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Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues talks about 'Strange Times' and even stranger ones

Friday, September 03, 1999

By Scott Mervis,Post-Gazette Weekend Editor

The Moody Blues have a new album in the stores, their first in eight years, but we'll get to that later.

If we've got Justin Hayward on the phone, wouldn't it be more fun to know what that "Nights in White Satin" song is all about?

    Moody Blues

With: Pittsburgh Festival Orchestra

Where: Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre

When: Tonight at 8

How Much?: $15 to $45; 412-323-1919.


Yeah, that cosmic piece of pop might be more than 30 years old, but it gets played all day on the classic rock stations, and let's face it, if it weren't for "Nights in White Satin," The Moody Blues may have reached the end a long time ago.

First a little background. The Moody Blues began, like the Stones and just about every other British band of the day, as a not-too-moody blues and R&B band. Ray Thomas and now-departed member Mike Pinder actually used to open for the Beatles as El Riot and the Rebels. Their Motown influences were reflected in the band's 1965 debut record, "The Magnificent Moodies," featuring the hit "Go Now," a bit of pop candy by Denny Laine, who would go on to join Paul McCartney in Wings.

When it was clear that direction would not be fruitful for long, Hayward joined and the Moodies bought a mellotron -- an instrument that could replicate a symphony -- with the idea of elevating their music to a higher level of pretentiousness. The Beatles were experimenting with symphonic music, the Electric Light Orchestra was going to need someone to base their sound upon and, above all else, the drugs were beginning to take effect. Hayward admits he was having his share of "psychedelic and religious experiences," but we don't need him to tell us that.

The Moodies were commissioned by the Deram label to create a rock version of Dvorak's Symphony No. 9. Instead, they used the studio time to record a batch of songs they had been kicking around. Pinder had written one called "Dawn of a Feeling," inspiring his mates to write their own tunes about various stages of the day.

"So," Hayward says, "I just sat down at home one night, I was at the end of a big love affair and the beginning of a new one, that I knew was really going to be stronger even, and my girlfriend had given me some white satin sheets for the bed -- very impractical, by the way, if you've got any beard growth -- and that was the essence of it.

"I just sat down at the edge of the bed with my big 12-string and wrote the song in like four minutes. I think there's a lot of truth in it. There was a line 'letters are written never meaning to send' and I don't know why I wrote that line, but afterwards, years later, I found that I was doing that kind of cathartic process of writing letters to people, putting down my thoughts about problems and looking at them the next day. And there's another line 'just what you want to be you will be in the end' and I think that's true, too. People do become what they want to be, whether that's what they mean or not."

Hayward took it into the Moody Blues rehearsal room the very next day and played it for the guys on that same 12-string.

And the earth did not shake.

"They sort of went 'Oh, yeah, it's alright,' " Hayward recalls with a laugh.

But then Pinder said, "play it again, Justin," and wandered over to the mellotron where he produced that now-famous harmony line. At that point, they realized they were onto something big.

"We all knew it was really strong," he says. "Then we got a chance to record it, along with 'Tuesday Afternoon,' and other songs for ['Days of Future Passed']. We all thought we were making some sort of limited-appeal art record, that we'd get invited to a few sort of champagne parties and get into high-brow papers, as they were then in England. And that would be the height of my ambition, a bohemian kind of thing. That did happen initially, and I was knocked out, and then it went on to become this worldwide record. And that really surprised me. I didn't think it had that kind of appeal."

And now it's the summer of 1999, and if they left "Nights in White Satin" off the set list tonight at Star Lake, security would have a middle-aged riot on their hands. But there's no real fear of that. Hayward will sing it, and actually enjoy doing it.

"Whenever I sing those songs I'm back in the same place where I wrote them when we first made them," he says. "I can't shrug that off at all. It's like putting on an old set of clothes or something. I know that happens in the audience as well. Those songs mean a lot to people. They're part of people's lives. That's a wonderful thing to be able to share."

The Moody Blues will also be sharing about five new songs from "Strange Times," their first record since 1991's "Keys to the Kingdom." Recorded in northern Italy, not far from Hayward's home, it's a light collection of easy-listening love songs that won't be mistaken for their headier work. The catchy first single, "English Sunset," helped launch it into the Top 100 album charts on its first week of release.

"We think it's the best record we've made in 20 years," Hayward says. "And everybody was involved in the recording of it, which is unusual. It's an album that we produced ourselves. We were together in the studio, living together. So there was no escape."

The eight-year gap on their discography can be explained by the success of the band's PBS concert with an orchestra back in 1992, which launched tours for them all over the world. "It was a beautiful distraction," Hayward says. As for the new record, Hayward seems to realize that the strange thing about "Strange Times" is just how very un-strange it all is.

"In the '60s, there was an appealing kind of naivete, because youth has that, I suppose. So, I hope it's been replaced by some kind of wisdom. That's the main difference. Also when we were younger I think we were rather intense and serious about our music. Now, I think we've learned to enjoy it and go with the flow."

Brian Aris

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