Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a plastic thimble-sized cup.
The Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #2 in November 1972
Did you known “Nights in White Satin” charted in 1967? I didn’t either. I can imagine how a pop audience that made “Strangers in the Night” a smash might’ve succumbed to its easy listening lushness regardless of The Moody Blues’ art rock cred, which it had in the Summer of Love; it’s easy to hear the affinities with Barrett-era Pink Floyd. In 1972, though, it once again exploited its sense of eternal anachronism: too spacey for easy listening, as spooky as Neil Young’s contemporaneous “A Man Needs a Maid” from the #1 album Harvest, yet a balm for parents or post-college adults in search of respite from the era’s turmoil, musical or otherwise.
But it’s a repulsive record: fatuous and wooly-headed. A fever dream of love stonedness, “Nights in White Satin” inflates despondency into a crisis as existential as raw chicken left too long on the counter to thaw. “Just what the truth is, I can’t say anymore/Cuz I love you,” singer-guitarist Justin Hayward moans. Spiking his grief is what sounds like a cry of despair, theoretically the London Festival Orchestra but in reality a Mellotron or three through a Marshall amp. Very Emerson Lake & Palmer, very 1972. Hayward’s vocals dissolve into the incense-heavy air. You can’t dance to it, you can’t like it — all you can do is revere it. “Nights in White Satin” is a touchstone without having earned it, a classic not many people admit to loving.
Of course the Moodies kept going, dropping the blues bit by bit. They scored a #1 album in 1981 with Long Distance Voyager, whose single “Gemini Dream” is a misbegotten but listenable attempt to ride the New Wave gravy train; imagine a band thinking that ELO held the mysteries of Skinny Tiedom. In the summer of 1986 – the High Eighties for the coalescing of boomers and kids around video flash – “Your Wildest Dreams” was as omnipresent as mosquitoes. An amiable nothing of a song, “Your Wildest Dreams” uses synthesizers mixed to sound like pink cotton candy, and as nostalgia it’s sinister and effective: it reduces “Nights in White Satin” to a phantasm, a wisp, like the memory of a kitten that died when you were a child.