The rock magazines I wrote for were never terribly keen on The Moody Blues, but I’ve harboured a great affection for them ever since their first hit Go Now. This interview with Justin Hayward was done for The Word’s issue of April 2006. I’ve added a few extra quotes omitted from the original. And at the end is a short review of the group’s album On The Threshold Of A Dream, done for a WORD feature on “guilty pleasures” in June 2005.
“No major band has so relentlessly purveyed nonsense as have the Moodies.” That is the damning verdict of The Rolling Stone Album Guide. “Were it not for their titanic success, in fact, they might easily be dismissed as an odd and overlong joke.” Orthodox rock criticism has no place in its heart for The Moody Blues. They are the anti-Babyshambles: ignored by the media and yet immensely successful, leading lives of quiet self-containment. “We did have a fashionable time,” sighs their singer Justin Hayward. “There was a period between 1967 and ’69 when we were accepted and had the street cred, but that didn’t last. It’s possible for critical success and commercial success to go together, but not for us.”
He speaks in sorrow not in anger. He speaks, to be more precise, from a hotel room in South Bend, Indiana, where the Moodies are touring the heartland of their fan-base. It seems that even The Moody Blues’ audience is unfashionable: it’s concentrated in those “fly-over” states that are far from the tastemakers of New York and the West Coast. “We’re big in the industrial, working-class parts of America,” says Hayward. “Funnily enough it’s all the places that we came to when we opened for Canned Heat in ’68. They were great to us, but their audience was all of these kind of places, like the Midwest, and that’s been our territory ever since. I wish it was the West Coast or something, the nice bits, but this is where it is. And I’m very pleased, because there is a genuine love of the music.”
Why have hipsters so despised this group? The Moody Blues’ music is how The Beatles would have sounded if they’d been led by Paul McCartney and George Harrison: superbly tuneful and earnestly spiritual; not much humour, not much aggression. Hayward, who is almost 60 now, joined the band when they were a Birmingham beat group struggling to repeat their 1965 chart-topper Go Now. A handsome, square-jawed blond, he helped transform the Moodies into hippy mystics and at 19 wrote their most enduring hit Nights In White Satin. They mastered the Mellotron and made a string of albums in quasi-classical vein with ambitious titles such as In Search Of The Lost Chord and To Our Children’s Children’s Children. If you’re receptive to high-end pomp rock, thoughtful and epic, these records are fabulous.
But they ploughed a lonely furrow, thinks Hayward. In part they were isolated by their lack of a manager: “We tried it a couple of times. Our first manager was a heating and ventilation engineer from Newcastle. It all ended in tears. But most of the time we made our own mistakes: in the 1970s I was standing on stage getting 50 dollars a night, looking out to 35,000 people and wondering who was getting the money. We got ripped off, but at least we had no one telling us what to do. We dressed how we like. We never even smiled in photographs until 1979.”
Were you taking yourselves too seriously? “Yes, we probably were. But quite rightly. To do what we were doing we *had* to believe in it. It was from the heart. We’d had our moments with Fab 208 Magazine; I might have been the Number 12 ‘Face of the Sixties’ for 10 minutes, we flirted with those kind of things. But the rest of the time it was, Let’s just get on with it.”
In their prime the Moodies comprised five songwriters (two of them, John Lodge and Graeme Edge, remain with Hayward to this day) and all wrote rather spiritual lyrics. This was another reason they were ridiculed. “But at the time we got the reputation for that,” says Hayward, “I felt I was speaking for a lot of other people in the late ’60s. I wanted to write about our search for enlightenment, as simple as that. I’m still kind of doing it.”
And where has this search brought Justin Hayward in 2006? “I would have to say Christianity,” he answers. “I came from a family with a very strong faith, I moved away through all sorts of Eastern religions, through meditation, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, anything else. It was reading C.S Lewis, books like Mere Christianity, that helped me to define what I really felt and finally decide. So I came full circle.”
And did your quest involve psychedelic drugs? “Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t wait. LSD was part of it for me. We met Timothy Leary on our first tour of America and became friends with him until he died. In about 1968 we went to stay at his ranch. It was a beautiful weekend, pretty boys and girls, I loved every moment.” But then Hayward remembers. He is back in South Bend, Indiana, with another flight to take, another show to do. “I paid all those dues,” he laughs, softly. “And I’m still paying them.”
On last night’s show: “It went very well. We sold out. The promoter was very pleased. He didn’t avoid eye contact in the corridor afterwards. Asked us back. So we’re all very pleased.”
On their following: “There is a fan intensity for us in Britain which I hope and pray is still there because every few years we do a tour and we need to sell it out or else the whole business knows about it the next morning. It’s still very strong but in truth, it’s America for us. Especially places like where we are now, the industrial working class parts of America. Funnily enough it’s all the places that we came to on the very first long tour of America when we opened for a band called Canned Heat in 68. They were the best boogie band I’ve ever seen and they were great to us and took us on our bus and made it easy for us. But their audience was all of these kind of places, the mid West through working class America and that’s been our territory ever since. I wish it was the West Coast or something, the nice bits, but this is where it is and I’m very pleased for that because there is a genuine love of the music, it’s really part of people’s lives.”
On their back catalogue: “People will always respond to the first seven albums…. Our biggest competitor is our back catalogue, and whenever we have a new album out it’s an irresistible temptation for Universal to piggyback it with another Greatest Hits. And sometimes that means the new product goes unnoticed. A mixed blessing, yes. We still do good numbers but it’s the catalogue that’s stealing most of those numbers.”
On Decca: “We were also fortunate to be with a record company, Decca, who were old music men, a lot of the time making radar systems, who were technically superb with a brilliant studio and staff in West Hampstead. Better than EMI in my opinion. After Days [Of Future Passed], which was a lucky accident, Sir Edward Lewis came to us and said, I don’t know what you boys are doing, but it’s great. Whenever you want the studio just make a booking and it was a dream to young musicians like us. The sleeves, just do what you want.
On their own label, Threshold: “The precedent was Apple, The Beatles were the leaders and everybody tended to do what they did. Our idea was an artists’ workshop because Decca were prepared to give us studio time and in the end they actually gave us a studio. But what we found out was that though we were making records that were successful we had no idea how to tell other people how to do it. We had other artists on the label but what soured it was that we were often seeing their managers and not them. Most of these young boys and girls had really horrendous managers. But it did give us control over our own masters and sleeves which was what we really wanted.”
On punk rock: “Oh I loved all of that. I didn’t feel it as a threat. we were so far along our own road that it didn’t really affect us. I think the people it did affect were the ones who took the opposite tack, the disco ones, who bit the dust as soon as it was over. That was the time when we were having mega success in America and when you look at the other artists who were coming along at that time, The Eagles, Jackson Browne, they were also inspirational. Just as there was an explosion of young people making music in the 60s it happened again in the 70s with punk. And I was proud of it because I was English, because in America punk was more of a fashion, whereas being English I really identified with the boys and the girls in the tower-blocks, or even the lower middle class like I was, I could see it. Sid was so fantastic, and for it all to end so tragically, but it had to I suppose. His My Way, if I was able to without people just laughing at me, I’d put it in my Top 10, it’s a masterpiece.”
The Moody Blues: On The Threshold Of A Dream
They always looked a bit wrong, this group, like overly well-groomed weekend hippies. And they did sing some earnest tosh: I used to wince at the cosmic waffle of titles like this one. But millions loved the Moodies, even if they were more or less ignored by hip media. They deserve more credit. Widely derided as wimp-rockers, they were at heart a tough little R&B band from Brum, hiding inside an extravagant layer cake of orchestration. And they had better melodies than anyone bar McCartney. *On The Threshold Of A Dream* was made in 1969 when Justin Hayward’s writing was at its peak. Like all their records it had a preposterous cover, and does contain songs about Merlin, Guinevere and “golden galleons”, which you may find stressful. But its best track, *Lovely To See You*, has a jubilant *Layla*-like riff that would make a terrific car advert. If I catch it unexpectedly, in the i-Pod’s shuffle mode, it absolutely makes my day. I hold strong views about permed hair and velvet trousers, and they are not favourable. But this group I forgive. The Moody Blues are my guilty pleasure.