The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’: An Oral History
In the latter half of the Sixties, British rock groups faced a daunting challenge: how to bridge the chasm between the American-inspired Mersey Beat so beloved earlier in the decade, and the kaleidoscopic psychedelia that had taken its place. Only a handful of acts pulled off the creative leap, and few managed to combine commercial triumph with musical daring and technical innovation quite like the Moody Blues. With their 1967 opus “Nights in White Satin,” they vaulted past the catchy yet derivative R&B that inspired their name and toward parts unknown. The seven-minute epic would become their signature song.
The group’s upcoming (and long overdue) entry into the Rock and Roll of Fame has invigorated their fervent fan base and led others to reexamine their diverse canon, beginning with their 1964 breakout hit, a cover of Bessie Bank’s soulful ballad “Go Now.” The shift towards the symphonic grandeur of their later work began in earnest after the group enlisted Justin Hayward to replace their recently departed lead singer. “I was absolutely lousy at rhythm & blues, so it was my purpose to get my own songs done,” Hayward told Rolling Stone in December. “Things had to change. The blue suits and the R&B set was getting us nowhere.”
Not long into his tenure, Hayward presented his colleagues with the bones of a delicate acoustic tune, inspired by an ex-girlfriend’s tender gift of satin bed sheets. Refined by the Moody Blues’ hive mind, “Nights in White Satin” evolved into an emotional tour de force, smoldering with the passion of young love and the excitement of a band on the precipice of new artistic peaks. While not an instant success, the song would scale the charts across the globe on multiple occasions without the aid of a major-label push – an occurrence that borders on supernatural in the music industry. It also served as the anchor of their groundbreaking 1967 album Days of Future Passed, which the group is currently in the midst of honoring with a 50th-anniversary tour.
On the eve of their Hall of Fame induction, Hayward and Moody Blues co-founders Mike Pinder and Graeme Edge spoke to Rolling Stone about the song’s unlikely genesis and how it became one of the greatest slow burns in pop history.
By the fall of 1966, a two-year commercial dry spell had demoralized the band and crippled them financially, prompting the resignation of frontman and dominant writing force Denny Laine and bassist Clint Warwick. The three remaining members, keyboardist Mike Pinder, drummer Graeme Edge and multi-instrumentalist Ray Thomas, vowed to continue. With a creative influx from two new bandmates and a cutting-edge piece of technology, they pushed forward into the New Year.
Mike Pinder: The band had a hit in 1964 with the Bessie Banks song “Go Now,” but our management had disappeared with the money. One day we went to the office and they had basically vanished. They had gone bankrupt and we were broke.
Graeme Edge: Then when Denny Laine left, that almost broke up the band. We had to get a new lead vocalist and [bassist] John [Lodge] came in. That’s when we started to reorganize and rethink our direction.
Justin Hayward: I was playing guitar for a singer called Marty Wilde, and he was a good reference. I’d written some songs and sent them to Eric Burdon [of the Animals]. Unbeknownst to me he passed them to Mike Pinder in the Moodies and soon I had a call from Mike. I came up to London to meet him and we got on. Then a couple of weeks later I met Ray and Graeme and I was in, really. I think it was an advantage that I had a Vox amplifier, which was more than they had.
Pinder: Justin and John were a great fit for us. They came into the band at a pivotal time and the energy and creativity was palpable. We had started writing our own songs, and the success of “Go Now” had opened doors. We were all bringing our best to the music.
Hayward: We were so young. To be quite honest, the only challenges I faced were how to keep up the payments on my guitar and how to avoid going back to live with my parents. There was nothing to worry about, because you don’t when you’re that young. When you’re 19 years old, who cares? I wasn’t wrestling with any change in the band’s direction or anything like that.
Edge: Justin didn’t really come up through the rock & roll route but the English folk route, so that altered our direction somewhat. But the big thing was the introduction of the Mellotron.
An analog predecessor of the modern synthesizer, the Mellotron could replicate a vast array of sounds and rhythms through the use of tape loops. Played as one would a keyboard, the instrument allowed bands on a budget to expand their sonic palette without hiring costly session musicians. Mike Pinder, who once worked at the Birmingham factory where the instruments were made, was particularly taken with the device.
Pinder: I grew up listening to the music of Mantovani and the layers of rich and melodious string arrangements that were his trademark. The Mellotron enabled me to create my own variations of string movements. I could play any instrument that I wanted to hear in the music. If I heard strings, I could play them with the Mellotron. If I heard cello, brass, trumpets or piano, I could play them.
Edge: Mike got the Mellotron and made some extensive modifications to it. The way it worked was, you pressed a key down, and that started a wheel that dragged the tape across the machine playback head. The sound took time to speak, so there was no question of anything percussive; no “dit-dit-dit,” you couldn’t do that with it. You had to play all flowing chords and stuff.
Pinder: With the ‘Tron I could develop melodies and counter melodies within the Moody Blues’ songs. When you become the orchestra, I think you become the arranger by default. I could create the backdrops and the landscape for the melodies that the guys were writing.
And just what were they writing? Gone were R&B stompers inspired by the likes of Willie Dixon and James Brown, and in their place were atmospheric originals that embraced England’s newly “Swinging” reputation as a psychedelic mecca. The Moody Blues’ first singles under their new incarnation, Hayward’s knowingly titled “Fly Me High” and Pinder’s “Love and Beauty,” trod an art-pop path that had been cleared by that most fab of foursomes, the Beatles. But the creative current flowed both ways in the Sixties – it was in fact Pinder who introduced John Lennon to the Mellotron, later used to great effect on his dreamy masterpiece “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
Pinder: We did the Beatles’ last tour of England [before] we reformed the Moody Blues. Ray and I were busy creating our own music, but we were always inspired by what John, Paul, George and Ringo were up to, musically. If you visualize the world of music like a giant mansion with countless rooms to explore, I understood the Beatles to be the ultimate explorers of the mansion. They opened up door after door, leaving those doors open for other musicians to enter and explore the room and its possibilities. And this is why I wanted the guys to have a Mellotron. The Mellotron allowed musicians to explore musical landscapes – and who better to do that then my friends, the Beatles?
Hayward: The Beatles were the leaders of the scene. It was quite a small music scene – you almost knew everybody else. You went to the same shops in Denmark Street and the same clubs, so everybody was quite familiar. You had a lot of acquaintances, which the Beatles were. I listened to lots of things at the time, but if I could only name one, it would be the Beatles.
Hayward found his own hit-making muse one night after returning home from performing a concert. Perched on the edge of his bed as the birds chirped in the pre-dawn light, he reached for his 12-string guitar. As he simultaneously mourned a lost romance and celebrated the start of a new one, his thoughts drifted to a present from a former flame: white satin sheets.
Hayward: I was sharing a flat with Graeme and two girls that we just met. The four of us were living together in two rooms in Bayswater. I remember coming back from a gig and sitting on the side of the bed and just writing the two verses to “Nights.” It was quite emotional. It was a whole series of random thoughts that were on my mind. I was at the end of one big love affair and at the beginning of another.
Edge: We heard it for the first time at rehearsal the following day.
Hayward: There was a nice hall near where Mike lived. He lived slightly out of town in Barnes and we agreed to meet the next day and have a practice. That’s what we used to call it: “a practice.” I think we used to go there to have some fun, really [laughs]. Nothing more serious than that. The other guys were probably thinking, “Oh, Justin will have something new to fiddle with.” And so I remember playing it to them. Mike had just gotten the Mellotron. I played the two verses and then I remember Mike playing the [keyboard] phrase. It just seemed to make sense.
Pinder: It was magic. I loved Justin’s melody and I loved the counter melody I created for his song.
Edge: I thought it was pleasant enough. I liked it, but obviously the soaring backing vocals and arrangements and stuff weren’t there. The first time I actually heard it back was when we did a live BBC radio show.
Hayward: When we first heard it on the BBC we were going to a gig. We thought, “Oh, that’s interesting and has a spooky feel to it.”
Edge: This was definitely a skeletal arrangement. No backing vocals, just singing it with the lead guitar, bass and some keyboard. We didn’t think much of it at first. Then we went into the control room to listen to the playback of about four songs and “Nights” came up and we all looked at each other. I think that’s when we all realized we had something on our hands.
As 1967’s shimmering Summer of Love faded into fall, the band convened at Decca Records’ West Hampstead studios on October 8th to record what would become the song’s definitive version. Producer Tony Clarke and engineer Derek Varnals made full use of Studio One’s formidable echo chambers, lending dramatic resonance to the stacks of double-tracked vocal harmonies by Hayward, Pinder, Lodge and Thomas.
Hayward: I used a big, old 12-string that was given to me by Lonnie Donegan. There’s not much on the record, to be quite honest. It’s not a complicated recording. At Deram [Records, Decca’s technologically innovative imprint], they were making beautiful CinemaScope stereo, which was lovely for us. Even the boys down at Abbey Road were making stereo with vocals on the right and [the instrumental] track on the left, which wasn’t very interesting. We were very lucky.
Edge: The song is in 6/8 time and, strangely enough, “Go Now,” from the previous incarnation of the Moodies was also in 6/8. I suppose I got a bit of experience in playing that sort of beat.
Hayward: It was recorded quite a long time before the album, but I think because it mentioned the word “nights,” that gave a hint to what the rest of the concept should be about: That “day in the life” idea.
“Nights in White Satin” would form the centerpiece of the band’s second LP, Days of Future Passed, a symphonic morning-to-night journey through daily existence. Later hailed as one of the first “concept albums,” the song cycle materialized thanks in part to a sizable debt the band owed their label. To recoup their money, the Decca brass tapped the Moody Blues to help with a promotional venture helmed by composer, arranger and conductor Peter Knight.
Hayward: The original idea [for the album] was by a man named Michael Dacre-Barclay, who was head of special products for Decca. Ultimately, I think it was to sell their stereos. They had a consumer division so they were very interested in trying to turn people who liked pop music on to their stereo units – which I personally couldn’t afford. I didn’t have a stereo unit until 1970!
Edge: Decca had a sound system called Deramic Sound System, or DSS. Basically it was stereo but people weren’t interested at all back then. They had a whole series of albums they wanted made to demonstrate the extremes of music. So there was a marching band, a big brass band, and stuff like that. They wanted us to play a rock version of Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” with Peter Knight arranging the orchestra.
Hayward: As Peter Knight pointed out, there’s really only one nice tune you can develop in Dvořák, and you probably can’t even do that one very well! Peter Knight had a lot to do with reversing the idea.
Edge: We persuaded Peter Knight [against it]. At the time we didn’t realize what a risk he was taking but he was a good man. We had nothing to lose but he had a lot to lose. Still, he went with it. So we recorded Days of Future Passed instead of the “New World Symphony.”
Pinder: I had already written two songs, “Dawn Is a Feeling” and “Sunset,” and Ray Thomas had written “Twilight Time,” which helped set the wheels in motion.
Hayward: I loved “Dawn is a Feeling,” and I was very privileged that [Mike] asked me to sing it. That was a beautiful song. I can’t remember whether he had that before “Nights” but I know it complimented it so well. Those were the markers of two points in a day. They were the markers of the day in the life of the everyman, which was interesting.
Edge: Back in those days there used to be two or three acts on a live show, and you had half an hour each. We were terrible at speaking to an audience, so we had the idea of pulling all our songs together so we didn’t have to talk. Basically that was the origin of the idea of Days of Future Passed.
Pinder: It just kind of fell together that the album would have a continuity of theme. Everybody then took a time of the day and consciously wrote something that evoked the feelings, events, beauty and symbolism of the segments of a day.
Edge: We had a problem as we were writing the songs. We had “Dawn Is a Feeling” and “Peak Hour,” but there was a big gap until “Nights.” Being musicians, we didn’t have a lot of experience after dawn and before midday! So I was trying to write a song that spanned that [period], called “Morning Glory,” with lyrics between morning and evening. Then I went to the guys and said, “Can you do anything with this?” I spoke the lyric out to them and they looked at me and said, “There are just too many words. There’s no way you can sing this!” Then Tony Clarke said, “Oh, make it a poem!”
Pinder: Tony Clarke was always full of ideas. We called him the sixth Moody. He played bass and had a musical background, which allowed him to soar with us in the studio. Tony was a great producer and a great friend.
Dubbed “Late Lament,” Edge’s poem provided a mystical benediction for “Nights in White Satin,” the album’s show-stopping closer. It was decided that Pinder, with his dignified baritone, would recite the prose on record – which he did while laying flat on his back in the studio.
Pinder: No doubt I was relaxing and in a meditative state when that was recorded. It needed a focus and concentration to deliver the message of that poem, poignantly written by Graeme.
Edge: At the time Mike had a much more gravely kind of voice. Cigarettes and whiskey had modulated his chords a bit more than mine. If you had [demonstrates] a high-pitched voice it doesn’t really work on the poem.
The Moody Blues received co-billing on Days of Future Passed along with the London Festival Orchestra. Despite the lofty sounding name, no such group actually existed. In reality this was the banner for a group of anonymous session musicians under the stewardship of Peter Knight, who also scored the lush instrumental links. Rather than recording simultaneously with the Moody Blues, Knight and his orchestra gathered in the studio on November 3rd to play along with a tape of the unfinished album, filling in the gaps as they went.
Hayward: I went to the orchestral date for it. It was a three-hour session with one run through. They all knew Peter Knight well. They were used to his phrasing and his orchestrations, so I think it didn’t come as a surprise to the musicians. They were ready for it. Then they had a tea break and did the recording. They were that good!
Edge: One take. That was all we had time for [laughs].
Hayward: The orchestra did their bit and on Saturday afternoon Derek Varnals and Tony Clarke mixed the record. It wasn’t complicated because it was just on 4-track anyway. And that was it – done. Then on the Sunday night we were all invited back and listened to it in the studio: me and Graeme with our girlfriends, the rest of the group, and maybe a roadie. There were some big Tannoy speakers that they had in studio. It was lovely. I remember thinking, “Nobody’s going to buy that!” Looking back now, this wasn’t an album that any of us thought had any commercial value. So it wasn’t expected to be a hit or anything. When it first came out it was to demonstrate the Deramic Sound System.
Edge: Lo and behold, it was an instant hit … three and a half years later!
“Nights in White Satin” was released as a single in Europe on November 10th, 1967, the same day as the accompanying full length. In an era when AM radio ruled the airwaves, the original version of the song was chopped to just over three minutes to meet the quasi-mandatory time constraints. A slightly longer edit initially peaked at Number 19 on the English charts, but then it never truly died away.
Hayward: I think [Decca A&R man] Hugh Mendl – who we used to call “Huge Muddle” – he liked it. He was a lovely elderly gentleman and would come along and get a bit [of a] contact high from my joints. He particularly liked it. It was released as a single in Europe and Britain and did well, but in America they said it didn’t fit the AM formula. They said, “No, you can’t dance to it,” which is ironic because now it’s always on lists of the Top 10 Prom Songs. (You don’t need to know how to dance; you just hold onto each other and slop around.) So they released “Tuesday Afternoon” with a horrid fade out – womp. It was like, “Two minutes and 15 seconds, there’s your lot.” You had two minutes to make an impact. Maybe they thought people had very short attention spans.
Pinder: The Sixties and Seventies were very unique for the artist as well as for the listener. I think the fans in those days were just as creatively turned on by the evolution of our music and our message as we were turned on by creating it. But record companies really did not have much creative capacity. Too profit-driven at the expense of creativity.
Hayward: We were so fortunate with the birth of FM radio in America. Our stuff was perfect for FM really because of the Deramic Sound System.
Edge: “Nights in White Satin” had been out for some time and got to Number 19 in the charts and then just disappeared. Then later when we had a new album out [1972’s Seventh Sojourn] the record company got in touch with us. There used to be things called regional breakouts. Instead of the big conglomerate radio stations like now, there were these FM guys and they had their own playlists. DJs were stars in those days and they prided themselves on discovering new talent. We had a regional breakout in Seattle. I think after the breakout started happening, there was a decision to re-promote it in other areas. It spread from Seattle down to San Francisco and down to L.A.. It was going great everywhere, slowly going up the charts again until in the end it got to Number Two. But it sold a hell of a lot of records because it took so long to get up there.
Hayward: [The label] put all their promotion behind Seventh Sojourn and none behind “Nights” and it kind of backfired on them a bit. In ’72 it just grew and grew and grew and in the end everybody at the record company just had to hold up their hands and go, “OK, let it go.” It was wonderful, it was all by itself. There was no promotion involved at all.
Edge: Some time later they interviewed the DJ who got it going in Seattle and he said, “I was on the graveyard shift and I wanted to go out into the car park and smoke my bum and ‘Nights in White Satin’ was long enough to smoke.” If anybody asks me, “To what do you owe your success?” I say, “A junkie DJ.”
“Nights in White Satin” would ultimately chart an astonishing three times in the U.K., selling several million copies in the process. It also provided the soundtrack to crucial scenes in films like A Bronx Tale and Casino, and inspired covers from artists ranging from Giorgio Moroder and Tori Amos to Ramsey Lewis and Celtic Thunder.
Hayward: The best version, by far, is by Bettye LaVette. She wrote to me after she recorded it and I was so touched. It brought me to tears. Her version is, I think, probably better than ours, with the emotion she puts behind it. And the players she has on it are so good. I think she’s got the best version ever, Bettye.
Hayward: I always get a little frustrated when it falls into that “prog rock” label because I’ve always seen it as kind of a romantic record. Each one of our songs is a short, concise song, in a way, and not all long guitar solos. They’re very ordered and structured.
Edge: In ’67 it was personal. I was into it because it was everybody’s ambition to fall in love like that. Now, later in life, I get the pleasure of watching the audience. Some of them are mouthing the words; some of them are snuggling with each other. That’s the pleasure I get from it now: looking down into the audience and seeing what it means to people.
Hayward: It’s never lost the meaning. It only works if you do it from the heart. I can only do it that one way. It’s still just a series of random thoughts of a young person, but I’m very pleased that people are able to share that and it resonates. It’s a record with almost nothing on it, except a lot of echo. But it’s a mysterious kind of record too.
Edge: I think it’s the joy, the spirit that makes it [resonate]. It’s not spiritual, but from the spirit – uplifting joy and happiness. It’s a young boy discovering that he loves somebody for the first time and he just wants to shout it out from the hills – and shout it out again!