The Moody Blues
Born in Germany, inspired by the blues: How the Moody Blues changed the world of rock.
One number one record, 8 top ten albums, 3 top ten singles and forty years on the road. The numbers have them as one of the greatest bands to come out of the UK, but they only tell half the story. Here’s how the Moody Blues burst out of the Midlands to bring prog rock to the world.
In the 1950s Britain was a country on the up. Post war austerity was fading and rock and roll was on the way. In Birmingham, a new generation of up and coming musicians were making their voices heard.
Ray Thomas would find himself at the heart of this scene. His first steps came when he joined a band called Saints and Sinners run by a school friend Mike Brassington. Back then he was a base player. The days when the flute would rock the world were still some way off. He took his place on stage strumming a one stringed instrument named affectionately, ‘the coffin’.
Saints and Sinners lasted around a year before its members scattered to other groups and Thomas pulled together the beginnings of the Moody Blues.
Another friend from school John Lodge helped him form El Riot and the Rebels. Rich from the beginning they set out to be different. Gone were suits, replaced by extravagant Mexican outfits. They quicky earned an enthusiastic following and you can still hear some of their stuff on You Tube.
“As soon as we started wearing these outfits we started going further afield,” Lodge recalled in the documentary The Moody Blues Story. “We started to develop a huge following. It was fantastic.”
By now, Birmingham was teeming with over 200 local groups, most of whom were just looking to scrape a living. However, a few were breaking out of the pack, producing their own music and making a name on the bigger stage.
Meanwhile, another young Birmingham lad, Mike Pinder, was returning from a stint in the army in Germany. He’d been inspired by the Beatles and was eager to follow in their footsteps. He met up with Thomas and formed the Krew Kats. They played gigs in Germany until a disagreement with management had them beating a hasty retreat home.
Back home they were determined to become professional and seek out their fortune in London. Thomas and Pinder joined up with Denny Laine to form the Moody Blues. Lodge declined an invitation to join them, focusing on his studies instead. Instead they turned to American Clint Warwick.
What’s in a name?
The origin of the name Moody Blues much disputed. Several members claim to have come up with the idea. What is certain is that it emerged from a foiled sponsorship scheme with a local brewery. Hoping to raise a bit of cash they decided to adopt the initial of a local brewers, Mitchell and Butler’s.
They became the M&B Five and approached the company hoping the name would strike a chord. It didn’t. They were stuck scrabbling for a name to fit their initials and eventually settled on Moody Blues.
Things went well. They gained a regular slot at the Marquis Club in London where they mixed with some of the biggest names in the business. “I used to go to the Marquis Club and see bands like the Yardbirds,” recalls tour manager Peter Jackson. “One night they had a new band from Birmingham the Moody Blues and they were fantastic.”
Back up gigs for the likes of Chuck Berry and Sonny Boy Williamson followed. They got a management company and a recording deal with Decker. Around this time, the boys at Mitchell and Butler’s realised they might have missed a trick. They got back in touch to see if the offer still stood. It didn’t.
Now they were on an altogether different level. They mixed with the likes of the Beatles and Tom Jones and had the lifestyle to go with it. When one woman climbed in through a window to get into Ray’s room, the story reappeared in Abbey Road’s ‘She Came in Through the Bathroom Window’.
Their first single, released in 1964, failed to chart, but their second single did somewhat better. Go Now was a cover by American artist Bessie Banks which had never been released in the UK. It seemed the perfect candidate and went right to the top of the charts.
A hit record didn’t translate to any money. They woke to find their management company had skipped town away with all the money from Decca. Cast adrift, they secured a meeting with Decker and a direct contract, and supported the Beatles on their final tour, where they witnessed Beatle mania first-hand.
A first LP followed called the Magnificent Moodies, fuelled by the influences of James Brown, Sonny Boy Williamson and George Gershwin.
Then things fell apart. While touring they were struggling to produce a decent follow up. The single From the Bottom of My Heart only reached number 19 in the charts. Income was down and so were their bookings. They found themselves travelling further and further afield to find gigs.
The grind of touring became too much for Clint Warwick who left the group to support his young family. Denny Laine followed him out the door and ended up playing with Paul McCartney in Wings.
For his replacement they got brough Lodge up from Birmingham. Their search for lead guitarist would bring them to an up and coming musician, Justin Hayward who had just released a single of his own London is Behind Me. It didn’t chart, but it was enough to get him into the band. The classic line up was together.
Fame and fortune beckoned… eventually.
A change of membership didn’t immediately change their luck. They initially tried to plug away at the same sets, but audiences weren’t interested. One night a fan spoke for everyone else when he burst into their dressing room to tell them he was the ‘worst band he’d ever seen’. It was a kick up the back side they needed. Driving home they realised he was right. They needed new material.
So, how did the band react to this crisis? They did what surely everyone does. They went to Belgium. They started producing their own material and things started to click. They still had a good following in France and started recordings back at Decca which would give a hint at where they were going.
Justin Hayward’s ‘Fly Me High’ and Mike Pinder’s ‘Really Haven’t Got the Time’, appeared in 1967. They gained favourable reviews and, although they failed to chart, they hinted at a very different band.
This was something altogether different. Fused with sounds of Pinder’s Mellotron, Ray Thomas’ flute and psychedelia this was music made for the flower power generation. They started work on a radical new ‘concept’ stage show, with new songs telling the story of a day in a life of the everyday man. It was an experimental group of storytelling songs which would go on to form the album which would define their lives: Days of Future Passed.
Days of Future Past
Even so, none of that translated to sales and the record company was getting impatient. They needed something big. The heat was on for the Moodies. They still owed Decca for advances and a second album hadn’t materialised.
The chance came out of the blue. Decca were looking for a new album to plug their Deramic stereo sound format. Until now they had mostly released orchestral albums to showcase what they said was a richer sound. Now someone hit on the idea of rock and roll.
The project was under the control of Decca’s A&R manager High Mendl. His grandfather was chairman of the Decca Gramophone Company and had got him his first position with the company before the war. A stint presenting jazz radio in the war was followed by a return to Decca where he produced some of Lonnie Donegan’s early records.
He loved the Moody Blues and proved a powerful ally. He turned to them to produce the novelty rock album they want.
The deal sounded insane: a rock version of Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony. It was to be a grand project using a group of Decca affiliated musicians given the fictional title the London Festival Orchestra. They would play the original Dvořák’s before they responded with their reworked rock version.
The band demanded creative control and thanks to Mendl they got it. They shut themselves into the studio and set about completely failing to deliver on their brief.
The Dvořák plan had a slight flaw. It sucked. The Moodies hated it, but in the absence of any other options, went through with it.
However, what they did have was a collection of original material which they were trying to form into a stage show. They would find a willing accomplice in the man who had been hired to provide the arrangements, Peter Knight. He was known for classical arrangements but wanted to do something else.
He came to see them play and instantly decided their material would be better than Dvořák’s. The plan changed and the Moodies plunged into the studio, locked the door and got to work.
They worked in a highly workmanlike manner, with the band producing the songs, Knight composing an orchestral link and handing it to the orchestra to record. The album is as much an original work by Knight as it was the Moodies. He took their ideas, enhanced them and produced something far much more interesting.
They delivered it to Decca who were not happy. The album may never have seen the light of day were it not for American rep Walt Maguire. He heard it, he loved it and he told Decca he could sell it. He helped drum up the excitement about the Moody Blues and got it into the world.
Days of Future Passed tiptoed almost apologetically onto the market. Decca released it with a knock down price, but it didn’t last. Before long, they realised they had much more on their hands than they had bargained for.
The album surged up the charts fuelled by the success of Nights in White Satin and Mike Pinder’s ‘Dawn is a Feeling’. The song served as a perfect counterpoint to Nights in White Satin and gave the band their first self-composed hit.
It was with this album that Pinder’s Mellotron really came to the fore. He’d actually worked at the Mellotron factory and knew the instrument inside out. He used it to give Days of Future passed a smooth, orchestral and occasionally other worldly sound. It would become the hallmark of the Moody Blues’ sound.
The album was the perfect record released at the perfect time. The summer of love was fresh and, with a little help from Sergeant Pepper, the concept album was all the rage. Americans loved it and they began touring across the States. It also benefited from the rise of FM Stereo in the US which was tailor made for the song.
It was a lightning rod moment for the Moody Blues. The dark days were over and they never looked back. Their music was back in demand and they quickly produced a follow up album ‘In Search of a Lost Chord’.
In Search of a Lost Chord
For their next albums, ‘In Search of a Lost Chord,’ the Moodies plunged into elements of psychedelia borrowing heavily from the east. They reached peak prog with the song ‘Om’ for which Ray Thomas provided the vocals. He would then go on and provide one of the anthems for the psychedelic generation ‘Legend of a Mind’. It name checked LSD guru Timothy Leary and gave them an underground credibility.
It was a not so subtle hint that many of the band were diving into the world of hallucinogenic drugs.
“It works in terms of if you were an artist you’d end up with more pastels and colour varieties because you would notice more colour differences,” explained Pinder. “It’s the same with music because you always enjoy music best when you’re in a meditative state.”
Threshold of a Dream
The band was now working at a furious pace. ‘On the Threshold of a Dream’ Followed in 1969. Thomas contributed two standout songs, ‘Dear Diary’ and ‘Lazy Days’.
‘To Our Children’s Children’ followed quickly latching onto the space race. Designed to be released before man set foot on the moon, it told the story of the human race stepping out into the stars.
However, while the leadership of Decca loved the Moody Blues many of the executives were less sure. Tensions grew and the band mulled the idea of forming a joint label with Decca stablemates the Rolling Stones. Nothing came from the idea but they eventually formed their own label Threshold under license from Decca.
It would give them their desire of more control over the process and meant they could control the length of their masters and the artwork. However, while it was called a label, and signed up a few other artists, it was still very much under the influence of Decca. The believed it would allow them to create a label made by artists for artists. However, they soon found themselves spending more time than they liked focusing on the business rather than the music.
When they all found themselves sat on a train with briefcases packed with documents, they realised they had to get back to doing what they do best.
A Question of Balance
While Threshold had given them more control, they found that they had painted themselves into a corner with their heavily produced studio albums. Their use of over dubbing produced a sound which couldn’t be reproduced live.
With their Next Album, ‘A Question of Balance’, they toned things down to produce an album which could be played on stage. The album reached number two in the US charts and number one in the UK.
It included one of their biggest hits, ‘Question’, penned by Hayward. It became a crowd favourite at gigs but was the result of two songs hurriedly slapped together. Hayward found himself racing against time to produce a song for the band to play in the studio, but only two unfinished songs to show. He slapped them together and the uniquely two paced ‘Question’ was born.’
The result was a UK Number two denied only by the England Football team’s World Cup single ‘Back Home.’
The album continued their reputation for story telling but with a toughened-up sound which they could play live. This period was probably their strongest musically. They were still pulling out all the tricks in the studio, but they were crunching down on the sound to ensure they could reproduce it on stage. Pinder and his Mellotron were working overtime backing up the guitars of the other band members.
While Hayward and Pinder remained the main songwriters, they encouraged the other band members to take a more active role. It was a collaborative process in which whoever came up with the idea owned the song, no matter how much work any other member did on it.
Their next two albums, Every ‘Good Boy Deserves Favour’ and ‘Seventh Sojourn’ completed the series of what became known as their ‘core’ seven albums. They drew on much of what had taken the group to this point. They were moving away from psychedelia towards a more pop focused version of what we now call prog rock. However, some of their fans were beginning to take things too seriously. To them, they were no longer mere musicians. They were spiritual guides as John Lodge recalls.
“I remember I came home from a tour,” he recalled. “The day I arrived home, there were some people asleep on the lawn and they told me I was flying the spaceship to save everyone. I said, ‘what spaceship’ and they replied. It will be here. We’re just telling you; you’ll be piloting it.”
Fans would read all sorts of meanings into the songs, some of which were intended, others were not.
At the same time, the band was running out of steam. The toll of touring had taken its toll with Mike Pinder in particular growing tired. His hate of the road would eventually lead to his permanent exit.
By 1974 and the end of Seventh Sojourn, they drifted apart and did their own things. “We’d stopped talking to each other,” Lodge recalled.
They split in 1974 and went their separate ways. Grahame Edge recorded ‘Kick off your Muddy Boots’ while Thomas recorded ‘From Mighty Oaks’ and ‘Hopes, Wishes and Dreams’. Justin Hayward and John Lodge enjoyed a successful duet album ‘Blue Jays’.
One thing kept them together, Threshold Records which managed all their solo music projects. Hayward also had his biggest hit ever with Forever Autumn which was part of the War of the Worlds Concept album.
In 1977 pressure was building from Decca for a reunion album, but things were complicated. Mike Pinder had moved his family to California, so the band scooped up their producer Clarke and followed him out there. The recordings were not happy. Tensions and divisions resurfaced and Clarke was going through an extremely unhappy marriage break up.
They decamped to Pinder’s studio on his ranch but were marooned by a landslide. The album, ‘Octave’, was eventually completed and did pretty well, but it came at a cost. Relations were especially bad between the band and Pinder who began staying away from recordings. When the time came for a tour to back up the album he stayed away much to the anger of Thomas and Edge. He never returned to the fold.
Things got worse at the band’s UK relaunch party. Promoters had hoped to play down Pinder’s absence, even going so far as to put producer Tony Clarke on stage in the hope nobody would notice they were a band member own. However, it was head of the Decca group, Sir Edward Lewis, who let the cat out of the bag about the absence of Pinder with his opening speech.
The band moved on. They replaced him with former Yes Keyboardist Patrick Moraz and embarked on a tour of Europe and the US. A CD from Seattle would later be released in 2013.
The band asked Moraz to stay on permanently when they started recording again in 1980. Pinder, who had understood he would be retained by the band for recording sessions, took legal action preventing the album being released without his contribution. He lost and ‘Long Distant Voyager’ went on to become a huge success reaching Number 1 in the US Billboard and five in the UK.