There was a special offer on the Web: all six of the books shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2015 for just £30 (in hardback). Mrs. Crotchety and I agreed that this was too good to miss and soon a courier delivered them to our humble home.
Choosing the smallest and shortest of them, Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, Crotchety Man sat on the sofa and started to read. By the end of the following day I had finished the book. I hadn’t done much else but that was OK; nothing particular needed to be done and reading good books is one of the things I’d always planned to do in my retirement.
It’s an unusual novel about a new kind of anthropologist employed to help corporations analyse their markets and governments understand their citizens so that they can do better what large organisations do. That sounds dry but the central character’s laissez-faire approach to life takes us on one long flight of fancy, always showing us a fresh and stimulating perspective on the minutiae of everyday life. If, like me, you’re an escapist at heart it’s an enjoyable read.
As perhaps you can tell, some of Tom McCarthy’s writing style has (temporarily, I’m sure) rubbed off on me. The title of his book also inspired me in my choice of Track of the Week. This time it’s Nights In White Satin by the Moody Blues.
As far as I can tell from material easily accessible on the Web, Nights In White Satin was originally written as a simple song but was first recorded for the Moody Blues’ second album, Days Of Future Passed. The record company had asked the band to record a rock version of Dvořák’s New World Symphony but were persuaded to make an album of Moody Blues original material (in a classical style) instead. The result was an oil-and-water emulsion of corny sixties pop songs floating within a lush orchestral fluid.
On the album, Nights In White Satin is the last track and it includes a three minute orchestral epilogue during which a poem is recited. This makes for a pleasing and natural end to the album but wouldn’t make sense for a single. Wikipedia says the album track was first edited down from 7 minutes 26 seconds to a brutal 3:06 and then, more sensitively, to 4:26, which is by far the best known version.
Nights In White Satin starts with simple guitar chords, light drum strokes, a prominent bass line and lyrical vocals. “Nights in white satin, never reaching the end…”, sings the voice enigmatically. Satin dress? Satin sheets? Questions bubble up and reverberate through our heads. Never ending nights? Or is there something else that remains out of reach, beyond our grasp? The voice is passionate, lonely, aching. “Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send”. There’s a longing here, a longing for something impossible.
Electronic strings bring added pathos. “Beauty I’d always missed with these eyes before”, sings the voice, as if he is at fault. “Just what the truth is I can’t say any more”. The music swells to a crescendo. “‘Cause I love you…”. The drums pound and a choir of angels echoes the singers anguish. “Yes, I love you. Oh, how I love you!”, he cries. And the angels cry, too.
The drums crash to a cathartic climax and give way to a mellow, soothing flute over picked acoustic guitar. The haunting Mellotron strings return for another verse, another episode of exquisite pain; the angel choir sings again and the song comes to another thundering climax before fading to a peaceful, satisfying end.
The single was a top 20 hit when it was first released in 1967 and even more successful when it was re-released in 1972 (no. 9 in the UK and no. 2 on the US Billboard charts). Since then it has become an essential component of every pop music collection covering the period and has been recorded by numerous other artists: Elkie Brooks, Il Divo, Eric Burdon and Nancy Sinatra, for example.
Nights In White Satin sits comfortably on easy listening and pop/classical crossover compilations but the album it comes from is regarded as a precursor to progressive rock, with its mix of styles and use of a Mellotron to create a wide, orchestral soundscape. Days of Future Passed didn’t quite succeed in blending contrasting styles but it did lay the foundation for others to do so and it spawned one of the most enduring singles of the sixties: Nights In White Satin, a most worthy addition to the Crotchety Man Track of the Week collection.
[There’s a YouTube video of an excellent live performance here.]