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The Move – Message from the Country – Classic Music Review

Message from the Country

In the liner notes for the 2005 re-release, drummer Bev Bevan said that Message from the Country was his least-favorite Move album. While I think the regrettable Looking On is not only their worst but one of the worst albums I’ve ever heard (though I rather like “Brontosaurus”), I can understand where he was coming from. There are many reasons not to like Message from the Country:

Ready for the punch line? For the most part, it’s still a pretty fun album.

Alliteratively speaking, Move fans know that The Move were fickle, flawed and frustrating—but often fascinating and frigging fabulous. They’re the musical equivalent of the hapless sports team you follow—just when it looks like they’re about to put it all together, they leave you in the throes of disappointment, only to return next season to rekindle your hope. Message from the Country is full of defects and delights, but on balance, makes for a more than satisfying listening experience.

The original release of Message from the Country opened with one of the strangest opening songs on any album, Roy Wood’s gothic melodrama “It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance.” The dominant oboe is an unusual choice, to say the least, but this is the kind of song where only an oboe would do—and there aren’t too many of those songs in existence. The song seems to be narrated by an insecure, demented loser who finds himself in possession of a loser chick. It opens with a couplet that always makes me giggle:

The people throwing pennies in my soup,
Expecting me to be ashamed of you.

We don’t know if the people are throwing pennies in his soup because they’re feeling sorry for the guy or whether it’s a form of pennying and an invitation to an all-night drinking contest. Later the Prince of Thunder shows up, his talons ready to grasp the unfortunate lady and whisk her away from our hero; the paranoid insanity that passage implies is strengthened later in the final verse with his admission that “dangerously, the past explodes about my ears, loudly ringing in my ears.” Perhaps a war vet suffering from PTSD? Who knows? What matters here is Roy Wood truly commits to the role he’s playing and delivers a superbly melodramatic vocal that sells the mood, if not the story. “It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance” is the ugly stepsister of Move songs, and I don’t know why I love it but I do.

“It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance” also establishes a pattern that lasts throughout the album: Roy Wood’s songs are harmony-free. If there’s one quality that distinguishes Message from the Country from any other Move album, it’s the quality and complexity of the harmonies. You first hear this on the Jeff Lynne composition, “The Minister,” where Jeff and Roy engage in a high-speed, high-register harmonic duet that overcomes the overall choppiness of the arrangement.

Their harmonic talents are put to much better use in the more majestic and smoother title track. This is a classic Jeff Lynne composition: the melody is lovely, the harmonies superb and the arrangement gives the song a slightly epic feel that overcomes vague lyrics that exist primarily to give the boys some words to sing. The a capella fade, where the voices weave in and out from various locations in the sound field is right up there with the quality of the best Beach Boys material. Lynne makes it three songs in a row with “The Words of Aaron,” where again, the lyrics are disconnected bits of silliness and catchy phrases, but the melody and harmony are so strong that you find yourself singing along anyway. Roy Wood does a superb job layering multiple recorder parts in the instrumental fade out on this one. I only wish that would have been the final fade, for unfortunately they felt the need to do the “Strawberry Fields Fadeout and Reprise” bit without much justification.

In addition to “It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance,” there are three so-called “novelty” songs that the people at United Artists excluded from their transformation of Message from the Country into the album Split Ends. I agree with two out of their three exclusions, but find their exclusion of “Ben Crawley Steel Company” criminally offensive. Dismissed by others as simply a poke at Johnny Cash, “Ben Crawley Steel Company” is not only a terribly funny song but a superbly incisive satire of the mindset of the white southerner. In the first two verses, Roy Wood establishes the fundamental ethic of the southerner: a debilitating, limiting sense of tradition that crushes any attempt at independence or competence:

The next train arrives on here at 5:09,
I’m standing where my daddy used to be,
To follow his footsteps takes me three stops down the line,
Down to the Ben Crawley Steel Company.
Well, I tried my hand at ranchin’ but this didn’t come off,
Seems nothin’ in that for me
It always tried my patience, which I haven’t enough,
I’m destined to work in a steel company.

Waiting at home for our hapless hero is the Flower of Southern Womanhood, appropriately pure, lovely and by all appearances completely devoted to her hard-working overseer. As is often true in The South, appearances are everything and nothing, another brilliant piece of insight on the part Mr. Wood. As we go deeper into the song, we find that our hero is the butt of jokes at the steel company and rather low on the totem pole. He comes home every night dog-tired and knows his little woman “won’t be as tired as me,” but tries to muster up enough Southern machismo so he “won’t slack,” but give her a good stiff one up the middle . . . or not. As it turns out, his boss has been banging his beauty on the side, and this fires off the righteous indignation that will justify his act of revenge in the eyes of the Prince of Peace, conveniently skipping over the part about “thou shalt not kill” on his journey towards criminal violence:

Well I’ve had my fill and it’s giving me hell, now it’s time for hate
Thanks, mister for tellin’ me.
So I’ll shoot if I can and I don’t give a damn about playing it straight
My friends and The Lord knows what he did to me.
He’s being staying at home with my little woman,
Playing in the fields where I should always be.
It’s harder to forgive my own little woman . . .
Need to find a job ’cause I just blew up that steel company!

Bev Bevan’s delivery in this song is exceptional, and when he grunts out that deeply satisfying “Heh” at the end of the song, it’s both very funny and very chilling at the same time. The arrangement is satire-perfect, from the slide guitar to the fancy picking to the angelic echo of “woman” on the choruses. While I think “Do Ya,” “Down on the Bay,” “Chinatown” and “California Man” certainly energized the revised album, The Move were a band with a fabulous sense of humor, and I will go to my deathbed believing that the exclusion of this gem was another classic example of record company stupidity.

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