Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the landing of America’s Apollo 11 lunar mission on the surface of the moon. Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the launch of that mission, so I prepared for those milestones Monday by listening to an album said to be inspired by the human race’s first visit to another celestial body.
That would be To Our Children’s Children’s Children, the Moody Blues’ fifth studio album. It was released on Nov. 21, 1969, barely four months after the historic event watched by 20 percent of the world's population.
I listened to TOCCC again Wednesday, and tonight, trying to sort out the lyrics and the concept. And consulted some reviews and evaluations. I was left scratching my head.
But before I get to why this classic slice of The Music has me abrading my scalp, I should go back to the time of the lunar landing, and when I heard this album. When Apollo launched, pretty much all I knew about the Moody Blues was their blues-inspired initial single, “Go Now,” and the heavily-orchestrated “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Knights in White Satin.”
The last two of those singles had charted, and had gotten (AM at the time) airplay. Radio Free Madison, the alternative programming on Madison’s WIBA-FM, debuted in the fall of 1969, and I probably heard TOCCC on that channel late that year.
How can we evaluate the theme of an “album” (these days, an antiquated and outdated term)? Jacket art could tell us something, and thematic and/or melodic considerations could also apply. But for most people, lyrics are the distinction.
Under that rubric, TOCCC is all over the map. Most Moody Blues early albums start with poetry from Grahame Edge — most often, to me, anyway, cringe-inducing verbiage. On this LP, the poetry segues in after an instrumental prelude, but is still cringe-inducing: “With the power of ten billion butterfly sneezes/Man, with his flaming pyre/Has conquered the wayward breezes.”
Where to start? Butterflies sneeze? A pyre, per an online dictionary, is “a heap of combustible material, especially one for burning a corpse as part of a funeral ceremony.” So they’ve poetically tortured a crematorial fire into propulsion for an extraterrestrial expedition? Werner von Braun had it all wrong …
The Moodies’ lyricists, at least, go from there to something actually relevant to the moon mission: “Climbing to tranquility,” a reference to the geographical part of Luna where the astronauts landed.
But then they go from lunar geography to something else: “Climb to tranquility/Finding its real worth/Conceiving the heavens/Flourishing on earth.” If you follow the arc of the Moodies’ eschatology — in their subsequent album, A Question of Balance, for instance — humans flourishing on earth could be a bad thing.
That’s followed by a closing verse that sandwiches “Now we’ve learned to play with fire” between two reprises of the “higher and higher” theme. This to me could be an allusion to something that might have been more of an influence on this album than the moon landing: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That classic film had debuted only 15 months before Apollo 11 launched. Remember its opening scene, with the African hominids? The bone-as-hammer wasn’t the only discovery that changed how our prehistoric ancestors lived. The next cut on the album might allude to the movie, too — “Earth falls far away/New life awaits.” But more about that in a bit.
The next cut after that, “Floating,” does actually reference being on the moon: “Floating free as a bird/Sixty foot leaps it's so absurd.” But a couple verses later, the Moodies seem to go all SPLA: “The candy stores they'll be brand new/And you'll buy a rock with the moon right through.” Are these drug-use euphemisms — ones that I didn’t know 50 years ago?
Then they reprise the second cut on the album, “Eyes of a Child.” Both parts I and II seem to have nothing to do with landing on the moon, and could have appeared on any early MB album.
The following cut, “I Never Thought I’d Live To Be A Hundred,” is also the the prelude to a reprise, but I think is much more interesting, and might also allude to 2001. The brief lyric concludes: “I never thought I’d ever have my freedom/An age ago my maker was refusing me/The pleasure of the view.” You need to watch the closing scenes of the Kubrick movie to see the connections.
The next two cuts have vaguely outer-space-related themes, but could also have appeared on other MB albums. Then there are three more, “Traveling Eternity Road,” “Candle of Life ” and “Sun Is Still Shining” that are more Moody Blues boilerplate — quality, but not relevant to what seems/is allegedly the theme of this project.
The last of those songs does has three lines that might reference a space mission — “But if you want to play/Stay right back on earth/Waiting for rebirth” — but also includes the following head-scratcher: “The moon is still dining, with me and you.”
The album finishes, though, with two interesting cuts. The reprise of “I Never Thought I’d Live To Be A Hundred,” takes the theme of mortality way beyond normal human parameters — beyond living to be 100: “I never thought I’d get to be a million/I never thought I’d get to be the thing that/All his other children see. Look at me.”
This again sounds like an allusion to 2001, not Apollo 11. That impression, for me, is reinforced by the album’s final cut, “Watching and Waiting,” the lyrics of which include these lines: “Soon you will see me/‘Cos I’ll be all around you/But where I come from I can’t tell/But don’t be alarmed by my fields and my forests/They’re here for only you to share.”
Again, replaying the closing scenes of 2001 in my mind, I see echoes — OK, that’s a Moody Blues-ish non-sequitur, or mis-transposition, or something — of the film’s denouement. Remember: The sole surviving crew member of the mission investigating the monolith found on the moon, David Bowman, ages from a young adult to a dying, elderly man in no time at all, then is transformed into a fetus-like Star Child hovering over Earth.
It would be interesting to hear members of the Moodies explain what went into the making of TOCCC, but I could find little online about its genesis. So here’s my theory: MB had been releasing studio albums at approximately nine-month intervals so, following on April 1969’s On the Threshold of a Dream, they were about due. They probably already had song ideas; throw in a few lines about bouncing around on the moon and so, and — seven months after their previous album — you have an LP “inspired” by the Apollo landing.
The thing that dumbfounds me is that, considering the cultural and historical impact of the Apollo 11 lunar landing — the first time that human beings had set foot on another celestial body — The Music did not produce an album that summed up that accomplishment. The Moody Blues’ contemporaneous LP did not get that done.