Along with the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, the Moody Blues are members of an elite fraternity of veteran British rock bands that have been successfully recording and touring together for more than a quarter of a century.
The Moody Blues, who essentially created the classical-rock genre with their 1967 breakthrough album, “Days of Future Passed,” are about halfway through recording a new album, the long-anticipated follow-up to 1988’s “Sur Del Mar.”
And they are in the midst of a world tour that includes a stop tonight at San Diego State University’s Open Air Theatre.
Justin Hayward, the group’s lead singer, guitarist and chief songwriter, is on the phone from Kansas City. He has been asked a question he has answered countless times in recent years: Just what, exactly, is the key to the Moody Blues’ longevity?
Is it because the boys in the band are best friends, soul mates, inseparable compadres? Au contraire, Hayward said: Outside of the studio, off the road, the band rarely spends time together. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt, and the Moody Blues have taken this adage to heart.
“People are always asking us, ‘Do you socialize outside of the group?’ And the truth is, we don’t because we don’t need to do that,” Hayward said. “We each have our own lives, apart from the Moody Blues, and it’s nice that occasionally there is some friction. I think it would be real boring if we all thought the same and did the same.
“The real reason we’ve been together for so long is, simply, that it’s nice to be in a band with other guys whose company you enjoy, who play your songs and with whom you can make music that makes people happy.”
The Moody Blues came up with their celebrated sound purely by chance--or, as Hayward recalled, “a wonderful series of accidents” that led first to their discovery of the Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that reproduces orchestral sounds through tapes, and then to a studio pairing with the London Festival Orchestra.
“We were originally a rhythm-and-blues band, wearing blue suits and singing about people and problems in the Deep South,” Hayward said. “It was OK, but it was incongruous, getting us nowhere, and, in the end, we had no money, no nothing.
“When I came into the band as a songwriter in early 1966, Mike (Pinder) was the only one in the band who was writing, and the songs we were writing together were nothing like anything we were doing in our live act. And then, literally one day, we said we’ve got to do something entirely different.
“So we decided to write our own material and do only our own songs. Mike used to work for the Mellotronics Co., which made this cranky old instrument called the Mellotron, and when we found one in some old club in Birmingham, England, we tried it out, and it just suited our songs.
“So we bought a used one from the Dunlop Tire Co. for 20 pounds, dusted it off and started fiddling around with it.”
A short time, after the Moody Blues had introduced the Mellotron into their live shows, Hayward recalled, they were asked by Decca Records to cut a stereo sampler LP with the London Festival Orchestra.
“At the time, stereo was confined to classical music, and they wanted us to do a rock version of Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’ to show that stereo could work for rock ‘n’ roll as well,” Hayward said. “We said, yeah, sure we’d do it, and then, after we said yes, we went down to the pub and decided to do our own songs instead.
“It was a conspiracy among all us musicians who were present, and we just went into the studio and recorded our own stage show. It took us five days to finish, and, after each day we’d send them down to the orchestra’s conductor, Peter Knight, and he’d write these orchestral arrangements. We’d edited all the tapes to be the right length, and they (the orchestra) just played live in the gaps.
“When we played the finished product to all these old directors at Decca, which is a fine, upstanding old English music firm, they said, ‘This isn’t Dvorak,’ and we said, ‘No, but this is what it is.’ We had one ally there, and he really stood up for us; he said, ‘I think it could be quite interesting,’ and besides, we had made a stereo demonstration record--it just wasn’t Dvorak. So eventually we got enough of them to believe in it to put it out, and it was an instant hit.”
Indeed. “Days of Future Passed,” as the album was called, went spiraling up the British rock charts and, a year later, did the same in the United States, peaking at No. 3 in the fall of 1968.
From that point on, there was no stopping the Moody Blues. Over the next four years, they released five more albums that went gold on both sides of the Atlantic, including 1972’s “Seventh Sojourn,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 on the U.S. charts. That same year, “Nights in White Satin,” off their first album, was belatedly released as a single and went all the way up to No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
But, in 1974, the Moody Blues announced their dissolution, after releasing a swan-song greatest hits collection, the double-album “This Is the Moody Blues.”
“I don’t know if it had anything to do with the creative part; it had more to do with the fact that our lives had changed so much,” Hayward recalled. “I was 19 when I joined the Moody Blues, and I had known no other life; I had gone from being a broke teen-ager with no money to superstardom and had developed no real life outside of the band.
“At the time, we were getting more and more enclosed and introverted, and there was just nothing left to talk about; we needed to go out and do something different.”
So they did. Hayward and bassist John Lodge cut an album together, 1975’s “Blue Jays,” followed by a pair of solo albums. The three other group members--flutist Ray Thomas, keyboard player Pinder and drummer Graeme Edge--also issued a solo album or two apiece.
But, by 1977, the Moody Blues were a group once more, reuniting in the studio for 1978’s “Octave.”
“We were apart for three years, and we knew we were going to record another album together, but, in interviews, none of us were going to say it until we actually did it,” Hayward said. Midway through the “Octave” sessions, Pinder abruptly dropped out.
“He left the band halfway through the album, and then when we wanted to go out on tour, he decided he didn’t want to tour anymore, either,” Hayward said. “And, apart from a few letters of business, we haven’t had much contact. I just think his priorities became different, whereas mine--and everyone else’s--were always music, No. 1. And I still really miss him, because, when I first came into the band, it was our singing and writing that really got us going; we kind of started together.”
Still, the Moody Blues weathered the loss quite well, and, with Patrick Moraz, formerly with Yes, they finished the album and returned to the road for a brief tour.
The overwhelming response--"Octave” went platinum and they had no trouble filling multi-thousand-seat arenas--was completely unexpected, Hayward said.
“We never thought we would be able to come back in the same way,” he said. “We thought we had been away too long, so we were really making a record for ourselves.
“But then it just took off again--it’s like what people couldn’t have, they wanted even more.”
So the Moody Blues decided to stick with it. Their next album, 1981’s “Long Distance Voyager,” became their first U.S. chart-topper since “Seventh Sojourn,” way back in ’72. And, in 1986, with “Your Wildest Dreams,” the Moodys scored their first Top 10 single since “Nights in White Satin.”
“An amazing thing has happened to us within the last five or six years,” Hayward said. “ ‘Long Distance Voyager’ was where it really started to change, into sort of a younger audience, but then with ‘Your Wildest Dreams,’ having a Top 10 single--which is very rare for the Moody Blues--and a hit video that went along with it, brought a whole new audience to the band that never knew anything about ‘Nights in White Satin’ or any of that.
“It’s weird--this is about two years ago--I was in a bar somewhere, and some guy came up to me, and he was pretty drunk, and he said, ‘Aren’t you the guy in the Moody Blues video?’
“That’s what it’s come to--it’s almost like we’ve gotten a second life.”
And how long will this second life last?
“I don’t know,” Hayward said. “I mean, it could finish tonight in Kansas City; it could go on for another 20 years. I’ve just got no idea. I’ve got no idea.
“As long as it remains fun and pleasant for all of us, it will go on.”