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Fifty years in, future hasn’t passed Moody Blues

January 10, 2018 GMT

At first the Moody Blues attempted to live up to its name, but as young British musicians covering American R&B the group proved neither sufficiently moody nor blue enough to get much traction.

The group, which plays Sugar Land’s Smart Financial Centre on Wednesday, saw some members go and some others come into the fold, notably singer-guitarist Justin Hayward and bassist-singer John Lodge who joined in 1966. At that point the reconfigured Moody Blues required a new move, but what was it to be? The first idea floated by the band’s label was a terrible one: a rock ‘n’ roll interpretation of Antonín Dvorák’s New World Symphony with arranger Peter Knight.

“As I remember it, Peter came to see us at the 100 Club on Oxford Street,” Hayward says. “He was frank. He said, ’I don’t think you’re going to get this Dvorák thing together. There’s really only one theme in the symphony that would be good to turn into a rock piece. So let’s do it the other way around. Do your songs. I’ll orchestrate the links between them.”

Knight’s idea would turn into “Days of Future Passed,” an unlikely breakthrough for the Moody Blues in 1967. And a surprise success for Decca Records.

“I can’t say they thought anything we were doing possessed any commercial value,” Hayward says. “Quite the opposite. They wanted a record to demonstrate how their stereo systems worked because they had a consumer division that made stereo units. That’s what they wanted.”

And an album with impeccable sonics, narrative breaks and the London Festival Orchestra became a rather influential piece of music that - for better and sometimes for worse - inspired a half century of rockers to wonder what their songs sounded like with strings. Fifty years after “Days of Future Passed” was released, the Moody Blues were announced in the latest class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

That recognition came a little slower for the Moodies than some of their peers. “Days of Future Passed” admittedly entered the world in a year rich with recordings that still hold the interest of music fans: the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love,” the Velvet Underground’s “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” the Kinks’ “Something Else by the Kinks,” the Who’s “The Who Sell Out,” Love’s “Forever Changes,” and so on. Some of those records were slow getting their due.

Many things about the Moody Blues were delayed including the success of the best-known song from “Days of Future Passed.” “Nights in White Satin” was a minor hit in the States upon its release. A reissue of the album in 1972 gave it a greater boost on radio, when it reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts.

At that point the Moody Blues had put out another five albums of music that defied easy categorization. Traces of folk and psychedelic rock were in a mix built that featured Mike Pinder’s Mellotron. The Moody Blues also were unafraid to use a flute (Ray Thomas played the instrument in the band for nearly 40 years; he died last week at 76.) and spoken word interludes. Because the band came to rock with a string-friendly classical bent, they’ve been for years swept into the subcategory of prog rock, an ill-fitting tag that implies lengthy solos more than ornamental folk rock songs.

“That’s something I have a hard problem trying to express, to distance myself from some of that,” Hayward says. “I saw ‘Days of Future Passed’ as a kind of romantic album, and I thought our songs were clear and concise. And several were less than three minutes. Just short little romantic songs, and Peter was a romantic arranger. I don’t believe that record or those that followed would’ve had their longevity if they’d just been experimental prog albums. It was different. I think only maybe two tracks on the album have an electric guitar.”

Which isn’t to say “Days of Future Passed” lacks complicated parts. Particularly the vocal on “Tuesday Afternoon.” I find it difficult to believe it possible, but Hayward insists he’s never been asked about his vocal work on the track, particularly two passages in the song where he sings and holds a note for nearly 20 seconds with only the briefest of rests in the middle.

“Every night I sing that, and when I’m singing it, every night, I think, ‘This is bloody hard to keep this note going,’ ” he says. “So I’m glad you took note of that. I’ve never had the courage to say what you just said. It is a very difficult thing to do each night.”

Getting on stage repeatedly for a tour is its own challenge. At 71 Hayward is the youngest of the remaining Moodies. Lodge is 72. At 76, drummer Graeme Edge is the oldest, and also the Moody Blues’ last connection to its earliest days as a cover band. Pinder left in 1978. Flutist Thomas in 2002.

But each of the three remaining members were present to write and record during a five-year run that produced the band’s other standout records, including “In Search of the Lost Chord,” “On the Threshold of a Dream” and “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.”

After that spell the Moody Blues still kept the attention of its dedicated following. Rather than fade in the ’80s, the group charted five more times, including “Your Wildest Dreams,” a Top 10 hit in 1986.

Hayward thinks that period may have come at a cost.

“I’m hesitant to say it, but I think maybe we’d have been in the Rock Hall earlier if we hadn’t done ‘Wildest Dreams.’ But I don’t apologize for it. That was a wonderful time for us. If those songs weren’t critically acclaimed, well, they were still a joy for us to do.”

But the Moody Blues’ Rock Hall bona fides were earned in that period between 1967 and 1972, a period that opens doors for subsequent 50th anniversary celebrations of albums in the band’s discography.

“That was a remarkable time for us, those first seven albums,” Hayward says. “We even managed to release two albums in 1969. But as for tours, I would say the same thing I say about a lot of things at our age: If the spirit is willing … .

“But I have to let you complete the rest of the sentence.”