I saw my first Moody Blues concert in the early 1970s. What really impressed me was how much they resembled their records. Many bands do a good job of recreating their sound in concert, but Moody Blues, my pick for the Godfathers of Progressive Rock, had a very orchestrated sound. What I didn’t know as a teenager was the existence of a keyboard instrument called the Mellotron. Appropriately named, the Mellotron looked like a small organ, but was actually a large tape recorder. Each key activated an eight-second tape recording that rewound rapidly. These tapes can be of just about anything, from the flute-sounding intro of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever to a full symphony orchestra. The tapes allowed the “attack” at the beginning of a violinist bowing a string for the first time to the final decay and gave a credibly accurate reproduction. The Musicians’ Union of Great Britain banned them for fear they would put musicians out of work, which, to some extent, probably did.
There were several serious drawbacks to using a Mellotron aside from annoying local session players; they were notoriously prone to failure. Audio tape tends to stretch, which on a regular cassette tape isn’t too noticeable as the whole band flattens out and slows down at least in unison, but when the particular tape represents a single instrument playing along with a Live band, you better stay in tune and in time. The tape also has a tendency to break and the mechanism for the keys, triggers and electronics didn’t work quite right, which is a real drag for the touring musician. It also had the eight second limit and the delay time required for the tapes to rewind in time for the next note. This meant playing fast lines was not recommended, but for soft pads and slower countermelodies in arrangements, it was ideal. With a Mellotron bands like the Moody Blues could sound like they had the whole orchestra they recorded with in the concert hall with them, and it was great.
Many bands used the Mellotron, like Lynyrd Skynyrd on his classic hit, Free Bird, and didn’t have the ethereal feel of Moody’s, so what made them the veteran “cosmic” rockers? Certainly the fact that they are quintessentially English, singing with a British accent despite the fact that they started out imitating American Rhythm and Blues with their first hit, Go Now. Once singer Denny Laine was replaced by “the cosmic kid” Justin Hayward and they ruined his record label by recording the symphonic concept album, Days of Future Past, instead of recording the rock and roll versions of the classic compositions that the label thought they would be modern (due to the popularity of Walter Carlos’s Switched On Bach) and profitable (because classical music is not copyrighted), they headed for a future past of their own.
Hayward had the romantic voice and the look to go with it that added to its other worldliness, but it was the message of the songs themselves that gave the Moody Blues their spiritual air. Are You Sitting Comfortably evoked the specter of Merlin the magician and as they entered the psychedelic age, Legend of a Mind used the image of Timothy Leary as a symbol of inner space travel.
Of all the members of the Moody Blues, it is perhaps Ray Thomas, the band’s flautist, who best managed the fans’ perception of the band. He is the author of Veteran Cosmic Rocker, which directly acknowledges the band’s image, and songs like My Little Lovely with references to “fairy dust and fairy glue” help cement their image as a fairy tale character. While John Lodge could write a song called I’m Just A Singer In A Rock And Roll Band, denouncing the band’s image of them as having some esoteric knowledge that is only mockingly scattered among their waiting, searching fans. of some “truth”, Ray acknowledges the perception without giving him any credit but enjoying himself nonetheless.
Lastly, there is a great irony in the song Nothing Changes from the CD Strange Times released in 1999 and perhaps the last record in the Moody Blues discography to feature Ray. In it is a litany of dates and events predicted throughout the literature as times of apprehension; 1984 (George Orwell), 1986 (the passing of Halley’s comet), and 2001 (A Space Odyssey or like M2K, the fear of the millennium at the end of time), and for all of them they profess; nothing changes. The irony is that after September 11, 2001, everything changed. So much for the Moody Blues knowing something that we don’t.