I’m listening to the Moody Blues as I write this, and am saddened at the sudden passing of Ray Thomas on January 4th.
At times like this , I always feel incredibly grateful to have got to know musicians like Ray, who many people regard as their heroes. They’re all just people really.
I’ve had the privilege to spend many hours with the Moody Blues, and got to know them all a little bit – Ray Thomas was always a joy to natter to. He made me laugh, a lot ; most of what we talked about over the years I have never put into print, but here’s a little something which made it into the public eye a couple of years ago.
If you don’t read anything else, please just scroll to the bottom because Ray’s last words to me that day, really did sum up his attitude to his career in music ...
As you may know, the Moody Blues will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2018.
I’m glad that Ray was alive to get that news, and I know he’ll be there in spirit on the day that the rest of the guys step up to collect the accolade, which in my opinion, has taken far too long to arrive in their hands ...
RAY THOMAS – Founding member of The Moody Blues, admits that success happened quickly for “a bunch of lads from the Midlands who could play a bit”.
For Ray himself that musical journey began as a boy – “I always sang, being a Welshman” laughs Thomas “ in school choirs, and the Birmingham youth choir”.
Progressing to a one string bass in a skiffle group in the 1950s, Thomas eventually bumped into fellow ‘Moodies’ founding member, Mike Pinder. The two headed to Germany where Ray admits that they were “ripped off”, and returned to Birmingham aged 21, determined to carry on as musicians.
Thomas recalls that what they found on their return to Birmingham, amongst the 250 or so bands on the circuit, was “complete disillusionment! – ‘Brum beat’ wasn’t taking off as the next ‘Mersey beat’ like people had anticipated, and bands were breaking up left right and centre”.
Having heard Blues bands touring the circuits in Europe, and in the midst of the scene in Birmingham falling apart, Thomas and Pinder decided that Blues was the way forward. The only other Blues artist in Birmingham at that time was Spencer Davis.
Together, Thomas and Pinder approached Denny Laine, who was living with Graeme Edge and his parents; landing Graeme the drum stool on Denny’s recommendation.
Disappointingly for the band, John Lodge was not in a position to turn professional musician at the time, and in his place they recruited Clint Warwick.
“We Bascially formed a Birmingham supergroup!” exclaims Thomas, “I don’t really think any of us expected the speed at which things took off for us after that”.
And it’s true – after only a short spell playing in Clubs around Birmingham, ‘The Moody Blues’ were picked up by a management company, and moved down to London.
With the current re-release, marking the 50th Anniversary, of their first album “The Magnificent Moodies” [Cherry Red Records] – Helen Robinson caught up with Ray Thomas for a chat about the beginnings of a Birmingham Blues band, who went on to be considered as global pioneers of progressive and orchestral rock ...
HR : “The Magnificent Moodies” is a very fitting title for a first album, considering the success you went on to have!
RT : We felt, at the time, that it was a bit pretentious to call it that, but management thought it was a good idea!
HR : Do you have any particular memories of recording the album?
RT : It’s been 50 years, and you tend to forget certain things, you know? But I do remember finding “Go Now” ...
We were a working band at the time, just moved down to London, and we’d play anywhere.
One night “Manfred Man” pulled out of a show at The Marquee Club, and we stepped in for them, which lead to us being offered our own regular night there.
It was a major breakthrough for us in London. The Marquee Club was the place to be seen, and people would queue around the block to see us perform heavy blues.
We had talked about putting together an album of songs that we performed live, but Studio time was like gold dust in London at the time and we just couldn’t get in anywhere to start and lay anything down.
A friend of the managers from America used to send over boxes of singles and acetates, and one day we came across “Go Now” by Bessie Banks and her brother. It hadn’t been released, but she had laid it down as a demo which was very much lighter and slower than our version, but we loved the song.
At the same time, the Marquee were building a studio at the back of the club.
We asked if we could go into the studio and record it.
However, the studio was still pretty much a building site, apart from the control room which was almost finished.
So we went in there and set up amongst ladders and bags of cement, and recorded “Go Now”.
We were the first band to record in Marquee Studios – we were lucky with that.
We ended up doing about half the album there – and the other half was recorded at Olympic Studios.
HR : When “The Magnificant Moodies” was released, did you ever imagine what followed?
RT : It was a bit of a shock, because from forming the band to having a number one with “Go Now”, it was a relatively short space of time.
We were all elated , but didn’t realise what a big hit it would be. We were a bit naive really ...
It was a massive hit across Europe, especially France.
We spent a lot of time touring France, with a lot of the big blues artists.
And proof of how naive we were :-
We used to stay in Paris – on the West Bank, in the ‘artists’ area.
We rented a studio there and recorded a song that Denny wrote called “Boulevard de la Madeline” – he’d seen the signpost on the street and romanticised about it to the point of writing the song, but the Parisian’s ended up in arms about it. When we played it on stage we would silence the audience! What we didn’t realise is that “Boulevard de la Madeline”, was bang in the middle of the red light district! We didn’t know!
We had success in a LOT of countries, incredibly. America loved us, but oddly enough – “Go Now” wasn’t a hit in the states.
They released “Tuesday Afternoon” instead, and that did OK.
HR : “The Magnificent Moodies” was the only album that you recorded as that first 1964-66 line-up wasn’t it?
Would you have been happy to carry on and record more music in that genre, or were you ready for a change?
Did you embrace what came after Denny and Clint left?
RT : The thing was, Clint was married with a couple of kids, and his wife wasn’t happy about the time he was spending on the road , so he went back to Birmingham to run the family business.
Denny left more or less at the same time, to go solo – he fancied trying out songs with a string quartet, which he did, and had a certain amount of success.
I felt like The Moodies were worth the perseverance, despite things having slowed down a bit for us, and had no real issues about carrying on with a change of band members.
I’d worked with John Lodge in a band called “El Riot and the Rebels” – I was El Riot of course – a right bloody prat!
John was actually our first choice of bass player when we formed ‘The Moody Blues’, but his dad wouldn’t let him do it until he’d finished his apprenticeship. Same as my Dad, but I was a year older than John. We all came from working class backgrounds where our parents knew that music was a dodgy game, and wanted us to have a trade to fall back on.
In that 12 months whilst John finished his apprenticeship, we’d had a number 1 hit with “Go Now” – so when I called him up, he was down to London like a shot!
I found Justin quite by accident really.
I was sitting in a club called the “The Scotch & St James”, which was the meeting place for bands back then, having a drink with Eric Burdon [The Animals] and he was in the throes of putting a new Animals together. I mentioned that I was looking for a new guitarist / singer.
Eric had put an anonymous advert in the NME, “Top recording band needs guitarist”, and found who he wanted – so he gave me all of the applications he hadn’t yet gone through, and fate handed me Justin.
And that was the new Moodies.
HR : When you enlisted John and Justin, the band took a different direction musically ...
RT : Musically we were moving towards using strings and stuff anyway – If you could have listened to what Mike and Denny were writing towards the end of that time, you could hear that influence creeping in.
Justin aided that because he had a much softer voice ...
HR : “Days Of Future Passed” was the first album released with the new line-up; the rhythm and heavy blues, suddenly having been replaced by the orchestral opening of ‘The Day Begins’, and a very different vocal sound ...
How was that received?
RT : To tell you the truth, it went down like a cup of cold sick with the record company! [laughs]
Before we recorded it – Decca, who we were signed to, had installed this new ‘Deramic’ sound system – best described as Wall to Wall stereo, instead of that old ping pong stereo sound.
They wanted us to do a demonstration disc for this sound system, to send out with their reps, and asked us if we would go in and play a couple of standard Rock and Roll numbers; to compliment that, they wanted Peter Knight (composer) to record a couple of classical numbers, and these would become the demo ... but it was going to be rubbish!
So, Tony Clarke – one of Deccas top producers – and Peter Knight put their necks on the line for us at that point.
Again – We couldn’t get into the studio to record ‘Days Of Future Passed’, so we approached Tony and Peter with the idea.
They liked it, and helped us to record the whole thing in about 8 days – we recorded “Legend Of The Mind” in the same session.
We never actually recorded with the Orchestra ourselves.
The roadie would take over what we’d worked on each night, to Peter, and he would then write the bridge for the song.
At the very end Peter recorded the orchestra, and then stitched it all together.
We were absolutely bowled over by it. We had achieved exactly what we wanted.
Every Tuesday, Decca would get all of their producers together with what they’d recorded during the week, and the powers that be would sit and listen and decide what they were going to do with it.
Tony played them “Days Of Future Passed” and they said “What the bloody Hell is that?”
They didn’t know how to market it because it didn’t fit into any of their pigeon holes.
Fortunately for us that afternoon, a chap called Walt Maguire who was over from America – the head of London Records [American Decca] – said “Christ! If you’re not going to release that here, give it to me, I’ll release it in America. It’s fantastic!”
So they decided to give it to him and agreed he could do that, and also decided to release it here.
Nobody got into trouble, on our account, and that was the beginning of the new ‘Moodies’, with “Days Of Future Passed”!
We had ‘The Beatles’ come around to our house that night and played it to them ... and they loved it.
We were good friends with them, especially George and John.
They used to bring stuff for us to listen to too, because they trusted our judgements on it.
There was none of that back biting in those days. Everyone was just busy being creative.
We supported them on their last English tour – with Denny and Clint. That was a hoot! I don’t think I dare say too much about what we used to get up to ...
But you could see they [The Beatles] weren’t going to do anymore.
They were writing some beautiful songs, but you couldn’t hear them.
All you could hear was “Ladies and Gentlemen, The B ..” and then there’d just be screaming.
The truth is, that they got totally cheesed off with it.
They wanted people to listen to what they were doing.
The fans were their own worst enemies really ...
HR : Talking of your connection to The Beatles – You were managed by Brian Epstein for a while. Surely that couldn’t have gone better could it?
RT : Well that’s debatable actually.
Brian Epstein, was in love with a Bull Fighter in Spain and used to go over there a lot.
He had a big organisation by the time he was managing us, but when he wasn’t there, nobody was making any decisions in his absence.
We were reliant on all of these people to get us the work, and look after our affairs.
They were our agent as well, and things had been quiet for us for a while when a promoter in France contacted Epstein’s team wanting us to tour over there again.
So we agreed to it. We touched down at the airport in Paris to crowds of press folks, and screaming fans!
We didn’t know that the record company had released “Bye Bye Bird”, and it had been a massive hit there.
In short – This promoter had literally paid us peanuts for this tour, and we were a bit pissed off about it all.
We went down to see Brian at his house as soon as we got back.
There was a bit of a heated debate and I actually said to him “You’re the head of a crap organisation” – so he had a dramatic tantrum, threw us out of his house, and told us to meet him at the office in the morning.
When we arrived there, he’d got together all his heads of department and in front of us asked them all about what had happened. He just got blank responses. At which point he stood up and said “You’re right, I am the head of a crap organisation”.
Then he asked us what we wanted, and we asked for the contract back.
So he sent his legal guy to get the contract, ripped it up into pieces in front of us; told us we were free, wished us luck, and we left the office ...
HR : Well his luck must have rubbed off on you, given the continued success you went on to have.
You’ve got a fairly impressive discography there, as proof!
RT : Yes I suppose I have really! I’ve lead one hell of a life!! [laughs]
I was with ‘The Moody Blues’ for over 40 years, until my health prevented me from carrying on in 2003.
It wasn’t a falling out or anything like that, I just had to pack it in. On Doctors orders!
I’ve no regrets though. I was approaching 61 years old, had played everywhere I’d ever wanted to – except Sydney Opera house which I would have love to play!
Do you know? We were the first band to play Madison Square Gardens, in New York, twice in the same day, and the City Council put a block on that ever happening again because it brought the traffic in Manhattan to a standstill with everyone trying to get in and out! [laughs].
I went for a walk between shows that day, with our publicist, and thankfully nobody recognised me. We used to get mobbed wherever we went as a group, and to be honest that day I just fancied bit of fresh air and some roasted chestnuts from the street vendor!
As we’re standing there, some folks walked up to us asking if we had any tickets – they thought we were ticket touts!
It annoyed me even back then, people asking $400 dollars per ticket! So I walked up to one of these touts and asked him how much he wanted for two tickets, and he actually only wanted $200, so I handed it over, and carried on eating my bag of nuts! Next thing, a young couple came up asking for tickets and I said, “I have got some actually” – and gave them to them for free.
Our publicist looked at my like I was crazy and said “What the bloody hell did you do that for?” and I said “because I’m going to get one hell of a kick out of knowing that when I walk out on stage later, that that young couple will look up and realise that I’m the bloke who gave them their tickets!”
HR : Do you have a favourite album amongst the 14 that you recorded with the ‘Moodies’?
RT : Well I don’t know really because I always say that they’re all our children.
I have different memories of different albums and they all mean something. I love them all.
You know, when you start with absolutely nothing and end up with something like “To Our Children’s Children’s Children” – it’s very rewarding.
We had a lot of fun playing around with sounds over the years. They were happy days.
HR : And what are you up to these days, post ‘Moody Blues’?
RT : I’m still doing a lot of recording – I’ve never stopped recording really. Solo albums, collaborations and all of that.
Just before Christmas (2014) I was working with John Lodge again. His solo album comes out soon. It was just like old times ...
I’m hoping to record a new solo album this year too – gives me something to do amongst fishing trips!
I like to keep busy ...
I’ve just recorded with an Italian ‘Prog’ band, who paid me in Pasta! [laughs]
I’m not kidding ... about a month later this huge box of pasta turned up on the doorstep from Naples!
And then I went out to record with a Russian band – the son of a billionaire oil baron, who thought that I was God!
HR : Well You are regarded as a pioneer of progressive and orchestral rock – that’s verging on God-like!
[laughs] At the end of the day – I’m just a guy from Birmingham, with a bit of talent, who got lucky ...
December 29th 1941 – January 4th 2018