Monday, 27 August 2012
Dear all, I know these newsletters are coming thick and fast now but due to circumstances I feel as if I’m running out of time a bit to tell you about all the albums that really need to be heard and re-assessed. The jobcentre are on my back and want me to either stop or earn more money from this site – neither of which is likely to happen. Not co-oincidentally all the stress means my body is suffering chronic fatigue symptoms like never before. Frankly if I was a dog they’d have put me down by now to prevent further suffering but as the hideous laws against assisted suicide continue to rumble in the press (RIP Tony Nicklinson) it looks like I;m here for the seeing future, struggling to walk, struggling to think, struggling to cope. Luckily my ears are still working fine and I can just about cope with the pain in my fingers so here is another newsletter for you all, one on the theme of ‘balance’ – ironic, really, given how many times I’ve fallen over this week. A review of the Moodies’ fifth album, I can’t help think of another Moodies track ’22,000 Days’ (the average life expectancy when the song was released in 1981): our first site at www.alansalbumarchives.moonfruit.com passed 22,000 hits this week, which means one hit for every day I’m likely to live. We leapt up 100 hits in a day last week – which is odd because I’ve actually been spending most of my time on the evolution of our second site at www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk – which has actually fallen in hit rates to about 20 a day from about 40. Hmm, let’s see if we can get those statistics up a bit this week... ♫ Beatles News: Hot on the heels of last month’s DVD/Blu-Ray release of Yellow Submarine (and its blu meanies!) comes the news that TV special ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ will be available in October. News is sketchy as yet, with no ideas as to whether there will be any bonus material (there was quite a lot on the ‘Submarine’ disc), but the set will be in better quality than the ‘semi-official’ European release that was doing the rounds about six or seven years ago. This release will mean that, apart from ‘Let It Be’, every Beatles film will be available in the UK rather than simply being in import – for the first time ever! (And long overdue!) ♫ Kinks News: Ray Davies recently announced a competition to kover a Kinks Klassik. Any Kinks song is up for grabs, including the big hits and the b-sides that few people outside the AAA know! Videos or audio recordings are both being accepted and the winner gets to spend the day with ray in the Kinks’ famous Konk studios in North London where their cover version will be ‘professionally’ produced! (Two nights accommodation in a nearby hotel is also part of the deal!) Original Kinks drummer Mick Avory (with the band from 1964 to 1985) will also be on hand to help out. Two runners up will receive the Kinks at the BBC sessions box set and some Kinks vinyl signed by Ray. The Kompetition came about when Ray was looking for a ‘new’ way to publicise this month’s ‘Kinks at the BBC’ box set. Ray said: “This is a great opportunity for musicians to display their talent by re-interpreting some classic Kinks songs. Good luck, enjoy, be creative… be outrageous!" You can enter or vote for entries in the competition here: http://www.talenthouse.com/collaborate-with-the-kinks#description ANNIVERSARIES: Presents galore for AAA birthday boys (born between August 29th and September 4th: Al Jardine (guitarist with The Beach Boys 1961-1989) who turns 70 on September 3rd and Gene Parsons (drummer with The Byrds 1968-72) who turns 67 on September 4th, not to mention Alan’s Album Archives which officially first came online at www.alansarchives.t35.com on September 2nd 2008 and is now four years old (don’t bother looking for the site though – it doesn’t exist anymore!) Anniversaries of events include: 15-year-old George Harrison plays with The Quarrymen for the very first time (August 29th 1958); The Beatles play their last ever concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park (August 29th 1966); John and Yoko’s ‘One To One’ benefit concert takes place for disabled children and is pretty much the last Lennon concert we get (barring a TV performance of ‘Imagine’ and a guest spot with Elton John) (August 30th 1972); Drummer Denny Seiwell becomes the second member to quit Wings as the band are all packed for Lagos and ‘Band On The Run’ (August 30th 1973); Paul Simon releases AAA classic no 78, ‘One Trick Pony’ (August 30th 1980); the completely ridiculous court ruling that George Harrison stole the hook from ‘My Sweet Lord’ from the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ is passed (George clearly got it from the Hawkins’ Singers’ ‘Oh Happy Day’; August 31st 1976, a full five years after the single came out!); The Rolling Stones join their old pals The Beatles in suing manager Allan Klein for ‘falsely representing’ them with ‘intent to deceive’ (September 1st 1972); 10cc’s eponymous debut album hits the UK chart for the first time (September 1st 1973); Keith Richards’ house ‘Redlands’ suffers its second devastating fire in 10 years (September 2nd 1982); The Hollies finally score their American breakthrough surprisingly late, with Graham Gouldmann’s ‘Bus Stop’ (September 3rd 1966); The Beatles attend their first official recording session at Abbey Road, recording 17 takes of first single ‘Love Me Do’ (September 4th 1962); The Who, already deep in debt, have £5000 worth of equipment stolen from their touring van which is – wait for it – parked outside Battersea Dog’s Home whilst the band’s managers enquired about buying a guard dog. You can’t make these stories up can you?... (September 4th 1965) and finally, The Rolling Stones release ‘Street Fighting Man’, the second Stones single to be banned in a year (for ‘inciting riots’ – don’t the censors actually listen to these songs?! September 4th 1968).
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 “A Question Of Balance” (1970)
Question/How Is It (We Are Here?)/And The Tide Rushes In/Don’t You Feel Small?/Tortoise And The Hare//It’s Up To You/Minstrel’s Song/Dawning Is The Day/Melancholy Man/The Balance
After he had traversed a full octave of eight other Moody Blues albums, the scribe found he had journeyed far and wide, and his mind was sore, and he was tired, and his mind was full of sojourns and lost chords and space rockets and many wondrous things, and then when he began to despair of what to wryte he came upon an album he had forgotten named ‘A Question of Balance’. And he rested, and he lay in the cool, and he let his thoughts turn to the music within and while he was lying there he took out a Satsuma, stared at it blankly, thought ‘why the hell are the Moody Blues singing about fruit?!’ and went back to sleep. But as he lay resting he saw the tree above him and the stars flickering in the nights sky (ignoring thoughts of ‘why the hell am I outside when I should be in my writing chair?!’) and let the music wash over him again, and he thought of the album in balance. And he thought of Moody Blues albums he loved, full of mellotrons and Justin Hayward ballads and John Lodge rockers and Ray Thomas emotional insights and Mike Pinder melodramas and Graeme Edge curios, for he was not a neutral music critic. And then he thought of Moody Blues albums he hated, full of 1980s noisy synths and empty pop tunes and lack of guitar and bass and drums, for he was not a eulogising music critic who thought his idols could do no wrong. And then he realised he’d written about most of his favourite Moodies albums already and had reached the midway point between the albums he loved and the albums he loathed. And he understood this album and himself, for when he was in anger over missed opportunities or 1980s synthesisers or when he was hurt by less-than-perfect songs, it was because he was not understanding what the hell some of the confusing tracks on later Moody Blues albums were all about. He then saw his enemies like unto himself, and he learned love, and then he was answered, with a music review for Alan’s Album Archives (Letters to the Clandusprod Corinthians III, from the Face of Bo Bible V: chapter V).
For an album that’s traditionally meant to represent the Moodies’ return to the basics of their career, containing a suite of songs that could be performed by the band live on tour, there’s still one hell of a lot of weird stuff going on in the vinyl grooves of ‘A Question Of Balance’. All of the ‘classic seven’ Justin/John-period Moodies albums have something strange going on in them, but usually its heard in interludes, in openings and endings, in musical segues and in album artwork. ‘A Question Of Balance’ is simply strange all the way through, a gem of a hit single not with-standing, and a journey that divides the five Moodies’ writing styles up into categories like never before (vocal-less you’d be hard pressed to guess which of the five wrote each song on past albums, but not here when all five seem to be carving out their own niches within the band sound). There’s also the curious factor of why a band who wrote possibly the most consistent seven-album run of any AAA band should suffer so much on album five, with ‘A Question Of Balance’ caught between five definite masterpieces and five pieces of rather less dignified filler. Traditionally ‘Balance’ is thought of as one of the band’s best (alongside the excellent ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’ and rather patchy ‘Days Of Future Passed’), so I was expecting something sensational when I finally managed to track this album down – the last of the seven original Moodies albums I needed for my collection.
In that light ‘Balance’ is a bit of a disappointment. The ‘return to basics’ just basically means there’s not much of Mike Pinder’s sterling mellotron which had done so much to create the band’s melancholy, thoughtful , exotic air (thank goodness its back by album six ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’), slightly fewer overdubs and a little bit more drums. However, rather than re-invent the Moodies sound in front of our ears and prove what a great rock and roll band our favourite Brummie quintet could be, full of fiery passionate songs based around guitar bass and drums, it simply means that the Moodies sound like every other band around in 1970. Though as much money and time and effort was spent on 'A Question Of Balance' as all the others, it comes off sounding the lowest-budget record of the band's classic run - slightly lighter on ideas, production and the deep thinking that The Moodies so loved. You could imagine another band delivering a 'tribute' cover record of most of the songs on this album (there's even the nagging feeling a rockier band might have delivered songs like 'Tortoise and the Hare' and 'Minstrel's Song' slightly better) with only closing monologue 'The Balance' sounding pure Moodies; you'd be hard pressed to imagine another band tackling 'Have You Heard?' or 'The House Of Four Doors' for instance. Far from adding to our enjoyment of the band and what they can bring to the musical table, 'A Question Of Balance' just sounds like it's the 'lite' version of The Moody Blues for those who've heads have been turned so much by philosophical ponderings that they're temporarily forced on a diet ('I Can't Believe It's Not Bluer!') As to the band being able to play this stuff on stage: well, a quick listen to period performances shows (such as the band’s Isle of Wight performance from 1970) reveals that the band still had a long way to go trying to re-create their detailed exotic soundscapes outside a studio setting - the whole point of making this album in the first place ('Tortoise and Hare' sounds like its being tortured on that album and even 'Question' sounds flat-footed, while 'Melancholy Man' sounds positively suicidal). Last time round we got a record that took us to the back of beyond - this rootsier album is more earthbound and slightly clumsy in places and The Moodies are a band who belong in space, pushing back the boundaries no matter how silly this sometimes gets; there are a million other bands who lack the same imagination who can do 'earth-bound'.
On the other hand (this is an album about ‘balance’ after all) when this is album is good, it's great. Though other songs come close, 'Question' is the real heart and soul of The Moody Blues diluted down to one catchy song which shows off both the band's sad deflated and angry urgent sounds all at once. 'Melancholy Man' somehow manages to be one of the band's most OTT moments despite featuring a comparatively light production (until the end anyway, when all hell breaks loose) and has rightly become one of the band's better loved album tracks. Justin's 'Dawning Is The Day' and Ray's 'And The Tide Rushes In' are two of the most under-rated Moody Blues songs in the whole book, sweet yearning ballads full of the longing indescribable emotions lesser artists wouldn't have known where to start with. Even the album's lesser moments simply fall slightly short rather than flat on their faces, the closest that the band have yet got to an even LP (which isn't marred by that orchestra and those poems, ten minutes of 'House Of Four Doors', the simpler first side of 'Threshold' not living up to the second or the song 'Floating' on each of the last four albums respectively). The Moodies will do better yet with their next two albums, but even so it's impressive just how many ideas the band are still coming up with by their fifth album together (with this line-up), even if there is less of an overall band identity compared to 'To Our Children's. Though I was expecting slightly more from the performances given this album's reputation as their 'rock and roll' album (the band still sound as if they're working separately rather than together) when the band do get it on this album represents another peak, of sorts. 'Question' kicks out the blocks with the last song where all five Moodies are giving their all big-time at the same time and sounds great; the band also rally around Graeme for the creepy 'Don't You Feel Small?' where they turn the fact that only the drummer can't sing into an advantage. These songs work fine together on a record too, with the Moody Blues again rivalled only by Pink Floyd and Wings in their ability to get dense complex textures on a record without anything in the mix sounding cluttered or murky (hurrah again for the unsung engineers and producer Tony Clarke for the highlights of this album are all, if you excuse the pun, a question of the right balance in the mix).
Balance is, naturally enough, a dominant theme of the lyrics on this album and seems a natural fit for a band who always thought deeper than your average 60s posters. What’s fascinating for me is how each band member interprets that ‘balance’ theme in a different way. Let’s take the record’s first side as an example, with a song each per Moody (the only time this happens in the whole of the ‘classic’ line-ups history (though, alas, the theme falls apart on the more rushed second side): Hayward uses ‘Question’ as a song that’s really about looking for answers and is a song that alternates angry, strident rocking verses with inward questioning, balancing the desire for outer and inner change. ‘How Is It (We Are Here) finds Mike Pinder writing poetically about the Industrial Revolution and claiming that – as all good historians and history students know – that each period in human history brings benefits and problems in equal measure. Ray Thomas goes for the personal idea of balance, with ‘And The Tide Rushes In’ one of his better songs about having the rug pulled from under your feet every time you at last feel secure. Graeme Edge backs up Pinder with his scary song about progress ‘Don’t You Feel Small?’ when each ‘progress’ made by man (discovering new continents, planets and inhabitants) serves to make humanity’s world bigger and their place within it smaller. Finally, John Lodge updates the timeless Aesop fable ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ to show the ‘balance’ between working fast and burning your ideas up quickly and taking things slow and steady – two methods each with their benefits and weaknesses. Always questioning, always looking for the ‘truth’ and ‘balance’ of each argument, in many ways this is the band’s most thoughtful record, caught at the midway point between the confidence of albums one to four and the melancholy insecurity and guilt of albums six and seven.
The balance comes into play on the striking album cover, more garish than most Moodies sleeves but certainly more interesting than the stone-age scrawled cover for ‘To Our Children’s (personally I think the band should have used the inner sleeve, a marvellous photograph-come-illustration showing the Moodies in a cave and subverting our ideas of the ‘stone age past’ on its head by showing us our future). The theme is balance, with images of peace and war stuck together in a sort of non-ending collage featuring such distinctive images as a storm-cloud in the shape of a tiger raining on a pretty beach, Einstein’s dreams resulting in both triumphant space-rocket and a smoky, vulnerable-looking Earth and, most controversially, a hunter shooting an elephant and in turn about to be bitten by a crow. The hunter, drawn by artist Phil Travers (later a 10cc record producer) from an illustration he found in National Geographic, was so recognisable as hunter John Blashford Snell that the explorer successfully sued album company Decca for using his image without his permission (UK original editions contain a black square over the image). Decca promptly forgot to tell their US arm though who issued the record as planned – and Snell successfully sued a second time. Much ridiculed at the time for taking the Moodies to court, it actually showed great awareness by Snell as to what the album was all about (most hunters of the day couldn’t understand why their profession was viewed as ‘bad’ by the peace loving hippies and would have been tickled at being on an album cover; see the similar story of the Beatles’ Indian colleague Bungalow Bill who went to his death seeing nothing wrong with hunting in between meditating at Rishikesh and who was reportedly rather proud of being turned into a song!). The image has been restored for the CD copies, interestingly – presumably Snell’s estate don’t have the same problems he had with the ‘hippie’ generation, or perhaps a settlement has been reached or they don’t know and I’ve just accidentally opened a can of worms there and we'll all be back in the courts again before you know it (in which case, sorry Moodies!)
There’s another theme on the record too, possibly a by-product of left-over songs from the previous ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ record, an album all about man’s evolution and the start of his journey into space (released to coincide with the moon landing of July 1969). Many of the songs here seem to be looking at the human race as a by-product of evolution and assess how mankind fares across time, with exploration bringing out the best in mankind as a species (curiosity, courage and a desire to find out the scientific ‘truth’) with the bad (losing sight of humanity as individuals, a loss of a ‘home’ world, more opportunities for war). If ‘How Is It’ is a song reminding us of how far humanity had to come to reach the moon landings then ‘Small’ is an eerie echo from mankind’s future when all of these bad points have come true. The second side of the record features both the happiest and saddest of all Moodies songs, as if offering up two alternative futures based on mankind following the good and bad points. On the one hand, the hippie peace philosophy of the late 60s (already dying out by 1970 when this album was released) results in the joyous vibe of ‘Minstrel Song’, with a whole generation of people marching to the beat in the name of ‘peace and ‘love’. On the other is ‘Melancholy Man’, the moodiest song the Moodies ever recorded (and a surprising #1 hit single in France), with Mike Pinder’s narrator lost and adrift in space, part of a new breed of ‘melancholy humans’ , lost without the security and base of a ‘home’. A kind of space-age update of next week’s review of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock’, it makes for often uncomfortable hearing. That little lot over, all that’s left is for a poetic psychobabble Graeme Edsge poem and a catchy Ray Thomas pop chorus in ‘The Balance’ – the one Moodies song I must confess I don’t understand at all (and parodied above – is it really about a man eating an orange? Or did I miss something somewhere?!)
A quick word, now, about the latest CD re-issue of the album (from 2007), which like the re-releases of the other six ‘classic’ Moodies albums came under a bit of fire from fans. Like the others the supposed SACD quality (made from the original quadraphonic tapes) is disappointing, being in 4.0 rather than 5.1 surround sound, although I can’t say I’m as fussed about that as many of my fellow fans (its a low of 1960s and 70s music that everything should be good enough to stand up to being heard on a tinny portable transistor radio, because that’s where most of these songs were first played) and it still sounds good on headphones. The use of ‘full’ edits of songs is an interesting one, irritating given that we generally have to listen to four or five minutes of music that we’ve known for decades to hear a titbit of a second or two, but something that’s proved brilliant for my mp3 players (where I don’t have so many Moodies segues to navigate through on ‘shuffle’). By and large my advice for the other six albums is to stick with what you’ve got if you already own a decent-sounding copy – with this as possibly the only exception. For the unreleased song ‘Mike’ Number One’, though heard here in undeniably rough form, may well be the best of the handful of Moodies outtakes released so far. A slow and Moody Mike Pinder song, its similar in structure to ‘Question’ with its strident choruses and timid verses and a mixture of ‘Melancholy Man’ and ‘Minstrel’s Song’ in theme, hoping for goodness and fearing the worst. It’s a much better song than either of Pinder’s songs to make it to the album and would have fitted well onto Pinder’s only solo album ‘The Promise’ (1976), with a simple and pretty tune and a hummable chorus. One wonders why it was never finished, especially given the ‘filler’ on most of side two of the album – and the fact that Pinder, uncharacteristically, seems to suffer writer’s block in 1971, coming up with just the one song for the ‘Every Good Boy’ LP.
The end result? ‘Balance’ is a difficult album to get a hold of. Less immediate than their best work and simpler than the ‘other’ six classic LPs, it shows a band in turmoil to some extent, wondering where to go next after an impressive run of four albums which were gathering critical and commercial momentum with each release. The fact that the album is best known today for Justin’s ‘Question’, the band’s biggest single until the 1980s, rather overshadows the fact that this is even more of a diplomatic group record than usual, with all five members pulling their weight for perhaps the last time. Many fans love this work for its looser, rawer rhythms, though for me its something of a relief to get back to the grandioseness of ‘EGBDF’ and ‘Seventh Sojourn’, which sound like much more ‘complete’ to me. That said (it’s all about balance this album, after all) there are songs here that are right up there with the Moodies’ best and even the lesser ‘filler’ songs from this album have a charm and a panache that few other groups can compete with. Had the Moodies made no other albums except this one, I’d have still have loved them dearly – the fact that this album can’t hold a candle (of life) to ‘In Search Of The Lost Chord’ ‘To Our Children’s ‘ EGBDF’ and ‘Seventh Sojourn’ doesn’t make ‘A Question Of Balance’ a lesser album by any standards except the Moodies’ own and there’s still much to enjoy. After all, how many albums do you know that manage to be this lushly produced, feature that many poetically driven lyrics and soundscapes about man finding balance in life by eating oranges and yet still rock as hard as ‘Balance’ does on ‘Question’ ‘It’s Up To You’ and ‘Tortoise and the Hare’ (the first two of which are among the band’s best rockers)? And how many albums do you know that can piss off British Empire explorers, contain angry songs written in response to the Vietnam War and create one of the eeriest, scariest passages of any song ever recorded (‘Melancholy Man’) without sacrificing any of the beauty that has come to be the Moodies’ trademark? ‘A Question Of Balance’ might not be the place to start your Moodies collection (see our ‘reviews’ section for the four we recommend!) but it is still a great album, far better than anybody’s fifth album in four years has a right to be.
A final discussion based around what you get if you buy the deluxe CD. Not a lot, really compared to the four earlier albums: The Moody Blues were by now so big that they didn't need to promote their records with appearances on BBC radio shows and now have the confidence that even their dodgier ideas will work so that there are less unused songs or non-album tracks in this era. However 'Question' does contain one of the greatest Moody outtakes in 'Mike's Number One', a Pinder track far more representative of his usual songwriting style than either 'How Is It (We Are Here)' or 'Melancholy Man'. The closest The Moodies ever got to writing an 'anthem', it's an 'All You Need Is Love' dressed up in even hippier clothes as the band turn back to their early days of addressing the 'flower children' with the promise that 'we've all started something - and it's begun to grow'. Though clearly unfinished, it's already a very lovely track that would have made a fine addition to the album - or indeed the next one 'EGBDF' where Mike will only get the one song. The 'balance' theme even shows in the 'bonus tracks', though, with this brilliant find (why wasn't it released on 'Caught Live+5'?) followed by five bits of scraping the barrel. An early version of 'Question' starts with even more aggression than the finished version but soon settles down into more of a plod which just sounds like a rather rougher version of the finished song without the orchestral overdubs and a rather more manic Justin guide vocal; 'Minstrel's Song' runs longer by about ten seconds with a few extra improvised yells and calls (with Pinder getting very carried away!); 'Dawning Is The Day' opens with ten extra seconds of strumming and humming cut when the song merged into the back of 'Minstrel's Song and 'It's Up To You' includes barely five seconds of extra double-tracked Hayward guitar. Only 'Don't You Feel Small?' is really worth your while, starting not with the slight half-start and deep breath for the opening lyric but with a very moody ten second instrumental part with more scary Ray Thomas flute. Apart from 'Mike's Number One' and the new 'Question,' then, what you get for your extra money adds up to around thirty seconds compared to a quarter hour of repeats: a bit unbalanced if you ask me! (Surely there were 'earlier mixes' or at least 'alternate mixes' with the original beginnings and endings intact that could have illustrated the point?!)
‘Question’ is the opening track and the album’s best known moment – indeed, it's the closest the Moodies ever got to having a #1 hit in their UK homeland (I’d love to tell you it was another great artist that kept them from being top of the charts and stuck at #2, but no – it was the flipping England Football Team singing ‘Back Home’ before the inevitable loss and penalty-ridden disaster!) Justin has since said that he wrote the song very hurriedly the morning of the first recording session and, thanks to its simplicity, the band managed to nail it in a couple of takes, setting the ‘tone’ for the ‘return to roots’ feel they wanted for the album. The song clearly struck a chord with a whole group of people who took to this record in a way they hadn’t for other Moodies near-misses like ‘Lovely To See You’ ‘Voices In The Sky’ and ‘Watching and Waiting’ – in fact everything since ‘Ride My See-Saw’ in early 1968. No doubt the song’s catchy hook and its intriguing structure, ‘balanced’ neatly between a loud strident half and an inward timid half, helped but in a year of social unrest, violence and escalating anti-war protests it’s lyrics must have seemed particularly apt. The sixties dream of peace and freedom, which the Moodies embodied more than most bands, was unravelling and nobody knew quite why: this song’s opening line ‘Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door?’ and its theme of looking for answers and not getting any sum up the year far more than anything else released back then (including ‘Back Home’!) If you look at Justin’s back catalogue, his songs are pretty much evenly split between the ‘personal’ and the ‘universal’, songs of self-doubt mixing with others about the troubles of the world. ‘Question’ stands out in his catalogue because it’s the only case (to date) where he merges the two strands and suggests that the world’s problems are simply those that all of us face writ large, full of guilt and recriminations. Great as the opening section is, with its slashing chords and driving tempo, its the quieter middle section that gives this song it’s heart. After wondering why a generation’s questions are never answered and pointing the finger at others, it’s a masterstroke to slow the song down and hear Hayward’s narrator admit his own mistakes and falling out with people (in a very Paul Simon lyric, Justin adds It’s not the way that you say it when you say those things to me, it’s more the way you really mean it...’ – compare with ‘Tenderness’ from the ‘Rhymin’ Simon’ album). The other Moodies back Justin well here, with some fine mellotron from Pinder and some classic band harmonies, but its Justin’s emotional outpouring on both lead vocal and guitar that elevate this song from great to classic status, with an honest and believable performance matched only by the ‘other’ big hit ‘Nights In White Satin’. The song then ends with a repeat of the opening, another great idea suggesting that questions are never answered and ending with one of the loudest drum flurries of any Moodies records, the Moodies almost going heavy metal! The first song properly recorded for the album, ‘Question’ is central to the record’s themes of balance and simplicity and works even better as the opening overture on LP than it did as a singalong single (which undeniably deserved much better than to have been stuck behind a novelty football record for the whole of it’s run!)
‘How Is It (We Are Here?)’ is another fan favourite, this time by Mike Pinder, something that’s always puzzled me both because it doesn’t sound like Pinder’s usual forward-looking melancholia pieces and because – by the Moodies own high standards – its a bit of anonymous record. Not quite lasting three minutes it tries to ask its own big questions (‘Why are we here and where are we going?’) but instead of answering with emotion or outrage it turns into a history lesson, showing how while the Industrial Revolution brought inventions that eased living, it also destroyed nature and doesn’t solve ‘real’ human suffering such as starvation and poverty. There’s a dig at evolution too, suggesting that man is devolving back into the ‘ape’ he once became, becoming uncaring and oblivious to others’ suffering (although it’s interesting to note that in the lyrics evolution is what ‘scientist-priests all think’; priests, of course, believe in creationism and that evolution is a mistake; Pinder doesn’t believe in either it seems – perhaps, like me, he believes that we were artificially created by another race; if true they must be furious that all that hard work and effort resulted in – gulp – the Spice Girls). The trouble with this song is that, like many of Pinder’s songs, its very talky with long cumbersome lines to sing that rather get in the way of the lovely lilting melody played on Pinder’s mellotron behind his vocal. At two verses and a seemingly un-related middle eight (‘Her love is like a fire burning inside’ – presumably mother Earth although the link isn’t made clear) there simply isn’t enough scope to cover several millennia of man’s evolution. Hayward adds some terrific stormy guitar to the end of the track and Ray Thomas adds a rare flute harmony part (he’s noticeably absent from this album), but by and large this is Pinder’s show and an alarming example of how little the band were actually playing together at the same time by 1970.
‘And The Tide Rushes In’ is Ray’s one great moment on the record and its one of his best songs, a much more personal take on the ‘questioning’ theme of the album. Thomas was always at his best writing love songs and this song about breaking up and making up was apparently inspired by a colossal argument with his first wife (producer Tony Clarke, who considered this song one of the best things the band ever did, jokingly goaded the couple into having more rows!)’Balance’ is the theme again here, with the idea that good and bad things always comes in cycles, with the ‘tide rushing in’ as a symbol of life’s unexpected developments and leaving the hapless narrator unsure whether his partner is in love with him or not (‘I’m not so sure which side of the bed I should lay’). Lyrically there’s also a hint that the Moodies are getting tired of their fame and status, a second verse (‘I sit down and lend an ear, but I hear nothing new’) seemingly developed and transformed into the Moodies’ closing statement from two albums later ‘I’m Just A Singer In A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’. There’s a lovely instrumental middle section, which desperately deserves to be longer, Hayward’s minstrel-like acoustic guitar fills from the past meeting Lodge’s very 60s bass runs from the present and Pinder’s gorgeous sounding mellotron representing the future, as if the song is timeless and has been repeated by mankind many times. Structured like a low key version of ‘Question’, this song shows an even finer grasp of dynamics, starting so quietly you can barely hear it and letting Ray’s passionate vocal soar at full strength by the final chorus. The lyrics even start the same way: ‘I’ve been searching for my dream...’ is basically the same head-shrugging re-action to life’s problems). The one thing that lets this song down is the rather abrupt ending: the last verse about a blackbird watching acorns fall is far less inspired than the first two (if this song is symbolic of mankind’s stuttering progress, then ‘who’ is the omniscient blackbird?!) and the song doesn’t end so much as fizzle out, ending on an uncomfortable and unresolved fourth.
'Don’t You Feel Small?’ is the eeriest of many eerie songs from drummer Graeme Edge and features his own whispered ghostly voice set against the harmonies of Ray, Justin and John (Mike must have been out that day!) The song is urgent and spiky, full of staccato rhythms and a mock-nursery rhyme sing-songy melody that could be beautiful but instead sounds creepy. The tension that’s built up by the end of the third verse is palpable, but the song really comes alive in an unexpected chorus, garbled off so badly you can’t hear it without the lyric sheet (it’s ‘Look at progress, count the cost, we’ll spoil the seas with the rivers we lost’) but is still affective as a sudden adrenalin-pumping rush of energy. After a blistering but short instrumental passage, with some great flute playing from Thomas, the song sadly reverts back to its lesser beginning, but for a minute or so there this is exciting, energetic stuff. Lyrically this is an even darker take on ‘How Is It We Are Here’s discussion of evolution and progress, sarcastically summing up mankind’s denial over the problems the industrial revolution has caused with the opening lifted straight from Snow White ‘Ask the mirror on the wall...’ The band also seem to be spoofing themselves with the line ‘See the world, ask what its for’ and laughing at the idea that the world is ‘for’ anything (mankind being a pretty recent development in terms of the history of the Earth and thus isn’t ‘for’ any purpose at all). There’s a hint, too, that if mankind doesn’t start widening his horizons to other planets he’s in danger of wiping himself out, with a verse that should have been on ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children’ (an album about that very theme). In the midst of the great vastness of space mankind really is just a speck on the great scheme of things and this song – part sarcastic, part angry, part bitter, part wary – is one of the best tracks around at summing up that feeling, especially the contrasting middle section. Graeme’s disembodied voice is also surprisingly effective and had the drummer lived in a different era he’d have been the star of many a Hammer Horror film (along with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters’ bloodcurdling screams!)
‘Tortoise and the Hare’ was deliberately written by John Lodge as a simpler song the band could do in concert, but the song never really took off on live shows (listen to the Moodies’ Isle of Wight performance for a particularly mangled reading) and is only partly successful on record, thanks to a rushed recording that never really comes together. The harmonies, in particular, are all over the place, with Lodge’s double tracked lead (including his trademark high falsetto) needing a couple more takes to perfect and even the Mike, Justin and Ray chorus struggling to blend together as smoothly as normal. Lyrically this is so close to the Aesop fable of the title as to be cheating, although ironically its the bits added to the song that work least well (what does the rather boring ‘It’s alright’ chorus signify? That the rabbit is convinced he’s going to win? Or that the tortoise will make up lost ground when his competitor goes to sleep?) The one part of this track that does come off is the unusual chunky rhythm which does a good job at mimicking the relentless march of the tortoise (with the fluid, mercurial guitar runs from Hayward sounding like its playing at double-speed and mimicking the hare). A cautionary tale without anything new to add or any idea who exactly its aimed at (Is it telling the 60s generation to ‘keep plodding on’ and their ideals will come into play in the future? Is it Lodge’s song to the rest of the band to slow down? Is it simply a last minute bit of filler?!) this is a curiously ungraceful song for a Moody Blues recording, all mangled production and leaden tempos, and while it’s nice to hear the band doing something different this is perhaps[s an experiment too far. A curiously dull end to an eclectic first side.
Side two opens with another Hayward song, ‘It’s Up To You’, which is the hidden highlight of the entire album. Starting with a timid acoustic opening, it soon turns intoi a strident pop number with a deliciously retro vocal from Hayward who even sings with a Buddy Hollyish hiccup on a very 1950s sounding track. Lyrically this is another interesting song that starts off being about a disintegrating relationship (where she’s not in love as much as he is) and ends up going back to the theme of ‘Question’s disconnection, that the denial of the peace and love generation is ‘lies’ (an unusually bitter and angry put down by the Moodies) and that even now, even after all the troubles of 1969 and 1970, ‘that we have got nothing to lose’. There’s a particularly lovely chorus where the Merseybeatish rhythm section falls away and the song just soars which is highly affecting and, like all the best Moodies tracks, convinces you so thoroughly that things are going to turn out right that it’s a shock when the song stops and you realise its 2012, all the same old school are still in power and none of the good things from that era lasted at all. Though low mixed, Justin’s double-tracked vocal is another masterpiece of vulnerability and power, although it’s a shame to hear a chorus featuring more Haywards singing together instead of the rest of the group and hints again at the divisions that are going to become more common on Moodies albums six and seven. Again a sudden ending, on one of the shortest fades in musical history, undoes much of the good work (was there a mistake dead close to the ending that the band couldn’t repair?) but that doesn’t take away from a song that deserves to be much better known.
Alas ‘Minstrel’s Song’ is the worst song on the record, a rather dull re-tread of ‘Love Is All Around’ by the Troggs that even recycles the exact same chorus line that like John Lodge’s other composition on the album is rather ploddy and repetitive (its a curious fact that Lodge will write either the best or the worst songs on a Moodies LP; play this song and ‘hare’ back to back with the superlative band highlight ‘One More Time To Live’ from the next LP ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ and it’s hard to believe it’s by the same writer). At least the Moodies sing en masse this time, albeit with John’s lead up front in the mix, but the song gets so deep and low at times that even Ray and Mike struggle to keep up. That said Pinder’s singing on the chorus is a delight and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he wrote it, given its close proximity to his own ‘The Sun Is Still Shining’. Lyrically this is a song about how a minstrel band manage to spread love around a community like the pied piper, gradually spreading the joyous vibe to ‘nations’ from their starting point (which means the revolution which brought peace and joy to the world started in...Birmingham of all places, if the bandare indeed singing about themselves here). Alas Lodge has written much better songs on the same theme and he doesn’t seem to have the same belief in this song as its mirror image ‘I’m Just A Singer In A Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’ (which basically has the minstrel of this song telling his fans to get lost because he’s just as confused about life as they are!) There is a pretty tune in here somewhere, though and it’s nice to hear a full band performance, especially on the chaotic ending where they sound like they’re having fun (Pinder and Hayward trading lines that seem to be improvised and expand the song by some 30 seconds or so) – it’s just a shame the song itself doesn’t have something a little extra to add.
‘Dawning Is The Day’ is a third and final Hayward song and is ever so nearly up to the standards of the other two, showing what a terrific purple patch he was in during this period (The Moodies are often painted as ‘his’ band nowadays, but one of the many things I love about them is what a democratic and fair unit they were, splitting their albums evenly between all five members – until the split in 1972 at least). The opposite of ‘Question’, this song balances a timid opening section and a booming chorus, although the lyrics are more like ‘It’s Up To You’, seemingly approaching a loved one before back-tracking to reveal it’s (probably) about the world in general. The song opens with the belief that ‘you will find your way’ and moves on to delight in the idea of escape and freedom (‘no one tells the wind which way to blow’), but upsets the whole song thanks to a storming middle eight that barely lasts 20 seconds. ‘Baby there’s no price upon your head...now the angry words have all been said, do it, don’t doubt it’ Justin almost yells to the accompaniment of a scary bass mellotron rumble and some swirling flute, as if the narrator’s seemingly endless sea of patience has just run out and he’s cajoling his generation to recover from the setbacks of the late 60s and plough ahead in the name of love and peace oblivious to all. The song then reverts back to the pretty melody of the start, but things have changed and the narrator – who started off all confidence and support – now sounds worried and nervous, adding the one word ‘So...’ at the repeat of the first verse which makes all the difference (nagging rather than pleading). The memorable song then ends with a round of the line ‘listen we think we have found you’ sung by the whole band in harmony, like the pied piper from Minstrel’s song gathering up followers bit by bit. It’s a moving moment on an excellent song that works to all of Justin’s many strengths (emotional integrity, dynamic control, guitar work, strong melody and a theme of the personal reflecting back on the universal) and is another of the highlights of the album.
‘Melancholy Man’ is a divisive track that fans either love or loathe, exaggerating every Moodies trait to the hilt (a slow, stately melody, depressing lyrics and a really epic feel in production terms). For me, typically, I can take or leave this song and I admire the structure that slowly travels from miniscule to mammoth in the space of nearly six minutes, whilst still wishing occasionally the band would just ‘get on with it’. Some fans take this song at face value and see it as an emotional outpouring about how rotten the world is and how messed up we all are, but the way Pinder sings the song (with a ‘glow’ of calm and tranquillity rather than utter suffering) has led some fans to think this song is a lot happier than first meets the ear. Certainly thinks look up in the second verse (this long song has only two, although both are quite long) when a sudden ‘beam of light’ will fill everyone’s heads and they’ll accept the ‘good’ advice from our great artists, thinkers and composers and ‘forget’ the bad, embracing peace over war and love over hate. The theme that mankind will ‘keep growing’ past his present ‘barbaric state’ also leads on nicely from Pinder’s other song on the album about our past and lack of progress in all ways bar the technological. However, this is still a very ‘down’ song, complete with a slowly turning riff that is beautiful but only in a ghostly, sombre, stately way and keeps moving lower and lower down the keys, as if searching for something in a melancholic state that does nothing more than get the narrator ever more depressed. The rest of the band cope well with a tricky song and their ghostly harmonies are as impressive as ever, and ironically its Pinder who comes a little unstuck on his own song, sounding a little too detached on the main verses and very OTT in the song’s fade. His mellotron sound effects are also a little on the ‘heavy’ side and very unlike his usual subtle, emotional playing, although they do at least make the song sound ‘grand’. An experiment that’s partly successful, ‘Melancholy Man’ is meant to sound like the album’s big statement and sounds more out of place here near the end of the band’s ‘traditional’ album than it would on, say, the next two albums (where everything is lush once again).
The album then ends with ‘The Balance’, a rare one-off collaboration between Edge and Thomas which is more of a narrated story than a song. We don’t know for sure but I’m willing to bet another Spice Girls reunion on the fact that all the cod-Shakespeare is by the drummer and the hummable catchy chorus is by the flautist. The idea of the ‘balance’ between mankind is a strong one, but fifth time around this last Edge spoken word piece for some 30-years (until ‘Strange Times’ in 1999) has lost the impact that earlier spoken word pieces on ‘Days Of Future Passed’ and ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’ had. The fact is that this piece about a man eating an orange and realising the answers to life simply isn’t that interesting and the idea of offering any kind of ‘answer’ seems to go in the face of what the Moodies were all about (on all their albums to some extent but particularly this one). The highlight of the song is undeniably the chorus which deserves to have been made into its own song, including the catchy clever rhymes for ‘eyes’ and ‘realize’, ‘mind’ and ‘find’ band ‘heart and start’, making for one of the band’s better lyrics (and very much in Ray Thomas’ music hall quickfire style – think of ‘Dr Livingstone I Presume’). A little too weird even for the Moody Blues, ‘The Balance’ simply doesn’t have enough music in it to keep the listener entertained.
Overall, though, ‘A Question Of Balance’ is neatly stacked against the Moodies’ more accessible moments (largely on side one) with their weirder, more exotic moments (largely on side two). The fact that this album includes such a big hit single and is pretty fairly divided up between the five members means that fans often quote is as a good ‘opening’ for other fans to get a hold on Moody Blues albums - but I’m not quite sure I agree because, in many ways, this album is a bit of a one-off, a Moodies album without a real concept and one that’s divided pretty sharply between their production numbers and their rawer, looser stuff. Frankly, too, their looser rawer stuff isn’t as well played as other great bands of the period (‘Question’ aside) because the Moodies aren’t that sort of a band: they thrive more than any other on polished productions, layered techniques and the rare ability to make detailed soundscapes sound clear and uncluttered. Without as much studio trickery and without the usual mellotron backing the album risks coming off as undercooked Moodies, but on balance and heard as part of a magnificent seven album run (and after all isn’t balance what the album is all about?) it is nice to hear the band try to do something different with their talents. ‘A Question of Balance’ isn’t bad enough to be a ‘bad’ album – nothing falls that flat and only two or three songs here are less than good – but neither is it good enough to be a ‘great’ album. Our advice is, if you’re a fan you’ll find lots to enjoy (and almost definitely own it anyway) and if you’re not a fan have a go at some of the other Moodies albums with the ‘proper’ trademarks’ in place before having a go at this ‘exception’ to the rules.
And after ending and eating his oranges, the scribe rested in the cool while the stars beckoned and twinkled to him and in the light he realised that he had found the album in balance and that he had found understanding. And he turned the oranges into jaffa cakes, gave himself a sugar rush and started up his own supermarket brand which brought him one step closer to becoming a millionaire but a step further away from the light.