From an R&B covers band to pioneers of symphonic rock, The Moody Blues were one of the 60s’ most influential bands.
On a rainy night at the Fiesta Club in Stockton in 1966, a disgruntled fan took it upon himself to go backstage and tell the band that he had just seen play exactly how bad he thought they were. “I just thought I’d tell you, you’re the worst fucking band I’ve seen in my life. You’re rubbish. And somebody’s got to tell you!” This critique of The Moody Blues which reduced singer-guitarist Justin Hayward and band mate Ray Thomas to tears turned out to be the reality check that they needed to set them on the path to success.
Up until this fateful night, The Moody Blues were a Rhythm & Blues covers band that found their roots on the suburban streets of Erdington, Birmingham in 1964. After playing in a skiffle band as a teenager, local boy Ray Thomas decided to form his own band – El Riot and the Rebels – which included guitarist John Lodge and pianist Mike Pinder. The band become known for their stage show where they donned Mexican cowboy outfits, securing them a regular slot on the“Lunchbox” TV programme. In 1963, as with most of the 60s bands that were just starting out, they were offered some lengthy touring sessions in Germany, but only Thomas and Pinder wanted to go so they disbanded with Lodge taking up a “proper job” doing a draftsmans apprenticeship. Thomas and Pinder joined another local group – The Krewcats – and got to go to Germany, playing in Hamburg and Hanover between May and November that same year. Though like most young and naive bands trying to cut their teeth, they were exploited by an unscrupulous club owner who didn’t pay them their dues and confiscated their passports and visas so they couldn’t leave anytime soon!
The Birmingham music scene at the end of 1963 gravitated between two poles: those bands that wanted to sound like Cliff Richard and The Shadows and those that wanted to follow The Beatles’ lead. Standing apart from these was The Spencer Davis Group who were causing excitations through their R&B music. Realising the potential of this new and energising sound, Graeme Edge and Gerry Levene from Gerry Levene and the Avengers, Albert Eccles (who changed his name to Clint Warwick) and Danny King from Danny King and the Dukes and Denny Laine from The Diplomats joined forces to become the Soul Preachers. A chance meeting between Laine and Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder at the Moathouse Club in Birmingham meant that they too joined the group and the seeds of The Moody Blues were sown. Danny King soon lost interest and left. The band marched on and tried to clinch a sponsorship deal with Mitchell and Butlers brewery adopting the name the M&B five. They failed to gain the sponsorship but kept the initials, and with a nod to their roots and Miles Davis’ Indigo Blue album they became The Moody Blues.
At one particular gig in the Moathouse Club they were introduced to Tim Hudson who had connections to people in London who were looking to manage a band. Enter Tony Secunda into The Moody Blues story, who became a major player in the whole Brumbeat scene. Secunda secured them a regular slot at the famous Marquee Club, after they stepped in for Manfred Mann when Paul Jones contracted laryngitis. Their track ‘I’ll Go Crazy’ was well received by the regular crowd. A record contract with Decca soon followed and The Moody Blues seemed all set for stardom. They released their debut single ‘Steal Your Heart Away’ which failed to chart but led them to appear on the ITV pop music show Ready Steady Go. Their next single ‘Go Now’ set the standard and with Laine’s doleful vocal and the group’s backing, the trademark Moody Blues sound was forged. The track became a worldwide hit and in late 1964 went to #1 in the UK charts and top ten in the US. They were jettisoned into a hectic schedule of touring and television appearances with the added pressure of knocking out an equally impressive follow-up single. Their debut album The Magnificent Moodies was quickly put together riding on the success of ‘Go Now’. They even managed to get Sunshine Superman Donovan to write an intro on the back cover:
“Their writing has all the sensitiveness an’ feeling that makes music cool to listen to. The tracks on this LP will show the sort of scene they have got going. You will probably call it contemporary blues – it could be if you want it to be. It doesn’t matter, just let it pass through you.”
Their trajectory into the limelight continued with another single ‘Stop’ making it into the UK charts before they joined the swarm of bands that heralded the ‘British Invasion’ sent over to the US. A packed out NME Poll Winners’ concert at Wembley to a crowd of 60,ooo followed, as well as supporting The Beatles on their 1965 UK tour.
Despite living the high life, the Moodies’ path to success started to take a winding turn. Their singles weren’t matching the success of ‘Go Now’ and in an era were a band lived and died on the success of their singles output things started to wane. Their fifth single ‘Everyday’ released in October 1965 only reached #44 in the charts. Even with Brian Epstein at the helm in Sept 1965, their situation didn’t improve. In August 1966, bass guitarist Clint Warwick left due to his dislike of touring and the following month singer Denny Laine announced that he was leaving to embark on a solo career. Things weren’t looking great for the band. When Ray Thomas found out that his former band mate John Lodge, from El Riot and the Rebels, was back on the scene playing with another band in Germany, he called him up and asked him to join. Lodge jumped at the chance and with The Animals singer Eric Bourdon steering Thomas in the direction of Justin Hayward as a replacement for Laine, at a meet in London’s Bag O-Nails Club, The Moody Blues mk. 2 started to come into existence.
The new look band hit the northern cabaret circuit to raise desperately needed funds and it was here that the fateful gig at the Fiesta Club took place. After their drubbing, they changed their image (out with the blue suits) and set to work trying to set the charts alight again. Their next single ‘Fly Me High’ failed to chart, so trying to capture the experimental zeitgeist of the time they introduced Mellotron into their sound, brought about by Pinder’s desire to re-create the lush string arrangements of Mantovani that he had grown up listening to. The first track released incorporating this new instrument, ‘Love and Beauty’, again failed to chart but with its quasi-mystical lyrics and complex arrangements, it set them apart from the crop of other pop bands. They developed a conceptual stage show based on a day in the life of an everyman, spanning Dawn (‘Dawn Is A Feeling’) to Night (‘Nights in White Satin’). They also introduced spoken word poetry. This new progressive sound – what came to be known as ‘symphonic rock’ – interested their record label who suggested they record an album based on the classical compositions of Dvorak, to showcase the new ‘Deram’ sound that they were pioneering. The band hi-jacked the brief and in just five days recorded enough of their own compositions for an album, the influential Days of Future Passed, released in Nov 1967 and hailed as the first ever concept album. It reached #27 in the UK charts and #3 in the US and spawned the famous ‘Nights In White Satin’ single written by Hayward which charted at #9, their highest position since the chart-topping ‘Go Now’. Their next LP release In Search Of The Lost Chord embodied the concept theme once again but was a step on from their previous album with the group playing all the instruments themselves without any orchestral backing. One of the tracks on the album, ‘Legend of a Mind’, composed by Thomas was a tribute to acid guru Timothy Leary, whom he had met during their previous American tour. The Moodies were immersing themselves in all that the times had to offer and psychedelia was seeping into their music.
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1969 was a very busy and successful year for the band. In April, they released On the Threshold of a Dream, an album that dealt with spiritual and religious themes and which hit #1 in the UK album charts. Shortly after this they launched their own record label Threshold Records, signing up a few local bands before releasing another album in November, To Our Children’s Children’s Children, themed on space travel. They also played Isle of Wight festival, returning the following year to a crowd of 600,000 and sharing the bill with luminaries such as The Who, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. They also managed to bag a #2 singles chart spot with ‘Question’, their highest since ‘Go Now’ and released another album in 1971. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour was seen as another pioneering release due to Graeme Edge’s playing of the electronic drums for the first time ever on a record. By the time they had released their seventh studio album Seventh Sojourn, the band had been touring relentlessly for several years and the strain was starting to show. It reached top spot in the US album charts, but also marked the start of a six year hiatus for the band with members exploring other avenues and solo recording projects. The most notable of these was Justin Hayward’s ‘Forever Autumn’, recorded in 1978 as part of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds. They re-grouped that same year and released the album Octave, but Mike Pinder refused to go on tour and left, replaced by YES keyboardist Patrick Moraz. They gained a resurgence in 1981 with the album Long Distance Voyager hitting #1 again in the UK and with the help of MTV and captivating videos for ‘Your Wildest Dreams‘ and ‘I Know You’re Out There Somewhere‘ they were introduced to a new audience.
The band continued to evolve their sound over the next few decades with a fluctuating line-up. Ray Thomas retired from the band in 2003 due to health reasons and died in January this year. Original members Graeme Edge, Justin Hayward and John Lodge still tour with the band today and in April this year, in Cleveland, Ohio they were officially inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The most successful band to come of out Birmingham in the 60s. And all thanks to a bad gig!
In their heyday, playing together also extended to living together with the band holing up in a house in Roehampton, London, which became notorious for its parties and regular pop star party-goers. Rumour has it that the girls that climbed in through the windows to get into one of these many shindigs inspired one of its regular visitors – Paul McCartney – to write ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’.
Studio Albums – 16
Singles – 36
Highest chart position – #1 (Go Now – 1964)
Go Now | This was originally a 1964 song by Bessie Banks, produced by the famous Leiber and Stoller partnership. On hearing this, Denny Laine told the rest of The Moody Blues that they needed to do their own recording. It featured on their debut album The Magnificent Moodies and topped the UK charts on release. It stood out from the rest of the tracks on the album with its lush orchestration, a hint of the progressive rock that was to surface in the 70s.
Night in White Satin | Taken from their 1967 pioneering concept album Days of Future Passed, ‘Nights In White Satin’ was written by lead singer Justin Hayward inspired by the gift of some satin sheets by an ex-girlfriend. Hayward described the song as ‘a whole series of random thoughts that were on my mind. I was at the end of one big love affair and at the beginning of another.’ Known for Ray Thomas’ famous flute playing as well as Hayward’s emotional vocal delivery, the song catapulted the band into whole new musical territory and has become their best known song.
Legend of a Mind | This Ray Thomas penned song was taken from their 1968 album In Search of The Lost Chord. A paean to Timothy Leary the great high priest of LSD, whom the band had met on their previous tour of the US. The track was firmly in the psychedelic mould of the times, echoing bands like the Jefferson Airplane with its shimmering lysergic choruses and gentle acoustic passages. A sign that the Moodies were tuning in to the musical zeitgeist.
Question | Released in May 1970, this was the second highest single for the band reaching #2 in the UK charts. It was also the lead single from their sixth album A Question of Balance released that same year. With successful tours of the US the band found themselves playing to audiences of young college students who were directly affected by the Vietnam War. Justin Hayward wrote the song as a reaction to this. ‘After a decade of peace and love, it still seemed we hadn’t made a difference in 1970. I suppose that was the theme of the song.’
1 – The Marquee Club, London, September 3rd 1964
This was probably the most important gig in The Moody Blues career. It was in August 1964 that they attracted the attention of Tony Secunda who became their manager, securing them a Monday night residency at London’s famous Marquee Club. The spot was originally taken by Manfred Mann, but due to contracting laryngitis, Paul Jones couldn’t sing and the band were forced to pull out paving the way for the Moodies to stand in. Their celebrated live performances soon piqued the attention of Decca records who signed them up and shortly after they released their debut single ‘Lose Your Money/Steal Your Heart Away’ which they performed on “Ready Steady Go”.
2 – NME Poll Winners’ Concert, Wembley Empire Pool, London, April 16th 1965
NME journalist Alan Smith called the NME Poll Winners’ Concert ‘The biggest array of pop stars ever assembled on one great day.’ A bold claim indeed, but when you consider the roll call of artists that played alongside The Moody Blues: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Kinks and Tom Jones to name but a few, you can see his point. The band opened proceedings with two tracks – ‘Bo Diddley’ and ‘Go Now’, the concert proving that they had taken their place at the 60s great high table of popular music.
3 – Isle of Wight Festival, August 30th 1970
The Isle of Wight festival in 1970 is regarded as the largest musical event of its time, beating even Woodstock with an attendance of 600,000. The artists that played over the August weekend were musical legends, the likes of The Doors, The Who, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. Taking to the stage in the early evening on the Saturday were The Moody Blues who played a 14 song set that saw them at their creative and commercial peak. The performance was captured on film and released as Threshold of a Dream: Live at the Isle of Wight Festival.
Music obsessive and wild swimmer. Compensating for the toil of the daily grind by living a diluted rock star life through reviewing and gig-going. Brought up on the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac and forever caught up in the myth behind the legend. Finding a voice and hoping that people will hear.