The Moody Blues: 1978

For almost a year now, the CD of the Moody Blues 1978 album Octave has been sitting on top of a pile of the group’s later albums on a bookcase near my desk. And during those eleven months – ever since I shared here my assessment of Seventh Sojourn, the group’s 1972 album – I’ve thought to myself, “I need to write that post.”

And yet, I didn’t and didn’t, instead pulling something else out of my mind and reference books to share here nearly three times a week. And I wondered: Was I lazy, not wanting to organize myself enough to actually think and write clearly about the album? I certainly know the album, having had it on my shelves since early 1979. As one of my characters in a bit of fiction asked another, “What’s the tale, Dale?”

And upon another listening this week, I came up with my answer. With one major exception, I really don’t like the album. Nine of its ten tracks leave me pretty much empty. Those nine tracks sound okay musically: the ballads are sweet, and the up-tempo tracks lope along as they should. Lyrically, those nine tracks tell familiar stories in familiar ways: love stories, self-discovery, a little bit of cosmic wonder.

And that all sounds like something you’d be pleased to have playing in the background in early 1979 as you catch up with friends: Who’s getting married, who has a new job, who’s having a first baby, whose parents aren’t doing so well. That’s what we talked about during those years, our first years of being out on our own. We were young professionals offering our competence to the world for the first time.

And on the stereo, there were the Moody Blues offering their competence to the world, and – with one huge exception – that’s all that Octave offerred: competence without any seeming inspiration. The five long-time members of the group – Graeme Edge, John Lodge, Ray Thomas, Mike Pinder and Justin Hayward – had returned from time away from the band, five years or so, and offered an almost entirely forgettable set of tracks that were pleasant in the background but lacking substance when given more careful attention.

Coming to that realization over the past week depressed me. Octave was the third of the group’s massive catalog that I’d ever owned; I’d gotten the 1968 album In Search of the Lost Chord in 1972 and found the hippie mysticism a little silly but listenable. I got 1972’s Seventh Sojourn for Christmas that year, and loved the album, less mystical but still pertinent and enjoyable musically. And I also knew the 1970 album A Question Of Balance well, having heard it across the street at Rick’s many times.

So realizing this week that I don’t like the album bummed me out. A little more thought brought me to understand that – with one major exception – I didn’t much like the album in 1979, either. And that brought me to think about – and here things get markedly personal – my life back then. I had a job I loved as a reporter for the Monticello Times. I was newly married. I was losing touch with my college friends and not replacing them. And looking back forty-some years, the only memories of that life that aren’t tinged with sorrow are the memories of my job.

So sorrow-laden memories of the times float along as I listen. Trying to sort things out, a few of the tracks did seem better than the others as I listened this week: Despite its ponderous and clichéd introduction, “Steppin’ In A Slide Zone” is a decent piece, “Had To Fall In Love” is a pretty track, and “The Day We Meet Again” is all right. But there’s no way I can accurately assess and review the album without delving into the mostly unhappy life I was living when the album came into that life. Call it a grade of Incomplete and leave it that way on the transcript forever.

There is, of course, the one exception I’ve mentioned several times: “Driftwood,” the fifth track on the album and the last track on Side One in the LP configuration, towers above anything else on the album. It’s a melancholy track, to be sure, but its sadness, its sorrow, is couched in perhaps the most beautiful music the Moody Blues ever made, capped by the metaphor of the title and chorus: “Don’t leave me driftwood on the shore.”

No person was about to leave me as driftwood back then, but – looking back as fairly as I can – perhaps I sensed that life outside the newsroom was leaving me behind in some ways, and thus, “Driftwood” spoke to me. Or maybe that’s bullshit, and it was the sweeping melody, the bittersweet lyrics, the French horn, and the saxophone that pulled me in. I don’t know, and despite my frequent need to assess and analyze the stops and turns in my life, I’m just going to say that “Driftwood” can stand alone as perhaps the best thing the Moody Blues ever did and one of the tracks I have most loved over the years.

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