Ridiculous and sublime: A defense of the eternally uncool Moody Blues

Ridiculous? Them? Justin Hayward and John Lodge of the Moody Blues in 2009.

Ridiculous? Them? Justin Hayward and John Lodge of the Moody Blues in 2009. Associated Press

If the Moody Blues were ever cool, it must have been in some dimension besides our own.

The British pomp-rock quintet, one of 19 acts nominated last week for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 2018, has sold tens of millions of records, massaged audiences around the world with its soothing sounds, and raised thousands of dollars for your local PBS affiliate. But the Moody Blues have never been cool. Not that the Rock Hall is exactly the arbiter of such matters, but compared to fellow nominees Link Wray and the MC5, the Moodies are about as un-cool as it gets.

And that’s fine. Really. If coolness was their stock in trade, they’d have packed it in long ago. Instead they kept plugging away for five decades after their formation in 1964, even after keyboardist Mike Pinder took his leave in the 1970s and flautist Ray Thomas followed suit in the 2000s. While the perseverance of the remaining trio—bassist John Lodge, drummer Graeme Edge, and singer-guitarist Justin Hayward—is admirable, it makes them easy to take for granted.

I might be less proprietary if I’d discovered the band on my own. But I didn’t. When people make fun of the Moodies—which is pretty much all the time—I take it personally, because they’re not just insulting me, but also my mom, whose record collection acquainted me with them. (She had the Core Seven they released between 1967 and 1972.) And not even just Mom, but the other women of her generation who found their music more welcoming than that of prog-oriented peers King Crimson, Yes, and Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. I mean, keyboard player Rick Wakeman still wears a Dracula-style satin cape when he performs, and still “Nights in White Satin” is cited as the height of prog-rock ridiculousness?

Moody Blues detractors aren’t completely off-base, since ridiculousness is baked into their soufflé. The lush, vivid romanticism that sets them apart is also what makes them suspect to classic-rock listeners who prefer their Grand Statements with the unapologetically phallic vibe of a “Stairway to Heaven” or the camped-up craziness of a “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Moodies forged a path between the two poles that pleased radio listeners and concertgoers, while failing to garner much respect from music critics. As Rob Chapman noted in a 2015 appreciation for The Guardian, “They remain one of the last critically un-rehabilitated bands of the ‘60s.” They received their first RRHOF nomination this year. They’ve been eligible since 1989.

Since the announcement of their nomination, I’ve been revisiting their peak-era albums. With the exception of 1969’s uninspired To Our Children’s Children’s Children (yeah, that title), they hold up. They had a way of making flute and Mellotron feel as necessary as guitar, bass, and drums. Lyrically? Well, that’s where the Moodies run into trouble, but there are plenty of gems mixed in with the clunkers. First of all, it’s not as if they were the only symphonic rock act to aim straight for the heart. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Still You Turn Me On” made its intentions abundantly clear, but the Moodies had a lot more where that came from. Add Hayward’s lustrous locks and luscious voice to the equation, and you have the kind of act that attracts listeners who don’t normally gravitate toward psychedelia and prog, which is bound to irritate those who do. There are no secret passwords. The hooks are right there out in the open for all to enjoy.

Then there’s the intense, claustrophobic approach toward Englishness. Their deepest, darkest jams were the musical equivalent of a Powell-Pressburger film—not just romantic, but downright Gothic. You don’t like The Red Shoes, Stairway to Heaven (the movie, not the song), or The Tales of Hoffman (George Romero’s favorite film)? You won’t like the Moody Blues. And you probably don’t appreciate melodrama, the most maligned, misunderstood tendency in popular art. Douglas Sirk might have won approval, but when a rock band tries something similar, critics sharpen their knives. It certainly doesn’t help that women have historically been the most ardent consumers of melodrama.

For a kid growing up in Anchorage, Alaska in the 1970s, this was all very exotic and exciting, right down to designer Phil Travers’ bizarre, wigged-out album covers, which I would pore over while listening. Maybe I’d be more cynical if I’d discovered the band in college. Instead they helped prepare me for the higher education to come. A song about Stanley Livingston? Check. A song about Timothy Leary? Check. They assumed that their listeners had read a few books, owned a few classical albums. The Moodies, who hailed from industrial Birmingham, made me feel intelligent and cultured—like someone who had the potential to break free from my provincial, blue-collar roots.

For some fans, however, the glamour was all just, as the band once put it, “an illusion.” I don’t doubt that some listeners fit their description of “bedsitter people who look back in lament,” the kind who lacked my means of escape, but there’s a lot to be said for escapism, and the Moodies surely infused a lot of quotidian lives with the romance for which they longed. It’s easy to mock “Nights in White Satin,” but you do so at your peril, because you’re also mocking the people who found—and continue to find—it meaningful. To suggest that they could do better or that they can’t tell the difference between art and artifice shows a severe lack of empathy. I sang classical music in choir and listened to pop music at home, and I really would opt for the Moodies’ take on the genre rather than the Dvořák that inspired Days of Future Passed, their first plunge into psychedelia after a critically praised prologue (1964-1967) as a Merseybeat outfit.

If I left the band behind in 1972, they made new fans in the 1980s with synth and sequencer-driven singles “The Voice” and “Gemini Dream” (from 1981 Billboard chart-topper Long Distance Voyager), “Your Wildest Dreams” (1986’s The Other Side of Life), and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” (1988’s Sur La Mer), but their acid-drenched, conceptual album days were over. I was happy to see them in the charts again, but they weren’t “my” band anymore—they were everyone’s. And that was OK.

If 2018 isn’t their year, I hope the five septuagenarians of the Moodies are inducted into the Rock Hall in time to appreciate the recognition. They’ll never be cool and they’ll never be critical darlings, but they’ve brought a lot of pleasure into the world, and they deserve the stamp of approval that an induction bestows on even the most ridiculous of acts. Not that the Moodies were ridiculous.

Well, not entirely ridiculous.