Classic Music Review: On the Threshold of a Dream by The Moody Blues

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One of their better efforts. Click to buy.

Morning in Nice. Maman and I just returned from a morning walk to a boulangerie for croissants, juice, espresso and morning cigarettes. I go into the living room, turn on Garage Band to record the conversation and place the record on the turntable. This first passage is translated from French.

ARC: Dad’s still asleep?

Maman: He’s been sleeping more since we moved here. At first I thought it might be a sign of depression, but he is friskier than ever and is always active when he is awake. He says he has years of dreams to catch up on.

ARC: How are his French lessons going?

Maman: His accent is still terrible and he continues to mangle vowels, but he is getting better and he practices very hard. He still has problems with numbers, so I will not allow him to go shopping without me. His reading skills have always been good, and he reads Nice-Matin every morning—or afternoon, depending on when he wakes up. I thought he would want to read the Chronicle online but he rarely does that.

ARC: I think he realizes that the San Francisco he knew is gone.

Maman: Yes, I think so, too. He has his baseball subscription, but other than that, he really doesn’t miss home all that much.

ARC: Good for him! (Switch to English.) Shall we begin?

Maman: Yes. This is my favorite of them all.

ARC: You know, I have to admit that the more I heard it, the more I appreciated it. Hate the way it ends, but they seem to be playing with more energy on this one. And as much as Moody fans would like to believe otherwise, this is not a concept album, according to Justin Hayward. (Checking notes.) “It was a lovely title, but what does it mean?  It’s rather vague, probably something to do with enlightenment and the search for it.  Further than that, I can’t say that there’s a story.” I think that not having a concept gave them the freedom to write what they wanted, and that released some latent energy. They really rock in spots.

Maman: Let’s just listen to the opening sequence without talking.

ARC: That would be great. (Maman places the needle gently on the vinyl and sits cross-legged on the floor while we listen.)

Maman: (Once the passage has finished.) That is so exhilarating!

ARC: I completely agree. This is a killer opener. I mean, everything is so well-sequenced: the ethereal introduction, the cut to the Cartesian message of doubt, the processed voice of the evil computer, the human protest, the reassurance and then goddamn, does “Lovely to See You Again” explode out of the gate or what?

Maman: (Laughs). Let’s play it again!

ARC (Listening): Right there—how Justin’s riff connects with the Graeme Edge’s hi-hat attack . . . the skip beat right before the chorus . . . this just knocks me on my ass every time.

Maman: The joy in their voices.

ARC: Yes. Sometimes the four-part harmonies weren’t as clear as they could have been, but here you can hear the blending much better. Love the unexpected chord changes in the bridge . . . damn, I hate it when this song ends. Can you pick up the needle for a minute? (Music stops on the fade.) I was thinking about this sequence a lot on the train ride. As you know, often the Moodies’ messages don’t resonate with me—all that new age stuff. I know that they didn’t really call it “new age” until the 70’s but you know what I mean. But here they’re talking about something that is entirely relevant today.

Maman: The meaning of identity in a computerized world?

ARC: Yes, but also the implications of a computerized world and the power it gives to governments and corporations to control and manipulate our choices. We may not be “magnetic ink,” but in a sense we have been reduced to bits and bytes of big data that form patterns of identities, and big decisions are made on the basis of those patterns. The individual no longer seems to matter, and that is frightening. How can you have a democracy where individuals are not valued? That value conflict alone makes the entire democratic process an exercise in hypocrisy. Snowden may be an attention-seeking asshole, but the stuff he has uncovered is terribly Orwellian.

Maman: Yes, I found the revelations most disturbing. Ah, yes, that reminds me: there is a new biography of the Dulles brothers that you will find very instructive. If you want to know why America is feared more than loved today, you will find the origins in their story. And I’m afraid President Obama is complicit in the continuing crime. Very disappointing.

ARC: I never liked Obama as much as you and dad did. I always thought he was pure air.

Maman: I think we were seduced by the symbolism: a black man becoming president was an unthinkable possibility when we were young.

ARC: Sorry that didn’t work out. At least he’s not a homophobe! But back to the point—even though I hate that silly rhyme, “face piles of trials with smiles,” the last line is where there may be some hope: “It riles them to believe that you perceive the web they weave.” You have been paying attention to les municipales, I suppose.

Maman: Bien sûr.

ARC: Everyone’s pissing and moaning about Marine LePen, calling her a fascist and all. And yes, she has those tendencies, and a racism problem as well. But the people who are calling her a fascist are the same people who vote for the PES in the EU parliament—the people who restrict our freedom of choice every day in the name of what’s good for us, whether it’s new smoking restrictions or environmental rules or ridiculous requirements about the shape of cucumbers. I’m sorry, but both seem to be authoritarian philosophies by different names. We give the Socialists power to protect us from ourselves, but who protects us from the government?

Maman: A good question.

ARC: And there is no answer. But what struck me in listening to this sequence is the juxtaposition of depersonalization with the simple rituals of everyday life: it’s structured like you’re waking up from a bad dream and when you go outside, it’s “lovely to see you again my friend.” The pleasure of human contact, the reaffirmation of friendship, the acceptance of another, the sharing of experience. That’s what really matters.

Maman: May I remind you that you rejected the notion that the simple things matter when we discussed Days of Future Passed?

ARC: Yes, you may, and what I would say is that Days of Future Passed is missing the villain in the story. There’s no Iago to provide contrast. Here there is, and I think that’s what makes this passage so powerful—to say nothing of the music. Does that make sense?

Maman: Yes, I understand. I think that for us—back then—the villain was always assumed, whether it was The Establishment or our parents or the war makers. Things were not so clear for your generation.

ARC: Which explains why we’re a muddled mess. Shall we move on?

Maman: Of course. (Starts “Dear Diary”.) A perfect mood piece.

ARC: The idiot on Wikipedia interpreted this through the concept of Maya, but what I hear are the words of a lonely introvert, a shut-in like the character in “Waterloo Sunset.” This is clearly not a person with a philosophical background. His diary is full of trivia.

Maman: The mood is unusually dark for them; the music echoes the terrible loneliness, the dreariness of isolation.

ARC: The helplessness. All he can do is look out the window and express his bitterness at the crowd as it passes by.

Maman: Very nice technique on the flute solo.

ARC: High words of praise from the flute queen! Love that fade-out line, “Somebody exploded an H-bomb today but it wasn’t anybody I knew.” If there is a theme to this album it’s connection-disconnection, not fucking dreams.

Maman: (As “Send Me No Wine” begins.) I love this song. Again, the joy in their voices.

ARC: The guitar riff is positively exuberant. And the harmonies are so clear! I love it when Justin takes off and extends the line; he has such a fabulous voice. (“To Share Our Love” begins.) Oh, well, nothing’s perfect. This could have been a hot song if they’d let anyone but Pinder sing it. He simply doesn’t have the voice for a belt-it-out song.

Maman: I agree. His voice is a better fit for the gloomier songs like “Melancholy Man.”

ARC: But that guitar riff and drum combination kicks serious ass. I’d love an instrumental-only version. (The music fades to “So Deep Within You.”) Now here’s an even worse mistake. Mike Pinder trying to sing hot and horny. His vocals have all the sex appeal of a nerd jacking off to phone sex.

Maman: What a horrid image!

ARC: It’s a horrid song. Can we skip it? I’ve listened to it three times already and it gets worse every time. (Maman sighs, lifts the needle and turns the record over.)

ARC: (The quiet guitar opening of “Never Comes the Day” is heard in the background.) Oh, my. This is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Maman, can you pick up the needle again? I have something I have to note here. (Maman sighs again, but picks up the needle.) Mille mercies. I was stunned that this bombed as a single until I learned that the dipshits at Decca cut a full two minutes out of the song. Ridiculous! The Beatles had already expanded the limits of the single, and this song is all about dynamics, the movement from soft to loud and back and around again. I have to add my signature word of displeasure here.

Maman: And what is that?

ARC: Harrumph!

Maman: (Laughing.) I wish people could hear your deep banker’s voice!

ARC: (Laughing.) I’m sorry. I’ve broken the mood. Let’s hit the restart button and make some coffee. (Recording paused.)

Maman: Ready?

ARC: Yes. (“Never Comes the Day” begins again.) Let’s just listen, then pause. (The song plays in the background.)

ARC: I love poetic economy. In the first verse, Hayward describes the two greatest obstacles to what we really want: love. The meaningless drudgery of the workday and the fear of vulnerability.

Maman: The low humming in the background is very effective.

ARC: Indeed. The build up is also remarkable. The guitar-mellotron passage gives the listener the experience of floating, and it flows so naturally into the intensity of the chorus. As soon as you hear that first handclap, you want to get up out of your seat.

Maman: Positively joyous. The harmonica was another brilliant addition.

ARC: And Justin’s guitar riffs. “Admit what you’re feeling and see what’s in front of you—it’s never out of your sight.” I love that line. It’s so easy, so hard. That fear of vulnerability is so powerful . . .

ARC: Okay, let’s move on. (Maman plays “Lazy Day.”) Ray must have been in a melancholy mood during this period. Both his pieces are sad slices of life. This really is an anti-workplace album, isn’t it?

Maman: More along the lines of the regimentation of time rather than the experience of the workplace itself. The drudgery, as you call it, is implied. What is important here is how the regimentation extends itself into the home: beef one week, lamb the next.

ARC: The Moodies must have lost many a vegetarian follower with this song. (Sigh.) I hate Sundays. Every Sunday evening I get that knot in the pit of my stomach when I realize, “Shit, I have to go to work tomorrow.”

Maman: And thirteen months left on your contract?

ARC: Fuck! Thirteen months!

Maman: Well, it did allow you to come to France.

ARC: I know, but you also know that I am a restless little bitch. I hate feeling limits.

Maman: Do you hear the call-and-response pattern? “It’s such a crying shame.”

ARC: Yes. Ray plays the harp like he plays the flute: very intentional, very precise.

Maman: Agreed. It is his greatest strength and his greatest limitation.

ARC: (As the song fades into “Are You Sitting Comfortably?”) Well, we’ve finally come to the Justin Hayward song I can’t stand. Another co-composition with Ray. This one drives me bonkers.

Maman: (Laughs.) Why?

ARC: The idealization of Camelot. It’s worse than JFK. Come on. King Arthur and his court were active in the 5th or 6th centuries, A. D. Idealizing a period in history where people had rotten teeth, bad breath, reeking body order, ate with their hands and pissed and shat in the open is fucking offensive. Guinevere probably spat, drooled and farted with the rest of the Round Table. Disgusting. Silly song.

Maman: I will admit it is a bit . . . cloying.

ARC: (As “The Dream” is heard in the background.) I’d love to find the teacher that told the young Graeme Edge that he had promise as a poet and have him or her drawn and quartered. This is a Sunday Jumble puzzle of nonsense lyrics.

Maman: (Sighs.) Rimbaud it is not.

ARC: And it’s followed by six minutes of valuable recording time pissed away on one of Pinder’s ponderings. Mellotron Mike. Boring us to death with a Mellotron demo because he’d run out of ideas. The Wikipedia guy says Pinder was influenced by Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. 

Maman: Really? It seems to incorporate several influences: Bach, Haydn, Liszt, maybe a touch of Schubert, but hardly Strauss. I will admit, it is very bad. A melange of disconnected themes. But I think the whole is still very satisfying.

ARC: I’ve had this happen a few times lately. A great album falls flat at the finish line. Oh, well. Wanna play “Lovely to See You Again” one more time?

Maman: Yes! Let’s play it loud and wake up your father!

(After the song ended I told my mother we would have to wait to review the last three Moodies albums because I needed a break. She gave me the evil eye, lowered her voice and said “Harrumph!” Actually, it sounded more like “Ha-umph” as the French “r” is swallowed, not articulated. We’ll get together in next month and do A Question of Balance, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and Seventh Sojourn.)

2 responses

  1. “Who protects us from the government….”ARC

    Always difficult to parse out the culture and politics from the music.
    The three MB reviews reveal a bit of that foundation .

    Perhaps the MB were a subset of what the corporate powers that be found
    In their interest to promote .

    Decca records….may have been the home to the MB …
    However Decca’s big gun…not jazz artists like Louis Armstrong..
    That was simply another subset…
    # 1 …..Bing Crosby ..White Christmas was the money maker…
    And cultural focus …
    Decca Records = MCA= Vivandi
    Everyone has to work for someone

    ARC parents have that silly shaman Timothy Leary down spot on.
    Mr Leary may have run around with the Chicago 7.
    More to the point he taught both at Harvard and West Point …
    Two schools on the government trough ….

    I enjoyed the reviews , think maman adds a good deal to the mix
    Simply think the MB were good business at that time to hook onto.

    Like

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