The Mellotron really changed the direction of The Moody Blues’ music from a traditional blues band to something more ethereal and unique, spacey.
The ‘off-the-planet viewpoint’ is what I used to call it. Orbital music [laughs].
Was it an instrument you shared with other musicians or did you keep it to yourself?
Probably my proudest moment was when I turned The Beatles onto the Mellotron. I thought if anybody would do something really cool with it, they would, and they did, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ The first time I heard it I said, ‘Yes!’ It was my only way of getting in their band! [Laughs].
I had a second opportunity and that was over at John’s Imagine sessions at his house, only about 20 minutes away. We’d see each other occasionally and he’d tell me to stop by during one of the sessions. So I got over there—they were just getting ready to do a take on ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier, Mama’ —and I took a look at the Mellotron. Someone had been at it and didn’t know what they were doing. It was just in tatters! All of the tapes were all over the place. There was no way that thing was going to work. So I said, ‘Is there a tambourine? Is anybody playing the tambourine?’ And he said no, there wasn’t, so away we went. I played tambourine on one take of ‘I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier, Mama.’
It’s those kinds of memories that are still uplifting for me and of course we did a tour with The Beatles before they went to Shea Stadium the day after [our] tour finished. We had a great time together and stayed mostly in hotel pubs. After the show we’d all get back to the hotel pub, have something to eat and drink, play pool, lots of laughs and drinks. That’s something I’ll never, ever forget. We ended the tour and they left for Shea Stadium the next morning and that was it. So it’s been a wonderful ride for me. I’m very, very happy to have been able to do what I did and to be a part of what happened. I’ll always be proud of it and I know most people in the same situation as I was feel the same way about it, still.
The Isle Of Wight’s audience in 1970 numbered above 600,000. Since the festival has been revived, how do you feel today’s festival will compare? Or can there even be a comparison?
Well, 600,000 people together is a fabulous sight to see. To try and describe it would be like psychedelic visions of a bright future. There was no need for acid to see 600,000 people all of one mind enjoying music and loving life and being under the sun! There were very little problems that took place there. I’ll tell you what it reminds me of, or this reminds me of then: It was the same vibe as the election of Obama. You know how that was? With all of those people coming out, that was incredible, with all of the globes that were floating around above the people’s heads. That was something pretty cosmic, I thought.
Isle Of Wight was on that same kind of level where that many people all tuning in—in the case of Obama, of course, it was millions—but it’s that same thing. Just something that happens in your brain, the collection of human beings on the planet in the same way that animals and birds have instincts to do things, I think that this touches on the instincts of humanity and what’s good about it in the strongest way. It’s more of a feeling than anything else. The sight, of course, is incredible to start with, but when you’re not concentrating on a certain part of it and are just looking at faces and realizing what you’re seeing is a big, big chunk of humanity in one spot at one time. Isn’t this a vision for the future?
It’s a memory thing: You know you were there and were a part of it and it gives a greater understanding of humanity and the world. There was something life-changing about it, not only for The Moody Blues, but for the people who participated in the concert. And, hopefully peace on Earth is still within humanity’s grasp. You know, it’s really up to the people to change the world. They can’t expect the leaders to change the world. It’s people, collectively, who have the power. And when younger people absorb wisdom, it stays with them for the rest of their lives. The sooner we get it to our kids, the better. Once again, a music fest still has all of the potential, all of the power of the people, so to speak. They’re just using the power to have some fun, too.
And the line-up for the 1970 festival was astonishing: The Moody Blues, Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Miles Davis—the roster goes on and on. That performance must be dear to your heart.
Jimi was there, oh gosh, a whole bunch of top name acts. Yes, it is, definitely. That’s what I mean by the similarities between Isle Of Wight and the election of the President—that feeling that was at the Isle Of Wight—and I’m sure at Woodstock other than the few problems they had—but it’s that thing of getting a lot of people of one mind together. I’m sure it had an effect on my ideas of the future and my songwriting and lyrics, which is why I did a story CD called A Planet With One Mind.
Your songwriting now, is it still informed by the same things that influenced it when you began with The Moody Blues?
I’d say it’s very much the same. I suppose it’s a little like learning to play tennis in that you learn to play once and don’t have to learn again, you continue to do it. It’s the same thing with success with a band and hit records. There’s the same feeling of having achieved something and there’s no way that you can fall back unless you’re doing something wrong, basically. Also, I’d like to mention, a while ago I started a website called songwars.net. It hosts a songwriting competition. We’re almost a year old, I think, and we’re doing really wonderfully, getting lots of people partaking. Someone who has written a song who wants some critique about how the lyrics are or the melody or whatever, they can submit and ask a question for us to comment on a particular part of the song or a different direction for the song to go. We have a crew of very good musicians who do the judging. It’s a quarterly competition. It turned out to be a lot of fun. My wife and I brainstormed it. She’s the CFO around here, a very smart gal who knows how to make things happen.
For more info, visit moodyblues.co.uk.