Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Mood is Right- a Conversation with Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues

Justin Hayward, one of the most distinctive voices and guitar stylists of our generation, is touring the United States with his "Stage Door" show.    The lead singer of the Moody Blues for the past 50 years, Hayward has helped sell over 70 million albums and CD’s. He performs acoustically with Mike Dawes on guitar and Julie Ragins on keyboards and other instruments.

Hayward, who considers himself a songwriter first and foremost, joined the Moody Blues in late 1966, and over short period of time helped to change their sound, as he explained.

“In truth, we were the same band trying to play the same sets initially, after Clint Warwick and Denny Laine left in 1966. We were trying to continue to play rhythm and blues. I came aboard as a songwriter with a determination to get my songs done.  Mike Pindar, (keyboard player) was writing. When we realized that the lineup we had become didn’t work as a rhythm and blues band, we decided to play mostly our own materiel. Things were tough for a while- I went back to live with my parents during this time."

“We tried doing our own materiel. Around that time, 1967, Decca hired us to record an album that was really a way for them to demonstrate how stereo worked. That record became ‘Days of Future Passed’.  You can tell- there’s a lot of echo in it, and the sound today feels very thin to me.”

Hayward would often build his songs at home before bringing them to the band.

“I would do a lot of work at home.  I’ve always felt that trying to do a lot of the work of putting a song together in the studio is really hit or miss, though there is nothing wrong with doing it that way. I’ve found it more satisfying to do it my own way.  I would work out the bass line, and the rhythm guitar, so that by the time we got to the studio I already knew what I wanted. The one variable was the keyboard lines, and Mike Pindar was always adding these fantastic bits.”

Ironically, the song most associated with the Moody Blues, the iconic ‘Nights in White Satin,’ remains somewhat enigmatic to Hayward, it’s writer.

“I'm not sure why it’s been such a success.  At the time, a lot of people including some in the band thought the song didn't have any of the qualities of a successful single. It wasn’t even released in the United States at first- ‘Tuesday Afternoon’ was released first in the United States. I guess the song has some kind of resonance with people, though I’m at a loss.  I know you can go anywhere we play and people will react to it.“

The distinctive sound of the Moody Blues- lush, orchestral with soaring harmonies, often counterpointed with falsetto, derived from a combination of factors.

“The key for us was the Mellotron – it was an instrument that had started out as a  sound effects unit. It also contained orchestral sounds on it... this was before the development of the synthesizer. Mike Pindar was familiar with it, and had worked with the company that built it for a few months. He knew the potential of the instrument. So those sounds became the sound of the Moody Blues. “

“We also had four really good voices in the band, and we had to find a place for within the range of those voices for each of us, which is why we used falsetto.  I was in the middle, and the falsetto thing allowed us to arrange voices in a way that came naturally.”

Hayward considers himself a songwriter, and finds that the solo performance setting brings out a unique relationship with the songs he has written.

“The solo performance. Takes me back to where I was when I wrote the song, the essence.  When I’m working solo, I can hear every nuance in the room.  It’s exactly the original way I heard them when I wrote them. I love playing with the ‘Moodies’-we’ve had great group success. Performing onstage requires a different balance, in a technical way, than recording does. I’ve always started my songs with acoustic runs and guitar. Doing this solo I have this valuable opportunity to perform with two great musicians.  It’s much closer to the spirit of the songwriting process.”

The Moody Blues have fans all over the world, and apparently off this world, too.

“It seems that our music was a favorite of NASA, back during the shuttle days. They made up a tape of Moodies stuff that they took with them on the missions; I suppose we were a little disappointed that they bootlegged the tape.  Hoot Gibson, one of the Shuttle pilots, is a lovely, charming man. It was a big thrill to meet him. All these people at NaSA were a big inspiration for me.

Hayward is primarily playing acoustic guitar on this tour.

“My hero was Buddy Holly, who always used acoustic and electric guitars on his recordings, which was a revelation to me.  It’s probably the reason why they Moodies didn't have a rhythm guitar player. "

It all boils down to the performance. Artists as diverse as Glenn Campbell and Slade, Deodato and The Dickies have covered his songs.  One cover stands out to Hayward, that of songstress Bettye LaVette, whose smoldering version of ‘Nights’ impressed Hayward.

“I think she gave every word a new meaning; the whole song has new meaning to me after I heard her version. I wrote to her, she wrote back and it was delightful.  It’s by far the best cover version. I absolutely loved it; it means a lot to me.”

Hayward continues to tour with and without the Moody Blues. 

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