“Nights In White Satin”
The Moody Blues
#2 Billboard Hot 100
Gazing at people, some hand in hand
Just what I’m going through they can’t understand
Some try to tell me, thoughts they cannot defend
Just what you want to be, you will be in the end
Quick, it’s 1967 and you’re the head of a big British record label. You need a hit album, and The Beatles just created a musical masterpiece with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Unfortunately, all you can find in your own talent roster is a band that had only one big hit (a cover). Both the founding lead singer and the bassist have recently left. The new lead singer is a lovesick nineteen-year-old. The keyboardist is playing an electronic instrument on the bleeding edge of technology. What’s more, the group is already deep in debt to your label from a string of failed albums. Skeptical yet? The Decca record label certainly was about The Moody Blues, and yet, through a series of happy accidents, “Nights in White Satin” and its showcase album Days of Future Passed became not only big hits but also vanguards of progressive rock. So, how did the band’s success hinge on Belgians, backing tapes, and a bong?
The Moody Blues had their beginnings in 1964 as a Birmingham, England, blues band with drummer Graeme Edge, bassist Clint Warwick, flautist Ray Thomas, keyboardist Mike Pinder and guitarist/lead vocalist Denny Laine. Pinder told Classicbands.com about the origin of the group and their name:
One day Ray Thomas and I…were trying to conjure up an idea of how to get some money to fund the band and also to try and get on a circuit. In Birmingham, one of the big breweries there, that owned all of clubs was called Mitchells and Butlers. They went by the name of M and B. They owned most of the big dance halls. We thought maybe if we named this new band that Ray and I just put together using those initials, we might talk them into coming up with some money to fund us, and also to get on their circuit. Well, that never happened (laughs). But, I did come up with a name.
What I did was, at that time I was very interested in the fact that music changed our moods. I had made the realization then. It had magical qualities to do things like that. We needed an M. So that was really easy to come up with the Moody, but actually I came up with the Blues part first…We were playing rhythm and blues and blues music. In particular, people like Sonny Boy Williamson were touring England, a lot of American blues singers were touring, and we became a backup band for those guys…It was very easy to come up with blues for that, and the moody with an M because of my interest in the mood affecting changes of music.
Their 1964 cover of Bessie Banks’s R&B song “Go Now!” topped the charts in the UK and reached #10 in the US. However, by 1966, the wave of Beatlemania had already swept through England and America. Record buyers’ musical tastes were changing from R&B covers and sappy, feel-good pop songs to more experimental, new genres like psychedelia and progressive rock. Rock wanted to be taken more seriously which left The Moodies with an uncertain future. The next few albums just didn’t seem to have the magic touch (except in France and Belgium) which left the band indebted to Decca to the tune of 5,000 pounds ($123,000 with 2020 inflation). Laine and Warwick soon left, and the band was relegated to the ‘fish-and-chips’ dinner theater circuit in the North of England.
After responding to an ad in Melody Maker (placed by band friend Eric Burdon from The Animals), Justin Hayward took over as lead singer. John Lodge soon replaced Warwick on bass. Hayward had a fine pedigree of musical talent as guitarist and songwriter – having worked with legendary skiffle player Lonnie Donegan. Skiffle was the blues/folk/jazz inspired, proto-rock sound that inspired The Beatles and the resulting British invasion in the 60s. Donegan must have also seen potential in Hayward’s abilities because Hayward pledged all songwriting royalties to Donegan for eight years. This Faustian contract would come back to haunt Hayward later. Hayward’s original songs bolstered the band with sorely needed new material and vigor. As the band continued to release singles, their fanbase became slightly larger. Hayward related to Mitch Lafon how the seeds of imagination were planted:
Almost overnight it changed for us. We got a small following that used to truck us around the West country particularly. And so we started doing our own songs. And then we thought ‘maybe it would be nice..’ (cos on these gigs we were always doing two forty-five minutes sets) ‘…maybe for one of those forty-five minutes we do like a story in song. Like a story of the day in the life of one guy. So we wrote this kind of stage show.
As The Moodies’ experimental set matured, keyboardist Pinder added a secret ‘spice’ to the musical blend – an innovative yet temperamental instrument called a Mellotron. A Mellotron (also called a Chamberlin – invented by Wisconsin inventor Harry Chamberlin.) is basically an old-school sampling keyboard that uses magnetic tape strips instead of microchips and memory to playback real instrument sounds. Recordings of various instruments and their rhythms are installed with different pitches connected to the piano-like keys. If you wanted to play a flute, just install the flute tapes and press a note on the keyboard. A real flute sound comes out (with a bit of tape warble). Play a chord, and you have three harmonic flutes at your command. A famous example is the intro to The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Add enough instrument tapes and you would have a virtual symphony. This made the Mellotron a desirable, cheaper replacement for a backing orchestra if you had someone skilled enough to play it. Some music unions were so afraid of the contraption putting session musicians out of work that they tried to ban it for anything but home and lounge use. Unions even pushed Mellotron operators at nightclubs to charge triple their rates because they were hypothetically playing more than one instrument.
It had other drawbacks as well. Mellotrons are large, bulky beasts that rely on steady electrical current and are prone to frequent tape breakdowns. They also have a limited playback capability due to the length of the tape strip and the necessity to rewind the tape once the key is released. If you play a note longer than eight seconds the tape (and sound) run out. Fortunately for The Moody Blues, Pinder not only knew a lot about Mellotron repair and upkeep but also the secrets to playing one correctly because he used to work at the manufacturer as a technician. His expertise with the instrument gave them the nickname ‘Pindertrons’. Haywood related to Classicbands.com:
He [Pinder] said, “I know this instrument and it could really work.” We found one at the Dunlop Social Center in Birmingham…We found it stuffed up in the corner and paid 25 Pounds for it and brought it back down to London. I can only really speak for myself. It made my songs work with The Moodies and the other guys became much more interested in the songs that Mike and I were doing when we had this.
The technological curiosity was so pivotal to The Moodies’ emerging sound that Rolling Stone’s Encyclopedia of Rock ‘n’ Roll remarked, “If it were not for The Moody Blues purchase of a Mellotron in 1967, The Moody Blues might never have been heard from again.”
One night, as Hayward was between one love affair and the beginning of another, he penned a song about a set of new satin sheets given to him as a gift from a former lover. Composed as an autobiographical ode to ‘the adoration of all women’, he soon shared the song with the rest of the band. Haywood explained to Dutch television:
I wrote “Nights In White Satin” after a gig…I did the basic song and I took it into play to the other guys the next morning where we kept our equipment and I played it through a couple of times and the other guys were like, “Yeah, that’s all right.” Mike [Pinder] said, “Play it again.” [adding the Mellotron]. I played it again and everybody became interested.
Nights in white satin
Never reaching the end
Letters I’ve written
Never meaning to send
The show continued to come together in Belgium where The Moodies spent half a year writing and rehearsing. The production had no real plot and wasn’t operatic because it didn’t have any characters. Instead, a group of songs painted a musical picture that represented a day in the life of the average person. The lyrics were the ink of the imaginary soundscape while the melodies were the watercolors. “Dawn Is A Feeling” began the set along with other mundane events performed as songs to show the passage of time. One afternoon, Hayward smoked a joint and wrote “Tuesday Afternoon” which was soon added to the show. Other songs like “(Evening) Time To Get Away” and “Twilight Time” soon followed, tracking the sun from midday into nightfall. The soaring harmonies of “Nights In White Satin” was the book end that closed the set, yet still lacked a certain something. From time to time, the band would find a local club to demo the songs they’d created. The Belgians loved it. The stage show was becoming a concept album.
Meanwhile, Decca had two problems. Stereophonic recordings in the UK were limited mostly to classical or “easy listening” music, which meant limited revenue for the label. Decca also made the new, expensive stereo players meant to play those records – but they weren’t selling well either because only highbrow or wealthy Brits bought them. Nearly everyone else stuck with their cheaper, monaural record players which were incompatible with the new stereo technology. Pop hits had been released in stereo already but usually in an uninspiring, almost novelty recording style where sound was left, right, or center only. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper had already set the bar high by experimenting with 3-D sound fields. How could Decca push more wax and tin onto the increasingly savvy UK buyer?
The answer was the “Deramic Sound System” or DSS. Decca’s experimental/imprint label Deram wanted to push HiFi boundaries beyond The Beatles by layering multiple 2-channel stereo recordings onto a pair of 4-track master recorders. This gave engineers the freedom to place microphones more strategically in the studio to bring out higher highs and lower lows. It also created a wider, immersive ‘you-are-there’ soundscape that stereophonic listeners could appreciate (which would in turn sell more players). The plan was for DSS to showcase a rock band together with an orchestra playing Dvořák’s New World Symphony. HiFi recordings wanted to be taken as seriously as rock did. Serendipity soon stepped in. Haywood explained to Mitch Lafon:
At quite chance, Decca approached us with this whole thing about Dvořák and that idea…It was Peter Knight who was the orchestral arranger that was gonna do the real Dvořák between our bits on this demonstration record that came to see us…and afterwards he said to us ‘I’m not sure if its gonna work this way ’round. I really like the songs that you did in that first set. Why do we do it the other way, ’round. You do those songs and then I’ll give orchestral arrangements…links between them.’ We said ‘That’s great by us’. Of course we have a chance to record our own songs at last and then the executive producer that was in charge of that particular series [Hugh Mendl] he went along with it very bravely.
END OF PART ONE