voyager. Nearly every superstar act had a record out that year, but Long Distance Voyager ended up one of the year’s biggest hits, doing three weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 as July turned to August, powered by the hit singles “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice,” which went to #12 and #15 respectively. “Gemini Dream” has a “Ride My Seesaw” vibe, but also a forward-looking 80s production style; three years later and with some gated reverb, it could have fit right in next to Bananarama. “The Voice” is all lush and wooshy, and too much of both for oldies radio today. “Meanwhile” is probably the best thing on the album. “Nervous” needs a more distinctive title; its “Bring it on home / Let’s bring it on home / Your love” refrain is lovely in that distinctive Moody Blues-ian way.
So as I listened I thought, “Hey, this is better than I remembered.” But then came the final act, a suite by singer/flutist Ray Thomas: “Painted Smile,” built on a clown metaphor your fourth-grade niece could have come up with; a positively dreadful 30-second poem/link called “Reflective Smile”; and “Veteran Cosmic Rocker,” three minutes of embarrassing bombast climaxing with:
He struts, he strolls
His life is rock and roll
He’s the veteran cosmic rocker
He’s afraid that he will die
Teenage bad-poetry-writing me would have dug it, I’m afraid.
I had such a strongly negative reaction to the last part of the album that it ended up coloring my reaction to the rest of it, but on further reflection, Long Distance Voyager is actually OK. It would start another long stretch of radio hits for the Moodys, with eight more entries on the Hot 100 and a strong presence on MTV before the end of the 80s, after which they started their long afterlife playing alongside local symphony orchestras.
Reading List: In addition to listening to a lot of music this past month, I also read Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America by Jesse Jarnow. The Weavers were born out of an era in which people like Pete Seeger (a founding Weaver) believed that folk music could transform America from the capitalist rat race into a just society all by itself, but the Weavers’ idealism crashed head-on into the anti-communist panic of the 1950s. Seeger, a tireless genius who never compromised his beliefs even when threatened with jail, is a highly underrated historical figure, but his fellow original Weavers, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman, were equally brave and interesting.
Also worth your time is Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 memoir. I don’t read a lot of rockstar memoirs; I’m more interested in a biographer’s dispassionate examination of a perfomer’s life and work than I am in 300 pages of “and then I wrote _____.” But Born to Run paints a vivid picture of a thoughtful, tenacious individual even more interesting than the one you think you know from the records you’ve listened to for over 40 years.
Blues singer Robert Johnson is one of the most mythologized figures in music. Authors Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow have spent over 100 years between them tracking down Johnson’s story, and they’ve published it in the brand-new Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson. Johnson wasn’t the plantation savant he’s sometimes believed to have been; he was a trained and serious artist who worked hard at his craft. Although he didn’t sell his soul at the crossroads, and the jealous husband who murdered him didn’t mean to kill him, the Johnson that emerges in Up Jumped the Devil is plenty interesting even when grounded in reality.