With the Moody Blues firmly entrenched among the giants - and, indeed, the founders - of prog rock, it is often easy to forget that, for three years before Days of Future Passed in 1967, they were a finely functioning R&B band; purveyors of one of the era’s most memorable hit records; and (though it’s less of a cause for celebration) one of the Beat Boom’s most mystifyingly stubborn one hit wonders.
“Go Now,” their second single, was massive in 1964, but nothing they did in its aftermath had anywhere near the same impact. Or, indeed, any impact whatsoever. And so the follow-up singles floated past unheard, and the band’s own attempts to break the routine were as likely to remain archived by their label, Decca, as to leak into the public arena. Had the Moodies not so thoroughly reinvented themselves in 1967, it is likely they’d have gone the same way as a host of other British invaders, lost to all but the oldies stations.
But they did reinvent, and now it was their early past that was all but forgotten. Founding frontman Denny Laine probably got more mileage out of “Go Now,” as it entered the Wings concert repertoire, than did his former bandmates, and periodic reissues of the Moodies’ debut album, from 1965, tend to founder on one very specific set of rocks. It sounds nothing like people think the Moody Blues should sound.
Deluxe editions and sprawling box sets have ensured the band’s post-Days of Future past has remained in the public eye. That aforementioned debut, however, has remained in the shadows for long enough, though. Released by Cherry Red’s Esoteric wing at the very end of 2014, The Magnificent Moodies is a two CD box that rounds up the band’s entire 1964-1966 output... the debut album that shares its title with the box; a heap of non-album singles, b-sides and EP tracks; a baker’s dozen of BBC Saturday Club performances; a clutch of random studio sessions from across the years; and, finally, a 1966 session with producer Denny Cordell that pushes the band to the very brink of their future.
Flautist Ray Thomas looks back at the music that overflows this magnificent box.
“Fifty years is a long time ago, a lot of water under the bridge, but listening to these songs brings back the memories of five young Brummie lads moving down to London, trying to find ourselves, and where we fit in the world of music.”
He recalls their “lucky break.” “Alex Murray Wharton had found us in a club in Birmingham and suggested we’d do better in London. Quite by chance, we were ask to perform at The Marquee Club in Soho. It was ‘the’ place to play in 1964. We went down a storm and were given a nineteen gig contract - our own night. The Marquee was in the process of building their own studio at the time. Alex negotiated some studio time and we went in after the workers left and recorded ‘Go Now’ among the bags of cement and scaffolding. It was an exciting time for all of us.”
The band’s management was handled, among others, by the mercurial Tony Secunda - better remembered today, perhaps, for his controversial tenure at the helm of the Move, but no less bright and brilliant before that.
RT: “Tony was the master of gimmicks. He came up with some weird and wonderful promotion ideas. One of his best was the pigeons. A racing pigeon was delivered in a box to a lot of people in the music business. On the bird’s leg was a capsule and in the capsule was a piece of paper. The person invited could tick ‘yes, I’ll attend’ or ‘no, I won’t be able to make it,’ put it back in the capsule and toss the pigeon out the window.
“He followed that up with sending people a giant train ticket to be at the Holborn Viaduct Station. The guests would board the train for a short ride to Victoria Station, a few drinks and the Moody Blues belting out ‘Go Now.’ The only problem was there were no electrics on the train so we couldn’t plug in our amps! So we played on the station platform instead.”
There are so many highlights spread across the box, from forgotten singles to some positively dynamic BBC radio performances. But one of the most remarkable finds must be the Moodies’ 1966 rendering of Tim Hardin’s “Hang Onto a Dream” - a song that would become better known, in the annals of British psychedelia, for the Nice’s trailblazing rendition. Had the Moodies’ earlier cover only been released, how different things might have been.
RT: “I’m not really sure where we found “Hang Onto a Dream”. It was probably in the same big box of records and acetates that we received from a disc jockey in the states. We were always anxious to get the newest tunes from America. That’s how we found ‘Go Now’. Listening to ‘Hang Onto a Dream’ now, I really wonder why we never released it. I think it sounds just as good today as anything ‘new’ that’s out there. The harmonies on it are great - in my opinion! A nice song by Tim Hardin and I think we did him proud.”
That recording, part of the aforementioned September 1966, also marked the end of the original band, as vocalist/guitarist Laine and bassist Clint Warwick prepared to depart. But the changes that would be wrought, seemingly out of the blue, with the arrival of their replacements Justin Hayward and John Lodge, were in fact already in the wind.
RT: “We were constantly searching to find our niche in music. We’d started as a rhythm and blues band, one of the few in Birmingham, but after being around the music scene in London and in particular The Beatles we were looking for a new direction. Denny and Mike [Pinder] were writing songs that were less bluesy. I was adding more flute tracks to songs. In those days the flute was not a very common instrument in a rock band. We’d have some ideas for a different kind of stage show for a long time. With the change of the band and Mike’s expertise on the mellotron we decided it was time to go for it.”
And so they did... and, in the process, they helped reinvent rock, by inventing an entire new direction.
RT: “You can’t start describing Moodies’ music without Days of Future Passed. That entire album was a big magical moment. It was the first time we’d had enough studio time to put together exactly what we wanted to play. And we had Tony Clarke, producer and sixth Moody, backing us all the way. We had to do it on the sly, away from the eyes and ears of the Decca which made it even more exciting to record. Days was so different from anything out there at the time, I think anyone would be wanting to hear more from us.”
There would be no looking back.
RT: “Prog rock meant no more two minute songs, pushing the boundaries of what was considered the norm. It was an album based on a theme not on a single. It was an album of songs that flowed one into another and drove disc jockies nuts! Until radio stations started playing entire album or entire album sides our records didn’t get a lot of air play. I think prog rock changed how people listened to music.”