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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:

  • Most of the recording sessions involved two people: Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood. From that perspective alone, I can understand why Bev might have felt detached from the end product, but the real crime of Message from the Country is that Bev’s drumming, so prominent on Shazam, seems to disappear too often in the Lynne-Wood mix (though he still has some fine moments). I can only chalk that up to temporary criminal insanity: there’s no other explanation for failing to take full advantage of the talents of one of the greatest drummers in rock history.
  • The recording quality of Message from the Country is relatively poor. It’s not as bad as Looking On, but the relative lack of bottom reduces the power and impact of many of the tracks. Some may link the missing low-end to the fact that Rick Price had packed up his bass and left the band somewhere in the middle of the process, but it’s more a matter of poor engineering and production than technique. There’s simply too much high EQ on the bass parts, robbing the low end of any deep resonance.
  • Roy Wood does not play to his strengths on Message from the Country. Roy Wood is a great melodist and less-than-satisfactory rock ‘n’ roll singer, and all but one of his lead vocals here are on rock numbers. His voice is too reedy and lacks the oomph on the high end that great rock singers like Little Richard and McCartney display in abundance. His vocal style is much more suited to melodic pop-rock, as clearly demonstrated on the beautiful melodies that make up the best part of Boulders. I’ll go further and say that the reason Roy Wood is rarely mentioned as one of the all-time masters of the genre had to do with his inability to translate his diverse talents into something coherent. He seemed more of a musical butterfly, flitting from one style to the next without having the patience to explore any of them in depth. In the year following Message from the Country, he would abandon his vision to merge classical and rock, leave The Electric Light Orchestra and launch the glam-rock group Wizzard. While I admire his willingness to explore new possibilities in music, he would have had a much greater impact had he learned to balance diversity with discipline.
  • The best songs on Message from the Country are Jeff Lynne compositions, a good news/bad news kind of thing. I’ve always thought of Jeff Lynne as McCartney Lite, with a good feel for pleasant melodies and even less talent for lyrics than even the post-Beatle manifestation of Sir Paul. When Jeff Lynne tried to go deep and give his lyrics some meaning on ELO 2, the results were less than satisfactory (and resulted in some very, very long songs instead of the poetic economy of “Eleanor Rigby”). The lyrics on his Message from the Country efforts are classic Jeff Lynne: pleasant-sounding combinations of vowels and consonants that hint at significance but largely fall short.

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.

“Until Your Mama’s Gone” opens what used to be called side two with some very nifty down-home acoustic picking from Roy Wood. As I’ve already mentioned that I’m not a fan of Roy Wood, rock singer, I’ll compliment the guitar and the horns and move on to the next track. This is the almost-coherent “No Time,” a sad and mournful song about a populace waiting for and experiencing either a hurricane, tidal wave or similar aquatic disaster. The theme of the brevity of life focuses on our ever-present belief that we always have more time than will be the case. While Jeff Lynne never wrote a lyrical masterpiece, his best tracks, like “10538 Overture” on the first ELO album, combine both mystery and tantalizing meaning. We don’t know for sure what happened to these people or to the nameless man in the aforementioned piece, but the composer gives us just enough to feel the emotional impact of their experiences. A simply beautiful number with mournful flutes and simple harmonies, “No Time” is a brilliant piece of music-making.

The rest of Message from the Country is a closed book for me. “Ella James” is another hackneyed attempt by Roy Wood to make himself into a rock singer and it flat out doesn’t work for me. “Don’t Mess Me Up” is an Elvis satire that also falls flat, and “My Marge” is a silly piece that they should have destroyed upon completion. Any song that devotes an entire verse to nose-picking is beneath contempt.

My advice: buy Split Ends, download “Ben Crawley Steel Company” and “It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance” and delete “Until Your Mama’s Gone” and “Ella James.” That would have been a great album, but somehow perfection and The Move don’t seem to go together. The endless possibilities, the false starts and the noble failures are part of what make them such a fascinating group to explore and debate.

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