This is the first of two reviews that deal with generational differences. I promised both my father and my mother that I would review at least one album by one of their favorite artists who aren’t on my personal favorites list. My mother’s request comes first, to which she would respond, “As it should.”
Most of my pre-adult stories concerning music have focused on my father and his vast, eclectic collection containing every possible genre the human race has ever cooked up through its obsession with categorization. I haven’t written much about my mother’s influence on my musical tastes and perceptions, even though she’s the musical genius in the family (and the most remarkable woman I’ve ever known).
The woman who taught her daughter how to smoke properly, fix her makeup in the European style and conduct herself with class and grace is also an extraordinary flutist and incredibly nimble on the piano. She was classically trained in France and her parents had dreams of her becoming the female Jean-Pierre Rampal, and there is no doubt in my mind she could have pulled it off.
Instead, she came to the States, became a very sexy hippie chick full of joie de vivre tempered with an intense commitment to human rights. Though she completed her degree in music at UC Berkeley, she eventually realized that she’d rather listen to music than blow in a hole ten hours a day. The flute stayed in its case for a dozen years before she decided to pick it up again and have some fun with it. Like Edith Piaf, elle ne regrette rien and has improvised a rich and often exciting life exploring her diverse passions: music, language, painting, social justice and sexuality.
Now you know where that part of me comes from.
My mother experiences music like no one else I’ve ever known. My dad’s like the rest of us: he sings, hums, grunts, wiggles his bony butt and occasionally breaks into spurts of air guitar. When my mother listens to music—even hard rock music—she closes her eyes and lets the music fill her soul. Occasionally you’ll see a smile or hear a small cry of delight or sense a faint undulation in the area of her hips, but not much more. While my parents’ tastes often intersect in the wide spectrum of music, my mother’s preferences encompass more of the classical, jazz and progressive rock side. She taught me to forget about Herbert von Karajan when it came to Schubert and go with Wolfgang Sawallisch; she’s the source of my appreciation for Miles Davis and John Coltrane; and she is a passionate defender of The Moody Blues, a band about which I have some ambivalence.
It’s not that I don’t like The Moodies. I love Justin Hayward and have a permanent iPod playlist of all of his songs. As for the rest, it’s hit-and-miss:
- John Lodge: A great bass player with a pleasant natural voice, his falsetto sometimes drives me to distraction. Give me Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Frankie Valli or Lou Christie and I’m fine, but John Lodge’s falsetto is like fingers on the chalkboard to me. Why didn’t they just hire a long-haired, blonde Rod McKuen fan with a nice rack to hit the high notes?
- Ray Thomas: Like everyone else, I love “Legend of a Mind” but other than that, his songwriting is wildly inconsistent.
- Mike Pinder: I always call him Mike Ponderous. His voice usually gives me the creeps and his songs are full of silly philosophical meanderings that he tries to pass off as arcane wisdom.
- Graeme Edge: He’s a solid drummer but also the source of those early New Age spoken word pieces that define the naïve pretentiousness so common in that era of spiritual discovery (or reality avoidance, if you prefer).
Partial disagreement drives my mother crazy. She’d rather have total disagreement because then she can dismiss you as an uncultured idiot not worth her time. My mother has never done anything halfway, and she expects the same from her daughter. We debated the value of The Moody Blues for years, but I thought the argument had run its course until I’d passed through the 10,000-foot level on my flight to my new life in Paris. I opened my iPad, touched the Music app, scrolled through my playlists and found that ma chère mère had filled it with all seven core albums, from Days of Future Passed to Seventh Sojourn. When I arrived at CDG, I texted her the news of my safe arrival, to which she replied, “When can I expect a review?”
I’ve been obediently listening to the core seven on and off since I arrived in May. I narrowed it down to two possibilities: Days of Future Passed and To Our Children’s Children’s Children. I chose the latter because I had pleasant memories of some of the songs from childhood, but I reserve the right to review Days of Future Passed in the future. Hear that, maman?
To Our Children’s Children’s Children is the more balanced and unified work. The balance comes from the fact that John Lodge, Ray Thomas and even Mike Pinder stepped up to the plate and delivered some songs that rivaled Justin Hayward’s contributions. The only time that ever happened was on In Search of the Lost Chord, where Lodge and Thomas outperformed Hayward. On most of their albums, it’s Justin Hayward-skip-skip-skip-Justin Hayward-skip-skip-skip . . . you get the idea. On To Our Children’s Children’s Children there are no skippers: all the songs work to some degree and flow together in the no-gap format better than (dare I say it?) Sgt. Pepper.
We begin with one of Graeme Edge’s “poetic” contributions that usually drive me bananas. “Higher and Higher” opens with a rocket ship blasting off, establishing space travel in the context of human evolution as one of the themes that unite the album. Humanity had just witnessed Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing about on another world, so speculation on what this event symbolized was rampant. Graeme Edge’s view is Moodily-optimistic:
Vast vision must improve our sight
Perhaps at last we’ll see an end
To our home’s endless blight
And the beginning of the free.
Climb to tranquility, finding its real worth,
Conceiving the heaven, flourishing on earth.
Yawn. What saves the song for me is the music in the background. Justin Hayward plays like his fingers are on fire, Edge pounds the crap out of his kit and the full-spectrum panning creates a feeling of surround sound years before we knew what that phrase meant. Despite the drippy philosophy, “Higher and Higher” is the most exciting opener on any Moody Blues album.
The frantic sounds of “Higher and Higher” fade into angelic harp runs and a gentle, low-register flute riff from Ray Thomas that pave the way for John Lodge’s gentle vocal on “Eyes of a Child, Pt. 1.” The volume builds gradually as the verse proceeds and the Moodies begin to harmonize, something they generally do very well. The appearance of that damned falsetto makes my ears squint as if they’d sucked a lemon, but it’s only a brief distraction to the lovely melody and the gorgeous harmonies that make this piece such a warm and engaging experience.
The piece ends almost suddenly at the end of a harp run, replaced by a melodic high-register bass run and a dash of acoustic guitar, introducing the song “Floating.” I realize that it may be hard for my readers to imagine the leather-loving riding-crop-wielding sophisticate you know as altrockchick as a playful little girl, but I used to be the sweetest little thing on earth! I loved my childhood and I took full advantage of it, running, laughing, playing tag and hopscotch, filling coloring books by the dozen and skipping along the streets to school as a way to stay warm in the fog. And of all the songs that played on the stereo during those years, “Floating” was my absolute favorite. Whenever it came on I would grab either my mother or my father to hold hands with me and pretend we were weightless while singing along with Ray Thomas. I still smile whenever I hear it, and the simple beauty of the melody and the ecstatic rise of the chorus fills me with sheer delight. Most songs for kids are pretty hokey, but “Floating” is a sincere expression of childhood joy.
The harmonic lines that end “Floating” fade into “Eyes of a Child, Pt. 2,” a rougher, rockier take of the song weakened only by that damned falsetto, which is really over the top here. The fragments fades into the first of a pair of tiny acoustic songs from Justin Hayward, “I Never Thought I’d Live to Be a Hundred.” God, I love this man’s voice . . . it’s so enveloping, especially in a quiet piece like this one where it’s simply Justin, a guitar and a splash of harmony. Absolute perfection!
Our song-ette ends in the burst of energy that announces the upbeat instrumental “Beyond,” a song that I consider the functional equivalent of The Beatles “Flying” on Magical Mystery Tour, though the Moodies make their piece more interesting. The main theme is divided by intervals of trippy sounds that no doubt thrilled the listening audiences of the time and continue to work today in the context of this album.
Now we fade into a combination of mellotron and a fine John Lodge bass riff as Mike Pinder makes his first contribution to the work, “Out and In.” Perhaps the overall mood of the other pieces tempered his generally ponderous nature, for this is one of his best contributions to the group’s oeuvre. While the mellotron is a bit overdone, I do like the glides that reflect the feeling of flying freely through space, and the syncopation in the bridge is a nice variation in the rhythm. The lyrics are early New Age, but I’ll give him a pass because the overall composition is pretty strong.
Until now the future seems like a pretty nice place to hang, but things turn terrifyingly dark with “Gypsy (Of a Strange and Distant Time).” I mean, can you imagine anything more frightening than hurtling alone through the vastness of hostile space with no idea where you are or how to get home? Justin Hayward is one of the great lyrical poets of rock, but here he conjures up imagery closer to Munch’s The Scream:
A gypsy of a strange and distant time
Traveling in panic all direction blind
Aching for the warmth of a burning sun
Freezing in the emptiness of where he’d come from.
The complex synthesis of flute, mellotron, acoustic guitar, shots of electric guitar and high-anxiety bass in the arrangement creates both the feeling of uncontrolled movement through space fueled by the dreadful anxiety in the gypsy’s soul. It’s a knockout song and a brilliant shift in tone that enriches the entire listening experience.
“Gypsy” fades into Ray Thomas’ “Eternity Road,” which feels like a pale version of “Gypsy” in terms of theme, but it’s certainly a pleasant song that blends well with the other tracks. This in turn melts into “Candle of Life,” a nice tune hampered by an overwrought arrangement and lyrics that fall short of childlike and descend into childishness. “So love everybody and make them your friend” is a line that sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it. So that’s the solution to all the world’s problems! How did I miss that? Next time I see a terrorist or a rapist I’ll love them and make them my friend! That’s the spirit!
One wouldn’t usually expect Mike Pinder to come to the rescue, but he brings us back into focus with the Indian-influenced “Sun Is Still Shining.” The lyrics aren’t a vast improvement, but the swaying groove of the main passage is ab-fab and I have to give John Lodge kudos for a mesmerizing, melodic performance on the bass. We then fade into “I Never Thought I’d Live to Be a Million,” a brief thirty-four seconds of sweetly plucked acoustic guitar and Justin’s superb voice.
I am so glad he decided to return for an encore. In “Watching and Waiting,” he explores a theme he would address with greater force in “Question” on the next album: the theme of breaking through the social and cultural restrictions that exist to control and limit the human spirit. On this album, he has the freedom to imagine a future where such things are completely unnecessary . . . you can let go . . . play . . . allow yourself to become who you are without the pressure of expectations:
‘Cos here there’s lot of room for doing
The thing you’ve always been denied
Look and gather all you want to
There’s no one here to stop you trying
The lush string-like sounds of the mellotron are used with great effect here; when I hear that music, I imagine a small child gazing up into a night sky filled with stars and stardust. The sheer beauty of the music combined with Justin Hayward’s gently encouraging tone chokes me up whenever I hear it. The line, “Watching and waiting for someone to understand me” perfectly expresses not only a fundamental wish of nearly every person who has breathed life but also the human journey described in To Our Children’s Children’s Children: the endless struggle for the greater mutual understanding that we desperately need to achieve if we are to survive.
p. s. Maman, je t’aime et je suis désolé que je dusse être un peu de garce, mais je sais que tu aimes secrètement cette partie de moi . . . à bientôt!