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Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward Isn’t Burning Up Over What Got Lost in the Fire

Currently on a solo tour, the singer talks about wanting to be Buddy Holly, what concerns musicians about the aging process, and why he couldn't care less about his band's archival material.

Nobody called Justin Hayward about the fire on the Universal Studios Hollywood lot — not Universal Music Group, certainly, but also no reporters. “There were much more important people to call or to speak about that,” Hayward says, in his typically self-effacing, English way. The New York Timesrecently blew the lid off of the 2008 inferno, which destroyed untold original masters and recordings, and the shocking coverup. Along with Elton John, Chuck Berry and Ella Fitzgerald, they listed the Moody Blues as artists whose priceless tapes may have burned up.

Hayward, who turns 73 in October, isn’t too worried. The stuff he and the “Moodies” released back in the day is all that really matters — they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year — and he’s a bit cynical about the insatiable monetization by Universal and other record companies of every last scrap of recorded material. Then again, as he chatted at length from his hotel in Denver — about the acoustic solo tour he’s on (with shows Friday night in Big Bear Lake and Saturday in Ventura), about legacy, and about the only album, 1978’s “Octave,” that the band recorded in the States — he suddenly realized that, wait, maybe something precious was lost…

What do you play on your current tour?
I do songs that I’ve written — deeper cuts with the Moodies, some solo things, some things that I never got to do with the Moodies that just never worked in a loud situation. This show is a real joy for me. I’m working with three young musicians who love this music [guitarist Mike Dawes, multi-instrumentalist Julie Ragins, and flutist Karmen Gould] and who are a great support to me. I’ve brought my acoustic guitars out from home. In some ways it’s a lot truer to the records, because the records were mixed with acoustic guitar and mellotron and keyboards up front, and drums and bass just maybe a little bit further back. But of course, on stage, that was always difficult to do with the Moodies, with two drummers, and everything had to rise in level, and it was all electric. So this is more like the original way of looking at it, which is nice.

Do you have any tricks for keeping the older songs fresh or fun to play?
They’re always a pleasure to play, because some of them I just haven’t done on stage before. And we’ve swapped things around the last few tours. Karmen, on flute and harmonica and vocals, has added another dimension — I’m able to bring those kind of Ray Thomas / Moodies flute things back into it a bit more. It’s very much around the vocal sound of us, as well, including all the sort of Moodies harmonies. From the ’80s on, I was always harmonizing with myself on records — so the girls and myself, and Mike as well, are able to reproduce that easier.

Did you always feel confident as a singer?
No. I can’t say that I ever did, really. I never thought of myself as a singer. My first job was with a rock ’n’ roll singer called Marty Wilde, just playing guitar for him when I was 17 when I started. He told me then that just to survive in the business you have to create your own identity, and the best way of doing that is through songs. So I really came to the Moodies with the purpose of getting my songs done. I don’t find it easy to listen to my own voice. I’m not really a singer — I’m a guy who does these songs. I was lucky enough, with “Forever Autumn,” to get chosen for that. 

In those early days, did you ever consciously model your singing voice after anyone else’s?
I don’t sound anything like Buddy Holly, but Buddy was my hero. When I came to America in ’68, one of the first things I did was go to Lubbock in Texas — and realized that it’s not a cute little western town, it’s a big flat land with oil wells going up and down. But it was where Buddy was from. I did his songs when I was at school — that’s pretty much all I used to do. I always really loved Cliff Richard in England, ’cause he was the first real star that we had for us English girls and boys. My grandfather left me a collection of funny old 78s, and just before he died he bought a couple by Johnnie Ray. Johnnie Ray had a kind of tragedy in his voice, and there was something about his voice that just stayed with me — maybe it’s influenced me a little bit in a way, just to start a note and to move to a note. There was a kind of cry in his voice.

Has your relationship to your voice, or your facility with it, changed over the years?
Well, it’s certainly changed over the years as I’ve learnt to try and control it, and to not really push it. In the early days I would just go for anything, and sing very badly. I was always pretty stoned on all those records as well, so that added to the emotion of some of it. I’d sometimes get a bit too emotionally involved in it, and sometimes that was a good thing, sometimes it wasn’t so good. It just got a bit soppy. The things I’ve written since the ’80s, I’ve just played it always a little bit safer — stayed within my comfort range. Somebody asked me the other day, “How’d you look after your voice?” And I can’t think of anything to say. I’ve always considered my voice looks after me [laughs]. I was extremely lucky to have the physiology, or makeup, or structure of bits in my larynx, that… people never knew my name, but I would be places, and they’d say, “Oh, that’s that Moody Blues guy.” People could recognize the voice, and that’s a very lucky thing to have as a singer.

When are the times you feel your 72 years?
Well, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is sometimes weak. I’ve had my problems and issues, and some things come along and hit you, and you realize that things aren’t quite the same. I wish I had the hands that I had when I was younger. As you get older, the one thing you look at is your hands, and you can see yourself aging through your hands. It’s curious. We look at our faces and we think, Oh, I’ve got a bit less hair or something, but I’m kind of still the same guy — because it’s a slow process. But I remember, my mother — with my brother and I, when we were both little — we’d go and visit all of these elderly relatives, and sit quietly on the settee, and just look around the room and try and be good, and hope that we’d get back a penny at the end of it. And I remember always looking at these old peoples’ hands.

But you’re still out there touring and performing, which is impressive. Are there any songwriters or musicians whose longevity and career you admire?
People often say to me, “Oh, are you going to see Rod?” or somebody who’s coming around. It’s like, no. [Laughs]. Not interested. I was hung up on those guys like Tim Hardin, or those kind of singer-songwriter guys. I would go out of my way now to see Gordon Lightfoot, anywhere. I saw Donald Fagen about a year ago, and I thought, “That’s just brilliant.” I’m so pleased. He’s still got it.

Do you think there’s a graceful way to age as a performer in the public eye — as well as a non-graceful way?
Aging is very difficult. Some time ago I realized that I’ve spent most of my life contemplating a ghost — and it’s the ghost of myself. Some of us are just lumbered with that. I’ve done six interviews already today, and each one of them we’ve gone through the pleasantries — “What are you doing now? What are you up to? Got anything new?” … but, “In 1966, you did this,” and then we talk about the young Justin.

For me, it’s about dignity. The last few years, I’ve wanted to maintain some dignity. Not try and be that Justin that was. Not that I was ever kind of a rock ’n’ roll-y type of person. But some musicians of my era, when they still try and do the leather trousers and the poses — I suppose Mick can get away with it, but he’s about the only one I know [laughs]. Even Keith has some dignity [laughs] about the way he does it. I sometimes meet people in hotels on the road, and it’s like, “Hey Justin!” And I think, “Oh shit, that’s kind of creepy what they’re working” — they’ve got silver dangly things and shit, and tattoos, and creepy kind of hair [laughs]. So I hope there’s some dignity left. That’s all we can do.

Are you sensitive to ever reaching a point where you’re not at your peak capabilities as a performer, or the idea that maybe there’s a time to hang up the guitar?
I know exactly what you mean — and yes. I’m in that zone, and it’s terrifying. The playing — other people can probably do that for me, although it wouldn’t groove quite the same as I feel it would if I was playing it. But if the voice goes, then I think it’s time. I’m very much aware of it, and it’s frightening.

Is it frightening because of the joy, or identity, you have as a performer?
It’s frightening because I haven’t done anything else. I’d disappear into a library somewhere, I think. A monastery sounds quite a good idea sometimes [laughs].

Would you still be writing songs and making music even if you weren’t able to bring it out to the world?
That’s an interesting question. Nobody’s ever asked me that before, because they expect that all you do is just do these things for a purpose. I write for my own pleasure, and I’ve got quite a lot of songs now that I enjoy — just picking up now and again, and fiddling with, and maybe changing a word or two, and hopefully making them better. They’re for me, and I don’t know whether I’ve got the desire to have to go through the whole circus of the promo of it. I’m not sure I’ve got the appetite for being what people want me to be. At the moment, I’m enjoying doing things selfishly.

It was reported that Moody Blues tapes might have been among those destroyed in the Universal fire. Do you know if they were?
I read it, of course, in a newspaper. It wasn’t reported in England, and it took some time for it to be reported in the U.S. It’s certainly true that we were listed amongst the people whose tapes might have been destroyed. Nobody called me, because there were much more important people to call or to speak about that. And some people were very vocal. I never really thought about it at all. We only made one album in America, with a company called Decca — and, of course, Universal bought Decca. I don’t know what they’ve got stored. The first seven albums, I don’t believe any of those were stored there. But we were on the list. Since then, I’ve been contacted directly by two different lawyers wanting to know if we’ll join some kind of class action heritage — they always have a nice way of putting these things, “heritage artists” — who are working up this giant lawsuit. I always find that “I don’t know” is a good answer, so that’s what I’ve said [laughs].

It’s a fact that Universal has been rushing to release everything — demos, outtakes, scraps, bits of tape between songs of the Moody Blues, in all sorts of box set-y kind of versions over the last two or three years. And they’re still planning on that. I’ve stepped aside from it. They’ve asked me to approve, but I’ve just not answered those emails anymore. I don’t seem to have much control over it, and I’m not interested in sifting through stuff that I didn’t think should have been released anyway. Surely, as in the Moodies case, some kind of nerd — can’t think of a better way of putting it — would love to be among those archives, if they were still there, sifting out things to make a bit of money for Universal and to bring them to light. It’s part of their ethos, these big companies, just to get that stuff out there to monetize old stuff. It’s also true that pretty much everything that wasn’t baked, that was recorded before 1985, most of the oxide will have fallen off by now anyway. Everything that I’ve wanted to be released has been released.

Do you care if your songs outlive you?
My guitars will outlive me, that’s for sure. They’ll always be desirable. I don’t know. People move on, don’t they? People love the music of their youth. I never get drawn into that argument about, “Oh, the music of today is nothing like the music then.” There’s kids falling in love now to all of these songs, even if they’re just a four-bar riff, that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. When they’re my age, they’ll hear them and think, Oh, I used to love that, and it’ll still mean something to them. Nostalgia seems to rest in the ’80s and ’90s now, more than the ’60s, so I’m already seeing that legacy kind of music shifting. I think there will always be things that are good, and valid, and interesting, in whatever era. If I could only have one decade of music, it would be the ’80s, I think. I love that best of all. It was really liberating, and brilliant.

On your album “Octave”…
Oh, that was a weird album.

“The Day We Meet Again” is such a beautiful song. What was the catalyst?
It is a lovely song — completely ruined by me screaming away with too many guitar overdubs. I’m so disappointed with the finished version of it. It starts out pretty good, but then it goes downhill really towards the end. I remember how much Ray Thomas loved that song. He was in the studio when I did the lead vocal, just standing around, passing me a joint or something like that. I must try and get the tape of that… That could be one that’s destroyed, by the way, because that’s the one album that was made in America. But that particular song was about people in my family — I come from a family with a very strong faith, and so that’s in my background as well. And I come from a part of England that is full of history — the west country. It’s a very evocative part of England. It’s about people that I loved, and the loss of them. I’m talking about men and women. I find in life that it doesn’t matter. If you meet someone, and something inside you says, “Stay close to this person. Stay close to them,” I always make a point of doing that. Those are the people that I write about. And they’re in that song.

On the recording, I was mental at the end. There was a great lethargy around that album. Tony Clarke, our record producer, had personal disaster during that album and didn’t finish it. And Mike [Pinder]  couldn’t make up his mind whether he wanted to stay or not. I missed him terribly. I played a lot of the keyboards on it. It was in the time when nobody was showing any interest in anybody else’s songs [laughs]. It’s weird to be in a group like that. Graeme [Edge] was always sort of enthusiastic. But in the studio, in the Record Plant in Los Angeles where we recorded it — which, curiously enough, burnt down not long after we recorded it — there was this funny old little Farfisa organ. The track was going nowhere, people had lost interest, and so late one night, I asked the engineer to put it up. I just started playing that [sings organ groove], and then I thought, Hang on, I can just do this three chord thing all the way through the song, in this particular kind of syncopated thing.That’s the bit I like about it most.

There’s a sadness that hangs over that whole album. Between “Driftwood,” “One Step Into the Light,” and “The Day We Meet Again,” it’s very poignant.

For me, too. I had to remaster it for Universal a few years ago, and… that’s an interesting point. Where did they get the tape to send me to remaster? But “One Step Into the Light” was the song that Mike had written several years before and that we recorded in his little home studio. I cannot listen to that song, because it just wells up in me. It’s just one of the most beautiful songs, ever. He gave me some great gifts, and one of them was to be able to play that song. And then he left. Things were, just personally, not right for him inside that band. So that’s when we became four instead of five. Somewhere in there are those two old guitars — because he was a guitar player, too — that we played together on the original version. And I think his vocal is the original version, too. I remember the oxide was falling off that tape, it had been played so many times.

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