The Moody Blues Still Find Excitement in Creativity and Discovery on Stage

Steve Wildsmith

It's mildly ironic that, for British bassist and singer John Lodge, nothing is particularly moody or blue during a recent interview with The Daily Times.

Lodge — who will join his two bandmates in the classic progressive rock outfit The Moody Blues on the stage at downtown Knoxville's Tennessee Theatre next week — is speaking by phone from Barbados.

“The sun is just setting, and from where I am right now, I can see it just dipping over the horizon,” Lodge said. “The temperature varies, but it's between 80 and 85.”

Ever the gracious English gentleman, however, Lodge doesn't bring up his island locale to rub it in. It's a mere introduction, and moments later, he's talking about his long-running band, playing in East Tennessee (“I can't remember when we played Knoxville last, and I'm desperately trying to think of when,” he said. “Knoxville is such a great name, and it feels like we've performed there a lot.”) and maintaining the drive to continue to create and perform for more than four decades.

The band earned its place in popular culture with the 1967 album “Days of Future Passed,” a work of mammoth proportions for that time period that bridged the gap between classical arrangements, rock ‘n' roll flourishes and experimental techniques. The genesis of the group — which now consists of members Graeme Edge on drums, singer/guitarist Justin Hayward and Lodge — began several years before, and it was through trial and error, Lodge said, that the group would eventually adapt the style of music that would become synonymous with progressive rock.

“We used to do two sets on stage — the first hour was covers of American songs, and it was really strange for English people to be singing about Memphis and Tennessee and everywhere else when we'd never been to America,” he said. “We were only covering those songs — we had no heart or emotion about it because we didn't know what it mean. So we decided to write, for the second set, just our own songs. And we realized that it was much better.

“If a song took six minutes or 7 minutes, then that's what it took. If it became a waltz in the middle of a rock ‘n' roll song, it became a waltz. It didn't matter. Some of the concerts we did, the audiences didn't quite get it at all; others got it, and we suddenly realized we'd found a way for Moody Blues music to happen — and it changed. It became an audience that sat down and listened, and the promoters couldn't understand it.

“They would ask, ‘Why is everybody sitting down? Why aren't they standing up and having a good time?' And we realized we had something different from a lot of other bands and artists,” he added. “We took what we'd learned on stage into the studio when recording ‘Days of Future Passed.'”

The album, released in 1967 in Britain, would eventually — five years later — make its way to No. 5 on the American Billboard charts. The song “Nights in White Satin” would become a staple on classic rock radio, although the atmospheric anthem was unlike anything American audiences had seen save for the 12-minute opuses by bands like The Doors. Drawing from psychedelia, Beatles-inspired pop and arrangements rich with horns and strings, the band plowed ahead with its own vision, releasing “In Search of the Lost Chord” a year later, using 33 different instruments during the recording process.

“We used to say to ourselves, ‘In this song we've got to get the audience so that you can hear a pin drop on stage,' and for rock ‘n' roll concerts, that's not what it was about back then,” Lodge said. “It's that silence, right before the flute starts, that gets everyone, and we tried to use that. ‘Tuesday Afternoon' is another great example — there's a strange tempo at the beginning, and it becomes a boogie halfway through.

“That's what we were experimenting with — how far we could push the parameters, how you could put a chord sequence together that no one had put together before.”

Once America embraced the band, its success was steady throughout the early 1970s — the album “A Question of Balance” reached No. 3 on the charts, while “Seventh Sojourn” went all the way to the top. Non-stop touring led to a three-year hiatus from 1974-77, however, and when the members reconvened, they struggled — original member Mike Pinder, who was credited with much of the band's early orchestration, declined to tour in support of the new album “Octave,” and the pop culture landscape had changed drastically.

It wasn't until 1981's “Long Distance Voyager” that the band recaptured some of its former glory, but it was 1986's “Your Wildest Dreams” that saw the band crack the Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 for the last time. They continued to chart hits, and all of them are still mainstays in the band's on-stage repertoire — although Lodge and his bandmates reserve the right to pull the plug on a song that's been overworked.

“If it became routine, we drop the song,” he said. “Every night, when you perform a song, you do try to make it for your own self-satisfaction, really — the best it's ever been. Whether it is or isn't really isn't that important. But you do discover things. It might be playing the same notes, but you suddenly find another inflection that adds a slightly different dimension.

“Emotion in anything, particularly in music, is the little things that aren't discernible. You can't take them off and say, ‘That's why this works.' It's just something that happens in a song, or the way you perform a song, that affects the emotion. That's why we always take another look at something. Even if we're performing a song on stage and performing it for a long time, we need to still rehearse it because we get away from the original feel, and it's important to keep that.”

Those little nuances — a subtle shift in texture than can open the door to an entirely new experience with a song that Lodge and his bandmates know better than parts of their own bodies — those are the things that continue to make music exciting, he said. Performing as The Moody Blues isn't just going through the motions for the three men; it's a sense of rediscovery and possibility, each and every time.

“I think, for me, it's almost the same excitement as when I was a teenager,” he said. “I've always been excited with music and being a part of music, and I'll try to play my music anywhere I can. I just really enjoy it, and what else am I going to do? I can't imagine sitting down and doing nothing.

“With The Moody Blues, we've written everything ourselves, and it's exciting to be a part of something you've done and create something no one else has created before you. And we have a good time on stage.”

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