The Moody Blues’ third album In Search Of The Lost Chord, released in 1968, was a breakthrough moment in the development of prog. In 2014 the members looked back on how the record came together, and how it landed them at the centre of the American freak scene – with terrifying results.
Nobody knows who he is or where he’s from, but one thing’s for sure: he’s on a mission. For the Moody Blues, touring the US in support of their third album, In Search Of The Lost Chord in 1968, the man backstage at one of their gigs is an alarming sight.
“This guy turns up, built like a brick shit-house,” recalls the band’s flautist/songwriter Ray Thomas. “He gets down on his knees in front of me. We’d just finished a gig, so I’ve got a Scotch and Coke in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He says: ‘I want you to do the laying on of hands.’ Someone had told him that after one of us had done this he was going to Nirvana and Krishna would take over his body. That’s why he’d been preparing himself as he had done. It must’ve taken years to get into that shape. This guy had clearly been crazy for a long time.”
In 68 this was no isolated incident for the Moody Blues. It was a watershed year for the Birmingham-born, London-based band. The unexpected success of their second album, 1967’s Days Of Future Passed, a symphonic orgy of classical rock and new ‘progressive’ music, had blown away the perception of them as a second-tier beat group.
But it was the follow-up, In Search Of The Lost Chord, that reinvented the Moodies as free-spirited hipsters whose vaulting ambition chimed with the free-spirited times of the psychedelic era. Released at the height of summer the album was a helix of spiritual and philosophical ideas that appeared to offer both enlightenment and new ways of living. There were mystical songs about exploration, the astral plane, higher consciousness, hippiedom’s own pet guru Timothy Leary, and even a ringing Hindu mantra with four-part vocal harmonies and cross-echo. The music was often kitted out to match: woodwinds, backwards guitars, tablas, harpsichords. And of course there were sitars, the default signifier for any ‘serious’ seeker amid the bells ’n’ beads of the 60s counterculture. Above all, the album’s rich, buoyant tones refracted the idealism of the times through a neat psychedelic prism. It was a record that suggested the new generation might actually win.
“We were very optimistic,” asserts Thomas. “We were trying to preach peace, love and outta sight. And sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. It was the whole package.”
The Moody Blues had hit big with Go Now, a Larry Banks cover that topped the UK singles chart in January 1965. But they failed to build on the momentum: there’d been a flop album of R&B songs, a number of personnel changes and a steady stream of 45s that made no impression at all. Their label, Decca, were becoming increasingly desperate. By the time they paired the band up with staff producer Tony Clarke, ostensibly to record music as a sales tool for the label’s new Deramic Stereo Sound, the debts were piling up. Days Of Future Passed, a dawn-to-night concept album made in conjunction with the London Festival Orchestra, was greeted with barely suppressed horror by the company executives who bankrolled it. Only when it landed them a Top 30 hit on both sides of the Atlantic (in the US it actually reached No.3) were they prepared to give the band another chance.
The Moodies decided its follow-up would reflect their fascination with the culture that surrounded them. The Beatles had invited them along as support on their final tour of England in late ’65, after which the Fab Four bonded with Thomas and Moodies keyboard player Mike Pinder. During the next couple of years they could all be found hanging out at each other’s houses or at rock star drinking dens like the Bag O’Nails in Soho. “Ray and I were always popping into the Abbey Road sessions,” recalls Pinder. “And we both played on a couple of Beatles tracks – mouth organs and back-up harmonies on I Am The Walrus and Fool On The Hill.”
Pinder also introduced The Beatles to his favourite new toy: the Mellotron – a veritable mini-orchestra in the right hands. He outlined to them the possibilities it afforded to musicians with curious minds.
It was a reciprocal relationship. “Whatever the Beatles did, people followed,” says Moodies singer/guitarist Justin Hayward (who had replaced original frontman Denny Laine in late 66). “In the early part of 67 we’d started to read those books on Transcendental Meditation. The Beatles were the leaders of that particular club in London that we all went to. We didn’t get the Maharishi, though, we got the Indian waiter from down the road. But we really were looking at that mind-expanding stuff, and then TM turned it into a religion. It was a proper way of life – better than just hanging around and being stoned all the time.”
Then there was the acid. While the popular perception of the Moody Blues was of earnest English dandies, in reality, LSD trips were commonplace in the band (with the exception of bassist John Lodge, who abstained from such mind-expanding experiments). Hayward insists it was a relatively short-term dalliance of around 18 months, though.
“The four of us did it very carefully and took good care of ourselves,” he says. “Except for the time we left Ray alone in the flat. He was watching the telly. And when we came back, Crossroads was on. He was going: ‘Man, this is fucking far out!’
“Hash was the drug, really. There’s no point saying that it didn’t play a part, because it did. But we all had a respect for drugs because we could see what it did to some people. None of us were ever controlled by drugs, whereas the people that were fell by the wayside and died.”
The Moodies’ lysergic activities seemed to feed directly into one of the songs recorded during the Days Of Future Passed sessions. Legend Of A Mind, written by Ray Thomas, was a six-minute hymn to Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor who had turned on, tuned in and dropped a bomb on buttoned-down 60s America by advocating LSD as a portal to higher consciousness. It was a song that posited Thomas as the Captain Trips of the Moody Blues. Its fish-eye-lens pop was the closest the band had come to psychedelic chamber music, with Thomas mapping a trippy interior travelogue: ‘He’ll fly his astral plane / Takes you trips around the bay / Brings you back the same day.’
Too out-there for Days Of Future Passed, Legend Of A Mind instead sparked the idea for In Search Of The Lost Chord. Thomas had yet to meet Leary, but he had read a fair deal about him. Some have since held up the song as a prime example of the Moodies’ over-seriousness when it came to tapping into the zeitgeist, but today Thomas insists that it was basically “a piss-take”.
“I saw the astral plane as a little psychedelic-painted biplane that you’d pay to have a trip around San Francisco Bay on. Everybody around that time was starting to read The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, so I included a reference to that too.”
Hayward agrees that the song was very much a playful tribute to the high priest of high times. “We could always see the funny side of all that stuff, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead and the rest of it. There was this wicked humour within the band that didn’t allow you to take too much seriously.”
Holed up in Decca’s Studio One with producer Tony Clarke and engineer Derek Varnals, In Search Of The Lost Chord was the product of a highly inventive set-up.
“Tony really understood the Moodies,” says Thomas. “We were talking with Tony 24 hours a day, not just music but philosophy and astronomy too. He had a huge telescope on the roof of his house and we’d go up there, look at the moon and stars, and talk about everything. He knew the lyrics of our songs always had other connotations, and was really good at seeing the broader picture.”
At the same time, Varnals’ experience in setting up a studio for a large orchestra, gained during his time working with Mantovani, opened the floor to new experiments in sound. “So we had a first-rate team who were trying to break down barriers, just like we were,” says Lodge.
Unlike most of their peers, everyone in the Moodies was involved in the band’s creative process, with the members huddled around what Pinder remembers as “this dirty little coffee table with a round, carpet top. We rejoiced in it, really,” he says. “If you weren’t needed in the studio you were off in your little cubbyhole, writing new songs and finding inspiration. It was a steady drip of ideas.”
Pinder was perhaps the chief architect of the Moodies’ sound. In Search Of The Lost Chord saw him expand on the Mellotron experiments he’d begun on Days Of Future Passed. Allied to the arrival of eight-track technology (the Moodies were the first at Decca ever to use it), the album bloomed into a sonic tour de force. Growing up, Pinder had immersed himself in the vastness of light orchestra maestro Mantovani. The latter’s love of melody and sumptuous use of strings was something that Pinder tried to approximate on the Mellotron.
“Mike spent a lot of time creating that beautiful Mellotron sound that only he could get,” Hayward says. “Everybody else sounded shit on it, really.”
The Moodies’ fascination with sonic possibilities also took them into strange territory. During the sessions for In Search Of The Lost Chord, they hit on a revelation.
“We were fucking around a lot with sounds,” Thomas recalls, “and we discovered that if you took a B-flat down so low you could hardly hear it, then turned it backwards, the pulsation would make you lose control of your bowels. So we thought, wouldn’t it be great if we put this on at the end of In Search Of The Lost Chord? Nobody could hear it, and everybody shits themselves! But the Decca powers that be said we couldn’t do it, it was highly dangerous. Then while we were playing around in the studio, Tony walked across the room and all of a sudden it dropped him like a fucking stone; it hit him in the neck! Just after that time, people were starting to experiment with ‘sound bombs’, but we were doing it months before.”
One of the key songs on In Search Of The Lost Chord had been worked up by Pinder while sharing digs with Thomas in Esher. Om was a collective meditation steeped in Indian esoterica, where clouds roll, rooftops patter from the rainfall and butterflies hurry into the sky. As with the Beatles, the Stones, The Mamas & The Papas and others, the Moodies had bought into the exoticism of Eastern music. Hayward and Pinder would trot off to a place in Charing Cross Road and come back with tablas, tamburas and sitars. All those instruments feature prominently in Om, while its lyrics hint at the discovery of some mystical hidden dimension: ‘Far away a distant sound is with us every day / Can you hear what it says?’ Whatever your take on late-60s rock and its attendant hippie regalia, it’s a ravishing piece of music and very much a seeker’s mantra. When it was recorded in the early part of 1968, the perfumed spirit of the Summer of Love was still hanging on the breeze. The Prague Spring was yet to be crushed, the counterculture had mobilised itself into a potent symbol of anti-Vietnam protest and people were pounding a path for the hippie trail. The dream was on.
“We were touring through Europe and realised there were big changes happening,” explains Lodge. “Young people were coming out of the early 60s, which weren’t very good for them, and the Iron Curtain was starting to disappear, so everywhere there was optimism. And the message of In Search Of The Lost Chord was that, really: if you could find the lost chord, it might be the answer to life.”
House Of Four Doors, Lodge’s own mini-suite, served as a metaphor for this grand spiritual quest. A mixture of baroque classicism and Beatles-ish reverie, it features a delicate dance between harpsichord and cello. “I wanted to write a song that showed how you could live your life,” Lodge recalls. “As you’re going along, there are doors that you can either open or ignore. My philosophy was always to open the door and see what’s inside – it might be something fabulous. I still try to use that approach for everything I do in life.”
Even today, In Search Of The Lost Chord seems boundlessly ambitious. Along with its more psychedelically inclined songs, there was the frothy West Coast pop of Lodge’s Ride My See-Saw, the interstellar highway of Pinder’s The Best Way To Travel – which finds its protagonist speeding through the universe on beams of light – and a pair of Hayward songs imbued with bucolic wistfulness: Voices In The Sky and Visions Of Paradise. The latter was an extension of the lustrous balladry that he’d already shown on Nights In White Satin – the hit from Days Of Future Passed – though this time Hayward shared a writing credit with Thomas.
“I used to sit in the broom cupboard at Decca, writing lyrics while Justin was working stuff out on guitar,” says Thomas. “Then he’d pop into the broom cupboard, we’d smoke a ‘j’ and just work it out.” It was a relationship that was to sustain them through the next two decades, through to 1991’s Keys Of The Kingdom album.
On its release in July 1968, In Search Of The Lost Chord swept into the UK top five. Alongside Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends, Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and Cream’s Wheels Of Fire – all of which offered a more ambiguous view of the world as the 60s rolled on – the Moodies’ album was almost uniformly upbeat. It fared well in the US, too, causing a sizeable dent in the Billboard top 30.
In October 1968, the Moodies set out on their first tour of America. Their first visit there, in December 1965, had been more of a promotional trip - there were appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Murray The K’s Christmas radio programme and NBC’s Hullabaloo. The tour of late 68 was altogether different - and much scarier.
Sharing bills with John Mayall, Chicago Transit Authority and the wondrously named Frumious Bandersnatch, they were regularly confronted by people who saw The Lost Chord as a golden gateway to some future utopia, and the band themselves as the leaders who could take them there. All the freaks, damaged seekers looking for hidden truths, real or imagined, came calling.
“On that first US tour there really were people who thought we had the secret to the universe,” says Hayward. “As far as we were concerned, we were just talking for that generation of people that we saw, but there were some very weird people coming to the concerts and dumping lots of stuff on us.”
A few weeks earlier, the Moodies had played gigs at Braintree Youth Centre and The Seagull in Ryde. Now they were packing them in at the Fillmore West and The Shrine.
Apart from dealing with fans desperate for the laying on of hands – “It used to worry us,” says Thomas, “because what they were asking was blasphemous” – there were more bizarre things waiting. The prophecies that were supposedly folded into the fabric of The Lost Chord were seized upon by some of their fanbase’s more extreme elements.
“While we were on tour there was a guy down in San Antonio, Texas, who’d got in the press by hanging around on the sidewalk saying: ‘Fifty-six days until the arrival of the messiahs – the Moody Blues!’” says a still-incredulous Hayward. “He was counting down the days till we arrived. He and his followers were all going to be taken up in the spaceship when the Moodies came. That was his whole thing. Of course, by the time we got to town, nothing happened. So the next day this guy was like, ‘You bastards! You fucking charlatans!’ But we hadn’t done anything!”
Thomas recalls the crazy man, all mahogany skin and rabbit-skin waistcoat, knocking at the door and leaping into his hotel room when the band first checked in: “He was like the wild man of Borneo.” The band had security remove him straight away.
“We immediately destroyed him when we got there because we didn’t arrive on a magic carpet,” Edge recalls. “He was a little heartbroken over that. Then when we were leaving the hotel, there were about 30 of his followers gathered outside and they were close to stoning us. It was very scary.”
For Lodge, the ‘Moodies effect’ was made most explicit on another occasion. He recalls arriving in one US city to find an unwanted welcome party. “Because we weren’t playing in another place 150 miles away, they decided the world was coming to an end,” he says. “When we looked out of our hotel window there were hundreds of people with placards saying the world was going to end if we didn’t play in their town. It was a pretty scary scene for people like us in our early twenties. There weren’t those extremes in England.”
It wasn’t just the fans who found the Moodies strangely exotic. Other musicians would be hanging around backstage, sizing up these new visitors. “The first gig we did for [promoter] Bill Graham was the Fillmore East in New York,” Hayward remembers, “and David Crosby came to see us. We were standing in this little dressing room and he said to me: ‘Where do you get your clothes? Can you put me in touch with somebody?’ That was the most important thing to him. We were proper English dandies to people like that.”
There was a slightly less welcoming reception when the band arrived home in the UK. Lodge came back to his house in Cobham to find strangers camped out on his front lawn. They’d been to a Moodies gig in America, one of them told him, and were convinced he was going to pilot the spacecraft that was going to take them into the heavens, and until then they’d wait.
But nothing quite matched the experience of Ray Thomas: “One woman from St. Louis broke into my house and lived in my garden for about three weeks, covered in shit and crazy as a box of bloody frogs. She came in and lay with the sign of the cross on her face, in floods of tears, like a nun. She expected me to screw her and said the offspring was going to be the Second Coming. In the end we had to have her deported. Then she’d write reams of letters to me, saying things like: ‘The Easter eggs are under the sea! The Easter eggs are under the sea!’ I had a death threat from her – she even told me what type of bullet she was going to use. She was going to shoot me, then I’d resurrect myself, just so she could prove who the hell I was. It really frightened the shit out of me.”
It didn’t deter the band, though, and the following year they were back in the US. A ‘Love-In’ with Jefferson Airplane at LA’s Elysian Park in November 1969 finally brought them face to face with the subject of Legend Of A Mind, when Timothy Leary turned up with a train of followers. As the band started up the intro to the song, Leary sprang on to the stage and began rattling a tambourine with abandon. Afterwards there were hugs all round. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Leary’s death in 1996.
“He loved the song and knew that I was being mischievous with it,” says Thomas. “The first time I met Tim he invited me, Justin and Mike up to his commune just outside San Francisco. His followers took us inside this longhouse to feed us. But it was all vegetarian, and we were big carnivores. Later they took us up to Tim’s cabin. When he asked if they’d fed us, he went: ‘Yeah, it’s crap, innit?’ And he got out this whacking great steak and banged it on the barbecue.”
Three years before Leary died, he visited the band backstage after a show at the Greek Theatre in LA. Thomas recalls: “He took me to one side and said: ‘I’m gonna tell you something now. And if you tell anybody else, I’m gonna deny it. But that bloody song of yours made me more famous than I did!’”
In the UK and Europe, Moodies fandom was far more measured. In their home country they were viewed less as hippie saviours and more as the harbingers of a new strain of orchestral rock, one that would eventually bloom into prog. Like The Nice or Pink Floyd, they seemed to be deliberately inching away from any accepted notions of what constituted a British rock band.
In Search of The Lost Chord sold well, but it’s far from their most commercially successful work. A subsequent run of albums all fared better on both sides of the Atlantic, and by 1972 the Moodies were established as Britain’s chief exporters of symphonic pomp’n’roll. But their songs had changed with the times, and they turned to writing pointed political songs about Vietnam, revolution and the racial divide, while 1973 single I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band) rebuffed their status as unwitting gurus for factions of the Flower Power generation.
The Lost Chord nevertheless retains a unique place in the Moody Blues canon. Not only is it blessed with some of their most inspired music, the complexity of their vision finding a perfect canvas with the advent of spanking new studio technology, but it’s also one of the last great missives from an age when everything still seemed infinitely possible. Ultimately, it’s a giddy hymn to purity itself, made just before the 60s closed in forever.
“There’s a naivety to it that’s still appealing,” says Hayward. “And there’s an innocence to it. It really is just five guys and a producer doing exactly what they want to do. What a slice of luck to be able to do that.”
Graeme Edge agrees. “Suddenly, all the things you wished for were there. You had your own studio, you could make your own music, people were coming to see you play. All of your dreams were right there in your hand. The world really was ours for a song.”