Backstage Pass: The Moody Blues and the Mellotron on the Isle of Wight

When The Moody Blues started out in the mid-1960s, they played raucous, rough-and-tumble American R&B and blues covers, much as their British Invasion contemporaries did.

What changed them into a progressive-rock superpower that flew to heaven on wings of lush instrumental beauty, psychedelic effects and artfully rendered, folk-inspired songs full of heart and intelligence?

The introduction of the Mellotron certainly helped. Pouring out what equated to the sound of a full orchestra, the Mellotron was introduced to the Moody Blues by vocalist-keyboardist Mike Pinder, a founding member of the band who actually worked at a factory that made them.

With it, and the captivating nature of their music, the Moodies held about a half million people transfixed at the 1970 Isle Of Wight Festival. Their performance, filmed by director Murray Lerner, has been captured on an Eagle Vision DVD titled “The Moody Blues: Live At The Isle Of Wight Festival 1970.” Pinder talks about the Mellotron and its complicated machinery, and the Moodies’ outing — an effort that saw them more than hold their own with the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and others — at the Isle Of Wight festival in this interview.

At this time, you were touring in support of the A Question Of Balance album, which was a harder rock-oriented record than To Our Children’s Children’s Children. What was happening in the band at the time?

MP: Well, the thing that jumps out is we were all getting married and having kids. That was really the difference. We’d settled down. We’d all settled within the same area, so we were never too far away from each other in Surrey and we had a store and an office there in the village, a record store. Threshold Records it was called, which was the name of our company (the band founded its own record label to gain some measure of independence from its parent company, Decca. To Our Children’s Children’s Children was the first release on Threshold).

You’d been moving away from the label that you’d been with previously and establishing your own label.

MP: Right … what we did was we worked out a distribution deal with Decca, instead of being signed to them as artists. That way we could have a little more control.

Was it a contentious thing, or just a way of feeling like you had more control?

MP: Well, I think we had the power at that time to do that. We met with the big wigs and had a nice meeting and got what we wanted, which was great.

The 1970 Isle Of Wight concert was such an amazing event for you.

MP: Life was so good back then. It was a pretty good time. Having that many people, 600,000 people … gosh, that hasn’t happened in England, other than maybe something The Beatles or the Stones did.

Have you talked to Murray Lerner about the filming of it and what he wanted to capture?

MP: Yeah, well, I met with Murray in L.A. That was nice. We had a nice time to spend a few hours together and chat about the whole thing.

There’s so much talk about Woodstock with the anniversary this year. It seems that the 1970 Isle Of Wight concert was really England’s answer to Woodstock.

MP: Yeah, I think so. I think the only difference between the two was that at Woodstock they were smoking doobies and at the Isle of Wight, they were piping hash (laughs). Let’s be realistic, right?

Just a different drug of choice.

MP: Yeah.

Seeing this footage, did it change in any way how you viewed the event?

MP: Actually, it really zapped me back onstage, seeing us there and doing it. That’s where the memories came from, [like] can I keep this Mellotron on the tracks? That kind of thing, because in the middle of nowhere, anything can happen with the power.

I mean, for instance, with the Mellotron, in the earlier days when I started using it on tour, if we were doing a fairly early show, say 6 or 7 o’clock — somewhere around there — in a built-up area, we’d be onstage but then all of a sudden, all of the moms at home would put their electric cookers on and things like that, and the power would go down. The electric motors [of the Mellotron] would slow down.

I was getting less juice, and I’d have to try and make up for that, and realize where on the knob, on the control that I would use to do the tuning and the swoops … you know, they’d do these big (imitates the sound of an airplane passing by) swoop things. It would alter that, so I was always having to be alert and that’s what I did notice during the show. I was paying a lot of attention to my knobs on the Mellotron (laughs).

I would imagine you had to do that for every show.

MP: Yeah, yeah. I called it, “Tune as you go.” (laughs)

How did you ensure its reliability?

MP: Well, the trouble was, they were AC motors and not DC. So as soon as I got hold of the first two DC motors that would do the job, I went into my workshop and we worked on it. We changed the motors to 24-volt DC … [so] I wouldn’t have that problem again, and I never did. Because it was low-voltage, it wasn’t affected by the overall input.

When were you first introduced to the Mellotron?

MP: I was introduced to it when I got out of the Army, because I joined the Army for a while. And rock ‘n’ roll started to happen, and I went to see my CO, and he said, “Yeah, you can go.” (Laughs) So they let me out, you know. They let me out of my term, and so that’s what I did. I came back. I was in Germany at the time. And I came back, and the first thing I did was put a band together. And I met Ray Thomas, and Ray and I had been … our birthdays are within two days of each other. Yeah, we’re very close. Yeah, I came back, and Ray and I had done a stint with two other guys, did the Germany, Hamburg thing.

Here’s a little story for you: We were playing the Top 10 club in Hamburg, and you get a little bit crazy because you’re doing a few shows a day, and there’s not much you can do but go to the bar or the coffee-shop kind of thing. They weren’t great gigs that we had. But we’re onstage one night, and we’re just getting ready to open the curtain, and I see this white toilet seat on the left there behind the curtains. And I grabbed it and put it around my head for the opening number (laughs).

And then I found out later when I became friends with The Beatles after doing their last English tour together — we opened for them on their last English tour; we did 14 shows and then they got on a plane the next day and went to Shea Stadium and that was it … but, back to the toilet seat. I was talking to John Lennon about doing that show in Germany and that white toilet seat, and [he said], ‘Oh, it’s the one I left there.’ (laughs) He’d done exactly the same thing. That was before we were the suited guys,

The Mellotron really seemed to change everything.

MP: Yeah, it really was the change in direction for us, and that enabled us, I think, to venture further afield than we could have done with just staying with the regular instruments. The fact that we could carry 30 bald guys playing violin around with us in a box was great.

What was the reaction among fans initially to the change?

MP: I think they really liked it because it was so different. All the time we were getting questions: “What is that box?” “Where is that sound coming from?” All those kinds of things. It was very good.

This is something I worked on at the factory. When Ray [Thomas] and I got back from Germany, I saw this ad, someone was looking for musical experience and mechanical ideas and things like that. So, I entered the job, and it was a place where the Mellotrons were made. I became the guy who put the tapes in.

When the machine was built, it would be sent to my department and I would put all the tapes in, line them up. They all had to be lined up so that when you hit the note, it started playing correctly at the beginning of the note. And tuning, testing and all that kind of thing. So everything that went out of there had my stamp on it. One of the biggest things of the whole Mellotron thing was the fact that I actually got to turn the Beatles onto the Mellotron. I told them about it, and they immediately all got one, and I went by a few of the Sgt. Pepper sessions and they were starting to use it, and they played “Strawberry Fields” and it was like, “Wow.”

Yeah, I did a good thing that day. I did a very good thing (laughs). I’m probably most proud of the fact that I actually was a factor in their music.

You talk in the film about how the Mellotron lifts things. Did you see yourself in that role, kind of carrying things higher?

MP: I always considered myself like the backdrop. The rhythm section was there, and Ray would also play a part of that. When he took up flute, when we started introducing flute in the tunes, that was where the change sort of started to take place. ‘Cause when we started, we were playing other peoples’ tunes as well. We were doing that kind of thing, and getting booed offstage (laughs).

John Lodge talks in the film about how incredible it was that you were able to successfully get the Moody Blues sound across to such a huge audience. Looking back, does it still amaze you as well?

MP: (laughs) Well, yeah, because the big outdoors shows always gave me those electronic problems, you know, as I was talking about with the Mellotron. But I was pretty well off. I was able to absorb what was taking place, you know. Just all those people, a sea of faces, you know. It was fabulous to see that and be able to play your music in front of that many people. It was just splendid, wonderful, once in a lifetime … you know, it’s all of those kinds of things.

The 1970 festival lineup was such a star-studded affair, with acts like The Doors, The Who, Hendrix, etc. And yet your performance is one of the most memorable. What were you feeling onstage during the show? Did it feel to you like you were doing something that would leave such an indelible impression on the people who were there?

MP: Yeah, actually, yes. That is kind of the way we all thought. After all, our music was something that was meant to heal whatever ails you, if you know what I mean. The magic, the sort of mystery of music … (quotes a song — the music lets you know more, it colors the starships, the mysteries of Or) It’s all music and it relates because it’s vibratory. And the whole planet, and the whole universe is like that, so that’s the connection with the universe to me with that music, the music of the spheres, because there are harmonies and different dimensions … each note on the keyboard, for instance, you know, vibrates at so many thousand times per second. And that’s how the lower the note, the less the wave form gets stretched out, and it’s larger. And then when you’re playing higher notes, you know, it gets tighter and tighter, the wave form. And so, you know, that enables you to envision in your mind the mathematics of music, which is what Bach was all about, you know?

Talk about how the set list was chosen. Were these the songs you were playing at the time?

MP: Yeah, we probably picked, you know, most of the things that we knew worked from previous albums, and then introducing new tracks that … I think we’d finished an album just before that, so we’d been rehearsing not only recorded the tunes and everything, but actually, we would rehearse before we went into the studio and also afterwards, so we did have the arrangements down pretty good and the vocals. So that was nice to be able to turn that over so quickly from finishing an album to start performing it.

Do you remember looking out at the crowd and seeing how they were responding to the show?

MP: Yeah, well, you know, the one thing, looking out over that crowd, for that length of time, it was definitely physical evidence of the change of consciousness of the ‘60s. I mean, that really is the bottom line, you know? The world changed in the ‘60s, for the better, thank God.

What was your most memorable moment of the concert? Was it singing “Melancholy Man”?

MP: Yeah, I enjoyed doing that, but I noticed that it was too slow. [Drummer] Graeme [Edge] unfortunately started the tempo a bit too slow. So that was a bit of a bugger to me that we couldn’t get the tempo right, but we managed to pull it off I think.

It seems like your singing was really impassioned.

MP: Yeah, absolutely. These are not songs that we made up out of thin air. These are all songs that we lived. They were all songs about how we can be better, the kinds of things we can leave behind and move forward. The planet earth has its problems, and people live in the left side of their brain. And the right side of the brain is where creativity takes place. Ingenuity, ideas, concepts — all those things come through on the right side of the brain. And the left side of the brain is the engine.

That just sort of does the daily dishwashing — fill the car up, wash the car, and all of the “normal” things that we do as human beings. I’ve always looked at it that way, from a spiritual point of view, as opposed to a religious point of view. There’s a vast, vast difference. And so the emotions were really all about love and peace and everything, but also about intelligence and about consciousness. Trying to wake people up from bad habits. Bad habits in my book are something that hurt other people, innocent people.

What do you remember about writing that song? Was it autobiographical in any way?

MP: Yeah, it was definitely … the melancholy part of it is the melancholy for the human race and for the planet is what it’s about. What was that line? “I might not make it there with you …” the famous line of Martin Luther King. Martin Luther was very much on my mind, yeah.

For you, do you think the Isle Of Wight in 1970 was the high point live for the Moody Blues?

MP: Um, yeah, I would have to say that. Although we played some other big things. I remember we did something on the West Coast here before that, but I can’t remember what it was called. It was a similar kind of thing, but not as big a crowd. So there were a lot of those kinds of large gatherings happening at that time

From the interviews [in the DVD], all of you seem to get a kick out of seeing it again. It seems like a joyful experience.

MP: Yeah, it was, because there wasn’t a lot of footage of the band, unfortunately. And that’s one of the ones I’d completely forgotten about, that there were cameras pointed at us — completely forgotten about it. Then when I came to it, and I watched it for the first time, it was like, “Wow. I remember now.” I remember some cameras on guys’ shoulders and them running around on stage.

So often artists talk about making a connection with a crowd in a live setting. How did you manage to do that at the Isle of Wight?

MP: I think that the fact that we had the Mellotron we could do at least a reasonable representation of what we were recording — you know, to put the songs across that way. That really helped, and the fact that we did a lot of backing vocals and things like that, so the vocals were always enhanced by harmonies and things like that to keep the energy level up. So I think just the style of music that we were playing made it okay. It was really more … our sound was a lot more compact, and it had lots of hooky lines in the arrangements and things like that that I think helped the songs and also helped hook the listener into what we were singing about.

Click here to check out the latest price guides from Goldmine

One thought on “Backstage Pass: The Moody Blues and the Mellotron on the Isle of Wight

Leave a Reply