The golden age of progressive rock music in the early 1970s saw a number of collaborations between adventurous musical acts and visual artists who complimented the music with striking and imaginative album covers. Many of the major acts had a go-to artist or design firm that supplied them with creative imagery. For many record buyers the appeal of the album sleeve was a major factor in a decision to buy a record. The 12-inch square size of an LP album cover quickly doubled as gate folds became the norm. Artists started to take advantage of the newly found extra real estate and expanded their canvas. Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and others had their Roger Dean, Paul Whitehead and Hipgnosis. This article focuses on The Moody Blues and the six albums featuring the artwork of Phil Travers. We shall talk about those covers and play a favorite piece of music from each album.
The story of these albums begins after the Moody Blues released their breakthrough album Days of Future Passed at the end of 1967. On that album the band quickly abandoned the original idea of a rock realization of Dvorak’s 9th Symphony and wrote their own music. The album, a milestone symphonic rock production that utilized a full orchestra, produced the hit Nights in White Satin. Its success gave the band a new freedom in making artistic decisions about their music and how it is packaged. Enter artist Phil Travers, who recalls how he met the band: “I spent two years at Decca, working on album sleeves, then got a job in a design office down in Wimbledon. I was then contacted by someone I knew at Decca who said the Moody Blues manager liked an illustration of mine and wanted me to meet the band to discuss doing the sleeve for their new album. I met the Moodies in a London pub, and we worked out the details of the commission.”
For their next album the band created their own symphonic sound with the aid of a mellotron, enhanced by the band members playing classical instruments such as harpsichord and cello. The result was the album In Search of the Lost Chord, an excellent collection of late 1960s psychedelia dealing with favorite themes of the time: higher consciousness, space travel, spirituality and philosophy.
Travers struggled to come up with ideas for the album cover: “The band wanted me primarily to illustrate the concept of meditation. This was not something that I had much personal experience of and so my initial thoughts about such an ethereal subject were, unfortunately, insubstantial. I wasn’t producing any cohesive visual ideas, with this lack of ideas evident in my first rough designs. In fact, as time was getting short I was starting to panic.”
Ideas started to form when he was invited to the recording studio to listen to the music the band was creating: “While I was listening to the music, the concept for the cover was actually given to me in some sort of subliminal way. The recording and mixing area of the studio where I was sitting was separated from the area where the band would play by a large glass window and in this glass I could see several images of myself – one above the other – almost as if I was ascending up into space. After that, everything just fell into place.”
A favorite song from this album is Legend of a Mind, written by Ray Thomas as a tribute to Timothy Leary, the man who can fly the astral plane, take you trips around the bay and bring you back the same day.
The song is a fantastic showcase of the mellotron by Mike Pinder, who created a sound experience suitable for the subject matter. Pinder commented on that experience: “Listening to music, you enjoy it most when you’re in a meditative state and I think the drug influence was able to put you into that state instantly.”
Starting with their next album On the Threshold of a Dream, the front cover illustration expanded to include the back cover, allowing the LP buyer to enjoy a large 12”x24” canvas when opening the gate fold. This format continued throughout the rest of the albums covered in this article. The album also included a 16-page booklet featuring for the first time the song lyrics. The album cover contains snippets of imagery referenced in the song Are You Sitting Comfortably? – a fleet of golden galleons on a crystal sea, Merlin casting a spell and Camelot.
The increased focus on packaging did not go easy with Decca, the parent label of their more adventurous arm Deram to which the Moody Blues were signed. Ray Thomas remembers: “They were concerned that it would increase the cost of the sleeve by 2 pence an album. We were originally told by the head of production that if the album was as good as we said it was, it could be housed in a brown paper bag! Eventually, after a great deal of protest we managed to get our way.”
Favorite track: Have You Heard (part 1) / The Voyage / Have You Heard (part 2), the suite that closes the album. The band spent more time in the studio perfecting their craft and it shows on this sequence of songs, including the instrumental The Voyage. Graeme Edge explains: “The album was our one where we actually concentrated on recording and weren’t rushing off to do gigs here and there. As we’d just come off tour the music we created combined the knowledge of studio techniques that we had acquired recording In Search of the Lost Chord together with the craft we had learnt through performing on stage every night. That may explain the presence of On The Threshold Of A Dream of more instrumental parts.”
Notice the mellotron drone at the end of the suite. In the era of the LP it was possible to continue that drone into the run-out groove. Depending on your turntable, that caused the drone to continue until the tonearm was lifted, or continue endlessly if your turntable was manual. Nice trick. Good luck trying that with a CD or a digital file.
Before we get to the next album, an important event in the band’s career took place after the release of In Search of the Lost Chord – they started their own label and named it ‘Threshold’. In their 1969 tour book, producer and label manager Tony Clarke wrote: “We are concentrating upon producing and encouraging the kind of talent and records which have some lasting quality. There is an ever increasing market for good progressive music with durable qualities as opposed to discs which are hits today and forgotten tomorrow”. In the spring of 1969, the Moody Blues all bought houses in Cobham, Surrey, and established their record company ‘Threshold’ in the village. The three-story office included graphics, advertising, fan club personnel and facilities.
Threshold was distributed by Decca Records in the UK and by London Records in the United States.
The band’s first album on the new label was To Our Children’s Children’s Children, featuring another wonderful artwork by Phil Travers. Graeme Edge: “The idea behind the album was to imagine that the record has been placed under a foundation stone and wouldn’t be removed for a couple of hundred years.”
The photograph featured in the inner gatefold is also interesting. Justin Hayward: “We were depicted gathered around a fire in a cave with just musical instruments and a tape machine and outside there was nothing. I don’t know where we were, but we were trying to project the thought that we were on a planet that wasn’t Earth, somewhere that was Utopia for us.”
Favorite track: the album closer Watching and Waiting, also released as a single. The song’s writer is Justin Hayward, one of the best when it comes to crafting great emotional songs: “People where always telling me that I needed to write another song to equal Nights in White Satin. When I came up with Watching and Waiting I thought it was one of my best songs at the time, and we all felt sure that it would be a certain hit. When the single failed to sell we were all mystified, although with the benefit of hindsight I do see why it didn’t capture the public’s imagination in the way Nights in White Satin did.”
Not a hit, but nonetheless a wonderful song:
We are in the year 1970, when The Moody Blues released the album A Question of Balance. This time the album cover was a gatefold that opened top to bottom instead of the standard left to right. Lots of detail in that image, starting at the bottom with people sitting at the beach (notice the placement of the Threshold label on the flag) unaware of the brooding on-goings in the horizon and sky above them.
The cover art caused legal issues for the rendering of a photograph Phil Travers found in a National Geographic issue of British explorer Blashford Snell. The resulting image, of Snell wearing a helmet and pointing a gun at an elephant, came to the attention of its subject (Snell, not the elephant) who wasted no time sending an angry letter to Decca, demanding immediate removal of that atrocity at once. Travers replaced his portrait with an imaginary person, sans-helmet.
Favorite song: This time the album opener Question, again by Justin Hayward. After a series of albums that saw the band focusing on lengthy studio productions, they realized that the songs became difficult to perform live on stage with the amount of overdubbing in the studio recordings. With this album they decided to take a simpler approach. Justin Hayward remembers: “With Question, the song, recorded before the album, there’s no double-tracking, just echo and a big old 12-string guitar. We learned to play that the old-fashioned way and just recorded it one Saturday. It was a deliberate attempt to try and pull back to something more real.”
The song was written with the Vietnam War in the background: “I got very angry one night listening to the news about the war in Vietnam. The only reason to have a war to me is to do with starvation … people fighting for their lives. But just for a bit of territory, a bit of land somewhere, was stupid. In my own naive way, I put a lot of those feelings into Question.”
The song is a combination of two separate tunes sharing the same key, featuring one of the most energetic 12-string acoustic riffs in the history of rock. It was released as a single and became a hit, reaching No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 21 in the U.S.
In 1971 The Moody Blues released the album Every Good Boy Deserves Favor. Unlike the cover art of their other albums, this time the band had a firm idea of what they wanted. Usually they left it to Phil Travers to conceptualize the art. The artist talked about the typical process of coming up with the album art: “At the first meeting we would listen to the soundtrack together and discuss the themes and ideas behind the album. It was then left to me to produce a pencil rough which was then discussed further. Eventually a consensus would be reached and the painting would begin in earnest. Time always was of the essence, and many times I was working all day and all night to meet the printer’s deadline. But I have to say it was greatly fulfilling and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Musicians reading this may remember their early music lessons that used the album’s title as an easy way to remember the musical notes that form the lines of the treble clef: EGBDF (Every Good Boy Deserves Favour).
Justin Hayward summarized the album: “It is a kind of a searching, seeking record. It was made at a time of tremendous success for us, and that brought on all of the feelings of guilt, inadequacy and self-doubt that accompany that kind of success. It’s a bittersweet record that pointed the direction of the next album which was the full stop.”
My favorite song on the album is Mike Pinder’s album closer My Song, featuring a complex, lengthy instrumental. This is one of the group’s highest musical achievements in my opinion, the music sounding like a classical tone poem at times.
In the studio Pinder asked that his voice sound like being outside the world, looking down on it. Engineer Derek Varnals asked “As if you were on a spacewalk in your space suit?” Pinder replied “Exactly. Do it so you can hear me breathing, but make it sound really close and claustrophobic.” Assistant engineer Dave Baker came up with the idea of putting a large carton on Pinder’s head, into which Varnals carefully placed a small microphone, making sure it didn’t touch either the box or the singer. Varnals: “I then filtered the signal to make it sound like a transmission from space. We were trying to create something serious, but everyone was laughing hysterically—everyone except Mike, who was the only person who couldn’t see what we were seeing: a quite Monty Python–like image of someone standing perfectly still with a box covering his head. It eventually ended up sounding a bit like Darth Vader, but this was several years before Star Wars was made.”
And we come to the last album in this article, also the last in this magnificent run of albums that forms the golden era of the band. The album is Seventh Sojourn, this time the title carrying a deeper meaning. John Lodge remembers: “Unwittingly, we called time on ourselves via the title Seventh Sojourn. According to the bible, thou shalt rest on the seventh day. The word Sojourn means to call a halt. We needed to escape from our cocoon and get out and meet ordinary people once more to return our lives to something more recognizable as normality.”
The album features another wonderful painting by Phil Travers, this one leaning towards a surrealistic style. Travers on the making of the album covers: “It is impossible for me to tell how long it took me to produce the illustrations other than to say that, in most cases, I had days rather than weeks to complete them and submit them for approval. As for the way I painted, I used Gouache and some watercolor, and very often I employed an airbrush.”
Favorite song: New Horizons, another great ballad like only Justin Hayward can write them. If the song has an emotional effect on you, it is not a coincidence. It was an emotional experience for its writer as well: “It was at a really tough time in my life. I’d not long lost my father. There was quite a lot of death around me, and I was having to cope with that and work out how you handle that and what you do and how you can get through it. It’s very poignant to me.”
A new instrument, the Chamberlin, makes an introduction on this album. Developed in the late 1940s, it is considered a precursor to the mellotron for featuring a tape playback mechanism triggered by a musical keyboard. In the late 1960s the instrument was vastly improved with a higher-quality playback and one of its adopters was none other than Mike Pinder, who put it to great use on this album. Justin Hayward: “We’d found a great replacement for the mellotron, an American instrument called the Chamberlin. It worked on the same principle as the mellotron, but had much better quality sounds – great brass, strings and cello and so on. With the mellotron you had to overdub and overlay it, adding echo to get it to sound nice. The Chamberlin was a louder instrument and had a much better sound quality.”
Here it is, one of the band’s peaks. An end of an era for the band, its music, and of course – those wonderful album covers.
Some of the interview quotes are taken from the wonderful 120-page hard-back book included with the box set Timeless Flight, an exhaustive career retrospective of The Moody Blues.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like this about the making of a progressive rock iconic album cover:
Categories: Album Art