A best of compilation that is better than it needed to be
by Marshall Bowden
Everyone knows that I love a good compilation record or CD, and I’ve written about a few of those at NDIM with the intention of covering more in the future. Most of these are compilations featuring a variety of artists, and a good one can take on the dimensions of a personal mix tape or burned CD. But there is a special category of compilation that I enjoy precisely because good examples are much more difficult to come by, and that is the compilation that focuses on a single artist or band.
“Wait a minute” I hear you asking. “Isn’t what you’re talking about just a Greatest Hits album?”
Well, allow me to retort.
In the hands of the inept, the greedy, the record company, such a compilation is indeed the traditional greatest hits thing. It’s a collection of songs that sold the best or generated the highest charting hits. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with that, because there are a lot of bands where you really want to distill it down to the agreed upon best songs. Even with an artist you love, there are times you just want to hear the hits. It’s like being at a concert.
But there are other compilations that are a bit more interesting. They provide a look at an artist’s work that, while encompassing many of the high points of their career thus far, also offer some deeper tracks or songs that have proven more popular in concert than they were on record, or offer a new perspective on their material, whether by juxtaposition or sequencing.
This Is the Moody Blues is one such compilation. First, it documents the high point of the band’s storied career, which runs from 1967 through 1972, the period during which they released what have been dubbed the ‘core seven’ album releases that define their career in most people’s minds. It was compiled during a time when the group undertook a hiatus from both touring and recording, a time when such a release would normally be a craven cash grab by a record label or a step towards fulfilling a contract for a band. This Is the Moody Blues is neither. It is a compilation that is better than it needed to be when it was released, and it provides strong evidence that the Moody Blues are a band whose time for critical re-evaluation is long overdue.
I was not a Moody Blues fan at the time these records came out, still preferring to plunk down my cash for the latest pop music and for tried and true rock such as The Beatles, though I was familiar with the Moodies’ songs from strong FM radio airplay. Like many a music fan who grew up in a suburban environment in the 1970s, I had access to a public library that maintained (dare I say curated) a collection of music on relevant media (albums and cassettes at the time) and I availed myself of this resource to listen to music that I would not otherwise have had the time or ability to listen to closely.
One week I came home with This Is The Moody Blues, and I was instantly impressed. I taped the thing immediately and listened to it again and again.
TITMB opens with “The Question” and the song became my introduction to the group and something of a mission statement. The song questions an authority figure, possibly a deity: “Why do we never get an answer/when we’re knocking at the door/with a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?” It’s reminiscent of the angry crowd of followers who reject Tommy at the end of the Who’s rock opera. In fact, the fury of Justin Hayward’s guitar strumming is rather suggestive of Pete Townshend.
But then comes this contrasting, very quiet section that slowly builds to glory on the wings of Mike Pinder’s mellotron and I start thinking: this is maybe an approximation of the sort of thing that The Beatles might have been doing if they had somehow held on until 1974. It is perhaps indicative of why they didn’t want to hang on–The Moodys’ core seven albums are really of a piece in many ways and it’s doubtful that the Fab Four would have wanted to make such a long string of similar albums . There are strengths and weaknesses as well as records that were more psychedelic (In Search of the Lost Chord) or more proggy (To Our Children’s Children’s Children), but the basic architecture of each record was pretty much built with the release of 1967’s Days of Future Passed.
With each record you get, in varying degrees, Pinder’s mellotron and often robust songs, Justin Hayward’s heavy dose of spirituality and romanticism, John Lodge’s bass and vocals, and Graeme Edge’s spoken word pieces, which are frequently derided as pretentious but can rise, at their best, to develop a Michael McLuresque level of gravitas. The songs are programmed to run one into the next, like a suite of music. The topics are philosophical and, at times, spiritual, but by the end of the seven album run they were emphasizing “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock & Roll Band).”
Utilizing Ray Thomas’ flute, the Moodys sometimes sound a bit like Jethro Tull, while at others their hippy vibe lyrics coupled with mellotron, acoustic guitar, and a gentle rhythm section are reminiscent of Time and a Word-era Yes. And that’s part of the story here–the Moody Blues helped to create the passage from psychedelia to prog rock, but they never crossed into the prog territory of bands like Yes or King Crimson.
But at other times –listen to Baker’s “Dear Diary,” which has always been one of my favorite Moody Blues songs–they channel The Kinks a la Village Green Preservation Society.
The genius of this collection is that it was clearly compiled by people who cared. They cared for the reputation of the band and they also cared about the listening experience of those who would listen to it. The first brilliant choice that they made was to toss out the idea of any kind of chronological order. In general, I applaud presenting an artist’s best work as a collage in a program that works for the individual songs rather than a historic document. It’s even less necessary now that music researchers and fans can simply create a playlist of songs in any order they like. There will always be chronologically presented greatest hits packages, so if historical information is what you seek, you will not be disappointed.
The decision to ditch chronology on This Is The Moody Blues also lets us know that whoever curated and assembled this collection understood that the music on these seven albums, while varied, are generally of a piece. They have different themes, but the albums generally concern themselves with our lives as spiritual beings in the material world, our attempts to figure things out, and our universal human emotions.
So, after “The Question” we get the mellow “The Actor,” which boasts both a jaunty pop section and a majestic, rising chorus, a track that comes from In Search of the Lost Chord as does the spoken word piece “The Word” which follows. It provides a nice set piece and it pretty much lets you know what In Search of the Lost Chord is all about. This blends into “The Eyes of a Child” which comes from To Our Children’s Children’s Children. On the Threshold of a Dream was a more pop-oriented affair, and “Dear Diary” is a perfect representative of that album.
The compilation creators take advantage of set pieces like the end of CD disc 1 (album side 2) that features Mike Pinder’s “Have You Heard (Pt. 1)” into “The Voyage” and then “Have You Heard (Pt. 2), the suite that ends On the Threshold of a Dream which makes the argument for the Moodys as a prog band as well as anything they ever did.
The second disc/album is a romp through many of the band’s strong live songs from later albums in the series, when they had tried to strip down the layers a bit after finding it difficult to reproduce tracks from Children’s Children on tour. We get “Ride My SeeSaw,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock & Roll Band),” “For My Lady” and “The Story In Your Eyes,” but we also get Ray Thomas’ “Watching and Waiting” (another strong album closer), Hayward’s “New Horizons,” and Pinder’s “A Simple Game” (a B side) and “Melancholy Man.”
It’s probably inevitable that even this non-traditional best of collection should end with “Nights In White Satin” and the poem/orchestral coda that was broken out here for the first time under the title “Late Lament.” It was this song, riding high on the singles charts and played frequently in its entirety on FM radio that first introduced me to the idea of merging poetry and popular music. Even before This Is the Moody Blues I remember writing a set of lyrics and having some idea of a basic melody of a song that I told my Dad was a song I had written for the Moody Blues to sing. I don’t recall the song, but I do remember that it was influenced by “Nights In White Satin.”
The Moody Blues were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, nineteen years after they first became eligible, which is criminal for a band of this caliber. As you can see from the video of their induction performance, Ray Thomas had passed away by that time. Their induction really hasn’t corrected the fact that they lack a significant critical body of work and that their records demand a new look and a chance for new listeners to discover their work.
In the meantime, take a listen to This Is the Moody Blues and see if you don’t find it to be an enjoyable listening experience from start to finish.