Groundbreakers: The Moody Blues – Days Of Future Passed
“The Moody Blues? My ponytailed uncle from Des Moines loves that band, lol. Why are we talking about this dadprog hippy shit?” Hey, you. Shut up. The Toilet Ov Hell is featuring said “hippy shit” in our Groundbreakers series because, believe it or not, The Moody Blues’s landmark album Days of Future Passed paved a crucial path for bands as diverse as Emperor, King Crimson, Rhapsody of Fire, Muse, Sigur Rós, and even TovH favorites Sarpanitum.
Although these bands vary greatly in brutality and cheese-factor, they have all created “symphonic rock” of some stripe – music that doesn’t just use a stray string patch to sweeten climaxes and intro tracks once in a while, but has traditional orchestral instruments (or a keyboard-based imitation of them) as a fundamental element of its sound. Who planted this seed in the consciousness of rock musicians? You guessed it; the first rock band to utilize orchestral sounds as in their music just as prominently as guitars was The Moody Blues, all the way back in 1967.
The story of how Days Of Future Passed came to be is pretty funny. The Moody Blues began life in 1964 as a forgettable novelty R&B group, but 3 crucial additions in 1966 uplifted them to baller status – guitarist/vocalist Justin Hayward, bassist extraordinaire John Lodge, and a high-tech gadget known as the mellotron. The mellotron was an organ-type instrument where the piano keys were connected to literal tape recordings of string instruments. When the piano keys were depressed, the tape would be activated to play the corresponding violin/cello/bass note. It was a highly specialized instrument and The Moody Blues’s own Mike Pinder was an early adopter. With new personnel writing songs and novel technology available, the band switched to a lush, psychedelic rock sound with aesthetic nods to the Western classical tradition via Mike Pinder’s mellotron and vocalist Ray Thomas’s previously underutilized flute skills.
This decision came just in time, as great fortune would soon find them by way of terrible misfortune. The early Moody Blues records were a flop (except in Belgium (lolwut)), and thus they owed their record label a good deal of advance money. Someone was able to talk the label into letting the Blues pay off their debt by making them a record that would show off the brand-new technology of stereo recording. Although some affiliated parties dispute the story, the band claims that the label asked them to reinterpret Dvořák’s 9th Symphony, but they decided to just work on a concept record featuring an orchestra instead and talked the label into releasing it anyway.
This label backing meant that they actually had funds to record a real-life working orchestra (the London Festival Orchestra), which is generally well outside of the reach of struggling pop artists. Composer/conductor Peter Knight created interludes between songs and a substantial opening prelude that hinted at melodies to be found throughout the rest of the record. Although the mellotron and flute performances within the rock songs are beautiful and befitting of the intended mood of the record, these melodramatic moments with a full-blown orchestra are what truly give Days its unique charm and provide a pleasingly palate-cleansing contrast for the The Moody Blues’s dreamy, psychedelic rock.
Concept records were a relatively unexplored realm in the mid 60’s, so The Moody Blues were able to pick some of the lowest hanging fruit around for their first attempt at one – Days Of Future Passed is a programmatic piece that follows the moods of a typical modern working day, from dawn to dusk. “Dawn Is A Feeling” is tentatively hopeful. “Another Morning” is cutesy and bustling. “Lunch Break/Peak Hour” races through traffic to reach a surf-rock party. “Tuesday Afternoon” lazes its way through release and denouement. “The Sunset/Twilight Time” opens in a haze and spend its second half as an intense, hallucinatory night ride through claustrophobic streets. Finally, hit single “Nights In White Satin” blankets you in latent sleepy-time lovey-dovey feels until Peter Knight and his orchestra friends deftly tie up the album with a majestic burst.
Of course, this record wasn’t made in a vacuum, and before 1967 there was plenty of precedent of rock artists using orchestral sounds on their songs. Famous examples include Buddy Holly‘s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” and The Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby“. The Moody Blues weren’t the first band to put violins and flute on a rock record, but they were definitely the first to push the marriage of these two disparate and equally rich musical worlds so far. That is why Days Of Future Passed is worthy of Groundbreaker status, and why their influence is still felt today among the thousands of modern artists who borrow from the Western art music world to create a grandiose, kingly presence within their songs.
If you’re only going to listen to one track from Days Of Future Passed,
make it this one. That second half is hhheeeeaaavvvyyy, man. (3:35)
Groundbreakers is the Toilet ov Hell’s Hall ov Fame where we induct some of the most important and influential metal albums of all time. Catch up on previous entries into this hallowed bowl.