Thursday 5 May 2011

The Moody Blues "The Present" (1983) (Revised Review 2015)

You can now buy 'New Horizons - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Moody Blues' in e-book form by clicking here

The Moody Blues “The Present” (1981)

Blue World/Meet Me Halfway/Sitting At The Wheel/Going Nowhere//Hole In The World/Under My Feet/ It’s Cold Outside Of Your Heart/Running Water/I Am/Sorry

‘My dear Catalunia the Third, are you having a good cloneday?’

‘Why yes Habridan the Seventh, I scoffed three whole pieces of Balahdroby Cake for breakfast, was given the Belobrat bumps this afternoon and oh what a fantastic lot of presents I got this year! The earrings you got me for my third set of ears are really lovely darling and the urn with dear Walahazoo’s ashes in it is truly remarkable, so I’ve made sure it’s on display in my house in the middle of the floor for no apparent reason. But, tell me, is that your spaceship parked outside, the one with ‘my other spacecraft is an Earth Lamborghini’ written on the side?’

‘Why yes Catalunia, for you see I’ve been back to your favourite planet Earth and got you two more presents!’

‘Oh what a lucky girl android I am! – pray what have you got for me this time?’

‘You remember your favourite Earthling album by The Moody Blues – The Present? Well, my present to you is we’re now on the cover! This very scene happening right now which I took from the future using my time-distortional Zigabox Camera!’

‘Oh darling how fabulous! But won’t the Earth race mind?’

‘No not at all Catalunia, I’ve been studying Moody Blues releases for some time now and I’ve come to the conclusion that their album covers make no sense whatsoever – the stupid Earthlings on that planet will just think it’s another weird and wacky Moody Blues cover and won’t realise it features us on the front at all!’

‘But darling, didn’t you have to go a long way back in time to change it?’

‘Yes my petal, considering the album is called ‘The Present’ I had to go quite a long way back into the past – to 1983 to be exact, but I don’t think it changed many Earthling’s time streams that significantly.’

‘How delightful! And your other present?’

‘Well, darling, I came across a fantastic creation called the world-wide web which earthlings use for a variety of strange reasons such as moaning about other earthlings with different skin shades, backgrounds and income and a strange device called Facebook that allows you to poke someone while dressing up as Superman and stealing their pillows!’

‘How frightfully strange, darling!  What else did you find?’

‘Well, I found this great little website called Alan’s Album Archives dealing with all sorts of obscure and neglected recordings from the earthlings’ past. Most of it’s just a lot of rambling pretentious prose to be honest dear, but there are some frightfully good bits too. And to wish you the happiest of clonedays dear I’ve downloaded the site’s review of your favourite Moody Blues album and attached our own little introduction to it that the Earthlings can’t remove!’

‘How frightfully clever darling! But do move your spaceship when you get a chance – it’s blocking all the light from Alpha Centauri and stopping my trees from growing...’


I present to you, dear reader, one of the most under-rated and neglected Moody Blues albums of the band’s whole career. Those who only know the early Moodies probably haven’t even heard of this album and others are scratching their heads as to why I have chosen to promote such a comparatively poor-selling single-free album in the midst of all that greatness. But I’ve always loved ‘The Present’ (the album I mean – to be honest living under a Coalition Government in the era of Lady Gaga and Glee in 2011 doesn’t exactly fill my heart with joy) for its sweeps of mood, it’s grand gestures, it’s solid productions and above all because it’s arguably the last time we hear The Moodies as a fully functioning band rather than just the John and Justin show. Other fans prefer 'Long Distance Voyager' for their dose of 'Present' (well comparatively speaking) Moody Blues, full of its look-at-me synths and pop-chart friendly singalongs, but 'The Present' is the one out of the four albums the Moodies made in the 1980s that sounds most like their original style. Where the other three albums sound like introverts uncomfortably made to perform a song and dance routine under the biggest spotlight ever thanks to the sound of Patrick Moraz's keys, 'The Present' manages to retain its thoughtfulness and composure, with the last batch of deep thinking songs in here somewhere underneath all the sound effects.

To be fair to Moraz, his trademark sound of exaggerating everything by ten makes perfect sense across this album, where every slight sigh sounds like a bucketful of tears and every apology sounds like a bleeding heart. Traditionally the Moodies were always a 'feeling' band as well as a 'thinking' one and forgetting this is why I think the band struggled so much to keep much of their old audience in the reunion years (while adding a whole load more with their with-it pop songs, which were always remarkably contemporary for a band with such a pedigree somewhere up until about 1988). Though I've always been impressed with his playing, my feeling has long been that he was doing great things to the wrong band - a musical extrovert who can't resist giving the rest of the band musical wedgies when he thinks they're getting too serious and bookish, with a synth glide here and a keyboard wobble here. Moraz' work with 'Yes' (a band born for the spotlight if ever there was one) is generally much better, while his own solo albums are patchy but usually with something great on them (there are flipping eighteen of them up to 'The Present' - our time not the album time this time - which is just too many to review for this book; perhaps a second edition if enough of his fans buy this one/flatter me/badger me enough?!) However The Moody Blues live for subtlety and hidden depths: putting his twinkly lights on top of the band's sound is like putting a giant floodlight twinkling away down the Grand Canyon - it just makes the unknowable seem that much further away and wastes electricity (what were the band's electric bills like recording 'Sitting At The Wheel' alone?!) However this is the one album where Moraz 'got' the band. 'Blue World' would sound rather pathetic on guitar and drums - it needs to sound as if Justin is trapped in a world beyond his control; 'Meet Me Halfway' is a beautiful arrangement that sounds like two lovers trying to reach out to each other over and above all the chaos of a noisy world; 'Sitting At The Wheel' reads like the stupidest Moodies song ever id you just read the lyric booklet, but it's exactly the sort of song where Patrick's larger than life style works; Moraz' triumph, though, is 'Under My Feet' - a simple song turned epic thanks to its sheer size, with Patrick effectively writing the introductory introduction 'Hole In The World' himself whatever the song credits say (interestingly, it's easily the most 'Moody' moment of the record). Only on 'Cold Outside Of Your Heart' do you long for the sound effects to stop long enough for Justin to tell us what's on his mind and in his heart, but even this sounds like a low budget demo compared to the excesses of 'The Other Side Of Life' and 'Sur La Mer' to come. 'The Present' is the one album where Moraz is working with the rest of the band, not against them and where his music enhances or contrasts with what's already there rather than simply smothering it. Of course the production of this album will still come as a shock to any fan who gave up collecting albums after 'Octave', but if the band had to insist on changing with the times (and why do bands with such a fanbase ever exist on changing with the times when their own times was perfect? I've never understood that...) then 'The Present' is the best way to make The Moody Blues sound like the band of the, erm, 'Present'.

Stylistically, though, this album as a whole is also much closer in style to the past. 'The Present' is an album heavy on ballads, songs of longing and wondering and while that isn't the only sound the band ever did or even necessarily the best, it is the style that the Moody Blues can offer in a way that so few other bands can. While there are no 'Nights In White Satins' here, there is Justin's gorgeous 'Running Water' and 'It's Cold Outside Of Your Heart', Justin and John's gorgeous 'Meet Me Halfway', Ray's nearly-there 'Sorry' and Graeme's extra gorgeous 'Going Nowhere' (his greatest ever song?), which for an album that effectively consists of eight actual songs (plus a mood piece and an instrumental) is a lot. Unlike the chirpy 'Gemini Dream' or 'Your Wildest Dreams' (why do all the band's dreams have to be so blinking happy all of a sudden?!) even the uptempo songs on this album are born out of sadness too: 'Blue World' tries so hard to remain detached and cold - the band's new-found style on 'Long Distance Voyager' - but the words betray a sobbing heart it actually ends up as the warmest, most emotional Moody song of the decade; 'Under My Feet' takes Lodge's usual chipper persona and turns into a musically happy and lyrically suicidal song about betrayal and being let down, while even John's sharply dressed 'Sitting On The Wheel' sounds more desperate and last-chance-at-happiness that the bass player's earlier and later songs in this style. 'The Present' is a sad album, even for a band who once sang 'Melancholy Man' for five sobbing minutes, but any emotion at all after 'Long Distance Voyager' is frankly welcome and this album digs a lot deeper than the simple 'I love you' of the albums either side of it.

Talking of digging deeper than normal, 'The Present' is also the last Moody Blues record to feature a cover as elaborate and, well, bonkers as the glory days of the past. Though later packaging will concentrate on band photographs, band logos and, erm, seashells 'The Present' is a magnum opus featuring a still from the music video the band made for 'Blue World'. Both are impenetrable, just like old times, but unlike most Moody Blues albums I can’t even hazard a guess this time. After all, what am I meant to make from a drawing of a pair of beings dressed in Roman tunics sprawled out on the floor in front of a mountain and a tree with a giant vase in the foreground? Even the ‘X’ pendant that the boy-being is holding out to the girl-being doesn’t make any real thematic sense in the context of the record – just a kind of ‘X marks the spot’ I suppose, but that didn’t stop me wanting one when the Moodies actually issued their own ‘Present Pendants’ using the ‘X’ motif (not that I ever got one. Just hold on a mo while I check E-bay. Darn, too late again! It’s just been sold to someone with the curious name of Habridan whoever that might be! Odd photo too: three heads and four pairs of ears - all the better for hearing the quadrophonic Moody Blues mixes I guess). The whole scene gets even more surreal when you open up the album and realise it sports a gatefold sleeve, with the scene opening up on the back cover to reveal a spaceship hovering above a futuristic looking city (and believe you me, this scene is even more confusing on my original cassette copy, where the scene is folded over three sheets of paper!) What are we meant to think? That our future selves have suddenly developed a sense of love for Roman fashions? That we’re looking at an alien species with a love of Earth’s past? (How daft - as if there's an alien race looking over my shoulder as I write this, ho ho ho!) Or are we meant to think  that we’re in a mixture of time zones? My head hurts!

Like the cover art, the music inside the album gets stranger and more inventive the more you study it. On first listening this album sounds a bit like Moodies business as usual. Justin Hayward gets in some moody ballads, John Lodge gets in some of his favourite uptempo pop, there’s a cameo appearance by drummer Graeme Edge and Ray Thomas gets to wrap up the album just as he did on this album’s predecessor ‘Long Distance Voyager’. But a closer inspection reveals a much stranger and stronger picture: we haven’t heard Justin this committed since the finer moments of ‘Octave’ and the lyrics to his songs seem to have a deeper resonance even than normal; John’s uptempo pop masks a much more adventurous streak than normal, with an eerie two-minute instrumental propping up one of his songs 180 degrees away from the sounds the Moodies had been giving us lately; Graeme Edge’s cameo isn’t another near-instrumental or jokey comedy monologue but a fully fledged mournful ballad every bit as good as those from the Moodies’ past and Ray Thomas’ song of sorrow and apology is a million light years removed from the supposedly comical ‘Veteran Cosmic Rocker’ and lopsided ‘Painted Smile’ from the past LP. It’s sad that after this album and in the 28 years since it’s release Ray will get just three more credits to his name (one of them a co-write) and Graeme will get just two (one of those, too, being a co-write). Many Moodies fans say the band ended in 1973 when the five members went their separate ways, many others claim it was when Pinder left midway through the sessions for ‘Octave’ – but for me ‘The Present’ is the last real Moodies epic, all twists and turns and all-for-one band performances with four great writers giving us ten great songs (well, eight great songs anyway). Strangely enough, the only song that sounds like it could have appeared on a previous Moodies LP (‘I Am’) is the one that works least well.

Like many a Moodies album there’s a sort of half-theme going on in the album’s lyrics, this time of karma. It’s never explicitly stated in any of the actual songs (although ‘Running Water’, with events shaping the landscape as erosion changes nature comes closest), but it’s there throughout this album: ‘Blue World’, with its lyrical references to past Moodies songs, is all about the idea that we need someone else to create ‘paradise’ for us and we can’t get there alone; ‘Meet Me Halfway’ is meeting up with a past love metaphorically as well as physically; ‘Sitting At The Wheel’ is about refusing to give up your fight for something; ‘Going Nowhere’ is about when you’ve run out of inspiration and something you cherish is over; ‘Under My Feet’  and ‘Cold Outside Of Your Heart’ are both about sudden cataclysmic changes and ‘Sorry’ is about realising you have to say sorry to move on from a mistake – even when it’s something you haven’t done. (The only missing track, ‘I Am’, is so vague it could be about anything and everything – and probably is!) Almost all the album songs realise they've hurt somebody or not tried hard enough and vows to do better next time - whether it's by melting hearts, feeling sorry for itself, bemoaning the coldness of a modern sterile world, reaching out a hand for support or simply apologising, there's a lot of unspoken anguish across this album. To be frank., it's welcome - though well crafted neither 'Octave' or 'Long Distance Voyager' felt as if the band felt anything making those albums except a sense of deja vu or a desire to sell records. 'The Present' is the first real 'band' record since 'Seventh Sojourn' though, with the band all going in (roughly) the same direction.

What's curious is why the band decided to make an album like this back in 'The Present' - when The Present meant 1983, the cold war, the Beirut Embassy bombing and the publication of 'The Hitler Diaries', a mere smidgeon past The Falklands War (in retrospect no wonder the band are apologising so much on this album!) Most albums in this period either sound increasingly desperately bright and happy even if nobody quite sounds it even more (Paul McCartney's 'Pipes Of Peace' is a good AAA example) or so angry and fuming at the state of the world and Britain in particular that they turned out like on long rant (e.g. Pink Floyd's 'The Final Cut'). The Moody Blues, by contrast, just sound a bit unhappy: it's a 'blue world' that doesn't care anymore and the band - and other hippie leftovers from the peace and love era still going in this timeframe - don't know where they fit in anymore. The usual Moody Blues questioning has clearly fallen on deaf ears. The usual hope of happier days in the future is clearly misplaced. The belief that man will love all man equally for eternity is, after all, hard to maintain against a backdrop of arms races and envy and spite in world politics. The Moody Blues never were a 'political' band - 'Question' is as close as the band ever came and, though inspired by Vietnam, sounds as if it could have been about any conflict big or small - and 'The Present' is most certainly not a political album. But if my vague hypothesis that each of the early Moody Blues albums was written 'for' the sixties generation specifically to urge them to make a 'better world' (this is, after all, a band that attracted intellectual peace-loving nutcases far more than the usual style of rock and roll groupies, with several stories of crazed fans camping out in the band's back gardens waiting for 'the answer' - which is where 'I'm Just A Singer In A Rock and Roll Band Came in) then this album is the 'apology' for the fact that this generation 'failed' to fix anything. The world we dreamed of on those Moody Blues albums of 1967-1972 clearly hasn't come to pass - instead we get a 'blue world' where nobody cares for anyone else; instead of the pure hippie dream of utopia the band are pleading to at least 'meet me halfway'; a heart full of giving is going nowhere in a world that's crumbling under our feet and the band even ends with the mother of all 'sorry' (a 'word we only use too late'). This might explain why the band decided to call this album, of all their records, 'The Present' (even though the albums immediately before and after are arguably even more cutting edge in terms of sound and production): it's the death of the sixties dream twenty years after it rushed in headlong with a Beatley 'yeah yeah yeah' and there's nothing the band can do about it. Not withstanding the fact that even as late as 1999 the band sigh over living in 'Strange Times', this is also the last time the band mope and sigh over the fact rather than grinning and bearing it with pop songs. I think I like this re-action more - it's far more in keeping with what the 'old' Moodies would have done, although no doubt they'd have also thrown in a mini-play about cold-hearted wars that rule the night, blinding the vision in our sight and a poem about the effects of nuclear warfare ending with a scream as we 'Ride My Nuclear Missile'.

Now ‘The Present’ is never going to impress the public who hate the Moodies anyway – there’s only one attempt at a rock song on this album and that’s among the weakest here, the 1980s production does occasionally get in the way of a good song and there’s frustratingly little evidence of the gorgeous block harmonies with which The Moodies made their name (alas there won't be again after 'Long Distance Voyager'). But for those who ‘get’ this band and the original sonic landscapes they create then this album is a revelation – ‘Blue World’ is a strong candidate for best production on a Moodies record, ‘Running Water’ contains possibly Justin Hayward’s best lyric ever and ‘Going Nowhere’ might well be the last truly 100% classic in the Moodies canon (even if few fans know seem to know about it). Many fans point to this album’s predecessor ‘Long Distance Voyager’ as the band’s greatest reunion album and they do have a point, with ‘In My World’ and ‘The Voice’ two other strong candidates for best Moodies records. But there’s too many empty pop songs on that album for me, too many performances where the band are clearly only playing on their own songs or at best saying hello while passing out the studio on the way to the canteen and the updated sound is for me too much too fast to get used to. ‘The Present’ is generally regarded as an inferior album in every way but I really don’t think that’s true: the balance (always a key word on Moodies albums) between past and future sounds is just right (so no wonder they called it ‘The Present’!) There’s the whole range of human emotion on this album and one of the Moodies’ better running sequences keeps up both the pace and the emotional twists and turns of life, as well as the songwriting credits (three and a co-write for Justin, two and a co-write for John, two for Ray and one for Graeme) the last time the band approach anything like their old democracy. Though far more dated than the 'classic' Moody Blues albums (despite being twenty years younger! Well that's the 1980s for you), this is arguably the last essential journey point on that timeless Moody flight and rather neatly a final goodbye to record label Decca after nineteen rollercoaster years together (in effect the owners of the band's own record label 'Threshold'). The fact that this run is bookended with the bittersweet plea to  'forgive my yesterdays' is probably more accident than design, but no doubt Decca appreciated the fact anyway!

One other point worth mentioning for fans who’ve come all the way on our own long distance voyage and are reading everything about every group is that this album is produced in Strawberry Studios, Stockport. Which makes it one of the first albums to be produced there after the breakup of owners of Strawberry Studios, 10cc. Justin was great friends with 10cc’s Eric Stewart and often worked with him on solo LPs (with ‘Goodbye’ on 1988’s ‘Moving Mountains’ the best example although the Blue Jays’ hit single ‘Blue Guitar’, with 10cc backing, is the best known) but this the only time Justin ever brought the band along to give the facilities ago. And that fact explains an awful lot – 10cc albums are always immaculately produced whatever the contents are like and Eric himself was a great engineer with a great ear (though sadly not on this album) which might be a big reason why this album sounds better than any other reunion Moodies album. Certainly the switch to using producer Tony Visconti rather than this album’s less exuberant producer Pip Williams will hurt the band badly on the next two albums, as they often sound lost within their own sonic soundscapes rather than in charge of them as they generally do here. Oh and a final extra: this is the last of the Moody Blues CD re-issues to date (Polydor, not Decca, own the rest and haven't got round to releasing them yet and the most disappointing. Like 'Long Distance Voyager' a 'stripped down' mix would have been a welcome bonus and surely there are some works-in-progress somebody thought to log somewhere? Instead we just get a shortened 'radio' edit of 'Blue World' (which is only about half the fun) and an epic remix of 'Sitting At The Wheel' released in discos for some extra 'kudos' that almost doubles the song in length (but strangely enough leaves only about half the fun in this recording too).

That’s just as well because opener ‘Blue World’ could have gone either way. A churning, pounding, near monosyllabic song quite unlike anything The Moodies had ever done before, it’s a song that’s bass heavy and murky, with only a few flourishes from Moraz’s synthesisers to lighten the mood and could easily have become dull and boring. But a stunning arrangement tightens the drama with new twists every so often, with the song slowly, painfully, lurching its way up the key changes towards the sunlight and a chorus that simply erupts. Lodge’s unusual bass work  is to the fore and really makes this song, with the slow and steady narrator tied to the ground and ready to assume the worst about life, even as his heart sours with the keyboard flourishes. This is Hayward’s show though and his detached vocal and sombre tone are among the best vocal work he ever did for the band. The song, too, is somehow very Moodies in it’s scope and yet not Moodies like at all in it’s downbeat tone– it’s a man on a journey of discovery, one that’s been hurt and rejected many times over and is only carrying on with life because it’s easier and less damning than giving up the fight. Ironically enough it’s the song’s revelation that the man is not alone and that others are suffering too that turns this song around, with a punchy chorus soaring to the skies in true Moody Blues fashion with the realisation that people need other people to make their lives better for them – they can’t achieve perfection or happiness all by themselves. Lyrically this revelation is more negative karma for the put-upon narrator, but the twist of the song is that it suddenly sounds like a happy thought – that all it takes is someone else to brighten up our lives for us.

Of course I’ll never know unless they invent a machine that can look inside Justin Hayward’s head and see what he was thinking 30 odd years ago, but this sounds like a very personal story. There are masses of Moody Blues references in the lyrics – something the band didn’t often do, unlike say Stephen Stills – and fans can have hours of fun spotting them all (Here’s a few though – the narrator’s desperate urge to ‘Fly Me High’ is taken from the band’s final pre-Nights in White Satin single; ‘Underground sight and sound’ sounds like nostalgia for a time when the Moodies were the head of an ‘underground’ movement instead of having to lead one and ‘human symphony’ was the remark a music critic gave after hearing ‘Days of Future Passed’ in 1967). Is this the band’s story then? The final song from the long line of songs dealing with the Mike Pinder fall out  (best heard on the Blue Jays album)? There’s a final telling teasing reference in the second verse (‘Heard ‘The Voice’, had no choice, needed to be free’) which references the band’s first recording under the new regime, their first with such a distinctly then-contemporary sound for some time which sounds to me like Hayward half-apologising for going on without the band’s founder member – and half adamant that he had no choice but to carry on. Certainly there’s something going on with this song even if that isn’t it because it sounds like no other Moodies recording – downbeat, depressed, murky and unloved, in many ways its the total opposite of the sound we associate with the world’s greatest prog rock band. The fact that it works so well – the highlight of the record and of the band’s whole 1980s output as far as I’m concerned – is testament to the bravery and imagination of the band, especially Hayward who also turns in one of his most passionate guitar solos near the end of the song. Deeply impressive, with a sound all of it’s own, ‘Blue World’ deserved to do so much better in the charts than it did, especially after the band had scored bigger hits with lesser songs like ‘Gemini Dream’ and ‘Talking Out Of Turn’ a couple of years before. But what can I say? It’s a blue world out there.

‘Meet Me Halfway’ is another fascinating song, nothing like as deep as ‘Blue World’ but still slightly alien and adventurous sounding. The theme of the song is an old one that’s been tried and tested many times (usually by Monkee Mike Nesmith): the narrator is flying home to his loved one and can’t wait to see her, urging the plane to go faster and hallucinating that she’s there already. But it’s the chorus that makes this song special because suddenly, out of nowhere, we hear the message ‘meet me halfway’ – knowing the Moodies as I do it soon becomes clear that this is a metaphorical journey the narrator is taking and that he wants his lover to care for him as much as he does for her. The short and snappy middle eight (‘Is this a dream coming true? Meet me halfway!’) suggests that she really is there at the airport to meet him and that she really does care, but the rug is swept from under our feet straight away with the next line ‘Like a vision...’ This is like the upbeat version of ‘Blue World’, with a man who knows good won’t happen in his life believing it anyway. The song is suitably hazy and atmospheric, with a wash of keyboards, sound effects and Hayward’s guitar meshing to create a sound that would be almost hallucinogenic if played on the Moodies’ 1960s instruments. There’s a sweet tune breezily blowing its way through the song too, one that sounds like Lodge’s work to me (both he and Hayward are credited with the song – for only the second time in the band’s history), one that keeps twisting and turning it’s way round as if shaking off the bad feelings that surface in the narrator’s mind from time to time. Not the best song this pair wrote by any means, but it’s still an impressive piece of work, one long forgotten and neglected by the Moodies’ generally passionate fanbase.

Alas ‘Sitting At The Wheel’ fails to make it three in a row. Lodge’s song tries hard to get us to like it – too hard in fact, throwing everything into the works in comparison to the subtlety of the other tracks on the album. Lyrically it’s not a bad song, with the very Moodies theme that we should keep on doing what we feel in our hearts whatever people tell us to think or do and that if we want to get to the end of life’s ‘journey’ we have to be aware of what’s going on without falling asleep ‘at the wheel’. I especially like the allusions to ‘music’ in the song’s lyrics, as if mimicking ‘Blue World’s attempts to use a personal journey as a metaphor for the band. But the tune’s poppy brassy glare is quite frankly irritating, with a banal chorus that seems to pop its head out of nowhere every time the song finally seems to be going somewhere interesting. Lodge likes his rock songs and rightly so – ‘Ride My Seesaw’ is the song that marked his big song-writing breakthrough and it’s a great template for future successes. Alas, the combination of 1980s synthesiser effects and a trite chorus makes this song by far the limpest of all of John’s attempts at ‘rocking out’. Some of the lyrics too are poor – I know most fans love it but I’ve never really ‘got’ Lodge’s ‘farewell’ song with its pained comment that ‘I’m Just A Singer In A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’ and this song is alas rock and roll band part two (‘What’s the point in looking for an answer?’ asks Lodge at one point, in one fell stroke making nine previous Moody Blues albums about the search for a mystical key to life positively worthless). Unbelievably, the recent CD re-issue includes a bonus track 12” mix which is even worse (not least because the song go on for – gulp – nearly eight minutes; ironically it’s the only one on the album that goes on for far too long anyway!) Altogether now: ‘Rock off, Rocker!’

‘Going Nowhere’ is a much more valid piece of work and Graeme Edge should feel rightly proud of it, as it’s the first time the drummer wrote a whole song by himself that wasn’t either a monologue or an instrumental. In fact it’s one of the loveliest Moodies ballads of all, a real soul searching song about facing up to mistakes in the past, wondering where things went wrong in a relationship and fearing that they might happen again. It also makes for a great complement to the last track – because this song is about what happens when you take your eyes off the ball and aren’t ‘sitting at the wheel’ of your life any longer. Graeme gives the song over to Ray to sing in a nice band move (it’s the first time anyone other than Mike Pinder sings on a Moodies track he didn’t write and Lodge’s take on Graeme’s ‘Slings and Arrows’ on the next LP is the only other occasion it happens) as Ray doesn’t get as much to do as normal from heron in and he does this song proud.

 As ever with Graeme Edge songs, the lyrics are a tad more poetic than anything else around at the time (‘Once more I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and I’ve lost’) and occasionally Graeme’s Shakesperian leanings get in the way but not here – this song reads like a head-scratching monologue and is all the better for it, with a subtle little tune running beneath the song that doesn’t get in the way of the sentiments. Like many a Moodies ballad this song is yearning for someone to arrive and put the narrator’s life right but unusually for the Moodies she still hasn’t turned up by the end of the song, leaving John and Justin to chime together on a lovely middle eight ‘How much longer must I travcel on, looking for someone to help me sing my song? Somebody tell me you love me, somebody tell me you care!’ Like most other songs the mood should be downbeat but somehow this track yet again seems to be rescued from the face of melancholy by another stirring Hayward guitar solo and a rhythm part that sounds faintly hopeful as the song finally fades out.  The result is a very rounded song, far removed from the often shambling Edge monologues of old and with one of the best band performances of the whole of the Moodies’ reunion period. Please, Graeme, write some more songs like this for us, this is exactly the sort of updated-but-not-too-updated piece the Moodies should have specialised in in this period.

‘Hole In The World’ is a John Lodge instrumental that ironically, sounds more like the sort of thing Graeme had been doing with the band in the 1960s. It’s a mood piece rather than a great work in its own right and as many commentators pointed out at the time it’s the first proper instrumental the Moodies had put out since 1969 (and ‘Beyond’). It’s a nicely updated take on the Moodies’ sound, with rat-a-tat military drumming that was all the rage in that ‘Adam and the Ants’ era, a solo from Hayward that makes him sound like a less flashy Eric Clapton and some eerie synthesiser sound effects that sound like they were recorded at the North Pole. The effect is quite simply thrilling, as the Moodies work on building up the tension uninterrupted for nearly a full two minutes without vocals, the first time in years they’d stretched their palette of sounds without hiding their inventiveness behind a vocal part and I badly wish they’d done it more across their 1980s and 1990s work (the only time they come close is on the truly toe-curling ‘Keys To The Kingdom’ album – and the less said about that monstrosity the better).

The instrumental is really just a scene-setter for a poppy John Lodge ballad called ‘Under My Feet’ and it’s a bit of anticlimax really despite some good ideas. The theme of the song is sudden unexpected changes in your life – which makes perfect sense as the military drummers of the last track seem to walk off a cliff when this song starts – with a first verse that suggests the change is a bad thing and a second that suggests it’s good. The narrator, you see, was just walking through life not realising what a good thing he had until it suddenly fell apart and an unknown stranger ‘stole’ up on him. It may be that this is yet another song on the theme of the band’s split a la Blue Jays – with the ‘under my feet’ chorus line referring to the ground giving way when Pinder handed his notice into the band. Lyrically these two main verses are quite good actually, again with the theme unique to this album that the glass can be half empty and half full at the same time. What really fails this song is the quirky chorus with its pained bark of ‘Un-Der My Feet!’ that makes it sound like a bad marching song, the cringing spoken-word ‘You took my breath away!’ and a woefully poor middle eight that repeats the old ‘Blue Jays’ chorus of ‘Where were you when I needed you?’ over and over. There’s a good song in there somewhere though, especially the ending which seems to be all light and smiles before that familiar marching refrain comes in again to take things over and spoil the mood (yet another unexpected change in the narrator’s life?) I just wish Lodge had stuck to his guns a bit without thinking he had to throw in a poppy chorus to keep his audience happy – because goodness knows ‘Hole In The World’ sounded like it was going somewhere special for a minute.

Justin’s song ‘It’s Cold Outside Of Your Heart’ is another song that’s surprisingly pop-orientated for the Moody Blues and – synth parts aside – could easily have come from one of their early albums (there’s even a backward guitar part last heard from the band way back in 1968!) Hayward’s vocal is suitably puzzled for a second song about having the rug pulled from under you, with a love still coming to terms with the fact that their loved one doesn’t have the same feelings for them any more. The repeated chorus should offer release and comfort, with a sudden switch to the major key that seems to bring new life to Hayward’s narrator, but it’s a false dawn with a very ambiguous switch between keys by the end of the chorus that sees him switch from major to minor several times, as if battling the results, before finally giving way to frustration. It’s a simple song and could easily have got irritating as many of the band’s later 1980s output does, but as with many other songs on this album there’s an excellent arrangement here that helps bring out this song’s depth, from the plodding synth-bass taking things one step at a time to the band’s massed harmonies hitting into the song at the point where the narrator is in disbelief about the change in his partner’s heart. The psychedelic twinges are an interesting touch, as if the band are updating what happened to many of the romances from the summer of love now that the materialistic 1980s are here, but really this is a timeless song about loss and hurt that’s delivered in a nicely pained way by Hayward at his most isolated and vulnerable. In retrospect I’m amazed that this song wasn’t chosen for the album’s tie-in single as it’s much easier to love than ‘Blue World’ – and a darn sight more impressive than follow-up ‘Sitting At The Wheel’. (Indeed, Terry Wogan went through a phase of playing it regularly on his breakfast show in the late 90s, along with the Moodies’ ‘Lovely To See You’, albeit it’s his genius producer Paul Walters who chose the music for the presenter– his loss really showed in the last few Wogan radio programmes where the music was often terrible).

‘Running Water’ is better still and could almost be the Moodies theme song, a piece about how time changes everybody’s outlook on life but never really changes what they feel in their heart. Hayward sounded like a lovestruck teenager on the last track but now he sounds like an old man (and I mean that in a nice way), looking back over his life and using the metaphor for how the physical landscape has changed with the changes inside himself. Few writers can turn a lyrical turn of phrase the way that Hayward can at his peak form and this song’s lyrics manage to be somehow both realistic and poetic. Other than Pete Townshend, who was obsessed with aging throughout the 1970s (when he was – gulp – all of 25-35), this is the first real time that any leading musician from the 1960s boom addressed the subject of aging and it’s one of the best songs on the theme, with age nothing to be afraid of if you keep sight of what’s close to you. Things make more sense by the time of the third verse when it’s clear that the narrator’s marriage is breaking up and his emotional outburst that it would be a shame to let something go that had lasted for so long is one of the more touching parts of what is in truth quite a touching album. If only Justin had written a tune that was the equal of the lyrics then this song would be one of his very best – but even the tune has a sort of rambling weary feel that’s a good match for the sentiments (if a bit repetitive). Many songs from ‘The Present’ have been neglected for far too long – and ‘Running Water’ is one of the best, a ballad every bit the equal of past Hayward ballad triumphs like ‘Never Comes The Day’ ‘New Horizons’ ‘Visions of Paradise’ ‘Driftwood’ and yes even ‘Nights In White Satin’.

I really don’t know what to say about next song ‘I Am’. This Ray Thomas song has long been dismissed by Moodies detractors as one of the most embarrassing things the band ever did and does sound to me like a man trying to get back into the habit of writing after a long lay-off, searching in vein for the ideas that used to give him inspiration. Compared to the rest of this subtle album ‘I Am’ sounds like nothing less than an epic for all it’s 1:39 brevity, a last gasp of flower power before the band submerge into becoming a workaday 1980s pop band. It tries to tackle nothing less than the existence of God but does so quite clumsily lyrically, with flowers not growing in salt water and freedom being never ever far away, or something like that. Certainly it’ll never win any lyrical awards and the chorus chant of ‘I Am!’ simply makes you want to ask ‘you are what?!’ rather than sorting out your life problems for you as the best Moodies lyrics do. But I like to hear one of the world’s most imaginative bands stretching themselves and I’d rather hear more tracks like this that don’t quite work than more bland empty pop (ie ‘Bless The Wings’ ‘Talkin’ Talkin’ ‘Like A Rock I’m Gonna Roll Over You’ etc) which alas is pretty much all we’re going to get from the Moodies from now on, barring a couple of gems like ‘Say It With Love’ and ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere’. Ray is on good form too, both vocally and on the flute, so it’s a great shame there isn’t more of him both on this album and the four Moodies albums to come. This song is certainly atmospheric and the mass Moody voice choir – not heard in such splendour since ‘Seventh Sojourn’ – is delightful and powerful. If only there was a proper song to go with it!

‘Sorry’ is more of a proper song and sounds to me like Ray trying to copy the avenues John and Justin have been going down. But, being Ray Thomas, this is never going to be an ordinary pop song and ends up with a few quirks and tongue-twisters thrown in for good measure. The tune is lovely enough for the most part, even if the ‘You turn me around...’ part sounds like Sting on one of his godawful lute-playing albums, but it’s the lyrics that intrigue. What starts off as a straightforward song about wanting to apologise for some past mistake gets confused – we learn that the narrator is apologising not because he genuinely means it but because he is tired of fighting; that his supposed mistakes are the result of ‘laidback uptown turnaround people’ (not quite up to John Lennon’s ‘short-sighted mother loving son of tricky dicky’ but I’ll let it pass for now) and that, in the big finale, ‘sorry’ only ever means apology for past mistakes, that it always comes ‘too late’ and doesn’t express the sorrow the narrator feels at making the same mistakes over and over. The best part of the song for me comes near the end, as the tune chugs along by itself and Ray remarks, almost to himself ‘Here I am loving you...’, remembering the happy times in a relationship rather than the sad ones. The song then gets a final kick before winding on its merry way, fading on quirky synth riff that sounds like it should be the antithesis of the sentiments on offer here – and yet, like the rest of this up-and-down album, it all sounds strangely fitting.  ‘Sorry’ isn’t the best song in the Moodies canon by any means, but it’s a good and intriguing one which – like the album cover and most of the songs within – give pause for thought, being quite different on repeated listening to the way they seem on first play.

‘The Present’ isn’t the best Moodies album, it’s far from perfect and only the very best songs from it measure up to what the band were doing a decade before. But it does take an important new step towards a greatness that sadly never came, looking back to the past and also forward to the future with a long list of ideas and topics that other albums can only dream about. It’s also the place where, for pretty much the last time, the Moody Blues are recognisably the same band who gave use such great and varied songs from so many different strong band voices and should be treasured far more by fans than it is. And if the music isn’t enough to keep you guessing about what’s really going on behind all these songs, then the album cover surely will.

‘Hmm, interesting Habridan. Of course, the poor writer got lots of things wrong – the technology we have reveals that only some of those thoughts were correct and that many of the band members didn’t mean what he said they did at all.’

‘Well, Catalunia darling, that’s what comes of inferior life-forms thinking they have all the answers.’

‘Which is why I like the Moody Blues so much for an Earth band, Habridan dear, they always sound like they’re going to give you the answers to life – and then they let you work it all out for yourself. He was hopelessly wrong about the album cover though wasn’t he? And the fact that ‘The Present’ is the last great Moody Blues album – we sitting here in 2254 know that isn’t true!’

‘Yes Catalunia, dearest, that’s very true. But I don’t think he got it that wrong, for an Earthling I mean.’

‘Well, few other Earthlings even seemed to register the album before our generation came along and made it a classic Habridan, dearest heart. How wrong those Earthlings were. Har-Har-Har!’



A Now Complete List Of Moody Blues Related Articles At Alan’s Album Archives:

'The Magnificent Moodies' (1965)

'Days Of Future Passed' (1967)

'In Search Of The Lost Chord' (1968)

'On The Threshold Of A Dream' (1969)

'To Our Children's Children's Children' (1969)

‘A Question Of Balance’ (1970)

'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour' (1971)

'Seventh Sojourn' (1972)

'Blue Jays' (Hayward/Lodge) (1976)

'Songwriter' (Hayward) (1977)

'Long Distance Voyager' (1981)

'The Present' (1983)

'The Other Side Of This Life' (1986)

‘Keys To The Kingdom’ (1991)

'Strange Times' (1999)


Surviving TV Clips 1964-2015:

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1961-2009:

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1964-1967:

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1968-2009:

Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part One 1969-1977:

Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Two: 1979-2015

Essay: Why Being A Moodies Fan Means You Can Never Go Home

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