The Pillars of Prog, Part 2 – Nights in White Satin

Musically, the British are much better than us Americans at admitting the failures of modernity, especially as it relates to how we interact with each other as humans. Steven Wilson so brilliantly lamented the isolation of the city in his 2015 masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase. Before that, Andy Tillison of The Tangent masterfully critiqued the contemporary 9-5 lifestyle in 2013’s Le Sacre Du Travail. Long before either of these artists, however, The Moody Blues commented on typical modern life in their 1967 concept album, Days of Future Passed.

In part 1 of this series, I argued that King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” started progressive rock as we came to know it. I still stand by that remark, but I’ll add that The Moody Blues were certainly an integral pioneering band in this genre. Looking back, Days of Future Passed is certainly a progressive rock album, but it is not prog as Yes, ELP, or Genesis later popularized the sub-genre. King Crimson sparked a very particular sound that The Moody Blues likely influenced but did not directly spark. What Black Sabbath did for heavy metal, King Crimson did for prog. With that said, Days of Future Passed deserves attention in this series. Specifically, I’m going to look at “Nights in White Satin,” the most well-known and probably most influential track on the album.

[Feel free to play the song as you read further.]

I could easily spend an entire series just analyzing the lyrics to the entire album. The Moody Blues critiqued contemporary life in a much more tactful and disguised manner than The Tangent did. With The Tangent, it is obvious that Tillison is critiquing/mocking the daily grind. With Steven Wilson, it is much more subtle. He tells the story of a woman who grows up and lives in isolation in a populous area. He merely tells the story. The Moody Blues do the same thing. They tell a story about modern life in a delicate and beautiful manner. One could easily think of this as a pleasant and happy album. The symphonic parts give it a light an airy feeling. However, underneath that facade lies a dark truth.

Nights in white satin, never reaching the end,
Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send
Beauty I’ve always missed, with these eyes before
Just what the truth is, I can’t say anymore

‘Cos I love you, yes I love you, oh how I love you

Based upon the final spoken poem (“Late Lament”), we can picture a young man lying in bed unable to sleep in his apartment in a large city. With the bright moon shining through the window, shadows mar the scene. In the silence, the mind wanders… wanders to an unrequited love. As he stares at the ceiling during the unending night, he thinks of words written yet unsent. Pondering her beauty, reality and fantasy combine leaving him to wonder what is real. Despite that, he declares his love… with only the moon to hear his cries.

Gazing at people, some hand in hand
Just what I’m going through that can’t understand
Some try to tell me thoughts they cannot defend
Just what you want to be, you will be in the end

And I love you, yes I love you
Oh how I love you, Oh how I love you

Thinking back upon the day, the young man feels his jealousy building as he remembers the happy couples he has seen. The anger festers when he remembers the advice they have tried to give him, but someone in a relationship will never really be able to understand the plight and sorrow of someone wishing for one.

The song returns to the first verse before softly ending with a poem spoken by drummer Graeme Edge. In this poem, the album ends on a rather dark note. The protagonist is left wondering what is real and what is an illusion. Is his love real? Is his life real? Is the darkness outside all that is?

Breathe deep the gathering gloom
Watch lights fade from every room
Bedsitter people Look back and lament
Another day’s useless Energy spent
Impassioned lovers wrestle as one
Lonely man cries for love and has none
New mother picks up and suckles her son
Senior citizens wish they were young
Cold hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colours from our sight
Red is grey and yellow white
But we decide which is right
And which is an Illusion?

I go to graduate school in Chicago’s far north side, just about where the high-rises along the lakefront start to end. I live in one of those tall buildings in a westward-facing apartment on the eighteenth floor. When I look out the window, the land falls away before me with no buildings obstructing my sight. I can watch the planes come in for a landing at O’Hare thirteen miles away. I love looking out the window. That view is one of the few things I like about living in the city. I’m a bit of a night owl, so I like to gaze out upon the city in that darkening gloom. The lights never completely fade, but they dim as more and more people turn off their lights and go to bed. Looking out over the darkened city always reminds me of “Nights in White Satin.”

With “Late Lament,” The Moody Blues ask us to think about the events of our day (or more specifically, the protagonist’s day). The narrator ends the day as it began with the cold hearted orb taking its throne in the sky for the night. We think about all of the pointless things we did and all of the time that we wasted. Some revel in the ultimate form of human passion, while others (like our protagonist) cry out for that unrequited love. The band compares newness of life with the fullness of it. In ending, we wonder if any of it is real. Are the colors we see in the daytime just a figment of our imagination? Is reality actually dark and colorless – different shades of white, gray, and black? Who can say for certain?

It is amazing to think that The Moody Blues wrote this in 1967. In 2018 America, loneliness has become an epidemic, with almost half of young people saying they are lonely. As a society, we have a massive problem on our hands. We don’t talk to each other. We lack empathy. We lack joy. As a Christian, I’ll say the remedy to this issue is Jesus Christ. But I know most readers don’t want to get into that debate. All this is to say that the types of things The Moody Blues were talking about 50 years ago have only gotten more extreme.

With hindsight as an ally, it is easy to say The Moody Blues were keen predictors of western culture. However, it is more accurate to say that they were excellent analyzers of the human condition. Loneliness and isolation are a sad part of being human. Cities only exacerbate these issues. I live in one. I know full well how nobody gives a darn about anyone else. Self-centeredness breeds loneliness. I wish I could say that all this gloom is an illusion, but it isn’t. If it weren’t for my faith in God, I’d be tempted to despair utterly and completely.

“Nights in White Satin” is more than just a pillar of progressive rock. It stands in the halls of literature with the greats because it so aptly and succinctly touches on what it means to be human and the struggles so many of us face. The Moody Blues set a high bar for future musicians to strive for. Not many bands can say that their lyrics are just as poignant today as they were 50 years ago. They will ring just as true in 50 more years.

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5 thoughts on “The Pillars of Prog, Part 2 – Nights in White Satin

  1. kruekutt

    Well done, Bryan. I can’t help mentioning that the 50th anniversary deluxe edition of DoFP is a great buy. It includes the original 1967 mix on CD (never before reissued, along with 5.1 & 96/24 stereo versions on DVD), the 1972 mix made when the master tape was misplaced on CD2, singles & b-sides, and video of the Moodies live at a French record industry conference. The original mix is crystal clear and richly inviting; Decca knew how to make great-sounding albums from all their years in the classical business.

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  2. District 26 Tom

    Not to take things TOO far away from a purely British context, but the earliest roots of what became known musically (as opposed to just lyrically) as “progressive rock,” at least in a post-Beatles sense, also lie in songs like the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and “I See You;” “Help I’m a Rock” and the other more far-out tracks on the Mothers of Invention’s FREAK OUT; “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Strawberry Fields…;” the Stones’ “Play with Fire” and “Ruby Tuesday;” the Yardbirds’ “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago;” Love’s “Stephanie Knows Who;” just about everything Hendrix and Cream did on their first few albums; “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and the entire first Procol Harum album; “Paper Sun” and most of the first Traffic album; and various Kinks, Move, and Who tracks from ’66 and ’67. And I say this as someone who saw Tull’s first show at the Fillmore East in January 1969.

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    1. Bryan Morey

      Thanks, Tom. The more I think about it, the harder it is to definitely say when “prog” began. That’s why I like to stick with King Crimson as a starting point – the stuff before 1969 was almost something entirely different than what came in the early to mid 1970s, despite still being very progressive. I clearly have more listening to do from the 60s, though.

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  3. Nothing to specifically remark on here Bryan,but I Just LOVED reading this article!!!! (and YUP,I ALSO listened to this WONDERFUL-TRACK while I read it too!!! Lol. Was the PERFECT song to read by in my personal opinion!!!)

    Anyway………….to ME…………a GREAT and CLASSIC song,has ALWAYS BEEN ONE,that always makes You feel something “Different” each time You HEAR it!!! Know what I mean? I mean,knowing every single word of this song,and how the composition of it goes……….it ALWAYS makes me feel somewhat “different” each time I hear it!!! Sometimes it brings more “wisdom” to my thinking! Other times,it makes me feel a little sad…………other times,it makes me feel delighted that I was able to look at my past,and stand proud for the decisions I’ve made,based on those past circumstances I was in at that time! In other words………..songs like this,that creatively MAKE your brain,reach OUT towards the lyrics of a song,and make You wonder “what if?”………..will forever make You a permanent listener from then on…………….. 🙂

    ~Peace~

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  4. District 26 Tom

    Crimson is a great starting point, Bryan, because the stark, radical nature of the compositions and playing on the first album was definitely not anything that anyone had done before in quite the same way at such length. The question expands out, however, into what are the specific roots of what we see as progressive rock in toto? For instance, there had simply been nothing like “Eight Miles High” anywhere near AM radio before April ’66. It was as much instrumental as vocal, there was no “verse/chorus/verse” structure, the words had nothing to do with girls (or drugs), and the guitar playing was as far from Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins as you can get. Indeed, I was just listening the other night on KCRW-FM out here in Los Angeles (on Bo Liebowitz’s show “Strictly Jazz”) to a new CD that includes Coltrane’s last show with Miles, in Paris, and it was striking for me to reassess how clearly McGuinn’s soloing and fills on “Eight Miles…,” “I See You,” “Why,” and other jazz-rocking Byrds songs were derived from Coltrane’s sax playing. But that’s the great thing about musical history: Before I really got into, say, Louis Jordan (his heyday was the ’40s, I didn’t really listen to him until the ’80s), I had no idea that some things that I THOUGHT Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, Hendrix, the Mothers, and so on were the first to do (in terms of rhythm, tempo, song structure, etc.) were things that Jordan had done decades earlier. Dylan’s “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues,” for instance, seems very clearly modeled (almost “an answer record,” as they would call it in those days) on Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry” — in the same way that the distinctive electric guitar part on the Beatles’ “This Boy” is lifted fully intact from a late-period doowop song by the V-8’s called “My Heart” from the late 1950s. (’57, if memory serves.) And the further back into the musical past you go, the more wonders are revealed to you… P.S. Criminal on my part to have failed to mention the Nice as a key early prog influence. If I had to pick ONE band that was actually doing very much what Crimson did on their first record, it would undoubtedly be the Nice. And Lake continued to go largely in that direction with ELP after he left Crimson. Yup, the closer you look, the more you see. I’d love to have sat in on Fripp and Lake’s guitar lessons with the teacher they shared and asked what the three of them thought of, say, Hendrix’s impossible-to-classify “Third Stone from the Sun.” Or even Jorma Kaukonen’s jarring, utterly non-pop-cuddly guitar solo on the Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” a huge AM radio hit earlier that same year of ’67. I remember hearing the Doors’ 45 of “Break on Through” on the radio for the first time in January ’67 and not having ever heard anything like that before in rock ‘n’ roll…even though the Doors got the whole “raga-rock” thing on “Light My Fire” from the Byrds…

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