By Andy Argyrakis
When it comes to rock’s all-time landmark albums, The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed holds so many distinctions that it’s still being dissected, celebrated, and now performed for the very first time in its entirety 50 years later on a summer tour that swings through Ravinia on June 30. At face value, the iconic collection is stacked with the era-defining smashes “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon,” though it’s also became an archetype for the idea of a concept album. And perhaps equally amazing was the fact this masterpiece was recorded in a ridiculously short amount of time at the request of the band’s record label, Decca, a mostly classical company that, believe it or not, wanted the ever-evolving Moodies to simply provide a test “stereo recording” (which was brand-new in the musical marketplace).
“They did a series of albums and they wanted to show the versatility [of stereo], so you had violins, string quartets, a marching band, an Irish orchestra, and for us, they wanted to show that they were capable of both rock and roll and a symphony orchestra,” recalls cofounding drummer and sometime songwriter Graeme Edge by phone, prior to the return to his frequent Highland Park hang-out with fellow classic-era Moodies Justin Hayward and John Lodge. “They actually wanted us to record Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony. We said no. They said, ‘You’ve got 10 days in the studio to do it, and we recorded Days of Future Passed in 10 days in between gigs! We didn’t sleep in those days! I’ve often said we had no idea it was even possible to do, so we just went ahead and did it.”
While the feat of merely finishing the project under such duress is unquestionably impressive, its ability to hold up among the most admired records of all time in the annals of symphonic/progressive/psychedelic/art rock is truly astounding. Then again, The Moody Blues circa 1967 were in the midst of a major artistic evolution, transitioning from their R&B beginnings (when future Wings member Denny Laine sang singles such as “Go Now” and the group opened for the mop-topped Beatles on their final English tour) to an experimental lineup featuring Edge, vocalist/guitarist Hayward, bassist/vocalist Lodge, Mellotron/piano/keyboard player Mike Pinder, plus Ray Thomas on flute, vocals, and additional percussion.
“Denny Laine was a complete rocker and Justin came from more of a folk music structure,” notes Edge. “When we came to do Days of Future Passed, we had a much more folky sound—not so much country rock, but an English countryside kind of rock and roll that was much gentler. When we were doing The Magnificent Moodies [in 1965], we were singing about ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and picking barrels of cotton and all sorts of things we had no right to be singing about. When we got to Days, at least we sung about things we had some understanding of. Although, I’m not sure if anyone understands love or women, but at least we were trying!
“Just before the opportunity to work with the orchestra for Days came up, we got an instrument called the Mellotron,” Edge recalls. “Mike Pinder worked at factory where that was made and was part of the research and development team. The Mellotron was originally built as a sound effects machine for the BBC, which would do [foley] effects like somebody walking on gravel, a car door slamming, footsteps on a hollow floor, footsteps on concrete, and all those sorts of things. He was the one who recorded violins, brass, flutes, cellos, the playback effects, and those orchestral sounds. So we were well on the way towards expanding as ‘symphonic’ in a broad meaning of the word, just not with an actual symphony. But that symphonic sound we were experimenting with later became our hallmark.”
Though The Moody Blues were clearly ahead of the curve when it came to such exciting sonic developments, the idea of stringing all the songs together on Days of Future Passed with segues (as opposed to the standard dead space that would usually signal a transition to the next track) didn’t come by any grand design. Ironically, it may have never happened in the first place had most of the group members been a bit more outgoing and conversational in those developmental days.
“None of us were very good with announcements or having to say, ‘Hi, is anyone here from Cleveland?’ [between songs],” the beat keeper remembers. “We weren’t good at that kind of craft, so we were experimenting with doing one song and letting it flow into another song and basically that’s what we do with the album.”
Nowadays, casual listeners may also take for granted the mashup of the symphonic sound with poetic spoken word on the Edge-penned “Morning Glory” and “Late Lament” that bookend the record, but at the time, the idea of a shared narrative thread between tunes—in this case, about the many different portions and time periods of a person’s typical day—was also completely novel.
“I actually wrote ‘Morning Glory’ as a song, although, being musicians, we didn’t really know much about mornings because we didn’t have much to do with them, so the beginning of the album was a little white lie,” Edge intimates with a laugh. “When I put it to the rest of the guys, they said, ‘Fantastic, but there’s no way you can make that into a lyric. There are just too many words.’ You can’t play a song and have that many words unless it’s one of those ‘shopping list’ songs or maybe one of the shorter songs like Chuck Berry [would do]. But [producer] Tony Clarke said, ‘Let’s just make a poem,’ and we put some sweeps and some nice things in the background. Mike Pender had the best-working gravelly voice among us [to narrate], it was poetic, and completely by accident we turned that into an innovative rock piece. When I put it at the beginning, I thought, ‘I have to write one for the end as well.’ ”
Speaking of happy accidents, “Nights in White Satin” might not have become the classic it is today had it not been for a random radio personality looking for a lengthy break to get high (with the single clocking in at 4:26, edited down from the 7:38 album version). “In those days, there were DJs in every town, and they could affect the [playlists] before it was all driven by the computers,” explains Edge. “I was doing an interview like this back then with a DJ who worked the graveyard shift from midnight to 4 a.m. and he said, ‘I just went down the playlist to see what was the longest song I put it on, and I went outside to smoke my bong.’ [It caught on,] and that was it! That’s what got us to the exalted position we’re in now!”
As unintentional as that all sounds, Days of Future Passed is definitely deserving of such praise given its durability and innovation, a track record that even the sometimes self-deprecating Edge can objectively accept. The Moody who’s been there since the very beginning carefully considers where it fits on the plane of concept albums, rock operas, and early progressive rock, tracing a link to the former, while being less inclined to lock in with the latter.
“This was at least a prototype regarding the album as an entity and [being something more than] just a collection of singles or b-sides,” assesses Edge. “I don’t know if it was so much as a rock opera, but certainly regarding the album as an organic thing in its entirety where the songs had a relevance to each other. [As for progressive rock], I have absolutely no idea. It’s just the Moodies’ music. We’ve been progressive, we’ve been glam, we’ve been underground, we’ve been almost anything you can name. But actually, I’m not sure whether we’re even rock and roll because we’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s been so long now and our fans get outraged every time that I think it would probably be detrimental to our career [if we got inducted]. All our fans really enjoy slagging them off after all these years. Journey and some prog rock groups are in there now, but not the Moodies, although I’m not sure if we’re prog rock, or if I’m even sure what prog rock is.”
Exact definitions aside, The Moody Blues’ follow-ups throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s more than speak for themselves thanks to a stable of additional radio regulars, including “Ride My See Saw,” “The Story in Your Eyes,” “Isn’t Life Strange,” “Question,” “I’m Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band),” “Your Wildest Dreams,” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere,” all of which contributed to career album sales that now exceed a staggering 70 million. In fact, many of those selections will be on display (alongside a handful of surprises) during a second set following the epic Days of Future Passed presentation that has Edge raring to return.
“Ravinia is always one of my favorite gigs,” he confirms. “We’ve always had a good time in Chicago. We’ve done a lot of what we call the ‘sheds,’ and basically you can’t see that much when the lights are in your eyes, but you can hear [the crowd], and that is really gratifying!”
While it’s sure to make for an entertaining and engaging evening, Edge also hopes it gives fans the chance to hear the unifying message behind Days of Future Passed, which in these increasingly divided times, may be exactly what the nation needs. “That was the Summer of Love, [with the slogans] ‘make love not war,’ ‘live and let live,’ and ‘peace,’ ” adds Edge. “That was all the message we were trying to get to, and it’s as relevant these days as ever. People are so divided at the moment here in America that I find it almost frightening. And nobody can seem to understand that even with people you disagree with politically, they agree with about 80 or 90 percent of what you believe in, too! They get all down into the weeds on the 10 percent you disagree with that they forget about all the things you do agree on!”
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based writer/photographer whose credits include the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Daily Journal, Illinois Entertainer, Hear/Say Now, Concert Livewire, Chicago Now, Redeye, Metromix, Paste, Downbeat, Spin.com, MTV.com, Fuse TV, UP TV, Pollstar, and Celebrity Access, among many others. He also is the founder and content curator for ChicagoConcertReviews.com.