Thursday, January 15, 2015

An EXCLUSIVE interview with THE MOODY BLUES' Ray Thomas!

True Story:
The Magnificent Moodies turns 50!

An EXCLUSIVE interview 
The Moody Blues’ 

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

                In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, The Moody Blues helped usher in a new era of music. The lush production and sophisticated arrangements of their recordings during this period have led some to call them the pioneers of Progressive Rock. Others have stated that their haunting melodies and soaring string arrangements were precursors to Classical crossover recordings that would infiltrate the charts decades later. However, The Moody Blues were, and have always been, one of the greatest British Rock bands of their generation and should be mentioned in the same breath as The Kinks, The Who, The Dave Clark Five, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Tracks like “Nights In White Satin,” "For My Lady", “Tuesday Afternoon,” "Legend Of A Mind," “Ride My See-Saw,” "Simple Game," and “I’m Just A Singer (In A Rock And Roll Band)” helped define the Classic Rock era, but they didn’t fade away like many of their contemporaries – the band has existed in one form or another for 50 years and is embarking on a tour in 2015, which celebrates their long and storied career.
                Every story has a beginning, and the recording career of The Moody Blues began two years before “Nights In White Satin” made them superstars. At the time, The Moody Blues was an edgy, R&B band from Birmingham that consisted of members of other bands from the short-lived Brumbeat music scene – guitarist/vocalist Denny Laine, bassist Clint Warwick, keyboardist Mike Pinder, flautist–percussionist Ray Thomas, and drummer Graeme Edge. Denny provided the majority of the lead vocals, while Clint, Mike and Ray were no slouches in that department, adding a dense layer of backing vocals that was unique for a British R&B band (each of these members also provided the occasional lead vocal as well). The Moody Blues released the single, “Go Now” – a cover of a track written by Larry Banks & Milton Bennett and originally recorded by Bessie Banks – in November of 1964. By January 1965, it was #1 in the British charts. Though they had enough original material (chiefly by Laine and Pinder) and covers to match the quality of “Go Now,” the band’s next few singles reached the Top 40, but did not achieve the same amount of success. Their debut album, The Magnificent Moodies, was released in July of ’65 and showcased a hard-working band filled with grit, grind and grease. With a sound informed by Rock and Rhythm & Blues, The Moodies were sorely under-appreciated at the time. The following year, both Denny and Clint left the band. Losing two main forces would have meant the end of any other band, but The Moodies regrouped with guitarist/vocalist Justin Hayward and bassist/vocalist John Lodge and the rest is history… (NOTE: Denny Laine would later join Paul McCartney in Wings in 1971 and was the only other constant member – apart from Paul and Linda – until their dissolution a decade later.)
Though the band’s official website barely acknowledges their debut album, The Magnificent Moodies is a pure delight, especially the expanded edition available now through Esoteric/Cherry Red. The single disc edition contains an amazing selection of bonus non-album material, but the double disc edition is a goldmine for fans. This deluxe version contains rare BBC sessions, unreleased recordings originally intended for their second proper album and much more. Anyone with a passing interest in British Rock and R&B will find a plethora of gems on this release. Not only does the album come to life in this remastered mono edition, but all the extras offer even more insight and understanding into this early line-up of the band.
   Stephen SPAZ Schnee had the opportunity to chat with former Moody Blues member Ray Thomas about this period in the band’s career and their transition into the ground-breaking recordings that made them legends…

STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: The Magnificent Moodies has been reissued numerous times, but this is really the definitive version. How are you feeling about this release and the reaction you’ve been receiving so far?
RAY THOMAS: Oh, I’m absolutely over the moon, as we say. We found all of this stuff. Don’t forget – it’s been half a century. It’s a long time and there’s a lot of music gone under the bridge since then. For instance, we found “23rd Psalm.” My wife Lee has been doing an awful lot of work on this… And I said, “Well, I can’t remember recording the 23rd Psalm,” and so we get in touch with Denny, and he says, “I can’t remember ever recording the 23rd Psalm,” and the same went for Mike. I can’t ever remember doing that and there are several other songs… “How Can We Hang On To A Dream,” I thought was absolutely great. What’s been knocking me out, to put it bluntly, I thought the band was bloody good! You know, I’m talking about the original band and some of the vocal backings, I think are great! I don’t want to shoot my own trumpet too loud, but….
SPAZ: Or your own flute….
RAY: (Chuckles) There’s loads of stuff, but I found a way to listen to the whole damn thing.

SPAZ: So you were surprised by just the sheer amount of material that was found?
RAY: Yeah. We did an awful lot of television shows and radio shows in France because “Go Now” was a big hit in France and so was “Bye Bye Bird,” and we did a hell of a lot of television shows and so we were trying to get all of them to put on this box set. But the French, being the French, they wanted so much money to release these things. Simply, it just isn’t worth it and so we had to ditch that idea, which is a bit of a drag, you know.

SPAZ: The band at this time was a lot edgier than you eventually became - more Blues-based. What was the music scene like in Birmingham at the time?
RAY: Everybody was saying that Brumbeat from Birmingham was going to be the next thing. Well, of course, it didn’t happen. And there was something like about 250 bands working around the Midlands, and they were so disillusioned. Bands were breaking up left, right, and center – bands that had been together for quite a few years, you know? And so Mike and I said, “Let’s put together what essentially would be a Birmingham super group.” And, so we approached Denny Laine who had a band that was very popular in Birmingham called The Diplomats and Denny was living at Graeme Edge’s at the time because he had had some blowup with his mom and dad and so Graeme’s parents put him up for a while. And so, Denny said, “If I join the band, I want Graeme to join the band.” And so we said fine. I mean, we knew Graeme from when he was in The Avengers. Then there was four of us and I got in touch with John Lodge because I wanted him on bass. John’s a year younger than me, and we’d been through college. By trade I’m a toolmaker and so is John, but I’d finished my apprenticeship. John’s dad said to him exactly what my dad said to me. “This is a hit or miss sort of business,” he said, “so finish your apprenticeship, and then you’ve got something if it doesn’t work out.” I mean, after being in a Rock and Roll band, the last thing you want to do is go work in a factory in any industry! John’s dad said the same, word for word and so John had got another year to go on his apprenticeship and he was going to college one day a week, and so John took his advice, which was good advice. So, John couldn’t join the band. We got in touch with Clint Warwick, and he became the bass player. From starting the band ‘til “Go Now” being #1 was a relatively short time. So, Clint carried on with the band quite loyally. A lot of hard work getting us to that stage. It wasn’t until he left and Denny left that we started the new band, and I got John in.

SPAZ: When you really listen, the harmonies are unique for an R & B-based band. Was that intentional or was it a natural, organic thing?
RAY: Well, it was quite natural. Clint sang, and I was the lead singer in another band – Mike sang as well – so we had four vocalists in the band. There was a lot of R & B stuff where they’ve got vocal backing and so we just took a leaf off that book. In both versions of the band, we’ve always had very strong vocal backing.

SPAZ: The repertoire seems to be split between covers and songs by Denny and Mike. Was the intention to focus on originals or were you pretty happy to mix the two?
RAY: Well, the thing was, a lot of Magnificent Moodies was the stage act. And then as Mike and Denny wrote stuff, we just introduced it, and that’s how that sort of came about. There’s one song that Denny wrote, I think Mike was involved as well, called “Stop” and that I think, for the time, it was quite unique. That’s what we liked about it. There was a lot of stuff that didn’t get released, which is going to be on this. I didn’t realize just how much stuff we recorded.

SPAZ: Later on, people were going to focus on Justin and John, but from the outside, the dynamic of this version of the band didn’t really seem to have a leader.  
RAY: Neither band did really. There was no leader in the band. We always used to joke it’s a communist band with capitalistic overtones (chuckles). We used to put everything to the vote. Although, sometimes when you got voted down, you went along with it because that’s what most of the people in the band wanted to do, that’s what we did.  And you normally got talked into it anyway.

SPAZ: How were you introduced to the song “Go Now”?
RAY: It was a DJ in the states and he was a friend of one of the guys for our management company. And, they (management) said, “If you come across material, can you send it out?” That’s how we came across James Brown. We were doing things like “I Go Crazy” and all that stuff. By then, we’d moved to London and all that stuff hadn’t been heard over here. And so, The Marquee was THE gig to play in London. Manfred Mann had a night of their own. Paul Jones (Manfred Mann vocalist) came down with laryngitis and we were a working band all the time, and we just happened to have a night off. So, the Marquee people got in touch with our management and said, “Do you think your band will step in and do these nights at The Marquee to cover for Manfred Mann?” So we said yeah, because we just wanted to get our foot in the door. We were playing “I Go Crazy” and a lot of Rhythm and Blues, which really hadn’t been heard, you know? And we went down an absolute storm. They loved us and so they offered us our own night. And I remember being in The Marquee and this box of singles turned up. We were rehearsing in there during the afternoon of our show, which was great because now we’ve got somewhere to rehearse, as well. We were going through these singles, there were all sorts, and we came across “Go Now.”  It had Bessie Banks singing on it, which was a lot slower, a lot lighter, but we thought it was the right song. The Marquee was just starting to build their studio in the back of the club, and we said, “Can we go in and record it?” and they said, “The studio is not finished, the control room is, but the builders are still in there.” There were bags of plaster, there was ladders, spades, shovels, picks, scaffolding… you name it. So we said, “Oh, we’ll go in after the workmen are finished for the day.” And so we went in at night and recorded it. If you saw us climbing out of the bloody building material to get to the microphone and all this… but you know, it worked out. It was a huge hit.

SPAZ: Was the poppier material on the album the direction that the band wanted to go in? “Go Now” obviously was a huge hit, and I notice some other great post-album tracks that seemed to be going in a less R&B-based direction.
RAY: Yeah, that’s basically where Denny and Mike were going and it sort of progressed from there right through to the new band. You know, I think if Denny hadn’t have left, we’d have gone in the general direction as we did with the new band anyway. When Denny left, he got a string quartet together as a backing band. We all were going in that direction.

SPAZ: Do you think that this incarnation of the band – if maybe Denny had stuck around, that perhaps you would have achieved a little more success than you had at that point?
RAY: No, I don’t think so. I mean, Denny really wanted to go solo and Clint left. His wife didn’t want him on the road because he was married with a couple of kids. And so when Denny left, so did Clint, which just left me, Mike, and Graeme. And then John and Justin came in. Justin is a good ballad singer. I don’t think we would have had the success that we ended up having if we hadn’t changed.

SPAZ: You didn’t write much material in these early days. When did you finally feel comfortable as a songwriter?
RAY: Actually, it was the onset of the second band – everybody was writing. Everybody was trying it. Some of the stuff got thrown in the bin by everybody… especially when you may have smoked some illicit stuff. You think, “This is fantastic!” and then you listen to it in the morning and think this is a heap of shit. In the bin. When we got the opportunity to do Days Of Future Passed, because they wouldn’t give us studio time, our intention was to do that live as just one piece of music, basically. But we got lucky there, because Decca wanted a demonstration disc made for Deramic Stereo Sound, wall to wall stereo. I mean, prior to that, a lot of people – like the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper, it’s either coming out of one speaker or it’s coming out of the other, but Deramic Stereo Sound, you could place the sound in between the speakers. It was quite a revolutionary thing. They wanted a demonstration disc made so they could sell their sound system. We had to work with Tony Clark, who was a Decca producer. He really stuck his neck out. He said the label only wanted a demonstration record. We said, “Yeah, but we’ve got this idea for a Classical Rock album,” and so Peter Knight (conductor/arranger) said that sounds interesting. We said, “They’ll still get a Rock & Roll band on there and they’ll still get the orchestra.” But, it isn’t exactly what they wanted. He said, “Well, I’ll go along with it” and Tony Clark said, “So will I.” I mean, he could’ve lost his job over it. Every Tuesday, all the producers would bring in what they’d done that week and all these old men would sit around the table and these guys would play what they’d recorded during the week and then they’d decide, “Yes, we will release that and we’ll put that amount of money into promoting that” and all that shit. And so, Tony put it on and they sat through Days of Future Passed. They sat through it and they all said, “What the hell is it? It’s not a Rock & Roll album, it’s not a classical album.” They were all well pissed off except one guy called Walt McGuire who was over, fortunately, from the States. He was from London Records, which is Decca America, and he said, “If you’re not gonna release it here, I’m going to release it in the states, no trouble.” He loved it. It took two weeks to record from top to bottom, eleven days I think. We were doing at least one track a day and sending this over to Peter Knight and telling him what the next one was, and he would write in the bridges for the orchestra. We were using the Mellotron. We didn’t actually play with the orchestra. On the last day, the orchestra came in, did the overture, the end piece, and all the bridges.  It was all just stitched together. So that’s how that came about.

 SPAZ: It’s funny how somebody can sit there and not know what it is, and it ends up being an album that changes the course of music.
RAY: Sure. We were very friendly at the time with the Beatles. I mean, this is going back to the original band… we lived in one big house all together in North Hampton, and that was fantastic. We rented this house for a year and it was just a year-long party. The Beatles used to come over and there’s all these girls hanging around outside, and they used to come across our neighbor’s back gardens, climbing the fences to get in without the fans seeing them. They came over and they played us Sgt. Pepper. They really admired our band and of course we admired them, and so they came over and said, “What do you think?” – because they wanted our opinion on it. In those days, there wasn’t any backbiting with bands. There was so much creativity going on. We used to sit down and listen to somebody else and say, “Bloody hell, that’s fantastic. Why didn’t we think of that?”…stuff like that. Anyway, Mike and I went into Abbey Road after that, and we played on “I Am The Walrus” and “Fool on the Hill.” And it was my idea to put all those harmonicas on. There was George and John, me and Mike around the microphone. Paul was in the control room at the desk, and we put these harmonicas down and did some vocal backing on “Walrus.”  

SPAZ: How does it feel looking back at this particular period of the band? Basically, the genesis of what was to come…
RAY: It was fantastic because it was all new. Everything we did was new. It was a new band playing new material and it was exciting. And especially being that young – everything was exciting. We had some breaks, but basically it’s like anything – the harder you work, the luckier you get. I firmly believe that. I’m trying to instill that in my grandsons. “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Thanks To Ray Thomas
Special thanks to Lee Thomas, Matthew Ingham, Dana House and Nick Kominitsky



Standard Edition

Expanded 2CD Edition

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