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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