Tell us about life before you became famous
Justin: Well I was born in Swindon and had two parents who were teachers, so passing exams wasn’t difficult… I didn’t actually learn much but my parents told me how to pass exams.
I grew up with my brother who was 18 months older than me and a sister who came along nine years after me. We were a lower middle-class, almost “new-age” family.
My parents were very supportive of us all in what we wanted to do, they just wanted us to get some qualifications and I left school with five O-levels at the age of 16.
So was music always a passion for you?
Justin: I come from a family with a very strong faith, so my very early memories around music were in church and assembly at school in the morning when we did what is now terribly politically incorrect to sing hymns in school.
As I grew up I heard people like Johnnie Ray, but it was when I heard Buddy Holly that I became totally focussed in what I wanted to do.
Elvis was the King, but Buddy for me was always number one. When I first went to the States I was lucky enough to meet his wife, and Lodgey (John Lodge) and I made a pilgrimage to Lubbock in Texas to lay our plectrums on his grave.
How did the break come about?
Justin: I was very lucky as I left school and almost immediately got a job playing guitar in Marty Wilde’s group.
I answered an advert in the Melody Maker which said “Named artiste looking for guitarist” I turned up at this house in East London and Marty Wilde opened the door. Marty is 6’5” and I’m 6’2” so for about the only time in my life I spent the next couple of years looking up to someone!
I did the audition and he gave me the job. It was a bit of a baptism of fire really as the first gig we did was a combined services tour of the Middle East, going to all sorts of dusty unpleasant places, army and airforce bases.
This was amazing for me, I had left school in the July and worked in an office for a couple of months, all the time trying to get a job in music and then got the gig with Marty in the September.
He was writing his own material and he told me to survive in the business you need to be able to write your own stuff. So I started writing right from the start and when I went to the Moody Blues it was as a songwriter as much as a musician.
What was it like going from one established band to another?
Justin: Yes, well me and John (Lodge) who I didn’t know, we both joined this band that had had a great lead singer, in Denny Laine and we joined at the same time. They had had a hit with Go Now, but Denny was that sound of RnB and when we joined we tried to carry on that sound for a couple of months, but then we realised we were rubbish at it. So we just started doing our own material.
But when we started writing and performing music from our own hearts our fortunes began to change. It was the best move though as the band’s popularity had begun to waver slightly.
In the 60s if you had one hit and didn’t follow it up with another it was over for you and that was the point that John and I joined the group and everyone was saying it was over for the group.
We were lucky in that Decca, our record company, believed in our new stuff. So we were their first album band. Then Decca launched the Dream label which was centred around really well produced stereo recordings. Up until then pop bands, including The Beatles, had just put the vocals through the left side and the instrumental on the right. We started doing well produced stereophonic works.
Also at the time FM radio was then starting in the States and our music was perfect for that, so they loved us.
At this time the Moodies were more progressive than a pop band. Did you consider yourselves as trailblazers, bucking the pop genre?
Justin: I don’t think so, I think we were just fortunate in that we didn’t have some A&R bloke standing over us telling us what we ought to do with the first seven albums. That came later when we got even more popular and record companies and staff wanted to take credit for what we were doing.
But we were very lucky in having an older executive producer in Hugh Mendl who used to say “I don’t know what you’re doing but just get on with it, the kids seem to love it. “
We were on a lousy royalty agreement but we got unlimited studio time which was great.
Most people when they hear Moody Blues, they think Nights in White Satin, do you resent that this is the thing you are remembered for most?
Justin: There was a lot of resistance about that track. We recorded it along time before we recorded it for Decca. We recorded it for a programme called ‘Easy Beat’ and we were travelling up the motorway and heard it on the radio and thought there’s something about it.
But we don’t resent the track, there’s several numbers in our set which we know the audience would feel cheated if we didn’t perform them. It’s a wonderful thing that wherever I go in the world, even if people don’t know the name The Moody Blues they know Nights and that is a tremendous honour.
A couple of years ago I heard a version by a Motown singer Bettye LaVette and I was totally gobsmacked, I wrote the song when I was 20 years old and heard it for the first time when I was 64! Her version is absolutely brilliant and brought me to tears.
Away from the Moodies you are also remembered for your connection to War of the Worlds and more recently some solo work.
Justin: Yes I was very lucky being involved in that, Forever Autumn is another song I find people know all over the world. Jeff took the concept on the road again recently, the first time that I’ve not been involved in it as I was working on my own album.
Tell us about that album.
Justin: It’s called Spirits of the Western Sky, I was collecting songs when I was working on re-mastering old Moodies stuff. The engineer said to me why don’t we put this new stuff together professionally, so two or three years ago I started on it and it took over my life. For me it is the best thing I have ever done., I’m at a time in my life when I don’t have to worry about what people think so I can do it for me and to my own satisfaction. So I’m very grateful when people want to hear it.
So the Moodies are coming to Ipswich
Justin: Yes we are coming to The Regent, I hope they’ve improved the dressing rooms a bit!! We always have fun in Ipswich. It’s me, John Lodge and Graham Edge from the old days and some other younger excellent musicians who are also big Moodies fans. There’s no support, we do two hour-long sets a mix of old and new stuff. The second half is the tracks that we would not be allowed off stage without performing and the first half includes new and also rediscovered songs.
Q: Any plans to retire?
Justin: If nobody buys a ticket I will consider myself having been retired.
• The Moody Blues are at The Ipswich Regent, Monday 17th June. Box Office 01473 433100