Interviews and story by Don Wilcock
The classic rock band’s use of technology changed the entire paradigm of pop music back in 1967, late in the British Invasion. The Stones used a gizmo consisting of taped sounds called the Mellotron on Their Satanic Majesties Request, and the Beatles used it on “Strawberry Fields,” but the Moody Blues combined the Mellotron with Decca Records’ stereo recording technology to create a majestic rock equivalent to a classical music symphony with their groundbreaking sophomore album, Days of Future Passed.
In the liner notes of the concept album, executive producer Hugh Mendl described it this way: “The Moody Blues have at last done what many others have dreamed of and talked about: they have extended the range of pop music and found the point where it became one with the world of classics.”
Decca Records had told the Moody Blues that they could work off their debt to the label by producing a rock version of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” to showcase the label’s stereo capabilities. But when the group got into production with Peter Knight, conductor of the London Festival Orchestra (a fancy name for a group of classical session musicians), the symphony morphed into an original long-form composition based on a day from “The Day Begins” to what would become the band’s signature song, “Nights in White Satin.” It was a gutsy move that the creative team in the studio never told the label about until after it was finished.
“We’d already recorded our songs so that he could hear them and do his classical interpretation of them, but he did that session in three hours,” recalls Justin Hayward, lead vocalist and guitarist for the band. “(Peter Knight) and Tony Clarke made a tape up that they could bounce, and they edited all our songs together with space in between with Peter counting. So their recording was a bounce from one machine to the other with the orchestra doing it live. They did one run-through in 47 minutes, had a tea break, recorded it, and they used the first take, and that was that. But he was my hero, absolutely. I adored him as a man.”
Drummer Graeme Edge picks up the story. “Peter, God bless his heart, he did all the links between the songs, and they over-lapped a little bit, but like on ‘Nights in White Satin,’ the orchestra only comes in half-way through the last verse, and it was all about the links. He did the overture, and – I don’t know what you call it – the outro? He was great about it because he was the only one who had something to lose.
“He was a staffer at Decca, the record company. We weren’t even signed to Decca at the time. He ran their festival orchestra, and Decca was very, very heavily into classical music. So he was the one who took a risk. At the time we had ‘Tuesday Afternoon.’ ‘Nights’ was written. I think ‘Lunch Break: Peak Hour’ was written, and maybe ‘Twilight Time’ was written.
“We had four or five songs. We played them to him, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah. Let’s do it.’ I don’t think he fancied doing Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony,’ either. ‘Very nice, the Dvorak, but you like doing your own stuff, don’t ya?’ And good as gold, he went for it. It was much, much later – like two or three albums later, when we were much more aware of record companies and internal politics and all that – that we realized how much that guy went out on a limb for us.
“The Mellotron was what gave us the ambition to write songs like ‘Nights in White Satin,’” continues Edge. “You have to remember there was electric piano and electric guitars, and
that was it. And suddenly having all of these sounds that we’d all heard all our lives available to play on stage just broadened our ambitions and broadened out horizons enormously.
“We took the sound on the road (in 1969), but the difficulty was the bloody machine. It was a nightmare to transport because, as you probably know, it’s basically a tape player. Behind each key there’s a loop of tape that plays for four-and-a-half seconds. I forget how many notes there are, but 50-odd notes with like 12-feet of tape hanging there on a spring loaded wheel? Ha, ha. Well, usually on the back of that you had spaghetti. We became experts in unfretting it all with a coat hanger and a screw driver, but oh man, that machine was a nightmare. It was worth it, though, ’cause when it worked, it just opened up horizons for ya.”
Today, the Moody Blues in concert still use samples of Tony Visconti’s work on the Mellotron done in the late 1980s, and Justin Hayward continues to use later developments in technology to record albums like his 2013 solo effort, Spirits of the Western Sky. Hayward: “As a recording artist with my own album, technology means that I could prepare so much before I even went into the studio. I could do so much at home. Also, the first thing I did was my vocal instead of that being the last thing I did on a session as it was in the old days. Now it’s the first thing. So I capture whatever I think I’ve created, whatever is going on in my mind and the feeling I have early on in the song, so that it’s kind of safe, and then I can work around that and see what suggests itself around that.
“So technology has given us the tools to be able to do that. It’s also delivered the perfect Mellotron sound. Graeme was absolutely right. It was incredibly difficult carrying the Mellotron around, but it was a great sound. Tony Visconti did the best samples in the 1980s and early ’90s of our Mellotron, and we’re still using those to this day. God bless technology, wonderful.”
The Moody Blues have not released an album of new material in more than a decade, but Hayward explains how their live concerts have evolved. “The three of us that are left (Hayward, Edge and bass player John Lodge) feel a kind of duty to bring back the songs that are maybe hidden album tracks that people would be just a little bit familiar with but that work really well on stage.
“And through all of that I could see that there wasn’t a Moody Blues album looming on the horizon, says Hayward, who then decided to go ahead with his solo album. “Alberto [Parodi, co-producer of Spirits of the Western Sky] and I decided we’d do my songs the right way. Instead of making demos, we’d actually make them as records and do a finished record, and then Eagle Rock Records made the phone call to me saying, ‘Listen, we heard you’re doing something, and we’ll have it. Whatever you want to do, just go ahead. And here’s our blessing and support.’ I fell into it, and it seemed the right thing to do.”
The Moody Blues never suffered the cult of personality even though they were inspired by the same changes in technology that affected others. “That was a thing that was unique to the Beatles and the Stones,” says Hayward. “That was their thing. No, no, we didn’t really have a press agent in those days, but we did have a record company that just said to us, ‘We’ve got these recording studios and just do what you want.’
“Days of Future Passed was ’67. Then in ’68 we went to America. FM radio was just starting, and our stuff was just perfect for FM. London Records and Decca suddenly realized there was a place where people would play, get airplay on all their albums. So we just took a different route, that’s all. I don’t think we’d have done too well if we’d been trying to be celebrities in the ’60s. We were just – for me, it was just about playing music and recording and getting a bit stoned all the time, and that was about it, really.”
WHO: The Moody Blues
WHEN: Monday (August 4), 7:30pm
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $39.50, $49.50, $59.50 & $75
NOTE: Lawn tickets are not available for this pavilion-only concert.