When Woodstock is discussed, one of the anecdotes that most often surfaces is how Crosby, Stills and Nash took the stage in front of a mammoth crowd in only their second live gig, and as per the famous quote, were “scared shitless“. Odd to think that a year later and an ocean away, a studio-oriented band like The Moody Blues must have had the opposite feeling their second time around at the Isle of Wight. Crammed in front of The Who’s stage gear to perform for a few hundred thousand people, heads as far as the eye could see, they were at once out of their element and in the moment.
For here were five musicians who despite their massive success, remained very isolated in their process. “All we did was music”, recalls Justin Hayward in one of the DVD’s interview segments, “we were just living the music we were playing every day. It was an expression of what was in our hearts and minds.” Certainly that was a vast change from their start as an r’n’b band playing “Bo Diddley” (an early clip with Ray Thomas playing harmonica is included as an example, although oddly no mention is made of their massive hit “Go Now”). Instead their complex musical arrangements spoke to the open, exploratory nature of the times. “None of us had ever seen a bale of cotton, let alone picked one” mused Grahame Edge. “Didn’t even know what smokestack lightning was“! Obviously reaching within for material worked out well in the long run.
Their performance in 1970 was extraordinary in that they were an album band whose set was largely unfamiliar to the crowd, and as a studio band stripped of overdubs and sweetening they relied on Mike Pinder’s mellotron to carry the load. Indeed the mellotron changed everything for the Moodies and gave them incredible freedom in or out of the studio; Pinder states that he was “the orchestra behind the drums, bass and guitar…the landscape of it all.” (There’s a short clip where Pinder demonstrates how the mellotron functions; I learned more in that thirty seconds than I had ever known before).
The quality of the performance is obviously dated – Hayward was surprised that any footage even existed – but director/producer Murray Lerner (who has been bringing several great films to market) does an excellent job stitching it all together. The first sections of the program mix recent interviews with some related footage before settling down into the performance itself. Sound and visuals don’t always sync – there are several sections where relevant footage is spliced in to cover gaps – but for the most part it’s a solid presentation considering the technical limitations of the time. The seventy-five minute DVD is shot in widescreen and boasts 5.1 sound that more than compensates. And what a visual time trip! Looking young and angelic, Hayward’s ballads are earnest and powerful; Ray Thomas is appropriately animated during “Legend Of A Mind (Timothy Leary’s Dead)” and the rock-oriented numbers like “Question” and “Ride My See Saw” thunder away thanks to John Lodge’s fluid lines and Graeme Edge’s thunder. The sweeping crowd shots remind one of how different the festivals were perceived and experienced in the days before corporate domination.
Thirty nine years later, the remaining members of the band still bring the music to the masses as a whole new generation turns on to their majestic sound. But with Threshold of a Dream, Eagle Vision has captured an excellent snapshot of the band approaching its artistic peak, unafraid to tinker with some arrangements. As the final track plays, a montage of clips from Montreaux, Color Me Pop and a recent US concert drive home the point that great music is timeless, after all.
Eagle Vision link for this title.
The Moody Blues official site
Moody Blues wiki.