Justin Hayward promises something for everybody when The Moody Blues kick off the second leg of their 2011 tour on Monday, Sept. 12, at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester. Alan Hewitt is the newest member; he plays a specially programmed digital Mellotron, the instrument pioneered by the band (and original keyboard player Mike Pinder) on its early albums. Norda Mullen is entering her 10th year playing flute and guitar. Still performing are drummer Graeme Edge, bass player John Lodge and guitarist Hayward, who calls it the “best incarnation of the band there has ever been.”
Hayward spoke with the Hippo by telephone from his home in Europe, discussing early Moody Blues music, the factors behind a mid-’70s breakup, playing with an orchestra, what the appearance of all five band members on a bluegrass tribute album might mean, and how it felt to appear on an episode of The Simpsons.
Days of Future Passed didn’t begin as the record we know today. How did it come to be?
Well, we actually had a debt with Decca. We owed them money for something that some awful villains had done when we made a record called “Fly Me High.” They had taken some advance from Decca and then disappeared. On our behalf, although no one in the band saw any of that … they were looking for a group to demo their stereo systems; Decca had a consumer division where they sold record players and they were really trying to get stereo away (thankfully, for us) and to convince people to buy them and get away from the Dansette mono record players and get into the stereo world. So they asked us if we would do a rock version of Dvorak and in between our rock versions of Dvorak tracks, Peter Knight would do the real Dvorak. We were like, whatever! It’s a lousy idea, but at least we’ll be in the recording studio. Then Peter Knight, who was contract orchestrator and conductor for Decca, came to see us at a place down on Oxford Street in London. Afterwards, we went for a drink with him in the bar. We had never met him before. He said, “I really love your stuff, and they’ve got this wrong way round. We should do your stuff and I can link it all together with an orchestral version.” Fortunately the executive producer, Hugh Mendel, went along with this idea and we went in the studio for three days and just recorded our stage show with Tony Clarke. Then on a Saturday Peter and I did the orchestral recording, in one take actually, timed with our tracks already laid out. He did it in a three-hour session and they mixed it straightaway and presented it at the Monday meeting at Decca. I wasn’t there, but Tony Clarke was, and he said they said, “What, it’s not Dvorak? What the hell is going on?” They’d spent the money for us in the studio, so [to] cover their losses they put it out, and so there you go. It started out to be a sort of an underground sort of record and then a few arty people really latched on to it and then it really started to take off. Then the turning point for us was being brought to America because of Days of Future Passed, and then hitting America and Canada when FM radio was strong. It was a wonderful accident and we were really fortunate to just record things that we were doing on stage anyway.
How did you know that this melding of rock and classical music was going to work?
We didn’t is the answer but when I came to the band, I came as a songwriter and Mike Pinder called me about coming to meet the other guys because he heard my songs. So I came with that purpose in mind because we were a rhythm and blues band when I joined but we were just lousy at it after Denny left. He was that rhythm and blues voice and the whole soul of that and we just didn’t do it very well. But the problem with my songs was that they didn’t really work — piano wasn’t the right instrument, Vox Continental wasn’t the right instrument and Mike was struggling to make me happy and make everyone else happy because we wanted to do new material. The turning point was the Mellotron and suddenly it made the songs work. Ray started really getting serious about the flute as well and we realized that was what we were good at, that kind of sound and with the vocals between the four of us. So it wasn’t anything planned or deliberate. That was just what we were good at. It worked when we played in that style.
What about the challenge of getting the music to the stage?
Well it got more and more difficult. I always played electric guitar, but my first instrument was acoustic guitar and acoustic piano. As soon as Graeme hit his drums, the acoustic guitar sound was wiped out. So it all had to be done with amplification and electric. It became two very different bands. I noticed on the Isle of Wight DVD from 1970, which is a really rare snapshot of us at that particular time, how different a live band we were than the one that was in the studio. It was completely different balance altogether. It was a real dilemma for us and that really wasn’t resolved until the mid-’80s [technology] when we finally started to play at the right level instead of having two 200-watt Marshalls dropping your trousers and really started to capture that acoustic sound again. It was a difficult dilemma, one that Mike really never reconciled. He loved the studio but he just couldn’t handle the way it was on stage with the volume and trying to get the Mellotron going. It became very difficult, and that was the real reason that led to the breakup in the mid-’70s, and Tony Clarke leaving as well.
How did it feel to go on stage at Red Rocks in 1995 with a symphony behind you?
It was nerve-racking because the discipline about that — you can’t say in rehearsal, what if we didn’t do it like that and did something else? It was a question of preparation, and it had to work. There was no question about let’s change it on the night, as you can with a band — you can change things five minutes before you go on. It had to work, it was so strict but it was exciting. Red Rocks, the whole thing with the Colorado Symphony, started out really with our late manager Tom Hewlett. His idea was to do Days of Future Passed, just the one album in its entirety. But the show was driven not by us but by the Colorado Symphony and [conductor] Larry Baird. They wanted to do more than that. They could see “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon,” but I think they wanted to be involved in a lot more than that with the band. And I’m glad they were, because it opened so many doors for us. It was a great feeling to do and I still love doing orchestra shows and I wish we’d do more of them. We need some braver promoters to take it on.
The band just released a remastered compilation called Icons. What level of involvement did you have in it?
I heard rumors … e-mails going back and forth about reissuing the first seven albums. This was four or five years ago. I just stuck my oar in, I just turned up — I made an appointment with a guy named Joe Black at Universal in the UK who was in charge of that whole project. I said, “Listen; please let me be part of it.” They thought about it for a couple of days, and then they called me back and said, “Why don’t you do it?” So I did; I went back to the original stereo vinyl masters where I could find them. What’s on the Icons series I think gets into those re-mastered things and where possible gets into the re-mastered version. Some singles that they used I noticed weren’t remastered, so they must have taken the single edits. I only re-mastered the full albums. But in terms of control, none of us had anything to do with the Icons thing. It’s purely Universal, but I’m glad it’s out there — it’s a nice collection.
You made Classical Blue in 1989, doing songs by other songwriters. How was the material chosen?
I made that with my friend Mike Batt. That really just came from us socially getting together [and] no one was more surprised than us when a label paid us to do it. We had the time of our lives, we got to go into Abbey Road and to use the London Philharmonic, and it was absolutely brilliant. It was one of those ideas where you sit around and say, “What if we did it?” Then it happens … now when we see each other (and we see each other often, Mike and I), we always say, “What about that? That was great!” It was just one of those ideas that somebody actually takes you up on and gets behind. I enjoyed it very much. It was just a question of what would work orchestrally, and doing it for fun.
It’s interesting to hear your take on “Stairway to Heaven” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
Oh, I’d forgotten I’d done both of those! I believe I’d think twice now; I must have been very stoned at the time.
Nashville musicians made the tribute album Moody Bluegrass in 2004, and all five Moodies worked on Two Much Love, coming out later this year. How did it feel to hear Moody Blues songs reinvented like that?
Well, I am glad that I didn’t know until they had done the first version, because I would have stuck my oar in and it probably wouldn’t have been — I’d have tried to tilt it in a direction that I thought it should go in. When actually what they did was just get on with it and do it how they thought it should be. It’s just absolutely wonderful and I loved it. Then of course the first one was out there, and they got in touch with us and I became friends with the people who made the record and the producer and met a lot of Nashville guys. So the second time around, they asked all of us in the band if we’d like to have a go playing on things. It was a pleasure; I loved every moment of it. It was sheer pleasure without any responsibility. But to play with those guys — bluegrass has strict rules. I remember when we did a concert in Nashville … we were at rehearsals, and I suggested we get a drummer. They said, “Oh man, no! Drummers are right out!” I had to learn all those rules — what’s bluegrass, what crosses the line to country and country rock and all that, but it was a pleasure learning it all. I wish them luck with the record; it’s a lovely tribute.
All five Moody Blues members participated in the project. Did it represent a reunion of any kind?
No, absolutely not. In fact, even John and I did our stuff at different times when we happened to be passing through — so, sadly, no.
Is it true that The Beatles got the idea for using a Mellotron from Mike Pinder and The Moody Blues?
Probably from Mike, because he was very close with them. I envied Mike so much; he had the bottle to turn up at Abbey Road and just walk in and sit down with them and [he] did work at Mellotronics. But the Mellotron was a sound effects instrument, it wasn’t a musical instrument, there was only a small section of it that had a musical sound — a string organ and trumpet-flute sound. Myself and Mike went up to the Dunlop Club in Birmingham because we knew they had one for sale, or they had one stuffed up in a corner and I don’t even think they knew they had it. We gave them about £25 for it. What Mike did was just duplicate all of the orchestral sounds and chuck away the trains coming through tunnels and cockles in the morning and dogs barking stuff — the sound effects. So he made it work, and I think he could be credited with turning The Beatles on to it. There certainly wasn’t one in the studio at Abbey Road just lying around, so I imagine that Mike was part of it.
Finally, how cool was it to be in a Simpsons episode?
That was absolutely great. That was a curious thing as well because we recorded our bits actually in Canada [over an] ISDN line to Los Angeles. Matt Groening contacted us. It wasn’t something a publicist could plug, because they don’t need you at all so they’re not going to do a favor just to get somebody on the show. So he got in touch with us and sent us these few lines of the script. Of course we just said yes. Then I spoke to him and said, what is the story about? And he said, “I can’t tell you that because that’s secret. But I can tell you one thing — Homer is a Moody Blues fan.” And I said, “Oh that’s great” [and Groening said] “So, it’s a story about Homer, he’s a much more interesting character than Bart, and that’s the only insight I can give you into that stuff.” And he’s probably right, too. That’s how it developed. But I know that John didn’t want to say the lines that he was given in the studio, and Matt was on the other end of the line and he said, “No, I want it that way — you do it that way or you don’t do it. John, you’ve got to do those lines, or else step aside and let the others do it.” So that was that. It was a few months before it came out. I had no idea what the story was. Then my daughter was at UCLA for a year as part of her University course that she was doing in Birmingham, England. She saw it on the TV and phones me up straightaway and said, “Dad, I’ve seen you on that Simpsons thing that you did!” I said, “Oh, what do I look like?” — because that’s what you’re wondering, isn’t it? And she said, “Uh … yellow.” I knew exactly what she meant; it’s kind of primary colors, isn’t it, the Simpsons?