Remembering Ray Thomas

by Kostas Barbas, Paris Gravouniotis, Dimitris Kaltsas, Alexandros Topintzis, Giannis Zavradinos

Translation: Alexandros Mantas, Dimitris Kaltsas

The news of Ray Thomas’s passing filled with grief the fans of rock music, especially those who take delight in its early form, long before labels and subgenres increase worryingly. After all, The Moody Blues were among the pioneers and one of the main reasons for the existence of many of those. The abrupt and unexpected turn they took from rhythm & blues to symphonic pop/rock was meant to be the precursor of art rock and progressive rock. The band that Thomas along with Mike Pinder founded in Birmingham, before employing their manager Graeme Edge as a drummer and cemented their line-up that made history with the addition of John Lodge (an old acquaintance of Thomas and Pinder) and, of course, Justin Hayward.

The originality of The Moody Blues was not confined to their style. Pinder’s use of the mellotron had expanded the horizons of the arrangements (it was him who introduced The Beatles to it) while the structure of the first concept album shifted the public attention from singles to complete albums and we will be eternally thankful to them for this. The Moody Blues were probably the first band whose all members were multi-instrumentalists while four of them sang lead vocals to all of their records. Ray Thomas was of course one of them and his voice is a big part of the heavy legacy of ‘Moodies’ as well as his wonderful flute melodies while he also played piano, percussion, saxophone, oboe, French horn, harmonica and woodwind instruments. His most typical trait as a composer was that he sang the lead vocals to all of the songs he wrote. This fact spawned us the idea to write about all these pieces of the seven albums The Moody Blues did during 1967-1972, their golden era.


 

The second album of The Moody Blues is registered in the conscience of many people as “the one that includes Nights in White Satin” and of course as their informal debut album (the immature r’n’b The Magnificent Moodies had preceded it). It is unquestionable that Days of Future Passed is a lot more and now it is considered as one of the summits of the 1960s and Ray Thomas contributed to it mightily since, aside his playing, he composed two of the seven tracks. On Another Morning you will identify one of the most famous flute melody ever played (which brings strongly to mind a musical theme of a Greek movie of the time). This rhythm combined with the lyrics sketches magnificently a child’s positive energy about the new day, a summer morning, conveying this image to the listener in an amazing way. The cinematic reprise at the end of the composition can’t be seen as anything else but an ode to perfection. On the contrary, Twilight Time (the second part of Evening) possess a wonderful transcendental beat that stems from the r’n’b background of the musician and it surely is one of special moments of the record. Its position right before Nights in White Satin is felicitous and absolutely spot on since it comes in stark contrast with the intense romanticism of the legendary composition and essentially rounds out the concept.

After the commercial and artistic success of the ambitious venture of Days of Future Passed that marked, inter alia, their redefinition, without further ado Moodies set the bar higher with regard to compositions and arrangements. Their priority is now their sonic autonomy and having got rid of the dependence on the orchestra, the fairy-tale majesty and the references to classical music are solely appointed to Mike Pinder and the imposing mellotron becomes their trademark. And there was In Search of the Lost Chord based on the tried and tested recipe. Every member comes up with compositions of his own and through the collective assimilation becomes part of concept which here deals with the spiritual research and completeness, a concept in accord with the time. The contribution of Ray Thomas here is invaluable: two brilliant songs radiant with inspiration and feeling. Dr. Livingstone, I Presume reflects the thirst of the searcher for innerness that remains unquenched even though he saw the wonders of the world. Legend of a Mind, a multilayered work of art with a wonderful flute solo, studies in depth the experimentations of Timothy Leary collectively identified by the occult content of Tibetian Book of the Dead and the dominating psychedelic aesthetic. All of the above of course just before the threshold of the next dream…

After the two masterpieces that preceded it, On the Threshold of a Dream took them away from British psychedelic pop/rock, although they would retain key features of this sound. This is where their fully recognizable style and songwriting experience are crystallized in a very relaxed and easy-going way. Here, the tracks composed by Thomas shine through the set and are typical examples of the intense British element that exudes the grooves of each Moodies album. Dear Diary is a critique of the frenzied modern lifestyle. Psychedelia is given through the effect of the vocals, while the flute is a feature of early progressive rock sound. In the same laid-back paths, Lazy Day is the ultimate background of a relaxed Sunday afternoon. Both tracks are very close to what would later be called art-rock or art-pop. Finally, in Are You Sitting Comfortably?, which was co-written with Justin Hayward, Hayward’s voice is masterfully engulfed by Thomas’s flute, creating a wonderful atmospheric piece on King Arthur and Camelot. These are three of the top tracks of a great album.

Without enjoying the wordwide acceptance of Days of Future Passed, To Our Children’s Children’s Children is placed comfortably among the top creations of the British legends. Being the first album to be released under the roof of their own record company, Threshold, and with a space concept influenced by the then timely theme of the manned mission on the Moon, the fifth studio album of Moody Blues includes gorgeous songs harmonized in the spirit of the era, filled with inspired melodies and intense nostalgic mood. Three of these are compositions by Ray Thomas. Floating is a short psych-pop ballad one of the finest of the 60s. On the other hand, on Eternity Road, Mike Pinder’s mellotron ‘carpets’, Ray Thomas’s flutes in combination with the guitar melodies and the extraordinary vocal lines of Justin Hayward take off the track to a great height. Finally, Watching and Waiting (a composition by Hayward / Thomas) was also the only single released from this album, and its commercial failure disappointed the band. However, the similarities in the atmosphere with their most famous song (Nights in White Satin) do not minimize the beauty of this magical song that closes the disc ideally.

After five albums in the 60s, The Moody Blues made yet one more courageous turn in their sound, while entering the 70s: they removed the psychedelic color from their sound almost entirely in their sixth album, the absolutely successful A Question of Balance (No. 1 in G. Britain, No. 3 in the US). Overall, the album is not as great as the previous four and it is known for Justin Hayward’s classic opener Question. Thomas’s contribution here is mainly And the Tide Rushes In, in which he sings but does not play flute. This is a structurally simple, melancholic piece with allegorical lyrics written after a quarrel with his wife. It is one of the best tracks with one of the most favorite choruses on the album and wonderful acoustic guitar by Hayward. Thomas also wrote The Balance alongside Edge, which includes Pinder’s narration.

Less than a year later, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour saw the light and was an even greater commercial success (No. 1 in Great Britain and No. 2 in the US). The album is probably somewhat better than the previous one, and of course this is partly due to the superhit The Story in Your Eyes and even more Procession, one of the most important songs of the band and the only one co-written by all five, in which Thomas sings and narrates. These two tracks are followed by Our Guessing Game, one of Thomas’s top compositions, where he sings amazingly. His second own composition in the album is Nice to Be Here, where the ‘Moodies pop’ is perfectly summed up in a typical British joyful song that does not sound outdated (though stylistically it “should” be?).

The same goes for For My Lady, the only composition by Thomas in Seventh Sojourn, the band’s last great album. This is one of Ray Thomas’s most famous tracks, which was a b-side in the single I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band), a love hymn that has been a fan favorite, as they it is played live accompanied by an orchestra, because of its complex studio orchestration.

Overall, Ray Thomas’s offer to the legend of The Moody Blues was enormous and his personal signature was distinctive, unique and characteristic of a great musician. Let’s admit it, Thomas rightfully belongs to the three most important flutists – composers in rock music history.