Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Personal Music History (Part 1)

1972. I am seven years old, the second-to-youngest of five children. On a rainy Saturday morning, my parents tell me they will buy each of us children exactly one record of our choice. I agonize between an album by Gilbert O’Sullivan, because the song “Alone Again (Naturally)” makes me weepy and feel sorry for myself, and ABC by the Jackson Five. I opt for the latter.



1974. I am nine years old. One of my older sisters comes home with Band on the Run and plays it incessantly. I like it a lot. Forty-three years later, I tell my sister Band on the Run still makes me think of her. She reveals that she secretly pretended to like the album and only bought it so some girls at school would be friends with her.

1975. I am eleven. I own no records of my own -- ABC having been tossed out at some point, probably after being scratched and crayoned to death. One day my other older sister buys Born to Run. I am transfixed by this scruffy guy’s music, and I want to hear “Backstreets” again and again. I eagerly await Saturday mornings because that’s usually when my sister puts the album on the big family stereo in the living room, to keep her company while she does her chores.



1976.  I am twelve years old. My brother, who is nineteen, fills the house with LPs by bands that alternately weird me out or bore me to death: ELP, Yes, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. I have to listen to these bands every day because I share a room with my brother, and by the time he moves out four years later I am sick of all that art-rock crap. I still can’t stand any of it.

1978. I am thirteen. I enter a New Jersey mall to visit my favorite hangout, the comic book shop. On the way I pass a Sam Goody record store, which has stacked in its display windows hundreds of copies of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Something electric hits me and I realize this Springsteen guy is some kind of big deal. I don’t buy his new album though because my sister and brother already own it and I listen to their copies, mostly without permission.

1978. I am in the eighth grade. “Movin’ Easy Y97”, a soft-rock New York radio station I sometimes listen to, is undergoing a format change and during a two-week interim plays nothing but the Beatles, 24/7. Up to now, my exposure to their music has been limited to viewings of Yellow Submarine on TV. These two weeks are an education and a treasure trove.

1978. My music teacher tells me I am to have a singing part in the middle school musical, The Truth About Cinderella. I didn’t have any idea I could sing, but he tells me I’m good at it. It is the first time anyone ever tells me I am good at anything.

1978. My father tells me it’s time to learn an instrument. I pick trumpet because it looks easy, with only three buttons to push. A dear old man comes to the house every week to teach me. It doesn’t take him long to figure out that I don’t bother to practice and soon I am utterly bored with trumpet. I give it up, which hurts my father and makes him angry for a very, very long time.

1979. My oldest sister comes home from college with her new boyfriend, Bob, who looks exactly like Superman. To everyone’s delight, Bob brings with him an acoustic guitar. He enthralls my entire family, especially my father, who dotes and praises Bob like he’s his biggest fan, which at the moment he is. At one point Dad even brings out his accordion to duet with Bob. During the evening I find myself sitting beside my father on the couch. He is leaning forward, hands folded between his knees, gazing with wonder at The Incredible Bob, who is playing and singing like an angel from God. I ask my dad whether he thinks maybe one day I could play and sing like that. He says he doubts it. “You’d have to have some musical ability,” my father replies, his eyes never leaving The Amazing Bob.

1979. I’m fourteen. I’m now listening exclusively to rock station WNEW-FM, which in addition to playing lots of Springsteen is assaulting me with songs and artists that excite me in ways I don’t even understand: Elvis Costello, the Specials, Graham Parker, Split Enz, Squeeze, Blondie, Nick Lowe, and some band called The Clash. By this time I own a few albums, mostly by Springsteen and Billy Joel. The stuff I hear on the radio keeps calling to me, but I don’t yet have the guts to bring some of it home. I can tell it’s going to change me, and I’m not quite ready to be changed.

1979. One Friday night I am somehow home all alone. My brother now owns a beautiful acoustic guitar that he will never learn to play, and I take advantage of my secret solitude by unpacking his guitar, slinging it around my neck, and standing in front of the full-length mirror in the hall outside my bedroom. Downstairs in the living room I have already put on some hard-rock album, probably The Who. I stand there, watching myself windmill and mime and pretend I am performing in front of a live audience. Something grabs me then, and I decide on the spot that someday I will play guitar and sing in front of people, and I will be good at it.

1979. The weekend before Christmas. I am in the back seat of my parents’ car, which is crawling slowly through holiday shopping traffic jams. I ask out of nowhere if I can please take guitar lessons. My father is vehement, he says no, absolutely not. You tried trumpet and you never practiced. We’re not throwing away any more money on wasted lessons. My mother listens quietly to our exchange, then suggests to my dad that maybe learning guitar will be different than trumpet. My father grumbles and does not agree, but I sense he is softening.

1980. It’s a Monday in January. I am sitting in the cold, drafty waiting room of a family counseling center. At some point it finally became clear to my mother that I was in serious emotional trouble, and she was sufficiently alarmed to set me up with a therapist. I am relieved that someone has at last paid attention to me, but I resent being sent to therapy. I take comfort in looking forward to Thursday, the 18th of January, because it will be the day of my very first guitar lesson.



And I-yi had a feeling I could be someone, be someone


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Monday, January 8, 2018

If You’re Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From… The Moody Blues



Ray Thomas, the flutist (flautist?) for the Moodies, died January 4 at age 76. Thomas retired from the band in 2002 after suffering several unnamed health issues; he stated in 2013 he had inoperable prostate cancer and recommended men be tested.

Beside flute (and several other instruments), Thomas sang and wrote for the band. His songs weren’t the big hits – those were pretty much reserved for Justin Hayward and John Lodge – but among his compositions are “Another Morning” and “Forever Autumn” (from Days of Future Passed) and “Veteran Cosmic Rocker” (from Long Distance Voyager). The band was hoping he’d be able to attend for their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year, but obviously that will not happen.

The Moodies have been around a long, long time – they were actually part of the British Invasion, scoring a top ten hit in the United States in 1965 with the ballad “Go Now.” At that point, the band included Thomas, Graeme Edge (who remains their drummer and the only original band member left), Mike Pinder (keyboardist until 1978 or so), Clint Warwick, and Denny Laine (who was one of the primary members of Wings with Paul and Linda McCartney). When Warwick and Laine left the following year, they were replaced by Hayward and Lodge, and the band changed completely to become one of the first prog rock bands. They’re still touring – they will play in Florida Friday, January 10 – with Hayward, Lodge, Edge, and a bunch of other players who aren’t official band members. (Hayward, Lodge, Thomas, and Edge decided on this after bouncing keyboard player Patrick Moraz around 1991.)

The band really hasn’t made much new music in this decade – their only studio release was the Christmas-themed album December in 2003 – but there have been loads of best-ofs to pick up the slack. The good news is, except for “Go Now,” everything they’ve done has been with the same label (London, then Threshold, which was bought out by Polydor, now part of UMG – which also has the rights to “Go Now,” so you’d think that would solve that). Their work even has a nice division – after a solid run of hits through 1973, they took a five-year break, and after the misfire Octave, released another run of hits in the 1980s, by which time they were pretty much The Justin Hayward and John Lodge Show (“Gemini Dream,” “The Voice,” “Your Wildest Dreams”), remaining tuneful if far more conservative. Almost all of the sets released after 1984 contain most of these hits; the trick is finding the right one.

I hate to recommend a two-disc set for these guys – their big hits fit on one CD, as you’ll see – but the only one-disc set available for download on both Amazon and iTunes is one of the odious 20th Century Masters things, so here’s what’s left:

This isn’t even the best two-CD Moodies best-of, as it doesn’t contain “Go Now,” which is on at least two other anthologies. It’s missing the minor hit “The Other Side of Life,” as well as Thomas’ “Veteran Cosmic Rocker,” which got lots of airplay. But it’s in print. At $10.43 for the two-disc set from Amazon ($13.49 for the download on Amazon, $13.99 on iTunes), it’s very reasonably priced.

Here are the other options (links go to the respective Wikipedia pages). You might want to settle in awhile.

This Is the Moody Blues (1974) – this was released during their hiatus; Threshold may have assumed they were done. A double album was probably a bit much for a band that had achieved eight top 50 hits on both sides of the Atlantic combined, but the album went gold in the UK and US, plus platinum in Canada, where they’ve always been popular. All of the hits are here, along with a pile of album cuts – the only relative rarity is the B-side “A Simple Game,” which later became a minor hit for The Four Tops. Weirdly, this is still in print, and somewhat overpriced - $18.14 for the two-disc set on Amazon (the running time is 94 minutes, so it’s not completely unreasonable), $17.49/$17.99 for the download on Amazon and iTunes, respectively. I think you’d be better off getting another set first, and if you really like the band, start buying the individual albums.

Voices in the Sky (1984) – one-LP greatest hits set that included the best of those previous albums, plus the hits from Long Distance Voyager and The Present (in the United States, anyway – the track listings were different). The band actually had a song called “Voices in the Sky” from In Search of the Lost Chord, which was not included here. You don’t need this; there are better options. $25.00 for the disc on Amazon, which presumably wants to get rid of old inventory; not available for download.

Prelude (1987) – this is more of a rarities set than a best-of. Some singles after Denny Laine and Clint Warwick left but before Days of Future Passed (that was the album with “Nights in White Satin”), a few B-sides, the studio tracks from Caught Live + 5, a Threshold creation designed to keep the fans happy in the mid-1970s while they waited for the band to either officially break up or record something new, and “Late Lament,” that spoken-word portion of “Nights in White Satin.” Out of print and fairly hard to find, but most of the tracks are available elsewhere.

Greatest Hits (1989) – well, the band released two albums after Voices in the Sky, so obviously it was time to prime the pump again. This differs from that album in that their three latest hits are included (“Your Wildest Dreams,” the album version of “The Other Side of Life,” and the endless “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”), along with rerecordings of “Isn’t Life Strange” and “Question” with the London Symphony Orchestra, which may be a bit of a disappointment to fans. Some copies may have the more pompous title The Story of the Moody Blues – The Legend of a Band, to coincide with a documentary of the same name. I think it’s out of print, but Amazon has copies for $64.00 for the truly desperate. I’ve got this, and it’s perfectly okay, but don’t break the bank for it.

Time Traveller (1994) – the inevitable box set, and (originally) at five discs, probably a little much. None of the Warwick/Laine material is included, but there are several songs from the 1975 Hayward & Lodge album Blue Jays, recorded during the band’s hiatus, plus a minor solo Hayward hit, “Forever Autumn.” The first three discs are from Days of Future Passed through Octave, which means songs from their five 1980s and 1990s albums are crammed onto one disc (the fifth disc has a rare song, “Soccer Rules the Globe,” recorded for FIFA, along with several songs omitted from the original release of A Night at Red Rocks in 1993). Subsequent rereleases dropped the fifth disc (the live songs were included in a subsequent Night at Red Rocks rerelease). Out of print, but the four-disc version is available for download on Amazon only for $37.99.
 
The Best of the Moody Blues (1997) – the best of the one-disc sets the band has released. All the main hits are here (I suppose you could make an argument for 1983’s “Sitting at the Wheel,” but since that was more or less equivalent to “Gemini Dream,” it’s not the worst loss), and it even has “Go Now.” Available on Amazon for $11.84 – as a physical album only, not for download. Since every song here is also available on Gold except “Go Now,” and given Gold is a two-disc set with a lot more music that costs $10.43 on Amazon, you’re better off buying that one and downloading “Go Now” to get more bang for your buck. (Your mileage may vary – if you find this cheaply at a brick-and-mortar store, this is certainly a worthy option.) On the other hand, iTunes does have it at $7.99 for the download, which makes it the best deal there.

Anthology (1998) – Polydor must have been going with the one-disc, two-disc, four-disc (more or less) theory prevalent with heritage acts at the time. I have this, and it’s a perfectly good set (and it does have “Go Now”), along with a couple of Hayward & Lodge songs from their 1975 album and Heyward’s solo “Forever Autumn.” But – stop me if you’ve heard this one – it’s out of print and unavailable for download. Of course, there’s not a lot of difference between this and Gold, with the following exceptions: Disc 1) “Go Now” is replaced by the nonhit “New Horizons” from Seventh Sojourn, Disc 2) “The Other Side of Life” and “Highway” are dropped in favor of “Had to Fall in Love” (from Octave, which they usually ignore), and the more recent songs “Strange Times” and “December Snow.”

Classic Moody Blues: Universal Masters Collection (1999) – it took a lot of searching to figure out just what’s on this (apparently) one-disc set. Only Hayward and Lodge are pictured on the cover, which might make you think they’re the whole band. (A brief digression: most of the anthology photos show only Hayward, Lodge, Edge, and Thomas, who were on almost all of the studio recordings from Days of Future Passed on. Mike Pinder quit in 1978 and was replaced by Patrick Moraz of Yes, who was fired in 1991; his image has been cut out of virtually all retrospective releases since then. So if you see four guys on the cover, like on Gold, be aware there’s one missing.) Anyway, this is $22.99 for the disc only on Amazon, and it’s unavailable for download, so it’s probably another case of Amazon trying to sell inventory to collectors.

The Best of The Moody Blues: 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection (2000) – this is UMG’s budget series, so a lot of these one-disc sets might be available for five or six bucks in a store or truck stop near you. (The thought of a trucker singing along with “Nights in White Satin,” “Isn’t Life Strange,” or “The Voice” – there’s an image.) It’s missing a few important songs (“Go Now,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Isn’t Life Strange,” “Sitting at the Wheel”), but as far as this series goes, it’s not the worst purchase – and it’s the only one-disc set available in the States for both download and in stores. (The 20th Century Masters series always has roughly 11 or 12 songs per disc; for an act like Buddy Holly or The Beach Boys, that means a set well short of 30 minutes, but since the full-length versions are used here, it clocks in at over 50 minutes.) $7.39 for the disc and $7.99 for the download on Amazon and $7.99 for the iTunes download. Plus, UMG issued an “eco-friendly” set in 2007 (e.g. no jewel box), for which Amazon has one copy left at $12.20. The “eco-friendly” download (yes, you read right) is a dollar more at $8.99 – because, you know, peoples is stupid.

An Introduction to The Moody Blues (2006) – not so much. This is actually a collection of everything from the Warwick/Laine years, including “Go Now” (and a few songs that aren’t on The Magnificent Moodies but were minor hits in the UK), so it’s of passing interest to collectors. It’s on Fuel Records, which is a semi-legit label (they have the bands they claim – it’s not bad rerecordings – but I doubt the Moodies authorized this). The Magnificent Moodies seems to have slipped into the public domain in the UK, so downloads should be very cheap for that album (I can download it for free courtesy of my local library). $12.99 for the disc on Amazon, $11.99 for the download on iTunes.

Collected (2007) – cripes, here’s another three-CD import set that I can’t listen to on Amazon. For what it’s worth, Universal is listed as the label, and the group’s album covers are represented on the cover sample, so it’s probably legit. 54 songs, which is good, but I have to wonder if some of the songs are the AM edits to fit. $18.91 for the set, no downloads.

Playlist Plus (2008) – look, another three-CD import set! At least I’m pretty sure this one’s from the original masters, as it’s on Polydor. Nothing especially unique, however, and since there are only 36 tracks they might have been able to cram it onto two discs. $14.49 for the download on Amazon and $29.98 for the physical discs, $14.99 for the download on iTunes.
 
Timeless Flight (2013) – apparently someone decided Time Traveller wasn’t good enough, so here’s another four-disc box set. This one does seem to have more live versions and alternate/unreleased takes, for what it’s worth, which may make the hardcore fan happier. I’m surprised they’ve even released a physical box set at this point; it’s got to be cheaper just to have a download-only version. Anyway, $35.99 for the box on Amazon (no download) and $36.99 for the download on iTunes. Confusingly, there’s also a two-disc version under the same name, which goes for $11.51 on Amazon and $17.49 for the download, and $17.99 on iTunes. But that’s not all! There’s also an 11-disc set (yes, you read right) with five discs of studio stuff and a whopping six live discs – again, under the name Timeless Flight. (Somebody in the fulfillment department probably had a coronary when this happened.) Anyway, that version does seem to be only available for download -- $78.51 on Amazon, $79.99 on iTunes.

The Polydor Years Box Set (2014) – an eight-disc set for the truly, truly obsessed. This includes three studio albums (The Other Side of Life, Sur la Mer, and Keys to the Kingdom, none of which are considered classics), plus piles and piles of live versions (I think all of the Red Rocks songs may be here), and a DVD of the Red Rocks concert. $99.99 for the discs on Amazon, but not downloadable because of the DVD.

Nights in White Satin: The Collection (2016) – this is of questionable origin (it’s an important), and is missing a bunch of key songs. I have no way of checking whether it’s live versions or not, since Amazon contains no samples. $6.60 for one disc, no downloads.

Nights in White Satin: Essential Moody Blues (2017) – UMG has so many anthologies in print I’m wondering if some executive in London is getting a bonus for every release. Anyway, this is three discs worth of material, with a pretty random shuffle of songs, and a few things missing (where’s “Gemini Dream”?). I had my doubts about this one, since Amazon doesn’t list a label, but the song samples on the page seem to check out. $9.99 for the discs, which is a steal, but $22.99 for the download on Amazon, not on iTunes.


As for solo compilations, Justin Hayward has All the Way, which does have “Blue Guitar” and “Forever Autumn,” and goes for $8.99 for the disc on Amazon. All of the other Moodies that recorded with the band have released solo albums (discounting temporary band member Rodney Clark), but none of the others have a greatest hits set (I’m not including Denny Laine’s album of Wings remakes).

Here are the Moodies’ chart hits, and what sets include them:




Song Title
Year Released
US Chart Peak
UK Chart Peak
Gold
Time Traveller
The Best of the Moody Blues
20th Century Masters
Go Now
1964
10
1
No
No
Yes
Yes
I Don't Want to Go On Without You
1965
-
33
No
No
No
No
From the Bottom of My Heart (I Love You)
1965
93
22
No
No
No
No
Everyday
1965
-
44
No
No
No
No
Stop!
1966
98
-
No
No
No
No
Nights in White Satin
1967
2
9
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Tuesday Afternoon
1968
24
-
Yes
Yes
Yes
No
Voices in the Sky
1968
-
27
No
Yes
Yes
No
Ride My See-Saw
1968
61
42
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Never Comes the Day
1969
91

Yes
Yes
No
No
Question
1970
21
2
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
The Story in Your Eyes
1971
23
-
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Isn't Life Strange
1972
29
13
Yes
Yes
Yes
No
I'm Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)
1973
36
12
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Steppin' in a Slide Zone
1978
39
-
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Driftwood
1978
59
-
Yes
Yes
No
No
Gemini Dream
1981
12
-
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
The Voice
1981
15
-
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Talking Out of Turn
1981
65
-
Yes
Yes
No
No
Blue World
1983
62
35
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Sitting at the Wheel
1983
27
-
Yes
Yes
No
No
Your Wildest Dreams
1986
9
-
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
The Other Side of Life
1986
58
-
No
Yes
No
No
I Know You're Out There Somewhere
1988
30
52
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes