Friday, 5 February 2010
The Moody Blues "On The Threshold Of A Dream" (1969) (Revised Review 2015)
The Moody Blues “On The Threshold Of A Dream” (1969)
I write, to work out what I think, therefore I'm right....I think
So you say while writing away with piles of pages full of trials and smiles uploaded to our great computer where things can be kept static forever with our magnetic ink!
Writing reviews is more than that, I know it is - or at least I hope it might be?
There you go Max The Singing Dog, albums and artists are more than just wheels and cogs, just remember that when you get to review the 1980s Moody Blues albums featuring that keyboards guy from 'Free'...
Oh dear readers, I've had ever such a strange dream! There I was, a single eye and a single ear on a tree being sucked into the vacuum of despair by an alien hoover clutching a rose. And what music my one ear heard too: tales of love, unexploded H bombs and voyages to the unknown that were clearly here to open my one eye to the unknowable: the restrictions that society place upon us as they mould us into shape and try to turn us into unthinking alien vacuum cleaners clutching roses and, erm...Actually what is this album all about?
Though the Moodies often love to keep things vague ('Days Of Future Past' and 'To Our Children's Children's Children's are the only albums of their that you can actually 'follow') the third album of the Justin 'n' John era is more than a little strange. I've known a few Moody fans down the years, all of whom have treasured this album - and yet none of us agree on exactly what it is about. The title and the Graeme Edge poetry (his last until 1999's slab of nostalgia on 'Strange Times') are usually your first point of reference and seem to hint at a theme of 'dreaming'. This would certainly account for the surreal album cover by Phil Travers which makes Salvador Dali look like a painter of chocolate boxes. However none of the actual songs are about 'dreams' at all and even Graeme's poem is more about the esoteric idea of a 'dream' being more like 'paradise' or 'nirvana' (a continuation, perhaps, of the search for the lost chord suggesting the band have now found it). Note though that Graeme's poem suggests we're not actually 'in' a dream at all but on the 'threshold' of one, suggesting we aren't quite there yet. The album's own CD sleevenotes suggest that this album is about the band's 'feeling of being on a major breakthrough' but that surely can't be right either. Few if any of the album's lyrics hark back to this theme (odd given that till now John Lodge for one has set pretty much all his songs around this idea) and, anyway, 'Lost Chord' was surely the moment of the 'breakthrough' after the strong sales of 'Days Of Future Passed' (if anything sales slipped a bit by the sequel). Even amongst the songs themselves, the only link between any of them is the idea of 'love' and that's hardly new to albums by anyone concept or not (though it is a little unusual for the Moodies, with this perhaps the band's most romantic album, although we at the AAA don't hold any responsibility if you end up giving this album to your life partner on our advice and they take umbrage at being compared to an alien vacuum cleaner - although he is after all clutching a rose).
Personally I've always felt the 'key' to the album was in working out what the noise that begins and ends the album is: a dream realm? Heaven? The sub-conscious? Or the whirr of everyday life? It might perhaps be relevant that the album effectively ends on a similar sort of 'revelation' to the sort we got from 'Future Passed' - the idea that life doesn't have to be a dull 9-5 shift of being told what to do but that every human has something unique to offer the world, with Pinder thrilled enough to ask us 'Have You Heard?' It's a sound that leads directly into Graeme's arty opening track where Justin's philosopher gets told to fall in line by Graeme's scary voice (playing the role of the 'establishment' according to the lyric booklet) before Pinder's warm hippie tones tells us to 'keep on thinking free'. In a sense this album isplaying on a 'loop', with the closing sound of high pitched 'atmospheric pressure' originally running into the inner groove in the vinyl days, so that 'you' got to decide when you'd had enough and wanted to turn the record off (how many fans wore out their styluses doing exactly that one wonders?) If you still own the vinyl copy, by the way, you can have hours of fun making the strangest of sounds out of it (try playing the record at 45 rpm or 78 rpm and powering the record player down without lifting the needle so it gradually gets slower - hours of fun, well it was for me anyway. And yes I would get out more, but I'm afraid of seeing an alien vacuum cleaner clutching a rose outside my door). Alas the kill-joys who re-mastered this sound for CD kill off the sound by fading it far too early on both CD editions of the album out so far: boo! However, as far as I can tell only one other song (Ray's other-wordly 'Dear Diary') comes even close to a theme which was more established and more fleshed out on 'Days Of Future Passed' anyway.
So with respect to all the Moody fans I've known down the years who've decided this album is about 'the dream state' or 'the hippie dream' or 'the band dream' or even a dream of the 'Middle Ages' (there is, you see, a song about Merlin and a wizard sketched in the background of the album cover, though the last time I looked the tales of King Arthur's Court failed to mention the alien vacuum cleaner clutching a rose, and I'm sure they would have mentioned it) my take is that for once there isn't a theme on this album at all. This is, rather, the first Moody Blues free for all with Justin and John in the band and as such has perhaps less depth than the other band albums around it but is well placed at allowing each of the band to develop more of their own individual style. Sadly that makes for a rather uneven record. Justin makes good on the promise of the ballads from the last couple of LPs and throws in a Beatley opening that's the catchiest song any of the band have come up with since 'Fly Me High'. John, sadly, seems to have run out of steam with two generic love songs (albeit one strengthened by a truly great band performance) quite unlike the 'freedom' songs of the past two records (is he getting sick of the band already?) Ray, oddly, is at his sulkiest and most depressed, although both his songs on the album make for a logical step forward in his writing about 'individuals' who intrigue him to writing about groups of people and their shared beliefs and frustrations (something tells me he'd spent a bit of time back home in the Birmingham poverty from where he came before writing these songs - or perhaps had his memory jogged, with tales of a grey bleak world where no one sees the bigger picture; a complete opposite from 'Legend Of A Mind'). Mike has gone in two extremes, writing the catchiest song on the album ('So Deep Within You', which really should have been the single) and the most ambitious, with the 'Lost Chord' leftover suite 'Have You Heard?/The Journey?' (which actually suits that album's 'searching' theme a bit better than this album's collage of styles). Which leaves Graeme, his poetry and enough sound effects to fund a decade's worth of sci-fi dramas (with all the band - except John, oddly enough - taking turns on 'In The Beginning').
‘Love of love, love of life and giving without measure gives in return a wondrous yearn of a promise almost seen, live hand in hand and together we’ll stand on the threshold of a dream...’. They don’t write lyrics like that anymore. In fact stepping into any of the original Moody Blues records is like stepping back in time to an age both when Hippiedom is the philosophy of the day and earlier than that to some sort of mystical Camelot-filled past that now only lives on in myth and legend. Should our world ever fall to the sort of destruction we had in our past these and – horror of horrors – we lose the ability to used electricity and listen to records then I predict these first seven Moodies records will become the myths and legends of the 60s in their own right. You see, it’s very very hard to describe everything that’s going on in these records and it’s even harder to explain why these albums still work so well in the modern age where noisy rhythms are everything and streetwise lyrics are a must (actually, I might just have answered my own question there...) If all the albums ever made or at least the ability to play them were to be wiped out and the few Alan’s Archives members remaining on earth were to tell their offspring about all the wonderful music they’d heard and I can guarantee that it would be the Moodies records that would catch their interest. After all, they encompass life, the universe and everything in a way that no other group ever quite managed, being massive and epic without ever losing the smaller details that lesser prog bands forget in their desire to turn us all onto the hugeness of life. Just pretend for a second that you had never heard of the band and then flick through one of the album gatefolds with all the wonderful inserts or one of the booklets in the CDs – it’s as if a whole new parallel world was opening up before your eyes where simple pop songs and top 40 radio just simply didn’t exist any more. After all, what would we would make of descriptions like 'an alien vacuum cleaner clutching a rose' if we suddenly lost what this album cover looked like?
'Threshold' is one of those albums that manages to be every bit as weird inside the covers as outside with a lot of very odd ideas rubbing shoulders alongside the band's most accessible, immediate songs. Any of the other band, for instance, could have feasibly come up with songs like 'Never Comes The Day' 'Lovely To See You' 'So Deep Within You' and 'To Share Our Leave'. I'm pretty sure I heard The Eagles having a go at a song that sounded suspiciously like 'Send Me No Wine' too. Hearing the Moodies keeping things simple from time to time is no bad thing ('Share', especially, is the album's unheralded classic treated to a thrilling, almost grungy performance despite the masses of production techniques); hearing them do quite this many (particularly on the album's first side) is a bit disconcerting. Have the band - shock horror - sold out? Well not quite. Side two includes a mocking music hall piece about class, a ballad set in Camelot, an out-there poem with psychedelic fringes and what sounds like a journey into hell played almost single-handedly by Mike's mellotron. Though ambition was all the rage in 1969 - an alien vacuum cleaner clutching a rose is only one of many weird album covers that year - few other bands would have ever tried to get away with even half a record as outrageous as this one.
Actually few record labels would have let their bands even try - though as The Moody Blues had gone from nowhere to being Decca's biggest cash cows in the space of eighteen months the band had a better chance at getting what they wanted than most. Decca, sensibly, had given the band more freedom to make this record than ever, sensing that the band knew what they were up to and giving them unlimited studio time along with more control over packaging and contents. The Moodies responded by trying to take even more control by establishing their own record label 'Threshold' (the 'breaking' point of the contract seems to have had something to do with how expensive the gatefold sleeve on 'Lost Chord' had been; every Moodies album up to 'The Present' will either be in a gatefold sleeve or be a double album set). Sadly the label, with its distinctive logo (a train made out of the letters in the 'Threshold' name) wasn't quite ready in time for this album (this will be the last in a trio of albums released on Decca subsidiary Deram) but the two concepts were very much 'linked' in the band's mind, sharing a name that hoped that the band were on the 'threshold' of something brilliant. If you were cruel you could argue that the label spent the rest of its life on the threshold of something great without ever quite finding it - apart from Moody Blues related records the label would only release work by Nicky James (Ray's friend and collaborator in his solo years), Moodies copycats Providence and most successfully of all Trapeze, a soft rock band discovered by John Lodge, whose members would go on to found many harder-edged rock acts like Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Judas Priest and Deep Purple and whose work is quite admired by aficionados. However four acts isn't exactly a generous amount for a record label. On the other hand, though, 'Threshold' was a business model that withstood the test of time and unlike 'Apple' or 'Rolling Stones Records' lasted one heck of a long time (every Moody Blues band record between 'To Our Children's Children's Children' in 1969 and 'Strange Times' almost exactly thirty years later were on the label, which switched its 'business partner' from Decca to Polydor in the mid-1980s. Almost all solo band records are on it too, the group staying as business partners even after going their separate ways as band members - only Mike's 'comeback' albums and Justin's 'War Of The Worlds' project will be on a label other than 'Threshold' across this thirty year span). 'Threshold' was the band's lucky accident caught up in the middle of negotiations, whereby Decca were only too pleased to let the band do what they wanted and take as long as they wanted for the first time ( 'Days' was to an extent a compromise between the Moodies and Decca’s demand for a ‘classical-like’; 'Lost Chord' was made with more freedom but recorded in a whole series of sessions recorded at different times in different cities, broken up by extensive touring (even if it does sound impressively whole and rounded - 'Threshold', recorded in one great rush, actually sounds like the 'bittier' of the two albums). Even more than the previous two, though, ‘Threshold’ though is an album that simply reeks of ambition and the desire to push the envelope further than ever before, planned and worked out from the beginning in a way the band rarely managed again (those tours kept getting in the way again once the band broke big in America).
Though the band are now, in effect, a business which will tie them together for decades to come, there are however worrying signs that the sheer joy of being in a band together is wearing a bit thin. There's far less interaction here than before - particularly the mass harmonies (which now only crop up at real 'peak' moments of the album and in terms of songs rather than sound effects only 'Dear Diary' features more than one of the band on lead and only 'To Share Our Love' sounds like the band playing live at the same time. That's a real shame because, as we've mentioned a few times already in this book, The Moody Blues were great partly because they were such a democratic band, learning from the 'Denny Laine' days when their lead singer/guitarist/writer was doing most of the work and making sure that each member of the band got the right support. Thankfully for now the writing process is still pretty democratic: Justin gets two songs and a co-write with Ray, Ray gets two songs and a co-write with Justin, John gets two songs, Mike gets a song and a song-suite and Graeme gets a poem and a slice of high drama. The days of the band working up parts on 33 different instruments, sometimes all playing at once, is sadly over for now though.Thankfully the band still have enough of a 'sound' for this to not matter so much just yet. An awful lot of the majesty and complexity related to this album comes from the production, which somehow manages to make even the simpler, empty stuff like 'Locely To See You' and 'Send Me No Wine' sound epic and huge. Tony Clarke’s ability to get a small five piece band to sound mammoth with only a mellotron to double for the more epic other-worldly landscapes without sacrificing dynamics or detail is an impressive achievement in itself and nowhere is that production ambition more in evident than on this third album, ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’.
Another thing that's typically overblown - and another side-effect of the band trying to oush Decca into so many little extras - is the packaging. And not just the alien vacuum cleaners clutching roses either! From the Lionel Bart sleeve-notes (the writer of the musical ‘Oliver!’ no less - he was a big fan and it's a tragedy they never worked together musically) to the posh gatefold sleeve with glossy photos and the huge booklet that came with the original album (the biggest released with a record up to that time, no less) this album’s design had one hell of a lot of money spent on it. Together with a description of one of the weirdest AAA album covers of them all, just imagine if for someone reason all the records in the world were suddenly replaced with poisonous Spice Girls CDs by some villainous tyrant and all you had left were the descriptions of the cover left by us and other reviewers: you’d be desperate to hear the music to see if it fits a cover like that. And amazingly it does fit too, in a sort of Moody Blues type way. This record was one hell of a gamble. Had this record failed – had the growing trend towards ‘back to basics’ music started by Wild Honey, The White Album, Village Green etc killed off all things prog rock instead of all but a small handful – it could have ruined not just the band but the record company.
Instead it became the band's biggest seller yet. Despite the slight friction between band and record label and the lack of a hit single for the first time (strangely 'Never Comes The Day' came and went without troubling the charts: it's no 'Nights In White Satin' but on the back of previous hits deserved far better than that!) the album became the band's first number one album in Britain (in the middle of what appears to be a folk revival, with a Seekers compilation and Bob Dylan's 'Nashville Skyline' either side of it) and ended up spending a highly impressive 74 weeks on the chart (including most weeks up to Halloween 1970 and also a single week back in the charts on the back of compilation 'This Is The Moody Blues' in 1974!) In commercial terms the band were no longer on the threshold of something but amongst the biggest bands on the planet. It’s also a fan favourite this record, full of all the most Moody-like (ie ridiculously ambitious) sounds the band ever did. It’s undeniably good – it is an original Moodies record after all, the band who had perhaps the best five year run of records on our list – but the reason we haven’t included it on our 101 album database is because, well, it divides people so. If you don’t know the Moody blues or only vaguely know ‘Nights In White Satin’ and ‘Question’ from grainy Top Of The Pops repeats then look no further than Moodies albums no 2, 4, 6 and 7 (editor's note - just the Justin 'n' John years we mean, so 'Magnificent Moodies' doesn't count, though that's pretty darn good too in a very different way) which offer perhaps a more rounded and more accessible entry into the world of all things Moody and Blue. But even though it’s been left out of the main list I still have a great deal of time and affection for ‘Threshold’, as I do all the early Moodies records. If you like the Moodies too then chances you will adore this record as well. From the cod-Greek Philosophy pretentiousness of the opening track to the multi-part, mainly instrumental epic that closes it no other record ever made sounds remotely like this one. This record neatly finds the Moodies on the threshold of that amazing peak which they were about to hold on to for the next three years – and it’s amazing how different, how ambitious, how downright daring it is at times and with even half the album that tries hard to be 'normal' sounding quite unlike anything any other band was making - even in the revolutionary year in 1969.
(One final note before we move on: the CD bonus tracks. This is the first of the 'deluxe' Moody Blues re-issues to be released as a single disc, a fact which led to much moaning and gnashing of teeth even though, minute for minute, it only runs a fraction longer than 'Days of Future' or 'Lost Chord' so anyway. Alas the actual content isn't up to those of the previous two CDs. There are four period BBC sessions of album tracks, all of them worth hearing although as four of the 'simpler' songs are chosen there are less differences than before. 'Lovely To See You' is in sprightly form though and at a push may even sound better with Justin's guitar more clear and straightforward without the pulsating feedback. The rest, though, are a little wonky: 'Send Me No Wine' has the band sounding even more bored than the record, 'Are You Sitting Comfortably?' features a great double-tracked flute solo but an uncharacteristically spotty Justin Hayward vocal, while 'So Deep Within You' ends up sounding more Motown than Moody Blues - and not in a good way. The five 'unedited' mixes are a mixed bunch too: 'In The Beginning' has a fractionally longer fade and ending and is pretty forgettable, while 'Dear Diary' features more emphasis on the psychedelic voices of Ray and Justin which features a lot of scat singing over the flute solo which was probably rightly dropped from the final version. The other three songs, though, are a revelation and all are by Mike: 'So Deep Within You', a song tacked pretty sharply onto the back of 'To Share Our Love', now comes with a funky twenty second opening that the band really should have kept, with Justin's pretty guitar work keeping momentum up while John's bass bounces up and down the frets like a yo-yo on the threshold of snapping it's string; the album's finale 'Have You Heard?' and 'The Voyage' are also heard in their original versions as two separate-but-linked songs that went side by side, instead of moving from one to the other and back again. With the rather scary mellotron chord now missing as the linking section, the track simply fades away and is picked up again by the familiar cello riff as part two starts up again straightaway. In practical terms it seems ridiculous to recommend an alternate version that runs at best three seconds longer than the original - and yet hearing these tracks as two separate entities gives you a whole new angle on these pieces and hearing a full 'Have You Heard?' running for four minutes without interruptions makes it sound like a much stronger song).
Take the first song, ‘In The Beginning’. It’s not really a song at all. It’s Justin Hayward’s muted lost-in-thought kid philosopher up against some Dr Who-ey sound effects and drummer Graeme Edge’s snarled voice of ‘the man’, trapping our hero’s very thoughts and creativity into his endless files, before his inner voice – which sounds remarkably like mellotron expert Mike Pinder – tells us that we can face ‘piles of trials with smiles’. ‘The great computer’ might have sounded a bit sci-fi-ey and a bit off-beat back in 1969 – now, though, in 2010, with a promised database reducing us all to a list of numbers, statistics and criminal tendencies, it sounds startlingly prosaic. The message of this track seems to be that, as long as we pretend to play the game we can be free to think our own thoughts and cause our own quiet revolution against all those who hold us back and the authority figures who want to restrict our very minds from thinking for ourselves (a very Moodies theme that – actually its a very AAA one now I come to think of it; see various CSNY, Kinks, Pink Floyd, Cat Stevens, Who records etc) . There isn’t one note of actual music in the whole piece and, even more grating for record company executives, the whole record starts on a slow quiet fade held on one mellotron note – the sort of thing that would put off every record collector under the sun except Moodies ones. Thankfully the finished version is comparatively brief – this is, after all, the sort of thing that gets worse with repeated listening however good it sounds the first time you hear it -
‘Lovely To See You’ is much more ‘normal’; in fact it’s so jumpy and catchy and accessible it’s amazing it wasn’t a single (it became a radio favourite instead). A simple song about being pleased when a loved one walks in the door, it’s still made to sound epic thanks to lost of Moodies multi-dubbing, with no less than three feedback-filled Justin Hayward guitar parts competing for space with a stop-start drum pattern and a boogie woogie bass line from John Lodge. Like many a Moodies track the song is made truly special courtesy of some classic harmony work, with the four-part layers of, from bottom to top, Mike Ray Justin and John offering a range that few bands could match then and now. Taken on its own this song should sound pure Merseybeat pop – bouncy, optimistic and with enough rock clichés to fit in with top 40 radio. Done Moodies style it sounds like an epic, with all the elements out there on the edge of space with just Graeme’s cymbal bashing to bring us back to earth. And just when you think you’ve understood where Justin’s going in comes that middle eight: ‘tell us what you’ve seen in faraway forgotten lands where empires have turned into sand...’. Even in a song this simple and uncomplicated the theme of what’s going on outside the narrator’s door is inferred, full of doubt and chaos and the changing tides of mankind’s progress. Or something like that anyway, it’s impossible not to think big when discussing the Moodies even when the subject matter isn’t actually there. Anyway, ‘Lovely’ might not be the classiest, the deepest, the most thought-provoking or even the most catchy of the band’s recordings, but is very ‘lovely’ and is the perfect ‘real’ opening track for this record, with the band travelling in several directions at once.
‘Dear Diary’ brings the band firmly back to earth. Like many of Ray Thomas’ early songs (especially on first album ‘Days Of Future Passed’) its a slightly grumpy dig at ‘straight’ people living ‘straight’ lives, afraid or simply unaware of all the magical things they could be doing with their lives. In a neat and typically Tony Clarke-like twist things are turned on their head in the production for this song: the mundane sounds other-worldly and frightening, thanks to some murky treated electronic vocals from Ray and Justin, while the imaginary world just out of their reach – symbolised by Ray’s multi-tracked flute playing – is crystal clear and entrancing. The Moodies never created the same lesson in contrasts that people like Paul Simon and Cat Stevens did (see review no 7, ‘Parsley Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’ for the ultimate record on that theme) but they did use this trick a lot. There’s more proof of the narrow-vision and self-pity of the ordinary worker in the hilarious fade-out too, when the narrator goes through is long list of boring routine before closing with ‘somebody exploded an h bomb today...but it wasn’t anybody I knew’. This is a very 1960s song about the with-its and the with-outs, but done with that typically Moodies twist whereby the band seem to be the with-outs. Musically, this is one of Ray’s finest ever songs, twisting and turning it’s way round a tune built largely on two notes and filled with so much gloom it’s a wonder a little raincloud doesn’t appear every time you play it.
‘Send Me No Wine’, however, is a disaster. One of the few truly bad songs on the Moodies’ original seven albums, it’s a John Lodge song handled by John and Justin that is a kind of country and western number set to rock music. The weak lyrics don’t even make any sense until the second verse – and not in a surreal way like the best Moodies lyrics either, just in a confusing way – and John might have been better concentrating on developing that verse as its lines about falling in love properly for the first time (‘for once in my life I don’t need no conversation, all of my time spent in fascination’) are actually quite sweet. A throwaway recording doesn’t help matters much either – the band sound bored both musically and vocally, as if this is take 97 and they haven’t had a break from this dratted song all day although as ever Justin gamely tries with his vocal. Even Mike Pinder is off form, with his mellotron accompaniment reduced to playing simple chords throughout, as if the new futuristic keyboard was simple another instrument instead of a whole world of possibilities he couldn’t wait to explore – highly unusual.
Things get much better when the song cross-fades into Lodge’s other song on the album, ‘To Share Our Love’ (sung here by Pinder, interestingly, one of the few instances of a non-writer handling the vocal on a Moodies song). I really hope that the Four Tops’ album of Moodies covers mentioned above contains a version of this song – a Motown-ish call and answer song handled like a barnstorming rocker. It may be simple by Moodies standards, but its rare proof of their capacity as a no-holds barred rock and roll band and features fewer overdubs than possibly any other Moodies track. Pinder’s having a whale of a time with his (multi-tracked) vocal, screaming at the top of his voice to make himself heard over the bass-guitar-drums groove beneath him, his narrator sounding genuinely excited and turned on by the new love he feels in his life, especially the Beatles-like scream at the end which isn’t something you could ever picture on another Moodies song. I must admit I get a bit lost with the timelines of the Moodies – they remain one of the few best-selling groups in the world never to have had a single biography written about them, for instance – but it sounds to me like John Lodge has fallen head over heels for somebody in this period. There will be many many John Lodge love songs gracing Moodies albums in the years to come, but these two songs here are more about infatuation than romance, sounding as desperate and one-minded as the Moodies ever sounded. The band’s performance is spot-on instrumentally, simply dropping away to suddenly crash in with the song’s main riff again as if to get the point about infatuation across every time the song wanders too far off course, and the group harmonies are superb. A classic rocker that’s great fun, it’s a shame the band don’t really tackle a track like this again in their lifespan (although the opening of ‘You And Me’ on Seventh Sojourn’ cuts it close).
Mike gets a track of his own next and ‘So Deep Within You’ is the true template of the Moodies’ sound – quiet opening, frenetic instrumental, a sudden huge swelling in the chorus – the way this song suddenly swaps directions from gentle ballad to surging rock epic leaves you breathless. Which is just as well because lyrically this is Pinder writing his own take on the theme of infatuation, although interestingly this song sounds more like pop than rock. Like John’s song. Mike is backed up well by another great band performance: Ray Thomas’ one-note flute solo and Graeme’s suffocating timpani is surrounded by Justin’s note-climbing guitar, wringing every last ounce of passion and desperation from his guitar and John’s busy bass, zooming from the bottom notes to the top as if challenging the others to keep up. Vocally the band are again on top form, especially Justin’s nagging vocal which strains at the leash for the song’s tight chords to let him go until the band finally soars on the fade-out. Unusually there’s very little mellotron on this track – the second in a row – unlike almost every other Mike Pinder song ever written for the band.
‘Never Comes The Day’ sounds like it’s going to be another traditional song when it begins, with Justin’s folky guitar picking and some rather Swingle Singers-ish backing vocals kicking off side two. However this is simply a section of calm to get us through the stormy sections to come. Like many an AAA song, especially Justin’s it has to be said, this is two completely separate songs welded together by a linking passage that somehow makes sense of both parts (even though they sound like nonsense side by side; think of ‘Band On the Run’, perhaps the most famous AAA take on this writing ploy). The quiet muted opening about busy boring working lives quickly gives way to a booming chorus about how we should all love each other. Like ‘So Deep Within You’ this song is about give and take and recognizing that the more we put into life, especially our relationships, the more we will get back from them – unlike ‘So Deep Within You’ this song isn’t as much infatuated as disinterested about the whole thing. This song is much-loved by many Moodies fans, with its classic Moodies-like chorus about brotherly love and harmony (in both senses of the word) and its very romantic opening. But for me this song just falls a but flat, particularly by Justin’s usual high standards, and never really takes flight. After all, one verse and one chorus repeated ad infinitum doesn’t quite make up a full song, even one with as many changes of tempo, harmonics and direction as this one.
‘Lazy Day’ is more lazy stuff, with Ray Thomas re-writing his ‘Dear Diary’ song to lesser reward. A smug-sounding song about having a lazy Sunday and dreading the return to work on Monday morning, it sounds every bit as dreary as it’s meant to. Still it does have some things about it to recommend – another strong and surprisingly bottom-heavy vocal choir gives the song a running-at-the-wrong-speed feel which suits the song’s depressing lyrics well and the use of a kind of anti-chorus, running parallel against the main one, is the perfect addition to this read-between-the-lines song (‘It’s such a crying shame, week after week the same’). For nowhere in his vocal part does Ray actually come out and say how dull and boring his narrator’s life is – he leaves that up to the nagging anti-chorus and the listener to decide instead. Still, however clever the means of getting there, you end up identifying a bit too well with the narrator who wants this boring part of his life to be over.
‘Are You Sitting Comfortably?’ is the album’s highlight for me, one of only two collaborations between Ray and Justin (and the least said about ‘Never Blame The Rainbows For The Rain’ the better). Ray’s delightful flute passage set against Graeme’s rhythmic percussion and Justin’s acoustic playing is one of the loveliest openings to any songs you will ever hear and the latter’s excellent vocal doesn’t disappoint either. A gorgeous song about the days of the earth’s golden past (hence that rather long intro about a future destroyed earth looking back at the 20th and 21st centuries and losing the ability to play music – we as a species have been through this so many times before after all), it sounds on first hearing as if the narrator is simply telling his loved ones a story. However the opening line (‘take another sip my love and see what you will see...’) make it clear that we are in the presence of a psychic, a sort of fortune-teller backwards who can see our past as clearly as we see the present. Even without the perfectly fitting hazy crazy lyrics this is an excellent song, as dreamy as The Moodies ever got. Ray’s flute playing is at its best on this song – this is one of the few Moodies tracks where the instrument is arguably the lynch-pin of the song instead of just a nifty sounding overdub – and the band’s bravery to go with such a muted and low-key arrangement is well rewarded with the final result which is one of the loveliest Moodies recordings of all. Along with CSN’s ‘Guinevere’, this is the best 60s-meet-Earth’s-ancient-past song around. Not that there’s that many of those around but, hey, its still very very very good.
Now for the truly weird bit. Greame Edge gets several poems onto these early Moodies albums. Some of them work really well (‘The Balance’ from album 5 is probably his best poem, while the afore-mentioned ‘You and Me’ from album 7 is his best poetic-sounding lyric). Some of them don’t (‘And they give it a word and the word is ommmmmm’ from album 2). This one isn’t so much as bad as confusing – it really doesn’t fit where the band want to place it, in-between the fortune-telling ‘Comfortably’ and the voyage-filled ‘Have You Heard?’ The talk of seasons changing and things transforming – but only on the surface – would have been better suited to the day concept of ‘Days Of Future Passed’ and the half-hearted arrangement (there’s no orchestra to back up Graeme this time and for once the Mellotron can’t help to compensate for that) makes this poem sound over-the-top and arty, rather than a natural extension of what’s come before (as with the afore-mentioned ends to both ‘Days Of Future Passed’ and ‘A Question Of Balance’). However, read as a passage in the lyric booklet – with no Mellotron to distract us and nothing to link it to the tracks either side of it – it works very well, with some striking images that perfectly sum up the Moodies’ ability to create epics about life, the universe and everything out of small details that other people miss.
The poem then fades into ‘Have You Heard?’, a multi-part epic from Mike Pinder that – amazingly – had already been left off two LPs before the band decided to make it the centre-piece of album no 3. To be honest my opinion of this track changes with the tides; sometimes it sounds like the epic extravaganza about love and soulmates the album truly needs to send its on its way together with one of the scariest instrumental passages in the history of music – sometimes it just sounds like two short verses linked by some irritating off-key Mellotron chords. It’s hard to pin this track down – one minute its clearly a simple love song and a show of solidarity dressed up to sound big (‘show your friends that you and me belong to the same world, turned on to the same words’). The next it has become an epic about the dark underbelly of life and all the hidden horrors waiting to catch our poor defenceless couple out (the whole ‘journey’ sequence). This song suddenly made more sense when the deluxe CD re-issue of the album came out (in 2006) and it was revealed that this song was actually recorded in two completely separate parts, with the song presumably intended to end with the scary instrumental (or at least, that’s the way round they’re given to us as bonus tracks). Sweet as the closing verse is – and as final as it sounds (‘now you know how nice it feels...’) – this passage should actually come before the couple in the song are tested, not after. But that would have left this generally optimistic and uplifting album (barring Ray Thomas’ songs at least!) ending on a very awkward and anti-climatic note which would have been too big a test even for the new-hands off version of Decca in 1969 (the band end up adding a note of awkwardness anyway by ending the song with the single Mellotron note ‘Threshold’ started with, perhaps suggesting that despite this temporary breakthrough against the ‘great computer’ mankind is still inevitably going to end up in the same position. It’s notable too that on the original vinyl copies this note continued into the run out groove, playing endlessly until the listener actually physically took charge of their fate and, err, lifted the needle off the record – somehow the fade-out on the CD version doesn’t quite have the same majesty!) This piece really wouldn’t work at all were it not for two major factors in its success: the first is another sterling band performance, with Pinder’s awed vocal holding the whole track together perfectly and the second is another ginormous production from Tony Clarke where five Brummy kids barely out of their teens successfully sound like the end of the world, especially Pinder’s relentless Mellotron effects. Every prog rock band of the late 60s/early 70s had to have a lengthy instrumental passage somewhere in their catalogue so it seems – this is the Moodies’ attempt and while its not their best song by a long way, it is one of the best prog rock epic instrumentals around.
Well, that’s that then. An epic album full of details that – far from being on the threshold of a dream - seems to find the Moodies in dream land permanently. Not that that’s a bad thing of course – The Moodies’ dream land, in its early days in 1969, seriously becomes somewhere you’d like to spend all your time by next album ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’. Another successful instalment in the band’s early work, this album proves yet again that the band’s formula – no less than five writers, five lead vocalists and five largely multi-instrumentalists – has yet to be bettered, offering a range and variety that other groups can only dream of. ‘Threshold’ isn’t the Moodies’ greatest record, their most inventive record or their most cohesive record, but like the other six original records it offers glimpses of genius and takes you to places no other band would even think of taking you to, even if they were brave enough to take you there. Somebody exploded an 'H' bomb today by the way. But it wasn't anybody I knew.