“It’s a song that never seems to go away," says The Moody Blues' Justin Hayward of the band's pop/proto-prog orchestral masterpiece and perennial hit Nights In White Satin. "It was a slow build, and of course, it was released a few times, but once it took hold, it did so in a really big way. It seemed to get into people’s minds and just stay there. The whole thing's very strange and wonderful."
The lush, transporting and immersive track, which appeared as a full-blown epic (clocking in at over seven and a half minutes, complete with a spoken-word poetry section called Late Lament) on the band's 1967 album Days Of Future Passed, was released in edited form as a single in November of that year. The song reached the top of the charts in France, but in the UK it only got as high as number 17.
“It was fantastic to hit the top in France, but of course, we were hoping to repeat that success elsewhere," Hayward says. "Once it dropped off the UK chart, that seemed to be it for the song." He laughs, then adds, "For a while, at least. As we all know, it came back bigger than ever, and it's had all of these different lives over the years."
In the following interview, Hayward recounts the writing and recording of The Moody Blues' signature song, as well as its unexpected re-entry into the charts in 1972, an occurrence that the singer says "changed my life and the band's lives forever."
Walk me through the writing of the song. As I understand it, you started it when you were 19.
“Right. It was in early 1967, and I’d just come home from a gig. I was living in a one-room flat. I sat on the side of the bed and wrote the basic two verses and two choruses with a 12-string acoustic. I took it to the rehearsal room the next day because the guys were expecting me to have something to work up for a stage show. I played it for them and they were like, ‘Huh… it’s OK.’ I don’t think they were that thrilled – they didn’t hear it straightaway.
“But then [keyboardist] Mike [Pinder] said, ‘Play it again,’ so I did. I sang ‘Nights in white satin... ’ and he did that little 'da da da-da-da-da-daaa’ on the Mellotron. Then everybody seemed to get interested; it made sense to them. Once he delivered that phrase, which is really quite important, the song started working for them.”
The song, along with the album Days Of Future Passed, came out in 1967, during the height of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper period. Is it safe to say you guys were influenced by them a bit?
“Oh, sure, more than a bit. I'd admit that, and I think other musicians who were around at the time would, too. To be part of the musical scene in London during that whole period was amazing, and The Beatles were our leaders, undoubtedly. They showed us the way. Sgt. Pepper and Strawberry Fields and other songs they did at the time – they gave us the freedom to try anything.
“Obviously, we didn’t have the power or the money that The Beatles had. They could indulge every whim in the studio and basically do whatever they wanted. We had to catch a lucky break with Days Of Future Passed. That lucky break from Decca, who wanted a demonstration record for their new stereo systems, and that’s how we got to make the album.
“To be honest, because we made the album as a stereo demonstration record, I thought that only a handful of people would even get to listen to it because only a handful of them had stereos at the time. What I didn’t realize was that FM radio was starting to take off in America, and the DJs and programmers were starved for good stereo records. Even The Beatles had mono records at the time, which sounded great, but the people were starting to want stereo."
Like Sgt. Pepper, the album was recorded on four-track?
“We did everything on four-track. It wasn't as elaborate as it might seem at all. We recorded it at Decca Number One in Broadhurst Gardens, West Hampstead. We put our songs down, and then [producer] Tony Clarke, [engineer] Derrick Varnals and [composer] Peter Knight] bounced that with Peter recording a count through the entire 48 minutes. Then the orchestra came in for a three-hour session, and they rehearsed to a tape with our tracks and that count. So our tracks were finished in stereo, and then the orchestra, after a tea break, played their parts and recorded on that. That was it.
“By the way, it's called The London Festival Orchestra, but that's just a name that we made up. It sounded right, but they didn’t actually exist. It was just a group of gypsies – that's what we called them – these string players that would do a lot of sessions. Peter Knight put them together. He was signed to Decca, and he did the orchestral arrangements between our songs for the album."
The poetry section, the Late Lament, was that always a part of the song?
“That came about because we needed some kind of summing up of the story. We had a feeling within the band that everybody should contribute, not just me and Mike. [Drummer] Graeme [Edge] didn’t think that he had anything to contribute musically, but he did want to write something that pulled the Days Of Future Passed story together, which is the story of the day in the life of one guy, really.
“That’s where that came about. So Mike did the poetry reading. He had such a beautiful, charming voice – mesmerizing. He could persuade me to do anything with that voice of his. So his voice doing the poetry section really made the whole piece feel complete. He did the recording in the dark while lying on his back, with the rest of us sitting around quite stoned.” [Laughs]