Another song I should have paid attention to at the time

Almost 10 years ago, I put up a post headlined, “Top 12 Songs I Either Missed Entirely, or Didn’t Fully Appreciate at the Time.” I enjoyed looking back at it just now, although it filled me again with regret for the decades during which I had missed some amazing music.

This happened to me again the other day. I was looking for something else on YouTube, and it suggested I might want to watch the above video of The Moody Blues playing “Go Now.” I immediately remembered it was a great song and wanted to hear it, although I hadn’t known, or had forgotten, that it was by The Moody Blues. Another one of those bands I had been aware of but not really followed in the ’60s. And when I say “aware of,” I mean just barely. I immediately thought something along the lines of “oh, that artsy band with one of those two songs with ‘white’ in the title.”

Yes, to embarrass myself further, I can’t ever remember which is which between “Nights in White Satin” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” not for sure, until it gets going good — maybe not until I actually hear the title in the song. (Which means I recognize the Moody Blues song more quickly.) And I know even less about Procol Harum than about The Moody Blues. (But gimme a break on my confusion — don’t both songs have a similar atmosphere about them? They’re in a category together in my head.)

Anyway, once I know who it is, I can tell, and think, Yeah, this is what the “Nights in White Satin” group would have sounded like three years earlier, at the height of the British Invasion. (For you kids just joining us, in the 1960s, music and fashion changed so quickly, everybody went through an eon or two of cultural evolution each year. Today, everybody dresses and looks the same as they did 30 years ago.)

See how different they looked in 1967, boys and girls?

Oh, and speaking of the fact that this was 1964, I’ve thought of an excuse for why “Go Now” was dim in my memory — I didn’t hear it until a long time later. I was living in Ecuador at the time (from November 1962 to April 1965), and missed a lot of stuff. The Beatles had filtered down to us, and to some extent The Beach Boys, but that was about it.

Anyway, as I learned the other day, the song is more wonderful than I had dimly remembered from having heard in on oldie stations over the years. In fact, the thing that makes it so wonderful is that series of piano chords you hear over and over, so I’m hoping Phillip Bush will read this and explain to me the spell those chords cast.

The closest I come to having any musical insight into it is to recognize that it’s in a minor key. And I may be wrong about that. I think it’s F minor, but I got that specific detail from Googling, and there were dissenting opinions (don’t go trying to tell me about the “wisdom of the crowd”). But Phillip will know. I was just going by it having a minor-key feel.

But the story gets more interesting. I was so into in the song as I listened that I started reading about it online, and found that unlike “Nights in White Satin,” this was not originally a Moody Blues song.

You know the old story of pop music — of white guys making it big with black folks’ music? This is kinda one of those stories.

It was written by an American R&B man named Larry Banks. It was first recorded by his estranged wife Bessie Banks. She thought it was going to make her career, because it was getting some airplay. Then the Moody Blues released it, that that was pretty much it for major stardom for her. There’s this quote from her on Wikipedia:

I remember 1963 Kennedy was assassinated; it was announced over the radio. At the time, I was rehearsing in the office of Leiber and Stoller. We called it a day. Everyone was in tears. “Come back next week and we will be ready to record ‘Go Now'”; and we did so. I was happy and excited that maybe this time I’ll make it. ‘Go Now’ was released in January 1964, and right away it was chosen Pick Hit of the Week on W.I.N.S. Radio. That means your record is played for seven days. Four days went by, I was so thrilled. On day five, when I heard the first line, I thought it was me, but all of a sudden, I realized it wasn’t. At the end of the song it was announced, “The Moody Blues singing ‘Go Now’.” I was too out-done. This was the time of the English Invasion and the end of Bessie Banks’ career, so I thought. America’s DJs had stopped promoting American artists.[3]

Wikipedia sort of questions her details because the Moody Blues’ version didn’t come out until a year after hers. But, when it happened, I don’t doubt a bit that it was a moment of deep dismay for her. She and Larry were splitting up at the time, near as I can make out from looking it up. I sure hope she got some of the money. Come to think of it, I hope Larry got some money from the deal.

I don’t blame the Moody Blues for this at all. They heard a song that sounded good, covered it, and got rich and famous. It launched them to stardom. Although they didn’t do much to “make it theirs.” It’s very much the same as hers, down to those piano chords. They may have speeded it up slightly, à la “That Thing You Do.” But that’s about it.

For that matter, going to the larger historical trend, I don’t blame Elvis, either. Elvis was making the music that welled up out of him. He couldn’t help it that Sam Phillips saw him as the “white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel” he’d been looking for….

You want to blame somebody? Blame the white fans. (But don’t blame me on “Go Now;” I was in Ecuador.) But I do feel bad for Bessie Banks. Her version was great as it was. In both cases, though, I think the piano was a big part of what made it so…

9 thoughts on “Another song I should have paid attention to at the time

  1. Bill

    Northern soul is a music and dance movement that emerged in Northern England and the English Midlands in the late 1960s from the British mod scene, based on a particular style of black American soul music, especially from the mid-1960s, with a heavy beat and fast tempo (100 bpm and above)[1][2] or American soul music from northern cities such as Detroit, Chicago and others.

    The northern soul movement generally eschews Motown or Motown-influenced music that has had significant mainstream commercial success. The recordings most prized by enthusiasts of the genre are usually by lesser-known artists, released only in limited numbers, often by American labels such as Vee-Jay Records, Chess Records, Brunswick Records, Ric-Tic, Gordy Records, Golden World Records (Detroit), Mirwood Records (Los Angeles), Shout Records and Okeh.

    Northern soul is associated with particular dance styles and fashions that grew out of the underground rhythm and soul scene of the late 1960s at venues such as the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. This scene and the associated dances and fashions quickly spread to other UK dancehalls and nightclubs like the Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca (the Highland Room), and Golden Torch (Stoke-on-Trent).

    As the favoured beat became more uptempo and frantic in the early 1970s, northern soul dancing became more athletic, somewhat resembling the later dance styles of disco and break dancing. Featuring spins, flips, karate kicks and backdrops, club dancing styles were often inspired by the stage performances of touring American soul acts such as Little Anthony and the Imperials and Jackie Wilson.

    In the late 1960s and early 1970s, popular northern soul records generally dated from the mid-1960s. This meant that the movement was sustained (and “new” recordings added to playlists) by prominent DJs discovering rare and previously overlooked records. Later on, certain clubs and DJs began to move away from the 1960s Motown sound and began to play newer releases with a more contemporary sound.

  2. Dave Crockett

    I’ve been a Moody’s fan for years. Justin Heyward’s voice is starting to fade at 80+ but in his prime, it was magnificent! Other great pieces he’s recorded…”Question”…(recorded during the same era as “Go Now”…”Forever Autumn” (recorded during a hiatus from the group for a musical version of “War of the Worlds” narrated by Richard Burton!)….”I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”….”Your Wildest Dreams”….”The Other Side of Life”….and “The Story In Your Eyes”…

    I could go on but that’s great sampling.

  3. Ken

    The Moody Blues version sounds like a green-behind-the-ears boy-band version of something they’re only pretending to know something about. Banks’ is superior, because of the more soulfully rendered vocal. She’s been through the territory. Too bad it’s cut so short.

    But none of that really matters – because we often tend to prefer whatever version we hear first. It settles into our brain, builds its nest there and is not easily uprooted.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    By the way, regarding that parenthetical above: “Today, everybody dresses and looks the same as they did 30 years ago.”

    I’m not complaining about that. I think it’s awesome that I can wear clothes until they fall apart now. Keeping up in the sixties was a pain: All those trips to Carnaby Street!

    Not that there haven’t been minor changes. When I saw this pic of the PM with the EU president the other day, with his pants so tightly tailored down the legs that it looks like he can’t get blood to his feet for the tightness of his cuffs, I was very glad I’m not having to wear suits these days…

  5. Phillip

    Actually, it’s in a major key… A Major I think. What I think you like is that the right hand of the piano stays kind of on the same chord while the bass descends, so the treble chords are essentially transformed by what the bass is doing. That is exactly the same progression as Whiter Shade of Pale, that’s absolutely correct. A similar example of the right hand piano staying relatively static while the bass (left hand) changes (though not quite as linear as these examples) would be Randy Newman’s “Short People”.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks so much, Phillip!

      You know, when I couldn’t find a consensus from Googling it, I installed an app on my phone that would TELL me what the key was. And it, too, was inconclusive — I thought. The image above is what I got on the <a href=””>Moody Blues version</a>. Below, you see what I got on <a href=””>Bessie Banks</a>. So I decided that the app couldn’t make up its mind, and just went with my original impression that it was in a minor key.

      But… would it not be more obvious to conclude that the Moody Blues simply shifted keys?

      Ken writes that Bessie’s is better “because of the more soulfully rendered vocal. She’s been through the territory.” And I agree. But now I wonder: Could it be that part of the deeper effect — technically invisible to someone as clueless about music as I am — be the fact that she’s in a minor key?

      I dunno. Maybe the app is just worthless. Which is why they let me download it for free.

      Anyway, thanks so much for weighing in. I love the explanation of what the right hand and the left hand are doing! All I could hear was “different chords,” which seemed to be descending in pitch.

      I also like that you tell me I’m right about Whiter Shade of Pale. Although I was comparing it specifically to Nights in White Satin, my larger point was that the Moody Blues have a certain feel, and Whiter Shade of Pale sounds like it could be theirs.

      I love it not just as a matter of personal affirmation, but because it illustrates the difference between a word guy like me, and someone who is more musically gifted, which to me means in turn, more mathematically gifted — not like arithmetic or accounting, but in the sense of the complex figures we touched upon when I took a semester course in analytical geometry (and then promptly forgot after high school).

      I said the things I was comparing “have a similar atmosphere about them.” Phillip explained in perceptive detail the elements that made up that atmosphere.

      I love it…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, after I bragged on my app, I tried again on the Bessie Banks version, and it gave me a different key.

        I tried three times, and it kept giving me that same different key.

        But hey, at least it’s a minor key…

        Never mind. Forget apps. I’d rather go with what Phillip says…


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