Spin It Round: The Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Passed” Cover Art

By Rhiannon Williams

 

The Moody Blues released their second album, Days of Future Passed, in 1967, at the height of psychedelia. The title suggests a never-ending cycle of days, as travelling forward into a future that is already gone is an ungraspable play on delineations of time. The song titles chart the progression of a day, and some have subtitles taken from the lyrics, giving a more specific mood to the songs, and a narrative quality to the titles. The names also hint to this being a concept album, with songs running into each other seamlessly, and leitmotifs in the music itself stringing it together into a coherent day in musical form.

 

The album cover, painted by David Anstey, is filled with myriad details that gradually reveal themselves to the eye. Its colour palette divides into four corners, with two small faces in the middle of the painting, each orientated in opposite directions. Upon closer inspection, following either of these faces reveals different images. The head facing left is succeeded by a line of human silhouettes and twelve button-like circles, the numbers within them appearing embossed due to their shadows. These invite the beholder to flip the painting onto its side for the numbers to form a cascade, from the pale yellow “1”, halloed like a sun or moon, to the dark blue “12”, perhaps a visual representation of twelve hours, from the afternoon to midnight, or the months of the year. The “1” becomes, with the coloured circle across from it, the eyes of a large face whose lips are half-hidden between the blue and yellow division in the centre. A layer of yellow flows out of the frame, and then turns into a rainbow of straight lines, unlike the smooth, wave-like ribbons on the opposite side. It splits in two to form a triangle of darker colours until it fades to grey, and frames the large face, but these lines give her a sharp, robotic feel. A dandelion blooms on her cheek, and its stems fly away and fade, but carry the hope of germination and renewal. Next to the twelve buttons is an hourglass, inside which rests a moon-shaped figure of sand, showing us that the time measured has nearly run its course. Near it a person sits cradling a child, possibly the “New mother [who] picks up and suckles her son” in the last song on the back cover. A jousting knight surrounded by horses comes out of the painting’s corner, and the plumes of his unseen helmet are repeated on top of a black silhouette above the mother and child, perhaps another knight.

 

Back in the centre of the painting, yellow and orange waves of colour flow into the right-hand corner. Following them round, and turning the painting for the other little face to be the right way up, another pale pink face is revealed, with flamboyant wavy hair, on whose nose a white flower blossoms. But this flower becomes leaves, which fall, wither, and die, illustrating the passage of time and inevitable decay of life in a similar manner to the dandelion on the diametrically opposite cheek. A full moon near the woman’s chin rests alongside silhouettes of faces, and at the bottom of the painting, a naked woman and man in grey turn to the viewer, perhaps the “Impassioned lovers” of the poem on the back cover. A little above them is a foetus, the beginning of a human’s time on the planet. Above them a circle of the painting’s colour scheme becomes the eye of the pink-faced woman, and the seven moons seem like tears running down her cheek. Turning the painting back into its original position, seven blue silhouettes mirror the twelve on the other side, perhaps representing seven days of the week, above seven phases of the moon. Juxtaposed with them is an astronaut and flying saucer against a backdrop of dark blue sky. This could be a reference to the contemporaneous space-race between the USA and USSR, or simply a vision of what many thought the future would be. In the bottom right-hand corner, another knight, mirroring the one in the opposite corner, rides out of the side, his helmet trail flowing behind him, giving a sense of speed, and in complete contrast with the UFO next to him. These two knights could be horsemen of the apocalypse, or simply a recognisable image of a previous historical period.

 

The album’s back cover reprises the black-and-white of the title and, like many such covers in 1960s pop and rock, is sparse but includes a text explaining the music – here the executive producer praises the Moody Blues for their blending of pop and classical music, and says the concept of the songs is “everyman’s day, which takes nothing from the nostalgia for the past – and adds nothing to the probabilities of the future.” (Hugh Mendl) This suggests the music is of the present, but does not quite chime with the painting on the other side, as it is obsessed with time, phases, and refers to the past through knights, and the future with the astronaut. Next to this text the list of songs is bookmarked by the lyrics for the first and last pieces, “The Day Begins” and “The Night”, which are spoken poems on the record. The stunning visuals of these poems are reprised in Anstey’s painting through the contrast between light and dark, the rainbows of colour, and some of the figures. Both poems, which open and end the album, contain nearly the five same opening and closing lines, suggesting a never-ending cycle of days and years, and prompt the listener to flip the record over and listen to it again.

 

The cover of Days of Future Passed perfectly captures the themes of the music itself, with its colour palette recalling the sky at sunrise, sunset, and night; its symbols relating to time like the hourglass, numbers twelve and seven, and the decaying flowers; and its references to the medieval past and future of space exploration. But what we see in the cover depends on which way it is held up, and this very conditionality anchors the painting in the world of physical record sleeves, which are objects as well as works of art. Each side gives a different picture but they all form a coherent whole, filled with mirrored patterns and figures, and suggest a circular narrative, a visual representation of the recurring cycle of a day.

 

Moody Blues back

Photos: G. Williams

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