By Jeb Wright
John Lodge is an artist. His medium is music. He has penned some of the best songs ever recorded by the Moody Blues and every few decades he has found time to release a solo album!
His latest effort, Ten Thousand Light Years Ago, sees the musician writing music and lyrics that truly make one think. The album has nostalgic moments and moments where deep philosophical thought is needed to grasp the meaning of the lyrics. Yep, it’s pretty much John Lodge, isn’t it? This guy is cunning, witty, deep and intelligent… and all of it comes across in the interview below.
Read on as we discuss several of the songs on the new album, as well as some of the classic songs he wrote for The Moody Blues. We also discuss Beethoven’s birthday, a possible new Moody album and if a John Lodge solo band will ever tour.
Jeb: Before we discuss your solo album and The Moody Blues, I want to ask you about an urban legend I have heard about you. I heard you were kicked out of your music class for not knowing something about Beethoven when you were a teenager. Is that true?
John: Yes, it is true. I went to my school in Birmingham and there was a music class which I was in. There was an exam and I didn’t really put enough effort into the exam, so it was my fault, really. For me, it didn’t really feel important where someone was born, but to my music teacher it was like the most important thing in his life.
I was thirteen years of age and I was just interested in rock and roll. I actually said to my teacher, “If you can play ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ by Jerry Lee Lewis, and show me how it’s done, if you will do that for me, then I will find out where Beethoven was born.” The last thing he said to me was, “Lodge, you’re dismissed.” I got moved into woodworking and I can tell you that you wouldn’t want to buy anything that I made. If you had a table from me, then you’d have a plank with no legs.
I brought my guitar with me every day to school. I couldn’t believe it. I think I was the only one who was playing every day. I am not saying my attitude was the right one, but I really was wanting to learn about rock and roll. I was trying to discover rock and roll on my own, because there was no one in Birmingham who could teach you at all, and there were no music teachers to show you how rock and roll was played. I was frustrated, and I was trying to learn by myself, by listening to records and watching artists on the television. When the camera sort of panned by them I would try to pick out whatever chords I could see. It made me work even harder to figure out how it all works.
Jeb: Did you ever find out where Beethoven was born?
John: [Laughter] Oh dear…
Jeb: That is a good segue to the title of your upcoming solo album, Ten Thousand Light Years Ago.
John: It is really. Ten Thousand Light Years Ago is who I am today, and that story is what brought me to where I am. Even the first line in one of the songs from the new album, “Those Days in Birmingham,” is “We packed our bags and went off to Eddy’s Café.” Eddy’s Café was a café not far from my school where I used to go for lunch. It was out of bounds from school, because you weren’t allowed to go into the real world. You were to stay on the school premises and eat lunch at school. I used to go to this café because they had a Rock-Ola Jukebox; no one today even knows what that is. You used to put the coin in the slot and you could listen to the latest 45s by people like Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. I used to do that every lunch time. That is where I become fascinated by the driving force of rock and roll through that little 12-inch speaker in a Rock-Ola jukebox.
Jeb: As I was discovering music, a friend of mine gave me a home recorded cassette tape. On the front was written ‘Grateful Dead’ and on the other side the paper had come off the cassette, so I was not sure what it was, but I just assumed it must be the Grateful Dead, even though it didn’t sound like the other side. I later found out it was “Nights in White Satin” by your band. For a few months, I thought that was a Grateful Dead song!
John: That is brilliant! My absolute all-time favorite was Buddy Holly. He was my absolute mentor. I tried to learn every song he’d ever written. I would sit in my room, on my own at ten o’clock in the night, trying to strum all of the chords. My mom and dad were saying, “Could you be quiet?”
Someone once gave me a Greatest Hits CD by The Moody Blues and they said I was really going to love this CD. I played the CD and it was Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Somehow, they had put the wrong album, and the wrong artwork on the thing. Can you believe that? It was amazing. The connectivity there between me and Buddy Holly, on a Moody Blues CD, was just amazing to me.
Jeb: I want to know how come it took so long for you to release a second solo album. It has been almost forty years!
John: I didn’t realize it had taken that long.
Jeb: You’ve been busy.
John: We have been very busy! I made the other album in the mid-‘70s. Then we went back into the studio, straightaway after that, and recorded Octave. Then we went back in the studio and recorded Long Distance Voyager. We’ve been recording non-stop with the Moody Blues. I’m John Lodge of the Moody Blues and that’s who I am, really. That was my priority, and provided I could keep writing, then my music could keep coming out with the Moody Blues, and I was really, really happy with that.
Over the last decade, we really haven’t been in the studio. I was starting to become frustrated, because I wanted to get into the studio and record an album, as we used to do in the early days, and I couldn’t find a way to do that until two years ago when I had the ‘eureka’ moment. I thought, “I know how to do this,” so I set about putting the album together, writing it and getting the people together I wanted to play on it.
Jeb: Both John Lodge and Justin Heyward have newer solo albums. Is there hope for Moody fans that you may do a Moody’s album?
John: I don’t know. It is finding a way to do it. I hate sitting around doing nothing. So often, you’re in the studio, and nothing is happening for days on end, and, to me, it is incredibly boring. When I go into the studio I want to go in and do it. I need everyone else to do it my way, but it just doesn’t work that way.
Some people like to go into the studio and spend days and days just messing about. I find that, creatively, things just fall away when you do that. We did Days of Future Past in a week and In Search of the Lost Chord wasn’t much longer than that. We probably got four weeks for that one. I think the last Moody Blues album was about six months in the studio and it took eighteen months to make. It was really hard work. I don’t even know why it took so long, but I know I never want to do that again. I want to be with people who want to create and perform. I want them to create the moment they feel they can contribute exactly to that song.
Jeb: Is that how you created this album?
John: I went totally back to that mindset. I put together the nucleus of the band. Alan Hewitt, the keyboard player, I knew many years before he played with the Moody Blues. He and I get along really well, both as musicians and friends. I wanted him to be an integral part of it. Gordon Marshall is the drummer. He and I have been working together for twenty years, so I knew how he played. I knew if I pushed him harder I could get him to play other bits that I wanted him to do, which was a slightly different way than he plays in the Moody Blues. I knew if I pushed him that I could get really great drums from him, and I did. The other link was Chris Spedding, the guitarist. I rang Chris up and I said, “Chris, I’d like you to play guitar on this song.” I sent him the song “Ten Thousand Light Years Ago” and he said, “I’d love to do it. I’m really tied up at the moment, as I’m on the road with Roxy Music.” I said, “Listen, if you’d love to do it then would you love to do the whole album?” He said, “I would love to do that.” I said, “I want us to do this in our own time when we feel creative.”
The reason I could do this is that everyone has their own studio. We all have our own studios, so I knew I could work it that way and then everyone could be creative when they didn’t have any other pressures. They would just be creative on the particular song when they have only that song to focus on.
Jeb: A lot of people may ask you why this didn’t become a Moody Blues album. If they ask that, then they have not listened to this ensemble of tunes. There are many styles here, and this is a true solo effort. This is not a Moody Blues album.
John: I had written “Ten Thousand Light Years Ago” and I knew the album was going to be called that. All my pieces of paper—I keep a folder with all of my notes, as I am doing all of this... The front page says, “Ten Thousand Light Years Ago.” I knew it was going to be the name of the album and I knew it was going to be the last song on the album.
I wondered how I could start the album. The thought came to me that I am a bass player, so that is how I should start the album. Every day, when we do concerts, we have a sound check and I wear inner-ear monitors. To get the sound right, I play the same three notes on the bass, so I can get my sound exactly as I want it to be. I realized that the notes I was playing were like an Em7 and it went from the bottom E string to the top G string in an octave. I thought, “This is how I will start the album.” As soon as I got that going, I put a 12-string guitar down with it and I came up with the lyric “In My Mind.” It was that simple.
Jeb: At the risk of sounding wrong… ”In My Mind” is such a strong song that one gets blown away. It is very rock and very powerful.
John: Over the years, I’ve experimented with this type of thing. We’ve never explored it enough in the Moody Blues. I think we did it slightly on a song of mine called “Stepping in a Slide Zone.” The intro to that is starting to feel and go the way of “In My Mind.” I think if we had developed it more it would have gone into that direction. Justin and I wrote a song called “Breaking Point” that has a similar type of feel. It has that spaciousness over a huge mountain of music, and that is what I was aiming for. “In Your Mind” is all of that stuff that is in your mind and it makes you paint huge horizons in your mind when you listen to it.
Jeb: This is not a concept album, but you do have some songs with similar themes like “Ten Thousand Light Years Ago” and “Birmingham.” It seems you are looking back.
John: What I tried to do on the album is not to be retrospective. There is a fine line between retrospective and where we are today. The whole point of the album, for me, was this thing that has been going through my head for a long time now. The future is always in reach, but the past is gone forever. You can never explore the past. It can be yesterday, but you can’t get there, so it may as well be ten thousand light years ago, but it is what has brought you to where you are today.
I was trying to say this is who I am, and this is where I am today. Everything else that has gone before is, not reminiscing, but it is what has made me who I am. The only real analogy is if you look at the night sky and we can see the closest planets that we know are floating around, but if you look at everything else you realize that whatever else is up there happened such a long time ago. The light has only just arrived here. We don’t even know if it is actually still there. It may have all gone. Who knows? It is the same as the past, it’s all gone, yet it has an importance.
Jeb: I like to say the future begins with the next moment.
John: Absolutely. I was trying to explain something like that to someone. We use a three letter word in English that means absolutely nothing, and that word is ‘now.’ There is no such time as now, because as soon as you’ve said it, then it is the past.
Jeb: With so much history in the Moody Blues, is it a challenge for you to always be reaching to the future? A lot of artists who have had the success you have had tend to rest on their laurels. How do you avoid that?
John: By not looking backwards. To be honest, I look out the front window of my car. Seriously, that is how I do my life. I am as positive as I can be. We all have parts that sort of shudder us, but I try and keep looking positive all the while. Like the song “Simply Magic” on the album. I wanted to write a song that had two real meanings. We read a lot of books and we see so many movies where things are going great and then the wheels fall off and it gets really negative. I wanted to write a song where things are going great and they get even better. That is who I am.
I wrote that song for my Grandson, John Henry. I say, “… just when I thought nothing could get any better than this, you came along.” The ‘you’ can be anything, but I wanted to put it in the term of my grandchild.
Jeb: The irony of that message is that you have a couple of guys from your past playing on that song.
John: I do. When I wrote the song I suddenly realized there was a beautiful flute part that could be on the song. I thought, “Ray could do that.” I rang Ray up and I said, “I’ve written a new song and I would love you to play flute on it.” Ray is not far from me and we’ve been friends since I was 14 or 15 and we worked together in the Moody Blues for all of that time. I went around to his house and I played him the song. He played his C flute and his bass flute on the track. While we were recording it, he said, “Have you asked Mike to play on this?’” I got in touch with Mike and asked if he would play on this song for me and he said he would. For me, it is all part of ten thousand light years ago, as they were all part of me. Having them on this album just brought it right up to date.
Jeb: I really enjoy the song “Get Me Outta Here.”
John: I came up with that title from those times when you walk into a room, or you think this doesn’t feel good at all. You really want to get out, but you don’t know how to do it. The longer you stay there the more you start to feel uneasy. It becomes a real negative and you’ve got to find your way out of that situation. That is what that song is about.
Jeb: How would you describe your physical training, not only your bass / guitar playing, but also your vocals…? You are in really great shape. ..
John: I just love what I do. Practice… I practice everything. I practice my guitar playing and I do my vocal exercises. We got really lucky, in a way, from the fact that I do enjoy performing live. We do a lot of concerts, so I keep in shape that way. I keep in shape vocally that way as well. Who knows? You can only hope that if you look after yourself then things will work out. If you look out for yourself then you’ve got a better chance that things will work out for you.
You’ve got to decide what you want to be in this business. If you want to be a musician, and that is what you’ve wanted to be all of your life, then that is what you have to aim for, not all of the trappings of being a musician. All of the trappings that go with it… I’ve been very fortunate to stay away from all of the trappings that go with it. When I get on stage, or when I go into the studio, I want to be the best that I can. I want to be at the peak of my performance and I am going to do everything in my power to do that, as that is where my enjoyment comes from.
Jeb: Creativity is very special to you.
John: I think it is very special. Music is a vibration and it keeps everyone’s life going. I don’t think there is enough music in the world right now, from my point of view. I don’t think there are enough radio stations playing music. I think we need more music because everything in the media is so negative. We need some music to brighten our lives and to spread harmony.
Jeb: Here is a tough one: You say you look forward and you reach to the future, yet every night you’re playing songs that are thirty and forty or more years old!
John: I know! There is a finite thing and there is a reason we do that. Everything we play, we’ve written. Every part that I play on a song I’ve written and no one else has done it before me. No one has done the parts that Ray plays on flute, or Michael on Mellotron, or Justin on guitar. No one has played those parts before; they are ours. You want to play them again, as the best you can, in the way they should be performed. You don’t copy anybody.
When you go to a concert and listen to an artist, or a band, would you be happy to listen to the entire forty minutes of their latest album, or would you rather hear the ten ‘hit songs’ of theirs? Which do you really want to hear? We decided many years ago that the best thing to do is to try and take the audience on a nice journey, so that at the end of the evening, they would really love to come back and hear and see you again.
Jeb: Jumping back to Ten Thousand Light Years Ago, will you be able to play it live?
John: I will try to find a place for it. Obviously, it is going to depend on what we do with the Moody Blues. I am a great believer in letting things happen in their own natural way, like a river running… it’s going to run its own natural course. I think that is the same with this album. I will see what happens. If it becomes really natural for me to go on the road and perform these songs, because people want me to, then I will find time to do it.
Jeb: You have a very good attitude! I want to ask you about some of your classic songs. My favorite Moody song is “Ride My See-saw.” What do you remember about creating that song?
John: I discussed the song with our producer, Tony Clark. We were trying to find a way to get the rhythm really right, as it has a driving rhythm. The song was about leaving school and going out into the world and finding out it wasn’t what you thought it was and it isn’t what you were taught in school. It is actually much bigger than that. “Ride My See-saw” was about riding my life and seeing where we go with this thing. I am still doing that now.
The other thing that was interesting for me was that I wrote that song on bass. For that time, there are some really nice chord changes, the minors and the majors. I wanted the middle to be only harmonies and it was. We had these soaring three and four parts going around.
Jeb: I really love “Isn’t Life Strange.”
John: That song wrote itself, strangely enough. I was with my wife, and a couple of friends, and I have a baby grand piano in my drawing room in my house in England. We were having dinner and I could hear this tune in my head and I excused myself. I went over to the piano and, basically, I wrote the whole song, then and there. It only had one lyric at that time, “Isn’t life strange.” I wrote the music right then and there. I remember going to bed and wondering, “I wonder if I have written that song, or if it was something else? In the morning I am going to go downstairs and play it and see if it stands up.” It did. That next day I sat down and wrote all of the lyrics.
The other thing, which is really interesting about that, and shows how things have changed, is that we did all of our vocals on that song on a Friday night, out of necessity, as we were leaving for a tour of America. We landed in New York and we took the tapes to London Records on a Saturday in New York and it was released as a single the following Friday. That was a different time then. It is unheard of today. It moved fast and it was so unbelievable.
Jeb: Did you have any idea that “Isn’t Life Strange” would connect with so many people?
John: You don’t really. When you write a song your emotions are sort of standing there naked, really. If you’re truthful to yourself, and I think we found this in the Moodies, if you’re truthful then you do connect with people, because people do have the same, or similar, experiences. They connect with it as long as you’re truthful.
Jeb: You wrote “I'm Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band).” The driving rhythm is just so addictive…
John: Yeah, that rhythm came from the bass player! You know you’ve got a good song when you can take an acoustic guitar, or sit at a piano, and play it with no one else, and it sounds good. If, however, you can take a song and only play it on a bass, and it still works, then you’ve really got something. I actually have done that many times at different events and played just the bass and sang on top of the bass and it is very interesting.
Jeb: Justin and you co-wrote “Gemini Dream” and that is a very emotional song.
John: We had stopped touring with the Moody Blues in 1974, I think it was. In 1980, we had an album called Long Distance Voyager and we were going to go on the road after it was done. We had not recorded the album yet, but we knew we were going into the studio to record it soon.
I came up with this idea that we needed a song that said we were are back on the road. The original song was called “Touring in the USA.” That was the original demo when we were putting it together. As we were writing it together, we suddenly realized what we were actually talking about, and that is when you’re a musician, you’re either on the road, as a Moody Blue, or you’re at home, as anyone else. It was just trying to combine the two things together that are the same person living two different lives.
Jeb: Let us end with Ten Thousand Light Years before we close. I love this artwork. Album art is becoming a lost art. I love the artwork, and I even love the colors you chose.
John: The album art I really like. I worked with Phil Sepp, who put it all together. I don’t know who all the graphic people are who work with him, but he was the coordinator for me. We discussed it for ages. I wanted something to portray the album, as if it was something from the past, or something from the future, but it was here now. We came up with this idea of something which was in a desert situation with hills where you don’t know if it is on earth, or on another planet. We discussed it from there and there are a lot of little intricate things. When you get the vinyl album you can see the details, as it is bigger and there is a big poster that comes in the sleeve. Hopefully we can keep the listener looking at the sleeve interpreting all of little things going on.
Jeb: It took me back to the old days. There is not enough commitment anymore to the entire package.
John: I wanted the whole album to be a piece of communication, really, from the audio side and the visual. I would like people to listen to the album, and to look at the sleeve, and to talk about it. When people start doing that, they start going off in other directions for themselves. If I can be the catalyst to make them go on and talk about other things, then I will be really pleased. I think that’s what the Moody Blues did. They became the catalyst for people to think about other things.
Jeb: I can take that album cover and segue into a song that you and Justin wrote for the TV show, Doctor Who.
John: We did! How do you know that?
Jeb: I am a Doctor Who nut.
John: Oh, I remember that completely. They were taking Doctor Who off the air and the fans wanted to bring it back. We did the song “Doctor in Distress.” I’ve got an original copy. I have a big 12-inch single of it. I think everyone in England… the show was so English and so Science Fiction, we were all Doctor Who fans. We grew up with Doctor Who. That show was an amazing idea where he flitted through different time warps and everything else. When they were taking the show off we were like, “We have to get it back!”
Jeb: Last one: You had a song called “Street Café.” How did you get Kenny Jones in the video?
John: Kenny is a really good friend. I’m actually a Godfather to one of his children. We have been friends a really long time. When I went to record that song I said, “Come and play drums on this.” He played the drums and I said, “I have to make this video, so you are going to be in the video, too.” We had a great time making that video.
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