A question of life balance – the Justin Hayward interview

Justin Time: Moody Blues’ frontman Justin Hayward, heading back to the UK for an In Concert tour.

If I made Justin Hayward feel old right from the outset of our conversation, he had the good grace to laugh and carry on talking to me. My genuine respect for his back-catalogue probably helped, mind.

I was telling him that while I’ve not long since hit 50, I worked out that his first LP with The Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed, was released when I was just a fortnight old. The album that spawned Nights in White Satin has certainly stood the test of time though.

“I suppose it has. Do you know, I get more interest in that album now. It’s surprising the amount of young songwriters that speak to me about that album. I think it’s maybe because it didn’t have any kind of commercial pretension or wasn’t made to try to sell anything.”

In fact, it was the album that had the lowest chart placing of 13 studio LPs they released up to 1988, that tally including UK No.1s with On the Threshold of a Dream (1969), A Question of Balance (1970) and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971). But what do the buying public know? It came from the right place.

“I think so. We were very lucky. And none of us had any commercial aspirations, in truth.”

I spoke to Justin on the 50th anniversary of The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle album’s release date (with a link to our January 2016 interview with Colin Blunstone here), and told him I saw that LP in a similar light – the right mix of experimentation, good songs and strong musical ideas.

“That’s right. Yes, so do I. Absolutely.”

That whole period for me was just such a creative time for music – everything from The Beatles and The Beach Boys trying to outdo each other, through to The Kinks.

“Well, it really was, and I think we all considered ourselves lucky to happen to be in London when that was really all going on. Then we were lucky enough to be brought to America by Bill Graham in ’68, introducing us to a whole new audience. yeah, The Beatles were the leaders, opening the door for the rest of us.”

Days of Future Passed is often cited as a prog-rock prototype album, not least through including classical elements. Was that a happy accident or something you set out to do?

“You have to give the credit to Decca. They had a special products division with a wonderful man called Michael Dacre-Barclay, whose idea was to do a record to demonstrate stereo for rock’n’roll. They had a consumer division and were trying to sell their stereo units but were confined really to the classical market. And they had the second-largest classical market in the world. It was their idea. They called on us – we actually owed them money.”

So they gave you a blank canvas, in a way.

“Yes, and it was the great days when record companies gave you lousy royalties but had lots of studio time and big studios. They said, ‘Just get on with it, do what you want to do, there’s the studio and engineer.’ That’s how it worked for us.”

Justin was in Surrey when he called, dropping in on his sister from his European base ahead of a flight the next day to the Netherlands and a date in Utrecht, the opener on his latest tour. His home is ‘near the Italian border’, and he’s a partner in a studio in Genoa, where he’s been working ‘the best part of 20 years now,’ with much of his solo material and work with The Moody Blues – the Moodies as he refers to them – recorded there.

I hear traces of his Swindon, Wiltshire – the former GWR works town that also gave us XTC – upbringing when he says ‘years’, and Justin’s retained a strong West Country affiliation, spending lots of time in West Cornwall, where he had a home for many years, and where his daughter still lives and works.

That gave me a chance to reminisce on my own regular trips to Lelant, just outside St Ives, a village we have in common, both having first visited that area in the early ‘70s – me barely six, Justin 27. In his case it involved a holiday with wife Ann Marie, the French model he married in late 1970, a short break after his band’s work on 1972 album Seventh Sojourn – their last studio album before a six-year hiatus, released the year his daughter Doremi was born – becoming much more.

“My daughter still lives there. She’s a cranial-sacral osteopathist with a little practice in Penzance, and works out of her home as well.”

That’s easy for him to say, I suggest.

“I do so miss it down there. What a magical part of the world. It still is. It’s gorgeous, and there’s something about that. I can remember when big steamers were coming in there, and a power station opposite that they took down in almost one day. We were at the Ferryhouse, right on the beach, terribly impractical, with a beach café opposite. We had to haul everything across the golf course. We then moved up the hill. When my daughter got married, it became her home, and I’m so pleased she’s down there.”

Were the Moodies still in Birmingham when you first hooked up with them in 1966?

“They were actually not far from where I am right now in Claygate. I came up to Paddington Station and met Mike (Pinder) first and we went for a coffee then to his place, somewhere around New Malden. A couple of weeks later I met the other guys in Esher, where they were not paying the rent, hiding from the milkman … They’d left Birmingham by the time Go Now was a hit (a UK No.1 in 1964).”

Idyllic as your home base must be, do you miss the UK?

“Well, I come back when I can, but home is over there by the Mediterranean now, where all my music is. In truth, recording became so expensive in London and England. I honestly couldn’t afford it. But I had a holiday home in the South of France and met a lot of backing musicians there, some for Johnny Hallyday, and other French and Italian artists who liked English rock’n’roll. There’s a whole community down there. I started writing, found this studio. I just want to be where the music is now, and that’s where it is for me.”

Justin’s currently looking forward to his live return to the UK, backed by virtuoso guitarist Mike Dawes and vocalist Julie Ragins.

“Mike’s an unbelievable guitar player. My guitar-tech, Chris, and I one night at a soundcheck said, ‘Can we just stand really close and watch you play and see if we can work it out? He said okay, so we stood about two feet away. When he finished playing, Chris said, ‘No, I still don’t get it’. And nor did I. I don’t know how it’s done. And then there’s Julie, who has the voice of an angel. She just loves these songs, and we’ve been working together for a long time now.

“We’re just a small crew and it’s mostly acoustic, with just a little bit of electric, but no drums. I like to hear every nuance. I’m doing these songs as they were written, like the original demos I made, and hopefully some of the stories behind them are interesting. The Moodies’ shows are big productions, with two drummers, lots of amplifiers, very loud. There are lots of those songs that just don’t work in that context. But I get to do things in my solo show complemented by that way of doing it. I get to do Forever Autumn as well, which is always nice.”

We’ll come back to that 1978 hit later. Does it tend to just be you and a guitar when you write?

“It is, a couple of old guitars, a couple of newer ones, and a bit of programming. Even way back in the ’80s I started doing things to time-code. Tony Visconti was very much into that when we started working. I could do that on my own tape recorders, then bring them into the studio. But yes, I’d usually start with a couple of guitars. And there’s a whole world of imagination inside a guitar.”

While I and many more knew Nights in White Satin well (making the UK top-10 on its release in 1972), I admit I knew your work on Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of The War of the Worlds before I knew great singles like 1973’s Question (No.2 in the UK). So what had changed in between Days of Future Passed and the A Question of Balance LP in 1970, approach-wise?

“We were very insecure about a lot of our recordings and it started to dawn on us that there might be something in it. We made an album called On the Threshold of a Dream in early ’69 which did very well, getting to the top of the charts in this country. And everyone knew it in America.

“Then we followed that with an album that was completely obscure and self-absorbed, To Our Children’s Children’s Children, and got to a stage where we couldn’t play the songs on stage – the overdubbing was so impossible, so much, and overlaid.

“With Question, the song, recorded before the album, there’s no double-tracking, just echo and a big old 12-string guitar. We learned to play that the old-fashioned way and just recorded it one Saturday. It was a deliberate attempt to try and pull back to something more real.”

And it remains powerful, to this day.

“I hope so. It was a great time for us, with the Isle of Wight Festival and all that kind of stuff going on. It carried us along, Question. The whole album did.”

One name that seems to have popped up on your CV more than any other over the years is bandmate John Lodge, and not just with the Moodies. Are you still in regular touch?

“Yes, we were together only last weekend, with Graham (Edge) and Mike Pinder, as we were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

That was in Cleveland, Ohio, with the band inducted alongside Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, Nina Simone and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Quite a coup for the band.

“We played together, and there were a few days of events and Q&As, with school kids, lots of press, and so on. It was a big deal, and for the American fans it validated the music they loved … at last.”

There must have been elements of, ‘Why only now?’

“There were, and it’s very different when you’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but when you are, the world seems a different place. But when they asked who I thought should be in there now, I said, ‘Well, you could start with Cliff (Richard) and the Shadows, even Johnny Halliday. If you really want to tell the story of rock’n’roll throughout the world, not just through American eyes. But it’s great to be part of and I’m very pleased. It’s kind of a temple to all the stuff I’ve ever loved.”

Justin’s first Moodies’ single was 1966’s Fly Me High, just after he was brought in to replace Denny Laine.

“Yes, it wasn’t the first we did on stage, but it was the first released with the band.”

At this point I admit to Justin I was first aware of Ambrose Slade’s version on 1969 debut album Beginnings, before that band dropped the first half of their name and went on to mega-success. As it turned out, Justin was unaware of that cover.

“Really? I’m going to Google that right now. Wow!”

Watching and Waiting: Justin Hayward, out on the road with Mike Dawes and Julie Ragins in 2018

He does too, and was set up to listen when I finally got off the phone and left him in peace. I wonder what he made of it. I like both versions, for the record.

You mention Mike Pinder, of whom you’ve said before, ‘Mike and the Mellotron made my songs work.’ I know he’s been out of the band for 40 years, but it appears that you keep in touch with all of the first line-up you were part of.

“Well, Ray (Thomas) sadly passed away earlier this year, a great tragedy. And Tony Clark had some time before, so that really brought things home. But I’d seen Mike five or six years ago when we played in Northern California. He came to a gig with his sons. He’s got such a beautiful family. And to see him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was absolutely great, walking up there together. We had a long talk. When Bon Jovi were up there doing 85 minutes, Mike’s wife said, ‘Do you think there’s somewhere we can all go?’ We found a little room round the back. That was really lovely.”

Things like losing Ray must make you realise time’s not guaranteed.

“Yes, that’s why I’m doing it now and I’m going to sing while I can. I don’t know what the future holds. I haven’t really got any plans except to make new music, and that’s what I’m going to do next year. I’m working on the road now, I’ll keep my little crew together – with Mike and Julie, my front of house guy and my guitar tech – and that suits me just fine.”

There have been plenty of Moody Blues reunions over the years, and then there’s your solo career, including eight studio albums from 1975’s Blue Jays with bandmate John Lodge through to 2013’s Spirits of the Western Sky. Ever feel the need to remind the wider world that, far from it, you haven’t been quiet since The War of the Worlds?

“Ha ha! Erm … well, fortunately, some people have been paying attention! For me, I’ve never been a celebrity or anything like that. What’s important is that I’ve done what I think is right. I’ve been prepared to make mistakes and I take responsibility for that.”

Bearing in mind my Surrey roots, and your link to November 2014 writewyattuk interviewee Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of The War of the Worlds, with H.G. Wells’ story set on my old family patch around Woking, I wonder if you read the book when you were growing up.

“Yes, as a matter of fact all of that series was given to me by a dear friend of mine, Lionel Bart, who wrote Oliver! He gave them to me as a present one birthday, in the late ‘60s – the whole works of H.G. Wells. And The War of the Worlds was the one I’d read and really resonated, not least as I knew this part of the world from when I first came to London.”

Knowing the geography makes the story that little bit more real, doesn’t it?

“It does.”

Was your The War of the Worlds experience a happy period?

“Oh, what a lucky break, getting that call from Jeff! I wasn’t going to do it, but there just happened to be a chap round my house that day from the Moodies’ record shop in Cobham. We had a shop connected to our office, where our roadies were. Someone came over for me to sign some papers and was listening to this demo Jeff sent round. When it finished he said, ‘You ought to do that, mate! It’s perfect for you!’ So I thought, ‘Why not’, went down to meet Jeff and did Forever Autumn. Then they called me back a couple of days later to do another song, Eve of the War, which also had some success. And it was a great time for me, being on Top of the Pops, and all that.”

Did you get to work with David Essex, Phil Lynott, and Richard Burton, or were you just recording your own parts?

“I knew all the others involved. Funnily enough, the person we had in common and who had something to do with bringing me to Jeff was Ken Freeman, a keyboard player who I worked with on my album, Songwriter. Ken also wrote that wonderful theme to the TV show,  Casualty.”

At this point, Justin gives me a rendition of that distinctive theme tune, in many ways the sound of Saturday night for a couple of generations.

“I knew all the others, like Phil (Lynott), because he was on the same label, while David (Essex) was an acquaintance. But Richard Burton did his pieces down in Ibiza somewhere. I was his ‘song thoughts’ though, which I thought was a bit bizarre but I was very happy to do.”

I still listen to that album now and again, sometimes in the car, which is probably not the greatest idea, to be honest.

“It’s quite heavy, isn’t it. A powerful album.”

My eldest daughter was telling me there’s a new film or at least a mini-series on its way, featuring Eleanor Tomlinson, of Poldark fame. I’m intrigued by that.

“Oh yeah. That’ll be great. I did the stage show for five or six years, starting around 2006, going to Australia and New Zealand, but then I stepped aside. I thought, to be respectful, it’s a part for a younger man. But that music will go on … and doing Forever Autumn in my solo show is great.”

Do you miss your family when you’re out on the road? Or does Ann Marie travel with you?

“If it’s somewhere of interest she’ll come, and she did when we played Days of Future Passed with the LA Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl. But otherwise I think that would be like having the wife at the office. She’s got her own life and her own pals. That’s the way it should be.”

You’ve been married a long time (47 years and counting).

“Yes … well, I’ve been away a lot, you see! Ha ha! Even though it looks like I’ve been married for nearly 50 years, I’ve only actually been home for about eight years!”

Finally, for those who’ve missed out over the years and maybe just know the big hits, where should they start on the Justin Hayward back-catalogue? Do we start with Spirits of the Western Sky and head back?

“I think … it started for me with Blue Guitar, recorded when the Moodies were still together, when Decca didn’t want to release any solo thing. The original version was recorded with the guys from 10cc. I have a compilation album out now called All the Way, and the original version is on that record.

“That was the version that was released, but it was remixed by Decca, with an orchestra put on it. The record actually was me and Eric Stewart, recorded at Strawberry Studios in Stockport, where I was a director for many years, with Graham Gouldman on bass, Lol Crème on gismo, and Kevin Godley on drums.

“Then there was Blue Jays and Songwriter, the album on which I really focused on writing and expressing what was in my heart.”

So what you’re really saying at this point is that we should catch up with the whole of the back-catalogue, right?

“Ha! If you can find it!”

The Songwriter: Justin Hayward, out and about and In Concert around the UK

Justin Hayward’s May/June 2018 In Concert tour, with support on all dates from Mike Dawes, visits Bristol Colston Hall (May 27, £37.50), Norwich Theatre Royal (May 28, £37.50), New Brighton Floral Pavilion (May 29, £37.50), Eastleigh Concorde Club (May 31, £60 non-members, £55 members), Stockport Plaza (June 1, £37.50), Christchurch Regent Centre (June 2, £44.50), and St Albans Arena (June 3, £39/£37.50). Tickets are available via Ticketline.co.uk, Ticketmaster.co.uk, or direct from the venues. Booking fees may apply. To keep in touch with Justin, head to his Facebook and Twitter pages or head to www.justinhayward.com

 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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