As a guitarist-singer-songwriter for The Moody Blues, Justin Hayward is one of the founding fathers of progressive rock.
The string of albums that The Moody Blues released between 1967 and 1972 – Days of Future Passed, In Search of the Lost Chord, To Our Children’s Children’s Children, On the Threshold of a Dream, A Question of Balance, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and Seventh Sojourn – are all-time classics.
Hayward wrote or co-wrote many of the band’s biggest hits and most enduring songs – Nights in White Satin, Tuesday Afternoon, Visions of Paradise, Never Comes the Day, Are You Sitting Comfortably?, Question, It’s Up to You, The Story in Your Eyes, The Voice, Your Wildest Dreams, and I Know You’re Out There Somewhere.
Spirits of the Western Sky – his first album in 17 years – has just been released to wide critical acclaim and the Moody Blues embark on an extensive UK and US tour, beginning in June.
In addition, The Moodies will release the box set Timeless Flight: The Voyage Continues – on June 3. The box boasts 11 CDs, 6 DVDs, a 120-page book, posters, and other goodies.
Rock Cellar Magazine caught up with Justin Hayward to discuss The Moody Blues, the creation of the best songs that he wrote for the group, the band’s performance at the infamous 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, meditation, drugs, and his brand new record – Spirits of the Western Sky.
Rock Cellar Magazine: There’s a great YouTube film of The Moody Blues performing at the famous 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Can you even describe what it was it like performing in front of roughly 600,000 people?
Justin Hayward: It’s so vast that you’re just concerned about what’s happening on stage, really. It’s almost too big; it’s incomprehensible the number of people, so you just have to try and think about your immediate area and vicinity.
RCM: Did you meet or hang out with any of the other great musicians who performed that day? The Doors were there, Miles Davis . . .
JH: I didn’t meet Miles Davis – but I knew a lot of the musicians anyways because in those days, there were so many people on the bill when you would play. These were the days before big concerts where just one band would play. So I knew a lot of the people anyway.
RCM: Do you have a particular memory of one person you saw that day?
JH: I was particularly taken with Joni Mitchell.
RCM: Didn’t she have a near-breakdown on stage? Did you witness that?
JH: From what I could see, somebody jumped up on stage – and it was very difficult for her.
(The Isle of Wight) wasn’t a very pleasant festival. People talk about it now as if it was all love and good vibes. That’s absolutely not true. It was almost the opposite – it was violent, difficult, and unpleasant. — Justin Hayward; Moody Blues
JH (cont) : Nobody was getting paid. And I remember Free really getting angry with the promoter, just taking their money from him and (laughs) holding him up against the wall. It was very difficult. I think that some of the Americans artist might have been paid beforehand, but none of the rest of us got paid.
The fence came down, and it turned into a free concert – which just meant it was chaos. Any security disappeared – and anyone official disappeared. It was just a free-for-all.
RCM: Was it a nightmare for the Moody Blues as well?
JH: It was rather different for us because we just had a Number 1 record with Question in the UK. For us, the crowd was particularly receptive and empathetic. They were ready for a good old-fashioned English group, really. They were very good to us.
RCM: Question was originally written as 2 songs – a fast song and a slow song. Which song came first?
JH: I think the slow song came first.
RCM: What made you think of combining them?
JH: Because it was 3:00 in the morning, and I was due to have a song for the rest of the group to work on at 10:00 the same morning in North London. It was just sheer pressure.
RCM: Was it a normal practice for the band members to hold each other to deadlines?
JH: The other guys would expect that I would have something to kick off the recording. And my songs were always done first, so the others could relax and think about what I’d done and what they could do. Some of the guys would write after that in the studio, and I always did my stuff at home beforehand.
With Question there was some time on that weekend. There were 2 days recording time that we took a few weeks before, and as it approached, I realized that I needed to have something.
RCM: Did coming up with the first batch of songs mean that you were the one setting the themes of the concept albums?
JH: Rarely did I do that; in fact, I usually stayed out of that stuff. I’d be part of the discussion, of course – we were all there and contributing to it. But that wasn’t really my thing. It was Graeme [Edge] and Mike [Pinder] who did most of that – just the concepts.
Days of Future Passed was kind of different because we all agreed to do the story of a day in the life of one guy. But usually it was Graeme who did the writing piece of spoken words to tie it all together. Or afterwards – when we’d finish recording a bunch of songs – when we thought, “What could pull them together as a theme?”
RCM: On the Threshold of a Dream. Was that one where you knew the concept at the beginning – or did the concept evolve as you were writing?
JH: What’s the concept? Pete Townshend always said that he loved that, too, as a concept album, and he feels that we were probably before him in doing concept albums. It was a lovely title, but what does it mean? It’s rather vague, probably something to do with enlightenment and the search for it. Further than that, I can’t say that there’s a story.
RCM: Let’s talk about your new solo record, Spirits of the Western Sky. You’ve said that you hold as a truism that the voice should be the center of the recording?
JH: Yes, that’s something that I’ve learned on the road all of these years: if you get the voice right, the rest should fit in around that; the rest should only compliment that.
Sometimes in The Moodies, we had a style of recording where we would work so much on the track and not really be aware of what the vocal could add to the track. We would be concerned about making an amazing track – and that sometimes diverted things.
For me, when I listen to a record, it’s always the voice that leads me into it. Yes, you can have a great groove and a great track but if there’s a voice coming along, it has to be the center of the whole feeling of the record.
RCM: How do vocal harmonies play into that for you?
JH: I’m not sure whether you can learn vocal harmony; I was never taught that. It’s just that I always knew that stuff instinctively, probably because I was just interested in it. The Everly Brothers were the real inspiration for that for me, but it was always just something that I instinctively understood.
RCM: How did you layer the vocals for the Moody Blues?
JH: I would be part of the design of the vocal harmonies when the group was still actively singing together. It was always difficult for the group to find a 4-part harmony. Ray would normally be on the bottom, Mike would be above him, then it would be me, and then John would be on the top.
RCM: Do you see perhaps a thread connecting the Moody Blues’ albums to your new album Spirits of the Western Sky?
JH: The relationship, of course, is me; that doesn’t change. It’s just that probably I can be a little bit more personal about my own acquaintances and relationships with people that are around me and have been around me over the years. They’re in this record. I do think New Horizons would have fit on this record.
RCM: You’ve said that you and Ray Thomas wrote Visions of Paradise in a broom closet at Decca Studios in London? That’s hard to imagine – can you describe those sessions a bit?
JH: You have to start with the Mellotron that Mike Pinder was playing. The way he got that sound was by bouncing between machines. We were only on 4-track machines, going up to 8-track for Lost Chord, so he would bounce the whole thing across many times to get that layered sound. That would be very time consuming for him and Derek Varnals, the engineer. They would work on it together.
Meanwhile, other guys were writing in the studio going [imitates a high-pitched, wavering Mellotron] through a progression of chords. So Ray and I found this broom cupboard that was attached to the studio. I’d go there with my acoustic guitar and flute, and we would write those things. It had a sound-proofed door so that the cleaners didn’t disturb us. It also had an entrance from the corridor that was also sound-proofed. It was a sealed little place. Everything that we wrote together – including Visions of Paradise – all of those things were written there.
RCM: Who would write what when you and Ray worked together on a song?
JH: It would usually be my chord sequence and a bit of a melody – and Ray would always have a couple of really nice lines, lyrically.
RCM: What do you remember about coming up with Never Comes the Day?
JH: It was quite a difficult time in my life. It was a real painful situation for someone who was as young as me then. I wasn’t quite sure about my own life and what I was doing and what was weird and where I was living and the people around me, including the people in the group. I was just kind of questioning everything and at the same time trying to live out some of the philosophies of the time. It was a time of strong philosophical roads and routes that people were writing about. It was a kind of age of enlightenment and searching for enlightenment. There were a lot of books written about that. We were all trying to find it.
RCM: The song is moody and slow, but it’s also happy – in the fast section that’s mainly just a straightforward G chord with a little C thrown in. Why make that transition?
JH: I felt it needed to build to something that was happier and more optimistic. It just came naturally to me. I like dynamics in songs: light and shade. I liked starting quiet and getting loud. And Ray’s harmonica I particularly liked. Mike didn’t play Mellotron on that – he couldn’t find a line for it; I knew what it was. I loved everything he played, but sometimes, rather than having me tell him what to play – like on Tuesday Afternoon on the piano – I’d just play it. And I played the Mellotron on that as well.
RCM: It’s been written that the title for Are You Sitting Comfortably? was suggested by [Oliver! Composer/Lyricist] Lionel Bart. True?
JH: Lionel was a very good friend; he looked after me and my girlfriend when I first came to London. His house was always an open house, and I was happy to return the favor later in life when he came upon hard times.
There was a children’s radio program. I think it was called Children’s Hour. It opened with the words, “Are you sitting comfortably? and I’ll begin.” It was a phrase that was in every child’s vocabulary in the UK. Lionel said, “I always thought about using that as a title. Why don’t you use it as a title?” I said, “OK, that’s a good idea.” The song’s about storytelling, but it was elevated or changed to a bit of a psychedelic story.
RCM: What about It’s Up to You?
JH: That’s my song. I like the guitar feel on it, and I like the phrase, the idea. I built it around that. It was about a love affair I was in at the time. I’d not long had the Red Gibson 335 and was really enjoying it. The truth in a song lies in how listeners’ put their own meaning into it – in how a listener or a reader interprets it, what they get out of it themselves and what they can bring to it.
RCM: What role did meditation have in The Moody Blues? Did you or any other members of the band practice it?
JH: Yeah, we did. We went to the TM Center at the same time that The Beatles did. Four of us went: me, Mike, Graeme, and Ray. We went through the whole process.
RCM: Did you meet the Maharishi?
JH: No – we didn’t have the money! It took a week’s wages – and it came to us coming up to the desk and being told, “Now, my sons, you know the costs for the whole exercise will be a week’s wages.” Mine were about $15 – which meant I had to get to the back of the queue.
RCM: So one has to pay for enlightenment?
JH: (laughs) You had to pay for that, yes – whereas if you were The Beatles or The Stones, it was like 30,000 pounds. So it depends who you got for your initiation. It was very much about how much money you got. Some people who didn’t have much money were along for the ride because they were very important. Donovan – my good friend – was there. I know Donovan didn’t have any money, but it was important to have him there by the Maharishi’s side.
[Read Rock Cellar Magazine’s Exclusive Interview with Donovan HERE]
RCM: You’ve said that Ravi Shankar and George Harrison inspired you to pick up the sitar. Was that a difficult instrument for you to learn?
JH: The sitar is very, very easy, as long as you tune it up right! 1 string. Once you tune up the other 18 strings right, it will resonate. But the time things that they play… we did a gig in London with a band called the Indo-Jazz Fusions with John McLaughlin and Ravi Shankar in the same band. Those time signatures that they used to play were very complicated. So to learn those ragas was very complicated, but to actually play the instrument was very easy.
RCM: Do you still play the sitar?
JH: I don’t because mine’s not around; it’s in a rock museum. But I would if I had a big place and I could just reach out to that stuff. But I live in a small apartment now.
RCM: What about the role of drugs in the journey inwards?
JH: When I first came to London when I was 16 or 17, hashish was very cheap – much cheaper than alcohol – and most of the musicians did it. I would say hashish more than marijuana because marijuana was more an American thing. But hashish was readily available, usually distributed by the police because they would do huge busts and then – you know – they’re not going to destroy it, are they? You would score usually from someone in the police.
I’m only talking for myself. John never did anything like that. But I did and found it very useful – and I really enjoyed it as a drug experience.
And then 4 of us – Graeme, Ray, Mike, and myself – did our first acid at the same time. And that impressed us greatly. I wouldn’t say that it inspired us, but it added to what we wanted to write. It was another experience that we could write about.
RCM: Did you record or write when you were on hashish or acid?
JH: Oh, sure – from around the age of 16 to 45; it was a part of my life. I never really enjoyed alcohol, so that didn’t come into it. Alcohol wasn’t conducive. It’s like cocaine is not really conducive to making music. Some things are – as long as you’re in control of it. I find that in London and the society that I was in through the ’60s and ’70s and into the ’80s, it was the weak people who let the drugs control them and fell by the wayside. As long as you can control it and have a perspective on it I would never condemn anybody for doing it.
RCM: Are there any specific authors or poets that were – or still are – inspiring to your creative process?
JH: I would say yes there were – but there’s no point in singling them out. They’re not sort of quoted in the lyrics. I would always have a lot of poetry with me – classical poetry, as well as the Romantic poets. From Yeats to Keats to Rupert Brooke and Rossetti – they were always around me – more than fictional writers or philosophy writers.
RCM: The Moody Blues are set to release a box set – Timeless Flight: The Journey Continues – in June. This set drastically improves upon the original CD releases, would you agree?
JH: They rushed into transferring our albums into the digital domain – with badly made processes. They didn’t use the vinyl masters – they took it from copies of the pre-masters. They were transcripted 3 or 4 times already before the actual mastering for the vinyl, and the equipment that they did it on was particularly cheap and bad. It took me a long while to realize what was wrong and why the digital versions weren’t as good as the vinyl versions.
RCM: With the Moody Blues, and on your new album there is an earnest search for truth, and a willingness to deeply reveal your spiritual thoughts and feelings. Do you see that in artists today?
JH: I think that there are earnest artists out there. Older people assume that popular music now is a product – only a product – and that there’s nothing else there to look at and investigate. They think that everything is X Factor or The Voice or something like that – that’s the total sum of pop music.
But it’s not. There are a lot of great singers and writers out there and young kids who are doing their own thing and revealing themselves in that way. It’s just that there’s so much music out there now that it’s harder to locate.
You know, when I was younger, there was a river of music, with clear banks and divine styles, some of which I knew were for me – and some that I knew that weren’t, really. It’s not that I didn’t like them; it’s that they didn’t interest me. And now, it’s sort of swamped. Music is everywhere that you’re trying to wade through. It’s very difficult to identify.
But I think there are great new artists out there that are revealing themselves and speaking from the heart.
RCM: Such as?
JH: (laughs) I knew that question was coming along! I can always tell you what interests me this week – that’s as far as I can say. It would be Divine Fits and people like that. And the guy from Bon Iver. But we’re just talking about this week. Last week and next week, it will be different.