Monday, 17 December 2012
The Moody Blues "December" (2003)
“Out of the darkness and into the light, this is Christmas when we make it alright” “Time take this sadness from me, time bring my heart back safely, hold on to warm September because life can be like December snow” “In the quiet of Christmas morning, in the peace of this Christmas dawn, the child that is the future will see the Earth reborn” “So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun” “A very merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear” “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, for rich and for poor ones, the world is so wrong” “War is over, if you want it, war is over now...” “It was only a winter’s tale, why should the world take notice of another love that’s failed?” “Where are the wise men when they are wanted? They are nowhere to be seen, like thieves in the night the desert is drifting ever closer, the world won’t sleep well tonight” “Where did the spirit of Christmas go? Lost in the desert or covered in snow?” “I once met a holy man who showed me the way, the road to tranquillity at last, the more he was listening the more he would say, with tales of days of future passed” “In the bleak midwinter frosty wind may moan, Earth stood hard as iron water like a stone”
The Moody Blues “December” (2003)
Don’t Need A Reindeer/December Snow/In The Quiet Of Christmas Morning/On This Christmas Day/Happy Xmas (War Is Over)//A Winter’s Tale/The Spirit Of Christmas/Yes I Believe/When A Child Is Born/White Christmas/In The Bleak Midwinter
First up – merry Christmas! A very happy and music filled 2013! And a ho! ho! ho! to all of you. (Unless you’re David Cameron of course when it’s Ha! Ha! Ha! who have you got left to care about you this Christmas?) May you all get the festive period you want this year, shared with those you love – even if those you love are only on the CD player, I don’t care – this is my party and you’re all invited. (Just take that Spice Girls mask off George Osbourne – you’re scaring everyone!) A big glass of something to all of you (I don’t care what – water if that’s all the Coalition have left you!) and warm festive hugs for continuing to read Alan’s Album Archives the year through (unless you’re new, of course, in which case I still hold a toast to seeing you again in the new year!)
Sadly that’s about it for the customary cheer of our yearly AAA album review. In past years we’ve discussed two varying Beach Boys Christmas sets (far from perfect but at least they tried, bless ‘em), Johnny Cash (depressing but fascinating) and The Beatles’ Fan Club Discs (zany but fun). That’s all the AAA Christmas albums I can think of (even the Johnny Cash was a bit of an extra) and all I have left is this rather shoddy Moody Blues CD, which isn’t even all that Christmassy. The truth is, I wasn’t expecting to have lasted this long when I started this site. I thought that four years in I’d be a) dead or destroyed or both from chronic fatigue b) my site would have been bought up by now or c) I’d have been amalgamated with google (everything else has). To date only the first of these seems to be vaguely true and yet I still hope to struggle on for a while yet. After four years I’m still here writing – which is wonderful in all sorts of ways of course – but now have to tackle this review. Please excuse me if the Christmas cheer leaves the room for a few paragraphs but then, well, rows and disappointments are an annual part of Christmas too, however much we try to hide the fact and we’re going to have some fun with this one...Well, I had to review this travestry of a record sometime didn’t I?!
I assure you I tried hard to be positive with this review, I really did. After all I love The Moody Blues. Their back catalogue is almost uniquely faultless, all the way up to the 1980s when so many bands fell apart at the seams. They should be the perfect band to spread genuine messages of peace on earth and goodwill to all men, because after all that’s what they’ve been doing their whole career through. Heck, I’m even the sort of fan who enjoyed ‘Strange Times’, the – err – strange last non-festive studio album the Moodies have made to date in 1999, hopeless modernisation and self-references and all. Well, it’s just lovely to see the Moodies still around at all spreading their cosmic joy to us all isn’t it? So many bands trying the same have disappeared in a sea of rows and acrimony that its to their credit the Moodies are still going and singing the same old song. But, sadly, on this album it’s the same old song times 11 on this album. I can’t find many good words to write about this ‘festive’ CD at all which remains an unhappy blot on their discography. Even in a ‘heck, it’s Christmas, I don’t have to hear this album for another 11 months so I don’t mind the sweetness rotting my teeth’ kind of a way I can’t find much to excuse this monstrosity, because it isn’t even particularly Christmassy (its more a festive record, with more songs about Winter than Jesus’ birthday, brussell sprouts and present giving). What’s worse is that no one seems to be trying terribly hard across this record because, well, it’s only a Christmas album isn’t it? And sadly that’s all a reviewer can say. Well it’s only a Christmas record innit? Nothing to see here, move along to the boxing day turkey leftovers...
However, I’m not done yet. Recording information for this album is sketchy, but I’m willing to bet that it didn’t take very long. What we do know for a fact is that the Moody Blues recorded this Christmas, wintry record about snow and winter nights in....sun-specked Italy. I wouldn’t wish the British wintry weather on anyone (well, maybe David Cameron) but, honestly, this album’s snow-on-the-windowpanes-and-fire-in-the-hearth atmosphere is about as convincing as believing that Bony M knew Mary’s Boy Child firsthand. To boot, this album came out in October – October! – which is dead early for a Christmas record and suggests that the bulk of it was made in spring or summer (most festive records are at least made in the Autumn so they’re halfway to the cold nights and warm fires spirit). Well, that’s my inner scrooge for you (and did I mention I was once cast in that part aged eight in a school play – what can I say? For me Christmas seems to be an excuse for people to act the way they should all year round for a single day, quickly forgotten when the new year comes around).
To date this is the last Moody Blues album the band have released. It’s now been nine years this December and, while still a majestic touring force on their best days, it seems that the Moodies’ creative spark has finally died out after twenty years or so of dwindling. Someone should have stoked that fire in all that time because, honestly, the Moody Blues are one of the best British bands around. Most of the original members are still there (or were till this album anyways) and unlike some bands I can mention they all still have their voices intact and there are no acid casualties among them. A few patchy records I understand but, seriously, there’s only been one Moodies song worth owning since 1988 (that was ‘Swallow’, a Hayward lab of pop nostalgia from ‘Strange Times’). Where did all that talent go? The sad fact is, I really don’t expect there to be any more studio albums after this – the band don’t need to, after all, as their re-issues, live albums and tours and occasional DVDs are more than enough to see them do all right economically. Word has it that this album took four years to make – and it sounds like it was like wading through tinsel-flavoured treacle all the way through (it speaks volumes that the band didn’t even mention to their fanzine that it was a Christmas album they were working on, perhaps because they knew what fans would think of the idea). The Moody Blues used to work so well because they were five fiery creators all sparking off each other – but, perhaps suitably for an album about winter, that spark has died by 2003. Keyboardist Mike Pinder left in 1978 with even his replacement Patrick Moraz gone by the mid 90s, flautist Ray Thomas left just before this album in 2002 and drummer Graeme Edge has long since given up writing songs and quirky poetry and now restricts himself to being the band’s second drummer. Only Justin Hayward and John Lodge are still creating by 2003 – with the addition of non-writing flute player Norma Mullen - and so perhaps its inevitable that their work sounds like retreads of earlier songs, both theirs and others.
But why do a Christmas album at all? I can understand why the Beach Boys made one in 1964 (the peak time for festive themed albums, they needed an album in a hurry according to their contract, ‘Little Saint Nick’ had been a big hit the year before etc). But by 2003 Christmas records are no longer a respectable part of the industry, they’re what singers and bands do when they’ve run out of ideas and want to make some quick money (heck, even Rod Stewart’s turned to that market now – and if there’s one good thing to be said for ‘December’ it’s that it still doesn’t sink quite as low as that record; I sat through the Rod Stewart Christmas special this year and I still feel sick a week on). But the Moody Blues have no real connection with Christmas and are unlikely to win over a new audience in this day and age, not with this set of recordings anyway. It sounds to me as if one of them went ‘I can’t think of a single idea for a song – let’s just do a Christmas album and get it over with’.
Perhaps it’s simply that this album was the easiest type to make. The gaps
between Moodies albums were getting longer and longer anyway before this (eight years seperate 'Keys To The Kingdom’ and ‘Strange Times’, neither of them exactly first class), perhaps showing that the writing was harder to come by than it used to be. It speaks volumes that ‘December’ is the first album since the pre-Hayward and Lodge, Denny Laine era line-up in 1965 to include covers of ‘outside’ songs alongside the originals and these make up a whopping five out of the 11 songs. Fair enough I suppose – you expect traditional songs on a Christmas album – but a lot of these songs aren’t particularly old or traditional either (Mike Batt’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ and John and Yoko’s ‘Happy Xmas’). Even the ‘expected’ choices are that little bit too expected: ‘White Christmas’ ‘When A Child Is Born’ ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’; frankly I’m surprised ‘Jingle Bells’ isn’t here! (And where’s (Moody)‘Blue Christmas’? At least that would have been fun in a postmodern sense?!) Yet despite having three of the most ‘Christmassy’ songs ever written, the overall impression of this record is that it doesn’t really touch on Christmas that much. Sure there are references to reindeers, lots of actual uses of the word ‘Christmas’ and snow (heaps of it), but that doesn’t make it Xmassy. There’s not a single sleighbell to be had across the album, no references to Jesus or religion bar the cover songs above and there’s no real insight into ‘proper’ Christmasses then or now (barring a slightly awkward reading of ‘When A Child Is Born’, surely the only version of the several hundred of this song around done in brummy accents). If you were an alien looking to understand the strange human past-times of putting up trees indoors, cooking birds that are available all year round for lunch and covering your walls with paper only to take them down again a few weeks later you’d still have no idea (well, only that it snows). Perhaps the band were clever in calling this album ‘December’ rather than ‘The Moodies Christmas Festive Bonanza’ or something equally predictable, but the end result is still half-cooked (just like this year’s turkey, get it back in the oven and read a bit more!) John Lodge even has the audacity to ask on one song ‘what happened to the Christmas spirit?’ You tell me!
Most fans, it appears, don’t like this record. Yet lots of non-fans do. Take a glimpse at the review of this album on Amazon or Prog Rock corner and most of them start ‘I usually love the Moody Blues but...’ or ‘I’ve always hated this band so didn’t expect to like this but...’ The trouble is, to the ‘outside’ world this is what all Moody Blues albums must solund like: twinkly synthesisers instead of proper keyboards (although their old mellotron was so much more than that), slow passionate ballads sung with great seriousness (‘Nights In White Satin’ has a lot to answer for...) and epic stories about peace and love. The main difference between then and now is that this album sounds hopelessly infantile and empty and manufactured – its the difference between a Walmart sweater with the price on the back compared to a home-knitted one (you might hate both of them, but at least you can appreciate the work and love and care in the latter). So it amazes me that the band decided to re-issue it again in 2005, this time in a double pack with the ‘Ballads’ compilation, as if ignoring the fact that most people who love the one will hate the other – and thus neatly reminding people of how good the band used to be – and how wonderful this album could have been. The trouble is, ‘December’ features even more ballads than that compilation does! At least the Beach Boys added in ‘Little Saint Nick’ for variety and pace – the fastest tempo we have here is the opening ‘Don’t Need A Reindeer’ which, in terms of the Moodies’ back catalogue, is still closer in spirit to ‘Isn’t Life Strange?’ than ‘The Story In Your Eyes’. By the time we reach the final track, an ugly half-speed synthesised version of the gorgeous ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, you’re wishing this was the good old days of vinyl, when you could at least have fun speeding the record up to 78rpm. It’s almost as if the record company told the band the album had to be a certain length and rather than record an extra track the band ssssslllloooowwweeeddd everything down accordingly (actually at 42 minutes this album is still on the short side compared to most new CD-length albums).
Perhaps I’m being mean, though, because there are flashes of the old inspiration and genius here. ‘Don’t Need A Reindeer’ has a classy singalong chorus, even if the words only reach auto-pilot at best; the Lennon cover ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over) isn’t as toe-curlingly right-on as most sloppy cover versions of this modern hymn for our times, even if it falls badly short of the superb original; ‘Yes I Believe’ might be pretty average on its own but does at least feature a strong performance by the band and some nice production moments (although, like draping a bare tree in tinsel, it would only be allowable on a Christmas record) and ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ is at least a good choice to cover, one of our ‘five AAA classic carols’ as related in these very pages this time last year in fact (in the top five of ‘News and Views 126 if you want to read up on it and your author’s addiction to the music of Gustav Holst). Justin and John are still in good voice and, to be honest, they could be singing the phone book and still make some kind of emotional connection with their listeners after all the decades we’ve spent together – but sadly they don’t often sing together (there are no real harmonies on this record) and the lack of Ray Thomas or Graeme Edge vocals is a shame. Heard separately Hayward and Lodge sound lost, stuck in a synthesised snowdrift right up to their necks. This album could so very nearly have been very different then, but unfortunately hearing these specks of talent drizzled across this album is like receiving a toy for Christmas without the batteries: it just won’t go however much you want it to. Of course if this was a Spice Girls Christmas record (shudder), well, there’s not a snowman in the Bahamas’ chance I’d ever play it but at least then I could think ‘well, it has some interesting moments – more than I was expecting anyway’. By Moody Blues standards, though, I’m used to having to play their records several dozen times to make sure I hear everything, there is so much packed into their music designed to dazzle, entrance, enhance or energise each song (only 10cc’s productions come close to the sheer effort that went into mixing the Moodies’ albums). By contrast this album is empty, a big fat hollow nothing which even those familiar voices can’t fill and I’ve sucked everything usable out of it in a single playing. OK I accept that, by 2003, the mellotron is long gone from the band’s sound but why does it have to be replaced by such ‘lift music’ synthesisers? This album, a mere nine years old (a mere infant compareds to most on this site) already sounds more dated than most of the 1960s albums we cover. Why have the keyboards on there at all? The orchestra on its own or even a piano part would have done! Bah! Humbug!
In terms of theme, there’s one massive one running through this album that will be of no surprise to anyone whose heard a Moody Blues reunion album: the theme of nostalgia. The band have had their biggest hits whilst looking back over their shoulder (just check out the retro videos to ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere’ and ‘Your Wildest Dreams’, both made about ten years before everyone else started going ‘aaah!’ about their 1960s youth). This works in two ways. On the one hand there’s (ironically, given the musical setting) a pang of regret that modern Christmasses are so commercialised. At various points across this record the band are shouting their belief in the ‘traditional’ Christmas, talking about the ‘peace and quiet’ of a (presumably Victorian era) Christmas of long ago and the idea that it doesn’t matter how many reindeers are on the roof or decorations are on the wall, as long as there’s love in the house at Christmas then its a special day. John Lodge’s song ‘On This Christmas Day’ is even his own re-write of Hayward’s ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere’ , seeing the ‘lonely face’ of someone he used to know and wanting her to know he still thinks of her. Which leads me onto my second point: the sheer amount of references to Moody Blues things past that fans are sure to know. Personally I like the idea of ‘In-jokes’ for fans more than most – it gives a connection between band and fans that mere ‘outsiders’ can’t hope to understand and doesn’t do any harm to those who are scratching their heads about why a certain line is in there.
However, there are far too many on this record, which makes me wonder if the band weren’t just sticking these in-jokes in to fill up another couple of lines per song. To go through them all would make this introduction another 3000 words longer, but here’s a few: ‘This is the season of beauty and love’ (‘Reindeer’ – ‘Love and Beauty’ was the band’s first single with Hayward and Lodge on board); ‘Looking for an answer that escapes me’ (‘The Spirit Of Christmas’ – see ‘Question’), ‘Tales of days and future passed’ (‘Yes I Believe’ – check out the title of the band’s Hayward-era first album); and ‘Paradise unseen’ (same song – see ‘Visions Of Paradise’). Alternatively, is this is the band, sure that they will never make another album together (or possibly looking over their shoulder at Ray Thomas’ ill health forcing him to leave the band) and trying to sum up their career in a few lines? (If so then make a proper record – not a Christmas one!)
In all, then, despite some good ideas, ‘December’ is the Christmas Day equivalent of the mother-in-law visit, the turkey-filled sandwich which lasts till new year’s eve, the TV schedule filled with Soap operas and no Dr Who special and unwrapping Spice Girls CDs under a Christmas Tree whose mysteriously developed the ash-tree fungus while the Queen goes on and on (and on) about what a rotten year they’ve had even though they’re secretly laughing at taking all of your money. We all have Christmasses like this one sometimes in our lives I fear – I guess they exist simply to show us how much better our other Christmasses are.
Trust me, there isn’t much to say about any of the songs here – so we’ll keep it short shall we? I need ‘Don’t Need A Reindeer’ like I need a whole in the sled, an awful hip-hop cooked r and b number with cutesy pie sleigh bells that, for a second straight album, sees the band trying to appeal to the ‘youngsters’ with an opening song that ‘sounds’ like one of theirs without actually understanding anything of the genre. At least ‘English Sunset’ from ‘Strange Times’ had the humour to laugh at itself, though, full of lyrics about passing great English traditions and the chorus ‘more tea, vicar?’ like some bad 1970s sitcom. This song simply takes itself soooo seriously and it has one of those awful infuriatingly catchy choruses that bands can only get away with trying at Christmas. The sad fact is there are more glimpses of the ‘old’ Moody Blues at work here than probably any other song on the record. Hayward’s triple-tracked harmonies are the closest we get to the full Moodies sound on this record and while the a cappela-with-handclaps section is disappointing, the chorus intoning ‘we can make it alright’ is the single most Moody Blues moment we’ve had for some time. You even believe its true, until the song hits the irritating verse again, which sounds like ‘Good King Wenceslas’ sung by the Spice Girls. The lyrics, too, are awful – ‘Do you remember long ago when we were children? Let’s be like children this Christmas time’. It doesn’t even rhyme! And the chorus, which does rhyme, is even worse! ‘I don’t need a reindeer, I don’t need the snow, tell me you love me and I’m ready to go’. Argh! And I know vagueness is an art form – ‘Nights In White Satin’ being perhaps the best song ever written where you don’t know what the hell it all really means for certain – but this song plays it far too safe. In the end it tries so hard to be a ‘generic Christmas’ everyone can relate to that no one can relate to it; there’s just nothing here. So, then, at least this song is 50% of the way there. On the Christmas metaphor list this song is somewhere around party hats and Christmas cracker jokes (the brussel sprouts are to come!) All this song really needs to sparkle like a bauble is a good remix to take that awful backing out and bring in more of Hayward’s excellent guitar which has been mixed so low you can’t hear it. On a normal album this song would be about average compared to the rest of the album; on ‘December’ it’s about the best thing here but should – and – could have been so much better. Had the band released this as a Christmas single, backed by ‘Yes I Believe’, then all would be forgiven – sadly the album’s going to get a lot worse than this...And yes, so much for keeping it short!
‘December Snow’ is another almost song on this record, a slow passionate ballad that at least sounds like it should be a full blown Moody song. The chord changes are so Justin Hayward like (they’re a close fit for ‘Moving Mountains’ from Justin’s 1987 solo record) and the bubbling synthesiser riff is a pretty neat match for the ‘Long Distance Voyager’ era of the band. Unfortunately, though, that’s all going for this song: had this piece had the benefit of pristine Moodies harmonies, more of Hayward’s guitar work (again ducked too low in the mix) and a little life about it this could have been a classic. The melody is quite lovely too, with a chorus that sweeps in from nowhere to full crescendo in true ‘Running Water’ Moodies style and again this song would easily have been the best thing on the album had they sped it up a tad and written some better lyrics. Yes, again the lyrics let this song down badly: ‘Like December snow that lies in the wood, you’re gone too soon – I knew you would’. Ouch! The band seem to have forgotten how to write a proper rhyme too, with one verse making out that ‘Me’ ‘Spell’ ‘Fall’ and ‘Calling’ all rhyme with each other. Is this really the same band who gave us ‘Question’?! Hmm too much mistletoe wine I fancy... At least this sounds vaguely like the Moody Blues though, which is more than I can say for...
‘In The Quiet Of Christmas Morning’, which is the second AAA song to be based on J S Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring’ along with The Beach Boy’s ‘Lady Lynda’ (from their ‘LA Light Album’ of 1979). Quite why two AAA bands should want to re-write an awful piece of baroque schlock is beyond me – I had piano lessons for 15 years and, along with Clementi, Bach was the composer I dreaded most. There’s simply no feel there, no emotion, it’s just a clever exercise in notes designed to make you show off, like a musical crossword puzzle; true music should have a link to an audience’s heart, not their heads! The Moodies, shockingly, don’t even improve on the original(at least ‘Lady Lynda’ went somewhere interesting!), with some yucky lyrics about Jesus’ birth that don’t even mention Jesus by name (is this meant to be set in the future?) Figuring out that little puzzle is the only thing worth listening to this song for – Hayward and Lodge’s voices clash badly, the tinny orchestra-and-sleigh bells backing is awful (though the subtle vocal choir is a nice touch) and that incessant Bach tune just wraps everything up in fake snow and tinsel. As if that wasn’t enough the band can’t even be bothered to write a third verse for this song, repeating the first again at the end and taking the easy way out in the compositional stakes (really, this is writing by numbers – even the tune’s been done for you). One of the lesser moments of a lesser album, it sounds like a bad Mike Batt song (funny that, given what’s coming up later...) and the only upside is that if you stick this on at the end of your Christmas party you’ll soon clear everyone in the room!
At least ‘On This Christmas Day’ tries to go somewhere new, even if it eventually ends up in a snow covered cul de sac. John Lodge’s re-write of Hayward’s ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere’, it finds the narrator noticing his old flame in the papers and imagines her alone at Christmas. However, that’s it: there’s no resolution to this song that gives us a happy ending and no evidence that the narrator even tries to get back into contact; far from vowing to track his love down whatever it takes as per ‘Somewhere’, this song limply closes ‘I will think of you’ as if that’s enough to put things right. Again some poor lyrics let down what could have been quite a sweet song (a snow-covered version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’?) with rhymes for ‘name’ and ‘rain’ (hmm), ‘crowd’ and ‘ground’ (erm?) and ‘street’ and ‘feet’. Again there’s quite a nice melody here but the whole thing is too slow by half – especially as the third straight ballad in a row! Again there’s an awfully yucky backing of strings (especially in the fade-out) and percussion and not enough Moodies playing at all (Hayward gets in another quick solo but it’s not long enough by half). Moodies fans have had a mischievous time wondering who the figure ‘in the papers’ might be – we couldn’t possibly comment! We put this song somewhere about turkey stuffing in our pantheon of Christmas metaphors.
‘Happy Christmas (War Is Over)’ is, at last, a fantastic song that gets the balance between genuine emotion and Christmas tat spot on. Unfortunately, its the famous Christmas single written by John Lennon for yuletide 1971 (the song was released so close to Christmas, however, it wasn’t a big hit until a re-issue a year later). We haven’t covered this non-album single on our site yet, so its worth talking about it in more detail. This song was written right in the middle of JohnandYoko’s revolutionary period in New York City, spreading messages of peace and its probably the single most successful song that got this message of love to the world across. The tune is easy on the ear until finally exploding into a choir of warmth on the choruses and throughout the record there are several clever little tricks that make the song ‘evolve’ (ie change key) and sound more and more positive as the song reaches the climax. Sure the lyrics (and especially the rhymes) aren’t particularly better than anything on this ‘December’ album, but there’s a belief and a genuineness about the whole exercise that covers up for any defects and the idea that Christmas is a time for peace across the world is a strong one. The idea of including the listener in the song (‘what have you done?’) is a special spine-tingling touch on a song filled with good ideas. Lennon wanted to make a song that would be the ‘White Christmas’ for his generation – it may have taken his sad death in 1980 to truly get the message across and turn this record from a well loved novelty to a global anthem, but this song got there in the end. As for the Moodies’ cover version, I don’t see this as the sacrilege that many other bands do – the lyrics about peace on earth are arguably as relevant to the Moodies and Lennon if not more so and they clearly mean well. Unfortunately, they’ve missed what made the original of this song so special: the choir of clearly non-professional singers, the subtle changes of key and mood are hammered over the listener’s heads and the cutesy orchestra makes the whole thing sound like Mantovani. Hayward and Lodge, trading lines throughout the song, can’t compare with the earnestness of Lennon’s original either (the song inspired one of his very best vocals). Worst of all the key line of the original (‘War is over, if you want it’) has been cut out for no apparent reason (indeed, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of 2003 that had just started meant this song’s message was even more vital than it had been in the context of Vietnam in the 1970s) – a shocking betrayal of the song’s original message which means the track fades some 2 minutes in instead of becoming a singalong anthem. All that said, this is still one of the better tracks on the album – you’d have to work pretty hard to fail entirely on a song as good as this one, few bands would have been able to be as sincere in their message of ‘peace’ as the Moody Blues and at least Hayward gets a proper chance to unleash his guitar here. Just don’t expect it to be as good as the original. In our musical metaphor game, its seeing ‘that’ Morecambe and Wise Christmas special yet another year – 40 years on its undeniably losing its impact and yet it still manages to be funny. Sort of.
‘A Winter’s Tale’ is a more unwanted cover from Womble creator Mike Batt and musical lyricist Tim Rice on a bad day. Batt had worked with Hayward on ‘Moving Mountains’ and to some extent this song seems a logical choice for the album – its tale of a lonely narrator searching for love isn’t too far removed from those of several Moodies songs down the years. Had this song been up to Batt’s best work (The Hollies’ glorious ‘Soldier’s Song’) and given Justin something to get his teeth into it could have been terrific. Unfortunately this is a weak song that covers up the hole at its centre by repeating its infantile chorus ad infinitum and a plotline that really doesn’t go anywhere – by the end of the song the narrator has pulled away from his bleak world view to acknowledge all the other people alone at Christmas, but that’s a cop out. What we really want at Christmas is a happy but plausible ending, not a reminder of how cruel the world can be. Hayward sounds downright embarrassed by the last repeat of the chorus, as if he’s only singing the song for a bet, and if anything the tacky strings heard across this record have got even tackier. One of the album’s less lovely moments – if the band wanted to do solitude at Christmas why not tackle Paul McCartney’s ‘Footprints’, a song with a million times the emotion and power of this one. In Christmas terms this is the lump of coal in a Christmas stocking. Bah! Humbug
By now in this record you’re probably pleading with Santa to make it stop and that you promise to be a good boy all of next year. The good news is that there’s not long to go now. The bad news is that up next is ‘The Spirit Of Christmas’, the weakest of all the not-that-great-to-be-honest original songs on this album. John Lodge doesn’t sing this song so much as whisper it and he hasn’t really bothered writing a melody line either, singing on two notes throughout. This re-telling of the Christmas story should have been the highlight of the album. There aren’t many major practising Christians in the AAA canon but John Lodge has always been open Christmas means, doesn’t explain the significance of Jesus’ birth or the star in Bethlehem’s sky and the three wise men are depicted as slipping away ‘like thieves in the night’. The only lyrics that resonates is from that middle eight, Lodge imagining the world ‘drifting slow through time and space, not knowing where we are’ (we’re in between Venus and Mars, surely?!) Not that memorable, really, like the bland eggnog your distant relative has forgotten how to make properly but still insists on creating every year.
Compared to everything else here ‘Yes I Believe’ shines out like a lighthouse in a snowdrift. Hayward’s third original song on the album, this song is far from great but does at least sounds like more traditional Moodies fare by equating ‘Christmas’ with ‘love’ and then treating this song like every other Moodies song about love. The catchy chorus is the only one from this album likely to stick in your head after the CD has finished and the lyrics, while not exactly poetry, do at least make sense and rhyme. The narrator believes in a better world but doesn’t know how to achieve it. He visits a ‘holy man’ who talks about ‘days of future passed’ and reveals that he doesn’t need to ‘do’ anything – just listen for the love that’s out there and encourage it to flower. Less twee than both the title and chorus make this song sound, this is as close to an uptempo song as we have on this record and even adds some belated Moodies feminism into the band’s sound on their last (to date) band original (‘Yes I believe in a better world, a world where my sisters can be free’). Hayward means every word he sings, he finally gets the chance to let his guitar do the talking in a still too short solo end section and the band chorus means that for once on this album this really does sound like The Moody Blues. Interestingly, despite being something of an atheist, it’s Hayward not Lodge who uses the word ‘God’ on this album and its at the very end of this song, with the narrator looking up to the skies and praying for a better life. In truth this song is only as good as about the midway best song on ‘Strange Times’ but as far as this album goes it’s a work of genius, like a stuffed stocking full of presents – or another relative offering to do the washing up for you.
‘When A Child Is Born’ is the hoary old Johnny Mathis hit about the birth of Jesus – although curiously and like ‘The Spirit Of Christmas’ the babe is never named, so for all we know this song could be set in the future. This is the first song on the album where you really miss Ray Thomas’ bass voice, the glue that so often kept Hayward and Lodge’s vocals together. Heard in harmony together, you at least realise why the pair haven’t sung together more often across this album and the sound is painful for us fans to endure. Again, this is another modern Christmas standard that made some fans scratch their heads, but like ‘Happy Xmas’ the song is at least suitable for the band with its message of peace and optimism and this version of the song would be quite nice if it weren’t for yet more soppy unnecessary strings and sleighbells. This is also the only song on the album that features Lodge using his traditional falsetto, so at least this song sounds more like The Moodies than others here! This version of the song is far from a travesty – and yet its hardly comparable to the original either. If this was a Christmas metaphor it would be the broken Christmas lights on the tree going on and going off again.
‘White Christmas’ isn’t one of my favourite yuletide songs. It sounds hollow somehow ansd the rhyme of ‘glisten’ and ‘listen’ makes me feel sick every time I hear it (to be fair, though, that’s about par for the rhyming scheme on this album). Irving Berlin wrote so amny fabulous songs that its always puzzled me how this one became as big as it was (till Band Aid it was the biggest selling single of all time), not least because of how short it is (at two verses it’s barely worth putting down on paper). At least Bing Crosby’s original had charisma going for it though – this soppy wet blanket of a cover is every ghastly mistake on this album multiplied. The original was slow but this Moodified version has slowed to a full stop, John Lodge’s vocal is awful and far from the great work he was giving us just 10 years before this (perhaps suitably, it sounds like he’s got a winter cold) and the soppy strings and hollow synthesisers are back in force. Thankfully the middle of the song transcends the opening, thanks to an unexpected input of power from the rest of the band and a slightly jigged up tempo, but it’s too little too late – this cover truly is a Christmas turkey.
‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ rounds off the album and is a truly gorgeous hymn. Justin Hayward’s always quoted Gustav Holst as an (unexpected) influence on his work and he’d dead right – Holst’s unique way with oblique time signatures and keys that give emotional resonance too strong for less writers is a strong match for his own work. I’ve said it before on this site and I’ll say it again – Holst is the only classical composer worth your time and I champion him as the unlikely godfather of the 1960s (despite having died in 1934) as so many of the AAA groups use the poise, emotional resonance and playfulness with harmonic laws of the ‘Planets’ composer. ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ is his setting of a Rosetti poem, something that was barely known during Holst’s lifetime but has become one of his most recognisable songs now, with its ‘bleak’ harmonic challenges and struggle upstream the perfect setting for Rosetti’s bare but intriguing lyrics. There’s no prizes for guessing that this song is second in my ‘all time top favourite Christmas songs’ list of last year (beaten only by ‘I Wonder As I Wander’ which would have been an even better fit for this album) and with the Moody Blues one of my favourite bands as well this recording should be fantastic! Alas, its probably the worst version of the dozens of recordings of this carol I own – its slow to the point of stupidity, Hayward’s vocal is strained to the point of getting a wheezing fit (did they really not go for another take despite spending years making this record?) and the changes the band have made to the original merely undo all the clever brilliance in the original. Worse, only Hayward seems to be playing on this song – Lodge is absent and Edge seems to be asleep – but instead of playing to his own bare guitar (something the song is crying out for) the band smother the song under a snowdrift of synthesisers. What a disappointment! The best song on the album by some margin (even compared to ‘Happy Xmas’), ‘Midwinter’ deserved so much better than this, the musical equivalent of the burnt turkey at Christmas lunch.
In all, then, ‘December’ is hardly an essential purchase. If you’re a Moody Blues fan you’ll hate it with a passion, as it shows the Moody Blues getting so much wrong, arguably for the first time in such a relentless fashion (all Moody albums have one bad track somewhere – but this album is all bad). The fact that the band seem to have ended their career with it is truly heartbreaking, far worse than finding out that Father Christmas doesn’t exist for me (erm... unless you’re under seven reading this in which case he does, honest and truly, that was just a typing error on my part...and why are you spending your Christmas hols reading about an album made before you were born anyway?) Even drunk on the sofa, surrounded by tacky decorations and presents under a tree, it still sounds more artificial than your surroundings. Now, I’m hardly the most Christmas-centred person that’s ever lived (as far as I’m concerned every day’s Christmas when music is around) and artificial Christmas music does send me particularly potty. That said, I’m hardly alone – of all the reviews of this album I’ve read over the years (some 40 by now) not one longterm Moody Blues fan seems to even like this album (although a couple of non-fans seemed to like it; well compared to Rod Stewart’s or Ringo’s Christmas albums it must sound pretty good). Our advice is: save your money for when the bills come in January and don’t buy it – if you’re getting it for a non-Moodies fan they won’t get to know the band any better from this album and if they love the Moody Blues then this record will break their heart. Normally a record this bad would make me fall out of love with any band I collect but, well, this is the Moody Blues who are very dear to my heart and – heck – it is Christmas. Well, a Coalition Christmas anyway. Bah! Humbug! Overall rating: ♫ (1/10).
Other Moody Blues album review from this site you might be interested in:
'In Search Of The Lost Chord' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-22-moody-blues-in-search-of-lost.html
'On The Threshold Of A Dream' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/news-views-and-music-issue-53-moody.html
'To Our Children's Children's Children' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-32-moody-blues-to-our-childrens.html
‘A Question Of Balance’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-moody-blues-question-of-balance-1970.html
'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-49moody-blues-every-good-boy.html
'Seventh Sojourn' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-53-moody-blues-seventh-sojourn.html
'Blue Jays' (Hayward-Lodge)
'Songwriter' (Hayward solo)