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Justin Hayward is of course best known for both his musical and songwriting contributions to The Moody Blues, with which band he has spent the best part of four decades now. However, on the 1989 album Classic Blue he collaborates instead with Mike Batt - composer of, among other deathless works, "Bright Eyes" and "Remember You're A Womble" - with instrumentals provided by the London Symphony Orchestra. Don't expect all-new material here, though: covers are where this record is at (blimey, that sounds so 1966, doesn't it?) although as a rule they're very well done.
The very first track is "The Tracks Of My Tears", which is I do think a bit of a shame. Not because Hayward's interpretation of The Miracles' 1965 top-ten hit is particularly dreadful, but simply because I think there are stronger songs on the disc. Hayward occasionally sounds slightly hesitant here, and the song just doesn't match the liveliness of the Motown original. Some more impulsive listeners may even decide to switch off at this point, which would be a pity as they'd miss some much better material later.
After the epic, seven-minute "MacArthur Park", which to be honest has never done much for me in any version (I couldn't really say why, but it just goes in one ear and out the other), we come to a run of excellent songs, starting with The Beatles' "Blackbird". It would be hard to match Paul McCartney's original here, and Hayward doesn't, but he doesn't disgrace himself by any means. Matching the original would be almost impossible with The Beach Boys' timeless classic "God Only Knows", and I'm not sure the fuller instrumentation really works here; it's a song that works best quiet and longing.
One song I was intrigued to hear was "Bright Eyes". Given Mike Batt's involvement with this disc, you'd expect it to be a pretty solid interpretation, and indeed it is. I've listened to many, many cover versions of this lovely song in my time, ranging from the superb (The Nolan Sisters' ethereally beautiful effort) to the near-unlistenable (Manic Street Preachers' scratchy live performance) and this one is quite near the top. The LSO's contribution here is very good indeed, and Hayward sensibly sings the song pretty straight, which is the way it works best.
A real highlight of Classic Blue, and the song I would pick as my out-and-out favourite from this album, is "Forever Autumn". I actually knew this version before I ever heard the original (also with Hayward) on Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds album... and I actually think it works better here, stripped of Richard Burton's spoken part and the rest of the concept paraphernalia of the original. Hayward's voice is absolutely perfect, yearning and melancholy but never quite tipping over into mawkish misery. I could almost listen to this track all day.
As well as "Bright Eyes", there are a couple of other Mike Batt originals here. "As Long As The Moon Can Shine" is strongly reminiscent of Batt's "Losing Your Way In The Rain" (which appears on his own Tarot Suite album), and though it's not a particularly substantial song - if it wasn't used in a cartoon series of some sort I'd be quite surprised - it's pleasant enough. Better, I think, is "Railway Hotel", a gentle and reflective number with a slightly bluesy feel and even a tinge of Australian folk song. As it happens, this one is from the aforementioned Tarot Suite! It's simple but effective.
There are few serious faults with Classic Blue. I've mentioned "MacArthur Park", but as I don't like the song in the first place that's not Hayward's fault. I was a bit unsure about his version of "Stairway To Heaven", which closes the album, but I'm starting to come around to it now. What I would have liked is a little more material. At 13 tracks and just under an hour, it's not offensively short, but one or two more songs would have been nice. I'd have been intrigued, for example, to have heard what he made of Batt's "Run Like The Wind", originally performed extremely well by Barbara Dickson.
At the time of writing this review, Classic Blue was available from Amazon for £4.93 including the postage. That's very good value for anyone who isn't put off by the whole idea of a covers album. It's not an absolutely flawless disc (hence my awarding it four stars rather than five) but I really don't think many people are likely to be disappointed by it. Hayward sings with conviction (after that slightly wobbly first track!) and the LSO orchestration is, with a couple of exceptions, very well judged and enhances the vocals rather than overwhelming them. Recommended.
1. The Tracks Or My Tears
2. MacArthur Park
5. God Only Knows
6. Bright Eyes
7. A Whiter Shade Of Pale
8. Scarborough Fair
9. Railway Hotel
10. Man Of The World
11. Forever Autumn
12. As Long As The Moon Can Shine
13. Stairway To Heaven
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 The Tracks Of My Tears
2 McArthur Park
5 God Only Knows
6 Bright Eyes
7 A Whiter Shade Of Pale
8 Scarborough Fair
9 Railway Hotel
10 Man Of The World
11 Forever Autumn
12 As Long As The Moon Can Shine
13 Stairway To Heaven