Classic Music Review: In Search of the Lost Chord by The Moody Blues

themoodyblues-insearchofthelostchord(3)

Creepy cover for an allegedly spiritual album. Click to buy.

My mother (a Moodies supporter)  and I (a Moodies skeptic) have returned from our walk and now continue our exploration of The Moody Blues with a joint review of In Search of the Lost Chord. Recorded at my parents’ home in Nice.

ARC: I think we should get dad in here.

Maman: Why?

ARC: Because I want to talk background and he’s certainly qualified to do that.

Maman: (Sigh.) I will make him behave.

ARC: I know you will. Dad! Come here a sec! (Dad enters, looking sheepish, hands in pockets, head down.) Come sit down. I want some background about the spiritual awakening in the 60’s.

Dad: Only if I can stay for the music.

Maman: Only if you behave.

Dad: I said I would! I can control myself!

Maman: You have been warned. (To me.) Ask your questions.

ARC: Okay. I get that the search for spiritual solutions was a reaction to what was perceived as the excessive materialism of the time.

Maman: Yes, in part. The truth is more prosaic. It is more accurate to say that we took advantage of the relative freedom we had from daily responsibilities to seek knowledge in many forms. The comfort and security provided by the materialistic culture allowed us to do that. You do not concern yourself with spirituality if you are trying to survive.

Dad: Everyone was in denial about that, but it was true. Some people went further than others, gave away all their possessions and went back to the land or joined communes, but those of us who stayed in school sacrificed relatively little. And I’m talking about white people, you know—we were the consumers for the spiritual peddlers, not the blacks or the Latinos or the Asian cultures.

Maman: True. And I want to emphasize that it was a hunger for all knowledge, not just spiritual awakening. We felt we had been repressed by a regimented society that thought it had all the answers. We wanted to know what our parents were keeping from us; as it turned out, really very little. They did not want to learn or explore any more. They had lived through depression and war and just wanted to be comfortable.

ARC: Okay. And I understand the rejection of Christianity, since that was part of the Establishment. So you turned to the East for answers in Buddhism—especially Zen—and Hinduism. Both have their origins in India, so India was seen as the place to go for enlightenment.

Maman: Yes, but that had as much to do with politics as anything else. India was accessible; China was not, especially from America, and The Cultural Revolution was in motion at that time. Japan seemed too Western and . . . knowable, so while everyone read Alan Watts, I don’t know of anyone who made a pilgrimage to Japan, for it was seen as another materialistic society, even then. India also had the advantage because it had been a British colony and there are many Indian immigrants living there. Great Britain was the center of music, and music was the means of transmitting ideas.

ARC: But you had to have blinders on to take India seriously as a source of enlightenment. How could a culture that brought us the caste system have any pretensions as the keepers of the higher truth?

Dad: (Laughs.) I didn’t say we were very selective about it! I think many of us went through a period where anything that was different, strange or endorsed by The Beatles had to be the answer.

Maman: (Shakes her head.) We were very young, very idealistic, very naïve. That said, the journey itself was the reward. We explored many forms of spirituality and knowledge. It is now more acceptable to have alternative beliefs than it was in our time. You would not be taking Yoga classes or practicing the martial arts if we had not opened those doors for you.

ARC: Thank you both. But you also explored drugs as a path to higher consciousness, especially acid and other hallucinogens.

Dad: True, and definitely worth the trip.

ARC: That is a terrible pun.

Maman: Yes, but I agree with the sentiment, especially when you factor in how impatient we were. With spirituality, you have to study, practice. With LSD, the new perceptions come quickly by way of a very personal experience. Where people made the mistake is by believing that taking it repeatedly would lead to wisdom. It was a way of removing certain blinders, nothing more. Once was enough.

ARC: Once was more than enough for me. You’re right in the sense that you do learn how fragile your perceptions are. I didn’t consider it to be a spiritual experience, though. I knew that I had influenced my nervous system through a chemical, and I have a hard time believing that the path to enlightenment is through chemicals.

Dad: Some Native American traditions felt that way about mescaline, though.

Maman: Yes, and some espoused the belief that Native American traditions housed the source of true wisdom.

ARC: Or used that as an excuse to get high.

Maman: Or used it to alleviate their feelings of guilt for having stolen the land from their ancestors.

ARC: Well, The Moodies didn’t bother with Native American traditions on In Search of the Lost Chord, but they did explore various paths to Nirvana. Dad, can you handle the turntable?

Dad: With pleasure. (Places the record on the track and in a few seconds we hear the opening, “Departure.”)

ARC: (Sigh.) After Days of Future Passed, I guess they felt they had to open all their albums with some big ta-da moment. Dad, can you stop it for a minute? (Silence.) Most of these ta-das involve Graeme Edge’s poetry, though I think this was the only one he narrated himself. Whoever’s speaking, this is silly crap. “The sight of a touch, or the scent of a sound” is the most offensive line to me. It’s using a paradox to imply deep wisdom, à la Zen. One hand clapping and all that crap.

Dad: You’ve never seemed like the kind of person to get into koans.

ARC: Why would I want to waste my time meditating on anything, much less a problem with no answer?

Maman: You dismiss it too easily. Different experiences and perspectives are good for the spirit, good for the mind.

ARC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Too slow. Too self-indulgent. And in The Moodies’ case, rather pretentious. I read that part of the reason they split up was that fans started treating them like gods, believing that a touch from Ray Thomas could heal your cancer or your incredible stupidity. Well, whose fucking fault was that? They presented themselves as gurus, especially Edge and Pinder. Okay, Dad, play it again and then let it run into “Ride My See-Saw.” (Listening.) This song kicks ass. The Moodies were very good rockers.

Dad: Justin Hayward doesn’t get enough credit for his guitar attack—always rougher and harder than you’d expect it to be. And Lodge and Edge made a great pair.

ARC: This is a John Lodge composition, and in many ways he was the least dreamy of the bunch. I’ve read references to it as a drug song and I think that’s crap. It’s obviously about the ups-and-downs of modern existence; the theme is very similar to the one in “Peak Hour.” Instead of using the boring old metaphor of the rat race, he uses the see-saw, which not only describes the ups-and-downs but also a very bumpy ride. I think this is closer to the real experience of modern life: it feels more like you’re getting jerked around all the time than running an endless race.

Ride, ride my see-saw
Take this place on this trip just for me
Ride, take a free ride
Take my place, have my seat, it’s for free

I worked like a slave for years
Sweat so hard just to end my fears
Not to end my life a poor man
But by now, I know I should have run

ARC: I so relate to that line: “But by now, I know I should have run.” I never should have gotten into business. I should have run, run, run, run away. Dad? (I make an up-gesture with my finger to indicate he should lift the needle.) “Take my place, have my seat, it’s for free” is something I’d do in a New York minute if someone wanted my job and I could get out of it without having to go into bankruptcy.

Maman: I hate to say I told you so . . .

(ARC and Dad both laugh.)

ARC: Maman, you live for those moments! Okay, you were right, you’re forever right, you’re eternally right! (Stands up, raises arms and bows in humility.)

Maman: (Laughing.) It would save you trouble if you would realize that in the first place!

ARC: But then I wouldn’t learn anything. We learn from mistakes.

Maman: Yes, but remember when I stopped you from jumping down on the Muni tracks when you wanted to see if the train was coming? That would have been your last mistake. Sometimes it pays to listen to your mother.

ARC: Speaking of brave and intrepid explorers (Signals to Dad to play the next song.), we have “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume” next. Except for John Lodge’s bass and Justin Hayward’s brief solo, this is a nothing song. “We’re all looking for someone” hardly explains Livingstone, Cook and Columbus. And the vocals on the fade sound like they’re trying too hard to make a child’s song rock. Absurd.

Dad: Doesn’t float my boat.

Maman: Eh. (Shrugs.)

ARC: And now we arrive at “The House of Four Doors,” a piece that would certainly land on my “Songs with Worst Sound Effects” list. I’ve always found it fascinating when a songwriter can have a clearly brilliant song—“Ride My See-Saw”—and lay a turd on the same album. Maybe it was the acid they were taking at the time. Put it on, Dad. (Music begins.) The Mellotron sounds like something from a cheap haunted house ride. Shitty personification—“Mystery spread its cloak across the sky.” Now they rip off Bach, with slight modifications, and Lodge tightens his jockstrap to hit the high notes. This song is shit even before the doors start creaking . . . oh, there’s the first.

Dad: Pretty embarrassing. Nique?

Maman: (Sighs.) They had a strong concept but not the ability to translate it into art. Very disappointing. The doors supposedly represent the development of music over the ages, but they did better with this concept in the opening passage of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. Here is seems childish, pedagogic—and bad pedagogy at that.

ARC: But it leads to “Legend of a Mind,” so I guess that’s worth something. Tell me about Timothy Leary.

Dad: One weird fucking dude.

Maman: I never trusted that perpetual smile.

Dad: A huckster from the get-go, totally into self-promotion. I could never figure out what the fuck he was saying.

Maman: He published some silly philosophy about seven or eight paths to consciousness. Circuits, I think he called them. Repackaging chakras or the eightfold path. Silly.

ARC: The “Timothy Leary’s dead” line probably refers to the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, John Lennon’s source for “Tomorrow Never Knows.” I assume that because he hadn’t started his prison stretch with the exciting escape yet.

Dad: Maybe, but I always thought it was their realization that the guy was “on the outside looking in” and had lost guru status.

ARC: The song doesn’t make much of a point. It seems to hint at the shallowness of the drug experience but nothing explicit.

Dad: Anti-drug songs made you uncool, so I doubt that Ray Thomas wanted to go there.

Maman: I like it that way: ambiguous. I think it reflects the time. There was ambivalence about drugs; not as much as later when musicians started dying from overuse.

ARC: On the other hand, “House of Four Doors” (Part 2) is explicit. Badly written, but explicit: “Walking thru that door/Outside we came/Nowhere at all/Perhaps the answer’s here/Not there anymore.” The message is muddled, though, because if the four doors were different forms of music and the last door led to rock ‘n’ roll, then are they saying that rock is “nowhere at all?”

Dad: Maybe, but a lot of times The Moody Blues didn’t know what the fuck they were saying.

Maman: They were not the most talented lyricists, I will admit. Again, their ideas were greater than their execution. We haven’t talked about the flute solo on “Legend of the Mind,” and I think it is deserving of attention.

Dad: One of Ray’s better efforts. No doubt about it.

ARC: Can you turn it over, Dad? Ah, that’s better. A pastoral flute, a pretty melody, Justin Hayward’s voice and a remarkably coherent set of lyrics. Love the flute-bass duet. “Voices in the Sky” is probably my favorite on this album.

Maman: It is a lovely song. Excellent dynamics.

ARC: Even Lodge’s falsetto is pleasant; more restrained.

ARC: Here comes Pinder with “The Best Way to Travel.” This is one of his better pieces, at least from a musical perspective. Graeme Edge really kicks this one into gear. I do have a few problems with it.

Dad: The mellotron interludes are boring.

ARC: That’s one. Another is the constant “it’s all a dream” message. They repeat it again and again here and on Threshold of a Dream. Their sub-label was Deram records. Dream, dream, dream.

Maman: What is your problem with that?

ARC: It’s an escapist message. Life is a dream, so nothing really matters except the shit you can make up in your head. Anyone can deny reality by dismissing it as a dream.

Dad: I have to agree.

Maman: I think you are both too scientific and unimaginative. Have neither of you ever had the experience that life feels like a dream? That it seems unreal, out of focus, désynchronisée? You take things too literally.

ARC: Maybe so, but I think my point is that the metaphor doesn’t do dick for me.

Dad: Me neither.

Maman: How did I wind up with such a pair of pedestrian thinkers without imagination?

Dad: My smiling Irish eyes for one.

ARC: Forgetting to wear a rubber for two!

Maman: (Laughing.) He did not forget. I told him to put one on but he gave me such a frisson that I let it go.

ARC: Ha! You were both culpable! What did he do?

Maman: I do not share my sex life with the public like you do.

ARC: I’m not public, I’m your daughter! Come on, let’s hear it! I’ll turn off Garage Band.

(At this point, my dad let me in on the secret and my mother threw a pillow at him. I don’t think he got any that night.)

ARC: Well, now that one mystery is cleared up, let’s move on to a pair of Justin Hayward vocals: “Visions of Paradise” and “The Actor.” Dad? (Music begins.) “Visions” is okay, but I would have preferred something other than flute here, so soon after “Voices in the Sky.” Real strings perhaps—not the Mellotron. Maybe more space to the acoustic guitar. And you know how I feel about the sitar.

Maman: It is well-recorded.

Dad: I don’t think this is one of Justin’s best. Too frilly. It was one of his collaborations with Ray Thomas, and those songs never worked for me.

ARC: Well, let’s see what you think of “The Actor.” This song doesn’t fit with the theme of spiritual journeys. It really belongs with Threshold of a Dream; there are several romantic numbers on that album. I do like the song, though. The lyrics are more complex, more interesting. And Justin’s vocal is simply wonderful.

Maman: It is an amazing song. The contrasting experiences of the two characters in the last verses describe the power of the protective façade that keeps us from taking risks in love. Note how he describes himself in first and third person; first person as he describes his experience, third person as he describes her experience: as if the person he presents to her is another person entirely.

It’s such a rainy afternoon,
No point in going anywhere.
The sounds just drift across my room,
I wish this feeling I could share.

It’s such a rainy afternoon,
She sits and gazes from her window.
Her mind tries to recall his face,
A feeling deep inside her grows.

ARC: Ah, I missed that! Very perceptive, maman!

Dad: I married a wonderful woman.

Maman: I still do not forgive you. (Throws another pillow at him.)

ARC: It would have been nice to end the album here, even if the song isn’t a fit. Unfortunately Graeme Edge has another fucking poem for us. A fucking nonsensical piece of space age new age spiritual crapola, leading into the excruciatingly boring “Om.”

Maman: I do not agree. I do think the poetry is poor, but I will argue that “Om” has value. You have heard the phrase, “good vibes,” chère fille?

ARC: Of course.

Maman: And you know that all musical tones are vibrations?

ARC: Yes, yes.

Maman: And those vibrations fill you with pleasure, with tranquility, with a feeling of completion, do they not?

ARC: Yes, they do, but they also make me move and want to dance. Anyway, I’d rather use a real vibrator than slip into the lotus position.

Maman: Do not change the subject! Om is the source, the vibration at the heart of life. Given your love of vibration—musical or sexual—have you no deeper curiosity—no desire to experience the most elemental vibration?

ARC: No, not really. Sorry, maman! I have never been able to meditate like you or dad and I have absolutely no desire to do so. I know when I’m in my zone and I know what it takes to get me there.

Maman: Ah, yes, the holy trilogy of sex, music and baseball.

ARC: That’s my religion! Hey dad, isn’t there a game on?

Dad: There’s always a game on MLB.TV! I think there’s a Tigers-Orioles game, the Reds and the Mets and uh, a Cubs-Phils matchup.

ARC: Let’s go meditate on the Philadelphia Phillies!

Dad: So you’re developing a fetish for older men?

ARC: I’ve always liked older men, but that’s beside the point. I haven’t seen the Phillies this year. Or the Cubs.

Dad: Let’s go! Nique?

Maman: Yes, yes . . . but I think I’ll meditate first. You two piss me off sometimes.

ARC: And that’s why you love us so much. (I give her a hard kiss on her cheek.)

Maman: (Laughs.) Yes, I have to admit it is part of the attraction.

One response

  1. […] Latest Classic Music Review: In Search of the Lost Chord by The Moody Blues […]

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