Saturday, August 28, 2021

The Moody Blues and Phil Travers

I wasn't cool enough to be a part of the 60s, and not just because I wasn't old enough. I was there, born early in the decade, and, as you'll find when you finally read Jay and the Americans, my informative early years were shaped by 60's TV and rockets to the moon, by Space Food Sticks (you have to remember those) and The Monkees, but had I been in my teens, or in high school as the Summer of Love fell like fall leaves (and not the pretty yellow ones; the brown crumbly ones), I still wouldn't have been cool enough to immerse myself in this mesmerizing culture. I was cool enough in the 80s, for R.E.M. and New Order, but as it lay, I was The Monkees and not The Beatles, let alone The Moody Blues. And yet…

While my brother was cool enough to embrace Days of Future Passed, I didn't understand it. The songs were hidden amidst all that old people music (while my grandmother loved Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," the music coming out of the Magnavox console stereo in our home was more likely Montovani and Ferrante and Teicher or 101 Strings' versions of Beethoven; and Days of Future Passed sounded more like that to me than the pop strains of Headquarters. And yet…

My brother got me In Seach of the Lost Chord for my birthday in 1968. I didn't want it, of course; he did, and he bought it in stereo so that I couldn't play it in my room and only on the Magnavox. (He got me Blood, Sweat and Tears too. Didn't want that either.) But I couldn't take my eyes off the cover, that hypnotizing painting by Phil Travers, who would work with the Moodys on six occasions. Like Hipgnosis' Storm Thorgerson and Pink Floyd, Travers was like another member of the band.

"I met the Moodys," he said, "in a London pub, and we worked out the details of the commission. They invited me down to the studio shortly after that first meeting to listen to the album. So I got an early taste for what they were doing. I liked it. And that's the way it always worked with them. I'd get to listen to the record, then discuss the themes and ideas behind it, before any art concepts were developed. 

"The band wanted me to illustrate the concept of meditation. This was not something that I had much personal experience of, and so my early thoughts about the subject were, unfortunately, insubstantial. My first rough designs really reflected a lack of ideas. I began to panic a bit as time was running out, when that image I mentioned in the glass window, of a figure ascending, came back to me and everything then fell into place. I had days rather than weeks to complete the illustration, and submit it for approval. I used Gouache and some water colour to get the effect I was after."

Sometimes it’s the aesthetics of an LP that sparks our interest ( I can still visualize Nancy Sinatra in her go-go boots), and while we can argue over the validity of modern music (the tepid pop charts, the insufferable rap and its lack of musicality), one of the greatest losses that I've found since the advent of the CD and now MP3s and Spotify, is the disassociation of music with the visual. In the 60s, you wanted to peel that Velvet Underground banana or unzip Jagger's Levis, you had the Dark Side post cards on your bulletin board and you displayed Goodbye Yellow Brick Road like it was artwork, only to pick it up, open it and use the gatefold to roll a joint.

Anyway, it was a birthday present, but it was its cover that brought my attention to the highly overlooked Moodys. In retrospect, they'd done the symphony thing and pulled it off with flying colors, but this follow-up was 100% Moody Blues. Of the 33(!) different instruments used on the LP, each was played by the band. They earned the nickname of "the world's smallest symphony orchestra."

The LP is a journey, from beginning to end, in search of the chord and ephemeral whatnot. There is a heavy Eastern Philosophical influence, especially on the Mike Pinder contributions ("Best Way to Travel," "Om") and the tracks flow into each other seamlessly, making it one contiguous work of early world music. In every song, the singer yearns for something that cannot be defined. Mike Pinder's searing mellotron and Ray Thomas's soaring flute are the definitive sounds of the album, while the lyrics are a fanciful journey like Coleridge or Shelley.

Of course, this is the album that yielded two of the Moody's most enduring concert pieces, "Ride My See-saw" and the psychedelic "Legend of a Mind." Another standout is "The Actor," a Justin Hayward penned ballad so haunting it matches "Nights in White Satin." Then there's the lovely "Voices in the Sky," and John Lodge's epic, expermental "House of Four Doors," which samples musical styles throughout history. When I was 7, that one was key for me. Lost Chord is loaded with beautiful, experimental music. Why this band is so often overlooked, especially as a part of the Prog Rock era, I'll never know.

An aside: Other LPs bought because of their covers: the velvet wrapped Odessa, by the BeeGees, Brain Salad Surgery, Coltrane's Blue Train, Sinatra's In the Wee Small hours of the morning, Unknown Pleasures, Houses of the Holy, Captain Fantastic. Just a smattering.