I saw my first Moody Blues concert in the early 1970s. What really impressed me was how much they sounded like their records. A lot of bands do a good job of recreating their sound in concert but the Moody Blues, my choice for the Godfathers of Progressive Rock, had a very orchestrated sound. What I didn’t know as a teenage was the existence of an keyboard instrument called the Mellotron. Very appropriately named, the Mellotron looked like a small organ but was actually a large tape recorder. Each key triggered an eight second tape recording that would quickly rewind. These tapes could be of virtually anything from the flute sound intro of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever to a full symphony orchestra. The tapes allowed for the “attack” at the beginning of a violinist first bowing of a string to the ending decay and gave a credibly accurate reproduction. The Musician’s Union in Great Britain had them banned for fear they would put musicians out of work, which to some degree, they probably did.
There were several serious drawbacks to using a Mellotron besides irking the local session players; they were notoriously prone to malfunctioning. Audio tape tends to stretch which on a normal cassette tape isn’t too noticeable as the entire band is going flat and slowing down at least in unison, but when the particular tape represents a single instrument playing along with a live band it had better stay in tune and in tempo. Tape also has a tendency to break and the mechanism of the keys, the triggers and the electronics didn’t travel all that well which is a real drag for the touring musician. It also had the eight second limit and the lag time required for the tapes to rewind in time for the next note. This made playing fast lines not recommended but for smooth pads and slower counter melodies in the arrangements it was ideal. With a Mellotron bands like the Moody Blues could sound as if they had the entire orchestra with which they recorded in the concert hall with them, and it was magnificent.
A lot of bands used the Mellotron such as Lynyrd Skynyrd on their classic hit, Free Bird, and didn’t have the Moody’s ethereal feel so what made them the veteran “cosmic” rockers? Certainly the fact that they are quintessentially English, singing in British accents even though they started out mimicking American Rhythm and Blues with their first hit, Go Now. Once singer Denny Laine was replaced by “the Cosmic Child” Justin Hayward and they screwed their record label by recording the symphonic concept album, Days Of Future Past, instead of recording the rock and roll versions of classical compositions the label thought would be hip (because of the popularity of Walter Carlos’ Switched On Bach) and profitable (because classical music has no royalty fees), they headed into a future past of their own.
Hayward had the romantic voice and the looks to go with it that added to their other worldliness but it was the message of the songs themselves that gave the Moody Blues their spiritual aire. Are You Sitting Comfortably conjured up the specter of Merlin the Magician and as they entered the psychedelic era, Legend of a Mind used the image of Timothy Leary as symbol of inner space travel.
Of all the members of the Moody Blues it is perhaps Ray Thomas, the band’s flautist, who had the best handle on the fan’s 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 pixie glue” help to cement their faire tale character image. Whereas John Lodge might write a song titled I’m Just A Singer In A Rock And Roll Band, decrying the band’s image of them as people who have some esoteric knowledge only tauntingly dispersed to their waiting followers seeking some “truth”, Ray acknowledges the perception without giving any credence to it but having fun with it all the same.
Lastly, there is a great irony in the song Nothing Changes from the Strange Times CD 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 literature as times of foreboding; 1984 (George Orwell), 1986 (the passage of Halley’s Comet), and 2001 ( A Space Odyssey or as M2K, millennium fear of the end times), and through them all, they profess; nothing changes. The irony is that after September 11, 2001, everything changed. So much for the Moody Blues knowing something we don’t.