Album review: Moody Blues - Days of Future Passed (1967)
Days of Future Passed
When The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967 it opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Pink Floyd, who were in Abbey Road Studios at the same time were also pushing boundaries, releasing The Piper at the Gates of Dawn three months later in August, stamping an indelible English whimsy on popular music and staking out sonic territory in outer space. Procol Harum followed up their 45rpm JS Bach-themed surreal musing A Whiter Shade of Pale, released in May 1967, with a self-titled debut album in September, offering mature and original R&B. And on November 11th that year Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed.
If Sgt Pepper’s wasn’t progressive rock, it was definitely the beginning of art-rock and the first concept package, utilising the notion of a song cycle and highlighting the importance of the lyrics by printing them on the sleeve; Piper wasn’t prog either but it marked the birth of UK psychedelic rock; Days of Future Passed wasn’t prog, but there is a reasonable argument to suggest it was the first proto-progressive album.
The Beatles have to take credit for a number of things, perhaps most importantly being a pop group who wrote their own songs, demonstrating an (at the time) unprecedented creative control which would become the norm for rock acts throughout the late 60s and the following decade as the music industry began to change. The Beatles and producer George Martin were responsible for pushing recording studio technology along, beginning with Revolver in 1966, an album which features George Harrison playing sitar on the track Love You To, extending the sounds available to pop music and also opening up western music to Eastern philosophy. Prior to this, most bands in the UK were relying on a rock vocabulary imported almost wholesale from the US and Moody Blues was no exception. The replacement of Denny Laine and Clint Warwick with Justin Hayward and John Lodge on guitar and bass respectively introduced a folk influence to the group and as more time passed since they’d had success with their cover version of Bessie Banks’ Go Now with no sign of a follow-up hit, they decided to decamp to Belgium and write their own material, better suited to ‘lower-middle class English boys’, and move away from their R&B live set with a new sound defined by their use of Mellotron. Keyboard player Mike Pinder had experience of the instrument having worked at Streetly Electronics in his native West Midlands, and sourced one from the local Dunlop Social Club for a bargain price because no one at the club could play it.
The story of how the album came to be made is well known. The band was in debt to Decca and, following a promising but unsuccessful self-penned single Fly Me High, was offered the chance to record an orchestra and rock version of Antonín Dvořák’s 9th Symphony From the New World for release on their Deram imprint for innovative new music, to promote a novel stereo recording technique, the Deramic Sound System, which gave improved channel separation. Once in the recording studio, the band persuaded producer Tony Clarke and orchestral arranger Peter Knight to drop Dvořák and record the song cycle which had become a staple at their gigs. Days of Future Passed (a title provided by the record company) was the result.
It’s likely that I first heard the album in 1973 but I thought there was a qualitative difference between the Moodies and what I was listening to (Yes, The Nice, ELP, Pink Floyd.) I liked some aspects of their music, In the Beginning from On the Threshold of a Dream for instance, and I also appreciated the sleeve artwork, where Phil Travers would become as closely associated with the band as Roger Dean did to Yes. However, I have never considered Moody Blues to be a progressive rock group though I wouldn’t want to diminish their importance to prog, which is why the tag ‘proto-prog’ is fitting.
Orchestration in pop music may have already been commonplace but Days of Future Passed was the first attempt to bridge the pop and classical worlds. It’s ironic that The Nice used the 4th Movement of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony to extend their rendition of the Bernstein/Sondheim America; Keith Emerson was one of the prime movers for fusing classical music with jazz and rock and, when Ars Longa Vita Brevis appeared a year later in 1968, they produced one of the most satisfactory early classical-rock hybrids on the side-long title suite. It’s been reported that Peter Knight, to his great credit, was keen to score the music for Days of Future Passed because at the time there really weren’t many voices from the classical world willing to rub shoulders with purveyors of popular music. Knight’s additions are quite in keeping with the pop of the Moodies but that’s one of the problems I have with side one of the LP; I don’t think it’s aged well. The score lacks depth and drama and the saccharine strings and woodwind trills opening the record are hackneyed, though there’s a brief respite when each track theme is previewed. I like the idea of Graeme Edge’s poetry on The Day Begins (Morning Glory) and at the end of side 2, Late Lament/Resolvement despite it attracting accusations of pretentiousness. Dawn is a Feeling isn’t a bad song but the 2/4 sections ruin Another Morning and the orchestral introduction to Peak Hour. When Peak Hour gets going it actually rocks and the harmony work, a key component of the Moody Blues sound, reminds me of The Beatles. There’s more soloing on this track, easily the best part of the first side and this too adds to the impression that the piece is locked inside the mid 60s.
Side two is a different matter with better writing, more variation in each song, and more Mellotron. I’m not so sure about the bridge, but I like Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?) with its Mellotron line that surely inspired Barclay James Harvest, where it conforms to what would become a classic Justin Hayward blueprint, presaging Forever Autumn. The Sunset taps into the trend for Eastern music and Twilight Time is rather psychedelic, and could easily have been influenced by Pink Floyd. The stylistic variation continues with Nights in White Satin which is quite different from anything else on the album. It may be familiarity but I think it is a well-structured piece and deserves its reputation as an undisputed classic.
The orchestration doesn’t really supplement the songs but links them, acting to reinforce the themes, which is why I don’t believe it succeeds in what it set out to do as described on the sleeve notes “...where it becomes one with the world of the classics.” The writing on side one lacks maturity, hardly breaking away from the pop of the time but side two, and the overall theme of ‘a day’ from sunrise to after sunset, would set a trend for other conceptual works. Opinion amongst Decca executives has been reported as ‘mixed’ when the record was completed but they released the album anyway, in the hope that it would recoup some of the financial investment in the project.
The rest is history, and progressive rock wouldn’t have been the same without it.