Denny Laine has no plans of slowing down

Denny Laine. Photo by Jay Gilbert.

Denny Laine. Photo by Jay Gilbert.

By Mike Greenblatt

Denny Laine has criss-crossed the globe with Wings and broken hearts as the lead singer of The Moody Blues. It’s his voice on “Go Now,” Moody Blues’ first hit. Yet Laine quit at the height of the band’s career (up to that point) to start a meandering musical odyssey that had him playing in groups with no less than Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood and Paul McCartney. Goldmine caught up with the singer/songwriter/guitarist on the eve of a 50th Anniversary British Invasion tour with Peter Asher (Peter & Gordon), Chad & Jeremy, Billy J. Kramer, Mike Pender (The Searchers) and Terry Sylvester (the man who replaced Graham Nash in The Hollies). After that ends, Laine will be back on the road again, only this time a ‘70s tribute tour with Edgar Winter, Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), Joey Molland (Badfinger),  Henry Gross and others.

Goldmine: I understand you’re doing your Moody Blues material for the ‘60s (“British Invasion”) tour and then you’ll be going out on a ‘70s “Time Machine” tour this summer where you’ll be doing your Wings material. That’s quite a work load.

Denny Laine: That’s not all. My album will come out after that and I also have a musical I’m working on. It’s going to be a busy year. Plus, I have a few box set ideas I’m sketching out as we speak that should clear up all the legal messes I’ve been involved with over the years.

Gm: You certainly don’t seem to be, at 70, slowing down.

DL: Yeah, well, one thing seems to lead into another and before you know it, you’ve got a full-time job again.

GM: Glad to see you didn’t succumb to the old sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll conundrum.

DL:  I always thought that was kind of an exaggeration anyway. Who hasn’t partied too hard and got drunk or whatever? And it stays with you for the rest of your life. People think we were doing that every night and that’s a load of crap. We were working. You can’t work like that. And the people who got into it too heavy aren’t around anymore. I would say 99% of all those stories were made up. It just wasn’t like that. People like to think that but if it was really like that, none of us would be around.

GM: You quit the Moody Blues in 1966!

DL:  Man, I felt like I was in the Moodies a lot longer than two years. It took one year just to get discovered. A lot was happening in those days. I was bored on the road and wanted to go into the studio. Ultimately, they were forced into the studio and it’s a good thing they did because that’s what saved them. They had to come up with a new album, did so, and the rest is history. I wanted to work solo anyway, and not be tied to the road for so long. We’d spent years doing that. Suddenly, there we were, famous, doing a million gigs. It drained us. Sure, we made money, but it was ridiculous. Plus, we were ripped off by management so we weren’t making the kind of money people thought we were making. It forced us to stay on the road. To me, it was musical suicide, to be honest. And I was right. So they went off and did their thing. They owed Decca an album anyway. I got released by Brian Epstein who was our manager then.

GM: You went and did your Electric String Band.  It proved to be a precursor to Electric Light Orchestra.

DL:  It worked out well for all of us. The Moodies had the name so they could do their own music but on the road they were still doing the same old songs. Then when they got the new guys (John Lodge and Justin Hayward), their sound changed dramatically and they got even more popular. I remember rehearsing in a cottage in the south of England at the time with some of the guys who went on to form ELO, yeah, including Roy Wood, but I walked away from that, too.

GM: How did their success make you feel?

DL:  I was happy for them, really.

GM: You also were in Ginger Baker’s Air Force with Steve Winwood.

DL:  I had known Ginger from back in the early days. He was in the Graham Bond Organisation (with bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist John McLaughlin) while I was in the Moody Blues. Both bands were on the Chuck Berry tour and I got to know Ginger really well. And I knew Steve from the Spencer Davis Group because we all kinda came to London at the same time. When Steve formed Traffic, Trevor Burton from The Move and me were pretty good friends and we used to go see them rehearse at that same cottage. We were talking about putting something together ourselves. I remember it was Steve’s birthday and a big jam went down with Eric (Clapton). That’s where Blind Faith came together, too.

GM: The story goes that Winwood was dissatisfied with Traffic, and Clapton was dissatisfied with Cream — especially since Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker could never get along.

DL:  Ginger used to party at our house. That’s when Ginger asked me to join his Air Force (in 1969). I said yes immediately and even spoke to Yes drummer Alan White, who also joined. It was because we all knew Ginger. We knew his work ethic. We knew he’d never be a problem with us! Ever! The only problem was that he was trying to run a thing that was a little bit too big.

GM: I’ll say. That first lineup of his Air Force had 11 musicians in it!

DL: It was chaos! People constantly weren’t turning up for rehearsals. There was no organization for such a mammoth task! We were lucky to get one good album out of it (the self-titled 1970 debut). But, man, it had such potential only to fizzle out after that when you consider who was in that band… I’ll say this: Ginger, for all his quirks, has a good heart. And he was such a hard worker! He knows what he’s doing at all times. It just so happened, though, that he, uh, wasn’t too well in those days.

GM: So right around the same time, the Beatles break up, and who does McCartney turn to to form a band with but you! How could it possibly have been to be in a band — Wings — where the other two people are married to each other?

DL:  Wings was weird at first but not because of that reason. Don’t forget, there were a few people in Ginger Baker’s Air Force, too, who were kinda linked up. I had no problem with that. Or with Paul and Linda being married. What made Wings weird for me is that Linda McCartney was no musician. It wasn’t easy. It was up to Paul and I to work through it. But I know Paul really well. The Moodies had opened for The Beatles on their second tour of England. We were friends. That made it a little easier. Plus, we weren’t being pressured to do anything too quickly. We took our time and built it to the point where it sounded acceptable to go out and play for the public. Doing it slowly was the right move. We certainly didn’t want to do any Beatles or Moodies songs! We wanted all originals. Looking back on it today, I’d have to say it was kinda easy, actually, because Paul practically wrote everything.

GM: You co-wrote songs with Paul. In fact, you were the first person to write with him after Lennon. How did that feel?

DL: I don’t look at it like that. You’re on the outside looking in. How can I say this? I’m not in awe of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting situation. They wrote most of their songs separately anyway… and that’s a fact. Don’t get me wrong. I admire that they were so popular and so big but they’re friends of mine! It’s difficult to be a fan of your own friends. So I certainly didn’t look at it as me taking over for John Lennon as Paul’s songwriting partner. It’s actually sort of odd to think of it like that. I mean, Paul wanted me in the band. Simple as that. He said, “let’s get together and write a few songs.” That’s how it happened. It certainly did not happen in the wake of any Lennon/McCartney situation. Again, that’s how an outsider might perceive it. And the songs I wrote with him were mostly his songs anyway. He’d come up with the ideas and I just helped him finish them, except, of course, for the couple of songs I wrote that he helped me finish. I was happy with that arrangement.

GM: You started to write more and sing lead on more songs as time went by. That, right there, shows a great degree of respect that Paul had for you. I mean, geez, you’re in a band with the most famous guy in the world, and there you are singing lead on Wings songs! Didn’t that blow your mind?

DL: I suppose. Again, I’m not in awe of the whole thing as you seem to be. I wrote a few songs. He liked them, and he put ‘em on the albums. Simple as that. He was always a fan of the Moody Blues. He used to stand by the side of the stage and watch us. He was always trying to get us to do songs he heard and that he thought would be good for us.

GM: Like what?

DL: Like “Those Were The Days.” He wound up giving it to Mary Hopkin (who took it to #1 in 1968) because we didn’t want to do it. He was always on our side. It was one of the reasons he asked me to join Wings. When I joined Wings, I certainly wasn’t going in there planning on being the lead singer (laughs). I’d been the lead singer in the Moody Blues but I knew it would be Paul, of course. And he was the main writer. I was perfectly content with being the sidekick. I was learning more instruments and learning the studio. Being a couple of years younger than Paul, he was like a big brother to me. He made all the band decisions. I might have had some input, sure, but it was his band. He was in charge.

Vintage Wings (Capitol Records) publicity photo of Denny Laine.

Vintage Wings (Capitol Records) publicity photo of Denny Laine.

GM: Is it true Wings broke up over Paul being busted for pot in Japan?

DL:  Well, uh, that particular lineup of the band did, yeah, because there was no possibility of any tours for awhile. That band was specifically put together to support the “Back To The Egg” album. When that fell through, the band fell through. I still stuck around with Paul and Linda. We started working on the mixes for the last (Various Artists) album (1981’s “Concerts For The People Of Kampuchea”). We also started working with other people at that time like Ringo, Steve Gadd, Stanley Clarke and Carl Perkins.  It proved a good direction. In the end, I had to get out of the country for tax reasons. Plus, I had an album of my own album to promote (1980’s “Japanese Tears”).

GM: While Paul went on to do “Ebony And Ivory” with Stevie Wonder and “Say Say Say” with Michael Jackson as well as “The Girl Is Mine” for Michael’s “Thriller” in 1982.

DL: [wistfully] Right. And we never really came back together again after that.

GM: Would you say that was the low point of your career?

DL: Every time I had to leave a band was a low point, that moment, especially, when you know it’s over. It comes with financial struggles too since you’re leaving a solid situation and have to learn how to run your own band again. That’s really difficult. I have had my fair share of low points. A lot, actually. We only got the Moody Blues tapes back recently, after being ripped off for years by the original management. The money you think you’re making on the road isn’t really there. The minute you level out and don’t work anymore, that’s when you’re in trouble. At one point, I did kind of semi-retire. And it was difficult to get back into it, to find the right kind of people to work with.

GM: After Wings?

DL: Yeah, and it lasted into the mid-‘90s. So I made solo music the whole time writing and recording. I spent those 15 years getting a lot of material together, which I now have. It’s not like it was time wasted. I just wasn’t in the public eye or out on the road.

GM: And the high points?

DL: The highlight of any career is having a successful record. Also world tours. One particular Wings world tour went on for nine months. I would have to say that was the highlight of my entire career.  GM

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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