“Nights In White Satin”

Part Two

All that was left to begin the production was to find an orchestra. Fortunately Decca had its own anonymous session musicians from its many classical albums, which temporarily became the fictitious London Festival Orchestra. The Moodies had all their songs in place so conductor/arranger Peter Knight wove original neoclassical interludes between the stage numbers. To successfully capture the rich tones of the orchestra, microphone placement was key. Bassist John Lodge told Uncut how it benefited the album:

Every instrument on that record has its own space. Nothing gets in the way of anything else. Because everything has its own space, everything sounds bigger. I think that’s what gives it its lushness, and the dynamics. Your imagination takes over. Your brain is filling in the picture. It was like we were recording in CinemaScope. We used to talk about that. ‘How wide is the colour on this song?’

The album still needed a fitting beginning and ending. Drummer Graeme Edge explained to Classicbands.com:

The morning section seemed a bit empty, so I wrote what eventually became “Morning Glory” and “Late Lament.” To avoid being distracted, I sat in our Volkswagen van and wrote it on the inside of a torn-open Players 20 cigarette packet. I tried to write some words for someone else to put music to, as a song, but poetry has a rhythm and meter which is difficult to turn into a song. So our producer [Tony Clarke] said, ‘well, that’s great the way it is. Just put it down as a poem.’

Pinder was tapped to recite the two poems, with the melancholy “Late Lament” spoken at the end of “Nights”. Hayward remembered it was a no-brainer to have Pinder speaking on the album:

I loved that spoken word, because Pinder had such a beautiful voice…You could tell by the girls that fell for him – you could hear it. “007 Pinder” we used to call him because he could just do it with a few words. But I thought it worked really well.

Cold-hearted orb that rules the night

Removes the colours from our sight

Red is grey is yellow white

But we decide which is right

And which is an illusion

Knight’s soulful arrangement combines with tender flourishes from the symphony to give the end of the evening (and album) its sense of completeness. Strings swirl upwards as the orchestra builds to a dramatic crescendo. Edge’s gong peals out, fading into nothing. Another day has ended. Yet, if the listener restarts the album from side one, the sound of the gong slowly rises from nothing to full dawning. A new day begins with “Morning Glory”.

Pinprick holes in a colorless sky

Let insipid figures of light pass by

The mighty light of ten thousand suns

Challenges infinity and is soon gone

Nighttime, to some a brief interlude

To others the fear of solitude

Brave Helios, wake up your steeds

Bring the warmth the countryside needs

The album only took a few days to record since The Moodies recorded their songs independently from the orchestra. By week’s end, the record was ready for an audience. Hayward remembered the big reveal to the record execs:

We were so excited about this album…We put some speakers up in the studio and invite [sic] our friends and the people from Decca down. We turned the lights out and played “Days of Future Passed” from the beginning to the end. It was like a concert in the dark. Then it finished, the lights went on and you could see a smile on everyone’s face as though something magic had happened. I can still get that feeling now. We knew it was right – I’m not talking about commercial success, I’m talking about what the Moody Blues wanted, a culmination of what we’d done for a year.

Not everyone in the studio was smiling. Decca was an old, well-established label, and the directors wanted Dvořák. Fortunately, the US version of Decca (ironically named London Records) and producer Mendl heard hit potential and pushed the parent label for the album’s release as-is. Begrudgingly, Decca agreed. The Moodies felt confident that “Nights” and Days would be breakouts, but UK buyers were a bit ‘meh’ about the single-–only reaching #29 on the November 1967 charts. It was even worse in the US. “Nights” didn’t even make it on the Hot 100. Rolling Stone gave The Moodies a tepid review, saying their music “is constantly marred by one of the most startlingly saccharine conceptions of ‘beauty’ and ‘mysticism’ that any rock group has ever affected.” Naturally, “Nights” charted at #6 in Belgium. Why didn’t it chart higher in other places? Part of the problem lay in the default template that pop songs on the radio couldn’t be longer than three minutes. Lodge explained to Classicbands:

The record company weren’t sure where to market it, because we didn’t have any gaps between the tracks so the disc jockeys couldn’t easily play one track. ‘Nights In White Satin’ was six minutes long, so that wasn’t going to be a single as far as they could see, especially in America. So it went against all the rules of ‘pop music’.

“Tuesday Afternoon” didn’t chart in the UK at all. Hayward began to feel that the album and band would be relegated to avant-garde London art parties. However, another blessing of good timing was waiting in the wings. Eight weeks after the album’s release, The Moodies were performing at a music convention in Cannes, France. Hayward related what happened next to SuperSeventies:

The Supremes were due to go on. The show was supposed to be an hour of live Eurovision television, and something happened. The Supremes’ backing track didn’t turn up, and it was complicated by the fact that something was wrong with the entire tape system. Everybody that was miming had a problem. So the producer of the show came rushing around saying, “We need an act to play live.” Nobody was prepared to do that. None of the American acts could work without their backing band, but we said we’d do it. We went on and wound up with forty-five minutes of live Eurovision time. “Nights in White Satin” was one of the songs we performed. The next week it was Number 1 [In France], that fast.

Still, the US market proved hard to crack but times were changing. Just a few months earlier, The Doors had released the 7:06 album cut of “Light My Fire”. LA DJ Dave Diamond was one of the first to play the full version on the air, which helped boost the song to #1. Longer running songs from other acts suddenly made their way onto station playlists, sometimes used for ulterior purposes. Edge remembered:

We were about the [sic] release another single, ‘Voices In The Sky’, when the American record company got in touch and said, hold off a minute, you’ve got a ‘breakout’ – a local city hit. It was going absolutely crazy in Seattle and had started to spread. Many years later, we discovered the DJ who started it all. He was on 12 till 4am – the graveyard shift. He told us that he wanted to go smoke his bong, so he went down the authorised playlist and picked the longest record he was allowed to play – ‘Nights In White Satin’.

“Nights” was re-released in 1972 and this time went to #2 on the Hot 100 and #9 in the UK. Days reached #3 on the Billboard 200 and sold over a million copies. In retrospect, Rolling Stone added Days to its list of most essential albums of 1967.

Sadly, Hayward didn’t receive any royalties from “Nights” or Days due to his onerous contract as a teen with Donegan. In fact, Hayward didn’t get paid for any songwriting work until he was 25. Fortunately, The Moodies’ success continued into the new decade with Hayward writing 20 of the band’s 27 post-1967 singles. By the late 1970s, The Moody Blues had released several popular albums like In Search of the Lost Chord and Seventh Sojourn. Hayward’s song “Forever Autumn” for a musical adaptation of War of the Worlds reached the UK top five in 1978. By 1980, the group changed their sound into a modern, synthpop style with more emphasis on synthesizers than Mellotron. A strained relationship with Pinder led to his departure and introduction of Swiss keyboardist Patrick Moraz of Yes. 1981’s Long Distance Voyager became a #1 smash with both “The Voice” and “Gemini Dreams” reaching the Top 20. The release of The Other Side Of Life with “Your Wildest Dreams” in 1986 was another big seller earning The Moody Blues the honor of having a Top Ten single in three successive decades. The release of Sur la Mer in 1988 was the last of their Top 40 singles with “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”. Flautist Ray Thomas passed away at age 76 in January, 2018. Shortly afterwards, The Moody Blues were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Occasionally, the band still reunites with Hayward, Edge and Lodge to play cruises or tour dates. Their latest studio album December is their 16th. The Moodies have sold 70 million albums worldwide and have 18 platinum and gold LP’s.

The Moody Blues are pioneers of the progressive rock format with experimental ideas like longer, more philosophical songs, the creative use of orchestral music, mixed time-signatures, and instrument proficiency. This would later open the doors to future musical odysseys with rock bands like Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Pink Floyd. Also, most pop albums up to this point had a brief pause or empty space between tracks to signal the end of one song and the beginning of a new one. The Days concept album however became an orchestral pop ‘suite’ of songs – crossfading from one scene to another along a central theme without a silence buffer. Another innovation of Days was the successful fusion of symphony with rock- adding a level of sophistication and a lusher audio palette that record buyers had not heard before. Did DSS pay off for Decca? Sort of. As production costs declined, stereo player purchases were easier to finance by the general public. Still, Days was often sold at a discount to attract new HiFi buyers. 8-track recorders quickly swept through the recording industry, leaving the 4-track DSS system obsolete and abandoned by 1969. Deram continued its experimental artist lineup into the late 70s, including signing David Bowie to his first album deal.

Over 50 years after its initial release, Days and “Nights” still influence music and culture today. It charted three times in the UK and sold several million copies. Astronaut ‘Hoot’ Gibson brought Days with him on the Atlantis shuttle space craft for numerous missions and it became a favorite of fellow NASA astronauts. Popular films Casino and A Bronx Tale feature “Nights” in important scenes. The Moodies even voiced themselves in the “Viva Ned Flanders” episode of The Simpsons. The Mellotron became a niche instrument that outlived the fear and distrust of the music unions. It caught on with creative acts like Marvin Gaye, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder- who liked the way the Mellotron could sweeten or add color to their albums. Its distinctive sound made a comeback in the mid 90s with Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” to name a few. Thanks to today’s technology, you can squeeze a heavy Mellotron machine into a cheap, software plug-in for computer based audio workstations. Also, symphonic rock has become a thriving sub-genre with many standouts such as Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra, Eldorado by ELO and Metallica’s S&M album with the San Francisco Symphony.

The Guardian wrote that The Moody Blues are psychedelia’s forgotten heroes and “sang of real emotions, such as loneliness and love, and trying to find one’s place in the world. And they presented their distinctive brand of everyman existentialism with infinitely more joie de vivre than, say, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, ELP or King Crimson.” On the eve of their Rock Hall induction, Rolling Stone asked Edge what makes “Nights” such a timeless song:

I think it’s the joy, the spirit that makes it [resonate]. It’s not spiritual, but from the spirit – uplifting joy and happiness. It’s a young boy discovering that he loves somebody for the first time and he just wants to shout it out from the hills – and shout it out again!

Cause I love you

Yes, I love you

Oh how I love you!

“Nights In White Satin”

The Moody Blues

#2 Billboard Hot 100

November 1972

Part One

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.