Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Heroic Kludge: The Moody Blues: "Question"

As 1970 unfolds, the various odd strands that make up music are showing up, some more prominent than others. This song stands not just for The Moody Blues themselves but the whole progressive rock movement, which produced, to quote from I Wanna Be Sedated by Phil Dellio and Scott Woods on Yes, “true seventies classics, exhibiting a musical sophistication and intellectual prowess that left Three Dog Night and Bobby Sherman fans dumbfounded.”

Some may have questioned rock’s need to progress, but as the 60s wound down it emerged, and The Moody Blues were right there in ’67 to stupefy the world with Days of Future Passed, a far cry from their piano-pounding days when the Brumbeat sound was rumbling and rolling as loud as it could. Once Denny Laine left – he who sang on the band’s only #1 their cover of “Go Now” – Lonnie Donegan and Marty Wilde protégé Justin Hayward stepped in, to keen and croon and cry along with the symphonic folk melodies and pastoral romps on that album. (I’m not sure if there wasn’t something in the Birmingham water that made Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood want to get classical instruments into their music, but they proceeded to put them together in a different way, making cellos rock out, etc.) By this time they were the most popular prog rock group in part because they could do songs like this one and actually make them work.

Kludging – the art of sticking two things together and making them function – is accepted in prog rock and indeed almost necessary, as tempos and moods and so on shift as the songs/movements/ideas alter and build up. The Beatles kludged, and so everyone did, when needed; and “Question” is obviously two songs stuck together to become one. The song starts at a Richie Havens-strumming-acoustically intense pace, and there’s the band, and Justin, crying about injustice and why the "thousand million" questions of “hate and death and war” (lest we forget Vietnam is ongoing) are never answered. The knocked-upon door never opens, and the world burns in its greed, as quickly as the song – which sounds like a horse bounding along at top speed* - goes. And then love is mentioned, and the song slows down…

…and the “we” of the first part becomes a confessional, “I’m looking for a miracle in my life” – and clearly the narrator has suffered, but has he found someone? Who is doing “those things” (ah, vagueness) to him? Will she be the one to change his life? Because he cannot just live life like anyone else; he is ambitious – all that door-knocking and idealism is exhausting – and needs someone to change his life, to touch his very soul. That’s a big order, but prog rock is never about mundane life and regular needs. It’s BIG and extravagant and symphonic, as the sudden explosion takes us back to the beginning, the knight off again on his self-appointed mission to get an answer, mellotrons as his sidekicks. The kludging works as in the middle he is in a way asking a question as well, asking this Other of his to become that miracle (once something like that is said it’s hard to ignore), to make his life better. It is slightly absurd that the song is all about the seeking and not finding, but then most of The Moodies’ music is about seeking (or learning to see) and then becoming enlightened, or at least reaching a higher state of understanding, if only for now.

Justin Hayward’s voice is warm and terribly noble – it’s impossible to think of him ever being sly or ironic – and this goes with the folk/rock/orchestral sweep of their music, which has none of the weirdness found elsewhere in prog rock (at this point King Crimson were their main rivals, though Yes were about to take center stage and do what Dellio and Woods mentioned). The Moodies themselves wore themselves out with recording and touring (there are only so many ways you can implore others to “open your eyes, look up to the skies and see” as Queen will eventually put it) but returned chipper and idealistic as ever in 1981, and got yet another US #1 album from the faithful who needed their warmth and optimism in the cold reality of the dawning of the Reagan era. (To put it another way, there were a lot of Baby Boomers who turned to their college-days heroes in their time of need.)

As dumbfounding as prog rock – popping up here as a single, but usually sold by the (double or triple sometimes) album – could be, The Moody Blues bring an urgency and eloquence that may sound silly to some but to a lot at the time made perfect sense. A new decade is taking shape and while some are going to cast off the 60s like so many unfashionable garments, there are those who are going to keep dreaming and questioning and longing for something more; as naïve as this song can be (hate and death and war are not new things, after all) it is a protest song, a song that can barely keep still, pushing the limits of what a single can be. The Moody Blues are making rebellious music for the suburbs, and later in the 70s the suburbs will produce rebellion that is just as heartfelt, if lacking in acoustic guitars and mellotrons.

*The Moodies' popularity in the US was due to their constant touring and the Romantic aspects of their work; there's a lot of Anglophiles who like to think the UK is full of such chivalrous and heroic figures, or at least want music that sounds like what they presume the UK used to be like. That, and they can understand Justin Hayward's voice a lot better than future bands like Slade, who sounded fine on the rocking-out level but speaking as an American I still can't make heads or tails of half of what he sings.

1 comment:

MikeMCSG said...

Prior to "Shaddup You Face" shutting out "Vienna" this was often cited as the textbook case of a great song being kept off the top by a novelty hit ("Back Home").