The Moody Blues’ Seventies, Part 1

Now we come, in our long-term look at the catalog of the Moody Blues, to the hard part, assessing the three albums the British group released during the first years of the 1970s: A Question Of Balance from 1970, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour from 1971, and Seventh Sojourn from 1972.

Those are the albums that made me a fan of the Moody Blues. I heard the first of the three across the street at Rick’s sometime in late 1970, soon after it came out. During my early college days, I heard bits and pieces of the second in dorm rooms and apartments, enough to know I liked it. The third of those came my way in December 1972 as a Christmas present from Rick.

And there were singles from all three of those albums that got airplay during those years as well.

In other words, enough of my youth is tied up into those three albums to make it difficult to assess them dispassionately. But I’ll give it a try, starting today with A Question Of Balance.

After starting their last three albums with spoken word introductions or sound collages, the group shifted gears and started A Question Of Balance with music, the stand-out track “Question,” written by Justin Hayward. A version of the track was released as a single in late April 1970, a little more than three months before the album came out, and went to No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100. By the time the album came out in early August, the track had undergone some changes, perhaps most notably the addition of orchestral flourishes – courtesy, no doubt, of the Mellotron – in its introduction.

About a decade ago, I included the single version of “Question” in the 228-track Ultimate Jukebox, but I like both versions equally, and I recall the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old me listening especially closely during the spring of 1970 to the words of the single’s slow middle section:

I’m looking for someone to change my life
I’m looking for a miracle in my life
And if you could see what it’s done to me
To lose the love I knew
You’d safely lead me to
The land that I once knew
To learn as we grow old
The secrets of our soul

And if I hadn’t ever written anything in this space about my adolescent romanticism, all you’d need to do is read those lines to know a lot about who I was in 1970 (and likely still am).

So I still love the album’s title track. What about the rest of it? How can I separate the music I hear now from how I heard it as a junior in high school (and as a college student and as a young adult and so on)?

Well, first, let’s note that – as was often their habit – the Moodies blended a lot of the tracks into one another, making suites instead of discreet tracks. And that’s how I listen to the album these days: as clusters of tracks. Still, being as discerning as I can, I have noted during my listening over the past few months that some of the songs on the album work less well than others.

The first of those is the one that immediately follows “Question,” Mike Pinder’s “How Is It (We Are Here),” which kind of lumbers along with its commentary about “men’s mighty mine machines” and “concrete caves with iron doors.” The fade-out, repeating the title, works but the stuff that comes before it seems heavy-handed in 2019.

Nothing else on the album is that awkward, but I find two of John Lodge’s compositions a little lacking as well: “Tortoise & The Hare” – appended to Graeme Edge’s “Don’t You Feel Small” – strains lyrically, as does his “Minstrel’s Song,” which one finds between a pair of Hayward tunes: “It’s Up To You” and “Dawning Is The Day.”

And then there’s the final track, “The Balance,” co-written by Edge and Thomas, which starts with a spoken word section that – like those on preceding albums – indulges the worst instincts of the band. Consider this:

And he felt the earth to his spine,
And he asked,
And he saw the tree above him,
And the stars,
And the veins in the leaf,
And the light,
And the balance.
And he saw magnificent perfection,
Whereon he thought of himself in balance,
And he knew he was.

I’m no cynic, but that doesn’t connect with me nearly as well in 2019 as it did in 1970 (or 1975 or 1980, even). Maybe it should, but . . .

There are, though, some tracks on the album that still work for me after almost fifty years. Ray Thomas’ “And The Tide Rushes In,” the two Hayward tunes – “It’s Up To You” and “Dawning Is The Day” – and especially Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” all still speak to me without irony or eye-rolls.

And back in 1970, the album spoke to a lot of people, rising to No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and staying on the chart for seventy-four weeks. From what I can tell, “Question” was the only single released from the album.

So with all that, what letter grade would I give the album, assessing it not as a memory but as I hear it today? Despite the missteps outlined above, it’s got a better selection of songs than most of the group’s albums, and my misgivings with a few of the songs are generally with the lyrics; musically, the album is gorgeous. (Assuming, that is, that the listener likes the wall of sound the Moodies offer; I recall one co-worker years ago at the Monticello Times who refused to listen even once to an album I offered him. The group’s sound was “too busy and heavy” for him.)

So I’ll give it a B.

Here’s a 2017 remastered version of my favorite track (save perhaps “Question”) from the album, “Melancholy Man.”

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