Friday, 16 September 2011
Justin Hayward "Songwriter" (1977) (Slightly Tweaked Review 2015)
Tightrope/Songwriter (Parts One and Two)/Country Girl/One Lonely Room//Lay It On Me/Stage Door/Raised On Love/Doin’ Time/Nostradamus
Why do we count 'Songwriter' as a 'proper' Moody Blues album with its own full length monkeynuts review rather than the shorter ones given over to the other solo Moodies albums? Because 'Songwriter' is the one solo Moody Blues album that sounds as if it deserves one. Admittedly all of the solo Moody records have something going for it - had the band released a 'mid 70s' album with Mike's 'Free As A Bird', John's 'Broken Dreams, Hard Road', Ray's 'Adam and I' and, erm, whatever the shortest and most palatable track from Graeme's two albums in this period were - I'd have been first in the queue to proclaim it's greatness as a worthy successor to glories past. However 'Songwriter' is the only album that works all the way through - as an album that makes good on the Moodies' early sound while offering something slightly new and as a record that's clearly been made with the same level of care and planning. Though I've always loved the 'democracy' of the Moody Blues above most of the many things this band had going for them, Justin was always the member most likely to gel with a solo career. The lead vocalist and lead guitarist, he was the most readily identifiable member of the band to the outside world and had written a good half of the band's biggest hits. Future albums, released in snatched periods away from the band, won't really make good on this promise (or at least when they do they'll be as uneven as the other solo Moodies albums) but this is the record that proves that had the band not got back together again in 1978 Justin could have done rather well with his own solo career.
Arguably the last of the ‘traditional’ sounding Moodies albums, ‘Songwriter’ is well loved by fans who otherwise don't care much for the 'missing years' (well, most of them - some still rate Mike Pinder's 'The Promise' over it, an album with as many highs but rather more lows) and is actually the last of all seven Moody Blues solos to be released, adding up to as many as the band had made together in the Justin 'n' John era (we'll leave 'Blue Jays' to one side as a special case for now). Moreover 'Songwriter' is by far the best selling of all the band’s inter-group releases, dominating the charts for some quite time in 1977. But for all these statistics and this album’s continued high standing with fans (the two, as we’ve seen many times across this site, don’t always go together) what I love about ‘Songwriter’ is that it's actually quite a nervy, vulnerable, even timid album. Actually this isn’t the unexpected jump it might seem – songs like ‘You Can Never Go Home’ and ‘New Horizons’ on the last two pre-split Moodies albums and especially the inner turmoil of the ‘Blue Jays’ album suggest Justin’s songwriting was always going to end up here, in a puddle of self-doubt and angst, but it’s a shock to find it so undiluted on parts of this album. This is, after all, the album that Decca - if not necessarily Justin himself - were planning to turn him into a 'star'; here we are, a year after the mega-hit of 'Forever Autumn', with Justin's name and face bigger on the album cover than the Moody's had ever been (though typically by illustration rather than photograph) with 'Songwriter' just looking like a hit record from the outside, with the same sort of 'tah-dah!' quality as anything By David Essex or The Bay City Rollers. In terms of production values you could argue that this is exactly where the album is going too: this is the most 'upbeat' we've heard Justin since at least 'A Question Of Balance' and any song of the nine could, at a push and with a lot of lucky tortoise and hare's feet, be a potential hit single (though oddly 'One Lonely Room' didn't do too well as the sequel to 'Autumn'). Scratch below the surface, though, and Justin sounds less like a natural 'star' than ever, spending much of the record asking himself why he writes, being wracked with guilt 'doin' time', parodying his own past affectionately on the so-Moody-it-hurts 'Nostrodamus' or admitting to us his life is a 'Tightrope', one wrong move away from a nasty accident. Only 'Raised On Love', a dippy sentimental children's choir song that somehow manages to be both sweeter and better than any other dippy sentimental children's choir songs of the period, sounds like the 'old' Justin outright - everything else is either an experiment, a contrast with what we've been led to expect or a joke.
Not that that’s a bad thing – The blond-haired young Justin was the perfect fit for the troubled early 70s (in the same way that the blond air-head Justin Bieber sadly is for our times) and it’s easy to see why Hayward’s deeply sensitive and lyrical music struck a chord with the disaffected yet optimistic music worshippers of 1968-circa 1975. Hayward was always at his best when he wrote songs from the heart which just 'happened' to also be rather catchy and ended up featuring a 'universal' message without meaning it ('Nights In White Satin' and 'Question' especially). The few attempts to write to a formula resulted in 'Lovely To See You' and 'Watching and Waiting' - far from the worst things in the Moodies canon but lacking that particular extra magic. Though we've talked about the album's production values because, like the usual Moody melodramas the whole kitchen sink is thrown at the album in places, at the heart of this record throughout is Justin's own guitar. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this album was made by overdubbing the demos rather than re-recording them outright - it has that same cosy feel of newly made songs that are still slightly warm around the edges and haven't quite been shaped yet. Though Justin has made so much great music down the years he hardly needs my advice, I still long for him to make an all-solo record, an acoustic album that would truly contrast against the bigger sound of the Moodies records. Though we've come to think of the band as production powerhouses, a quick look back at Justin's material reveals how small and intimate many of them naturally are - it's a shame Justin just missed the singer-songwriter movement of the early 70s (the James Taylor/Neil Young's 'Harvest' period 1970-1972) because his sensitive, moody songs would have fitted the era well.
However, have a look at that recording date: 1977. Punk’s ‘year zero’. An era of arrogant confidence and determination, when anything that sounded remotely old-fashioned was stamped on and torn to pieces. In this context this prog-rock leftover, full of songs about characters who don't really exist about to go on stage and the visions of a seer who died almost exactly four hundred years to the day before Justin joined The Moody Blues. Not exactly 'Never mind the Moody Blues, This Is The Satin Knight' is it? However 'Songwriter' sold well and actually came pretty close to matching the Moodies' own sales figures in their 1972 heyday. So is this just a rogue statistic or the fact that good music shone through in any era however out of fashion? (Wings’ Mull Of Kintyre was of course the best-selling single of that year – I leave it up to you whether that’s evidence of the former or the latter!) All you need to know is that 'Songwriter' is an album that works to its own rules: though 'Tightrope' and 'Doin' Time' are amongst Justin's heaviest, rockiest work this album has nothing to do with punk. Though 'Raised On Love' is a last beating heart of Hayward's inner hippie before it died out forever and 'Nostradamus' sounds like exactly the sort of thing non-fans think appear on every Moody Blues record, this doesn't really sound like Justin's earlier work either. Instead 'Songwriter' exists kind of on its own, out on an island, caught between the naturalness of the earlier years and the more commercial sound of the later Moodies albums and yet not necessarily sounding along the path from A to B either. Instead 'Songwriter' sounds like an album that's enjoying the sheer pleasure of not having to sound like anything else Justin has done before and without any crucial desire to get a 'hit'. Every track on this album goes somewhere different (Every night is a first night for someone!), from the tangled drama of 'Stage Door' (the one song that doesn't quite come off), to the Beatley 'Lay It On Me' (the song closest to the natural style Justin had on his mid-60s flops before he joined the band) to the loose and aggressive 'Tightrope' (such an un-Moody song in every way - not just its heavy beat but the fact the usually reserved narrator is making such a drama out of things) to the postmodern title track in which Justin writes another letter, never actually meaning to send, as he feels the pressure of being asked to come up with another classic every time he gets sad and starts writing. 'Songwriter' may have been late coming to the solo Moodies stage, released less than a year before first reunion album octave, but it's a crucial album in the canon allowing Justin to shake off the cobwebs and discover a little more about who he is away from the glare of number one albums.
There is, however, a nice typically Moody half-concept running throughout the album that links this disparate collection of songs together. The key theme of this album is surely ‘escape’ – from business issues, from ‘city life’, from the harsh world of the late 70s, even from prison in one memorable track, with the underlying idea that everything that happens is planned and can’t be avoided. Few other albums, even Moody Blues group ones, have the space to start off with a frantic circus act, pass through astrology and an acting career and end up wondering whether Nostradamus’ more dire warnings of our future might be true after all (actually Justin read the seer’s work wrong and we’re all still here in 3737 – but he shouldn’t feel too bad because most readers of Nostradamus miss that point too). This is exactly the sort of thing the punks were trying to outlaw in 1977, in fact – but with so many lovely moments, so many great band performances, lovely lilting melodies and clever ideas that sadly got thrown out with the rubbish back then too. Although punk never did last that long (it wasn’t meant to be an era so much as a punctuation mark between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ worlds) it sadly did change the horizons so that albums like this, full of references to new age ideas and 16th century fortune tellers in a method to tell the same story about the mysteries of life as punks with their spitting and po-going. If you hate Moodies music then, well, this isn’t going to change your mind much (and what on earth are you doing reading this review anyway?!) but ‘Songwriter’ does strike a good case for prog rock at its best being as honest, humble, understated, confused and angry as it’s fellow younger siblings.
There’s another musical parallel to find here, too. In a way, this album is a close cousin of the first ‘McCartney’ album (see news and views no73), a largely home-made album with Justin playing all the instruments that uses music as an escape from the rigours of the music business and finds the songwriter coming back into tune with what made him turn to music in the first place. In another parallel The Moodies’ record label, Threshold, was winding up in this period just as Paul was busy attending business meetings in the name of Apple in 1970 (again like Apple, the problems with Threshold were eventually sorted out and the label continues, albeit on a smaller scale than planned, to this day). There’s a reason this album is called ‘Songwriter’ – and it’s worth remembering that for the first time Justin is coming up with an album title by himself rather than in coordination with the other Moodies. This album is all about rejecting the parts of life that get in the way of what’s important and don’t really matter – the business part of the music business and all the hassle that goes with it. But actual writing – the art of creating – is key to understanding life and all its lessons and its heard several times across this album, albeit it often altered into subjects such as acting, being a circus performer or the prisoner ‘doin’ time’ inside his own head because his own mistakes won’t let him find peace. Justin himself says in the sleeve-notes for the album (on its re-issues on CD in 2004) that he wanted this to be an ‘open’ album and that Songwriter is ‘probably the most personal of all my records’.
That seems like an interesting statement to me. As we’ve already discussed on ‘Blue Jays’, the split between Hayward and Pinder (who was initially meant to be the ‘other’ Blue Jay before realising he didn’t want to come back to the UK and start up all the pressure and anticipation of the Moodies media circus yet again) was a tough one on both sides, with that album full of several songs about betrayal and trying to coerce an old friend to be like he used to be. ‘Songwriter’ finds Justin in something of a belated agreement over the argument that the old ways are over and you have to find new ways to come up with new successes: unlike ‘Blue Jays’, which was a very nostalgic record (right down to using an orchestra for the first time since 1967) this is a forward-thinking album about breaking with what once used to hold you back. Intriguingly, even the tracks that don’t sound like Hayward writing about himself have characters trapped or confined in some way (in a prison, in a circus, on stage, trapped by fate because of what Nostradamus said). The happiness on this album generally comes from escape, from snatched moments of solace and tranquillity, away in the countryside, at home with the family or with Hayward physically finding peace within himself by letting his experiences out as songs. For one, I’m glad he does – ‘Songwriter’ might not have the peaks of some of the Moodies’ output but as a mini-concept album it makes a lot more sense than ‘On The Threshold Of A Dream’ or ‘A Question Of Balance’ and runs together a s nice, neat likeable package of the best and worst things in Hayward’s life at that time.
It seems like stating the obvious to say that Justin wanted his ‘solo’ album to be different to his band records, but a quick look through news and views no 71 (our solo album special) reveals that this isn’t always the case for artists who want to start afresh without losing their core audience. It’s also worth remembering that at the time this wasn’t intended as merely filling the gap between Moodies albums but a genuine attempt to try something new for the long-term. As it happened the Moodies will be back together again within a year (in Pinder’s garage in L.A, to be exact) but Justin wasn’t to know that at the time. He’d even taken the – by Moodies standards – pugnacious tactics of knocking the successful ‘Blue Jays’ joint project on the head because he didn’t want to build it up ‘into another Moody Blues’ where he was trapped doing the same sort of thing all the time (John Lodge didn’t seem to take it too badly, perhaps because on that record Justin was doing all the work! – he himself released a solo record ‘Natural Avenue’ in 1977 with a much tougher, muscular sound but apart from the great and most Moodyish track ‘Broken Dreams, Hard Road’ it’s not a patch on ‘Songwriter’). As it happens, Justin’s efforts to launch a whole new solo career are torpedoed anyway by Jeff Wayne’s ‘War Of The Worlds’ project whose extremely Moodies-ish and Justin-sung ‘Forever Autumn’ single came out the same year (despite being recorded as far back as 1974) and sounded just like Hayward’s ‘old’ sound. Fans who flocked to ‘Songwriter’ on the back of that cameo (and the superior ‘Eve Of War’ from the same project) must have been disappointed: there’s no aliens, few synthesisers and precious little paranoia or melancholy, although the sense of loss and regret heard in ‘Forever Autumn’ is a key theme of this album too. Whatever the distractions, however, it’s clear that – to Justin at least – this is meant to be a whole new beginning, as he hesitantly starts what should be the second chapter of his musical life.
That idea is certainly helped by the sound of this album, a complete one-off mix of acoustic backing tracks and a mix of synthesisers, backing singers and orchestras fighting for space in the overdubs room. Most Moodies albums sound big and bold, even when their subject matter does not, with Mike Pinder’s mellotron wrapping the arrangements up in a sound that makes even the most inward thoughts sound like life-changing events. ‘Blue Jays’ - Justin’s previous album to this – had dispensed with the mellotron altogether, replacing it with a genuine orchestral sound that at once sounded like an internal monologue going on in its singer’s heads and one of the most epic sounds of all time. By contrast only ‘Nostradamus’ and ‘Stage Door’ really approach the grandeur of old and the other seven tracks are by old Moodies standards merely glorified demos. But that’s not to insult the work on this album – Justin excels at being able to judge arrangements and recordings just right and time and again throughout this album proves what a great ear he has for making music interesting without adding so many factors the frivolities get in the way of the message. The backing band, by the way, are a band named Trapeze who'd been signed to Threshold not by Justin but by John, who recommended them for the job. They do a good job at sounding just Moody enough, even though most of the band would go on to have separate careers in bands with a sound quite different to the Moodies' own: heavy metal, with guitarist Mel Galley later joining Whitesnake, drummer Dave Holland joining Judas Priest and bassist Glenn Hughes ending up in both Black Sabbath and Deep Purple (from Blue to Purple eh? What a colourful career trajectory!) Not coincidentally, this album was also a much quicker process than most Moodies albums (which generally took the better part of a year from start to finish), with most songs started and completed within just a few hours. That speed and energy serves this quietly likeable album really well, giving it the space and wisdom of the ‘old’ Moodies sound and the insistence and excitement of the new.
Though it was actually released on CD before the glut of Moody Blues album deluxe re-issues, 'Songwriter' too is similarly generous in its extra tracks, rounding up both sides of two singles released after this album but before 'Octave'. Though a rather tinny synth-filled cover of Buddy Holly's 'Leaning The Game' is an unfortunate Nostradamus-style fore-telling of the direction Justin will go in across the next decade, the others are all good additions to the album: 'Wrong Time, Right Place' is an urgent rocker about loss that fits the frustrated feel of much of the album, the poppy 'Marie' is like a slower version of 'Country Girl' and best of all 'Heart Of Steel' (which should have been the 'A' side, not the flip) is one of the last great songs written to Justin's favourite template of a sad and reflective verse and a power-pop chorus. Had the Moodies recorded any of these three for 'Octave' the reunion album might have been ever better (though Justin's quartet are the best on the album by and large, showing what a creative roll he was on in this period) and all are worth digging out for compact disc.
That energy is best represented by opening track ‘Tightrope’ which is probably the most manic, breathtaking fast Moodies song of all. Played at a quick tempo anyway and then speeded up to sound even more manic, this is a real song of frustration about being held back in life and being pressurised to keep being better, quicker and more in control without any break to think things through. Even the mistakes on this track (two notably muffed bits of double tracking) add to the air of insanity and there’s a great wordless soaring middle section where Justin keeps taking the band ever higher, key change by key change until thudding to an uncertain stop on the dominant chord. The way the melody is written the song keeps going round in circles, switching from one section to another without a pause, the perfect mirror of Justin’s narrator fighting for a day off. Justin’s reflective looking middle eight offers a bit of a break, but only just: what could be the key album message of ‘thinking ‘bout tomorrow, living for today’ is itself a trap, one where there’s no time to assimilate the mistakes of the past and no chance to enjoy or savour what you’re doing in the present with so much to plan ahead for. Best of all is the ending, where Hayward’s angry squeal of a guitar finally cuts through the desperate urge to keep pace and the song goes into a kind of reverse, played in slow-motion, with a fairground organ chirping in the background (as if we’re between shows). There are some clever lyrics on offer here (the tightrope ‘getting too tight’, with no margin left for error anymore) and a cracking riff that underpins the song and yanks the song almost against its will through some untypically violent chord changes. However, this song is heavy going for most Moodies followers, featuring a completely different tempo, performance and subject matter than the usually perfectionist Hayward generally allows through. The song is all the better for it’s rough edges, however, and the backing band Trapeze excel themselves here, with much more to do than on any of the ‘Blue Jays’ album. Listen out for the synthesised brass by Ken Freeman (a refuge from ‘War Of The Worlds’) which has just the right manic quality the song needs and the copious sound effects (mainly a crowd in shock and offering applause) that suggest both the job the narrator has is in the public eye (a singer-songwriter perhaps?) and that the Moodies guitarist has been listening to too much Sgt Pepper’s. The circus theme hinted at in the song will become a key Moodies one (where again it equates to being a performer expected to give everything on stage but whose performers live quite different roles in the real world) but not until long after this album (most notably 1981’s ‘Long Distance Voyager’ and its spoken-word piece ‘Reflective Smile’.
‘Songwriter’ (Part One) offers a chance for escape and the album’s one true look back at the past (quite a surprise for a songwriter who specialised in excellent and believable songs about lost past loves – few composers can bring you to tears the way Hayward does when he writes and sings about guilt and regrets). Like many of the forthcoming songs in our top five, this is a postmodernist song that actually features Justin talking about the art of songwriting, running back over a past melody and adding new words, that this is ‘one of his best songs’ written for ‘you and you alone’. Like ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere’ and ‘Your Wildest Dreams’ Justin’s never come forward to say who these songs were about (he’s not that kind of a revealing songwriter, not like Pete Townshend and John Lennon et al, who virtually include an address and postcode with their songs about past lovers), but I’m willing to bet this was inspired by a real person – there’s a real weight to the way Justin sings this song, with a vocal caught halfway between anger, frustration, sadness and love. Unlike the other songs on our postmodern list, however, Justin doesn’t find songwriting as anything special – in one of this album’s best lines he claims that ‘millions of people dream songs every night’, as if his songs are direct encapsulations of his emotions at the time he writes them. Like many a Hayward song, this is actually a medley of two parts, one quiet and understated and the other loud and strident, with a snarling verse where the narrator’s girl asks him over and over why they haven’t reached their own personal ‘Garden of Eden’ paradise yet. Hayward’s narrator has no reply, so instead we get a long, dreamy instrumental that in true Moodies style manages to say more in music and chord changes than the band can in lyrics. A song about how things could and should be perfect but things go wrong too many times, there’s a quiet sort of calm about this song that suggests its narrator isn’t truly involved in the conversations taking place and is actually ‘sleepwalking’ his way through a troubled section of his life he doesn’t want to think about.
This might explain the rather paranoid and unexpected coda ‘Songwriter (Part Two)’, a jagged piano-based stab of a song, as if the narrator’s songwriter is trying to wake him up to what’s going on. A scary set of lyrics suit a quite terrifying backing track, led by a howling Theremin (it sounded optimistic and hopeful in the middle of ‘Good Vibrations’, it’s most famous use – here it sounds like the end of the world) as the narrator (presumably the same one) wakes from a nightmare. This second part of the song tries to reiterate the theme of the last track – that the songwriter writes to come to terms with what’s going on his life, but whereas the last track was sad and regretful but calm and intellectual, this coda is a real howl of emotion, desperate for release. The lyrics to this song, short as they are, are fascinating: Justin really does appear to dream in ‘music’ here, with guitars ‘screaming’ their way through his head (Me, I just dream of finding something impossibly rare going very cheap in a charity shop or record fair – and then wake up and curse the fact it’s not true!) There’s another great band performance here too, from the eerie sweeping strings that come in from nowhere to the electric guitar-bass-drum-piano interplay that features a much heavier, harsher sound than most Moodies-related recordings. Listen out too for what sounds like an un-credited Ray Thomas on the chorus of this song and ‘Doin’ Time’ (he was recording his own extra-curricular Moodies album, ‘Hopes, Wishes and Dreams’, round the corner at roughly the same time as this album so it is quite possible).
Just as things get too intense, Justin’s spoken voice intones us to ‘wake up!’ and we get the album’s bright and breezy bit of light relief. Just as on Paul McCartney’s early songs about country life offering a respite from the dramas of city life (‘Heart Of The Country’ ‘Country Dreamer’ ‘Ram On’ etc), so too does Justin’s narrator find himself beginning to get excited about living again once he’s out in the countryside. Another up-tempo track, the quick light step of this song is much more controlled than ‘Tightrope’ with a jaunty, almost comical air as if the song can’t wait to experience what chord changes are coming up next. There’s another sweet yearning middle eight, this time about love in the present, with Hayward’s seen-it-all-narrator experiencing the joys of life afresh with the grass ‘greener’ and the air ‘cleaner’ than he could ever have imagined. Another strong band performance makes a good song sound great, although I have to say there’s perhaps one too many synthesiser overdubs for my taste, making what should be a very neat and simple song sound rather like the ‘busy’ life the narrator’s just left behind in the city. And that’s all, really – there’s not much to this song, which is kind of the point of it after all - but in the context of the album it’s a successful attempt at offering us a believable moment of happiness in a troubled world.
The album’s first side ends with ‘One Lonely Room’, a rather mournful ballad about the emptiness the author feels without his loved one in his life. In stark contrast to the uptempo songs on the rest of this first side, this song is sung at a funeral pace and threatens to test the listeners’ patience in the course of the long first verse as the narrator turns to being self-pitying about mistakes he’s made. Things get better with the chorus, though, a list of metaphors that may have been heard a few times in other songs (John Lennon’s ‘Mind Games’ album of 1973 is full of them) but do a good job at summing up the magnitude of the narrator’s empty hole where his loved one should be. A song about absence, it’s quite fitting that there should be so little going on in the backing track barring a few squeals of Hayward’s electric guitar and a thrashing drum part – in fact it’s tempting to see the ‘missing’ loved one as not a romantic love but the rest of the band if you think that sounds far-fetched, then you haven’t heard the ‘Blue Jays’ album, which is virtually one long letter to a missing friend). Too repetitive for it’s own good and too similar to other tracks we’ve heard hundreds of times over, it’s fair to say that ‘One Lonely Room’ is one of the album’s weakest tracks – albeit Justin’s vocal is tremendously convincing and heartfelt, giving what should be a very one-dimensional song real depth and power.
After long consideration, ‘Lay It On Me’ is probably my favourite track on the album. I say probably because it actually goes against all the other things that make most of this album great: it doesn’t travel in new direction, it doesn’t have the same air of melancholy and it features possibly the weakest (or at least most badly overdubbed) band performance on the album. But it’s a sweet little catchy rock song, with Hayward trying out an uncharacteristic overdubbed falsetto that gives this song a really vulnerable edge behind all the layers of trust the narrator has built up with his girl. As on much of this album, it features quite a tricky little tempo that urges the song on through another set of unusual chord changes almost against its will – but unlike the pressure of ‘Tightrope’ or the exhilarating break of ‘Country Girl’ this is because of a more profound excitement, with the narrator still existed by the twists and turns of a relationship that’s already been around a long time. Well, actually, that’s not necessarily true: there’s a confusing mix of the long-term relationship and one that’s new (the narrator would hardly get an urge to ‘come round your house’ if they’ve been living together already), so the most likely outcome is that the couple have known each other for decades, possibly years and been secretly in love – but only just got round to asking each other out. That might explain this song’s urgent air, as if the whole thing is about to topple around their feet and in his desperation the narrator promises everything: indeed ‘I am whatever you want me to be’ (which makes this song sound more like desperation than love – presumably he’s afraid she doesn’t love him for who he is). As deep or as simple as you want it to be, like the best Justin Hayward songs, ‘Lay It On Me’ is either a clever quirky song about someone so in love they’ll do anything to keep their lover interested – or a simple, catchy song about how great a guy the narrator is. Full marks too go to Justin’s performance on this track – his guitarwork is superb (and mighty difficult to overdub successfully I’d have thought) and his vocal has just the right air of control and desperation. Amazingly, despite releasing three different (flop) singles from this album in Britain, ‘Lay It On Me’ - the catchiest song on the album and a three minute pop masterpiece – only came out as a single in America.
By contrast ‘Stage Door’ is easily the weakest song here. It starts with a gauche OTT orchestral interlude from Peter Knight that might have been better suited as an overture to ‘Tightrope’ with its circusy air before descending into yet another song about your children leaving home for the first time. The twist is that one of them is an actress and there’s a long extended metaphor for how the moment she steps through the ‘stage door’ she’s actually leaving her childhood behind. The problem is that Hayward is barely 30 at this point, far too young to have children leaving home (Indeed his eldest has only just been born at this time, so perhaps its a projection of the life she might lead?) and doesn’t have the weight or sincerity to combat this song’s mawkishness. The melody for this song is strong but like ‘Songwriter (Part One)’ it’s played too slowly to have any real impact, with the listener guessing where the song will go long before it gets there. Things are made worse by a rare lapse in taste from Justin, choosing to overdub an irritating female chorus chanting ‘Every night is a first night for someone...’ over and over at random points, whether it suits the point in the song or not. Hayward also struggles slightly with the vocal line he’s given himself – it’s too darn low, something that will suit his voice greatly in the years to come (the best songs on 1988’s ‘Moving Mountains’ nearly all have him singing in this deeper passage) but not at this young age. This is the one track on the album where you really miss the other Moody Blues too – given a few Mike Pinder mellotron twirls and a strong group chorus this so-so song could have been saved – but here it’s just a waste of talent. Still, at least this song fits the overall album message of pressure and the need to escape, even if it’s obviously less autobiographical than the likes of ‘Tightrope’ and ‘Songwriter’.
‘Raised On Love’ is another sweet little song, a passionate ballad much more akin to what most Moodies fans probably expect from Justin (indeed, it seems to have heralded a whole new way of writing, as the forthcoming Moodies highlights ‘Driftwood’ and ‘In My World’ both owe their genesis to this song’s quiet acoustic vibe). Unlike the last song Justin doesn’t sound gauche or awkward at all, perhaps because this song is such a family affair – Justin plays all the instruments and that’s assorted members of his family singing the backing vocals. Some child choirs can be really irritating (hearing Neil Young’s angsty chorus of ‘gotta gotta control the Violent Side’ submerged by a bunch of toddlers on ‘Landing On Water’ has got to be a contender for the worst moment in his back catalogue), but here they fit nicely on a song about family love with the narrator vowing to protect his brood. The song could easily have got overly sentimental and to the punk ears of 1977 must have sounded like a relic from another age, but there’s a strong enough tune to keep our interest and a clever arrangement that adds slightly more instrumental texture and a slightly different vocal phrasing on each verse. Listen out too for the first verse where the narrator seems to find solace looking at the stars in the sky – before you realise he’s reading his horoscope and looking for answers about why this particular part of his life has been so successful (Justin’s a Libra by the way and really does have Venus ‘around my sign’). A hymn to how the best beginnings in life can pay dividends in a child’s future later on, this is Hayward saluting his own parents and vowing to provide just as happy and contented a family home for his offspring in the future. A lovely track with another excellent vocal, it’s fair to say there was a lot of love in the room when Justin recorded this track.
‘Doin’ Time’ is a much harsher song about guilt and the need for redemption, this time played on electric guitar. The loving family life of the last track is torn asunder here, to make way for a song whose chorus asks ‘why is life so cruel?’ Fittingly, Justin’s vocal is hard to hear, as if he’s singing to us from a completely different dimension, cut off from the ones he loves and can understand him. Justin also stretches the song out to include mankind in a wider sense, asking why such a supposedly civilised creature can be so cruel at times and suggests that our own species is ‘doin’ time’ for some past wrongs by being kept here on Earth. Like ‘The Story In Your Eyes’ (Justin’s last Moodies single from 1971) the mood is apocalyptic, with Justin looking for meaning and a ‘sign’ from someone on high that he knows is never going to appear – whether because mankind doesn’t really have a higher purpose or because there’s no chance of salvation. The third verse is back to the personal, though, with the narrator the one whose done wrong to his lover (the first verse suggested it was the other way around), living with his guilt and trying to come to terms with darker side of his personality which always lets him down. There’s a glorious moment in the opening where the backing acoustic guitars keep travelling higher and higher before a squeal of feedback signals the onset of an electric onslaught – it’s among the most exciting starts to any Moodies-linked song. The solo in the middle, with criss-crossing guitars is electrifying too, scary and tormented and the perfect musical depiction of chaos and inward anger. The rest of the track is slightly more ordinary, with a few too many verses for my liking, although there’s a strong group chorus (possibly with Ray Thomas again), a fair middle eight and a much more Moodies ‘feel’ than on most of the other songs on the album.
‘Nostradamus’ is the epic to close the album in true Moodies style and unlike the rest of the album (which by Moodies standards is understated and inward looking) this is a huge attempt to ask whether mankind can really choose his fate or whether we’re doomed as a species to keep making the same mistakes. The prophet Nostradamus seems to be a regular on these pages (by a serendipity of which the seer would be proud, it was only a month ago I was writing about him in our Jack The Lad review) and for good reason: accurate enough to be obvious after an event has passed but ambiguous enough to keep the curious guessing about unfulfilled quatrains, there’s something unearthly and unsettling about reading his quatrains in order (very like the effect of hearing the similarly unearthly and unsettling original Moodies albums in order in fact). The Moodies are predictable fans: all that doom and gloom with optimism hidden away inside plus a delight in trying to un-fathom life’s mysteries and coming to the conclusion that the world is a far stranger and more sinister place the more you analyse it. There’s also the threat that the apocalyptic tone of some of the quatrains (and the threat of a coming third ‘anti-christ’ and third world war) is happening now, with the ecological disasters taking place in the 1970s a sign of a planet out of control. In other hands this song about the need to understand our world could have been a disaster (and I can hear OAP punks spitting in disgust from here), but it’s actually a fitting roller-coaster ride that breaks most of the rules in pop and rock music (no real chorus, long long gaps between each verse, a solo played by an orchestra) successfully. I’ve been critical about Peter Knight elsewhere on this site (both on this album review and a few remarks about ‘Days Of Future Passed’, which is awfully gauche and a poor fit for the band’s music), but he gets it perfectly here: this is meant to be an epic, overly dramatic song and he puts in the works (eerie strings, melancholy harp and horns, the fleeting innocence of a flute, booming percussion, you name it it’s here!) The threat of our past catching up with us and the fact that, for all our supposed civility, we can’t avoid it happening again in the future is a good subject matter for a song (especially a Moodies-related song) and its handled here by Justin with aplomb, from his vocal full of question marks to his acoustic guitar rumbling on unaffected by the world of madness going on on top of him. A fitting end to a strong album.
‘Songwriter’ covers a lot of ground for just one album featuring nine tracks (and an extended coda of the title track!) Few albums get to look into an artist’s soul as deeply as ‘Songwriter’ does Justin’s, with songs about guilt and love and paranoia and past loves all sounding heartfelt and sincere. Yet few others get to travel time and place as much as ‘Songwriter’ either, with songs about astrology, prophets, potential disasters and the universal need for escape from our problems and ourselves. Only the one track ‘imagined’ rather than experienced (‘Stage Door’) is less than good and shows just how personal the other tracks on this album are. Justin will continue to have a great run of material for a few years to come (the best tracks on the melancholy ‘Octave’, the strident ‘Distance Voyager’ and the overlooked ‘The Present’ are all his) and arguably wrote better songs for ‘his’ band than he ever wrote for his solo albums of any era. There’s also no obvious stand-outs like ‘Nights In White Satin’ or ‘Question’ to get excited over, as ‘Songwriter’ is in truth much more of a mood piece (like all the best Moodies albums). But if you’re a curious Moodies fan whose bought up all the Moodies albums there is to buy – and is frustrated by the lack of a follow-up to 1999’s ‘Strange Times’ LP (twelve years without a new record is shocking for an ongoing band, even by Moodies standards) you could do worse than buy the eclectic and eccentric mix of records that represents the band’s many solo releases (most of which came out during the band’s extended ‘gap year’ of 1973-77. Clever, moving, honest and intelligent, ‘Songwriter’ should be your first step (closely followed by Mike Pinder’s ‘The Promise’ and Ray Thomas’ ‘From Mighty Oaks’ and the Blue Jays album, depending whether you count that as a ‘band’ record or a ‘solo’ one or not). He may be just a songwriter and a singer in a rock and roll band – but Justin always has a good story to tell and the ability to tell it better than just about everybody.