Giving thanks, full of gratitude

A trusted friend once told me she starts each day by making a mental note of the things she’s grateful for, and it invariably sets the tone for a positive outlook. I’ve adopted this morning routine, and I highly recommend it.

On Thanksgiving Day, many families go around the dinner table giving everyone the opportunity to say what they’re thankful for, and when it’s my turn, boy, am I ready! Hack’s Back Pages comes to you a day early this holiday week because I’d like to point out how uncanny it is that music has played such an important role in the many blessings I have received.

There’s a Spotify playlist at the end that includes each of the songs I refer to in my list of gratitudes.


I’m thankful that my parents were such great role models who showed me the importance of close family ties.  They instilled in me a deep appreciation for great music — big band music, swing, Broadway musical tunes, classical pieces, traditional torch songs, seasonal carols.  They strongly encouraged participation in church choirs and handbell groups, piano/guitar lessons, and my musical collaborations with friends (even though they weren’t always wild about some of the artists I chose to listen to!). As it turned out, I ended up instilling the same love for music of all kinds in my two daughters, one of whom became a professional singer-songwriter.  To underscore this gratitude, I would cue up “The Things We’ve Handed Down,” a beautiful tune by Marc Cohn from his 1993 LP, “The Rainy Season.”

I’m thankful to have met and married the most wonderful, compassionate, talented, attractive woman in the world, who, for nearly 40 years now, has been my confidante, my best friend, my partner in parenting and, not coincidentally, my companion at countless rock concerts, and my number-one fan when I pull out the guitar!  I’m one lucky guy to have had her love and gentle guidance, and benefitted from her enthusiasm and sense of humor. There’s no better song to cue up here than “My Girl,” The Temptations’ marvelous slow-dance tune from 1965.

I’m thankful I was blessed with the chance to be a doting father to two amazing, smart, resourceful, beautiful daughters.  Nothing warms my heart more than having watched them grow from toddlers into strong young ladies who fill me with love and pride every single day.  They can both sing way better than I can, and I like to think I’m a big reason why music is a huge part of their lives.  They both follow artists that don’t do much for me, naturally, but they are also big fans of vintage musicians I introduced them to, so I’ll cue up Paul Simon’s appropriately titled “Father and Daughter” from his 2006 album, “Surprise.”

I’m thankful that, while I wouldn’t describe myself as a religious guy, I have come to increasingly appreciate the strength and hope I am getting from my recent spiritual explorations.  Opening the door to the possibility of a higher power has brought me a genuine inner serenity I lacked, and has reminded me of the rewards of putting the needs of others before my own. When I was less receptive to spiritual messages, they nevertheless found their way in through the rich strains of chorales and church organs heard in places of worship. I still get chills sometimes when I hear a favorite hymn performed, bringing a deeper meaning now. The rock music fan in me would cue up Eric Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord,” from the album he made as part of Blind Faith in 1969.

I’m thankful that, despite a stent, “A-Fib,” a hip replacement, neuropathy concerns and ever-increasing aches and pains that seem to come on a daily basis, I’m doing all right for a 66-year-old.  As the saying goes, “If we have our health, we have a great deal.”  For me, music has cathartic qualities that contribute mightily to my well being. Hearing a favorite piece of music has always had the ability to soothe the body, the mind, and the soul.  Here’s where I cue up “I Got You (I Feel Good),” James Brown’s 1965 classic.

I’m thankful for this incredibly beautiful country, and world, in which we live. Although the human race has despoiled far too much of it with our selfish and negligent ways, there are countless places we can go where the scenic beauty can literally take your breath away.  I’m hoping — begging, really — that we all work harder to be much more respectful of the environment so future generations have many more centuries left to enjoy it.  I suggest we cue up “Share the Land,” the 1970 Top 20 single by The Guess Who.

I’m thankful how lucky I am to have had such warm, funny, supportive friends in my life.  I have a friend I’ve known since we were four years old, and I have new friends I met less than two years ago, and they are all very dear to me. They bring me joy in so many ways, helping me celebrate and grieve as the situations warrant. Through the years, one of the things I’ve most enjoyed doing with friends is singing around backyard bonfires and patio fire pits, or volleying music/lyric trivia questions back and forth, and dancing the night away to the oldies. Time to cue up “Friends” by Elton John (1971).

I’m thankful to now be living in a safe, comfortable home within a short bicycle ride of the stunning Pacific Ocean.  While I will always cherish my 40 years in Cleveland, Ohio, and 17 years in Atlanta, Georgia, I am thrilled to be realizing one of my dreams — to live near the ocean, watch the sunsets, listen to the waves, contemplate the beauty.  Every day.  Let’s cue up “Home By the Sea,” a 1983 track by Genesis.

I’m thankful for the wisdom I learned not long ago from this important philosophical life lesson:  “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, and that’s why they call it the present.”  Essentially, it’s “don’t cry over spilled milk, don’t worry about things you can’t control, be in the now.”  With that in mind, I think the late great George Harrison would appreciate it if I cued up “Just for Today” from his 1988 album, “Cloud Nine.”

I’m thankful for the way I am revitalized, soothed, inspired, comforted, astounded and exhilarated by music of (almost) all kinds, in all settings, all day and night, whether listening or participating.  I love to cue up the 1976 track by Average White Band whose chorus joyously exclaims,  “Music, sweet music, you’re the Queen Of My Soul…”

I’m thankful that I seem to have what some refer to as an encyclopedic mind for music trivia, which has helped me recall everything from the lyrics of “Louie Louie” to the name of the original bass player in The Doobie Brothers.  I also love digging into music reference books and rock biographies to learn more back stories. It allows me to assemble some compelling, theme-based playlists, such as the dozen tracks below about thanks and gratitude to mark the Thanksgiving holiday. May the day land gracefully for you.

The music to the story in your eyes

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. In this essay, I take a detailed look at one of the most important British bands involved in pioneering the challenging genre known as art rock, or progressive rock, in which elements of rock music and classical music merge. Thanks to a substantial fan base, plenty of critical praise, and considerable commercial success with Top Ten singles and #1 LPs in the US and the UK, they grew from modest beginning in the mid-1960s into a bonafide musical legend: The Moody Blues.


The Moody Blues in 1970: Ray Thomas, Mike Pinder, Graeme Edge, Justin Hayward, John Lodge

Popular music is full of stories of rock groups that were lucky enough to have a #1 single almost right away but then unable to duplicate their success. The record label might stick with them for a year or two, but without sales, the groups lose their contracts and are never heard from again. You’ve no doubt heard such artists referred to as “One-Hit Wonders.”

The Moody Blues, who went on to become one of the most successful British progressive rock groups in history, came pretty close to being saddled with that dubious distinction. They signed a deal with Decca in early 1964 and, before the year was out, they topped the charts in England with “Go Now,” which also broke into the Top Ten in the US. Like much of their repertoire at the time, “Go Now” was a cover version of a rhythm and blues song recorded by an American soul singer, Bessie Banks, with lead singer/guitarist Denny Laine as the front man. But then they struggled unsuccessfully for nearly two years to come up with another hit.

Their 1964 #1 single, with Denny Laine on vocals

Decca was ready to drop them from the roster. But the group had built up a debt that Decca wanted to recoup, so they came up with a plan: Use the Moody Blues to create a rock music version of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” to help promote the label’s new subsidiary, Deram Records, and its new high-end sonic development they called Deramic Stereo. The band had little choice but to go along.

The band quickly reached the conclusion that the project wasn’t going to work. Instead, with support from their producer and engineer, they boldly proposed to write a cycle of original songs about “everyman’s archetypical day” (dawn, morning, mid-day, late afternoon, evening, night) which would then be expanded and connected by classical music passages, written and conducted by Peter Knight and recorded with a session “orchestra” that called themselves the London Festival Orchestra. To their everlasting credit, the label agreed.

“Days of Future Passed” cover, 1967

The album they got, “Days of Future Passed,” was fairly astounding. It is regarded as one of the very first concept albums, released in 1967 in the wake of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” and Pink Floyd’s “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” neither of which utilized classical music structures and instruments as comprehensively as The Moody Blues did. Although Decca had little hope that the album would sell much, it became a surprise hit, reaching #27 in the UK on the strength of its two singles, “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon (#19 and #24 respectively).

It should be noted that the album tanked badly in the US at the time, and critics savaged it. Rolling Stone said, “The Moody Blues have matured considerably since ‘Go Now,’ but their music is constantly marred by one of the most startlingly saccharine conceptions of ‘beauty’ and ‘mysticism’ that any rock group has ever attempted. They are strangling themselves in conceptual goo.” Truth be told, I’ve found the album to be a bit tiresome to listen to all the way through, and the orchestral sections seem rather heavy-handed. But “Days of Future Passed” stands as a landmark LP in its creative blending of rock and roll arrangements with classical song structures and instrumentation.

In the UK, the album’s success gave the group the green light to continue their experimentation. Fortunately, Mike Pinder, one of the group’s founding members, was exceptionally well versed in the Mellotron, an analog antecedent to the synthesizer. It was designed as an organ-like device that used tape heads activated by the touch of keys, and tape loops comprised of the sounds of horns, strings and other instruments generating an eerie, orchestra-like sound. Pinder, who not only knew how to play it but also once worked for the company that developed and built them, was able to perpetuate the group’s use of orchestral sounds without the expense of hiring classical musicians for the recording process.

“In Search of the Lost Chord” cover, 1968

The next Moodies LP, “In Search of the Lost Chord,” revealed the depth of talent of the band’s five multi-faceted musicians. Pinder worked the Mellotron and added piano, harpsichord, autoharp, tambura and spoken vocals. Ray Thomas provided flute, oboe, sax and French horn and vocals. Justin Hayward, who had replaced Laine as their primary singer, played acoustic and electric guitar, sitar and keyboards. John Lodge handled bass, cello and vocals, and Graeme Edge chipped in on drums and percussion. All five were songwriters as well, giving the album a wonderful diversity within the group dynamic. Lyrically, the songs examined themes like higher consciousness (Thomas’s ode to Timothy Leary and LSD, “Legend of a Mind”), spiritual development (Hayward’s “Voices in the Sky”), quest for knowledge (Lodge’s rocker “Ride My See-Saw”) and imagination (Pinder’s “The Best Way to Travel”). All this proved to establish the group as darlings of the counterculture on both sides of the Atlantic while also showing robust sales in the mainstream, reaching #5 in the UK and #23 in the US.

Front-and-back album cover art, 1969

Over the next four years, The Moody Blues honed and embraced this formula, offering five rich, diverse, sonically engrossing albums that achieved ever-higher positions on the charts in both the UK and the US, and Canada and Australia as well. “On the Threshold of a Dream” and “To Our Children’s Children’s Children,” both released in 1969, cemented their reputation as an “album band,” with tracks that segued into one another. Their trippy album cover art further sealed the deal, giving their attitude-adjusted audience something to look at while the music played on. “A Question of Balance” in 1970 and “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” in 1971 brought The Moodies back to the singles charts with two vibrant Hayward compositions: the melodramatic “Question,” with its frenetic acoustic strumming, and my personal Moodies favorite, the hard-rocking “The Story in Your Eyes.”

The band toured incessantly throughout this period, and because some of their pieces proved too daunting to attempt on stage, they found themselves consciously writing tunes that could be more easily recreated in a live setting. Consequently, “Question,” “It’s Up to You,” “Melancholy Man,” “Dawning is the Day,” “The Story in Your Eyes” and “Our Guessing Game” from the 1970-1971 LPs became regulars on their concert setlist.

Re-release single of “Nights in White Satin,” 1972

An unusual thing happened in 1972. While the group’s accurately titled album “Seventh Sojourn” became the first to reach #1 on the US album charts, its two Lodge-penned singles — “Isn’t Life Strange” and “I’m Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band)” — made the Top 40 but were completely overshadowed by the re-release of “Nights in White Satin.” A disc jockey in Washington had been signing off with the five-year-old song, and listeners began clamoring for it. Interest spread to other US markets, and soon Decca/Deram chose to re-release it as a single. It not only reached #2 on the US Top 40, but also brought “Days of Future Passed” to #3 on the US album chart, giving The Moodies TWO albums in the Top Five in December 1972.

Non-stop touring and recording took their toll, and The Moodies chose to go on hiatus for a few years, much to the displeasure of the record label. Pinder had grown tired of England and relocated to California to start a new family there, and Hayward, under pressure to come up with new Moody Blues-like material, teamed up with Lodge and their longtime producer Tony Clarke to make “Blue Jays” in 1975, which reached a respectable #16 in the US and #4 in Britain, even without any noteworthy singles.

The whole band reunited in 1977 to record the so-so “Octave” LP with the below-average single “Steppin’ in a Slide Zone,” but Pinder was so dissatisfied with the result that he refused to participate in the subsequent tour and officially left the group.

Various solo projects by Hayward and others filled the gap for a spell, but by then it seemed the music scene had moved on. Audiences became more fragmented, craving disco, punk, New Wave and heavy metal.

“Long Distance Voyager” cover, 1981

In 1981, though, The Moody Blues came roaring back with “Long Distance Voyager,” a synthesizer-driven #1 pop/rock album carried by two Top 20 Hayward hits, “Gemini Dream” and “The Voice.” A triumphant return to touring, including songs from throughout their catalog, was made possible by the industry’s improved technical improvements in concert sound.

This album, and those that followed over the next decade (1983’s “The Present,” 1986’s “The Other Side of Life,” 1988’s “Sur La Mer” and 1991’s “Kings of the Kingdom”), bore only a little resemblance to the psychedelia and mind-expanding albums of the band’s prime, but the accessible melodies, crisp production and Hayward’s ever-present voice kept the band in the limelight. Indeed, Hayward’s catchy pop song, “Your Wildest Dream,” and its apparent sequel, “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere,” got as much exposure as anything they’d ever done. Still, there were precious few memorable deep tracks behind the singles, certainly a discouraging development to older fans.

The Moodies in 2002, L-R: Edge, Hayward, Lodge, Thomas

The band’s last time in the recording studio was in 2003 when they cobbled together a Christmas-themed album called “December,” which came and went quickly, like most seasonal records. The Moody Blues, augmented by additional performers on stage, continued performing well into the 2010s, with Hayward and Lodge carrying the load. First Thomas and then Edge were forced to reduce their participation due to health issues. Thomas ultimately died of cancer in 2018, and Edge passed away of cancer last week, effectively bringing the story of The Moody Blues to an end.

I can’t think of any other rock band that had the audacity to offer tracks of cosmic poetry, spoken rather than sung, on almost every album. “In the late 1960s we became the group that Graeme always wanted it to be, and he was called upon to be a poet as well as a drummer,” said Hayward about Graeme Edge in the wake of his death. “He delivered that beautifully and brilliantly, while creating an atmosphere and setting that the music would never have achieved without his words.”

There’s a song on “Long Distance Voyager” that, while not one of their better efforts, perfectly describes how The Moody Blues are perceived these days — “Veteran Cosmic Rockers.” Their spacey music and intelligent lyrics mesmerized a sizable fan base during their 1967-1974 era, and their 1981-1991 period perpetuated The Moodies brand as a worthy rock band that absolutely deserved their long-overdue induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

As Edge himself put it in a 2008 interview, “I never get tired of playing the hits. I think we have a duty. You play ‘Nights in White Satin’ for them. You’ve got to play ‘I’m Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band),’ and you’ve got to play ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ and you’ve got to play ‘Question.’ It’s your duty, and the audience’s right.”