July 5, 2024

FTV: The Moody Blues

     The employee recreation building at the Huron Mountain Club wasn’t extravagant by any imagination.  A couch, a chair or two, a TV with no reception, a small stereo system of unknown age, a fireplace no one ever built a fire in, and a ping pong table.  The turntable on the stereo was not going to see any of my own records, but Chuck the kitchen pot washer had a few LPs that he would spin endlessly.  Thankfully, he also had good taste in music so hearing albums by Rare Earth (Get Ready), Johnny Winter (Johnny Winter And Live), and The Moody Blues (Days of Future Past) were fine by me.  I still rate those three albums high on my ‘listen to frequently’ list fifty years later.  I was especially captivated by Days of Future Past and never quite figured out why the Moodies weren’t on the radio all the time.  I was somewhat flummoxed when I realized my summer of 1971 introduction to the band came a full four years since Days was released and seven years since the band had formed.  I also learned quite early that not everyone was a fan of their music.

     As the name suggests, their first iteration was based on a more traditional English beat / R&B  sound.  The original lineup came together in Birmingham, England in 1964 and included drummer Graeme Edge, guitarist  Denny Laine, keyboardist Mike Pinder, multi-instrumentalist Ray Thomas, and bass player Clint Warwick (all but Edge shared vocal duties).  They had a UK No. 1 and US Top 10 hit with Laine’s Go Now in late 1964 / early 1965.  On the heels of their Magnificent Moodies album success, they transplanted to swinging London where bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys were transforming the music scene.  In fact, soon after landing in London, they supported The Beatles on tour in front of thousands of screaming fans.  A year later, they were on a different path.

     When their management company folded, their Go Now royalties disappeared with the label owners.  The band owed their label (Decca) money and even a stint being managed by Brian Epstein could not pull them out of their downward slide.  Laine and Warwick left soon after to be replaced by Justin Hayward and John Lodge on guitar and bass, respectively.  Lodge had previously played in the earliest version of the Moodies before he left the band to finish his degree in engineering and car design.  Ray Thomas called him 18 months after he quit and said, ‘Rocker (Lodge’s nickname), have you finished your studies?  Denny left the band, could you come down and join us?”  He did, stating, “I went down, re-met Graeme, who I  knew from Gerry Levene and the Avengers, and that was the start of something new.”  

     Hayward came on board from a different direction.  He was playing with Marty and Joyce Wilde as The Wilde Three and also performing as a solo folk act managed by Lonnie Donegan (yes, the ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan).  Justin was a 19 year old folkie with country leanings who came to the Moodies via a failed audition for Erik Burdon and the Animals.  Ray Thomas had met up with Burdon at The Bag ‘O Nails in Soho when the singer was looking for a guitarist.  Eric gave Thomas a pile of applications he had already rejected.  As Hayard recalled to Jo Kendall in Prog Magazine, “I’d fired off a demo and letter to Eric Burdon because I knew his secretary.  I didn’t expect to hear back, it was just on the off-chance.  But then I was in a music shop in Swinton, Duck Son & Pinker’s, and the guy behind the counter says, ‘This bloke says he’s from the Moody Blues and wants to talk to you.’  And it was Mike Pinder.  I asked ‘How did you find me?’ and Pinder said, ‘Your phone number was on the letter you sent to Eric.  I called your house and your mum said you were down here.’”  

     Hayward brought a seven inch single of his Pye Records release (a ‘hyper folk-skiffle tune’ called London is Behind Me) with himThe rest of the band liked what they heard.  The guitarist also had a Vox AC30 amp which Thomas laughingly admitted. “was more than we had,” so he was in.  Hayward continues, “When the five of us were together at last, I think the other three guys were happy that me and Lodgy were there.  We looked quite nice, a couple of pretty boys and some serious blokes.  It was fun and funny.  We had a lot of laughs.”  The classic MB line up was now together, but they still had a long way to go.

     Hayward went on to mention how pivotal Pinder’s role was to the band:  “Mike was the most important musically, and he wanted to move it forward.  I really liked him and he really liked me,”  Another major contribution Pinder would make beyond the band’s chemistry was his association with a new fangled contraption called the Mellotron.  It was a piano-style musical computer that utilized pre-recorded tape loops that were activated by each key.  According to Jo Kendall, “[Mellotrons] were being used in social clubs and cabarets across the UK to give any venue access to a pantheon of lead instrument sounds (on the right side of the board) and backing, rhythm tracks (on the left) – effectively, the one-man band idea turned up to 1,000 and the birth of sampler keyboards.”

     My previous knowledge of Mellotrons stemmed from press releases about the Days of Future Past albumPhotos that showed Moody band members apparently playing traditional orchestral instruments like cellos hinted they were trying to subvert some music union rule about not replacing ‘real players’ with Mellotron samples. This is just speculation on my part as there is clear evidence that moves to ban its use didn’t happen until the 1970s and 1980s.  Attempts were made to ban the use of such synthesized devices from recording and live concerts, but none of these efforts passed.  With that said, David Paich from Toto has smentioned in interviews that he would hide his Mellotron if the Union man was around.  Never-the-less, Pinder happened to be in on the ground floor of this movement and it would have a profound effect on their music.

     Mellotrons were manufactured in the band’s hometown of Birmingham.  Pinder worked as a tester in the factory for 18 months and had inside knowledge of the device before the Moodies ever had one.  Pinder had a standard Hammond B-3 organ but when he saw pioneering blues organist Graham Bond add a Mellotron to his collection of keyboards, Mike really wanted to own one.  In a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone, Pinder told them, “I grew up listening to the music of Mantovani and the layers of rich and melodious string arrangements that were his trademark.  The Mellotron enabled me to create my own variations of string movements.  I could play any instrument that I wanted to hear in the music.” 

   When a Mark II unit came up for sale from the Dunlop Factory Social Club in Birmingham, he snapped it up in time for their fall 1966 tour of northern clubs.  Why the club at the Dunlop Tire factory had a unit is a bit of a mystery.  Lodge said the Moodies had previously tried every type of keyboard known until Pinder mentioned the Mellotron.  The Dunlop unit had never been played and they got it at a bargain price of 350 pounds instead of the standard 3000 a new unit would normally cost.  The instrument was finicky but Mike was able to use his past history as a tester to keep it in playing condition, sometimes on the fly during gigs.

     The Moody Blues were still a band in transition at the time.  They would open with a 45 minute set of typical R&B songs and toss in Go Now!  The second set was all new music that let Ray Thomas’s flute-playing shine.  Lodge said, “[Ray] played from the heart, and it was beautiful.”  Some club patrons may have thought differently.  Although girls in the West Country really liked the band, other areas were not so keen.  Their asking price for gigs dropped and they resorted to throwing in a few jokes and adding a bit of cabaret flair to the show.  It didn’t work.

     Lodge described the low point to Kendall:  “One night, after our set at the Fiesta Club in Stockton, one of the crowd came and knocked on our dressing room door.  We thought, ‘Here we go – photos, handshakes,’ but it was a man who said, ‘I’ve brought my wife for a night out and you’re the worst band I’ve seen in my life.  You’re crap’.”  During the ride home, the stunned silence was broken by drummer Graeme Edge when he said, “That bloke’s right, we are crap.”

The next day, they ditched the matching blue suits and committed themselves to forging a sartorial image that would go with their new music.  A call from a Belgian promotor landed them on his club circuit in the North Country near the French border.  The thriving club scene became for them what Hamburg had been for The Beatles – a new audience to test drive the new Moody Blues music and image.  They also found time to blow off a little steam and the recreational opportunities between gigs and rehearsals helped them form an even tighter bond.

     With their new sound coming together, Decca records paired them up with producer Tony Clarke to produce a single of Fly Me High backed with Really Haven’t Got The Time.  Clarke saw potential with the band and his lasting influence gained him a reputation as ‘the sixth Moody’.  The popularity of the Mellotron reached a larger audience when The Beatles used one for the flute sound on Strawberry Fields Forever.  Pinder often said his band had been inspired by their former tour mates and as such, he felt it his duty to educate The Beatles about the Mellotron.  Pinder said, “I had to tell them about it.  The Beatles were the ultimate explorers [of sounds].  The Mellotron allowed musicians to explore musical landscapes – and who better to do that – than The Beatles.”

     Indeed, the music scene in London was changing and bands like the Moody Blues were set to take advantage of the new atmosphere.  They were gelling as a group.  They encouraged each other during group songwriting sessions while they worked to forge their own version of the pop-psychedelic-orchestral sound.  Typical was the birth of what would become a massive hit several times over the years.  Guitarist Hayward had a bad break-up with his former squeeze.  His new girlfriend had gifted him a set of white satin sheets prompting him to show up at a rehearsal with a song the band thought was ‘alright’.  Pinder told him to play it again and added the ‘da da da-da-da-daaaa’ Mellotron figure that everyone now recognizes as a main motif in Nights in White Satin.  The song would propel the Days album up the charts after each re-release of the song, right into the new millennium.

     It took a bit of skullduggery for Days to happen.  Decca wanted to record a demonstration disk of pop and orchestral music to use to sell record buyers on their new ‘Deramic Sound’ (which later became known as ‘Deram’).  At the time, only orchestras were recorded in true stereo sound and pop group albums were recorded in mono and ‘transferred’ to stereo.  Decca wanted the Blues to record rock standards with orchestral music tracks inserted in between.  Thinking it would, as a whole, “Sound like crap,” the band took the gig only after consulting with Clarke.  They were already working on a concert version of Days of Future Past, so why not incorporate the orchestra with their original music?  The trick was to do it without tipping off the label.

     In concert (pun intended) with Clarke, engineer Derek Varnals, executive producer Huge Mendl, and arranger Peter Knight, they hatched a plan to record their own music instead.  It was Knight who said, “Justy, I don’t think you’re gonna get the two musics to merge together, but I really like your songs.  How about we approach Hugh Mendl and suggest that we do it the other way round?”  Edge later said he was a little surprised Mendl agreed and let them have artistic control:  “He had something to lose, we had bugger all.”  Even with artistic control, they listened to the ‘lab-coated technicians’ who were helping Clarke and Varnals capture the sound.  Lodge said, “The technicians told us, ‘Make sure everything is exactly right, musically, lyrically.  You have to stand by it.  In 20 years time, if it’s not right it’ll come back to haunt you.’”  I would say it has stood the test of time for 57 years and certainly not in the negative ‘haunting way’ they warned about.

     The recording was all Moody Blues at first.  Edge’s opening poem, Morning Glory, was recorded by Pinder who was lying on his back in the dark (to help him get in the mood) which segued into his song Dawn is a Feeling.  The rest of the songs were tracked and stacked right through to Edge’s closing poem, again narrated by Pinder:  Cold-hearted orb that rules the night /  Removes the colors from our sight / Red is gray and yellow white ‘ But we decide which is right /  And which is an illusion.  Now it was Knight’s turn to ‘extract melodies and themes to link each track across the album fusing elements from Gershwin, Rachmaninov, Mendelssohn, Holst, and Martin’.  Clarke pretty much invented cross-fading of tracks on the fly at the recording desk giving what Kendall calls, “A near-seamless mix of the two worlds, and it became integral to the Moodies’ sound thereafter.”

     The next few Moody Blues albums would use a similar template but the orchestration would be left to Pinder and his Mellotron and Ray’s flute.  Some albums would follow a theme like In Search of the Lost Chord (1968), On the Threshold of a Dream (1969), A Question of Balance (1970), and Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (1971).  The last was a favorite of mine because I was just learning guitar and the songs were fun to figure out.  I admit to driving my roommates nuts with the guitar riff for Story In Your Eyes from Every Good Boy.   Later albums like Seventh Sojourn (1973), Voices in the Sky (1984), and The Other Side of Life (1986) were more pop oriented, but the Blue’s output was truly staggering.  If you want a primer of the early works, I would suggest the album Caught Live + 5 (1977).  It really shows they could bring the goods, even without a full orchestra. 

     Pinder was the first to leave the band in 1978 and over the years his keyboard parts have been covered by former Yes keysman Patrick Moraz.  Depending on the source, Moraz may have been fired later in the band’s career as he was not happy with his role.  Both sides tell a slightly different story about these events.  Sadly, Mike Pinder passed away at his home in California as this piece was being outlined.  Ray Thomas retired from the group in 2002 and left this mortal coil in 2018, followed by drummer Graeme Edge in 2021.  Hayward, Lodge, (and Patrick Moraz) are still with us but they officially disbanded the Moody Blues in 2018.  

     The band slowed their touring schedule after Thomas retired in 2002 and last performed live at the 2015 Glastonbury Festival.  Bassist John Lodge is touring the east coast in the summer of 2024 performing Days of Future Past live with his own band.  Lodge says he is in contact with Hayward from time to time on business matters but they do not have plans to perform together.  Both, however, no doubt do justice to the Moodie’s catalog in their solo shows.  Hayward’s schedule shows him also playing a string of dates up and down the East Coast of the United States from April through July of 2024.

     I have learned over time that the Moody Blues are an acquired taste.  I played a gig as a hired gun drummer at a frat party in 1976.  The group members assembled for that one job would toss out song titles, pick the key it was in, and off we would go.  When the keyboard player did Nights in White Satin, he looked surprised at the cymbal wash I played as the chorus swelled.  My old guitar player Barry and I added the high background vocal parts.  When we finished, he said, “Man, you have played that before!”  I said, “Nope, first time ever.  I learned the song by just plunking along on an organ by myself.  I am just a big fan!”  “Yeah, me too!” he replied.  A few years later I pulled out the same bag of tricks with Dave Morehouse and Bruce Rundman at another ‘hey, we need a drummer tonight’ gig.  It won’t surprise anyone that I still am a fan of the Moody Blues.  It is always fun to play with other musicians who feel the same way and having compositions of such high quality to perform makes those gigs a win – win.

Top Piece Video:  One of my top Moody Blues tunes, but my former roommates got tired of me practicing the guitar rift!  This version is from Live at the Red Rocks with the band expanded with a second drummer and background vocalists.