Graded on a Curve:
The Moody Blues,
Go Now–The Moody Blues #1

We remember The Moody Blues’ Ray Thomas who passed away on Thursday, January 4 with a look back from our archives. Ed.

Though the music they produced was only fitfully successful, the Denny Laine-fronted incarnation of The Moody Blues deserves to be remembered for more than a momentary chart fling topped by a gem of a single. In ’65 they released an album at home and another in the US under distinct titles, both holding a dozen tracks and with a third of each LP also unique. The better of the two, Go Now–The Moody Blues #1, was issued in the States by London Records.

Heavy on covers and by extension lacking in gestures toward originality, the ’64-’66-era Moody Blues are unlikely to be many people’s (I’ll stop short of saying anybody’s) most beloved component in the British Invasion. In fact, talk of the group today reliably focuses on the post-Denny Laine/Clint Warwick lineup that saw new members John Lodge and Justin Hayward helping to transmogrify the Moodies into one of the leading if artistically lesser examples of Symphonic Rock. I won’t sully the Prog genre with an inapt association since there was hardly anything progressive about The Moody Blues Mk 2.

Instead, they exemplified the Middlebrow impulse, though that’s ultimately a separate discussion. This piece concerns a band that came together when the leader of Denny Laine and the Diplomats joined up with a bunch of nameless Birmingham hopefuls, their main desire hitting it big or even just making a good living; they briefly played as the M & B 5, the initials an attempt at landing sponsorship from two local beer brewers (last names Mitchell and Butler). And similar to many of their contemporaries, The Moody Blues’ method at least initially was the borrowing and alteration of Rhythm and Blues.

And they did storm the charts with “Go Now,” in the process overtaking in popularity the terrific Leiber and Stoller-produced original by Bessie Banks, though the idea of the cover destroying the source’s commercial hopes is basically a myth. Banks’ tune was released by the Tiger label in January of ’64 while The Moody Blues’ version didn’t emerge until the following November, eventually peaking at #10 in the US in February of ’65 (it took top Brit honors a month earlier).

Naturally a hastily assembled LP followed; a la numerous Invading acts of the time, the North American edition of their efforts is markedly different and in this instance superior to its UK counterpart The Magnificent Moodies, mainly because it tidily essays the sturdiness of those R&B motions as it includes the quintet’s finest moment that wasn’t their biggest hit (the backs of each do feature a laudatory but undistinguished and proto-hippy-dippy prose poem by Donovan).

Go Now–The Moody Blues #1’s opener “I Go Crazy” is obviously inferior to James Brown’s a-side of 1960 (which in the spirit of accuracy was titled “I’ll Go Crazy”) and certainly his reading of it captured on Live at the Apollo, quite possibly (actually very likely) the greatest vinyl performance document ever. With that said this version touches all the bases and distills enough verve to make it a worthwhile introduction to the group’s fledgling sound.

“And My Baby’s Gone” follows, a Laine-Pinder original maintaining sturdy momentum via unsurprisingly soul-inflected singing, Pinder’s attractive keyboard banging, loads of handclaps and a generous serving of oddball primitively recorded (it’s clear UK label Decca wasn’t investing much in the outfit’s future) guitar sustain. A solid track, it serves as a nice bridge into the Mk I Moody Blues strongest achievement.

Matching the winning artistic gamble of Laine’s highly emotive vocalizing with Pinder’s mood-enhancing aggressiveness on the piano and then driving it home through Graeme Edge’s insistent kick drum and Warwick’s huge if at times sonically compromised bass notes, “Go Now” is an enduring vessel of heartache, the flashes of anguish conceivably strengthened by fidelity that’s far from prime.

And yet fleeting ingenuity does materialize. To elaborate, I’ve never been able to pinpoint my favorite aspect of this song, though the issue has gotten narrowed down to either Pinder’s bull’s-eye instrumental break or those killer final seconds where the echo rises as the volume fades away on one last vocal surge by Laine. Y’know, it’s probably the latter, a crafty maneuver perhaps comparable to a movie camera zooming forward while simultaneously dollying back.

A real beauty, and due to the atypical piano-driven vibe it remains one of the more invigorating early British Invasion hits; by comparison “It’s Easy Child,” previously cut for the Federal imprint in ‘62 by Lulu Reed and Freddy King, registers a bit like a b-side, which it was in the UK, backing up “Go Now” on Decca’s 45.

But if of humble charms, “It’s Easy Child” isn’t mediocre, the band smartly nabbing another tune in which Pinder could display his prowess on the 88s as Laine’s voice strove for the unperturbed region betwixt Sam Cooke and the New Orleans R&B of the period (notably, Chris Kenner’s “Something You’ve Got” appears on The Magnificent Moodies).

Like the opener, “Can’t Nobody Love You” is substantially modest next to the Solomon Burke version found on the great belter’s nifty ’64 Rock and Soul LP, but unlike “I Go Crazy,” the Moodies shoot for diversity here and flounder a little, adding unappealing harmonica and then padding it out to four minutes. A rather long four minutes, at that.

The first side closes quietly with “I’ve Got a Dream” (here titled “I Had a Dream”), a number sourced from the worthy team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Its crisp, well-mannered aura (multi-instrumentalist Ray Thomas’ flute is in attendance) is mildly reminiscent of Motown, though the production savvy of the Detroit studio is absent and in this case missed; the nervy disposition of “Go Now” transcended tech limitations, but to truly imbue the pleasant “I’ve Got a Dream” with excellence required the aural brightness located in the endeavors of Gordy.

Side two opens with “Let Me Go,” the flute retained on a more measured Laine-Pinder composition heavily emphasizing the moodiness but without the blues. Structurally it’s somewhat ornate for ’65, though its result is achieved through sleight of hand, striving for the atmosphere of ‘60s orchestral balladry on a budget; upon inspection, it doesn’t seem as if a solitary auxiliary musician was tapped for the proceedings. It’s likeable but below the Walker Brothers’ standard (for one example).

Next is an efficient if not exceptional run-through of the Bert Berns-Jerry Wexler tune, “I Don’t Want to Go on Without You,” cut a year prior by The Drifters for an Atlantic single and performed a short time later by Dusty Springfield on her eponymous BBC TV show. Things pick up with the garage-tinged and rhythmically Diddley-esque “True Story,” Laine’s singing on the concise track in the same ballpark as Mark Lindsay.

Tackling the Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy and Bess) might seem an ill-advised idea, but it begins in Elvis sings the George and Ira songbook mode and gradually picks up intensity; by the final minute they’ve managed to attain a sweet groove. Getting there much quicker is the raucous Dixon/Williamson blues snatch “Bye Bye Bird” (or per the cover, “Bye Bye Burd”) with the harmonica, if miles from the heights established by Sonny Boy, on this occasion well-utilized.

Even as the word blues is half their name, these dudes were clearly never going to pose a serious threat to The Animals or Yardbirds, though “Bye Bye Bird” is a fun non-reverent rave-up, especially as Edge increasingly batters his kit. But closing selection “From the Bottom of My Heart,” a strangely ambitious original that at times sounds as if it’s channeling the melodramatics of Roy Orbison (but if he’d stayed at Sun), delivers the LP’s most intriguing entry, ending with Laine freaking-out in the left field bleachers. It’s the best song here other than “Go Now,” and it gives that one a run for its money.

Playable copies of Go Now–The Moody Blues #1 and The Magnificent Moodies will be difficult to find in the present. I own neither, my lone Laine-era vinyl acquisition being Compleat Records’ Early Blues, a 2-disc comp from ’85 that’s uninspired sequencing and cut-rate packaging is partially counteracted by the inclusion of 19 tracks collecting the entirety of the US and UK albums.

But 19 songs isn’t the most exhaustive examination of these years. For that, try the ’06 Repertoire CD sold under the Brit debut’s title; I do believe it corrals everything this lineup waxed (they left nothing in the can). However, regarding the young Moody Blues, and like so many mid-‘60s acts on both sides of the pond, exhaustive isn’t really the way to go.

Bluntly, the long-playing record wasn’t well-suited to these guy’s strengths. They were a singles band; sometimes hit, just as often miss, but the most vibrant assemblage of that nature is encapsulated on Go Now–The Moody Blues #1. Loaded with peaks and valleys, the LP makes its point concisely and ends on an eccentric high note. In ’65, this hard-working group couldn’t have expected anything more.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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