The Moody Blues Offered a Different Kind of Soul Music

The Moody Blues were more than just singers in a rock and roll band, they never stopped questioning balance.

Breathe deep the gathering gloom. Watch lights fade from every room and put on some tunes from The Moody Blues. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame earlier this month, but not on the basis of their initial 1965 British Invasion hit “Go Now.”  The Moody Blues were instrumental in integrating classical music into rock. Decca records used them to learn how to do it on their 1967 landmark orchestral rock mashup album Days of Future Passed. Some of the members knew The Beatles since their Hamburg days, and rumor has it, it was Mike Pinder’s bathroom window a groupie climbed through to inspire a classic tune on the album Abbey Road. Pinder wasn’t only a rock star’s rock star, he was also a mystical musician. He and the other four songwriters in the group he co-founded sang about spiritual topics, metaphysics, and astral projection as the band searched for the lost chord, probably the C diminished, a finger crusher if not a crusher of souls.

Bassist John Lodge, guitarist Justin Hayward, and drummer Graeme Edge, never stopped searching, touring consistently. Founding member and flutist Ray Thomas left the lineup in 2002 and died on January 4, 2018 at the age of 76. Pinder, the keyboardist, left in 1978, replaced by Patrick Moraz but that story is a legal morass best left in the footnotes of music history. The band replaced founding member Denny Laine, whose name rhymes with “Penny Lane,” which might explain why Paul McCartney pulled him into Wings, with Hayward and Lodge. Lodge played with Pinder and Thomas in a band called El Riot and the Rebels that broke up in 1963. They played Hamburg, Germany, at the same time as The Beatles.

The Moody Blues began as a soul and rhythm and blues band covering Sonny Boy Williamson and James Brown tunes. The Erdington, Birmingham, Warwickshire band’s original May 4, May 1964 lineup was Thomas, Pinder, Laine, Edge and Clint Warwick. They moved to classical and prog rock and had huge hits like “Nights In White Satin,” “Ride My See Saw,” “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)” and “Question.”

The musicians added new instruments to the rock band arsenal. Pinder mastered the Mellotron, an early kind of sampler that played loops of recorded instruments for the album Search of a Lost Chord, until he replaced it with a Chamberlain for the album Seventh Sojourn, which also saw Edge play electronic drums. Hayward began melodic experiments with pedals and fuzz-boxes with A Question of Balance from 1970. An early liner note joked that the band was the smallest orchestra in rock, even without the symphonic backing. But they were.

The band’s conscience and sense of social responsibility were as lofty as their artistic ambitions, writing politically charged songs like “Lost in a Lost World,” “When You’re a Free Man,” and “A Simple Game,” which the Motown band The Four Tops recorded, backed by The Moody Blues themselves. Many of the songs The Moody Blues wrote, and all five of them were songwriters, were conceived On the Threshold of a Dream. The band’s fourth album, which was recorded in two weeks in January 1969, references out of body travel. The album title itself is an apt description of sleep paralysis, a jumping off point for many soulful sojourners. The album cemented the band alongside the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd in the pantheon of cosmic rock, and the intricate instrumentation put them on prog status with Jethro Tull and Yes.

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Their 1969 concept album To Our Children’s Children’s Children, was inspired by the moon landing. But they explored inner space as well as outer space, their entire early career saw them In Search Of The Lost Chord. They were always looking for new horizons that came “blasting, billowing, bursting forth with the power of ten billion butterfly sneezes.”

A lot of people in the late ’60s were in search of enlightenment, but this is no New Age band, as they have often been labeled. The Moody Blues also explored LSD. Yes, for fun, but also to a spiritual end. Like John Lennon, who used Timothy Leary’s interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to write “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the Moodies, as some fans but not this one call them, took acid and discovered Timothy Leary was dead in Ray Thomas’ 1968 song “Legend of a Mind,” only to learn he was outside looking in. Justin Hayward threw in some C.S Lewis and Christian mysticism, but extolled the spiritual benefits of LSD with his friend until Leary died. Hayward’s “Gypsy” and the Pinder/Lodge collaboration “Out and In” also translated the acid experience into melodious sonic stereo. Although Hayward’s “Dawn is a Feeling” eschewed chemical balance because “the smell of grass just makes you pass into a dream.”

Dreams were big with the Moody Blues, they wrote suites about them and spent entire lazy Tuesday afternoons there. Some of the time these dreams were quite lucid as was clearly evident in the space between the speakers. There were two active Christians in the band, a naturalist searcher, the agnostic Graeme Edge, and “Mystic” Mike. But that didn’t stop each of them from exploring alternate means to enlightenment, many of these new to the commercialized western world. The Beatles withdrew their support of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi early in 1968, and Lennon skewered the giggling guru in his song “Sexy Sadie.” That didn’t deter Pinder, Thomas, Hayward, and Edge from getting initiated into transcendental meditation.

In Search of the Lost Chord featured Pinder’s “Om,” which sounds like a title George Harrison might have slipped them while the Maharishi wasn’t looking (Jai Krishna hare, shri Krishna hare). The song is a celebration of the ancient sacred syllable of Hindu and Buddhist traditions, OM, or AUM, which had been introduced to the beat generation by poet Allen Ginsberg but went back as far as history records.

“Om is a seed or beej mantra, I associate it with Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, who I love because he is always happy,” says Marie Bargas, the Hollywood Witch, herself a practicing Shavaist, confirming the happy associations of the joyful guru from Rishikesh.

A seed mantra is “the activation of primordial sound and energy that happens through beeja mantra,” says Aishwarya Luna Lakshmi, a Shakti tantrica channel and constellational and Vedic astrologer from Kolkata, India. “Over time its usage stimulates new seeds of consciousness and openings.”

“The Earth turns slowly round. Far away the distant sound is with us every day. Can you hear what it say? OM, OM, Heaven, OM,” the band sings with their distinctive mix of voices. Pinder harmonizes Thomas’s flute with synthesized violins pumped through his mellotron. Hayward’s sitar and Edge’s tabla take up where George Harrison’s “Within You and Without You” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band left off, while Edge’s cello leaves space for Mahavishnu Orchestra to grow. The song ends in an acapella chanting chorus that rises to the heavens. The band offered several roadmaps to that destination and beyond.

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Astral travel, or astral projection, or out of body experience, was a conversational goldmine in the late 1960s. Those who were not yet initiated into the occult secrets coming to the surface of the era were enthralled by the possibilities eastern spiritualism promised. “Rock stars, is there nothing they don’t know,” Homer Simpson once asked, as even mundane nuclear factory workers could be moved to “ride the waves” when “distance is gone.” It is natural. Bees do it. Birds do it, according to the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, whose heroic feathered friend took a nose dive into the afterlife to bring his flock to the heavens.

Pinder must have loved exploring the ethereal realms, enthusiastically exclaiming thinking is “The Best Way to Travel,” though not on tour, because it is hard enough to get a Hammond organ out of its case without trying to get its soul to leave its body. “And you can fly high as a kite if you want to, faster than light if you want to,” he sang as if he’d been there speeding through the universe before hitting the mic.

Drummer Graeme Edge didn’t sing much, but his speaking voice is unforgettable. He wrote the poetry that was often featured in song interludes, such as “Nights in White Satin.” But all the lyrics were poetic, sometimes condensed to the simplest terms, as in “Procession,” the opening song on Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. It was the only song co-written by all five band members, and is in the time signature of 1/1. The song tells the story of music through its progression as communication to elation and two other words that rhyme. This cycle is recycled and expanded in John Lodge’s “One More Time to Live,” itself about reincarnation, offering a metaphysical counterpart to Hayward’s “You Can Never Go Home,” though both are eternally hopeful and leave room to grow and learn.

Edge’s “In The Beginning,” which opens On the Threshold of a Dream, casts doubt on any existential certainty by proclaiming “I think. I think I am,” before his questioning human nature lead him to backtrack with “I think.” Hayward appears occasionally surprised and concerned by his own revelations, singing “if only you knew what’s inside of me now, you wouldn’t want to know me somehow” in “Never Comes the Day.” Pinder has less of a problem sharing his inner workings, as his song “So Deep Within You” defies rock star expectations by turning sexual union into spiritual communion.

The band never really claimed to know all the answers, John Lodge pleaded with fans that if they knew anything to “please tell me.” He walked through the “House of Four Doors” and conceded perhaps the answers are here and not there anymore. Hayward made his fingers bleed going between the aforementioned C diminished to G suspended seventh chords to beg why “we never get the answers to the questions that we need.”

The Moody Blues gave up their guru status after their 1981 album Long Distance Voyager hit number 1 on the Billboard under the production of longtime David Bowie main man Tony Visconti. A “Candle of Life” couldn’t hold a candle to the moody bluegrass of smash romantic hits. Although the classic Moody Blues favored seven did match a Beatles record when Seventh Sojourn hit number 1 in the U.S. and Days of Future Passed got into the top five.

The classic seven are Days of Future Passed (1967), In Search of the Lost Chord (1968), On the Threshold of a Dream (1969), To Our Children’s Children’s Children (1969), A Question of Balance (1970), Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971), and Seventh Sojourn (1972).  It was followed by solo releases by each member, and a Hayward and Lodge duo album in 1975. Pinder moved to California and bought a Mk5 mellotron in 1974, and the band wasn’t quite the same. Not that I’m blaming the instrument.

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The musicians didn’t desert the land of make believe entirely, recording songs like “The Voice,” “22,000 Days,” “The Other Side of Life,” “The Spirit,” and “Deep.” They offset the rock and roll band songs by offering Keys of the Kingdom in 1991, which included an instrumental piece by Ray Thomas called “Celtic Sonant.” Ian Anderson may have listened to this before he recorded his solo 1995 album Divinities: Twelve Dances with God. Anderson and Thomas stood out among rock stars, the Jethro Tull frontman on one leg for long periods of time. Both played the flute as a heavy metal instrument and both openly admiring and envying each other’s work, as evidenced on YouTube. Anderson, who picked up the flute after realizing he’d never be as good a guitar player as Eric Clapton, did amazing scats, but admired the beautiful restraint of the man who also hit the high register notes in the band’s iconic harmonies. Ian did get to play Thomas’ signature lines on the flute when he played with Hayward.

Hayward and Thomas collaborated in mystical union to conclude “Never Blame the Rainbows for the Rain” in another nod to inexplicable realms.  Oh and it was Ray Thomas who got acquainted with the groupie in Pinder’s window. Only a melancholy man would toss an ambitious fan out by their apple scruffs. For the record, though, in 1980, Lennon theorized McCartney wrote it about meeting Linda in New York in 1968.

Pinder wrote and played on the 1978 Octave album, but bowed out for the tour. Patrick Moraz lent his Swiss-born fingers for the duty and the albums Long Distance Voyager (1981), The Present (1983), The Other Side of Life (1986), Sur la Mer (1988) and Keys of the Kingdom (1991). The Moody Blues recorded their 1999 album Strange Times in Recco, Italy, with Italian musician Danilo Madonia sliding his fingers over black and white keys. It was belissimo, but quite grounded for the band who promised a voyage so uplifting, our children’s children’s children would be getting higher and higher to a point that would astound you.

From peak hour through sunset, the band showed what could be seen from great height, whether they could defend their thoughts or not. Whatever listeners want The Moody Blues to be, that’s what they will be in the end.

The HBO special  2018 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony debuts Saturday, May 5 at 8:00 p.m