One of the major concerns I have with popular music in the past few decades, and with rock music in particular (I have many concerns, but I’ll concentrate on just one here), is that no one really writes beautiful songs anymore. No performers seem to be able to rise above the particular rock genre title they have been indelibly stamped with for purposes of record industry marketing and demographic data, and pen a piece that is graceful and elegantly rendered. There is so very little variation (let alone differentiation). It is as if everything musical has been covered with quickset cement. Rock indeed!
Rock music used to thrive on invention and variability, mixing the heavy with the heavenly, the hard edges and the soft corners, the ethereal light and the impenetrable dark, so that everything didn’t drone on with such annoying rigidity. When was the last time you heard a genuinely beautiful song? If you’ve heard one recently, chances are it wasn’t penned in the last twenty or maybe even thirty years. It seems we’ve lost the art of artfulness.
In prior generations of rock performers, The Beatles composed exquisite pop tunes with supernatural regularity, and Simon & Garfunkel made a career of crafting elegant compositions. Traffic, Yes, Genesis, Jethro Tull, and even rock deities like The Who, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin — bands who had their greatest triumphs in the 60’s and 70’s — had the compositional skills to offer songs that really rocked, others that were full of epic grandeur, and still others that were, for want of a better word, beautiful. But there is very little contrast in current rock music, and even less innovation and variation. I suppose that once you’ve been put through the Walmartian musical meat-grinder, there is only Spam — or whatever meat substitute passes for popular music these days. Once you been barcoded and scanned, you must not break the mold.
This is why there will never be another Days of Future Passed. Beauty, it would seem, is fast shuffling of this mortal coil. In this incredibly shrinking world of Twitter, Blackberry, and faceless friendships on Facebook, there is little time to stop and smell the roses, because many of us haven’t ventured outside the environs of the Internet since last April. Even what is sold as music currently is conveniently sequenced into repetitive digital sound-bytes – white noise on purple iPods – that leaves little room for considering the distinctive production and compositional prowess required to develop conceptual music in an album format. Why bother with an album when one can purchase greatest hits at .99 cents a download from Amazon or iTunes? If you have the time between tweets, chirps, and other fowl noises, I shall endeavor to explain it to you.
Days of Future Passed (1967) is a musical treasure and an essential album for anyone who does not live in a cave and scratch his/her private parts in public. This is an album that bridges generations and spans genres; in fact, the longtime (and decidedly conservative) classical musical critic of the Detroit Free Press, the late John Guinn, said simply that Days of Future Passed was an album he “cherished”. That speaks volumes for the reach of this album. The Moody Blues advanced the “progressive rock” genre before anyone coined such a term, and the album was quite beyond anything recorded on the rock scene in the 1960s and has never been duplicated since. The Beatles and Procol Harum teased their fans with string arrangements and bits of Bach, The Who wrote rock pseudo-operas, and Frank Zappa toyed with symphonic compositions, but there had never before been a rock group completely integrated with an orchestra for an entire album.
Originally conceived by the Decca label as a means to trumpet the new stereophonic sound and advanced recording techniques of its Deram division, The Moody Blues were to have gone in studio with an orchestra to provide a rock version of Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (better known as the New World Symphony). Supposedly, the band had other ideas and, without the label’s knowledge, based the entire album on the concept of a day in the life of an individual, an “everyman”. Whether or not this is true is up for conjecture; but this is the stuff of rock legend, so why mess with it?
Sonorous and seductive, naïve but nuanced, playful yet profound — Days of Future Passed succeeds on many levels as a means of aural gratification, particularly because it is hauntingly, even achingly beautiful in spots. I would suggest that the enchanting “Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)” and the epic ode to luxury bed sheets “Nights in White Satin” are two of the greatest love songs ever written. Also of note is the stirring poem “Morning Glory”, followed by the exquisite “Dawn is a Feeling” (great with coffee on the patio on a summer morning), the majestic “The Sunset”, and “Twilight Time” with its memorable lines “A nightingale plays a dark mellow phrase/Of notes that are rich and so true/An aerial display by the firefly brigade/Dancing to tunes no one knew.”
From a compositional perspective, the songwriting responsibilities for the album were divided evenly between the various members of the Moodys: Justin Hayward (“Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin”), Mike Pinder (“Dawn is a Feeling” and “The Sunset”), John Lodge (“Peak Hour” and “Evening Time to Get Away”), Ray Thomas (“Another Morning” and “Twilight Time”), and even drummer Graeme Edge got to lend a hand (having penned the poems “Morning Glory” and “Late Lament”).
Just as importantly, the use of the London Festival Orchestra (conducted by Peter Knight, who also composed the orchestral themes for the album) is an integral part of the album as a whole, rather than an afterthought simply to give a rock band a classical flair. The orchestra and the band have separate musical themes as the album progresses, sections that both reflect and enhance the other (with Mike Pinder’s innovative use of the mellotron amply filling in for the symphonic strings during the Moody’s sequences), and only during “Night in White Satin” do the two slowly intertwine, meeting in full at last for a magnificent crescendo as the song reaches its climax. The dark and melancholy poem “Late Lament” is also a memorable moment in rock history, and an appropriate ending for a day in the life as written by the Moody Blues: “…Cold hearted orb that rules the night/Removes the colours from our sight/Red is gray and yellow white/But we decide which is right/And which is an illusion?”
No sir, they just don’t make ‘em like that no more. More’s the pity.Powered by Sidelines