( I have to warn you what follows is much longer than my usual posts about music…but then this album is one of the most important bodies of music in my life.)
Nothing beats a small town when it comes to rumor-mongering, and the folks running the local music store were being mongered more than usual. They were all members of, or friends with, a long-time Peninsula family, and at various points of time in the summer of 1970 I heard that at least one of them was:
- Dealing drugs
- Receiving stolen goods
…the last option being extremely doubtful seeing that the group running the store was overwhelmingly male, the only female on staff was a middle-aged aunt that started working in the place well after all the gossip started. I didn’t care – I was caught up making my break between two-a-day pre-season football practice sessions as leisurely as possible, and a post-burger stroll through the store seemed just the ticket.
I hadn’t shopped there since the preceding spring, and the only visible sign of distress was a noticeably large SALE box holding albums marked down to $1.00. Surprisingly enough, there were several top-sellers in the stack, but none of them posed any threat to the prospect of a second hamburger until a tree-branch with ears floating in the middle of a midnight blue square of cardboard caught my eye. Red letters in a modified Arnold Bocklin font skewered me with The Moody Blues and On The Threshold of a Dream – and while none of the songs on the back cover were familiar Moody Blues AM hits, such as Nights in White Satin or Ride My See-saw, all the titles hinted at being listenable, so I forked over a buck and walked out with the album later described by a little sister as “the record with the weird tree on the cover.”
The rain soaked us during the second afternoon practice, and washed out all thoughts of that new record, so it wasn’t until I painfully climbed up to my loft later that afternoon that I recalled the purchase. I was too sore to climb back down the ladder, but one of my sisters blessedly retrieved the record and cued it up on my stereo while I laid on the carpet and tried to mentally will the lactic acid out of my muscles. That mental effort almost blocked out the cosmic hum at the beginning of the first track leading into a restrained synthetic crescendo, but the subsequent ethereal catechism alternating the question/response of human to computer dashed all thoughts of passive listening:
I think I am
Therefore I am I think
Then in the dystopian mood of speculative fiction popular at the time those tentative words are pushed aside by a mechanical voice identified elsewhere as the Voice of Establishment:
Of course you are my bright little star…
Human and computer trade words until both are abruptly supplanted by a third voice that contradicts the mechanical response with wise words ending in a phrase typical of the times:
…and keep on thinking free.
I sat there stunned. I had been expecting some pop kissy love song, but was instead blindsided by philosophical commentary that I would have expected from an episode of The Prisoner or an Arthur C. Clarke story, but before I could gather my thoughts I was musically slapped on my other cheek by the fanfare of guitars and drums of the second track, Lovely to See You. It was an irrepressibly upbeat tune that quickly dispelled any dystopian mood left by the poetry that opened the album, but just as my toe started tapping along with the beat, the song smoothly blended into the slower cadence of the more melancholy third track entitled Dear Diary, which sounded so different from the preceding selections that I flipped the record cover to see if I’d inadvertently purchased a greatest hits or K-tel collection.
The change was so abrupt that I stopped for a moment to extract background information from the stunning gatefold album cover and equally dynamic lyrics booklet. However I became almost immediate confused when the grid-like arrangement of individual portraits and figures in the group photo facing each other across the open interior didn’t match in number. Determined to solve the mystery, I read down the roster:
- Justin Hayward: Guitar
- John Lodge: Guitar
- Ray Thomas: Flute
- Graeme Edge: Percussion
- Mike Pinder: Keyboards (organ & Mellotron®)
- Tony Clarke: Engineer
Armed with this knowledge, I went back to connect each band member with the songs they wrote/performed, and in the process pieced together the fact that Tony Clarke wasn’t a member of the band, but instead was the guy that organized things and got the music recorded correctly. It was a job that I knew little about, but even with that lack it was obvious the wonderful sound quality and the superb manner in which the songs all worked together more than deserved acknowledgement. It was a complex task as each song was a reflection of its author’s personality, which explained the buzz-kill brought on by the somber Dear Diary as it followed the extremely upbeat Lovely to See You.
The acoustical whiplash continued with the quasi-country tune Send Me No Wine on the third track, which in turn seamlessly led into the electric introduction of To Share Our Love, a number that quickly had me wondering if I’d taken one too many hits to the helmet during practice earlier in the day. I could swear I was hearing two songs playing at the same time; a mid-range tune and an almost-falsetto parallel song with a slightly different but supporting message, but it turned out that was exactly what was going on when I checked the lyrics booklet. It was fascinating stuff, but the complexity came with an almost physical effect, which combined with the consequence of back-to-back practice sessions earlier in the day made me extremely tired. I considered just turning off the stereo and going to bed, but in my truest OCD manner I held on till that last track on the first side…and I was glad I did because So Deep within You was a perfect stopping point. While the song itself was an entreaty for communication, Mike Pinder’s commanding tone made me think of the “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” intermission clips at epic movies – it was a good time for a short break, which was perfect because I needed time for proper digestion of:
- The cheese and mustard sandwich that I made in lieu of a supper that had gone cold.
- The fundamental question haunting me, “What the hell am I listening to?”
…after which I wasted no time getting back to the music that had me so enthralled. Until recently my album purchases had been limited to “Greatest Hits” compilations or Beatles albums, which given the chop-job Capital Records did to the original EMI playlists, weren’t that far removed from that first category. On the Threshold of a Dream was something completely different: none of the tracks fit the 2:45 AM radio hit format and each song sounded completely different from all the others, yet fit together to tell a story that the listener felt rather than read.
By this time serious fatigue had set in, causing me to start the “bob & nod”, so after placing the needle down on the “B” side of the album I crawled up on the bunk built into the sloping wall of my loft. I had meticulously read the lyric booklet, so it was obvious that the careful acoustic guitar chords and soft vocals that started Never Comes the Day marked it as a Justin Hayward tune. He was already my favorite out of the bunch, but I wasn’t prepared for the effect the song had on me as it built to a crescendo:
If only you knew what’s inside of me now
You wouldn’t want to know me somehow
I sat up so quickly that I damn near knocked myself cold on the low ceiling tover the bunk, so I laid back down and let the music wash over me. Taking to an entire album so quickly was a novel thing for me, but Never Comes the Day was hitting so close to home that it was almost uncomfortable. At seventeen I had reached a crossroads where self-fulfillment intersected with transpersonal commitment, leaving me frantic for a way to balance finding my direction in life with responsibilities for, and expectations of, those around me. Mr. Hayward was coming up with some pretty good ideas, and he making music that seemed like answers to me, words that were “stealth scripture” – necessary knowledge or truth from a Higher Power that would have been otherwise rejected by an audience had it been presented via traditional organized religion.
…then once again one song faded into the next, and I was listening to Lazy Day, another folksy Ray Thomas tune that seemingly extolled the delights of a lazy Sunday afternoon before introducing a parallel lyric line bemoaning the tedious sameness of workaday life. The tune was very similar in tone to his earlier song on the first side, and while I loved his work on the flute, I wasn’t sure if I’d want to spend much time Mr. Thomas in person. In those pre-Prozac® days I was just beginning to recognize depression’s effect on my life, and the downbeat nature of Ray Thomas’ work wasn’t helping…
I almost didn’t pick up on the soft singing and acoustic guitar work of the third track, Are You Sitting Comfortably, another Justin Hayward composition that washed away any angst the previous track may have brought on. I had just started learning about my Celtic heritage and the idea of a historically correct King Arthur, so the lyrics about Camelot, Guinevere, and Merlin the Magician combined with Ray Thomas’ haunting flute was particularly meaningful to me. It was all very happy-making, but as the track ended on a high flute note seamlessly blended into Mellotron music I fell again into a Moody Blues blindside attack:
When the white eagle of the north is flying overhead
And the browns, greens and golds of autumn lie in the gutter dead
I don’t know if it was Graeme Edge’s rich baritone voice, the faint Mellotron keening in the background, or the powerful lines of the poetry itself: I sat up a bit too quickly and bumped my head a second time in response to poetry that could have been tailored for me personally. The album was rife with multiple levels of symbolism, but these spoken words combined dream imagery with the cycle of both an individual day and the entire year, which in turn brought to mind the changing of the seasons, and my favorite time of the year — fall.
I hadn’t felt that way before moving north. California’s climate is temperate to an extreme, and autumn had just been something on a calendar involving new crayons, new television shows, and Halloween. The idiosyncrasies of the South Central Alaskan climate are such that fall starts in early September with the countryside exploding into yellow, gold, orange, and the occasional splash of red, and it’s the only time of year with reasonable weather set against a backdrop of equal parts of day and night. Starting school meant regular days for a while, but there was always the specter of winter and the menace of long nights lurking just over the horizon.
Then as softly as a sundown the backing Mellotron merged into a subtle introspective melody entitled Have You Heard?
Now you know that you are real
Show your friends that you and me
Belong to the same world…
By now the blended transitions are expected and the music eases into the beginning of The Voyage before slowly transforming into something like the soundtrack to a movie, musically taking you through a magic door. A hauntingly slow minor key melody is joined by a flute, then jumps into a rumble, conjuring dream images of running through dark forests, narrowly escaping barely seen dangers, but then the rumbling becomes less intense as piano notes move up and down the scale, the intensity slowly increasing to a more forceful, more frenetic level, before dropping off to a reprise of Have You Heard and returning full circle to the cosmic whistle with which the album began.
I was stunned. I had never heard anything like it – ever. While it was true that I had previously enjoyed both Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, neither Beatles masterpiece so thoroughly embraced the idea of the concept album as the album I had just heard – or reached its level of meaning. The music had touched me on several levels, becoming important enough to warrant going through two vinyl copies, two cassette copies, a compact disc, and a download, giving me ready access to its stealth scripture throughout my life.
Quite a bargain for just a dollar, eh?