Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The MOODY BLUES: On The Threshold Of A Dream

(#65: 10 May 1969, 2 weeks)

Track listing: In The Beginning/Lovely To See You/Dear Diary/Send Me No Wine/To Share Our Love/So Deep Within You/Never Comes The Day/Lazy Day/Are You Sitting Comfortably/The Dream/Have You Heard? (i)/The Voyage/Have You Heard? (ii)

And so, as we creep guiltily towards the end of the sixties, we come to the first mention of a computer in this tale, in the album’s prologue; an unnerving drone of electronic windhowl-simulating static under and over whose fabric voices whisper and intone. One is trying to make his own sense of Descartes (“I think…I think I am…therefore I am!”) while the other, noticeably louder voice bellows about files and the receptor’s imminent transmutation towards magnetic ink. Part Prisoner, part Escalator, and I would be extremely surprised if it hadn’t played a major part in the life of the seventeen-year-old Douglas Adams, who, were he alive and willing to read this blog, would no doubt chuckle at the prospect of The Sound Of Music being the answer to everything (but it is!).

Phil Travers’ cover painting, too, makes Threshold the first sixties number one album since the days of the Minstrels not to look like a sixties album. Dour sub-naval blue, with souls erupting out of bathysphere monitors, cackling hats in the distance, tendrils drifting towards no great purpose; only the late Barry Godber’s design for the contemporaneous In The Court Of The Crimson King paves the visual way towards the impending decade so firmly. The package was a comparatively lavish one; within the sleeve we find a bound, full-sized booklet containing lyrics, personnel details and two sets of sleevenotes, mainly set out in the calligraphy familiar to patrons of Italian restaurants of the period, albeit with the occasional intrusion of The Future (e.g. the typography for the abovementioned computer talk). There are still some reminders that we are not yet out of 1969; the sleevenotes were written by then Radio 1 DJ David Symonds (“Moody Blues LPs should be supplied free, like school milk and drainage services – not that there’s any connection between the two”) and, of all circle closers, Lionel Bart, co-writer of most of the songs on entries #10 and #14, a long-time friend and one-time landlord to Justin Hayward, who constructs his ode in the semi-distracted, semi-spellbound mode of a newly capitalised ee cummings (“I think…I think they turn me on”). In addition, the band photographs – there are six individual passport-style head shots of the group plus producer Tony Clarke, as well as a group shot taken in an unspecified urban park – bring to mind a Birmingham’s Young Businessmen Of The Year circular, all scowling moustaches and tight, compacted suits.

To the opening drone of “In The Beginning” is added a slowly fading-in E major chord – the same chord which closed “A Day In The Life” – and eventually a Mellotron choir. The effect is purposely disconcerting and makes one briefly wonder whether this was a truer response to what “A Day In The Life” had suggested. Where most of the other recently discussed music was concerned with getting back to basics, rediscovering roots, the Moody Blues seem intent on getting as far away from roots and basics as possible, to continue a begun journey.

There is some temporary reassurance as the prelude segues directly into the record’s best-known song, Hayward’s “Lovely To See You,” with the composer’s instantly reassuring and warm Swindon tones, as well as his rather more pointed guitar playing, lending an extra dimension to what is otherwise a mid-period Beatles-type rocker which reminds us of the Brumbeat boom from which this, the first representatives from the Second City to appear in this list, originally sprung (there is more than a trace of Roy Wood’s Move, and a slightly subtler one of Jeff Lynne’s Idle Race, running throughout the album’s faster songs). And yet this song isn’t quite what it seems – the “Lovely To See You” motif implies deeper ways of seeing, and the echoing choirs and Mellotron droops intrude startlingly into the song’s middle eight as Hayward sings of “faraway forgotten lands/Where empires have turned to sand (“Hello Ozymandias!” exclaimed Lena, and rightly)” before rising back up towards the song’s surface like a momentarily stunned diver who has just accidentally glimpsed Atlantis.

We then recede back into a land where despair is prevalent over works, mighty or otherwise; “Dear Diary” is one of a pair of lugubrious, slowly shuffling numbers provided by flautist Ray Thomas; the song is sung through a Leslie cabinet, accompanied by Thomas’ doleful, meandering alto. He wanders through an unremarkable life without clear meaning or purpose, watches everyone else speeding by – just like that famous shot of a static Nick Drake – and the drear mood, the numbing talkover at song’s close, which moves from the absence of anything worth buying in the shops to someone dropping an H-bomb somewhere (“But it wasn’t anybody I knew”; see also Walker’s “Little Things” from the following year) and the endlessly wandering flute provide a depressingly real picture of a late sixties Britain largely, and despite everything, still marooned somewhere in the forties, the same ennui Drake caught so perfectly in “Saturday Sun.”

This soon fades into the folky, acoustic gambol of John Lodge’s “Send Me No Wine,” a song which could easily have been covered by the Seekers, although again the veering tight corners of Mellotron and flute which periodically surface dispel any complacency. This goes straight into Lodge’s “To Share Our Love,” the album’s clearest nod to Brumbeat, though with a dynamic to its rock clearly influenced by Cream, although there are also hints of the power pop to come (Lena thought the song sounded like Sloan), despite Graeme Edge’s strangely compressed, as though bandaged up, drums. Throughout both songs runs this passionate insistence on seeing, acknowledging and sharing love as the answer to everything computers or everyday life might throw at the average human being.

Side one ends with Mike Pinder’s “So Deep Within You,” in part a throwback to the R&B roots of the Denny Laine-era Moodies – so much so that the song’s incipient Motown-isms were later recognised, and covered, by the Four Tops, although the recurring carillon of flute flutter and radiation-affected timpani is new. Hayward’s guitar leaps out of the picture, Pinder’s functional lead vocal (somewhere between Manfred Mann’s Mike Hugg and Greg Lake) weighs anchor and the song, and the side, build up to a huge choral climax with jabbering guitar. This love cannot be hidden away or kept at a distance; it must be approached, proved to be real, made to matter and exist.

Side two begins with “Never Comes The Day,” another Hayward composition which points the way towards the more familiar style that he would develop within the group, beginning very quietly and acoustically before methodically building up its structure with strings, then the rest of the group, then campfire harmonica and handclaps leading to a rousing singalong, before a return to the beginning and a second build-up. Its tale of two lovers who can’t ever quite manage to be together foresees Blur’s “Yuko And Hiro,” as does its odd sense of defeated spaciousness; hear the subtle, momentary minor key shift under the “you” of Hayward’s “But you will love me tonight.” Eventually the happy chant (“You know it’s true/We all know that it’s true” – still concerned with seeing what is right in front of us) disappears and we are left with the hands-off drone of guitar.

Thomas then returns for “Lazy Day,” another depressed shuffle partially indebted to Ray Davies and more so to the notion of Sunday as represented by Hancock a decade earlier – everything the sixties were meant to erase forever. However, the Volga boatmen chorus which bursts regularly into the song’s languid groove is disarming, as is the switch into a more aggressive 4/4 for the middle eight. The song is simultaneously far more resigned and far angrier than “Lazy Sunday,” even if it is not nearly as profound a piece of work; its put-the-kettle-on air of reflective nothingness sets the stage for Gilbert O’Sullivan and other amused spectators of the seventies – not to mention Blur’s “Sunday, Sunday” (and the video for “There’s No Other Way”).

It’s time to cut the dummy of realism loose; both Thomas and Hayward composed “Are You Sitting Comfortably,” and the song proceeds gently and, again, acoustically, though speaks of things like Merlin and Camelot, entities not previously encountered or referred to in this tale. In addition, Thomas’ poignant downhill flute-led chordal bridges are placidly seeking some sort of escape, and this song is clearly a preparation for something bigger and wider.

The break comes with the song’s dry dissolve into a second spoken interlude, “The Dream,” in which the same, slightly bemused voice we heard at the beginning of the album – speaks of the new life to emerge from the dead, the shedding of old skins and seasons, the threshold, indeed, of a dream. This sets the scene for the album’s tripartite climax, beginning with the first reading of the song “Have You Heard?” where Pinder appears to be revealing that which we are now supposed to see, having realised and faced the truth about ourselves in relation to the world, in a semi-smiling “you knew all along, didn’t you?” manner, over an unobtrusive thrust of Mellotron and strings.

We then embark upon Pinder’s five minute instrumental “The Voyage,” which is anything but reassuring; a strangely ungainly epic which alternates between disturbed contemplation and violent eruption; the strings and voices, real and Mellotronised, come in and out at unpredictable angles, Pinder’s piano cascades are rough and unnerving, the spectacle that of a proto-Vangelis universe in the process of combusting (and some of Vangelis’ early solo work, to say nothing of Aphrodite’s Child’s 666, is similarly unsettling). Following a climax which seems the very antithesis of “resolved,” “Have You Heard…?” steals back into the picture, Pinder beaming “Now you know how nice it feels,” before the song too fades into the original opening wind-drowned drone, which latter inevitably reaches a locked groove (and this is another album which demands to be listened to in its original vinyl format).

What, if any, are the conclusions? Does Threshold, and by extension the Moody Blues, represent the response of a very literal Middle England to the end of the sixties? Has the album been the documentation of a drug trip gone somewhat wrong, or has it offered pointers towards a better future, if only we still wanted it? Lacking the mystery or casualties of a Pink Floyd, it does seem to me that the group has been taken for granted; if Threshold had been a one-off by a hopeful, ambitious group which flopped, disappeared into the collectors’ market and resurfaced on Bob Stanley’s label in 2006, it would long since have been hailed as a post-psych British classic. But it was the third album by this manifestation of the group, following on from the initial adventures of Days Of Future Passed and the Eastern experimentation evident throughout In Search Of The Lost Chord, and consolidated their growing popularity. Its eighteen month residency on the album chart suggests that the record spoke to and for a lot of disillusioned people. In truth the Moody Blues, even at their most experimental, have always been what I would call conservative progressives; there is little on Threshold to upset the squares, yet the record can hardly be considered easy listening – indeed (pace K-Punk) deep listening is pretty mandatory here. They want to move on but at the same time are clinging, holding onto something that they can’t and won’t let go. But there is a deeper undertow at work; the realisation that a musician’s audience sometimes needs simple expressions of complex feelings, in relatively simple terms – in times of trouble, look at the world, look at your neighbour, realise what love and life really mean. A sense of reassurance which has in my view been grievously underrated in the last half century of pop – and, with that initial nod to the computer, and the continuing need to talk, to communicate, to integrate, to live as one, we can even experience the dreams of Threshold and see the likes of Coldplay, very far off on the horizons of tomorrow.