A blog post

Long hair and progressive music: The Who and The Moody Blues

Posted on the 13 March, 2019 at 4:25 pm Written by in Books

I am writing a book on young men breaking the gender barrier, “looking like girls”, growing their hair long in the 60ies and 70ies. Since I have other tasks it moves ahead a bit slowly. However, I read source material, especially, music biographies and books.

Recently I’ve read Townshend, Pete 2012: Who I Am, and Cushman, Marc: Long distance voyagers – the history of the Moody Blues (vol 1 1965-1979). Both contain interesting glimpses of the aversion against young men with long hair, and the way the hair was – so to speak – entangled with the new youth culture and progressive music.

As a music sociologist, I think they err on each side of the road. The two books have two different kinds of limitations.

Townshend lays out claims that he was the first doing power chords, and came up with other inventions, but he tells surprisingly little of the musical development in the band and how this impacted on the band relationships. It is more like, this band mate was strong / not so strong.

Cushman’s first part – a massive volume on the Moody Blues, will there be a second? – on the other hand, goes all into the music. The social context is more sparse. And the text uses a lot of space for listings of the band’s record sales, rather than the music itself. Nevertheless, it is clearly the new standard of scholarship on this band. Yet even here, I would have liked better analyses of what exactly the Moody Blues did, that was musically new.

Plus points in Cushman’s book include glimpses of Ray Thomas as alto flute player (and other musicians in the band) combined with the production talents of “the sixth moody” Tony Clarke.  The credit to Clarke is well deserved. Decca was quickly learning and developing production technique developed at EMI (Abbey Road), and had very high standards from earlier recording also, surpassing EMI in some respects.


Cusham is great on how the Moodies – this unlikely bunch of old-style-singing long-haired guys with somewhat uncertain instrumental prowess – were allowed into the Decca “holiest of holy”, with the new Deram sound system (DSS), using two four-track recorders for better stereo. The band was supposed to play classical easy listening music. They barricaded themselves in Decca’s best studio, and ended up inventing something new, in the typical spirit of the day. The result was Days of future passed, one of the larger-selling LPs of all time.

Who I am

Townshend mainly tells his own story, and somehow, I find the connections to the music rather weak. Fans of The Who may love the band for “inventing” this or “doing” that, but what actually happened, musically? Maybe this critique is unfair. Townshend does tell about his attempts to go further, to develop music beyond what the band had done so far. Later in the book he says that the band had done a lot of jumping and showing off, this would not do anymore.

Inadvertently he also tells a story of how “youth” wasn’t a staying ground for the attempted change.

I would have hoped Townshend took some self-critique for lines like “Hope I die before I get old” – but it is only implied. Like, maybe we DID smash up a few guitars too many. This is the tone of the book, as I read it. Townshend’s book has elements of defense that I won’t go into here. Maybe it spilled over, also into his judgement regarding things back then. Maybe a revised version could work this out better.

Bands like The Who took the “soft” message of the youth revolt and the counterculture, and “hardened” it.  What happened, in that transition?

Bilderesultat for cushman long distance

Cushman is fine on the music, but the wider social context, culture etc is often largely absent. How come these nice Birmingham lads, singing in almost 1950s style, were tuned on to the new youth rebellion and counter culture? I wasn’t much wiser, even after 700 pages.

Was the Moody Blues, on the road, a much more orderly affair, than The Who? Less misogynism and use of groupies? It seems so. The books show that male bands could have quite different wishes and setups. Although the different filtering of the story telling applied by the two authors may play a role.

Was the creative process of both bands hindered, by the music industry, the emphasis on commercial hits and best-selling albums? Again, it seems so. Despite variation the basic story is remarkably similar. Did this, all in all, create a more “masculine” idea of music? Now we are into speculation territorry – but it may seem so, yes. In various ways. Ending with the synth-pop of the 80s. Long-haired bands becoming dinosaurs, one way or the other. In fact, you maybe don’t need Reagan or Thatcher or digital sound problems into the equation, to predict the generally agreed-upon “bad sound of the 80s”. Just add “band pressure” working over time.

For example, listen to Moody Blues: Octave album, Steppin in a slide zone (1978).  This sounds so bad, it maybe sounds great. If you like the 1980s sound. The flat synthetic sound reminding me of shoulder pads for men. Short hair once again. A kind of prophesy of the 1980s music letdown. Was Clarke out to lunch? Anyway, almost everyone agrees – with Octave, we are no longer into the “classic” period of the group. Artistic quality is falling. Why? Constant pressure from a commercial machine is – broadly – the best answer.

Octave was made after the group was totally exhausted, having made seven albums, later called “the classic seven”, in a period of nine years. Likewise, the Who and other groups were pushed beyond their limits, by very high demands from the record companies – entangled with their own wishes to make money, while the attention was there. “Do it now”, like Paul McCartney advises on Egypt station. Everyone remotely musical and socially engaged, 1965-75, felt like a storm was coming on, a counter culture expressed especially in music, a new truth that could not be denied, or at least, a new level of public discourse, an extension of democracy, “love” as  in empathy, etc. So – the behaviors and conflicts of the bands – can be read in this larger perspetive, they were a new type of organizations, that tried to spearhead the youth revolution and the counter culture, but encountered great costs along the way.

Both books are well worth reading, if you are interested in this period, and its wider repercussions. They both give some guide into what to listen for – albums, songs – and a musical follow-up is interesting.

Best place to start with the Moody Blues is maybe To our children’s children’s children (1969), perhaps the most successful of their classic seven albums. Then try Questions, on A question of balance (1970). If this doesn’t rock you, nothing will.

Bilderesultat for moody blues to our children

Best place to start with The Who – I have not decided yet. Listening to Tommy and Quadrophenia, The Who sells out, A quick one. The early stuff is often the most interesting. Maybe all in all the best intro, to get the feeling of the band, is The Who sells out.