Justin Hayward: The Moody Blues' story in his eyes
Most rockers can become immune to the offerings tossed on stage during a concert, but Justin Hayward recalls one item that stands the test of time.
"We used to get a lot of joints and drugs," says the Moody Blues' longtime front man. "Belts, T-shirts, brassieres -- everything. Once, when the crowd was packed in very tight and very excited, Ray [Thomas, the flutist] caught my eye, and he said, 'Look, look!' And there was a guy sort of twirling his wooden leg around his head, on a strap where it had been strapped into his knee."
And then it happened. "He threw it onstage," Hayward says. "And it landed right between me and Ray."
Don't expect to see similar projectiles April 14-15 when the Moody Blues play two sold-out shows at NYCB Theatre at Westbury. The tour, "The Voyage Continues -- Highway 45," holds particular significance for Hayward.
Forty-five years ago, the Moody Blues, with two new band members and a new direction, recorded "Days of Future Passed," arguably the first true concept album. "Our lives, when we were young, revolved around 45s," says Hayward, now 65. "And when this 45th anniversary thing first came up, we were thinking of using a '45' logo because one of the deepest impressions on us was that we had a 45 that we'd performed on and written, 'Nights in White Satin,' that was a big hit. That particular 45 was dear to us, and that led us to this anniversary issue. Yes, it's a very special album."
Mention concept albums from 1967 and, undoubtedly, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" opens the conversation. But the Moodies combined the elements of a single day into their own concept album, and those elements provided a spontaneous combustion still ablaze 45 years later.
Rock historian Dennis Elsas, a DJ for 25 years at WNEW /102.7 FM until 1998, recalls the album's genesis. "Basically, they took something they had already written, the 'Nights in White Satin' concept of going through the day, and linked it up with classical pieces," says Elsas, who now shares music and his thoughts at WFUV/ 90.7 FM and SiriusXM Satellite Classic Vinyl/26.
"When Justin and John Lodge joined the group, just before 'Nights in White Satin,' it totally changed the group because they had a hit single, the cover of 'Go Now,' which was a different sound," he says. "Then they just went in a totally different direction."
The new path regularly put the Moodies on the Billboard charts. "One of the things which is so interesting is they put out seven albums between 1967 and 1972," Elsas says. "And they were all involved albums with a lot of songs, and, in addition to being album sellers, they are also top 40 sellers. That's an amazing accomplishment."
Yet Elsas still calls "Days of Future Passed" -- which preceded The Who's concept album "Tommy" by two years -- their most memorable effort. "Clearly, we'd never heard anything like that," he says. "That was something new, that ability to blend the classical and the pop together, and the soaring voices, and we didn't know it at the time, but that Mellotron was making all the difference.
"As Justin told me in a 1996 interview that I've just posted on my website, denniselsas.com, the London Festival Orchestra that's featured on the album was not an actual orchestra but was specifically created to play the orchestral interludes that connect all the musical elements."
And, Elsas says, not just the music makes "Days" unique. "If you look at the album cover, it's really interesting," he says. "The cover painting by David Anstey is almost psychedelic with swirling colors."
Literally, their music has been out of this world. One big fan, space shuttle Commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson, took a pirated "Days" cassette on four NASA trips.
So you'd think, with such a noteworthy album, every tour stop on their first American visit in 1968 would be as smooth as satin.
"The very first one we were supposed to be opening for Tiny Tim, in Minneapolis," Hayward says. "We were there and made an appearance on the stage, but our equipment wasn't. It was held by U.S. Customs over some problem, so that was a bit of a disaster. After that, we just played a few clubs before we got to the Fillmore East, and then the Mellotron broke down, so it was quite difficult."
They're making a rare indoor appearance on Long Island since one of their first U.S. appearances took them to the gymnasium at Stony Brook University, on Nov. 22, 1969, for two shows. "We just went where the agents booked us, so in those days we had no say," Hayward recalls. "We put no thought into that at all, really. We were either too lazy, too stoned or just too busy."
And now the band, which in 1974 took a four-year vacation, has come full circle, playing 32 East Coast cities in 42 days on the current tour.
Between tours, the five members of the 1967 band have totaled 10 CDs of their own, and Hayward has another solo venture in the works. But Thomas retired in 2002, long after Mike Pinder, the master of the Mellotron -- the vital early keyboard synthesizer that he helped introduce in live performances -- left in 1978. Trouping on with Hayward are original drummer Graeme Edge, 71, and bassist and vocalist Lodge, 66.
"What's nice now is I think that a lot of people our own age have come back to us," Hayward says. "The people that came to us in the '80s are still the core of our audience, and they've stuck with us, and now we have a lot of young people who are interested in the music we made when we were young."
Elsas says the Moodies indeed stand out from their peers. "They had a renaissance, unlike some of those other bands in the '80s, with those other albums and MTV and video, and a whole new audience discovers them," he says. "They're not just a band of the '60s and '70s. Their fans are incredibly passionate. The audience loves the memories that the Moodies take them back to."
Hayward, as much as anyone, is responsible for that. While he faithfully scripted his lyrics and Edge delicately created his poetry, the other bandmates acted a bit more carefree, Hayward says. "Nobody said, 'Hey, I want to do this.' People just said, 'I have written this.' I would always be like the conscientious schoolboy and do my homework and have my songs ready to record first. But the other guys, apart from Mike, would mostly write in the studio."
Onstage, though, it took Hayward, the confident-looking guitarist with the velvety voice, nearly two decades to address the adoring crowds. "I never used to speak to the audience at all," he says. "I never really knew what to say onstage. So I only started speaking to the audience in about 1985 and really only since Ray left. He did most of the talking."
As he has for more than three decades, Hayward will let his guitar do the talking in their ritual encore, "Ride My See-Saw."
"Oh, it's just such a natural thing, and it's such a release," he says. "For me, it's right up there with my best-ever guitar riffs. I remember distinctly doing it in the studio, and it was a bit of a jam session that turned into a song. But I love that riff, and I'm very pleased that it's one of the nicer riffs in rock and roll. We enjoy it enough to play it, and it's a very, very easy song to play when you're really tired."
It doesn't appear the Moody Blues are tiring, or retiring. How much longer will they perform? "Well, there are three of us now, so I suspect until one of us falls over," Hayward says. "When there was four, one fell, and we just stepped over him and moved on. It's brutal in this group. But who knows? I'm not sure that I could do it if there were only two left."
WHO Moody Blues
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 14 and 15, NYCB Theatre at Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Rd.
INFO $39.50-$59.50, sold out, call for availability, 516-334-0800, livenation.com
(Tuesday at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Almost all of these songs are usually played on the current tour.)
"The Day We Meet Again"
"Steppin' in a Slide Zone"
"You and Me"
"Say It With Love"
"I Know You're Out There Somewhere"
"The Story in Your Eyes"
"Your Wildest Dreams"
"Isn't Life Strange"
"The Other Side of Life"
"Higher and Higher"
"Are You Sitting Comfortably"
"I'm Just a Singer (in a Rock & Roll Band)"
"Nights in White Satin"
"Ride My See-Saw"
'Nights in White Satin' still timeless
Although the Moody Blues have sold more than 70 million albums, fans keep buying their repackaged greatest hits, such as last year's double-disc, "ICON 2." The linchpin to these compilation successes remains the sustainability of Justin Hayward's "Nights in White Satin," voted one of the top 10 singles of the past millennium in a BBC poll.
"It's a beautiful love song," rock historian Dennis Elsas says. "It has a wonderful melody. Justin's voice is exquisite, and all the elements come together. It has romanticism. There's something incredibly timeless about it, and it sounds good on the radio."
"Nights" also has crossed over onto the big screen, chosen for half a dozen films, including Robert De Niro's "A Bronx Tale" and Martin Scorsese's "Casino." "Journey Into Amazing Caves," which showcased songs by John Lodge and Hayward, was named the best IMAX soundtrack of 2001. Johnny Depp’s new film, “Dark Shadows,” which opens in May, will feature the song as its lead track.
Hayward, who wrote "Nights" at age 19 between love affairs, appreciates the kudos.
"I'm just very flattered that they should have wanted that piece of music," he says. "I was in Australia just before Christmas, and Graeme [Edge] and I went to this radio show, and the guy must have been in his 40s, and he was very sweet and suddenly said, 'Hey, tell me about that "Nights in White Satin." That used to scare me ---- when I was 8 years old. That was ---- creepy, man. What the hell was that about?!'
"Graeme and I were like, 'That's good, that's great!' You know, there's a kind of ambiguity about it. There's a mystery about it."
Hayward still is bemused that at first "Nights" wasn't even a single. "London Records wouldn't release it because they said people couldn't dance to it, so they released 'Tuesday Afternoon,'" he recalls. "Now, curiously enough, like 40 years later, I noticed it's in the top 10 of the Rolling Stone [magazine] best prom dance songs."
"You don't need to dance to it," he says. "You can just hold each other and schlummock around."