The Moody Blues: 1981

August 27th, 2021

Here, we resume a long-dormant project: An assessment of the massive oeuvre of the Moody Blues, looking today at the 1981 album Long Distance Voyager.

It hasn’t quite been forty years – the conversation I recalled this morning happed in the autumn of 1981 – but it’s close enough. I was out for lunch with the new photographer for the Monticello Times – our previous, long-time guy had left for grad school in Missouri during the summer – and we were still in the stage of getting to know each other.

I mentioned that over the previous weekend I’d picked up Long Distance Voyager, the most recent release by the Moody Blues. It had come out the previous spring and had been on my want list for a bit, especially since I’d heard “Gemini Dream,” the album’s first single, during the summer, and had been hearing “The Voice,” the second single from the album, on the radio in recent weeks.

(At the time of the conversation I’m remembering, in fact, it’s quite likely that “The Voice” was nearing its peak position of No 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. And the album itself spent three weeks at No. 1 during the summer of 1981.)

“I do really like ‘The Voice’,” I likely would have told Andris, “and there are a couple of other tracks that I think are really good, but I want to hear them a few times.”

“Hmpph!” Andris looked at me over his menu. “I don’t like the Moody Blues at all. I don’t like the Wall of Sound.”

We found other things to talk about.

Forty years later, I still like Long Distance Voyager. Despite some flaws, it remains for me one of the most listenable albums in the Moody’s lengthy discography, from the opener, “The Voice,” right up to the end of “Nervous.” Then come the last three tracks, “Painted Smile/Reflective Smile” and “Veteran Cosmic Rocker,” all written by Ray Thomas.

The first of those tries to hard to be cute, with circus music and simplistic lyrics that – had I written them in 1981 – would have made me cringe. Then, with “Reflective Smile,” Thomas lapses into one of those bits of bombastic narration that mar the Moodys’ releases from the late 1960s. And in “Veteran Cosmic Rocker,” Thomas tries so hard that the track verges on parody.

Up until then, however, Long Distance Voyager offers plenty that I do like: “The Voice,” once we get past the Moody’s usual quasi-dramatic introduction, propels us into the album with lyrics that are both mystical and a call to action (I think). I also like the other two tracks that came out as singles: “Gemini Dream” got to No. 12; “Talking Out Of Turn” came out after the title track and stumbled, reaching only No. 65.

The best thing on the album, however, is John Lodge’s “Nervous,” which could have used a better title (as my blogging colleague jb noted in his perceptive assessment of Long Distance Voyager two years ago). Intense, compelling, and propulsive, the song, with its refrain of “Bring it on home/let’s bring it on home (your love)” would have been a perfect place to end the album instead of Thomas’ strange and sophomoric trilogy.

In fact, I think that the first time I listened to the album, I expected it to end after “Nervous,” and I thought to myself “That’s a really short album, isn’t it?”

So, forty years down the road, what grade do I give to Long Distance Voyager? Thinking of it that way, I’m reminded of a long-ago student of mine who turned in superior work for eight weeks of the quarter and then faltered. I knew life was throwing some challenges his way, and he ended up with an A after a good final exam.

But there is no final exam for the Moody Blues here. The first eighty percent of the record was A or A-minus quality, but the ending was full of nonsense that – because it comes at what should be a climactic moment – saddles the album with inescapable flaws. The record gets a grade of B-minus (and is lucky to get that).

Here’s “Nervous.”

‘Down The Road . . .’

August 25th, 2021

Fifty years ago, I was spending my evenings washing floors at St. Cloud State with Janitor Mike and spending my day-time hours no doubt wasting time in the basement rec room, sitting on the green couch and listening to my limited collection of LPs.

It was probably about this time of August that the college hosted an overnight orientation for incoming freshman students, which is when I met Dave the Poet, Wyoming Rick and the other folks who would make up a lot of my social life during that first year at St. Cloud State. But they were in town for one night and then went back to their hometowns and would not be back until nearly two-thirds of September had passed.

And Rick from across the street was – I think – toiling at a summertime job somewhere, and when that ended, he’d head to his junior year at St. Cloud Cathedral, the Catholic high school downtown.

So, pretty much alone, I listened to my LPs – only a few of which were very current – and wondered what albums (beyond the Beatles LPs I would need to backfill my complete collection) I should have in my sights. I could have used the help of the progressive rock folks at KSHE-FM in St. Louis. Here are the top fifteen albums listed in the station’s mid-August 1971 survey:

Every Picture Tells A Story by Rod Stewart
Tapestry by Carole King
Aqualung by Jethro Tull
Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones
Four Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Poems, Prayers & Promises by John Denver
Fifth by Lee Michaels
The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East
Stephen Stills II
Mudslide Slim & The Blue Horizon by James Taylor
L.A. Woman by the Doors
Electric Hot Tuna
Who’s Next
High Time by the MC5
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour by the Moody Blues

I’ve corrected a couple of titles – on the Allman Brothers Band and James Taylor albums – and I have no idea what album Electric Hot Tuna is. The listings at discogs show First Pull Up, Then Pull Down as the group’s 1971 album, released in June 1971. I’m guessing it’s that album mistitled.

The major question I have there is the presence of the John Denver album on the list. Progressive? Poems was Denver’s fourth album and contained his first hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and I guess his version of folky country (or countryish folk, depending on your vantage point) night have seemed different enough to be progressive. To be honest, at the time this survey came out, one of the albums getting regular play in the rec room was Denver’s third album, Whose Garden Was This, which my sister had brought home some months earlier, and I liked it a lot.

It’s kind of hard to look back and recall how Denver was received and perceived in 1971 without letting a lot of the later stuff – his saccharine singles, his goofy persona, and “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” – get in the way. In 1971, at least in St. Louis (and likely elsewhere), Denver was seen as a serious musician poised at that intersection of rock, pop, folk and country that always grabs my attention. I should listen to Poems, Prayers & Promises again with that in mind.

So how many of those albums ever came home with me? Twelve or thirteen of them. (There is some confusion about, again, the Hot Tuna album. About twenty-five years ago, just after I quit working for the newspaper in Eden Prairie, a friend from there offered me a crate of her college records; then, about ten years later, she called me and told me one of her children wanted them, if I would part with them, which of course I did. I also deleted the titles from my database (something I no longer do when I let an LP go).

I think the Hot Tuna album was one of those I got from Linda and later returned.

Otherwise, the only two albums on that list that I never brought home are those by Lee Michaels and the MC5. But none of those fifteen was in the cardboard box in the rec room as I sat there during August 1971. Aqualung would show up in November that year, as would my sister’s copy of Tapestry, and Sticky Fingers would arrive not quite a year later. The rest would take longer.

My favorites among those fifteen are – predictably – the albums by Carole King, the Rolling Stones, Stephen Stills, and the Moody Blues.

And that’s helpful because it provides a way to say farewell to Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer who died at the age of 80 yesterday in London. Many times through the years, as Sticky Fingers played, I’d stop whatever I was doing and listen to the album’s closer “Moonlight Mile” and nod as Watts’ drumming brought the song to its climax. Listening to it again is as good a way as any for a fan to say goodbye.

Saturday Single No. 749

August 21st, 2021

As I noted yesterday, the first verse of Kate Wolf’s song “Across The Great Divide” – covered in yesterday’s post by the recently departed Nanci Griffith – starts thus:

I’ve been walkin’ in my sleep
Countin’ troubles ’stead of countin’ sheep
Where the years went, I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away

It continues:

I’ve been siftin’ through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago

It’s gone away in yesterday
Now I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the Great Divide

And as I listened to Griffith’s 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms over the past few days, I found myself more and more often pushing the buttons that would bring the CD back to Track 1, “Across The Great Divide.” I was, I suppose, thinking – as Wolf no doubt intended – about the other great divide, the one that remains a mystery no matter how often someone we love, know, or simply admire crosses it.

I’m guessing that I first heard Wolf’s song in 2002, when I came across Gold In California, an anthology of Wolf’s work released in 1986, the same year that Wolf died at the age of 44. It was not quite a year later, when I was catching up with Griffith’s work, that I heard the Texas singer-songwriter’s version of the tune.

There are fourteen more versions of the song listed ay Second Hand Songs (and I imagine there are others, too), but I find myself oddly reluctant this morning to go digging among them. It’s as if I want the versions by Griffith and Wolf to remain alone in my head for a little while.

I recall a writing specialist say once, “Follow your instincts. If you’re not ready to write about something – and you have no deadline – don’t push it.” And just as I’m not yet ready to listen to other covers of “Across The Great Divide,” so am I not ready yet to write much more about Griffith, and I may never be.

Given that, a good account of her life and an appreciation of her work came from Mark Deming of AllMusic and is available here.

And, still following my instincts, we’ll shift gears here and close with a live version of my favorite song by Nanci Griffith, “Love At The Five & Dime.” In many cases, I prefer studio versions to live versions, but not this time. This performance of “Love At The Five & Dime” is cited at YouTube as being from a 1988 gig at the Houston club called Anderson Fair.* I think, though, that it is from a 1989 or 1991 episode of Austin City Limits. Either way, it shows, I think, Griffith’s charm, story-telling gifts, and her musicianship as well as anything else can. It’s today’s Saturday Single.

*The album One Fair Summer Evening, released in 1988, was made up of performances at Anderson Fair recorded on August 19 and 20 of that year. This performance of “Love At The Five & Dime” is not the one that was on the album, but it is very similar. (Text edited August 26, 2021.)

‘Walkin’ In My Sleep . . .’

August 20th, 2021

An appreciation of Nanci Griffith, who died last week, will show up here eventually. I’ve been listening to her music while trying to sort out a bunch of stuff that’s getting in my way. In the meantime, here’s Griffith doing a sweet cover of Kate Wolf’s “Across The Great Divide.”

It was the opening track on Griffith’s 1993 album of covers, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and I’m feeling its first verse potently these days:

I’ve been walkin’ in my sleep
Countin’ troubles ’stead of countin’ sheep
Where the years went I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away

Here’s the song:

Tempted

August 18th, 2021

Days like this come around every once in a while, days when I’m tempted to post something like:

And after a while the echoes died out, and all that was left was silence.

But not today. As I often do, I’ll lean on tomorrow, this time on “All Our Tomorrows” by Joe Cocker. It’s from his 1987 album Unchain My Heart, and its chorus offers something that feels like hope:

All our tomorrows find their own ways
And hear the sound of a distant thunder fading away
Well, every lonely night we’ll make our own brand of delight
And take all the comfort we may

Here is is:

‘Matt’ra Fact, It’s All Dark . . .’

August 12th, 2021

Catching up with our DVR list, I spent close to an hour last evening watching an episode of Classic Albums from our local public television station, thoroughly enjoying myself as the members of Pink Floyd and some of their associates took us through the making and meaning of 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon.

The show wasn’t new. If I have things right, it was put together in 2003, before Richard Wright died, so he, along with Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Nick Mason were available for lengthy interviews for the piece, as were engineer Alan Parsons and several other folks involved with the making of the album, along with a journalist or two.

I don’t know that I learned anything really startling about the album, which I know probably as well as any album in my collection. I heard it for the first time (and many times thereafter) in the youth hostel where I lived during the second half of my time in Denmark in 1973-74, and I got my own copy a year later in the spring of 1975.

But it was a pleasant near-hour to spend last evening, hearing how the creators put their work together and hearing what they thought about it decades later. There was one touching moment: David Gilmour said that instead of hearing the work as it evolved and was assembled, he often wishes that he could have experienced what record-buyers did when they put on their headphones and listened to the album for the first time.

“That would have been nice,” he said simply and, I thought, a bit wistfully.

I tried to think back to the first time I heard the album and couldn’t isolate it; it was too much a part of the background of life at the hostel in early 1974. I do recall being startled the first time I heard “The Great Gig in the Sky,” which closed Side One in those pre-CD days. And in the show I watched last evening, the four members of Pink Floyd – talking about it thirty years after the fact – still marveled at Clare Torry’s improvised vocals for the track:

The Tale Of Years (Again)

August 10th, 2021

Wasting time on Facebook yesterday, I came across one of those memes with a question, essentially asking which portion of one’s life had the best music. The choices were split between school segments – junior high school, high school, college and so on – and then ages in adulthood.

Not being one to follow instructions well, I answered with a span of years – 1969-73 – noting that those years held my last two years of high school and my first two years of college. Nothing remarkable there. I’ve written many times before of my sweet spot, which is generally those same years and sometimes extends another couple of years further to 1975.

And those are the same years to which I pay the most attention here, as shown by the number of posts tagged with those years. Here are the current numbers starting in 1966 and going through 1977, a span of twelve years that took me from the age of twelve on January 1, 1966, to the age of twenty-four on December 31, 1977:

1966: 92
1967: 102
1968: 131
1969: 195
1970: 239
1971: 193
1972: 165
1973: 127
1974: 97
1975: 101
1976: 62
1977: 53

That’s about what I expected, and it’s a pattern that’s been holding true for the fourteen-plus years I’ve been offering stuff here. The only deviation from the classic bell curve is that I seem to like stuff from 1975 a little more than I do stuff from 1974. It’s a slight variation, and if it means anything at all, it might have to do with the fact that along with some of the best moments of my life, the year of 1974 also brought me some of the worst, whereas 1975 was – with only a few days set aside – one of the best years of my life.

I thought that at the time, but I was also aware that I had few adult years for comparison. I recall wondering as 1975 moved to its end how I would feel about it forty years hence; would it still be one of the best years of my life? Well, it’s been forty-five years, and yes, 1975 still stands out of one of the four or five best years of my life, with the others ranging from 1970 to 2018.

Anyway, we’ll end this somewhat pointless assessment by turning to iTunes and running randomly until we hit a track from 1975. (I could go to 1970, as that is the year about which I’ve written the most, but maybe we’ll do that later in the week.) It took a while, about thirty clicks, before we at last fall onto a 1975 record. It’s one we’ve featured here before, but that’s okay. It’s a good one. Here’s what I said about it eleven years ago when I included it in my Ultimate Jukebox:

I was sitting at The Table at St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center in early 1976 when the 4 Seasons’ “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” came on the jukebox. My friend Stu shook his head. “Man,” he said, “what a great bass line. One of the best ever.” I took that judgment under advisement, and over the years, I’ve polished it to the point where I credit the 4 Seasons’ hit – it was No. 1 for three weeks – with having the best pop music bass line ever. And it is the bass line that moves the song along as it tells its tale of a one-night stand.

Here it is:

Saturday Single No. 748

August 7th, 2021

As this week has turned into an “It’s Too Late” week here, I thought that we’d close the week by doing one of my favorite things: Finding a foreign language version of the tune that is our focus.

And Second Hand Songs provides a few options for languages: Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Portuguese, and Swedish. (And there are suggested versions in Khmer and Spanish that the website had not yet verified.)

As readers might expect, we’ll go Scandinavian: Here, with Swedish lyrics by Stig Anderson, is Björn Skifs’ recording of “Alltför sent.” It was on Skifs’ 1972 album Blåblus, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘You Were Light And Breezy . . .’

August 5th, 2021

According to the Joel Whitburn book #1s, here are the singles and albums that topped the seven major Billboard charts this week in 1971, fifty years ago:

The Bee Gees were atop the Hot Singles chart with “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” in its first week at No. 1.

On top of the R&B chart was a record that likely has the longest title for any single ever mentioned in this space, James Brown’s “Hot Pants Pt. 1 (She Got To Use What She Got, To Get What She Wants).”

Charley Pride was on top of the Country chart with “I’m Just Me,” in its second week in the top spot.

And “If Not For You” by Olivia Newton-John was perched atop the Adult Contemporary chart.

Things were more long-term on the album side:

Carole King’s Tapestry was in its eighth week at No. 1 on the pop chart.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was No. 1 on the R&B chart for the second week.

And I Won’t Mention It Again by Ray Price was No. 1 on the country chart for the fourth week.

As is almost always the case, I know the pop stuff, I know half of the R&B stuff – What’s Going On has been on my shelves for many years – and I don’t know the country stuff. But since we’ve come across Tapestry again, I thought we’d take a look at another cover of its most well-known track, “It’s Too Late.”

Among the artists who have covered the song that I noticed but didn’t mention earlier this week are the Isley Brothers, who gave the song a ten-minute-plus workout on their 1972 album, Brother, Brother, Brother. Here it is:

‘It’s Too Late . . .’

August 3rd, 2021

Looking back at 1971’s charts, I noticed this morning that during the second week of August that year, Carole King’s Tapestry passed the halfway point of what would be a fifteen-week stay on top of the Billboard 200.

If there is such a thing as a perfect pop album, one on which every track works, that album might be Tapestry. There is one track I’m not fond of on its own for some reason – “Smackwater Jack” – but when I hear it in the context of the album it works, breaking the reflective mood just before the finale of the title tune.

And I find it odd, given my love of covers, that I’ve never dug – in any organized manner – into what covers there might be for the songs on Tapestry. Since Tuesday is a day I’ve decided to set aside most weeks for covers, let us take up the task.

A look at Second Hand Songs finds 128 versions of “It’s Too Late,” two of them by King: the version on the album and a 1970 demo released in 2012. The first of the other 126 came from Johnny Mathis. Then, still in 1971, came covers from Andy Williams, Top of the Pops, Jack Jones, Frances Yip, the Sound Effects, Agnaldo Rayol, Suzanne Lynch, the Shakers, the Music Machine, Mark Lindsay, the Sandpipers, and Bernard Purdie’s Pretty Purdie & The Playboys.

And from then, the covers continue, coming in every decade since the Seventies. There may be some more we look at down the road, but for today, I’m going to stop at the version by Pretty Purdie & The Playboys, which came out on the album Stand By Me (Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get). It seems to work pretty well.