The Magnificent ones close out the 60s in a more conventional stroke of genius
By 1969, English outfit The Moody Blues had firmly established themselves as a crucial singular force in the realm of hallucinogenic pop/rock and experimental proto-prog.
True, they formally burst onto the scene with 1965’s The Magnificent Moodies LP (a very worthwhile R&B sequence, for sure), but it wasn’t until the guitarist/vocalist Justin Hayward and bassist/vocalist John Lodge replaced Denny Laine and Clint Warwick, respectively, the following year that The Moody Blues as we know them really began. (Of course, Denny Laine went on to join Paul McCartney’s Wings, so he still did alright for himself, all things considered.)
Alongside founders Mike Pinder (keyboards, vocals), Graeme Edge (percussion, vocals), and Ray Thomas (flutes/harmonica/vocals), Hayward and Lodge steered The Moody Blues into a far more fearless, amiable, idiosyncratic and unpredictable ensemble that took its listeners to investigational and innovative places while staying true to a regal British Invasion core. Their second and most recent outing up to this point, 1968’s In Search of the Lost Chord, was an ingeniously scattered—yet still quite seductive—dive into surveys of mind and matter (including philosophy, romance, culture, spirituality, and consciousness). As for its predecessor, 1967’s Days of Future Passed, well, its seamless mixtures of orchestration and rich genre songwriting—coupled with its overarching a-day-in-the-life theme—resulted in nothing less than an influential masterpiece (as cliché and hyperbolic as that may sound). Clearly, the quintet had a lot to live up to on their third effort.
Fortunately, they essentially hit the mark yet again with On the Threshold of a Dream. While it does periodically dig into the nature of dreams, Hayward has remarked that it’s not actually a concept album, clarifying, “It was a lovely title, but what does it mean? It’s rather vague, probably something to do with enlightenment and the search for it. Further than that, I can’t say that there’s a story.” Once again released on Deram Records, produced by Tony Clarke (whom Edge calls “the driving force behind” the LP’s other main motivator: “the journey [of] getting out into space, both physically and metaphorically”), and featuring artwork from Phil Travers, the project was recorded at a more leisurely pace than its predecessors. Unsurprisingly, it continues the trend of letting every member take some of the spotlight as a writer and vocalist (although Pinder, Hayward and Thomas still have the largest roles). Upon release, it earned The Moody Blues both their first #1 album in the U.K. and their first Top 20 album in America. Looking back now, On the Threshold of a Dream isn’t quite on par with Days of Future Passed or In Search of the Lost Chord, yet it’s still a very valuable follow-up that expertly and uniquely balances the familiar and fresh.
One of the most striking elements of the set is its more straightforward and rugged rock approach (especially at the start); whereas In Search of the Lost Chord radiated British flamboyancy, this one feels more grounded and North American at times. For instance, the first proper song, Hayward’s “Lovely to See You,” mixes his usual hopeful breeziness with gruffer guitarwork that’s reminiscent of Roy Orbison and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Afterward, Thomas’ “Dear Diary” is, fascinatingly enough, cryptically jazzy in its walking bass lines and off-kilter piano chords and acoustic guitar arpeggios reminiscent of Small Faces, whereas Pinder’s eventual “So Deep Within You” (which was covered by The Four Tops in 1973), though somewhat surreal, majorly conveys the vigorous, no-nonsense candor of a Guess Who track. Halfway through, “Never Comes the Day” is a sing-along ballad that’s quite folksy and a little bluesy. True, these selections still feel quintessentially Moody, but they also clearly show possible influences from across the Atlantic that’d touched many other British acts at the time.
Of course, other odes focus more on the group’s trademark countryside charm. With its swirling mellotron and wistful harmonies, Lodge’s “Send Me No Wine” is—pardon the pun—quite dreamy. Later, the direct yet meditative “To Share Our Love” fits fine as your standard Moody Blues romantic rocker, while “Lazy Day” and “Are You Sitting Comfortably?” seem like more easy-going siblings to the prior record’s “Voices in the Sky” and “Visions of Paradise.” (To be honest, the former would be a bit of a waste if not for its strikingly downtrodden shift halfway through; after all, the quintet was no stranger to juxtaposing joy and sadness in the same session.)
There’s also plenty of winning peculiarity to On the Threshold of a Dream. Naturally, it begins with another Edge poem—”In the Beginning”—that heightens the chilling malevolence first established by its immediate precursor (“Departure”) while also toying with computerized manipulation (a la ELP’s “Karn Evil 9” epic) and cognitive dissonance. (As Edge told Ultimate Classic Rock in 2014, “My job back then… was to write a poem that kind of hinted at all of the various themes to make sure that people’s heads were pointed in the right direction.”) Likewise, the joyous “Are You Sitting Comfortably?” uses Thomas’ flute to segue into Edge’s wrap-up scripture, “The Dream,” which places Pinder’s characteristic matter-of-fact recitations (ending with great conceptual continuity: “Live hand in hand and together we’ll stand / On the threshold of a dream”) over a soundscape of spacy isolation. Furthermore, the closing suite—“Have You Heard (Part I),” “The Voyage,” and “Have You Heard (Part II)”—places mirrored acoustic comforts (with percussion that conjures The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”) around an arresting instrumental whose symphonic elegance and classical tension makes it masterfully haunting and bold. The ways in which it reimagines its core motif through multiple timbres is exquisitely unsettling, making the surrounding calmness even more impactful by contrast.
Fifty years later, On the Threshold of a Dream remains a benchmark not only for The Moody Blues, but for the genres it helped popularize and progress. It’s not as monumental and cohesive as Days of Future Passed, nor is it as opulently consistent and pleasant as In Search of the Lost Chord, but it nearly makes up for it in sheer variety and disjointed brazenness. In other words, the pieces of the puzzle are less engrossing and confident in spots, yes, but it’s precisely that fragmented freedom that makes it an enduring landmark of creative fortitude and boundlessness. To this day, The Moody Blues remains singular yet timeless, and On the Threshold of a Dream deserves to be celebrated by not only the original fans, but by their children’s children’s children, too.