The Moody Blues: 1981

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.”

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