Fifty years of Future Passed
By ProgBlog, Nov 16 2017 10:26PM
Last weekend marked another milestone in the history of progressive rock. June 1967 saw the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was certainly not progressive rock but which revealed a whole new world of possibilities. In Abbey Road Studios at the same time were Pink Floyd, also pushing boundaries, releasing The Piper at the Gates of Dawn three months later in August, not only stamping an indelible English whimsy on popular music but also staking out sonic territory in outer space. Procol Harum had released the JS Bach-themed single A Whiter Shade of Pale in May and followed-up their surreal musing with a self-titled debut album in September, offering mature and quite original R&B.
On November 11th the Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed. If Sgt Pepper’s wasn’t progressive rock, it was definitely the beginning of art-rock and the first concept package, utilising the notion of a song cycle and highlighting the importance of the lyrics by printing them on the sleeve; Piper wasn’t prog either but it marked the birth of UK psychedelic rock; Days of Future Passed wasn’t prog, but there is a reasonable argument to suggest it was the first proto-progressive album.
The Beatles have to take credit for a number of things, perhaps most importantly being a pop group who wrote their own songs, demonstrating an (at the time) unprecedented creative control which would become the norm for rock acts as the music industry began to change. The Beatles, along with George Martin, were responsible for pushing recording studio technology along, beginning with Revolver in 1966, an album which features George Harrison playing sitar on the track Love You To, extending the sounds available to pop music and also opening up western music to Eastern philosophy. Prior to this, most bands in the UK were relying on a rock vocabulary imported almost wholesale from the US and the Moody Blues were no exception. The replacement of Denny Laine and Clint Warwick with Justin Hayward and John Lodge on guitar and bass respectively introduced a folk influence to the group and as more time passed since they’d had success with their cover version of Bessie Banks’ Go Now with no sign of a follow-up hit, they decided to decamp to Belgium and write their own material, better suited to ‘lower-middle class English boys’, and move away from their R&B live set. Their new sound was defined by their use of Mellotron; keyboard player Mike Pinder had experience of the instrument from when he worked at Streetly Electronics in his native West Midlands, and sourced one from the local Dunlop Social Club at a bargain price because no one at the club could play it!
The story of how the album came to be made is well known; the band was in debt to Decca and, following a promising but unsuccessful self-penned single Fly Me High, was offered the chance to record an orchestra and rock version of Antonín Dvořák’s 9th Symphony From the New World for release on their Deram imprint for innovative new music, to promote their novel stereo recording technique, the Deramic Sound System, which gave improved channel separation. Once in the recording studio, the band persuaded producer Tony Clarke and orchestral arranger Peter Knight to drop Dvořák and record the song cycle which had become a staple at their gigs. Days of Future Passed (a title provided by the record company) was the result.
It’s likely that I first heard the album in 1973 as my sister was a big Moodies fan and we had a number of Moody Blues LPs appended to my dad’s jazz albums and an ever-growing collection of progressive rock. I liked some aspects of their music, In the Beginning from On the Threshold of a Dream for instance, but I thought there was a qualitative difference between what I was listening to (Yes, The Nice, ELP, Pink Floyd) and the Moodies, so consequently consigned them to a prog footnote and only in the past few years since I’ve been thinking more about the genre have I given them the reappraisal they deserve.
I don’t think the Moody Blues have ever been a progressive rock band but the idea of proto-prog is important. Orchestration in pop music may have already been commonplace but Days of Future Passed was the first attempt to bridge the pop and classical worlds. It’s ironic that The Nice used the 4th Movement of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony to extend their rendition of the Bernstein/Sondheim America; Keith Emerson was one of the prime movers for fusing classical music with jazz and rock and, with Ars Longa Vita Brevis appearing a year later in 1968, producing one of the most satisfactory early classical-rock hybrids on the side-long title suite. It’s been reported that Peter Knight, to his great credit, was keen to score the music for Days of Future Passed because at the time there really weren’t many voices from the classical world willing to rub shoulders with purveyors of popular music. Knight’s additions are quite in keeping with the pop of the Moodies but that’s one of the problems I have with side 1 of the album; I don’t think it’s aged at all well. The score lacks depth and drama and reminds me of music for some lightweight British movie from that time or even before; the saccharine strings and woodwind trills which open the record are hackneyed, though there’s a brief respite when each track theme is previewed. I do like the idea of Graeme Edge’s poetry on The Day Begins (Morning Glory and, at the end of side 2 Late Lament/Resolvement) and however much this influenced my attempts at teenage poetry, I can quite understand how it attracted accusations of pretentiousness. Dawn is a Feeling isn’t a bad song but the 2/4 sections ruin Another Morning and the orchestral introduction to Peak Hour. When Peak Hour gets going it actually rocks and the harmony work, a key component of the Moody Blues sound, reminds me of The Beatles. There’s more soloing on this track, easily the best part of the first side and this too adds to the impression that the piece is locked inside the mid 60s.
Side two is a different matter with better writing and more variation in each song, and more Mellotron. I’m not so sure about the bridge, but I like Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?) with its Mellotron line that surely inspired Barclay James Harvest, and I think it conforms to a classic Justin Hayward blueprint, even presaging Forever Autumn. The Sunset taps into the trend for Eastern music and Twilight Time is rather psychedelic, and could easily have been influenced by Pink Floyd. The stylistic variation continues with Nights in White Satin which is quite different from anything else on the album. It may be familiarity but I think it is a well-structured piece and deserves its reputation as an undisputed classic.
The orchestration doesn’t really supplement the songs but links them, acting to reinforce the themes and that’s why I don’t believe it succeeds in what it set out to do as described on the sleeve notes “...where it becomes one with the world of the classics.” The writing on side one lacks maturity, hardly breaking away from the pop of the time but side two, and the overall theme of ‘a day’ from sunrise to after sunset, would set a trend for other conceptual works. Opinion amongst Decca executives has been reported as ‘mixed’ when the record was completed but they released the album anyway, in the hope that it would recoup some of the financial investment in the project.
The rest is history; progressive rock as a genre wouldn't be the same without it.