While the psychedelically progressive music of The Moody Blues has taken generations of listeners on trips through inner and outer space for more than 40 years, the release of the band’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival has taken the band in an unexpected direction — their own past.
The now-legendary 1970 Isle of Wight music festival attracted many big names in music. Jimi Hendrix and The Doors gave their final major performances, while fledgling groups Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Supertramp introduced their unique sounds to the festival crowd.
The Who, Chicago, Free and Jethro Tull played memorable sets that helped solidify their reputations as strong live acts. In recent years, the sets of several acts have been released in CD and DVD format, including Hendrix, The Who and Jethro Tull. The Moody Blues are the latest to have their 1970 Isle of Wight set released; the audio CD hit the racks in September, and a DVD is slated to be put out in early 2009.
While the group’s performance of “Nights in White Satin” surfaced in the film “Message to Love,” the rest has never been released. The sounds and images from the group’s set brought back memories to guitarist Justin Hayward.
“I recalled some of the things going on backstage, as [well as] some things about the crowd but not actually playing the set,” he said. “This project did bring back some memories, though what today’s audience will experience would be very different from my perspective.”
The Birmingham, England-based progressive rockers were no strangers to the Isle of Wight festival, having played it the year before. The Moodies’ success in the U.K. with In Search of the Lost Chord and On The Threshold of a Dream moved them from support players to headlining status. When the band — guitarist Justin Hayward, bassist John Lodge, drummer Graeme Edge, flautist Ray Thomas and keyboardist Michael Pinder — took the stage on the night of Aug. 30, 1970, they were a successful act intent on promoting their latest album, A Question of Balance.
The band’s 14-song set was heavy with songs from Balance, including “Minstrel Song,” “Tortoise and The Hare,” “Question” and “Melancholy Man.” Also included were “The Sunset,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” and “Night in White Satin” from their breakthrough 1967 Days of Future Passed album, as well as “Never Comes the Day,” “Are You Sitting Comfortably” and “The Dream” from On The Threshold of a Dream.
Set closers “Legend of a Mind” and “Ride My See-Saw” represented the In Search of the Lost Chord album. While never a singles-oriented group, the group had scored some radio success with “Nights in White Satin and “Ride My See-Saw,” and “Question” had hit #2 on the U.K. charts earlier in the year.
Their albums were polished and orchestrated, but the live sound of the group was more stripped down. Pinder’s Mellotron and Thomas’ flute were heavily involved with trying to replicate the orchestral arrangements of certain songs. A listen to the set will show that Thomas was particularly busy.
“I recall that Ray [Thomas] may have had a few drinks that day and was lively to the point of kicking over a chair or two,” recalled Hayward. “However, his playing was very solid that day, and he may very well have held the whole thing together.”
According to Hayward, Pinder was an example of grace under pressure. “Mike was having a challenging time, as the Mellotron kept going out of tune.”
Never a reliable touring instrument, the Mellotron was affected by humidity and voltage. “Later on, I believe Mike switched to a Chamberlain, which was more reliable, and we were able to find better ways to regulate voltage so it was more prone to stay in tune,” says Hayward.
Hayward, himself, also did things a bit differently in 1970. His guitar work was much more upfront than on the band’s albums, and he played “Tuesday Afternoon” on electric guitar, rather than the acoustic he used on the studio version of the song.
“In 1970, it would be hard to use an acoustic guitar when you’ve got a full drum kit behind you and be able to be heard,” he recalled.
The Moodies appeared to be undaunted by the fact that they were playing to an audience of more than 600,000 people.
“I really didn’t think about it,” recalled Hayward. “We just went out and played our set.”
Preparing tapes of a 38-year-old performance was, at time, challenging. Hayward oversaw the mixing of the performance.
“It was originally recorded on eight-tracks, but two of them were just static, while a third proved to be useless,” he said. “We had to work with the remaining five tracks; though, I think it all came out very well.”
Advances in technology since 1970 have proven useful to The Moody Blues’ live show throughout the decades.
“I think our songs sound much more like what they did on the original recordings today than we were able to play them live back then,” says Hayward.
While “Nights in White Satin” and “Tuesday Afternoon” continue to be part of The Moody Blues’ current set, many of the other songs played at the 1970 Isle of Wight show haven’t been played live in years.
Is there anything from back then that Hayward might like the band to play today?
“At this stage, we tend to talk more about what to leave out than what to put in the set,” said Hayward with a chuckle. “You have to remember that we only had three or four albums out in 1970, and we’ve released a lot of new music since then. Also, at that time, we were very concerned with promoting A Question of Balance, so we had quite a few songs from that album in our set. I would enjoy playing “Gypsy” again, and I do miss Mike’s “Melancholy Man.”
The Isle of Wight set and 2007’s Live at the BBC: 1967-1970, featuring the band’s live work on British radio, are interesting gems from the band’s early period, and there may be other material in the vaults that might possibly see the light of day.
“I thought there wasn’t much, but it turns out to be quite a bit,” said Hayward. “There was quite a bit of things that were found when the old Decca albums were mastered. There wasn’t quite as much material with the Polygram albums. There was a lot of good live soundboard material that I thought no one had besides myself. There’s some King Biscuit material and some other live things which, hopefully, will see release at some point.”
While The Moody Blues have continued with Hayward, Lodge and Edge, Pinder left the group in 1979, and Thomas departed in 2003. Could the two recent live releases featuring the quintessential Moody Blues lineup spark a new project with Pinder and Thomas?
While acknowledging the accomplishments of that lineup and not completely ruling anything out, Hayward expressed doubts about such a reunion.
“I can see why there would be interest in that, but it really is a classic dilemma,” he said. “People leave the band because they don’t want to be in the band anymore. Even in cases where there really wasn’t any kind of bad falling out, people go because they want to do other things. I think we would have to ask ourselves ‘Why?’ I haven’t spoken to Mike in years, and I’m pretty sure Ray wouldn’t be up for it. They both are leading their lives and doing other things. We’d have to ask ourselves why we would do it. There would have to be a compelling reason, and, right now, I’m not sure what it would be.”
In the meantime, the band plays on. The Moody Blues continue to be a popular concert draw, averaging six to seven months of touring a year. Hayward continues to write songs and is confident that new Moodies’ material will be appear in some form.
“We could tour all year if we wanted and are busier than ever. To be honest, we don’t have record companies knocking on our door right now, but we do have several offers to do DVDs,” he said. “In addition to concert material, I’m hoping some new music can also be a part of a DVD project.”
Would a complete performance of the band’s seminal Days of Future Passed album, which has never been performed live in its entirety, be on the concert DVD horizon?
“Not at this time, but I think that is a good idea,” said Hayward. “That actually was what the ‘Red Rocks’ concert was going to be, but it ended up going in another direction. The whole thing only runs about 46 minutes, so other things would have to be played as well to make it a full set, but it certainly has been talked about and keeps coming up, even though no one seems to want to run with it right now.”
Hayward joined The Moody Blues in 1966 at the age of 19. He didn’t have any idea at the time he would be a part of the band for more than four decades.
“I gave it about a month. We weren’t making any money, and there wasn’t a lot of work,” he said. “I knew I wanted to play guitar and make records, but we weren’t going anywhere. Then we met (Decca A&R manager) Hugh Mendl, and things started to fall into place — the songs we were writing, the sound of the band, the Mellotron and the whole direction that the group was taking. I never thought I’d be here decades later, but when you’re 19 you tend not think more than three weeks ahead anyway.”
For more information on The Moody Blues, visit http://www.moodyblues.co.uk