In the late 1960s, a rental car carrying two members of the Moody Blues and one member of Canned Heat singing “Going Up the Country” — a Canned Heat song that famously romanticized small town living—pulled into the parking lot at the Madonna Inn.
“When I think of us in that car, turning off that road and into that hotel, I can only think of that song,” Moody Blues singer Justin Hayward said.
While the Madonna Inn (or San Luis Obispo, for that matter) hasn’t changed that much since Hayward checked in, the music business has changed considerably. Yet, the Moody Blues — who return to San Luis Obispo on Wednesday — have remained relevant, as proven by their song “Nights in White Satin,” which recently reached the UK charts again after it was performed on Simon Cowell’s show “The X Factor.”
The Moodies officially formed in 1964. But a new configuration of the group scored its first hit with its 1967 album “Days of Future Passed,” a day-in-the-life concept record with orchestral strings and a psychedelic mood.
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Among the first rock bands to use both stereo and orchestral arrangements, the Moodies’ other hits would include “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Question” and “Legend of the Mind,” about LSD guru Timothy Leary. In the 1980s, they scored a big comeback with “Your Wildest Dreams” and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere.”
Hayward recently spoke to us by phone from a hotel in Oklahoma City.
Q: I was reading about “Legend of the Mind” about Timothy Leary, who actually escaped from prison here in San Luis Obispo. What do you remember about him?
A: He was a very good friend of ours. We first met him in 1968 in Los Angeles. He had a commune just outside of Los Angeles, and me, Mike (Pinder) and Ray (Thomas) went out to stay with him for a week, and he became a firm friend right up until his death.
Q: What was his reaction to your song?
A: He came to see us only because of the song. He came on stage and played tambourine.
From our point of view it was a kind of tongue-in-cheek song. But he always said that people around the world knew him more from that song than they did from his own stuff.
Q: How did LSD help songwriting?
A: The answer to that question is: I don’t know. But I’m glad that I had that experience.
I went through that phase for about a year. The first time we did it, we did it as a group, with myself, Ray, Mike and Graeme (Edge). We all went into Richmond Park and we had the most amazing trip. It was just absolutely wonderful. And the next time I did it with my girlfriend, and it was just wonderful. And then one day I did it with Graeme and went to some awful club and the whole thing went terribly wrong, so that was the last time I did it.
I remember always having a notepad near the bed— or wherever I was — after I’d taken a couple of trips and writing miraculous philosophical stuff down. Of course, when you look at it the next day, it’s complete nonsense. Or it’s just that maybe I hadn’t remembered the connections that I was using at the time in my mind.
Q: You guys are credited with being the first rock band to record with a symphony, beating The Beatles. Did they get the idea from you guys?
A: I shouldn’t think so. They didn’t need anything from anybody. But we were always recording just down the road from them. Decca Studios in Broadhurst Gardens was the sort of bigger but less famous version of Abbey Road. And there was a lot of interaction between the two studios.
But we were lucky in that Decca wanted to make rock ’n’ roll records in real stereo. They had an ulterior motive, which was to sell their stereo systems, which nobody had at that time, people using mainly mono.
Q: When Decca had this other idea in mind, you guys had the concept of “Days of Future Passed.” Did you guys envision an orchestra with that concept?
A: They wanted us to record a rock version of Dvorak to demonstrate their stereo could be as interesting for a rock ’n’ roll group as it could be for an orchestra. And Peter Knight, who was England’s best romantic string arranger, who was signed to Decca, came to see us and saw our show, which was “Days of Future Passed.” And he said, “Your stuff is just much more interesting. You just go in and record your stuff, and I’ll do orchestral versions of your stuff in between. It would give me a lot more thrill to write around your melodies.” Decca was a little surprised when we delivered it. But they put it out, and it didn’t do too badly for them.
Q: I was reading some of the stories about you guys written in the ’80s. And many of those stories called you guys — like the Stones and other ’60s groups — “aging rockers,” even though you were 39 and the other guys were in their early 40s. Why were the ’60s rockers considered old-timers at 40?
A: When you’re 19, 25 is old. And the big changes in music belong to young people. And the most valuable commodity in the music business, no matter what you say, is youth. That’s appealing, beautiful and fresh. So I can understand where that comes from.
I don’t mind being an aging rocker. I would mind if nobody ever came to see us.
Q: You guys won Video of the Year at MTV.
A: Yeah — “Wildest Dreams.” It was a good video. We had the power to make our own videos for about three or four years. And we had hits with those videos. We lost that power again. You rely so much on record companies for your promotion and for your money — your advances and things.
Q: I was recently reading an old story from Creem magazine about Aerosmith. This was in the ’70s, and they’re talking about hating performing the song “Dream On.” And here, 35 years later, they still do it. Is there a song you hate to do that you have to do?
A: No. Hand on heart, there’s nothing like that. This music makes people happy. They want to hear the people who made that record and sang on that record. They want to see it done in front of them.
Music means so much in my life. And I’m always rather peeved if I go to see a band and they don’t do songs that I really love them for.
Q: Is it true that you sold the rights to “Nights in White Satin” some time ago?
A: When I was 17, I started in the business as a guitar player working for a rock ’n’ roll singer. And I just started writing songs. And Lonnie Donegan— we were on the bill of one of his shows — he said, “I heard you make songs and do these acetates. You need a publisher.” And I said, “Oh, do I?” So I signed with his publishing company and, um ... big mistake. At 17. Mike did the same thing so it was very difficult for us in the first two years, both of us writing a lot of influential songs for the band but not owning the rights to those songs.
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.