Moody Blues, Paul McCartney & Japanese Tears • An Exclusive Interview with Denny Laine

A Memorial Tribute and Document to a Legendary Musical Artist

    icon Dec 06, 2023
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Editor’s Note:

On December 5h Denny Laine, an original and co-founding member with Paul McCartney of Wings, along with seminal progressive British band The Moody Blues, passed away at the age of 79 from a short battle with interstitial lung disease.

“I have many fond memories of my time with Denny: from the early days when The Beatles toured with the Moody Blues,” McCartney wrote on Instagram. “Our two bands had a lot of respect for each other and a lot of fun together. Denny joined Wings at the outset. He was an outstanding vocalist and guitar player. His most famous performance is probably Go Now, which he sang brilliantly. He and I wrote some songs together the most successful being ‘Mull of Kintyre’ which was a big hit in the Seventies. We had drifted apart but in recent years managed to reestablish our friendship and share memories of our times together.

Other tributes shortly followed: “I’m devastated. What a great guy and a great musician,” commented Dave Davies of The Kinks. And Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees wrote: “Rest in peace, Denny. A friend, a wonderful person, and a great musician. You and your music will be sorely missed.”

Back in 2010 I had the good fortune to conduct an in-person interview with Laine prior to his solo appearance at White’s Bar, which I dug up from our REVIEW archive and am re-publishing here as a tribute to his legacy.      

In 1964 Denny Laine was one of the most recognizable faces of the British Invasion. He sang lead on Go Now, The Moody Blues first big international hit back when they were a rockin’ R&B outfit. Laine was the de facto leader and when he left the band in 1967, it was widely hailed as the beginning of the end for the group and those in the know predicted Laine would continue to ascend to even greater heights of musical Nirvana.

Depending upon your world perspective, the cognoscenti were right and wrong on both counts. The Moody Blues became orchestral Zen philosophers who did indeed reach the pinnacle of superstardom. In the meantime, Denny Laine formed the Electric String Band (inspiring the creation of Electric Light Orchestra) played a legendary gig at Brian Epstein’s Saville Theater in 1967 with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and almost stole the show. He formed Balls, another great Black Country band and went on to play an integral role in Ginger Baker’s Air force in 1970 before joining Paul McCartney and Wings in 1971.

All this before he was 28 years old.

Review: Denny, when did start playing professionally and what was it like performing with your first professional band, Denny & the Diplomats?

Laine: First of all, because I was the singer it was called  Denny Laine and the Diplomats.  It’s a made-up name, but that’s the way it was done in the old days, like Johnny and the Hurricanes, you know.  But the fact is, I turned professional after school.  I was encouraged to go into the music business one way or another, obviously because at school I used to play my guitar and get everybody singing, and I wrote a few things that were read out in the assembly. 

So I went and got a job at a huge store owned by Harrods of London, called Rackhams.  I was in the music department as a trainee buyer, so I learned all about pianos and hi-fi equipment.  I introduced guitars to that store, because it was a very high-class place, and they didn’t have guitars.  They had a record section, and people started coming in, like Ella Fitzgerald, Lonnie Donegan, and a lot of people I liked. 

I would meet a lot of people from the music business – I would get to talking about records, and playing records, and that kind of thing.  But when I started being late for work, because I was gigging in the evenings with my band, I decided to knock it on the head.  I then decided to go professional, because I was making money at it and I didn’t want to work in a shop

Review: As a Black Country chap did you get close with musicians from that area like Roy Wood, Noddy Holder from Slade, or Robert Plant and John Bonham from Led Zeppelin? 

Laine: Funny enough, I was just reading an article and I saw that Robert Plant and John Bonham were in a band called Band of Joy.  They were supporting me at a gig that I did in Birmingham.  They were just a little bit younger than me.  I got very friendly with John Bonham over the years.  I found out that he used to come and watch us at one of our regular gigs at the Wednesbury Youth Centre. 

I remember that Bev Bevan (from The Move & drummer for ELO) used to put a lightbulb inside his drum, so it flashed on and off.  That was the first light show!  And John Bonham used to stand at the front, taking notes. One day, during the Wings era, he was staying at my house and I heard him singing in my studio a song that I remembered, but couldn’t remember readily.  I went down and said, “What’s that song?”  He said, “You wrote that song, and you used to do it at the Wednesbury Youth Centre.”  And I couldn’t believe that he remembered it.  Anyway, he’s gone to his grave with it, because I can’t remember it now either!

Review: What influenced your style of composing? 

Laine: Well, composing comes from our folk background, the fact that we’re telling stories and painting pictures with words, if you like.  It’s pre-videos, you know.  Videos now tell the story just by looking at a song being sung, but we had to get it right with the words, and get the words across without the visuals - especially at some places that didn’t want to hear original music and only wanted all the hits of the day. 

I tried to avoid that as much as possible by doing a lot of obscure blues and R&B stuff.  That’s how “Go Now” came about; basically, we always used to do weird stuff.  Songwriting became something I used to do as a hobby, and I would throw a song in a Denny Laine and the Diplomats set just to see what the audience reaction was going to be like.  And they loved it all, so I did a little bit more of that. 

But really, right up until the Moody Blues had to put an album out, I’d never really gotten into songwriting seriously.  I had to get Mike Pinder to come along and help put a lot of my ideas together, because I just wasn’t experienced in doing it, as much as I should have been.  So he kind of helped me with the arrangements and stuff.  I basically wrote the songs, but he helped me piece them together and turn them into proper songs, like he did with a lot of Justin Hayward’s stuff, I believe.  So that’s how that came about.

Then of course with Paul encouraging me to write, to take some of the focus off of him so much, he encouraged me to write a lot more.  A lot of my writing did emulate a lot of the old folk and Skiffle styles, or country-style almost.  Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Elvis, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino, you name it.

Review: What was it like in the early days with the Moody Blues, and what was your most memorable gig during the early days of your career?

Laine: The most memorable gig prior to the Moody Blues was when the Diplomats played with the Beatles.  We opened for The Beatles at the place in Birmingham that has a revolving stage.  When we came off, the Beatles came on, and all the leads got pulled out of the speakers because somebody forgot to take them out before the stage moved around.  So the Beatles came on to no microphones.  The girls are all screaming, but John is pointing at his microphone, saying “Where’s the f---ing microphone!?”  So anyway, that was funny, and I got to meet them all then. 

I was working at the shop when I first heard “Love Me Do”, and knew it was gonna be a hit.  So I said “The minute I heard ‘Love Me Do’ I knew you guys were gonna be a problem!” and we all laughed.  When we moved to London, we became friends with The Beatles, at the Ad-Lib Club, and they used to come to our parties.  We used to have big parties with the Moodies.  When we weren’t working on weekends we used to have three-day events, crazy parties, and everyone in the music business used to come there. 

We were on their first British tour, so that was one of the biggest memorable things about playing live.  But prior to that, the most memorable thing was “Go Now” going to Number One while we were on the Chuck Berry tour. 

Because we had it out, it was our first tour with the Robert Stigwood Organization, and Robert told us all to turn down in the sound check at rehearsals, and I said “this is how loud we play, like it or lump it.”  And of course, when the crowd was in, it was fine, you know.  But they all try to tell you what to do, that’s life you know.

So we were on the Chuck Berry Tour, and Chuck was borrowing my amp, because it was a great new amp that was out, and he didn’t bring an amplifier with him, just his guitar.  So he was using my amp, and that was quite a thing. And then suddenly while we were on that tour – and we were going down really well, by the way, ‘cause we were closing the first half, “Go Now” went to Number One, so we had a big celebration, you know.   I mean, how can you forget that?  There were other gigs where people would storm the stage and fights would break out in the audiences, but those kinds of gigs you try to forget!

Review: How long did you work with Ginger Baker and how would you characterize time with Ginger Baker’s Airforce?

Laine: Ginger and Jack Bruce were in a band called Graham Bond Organization on that same Chuck Berry tour, that’s how I met them.  Ginger and Jack were great jazz players from the London Blues Clubs.  So when the Moodies were doing the blues circuit, because we were basically a blues band in those days, we met a lot of people like that.  I kept in touch with those people.  Ginger came up to me at a party at Steve Winwood’s house one day, it was his birthday, and Eric had bought him a piano, and Ginger bought him a kit of drums. 

Me and Trevor Burton from The Move were visiting friends, because of course we were all from Birmingham, we knew Stevie.  And I’m jamming away with Ginger and Eric and we had a great time; but then one day at the house up in Kensington, we had a little bit of a get together, and Ginger asked me to join a band, and that was it.  We were just standing around the piano singing, and he says “Do you want to get a band together?” and I said “Fantastic!”  I was in the band until it broke up, but that was really because of Ginger’s situation, you know, with –I hate to say it, but -- his addiction situation.

Review: How did you come to get involved with Paul McCartney?

Laine: Well, Paul and I used to go hit all the clubs and we’d be sitting there, and he’d be talking to me, and I’d be talking to him all night long about music and stuff.  Even then it was always selling songs, you know “I’ve got this great song you should do, called ‘Those Were The Days’.”  He gave it to Mary Hopkins in the end, but he was always pushing good songs, you know, and talking about music. 

So I used to go out with him a lot to the clubs -  in fact, we went together to see Jimi Hendrix for the first time, doing his debut at the Bag O’Nails club in Soho.  I also went to visit Paul when they were doing Sgt. Pepper. We used to go gambling at the Playboy Club in Mayfair, we used to do all sorts of things, bump into each other at the clubs, and through our parties, because like I said earlier, there would always be parties. 

Paul would come to see me do the Electric String Band thing at the Seville Theatre - that was Brian Epstein’s place.  Jimi Hendrix was doing two weekends there, and I was on the first one.  I had to pull the first gig because my bass player was sick, and I wasn’t gonna go up and risk it with a new guy, because they are very intricate parts.  So I pulled out of that first gig, and I know that John Lennon was in the audience and was a bit pissed off, because although they’d come to see Jimi, they’d come to see what I was doing as well. And they were friends.  So the next week I went and did it, and it went down a storm. 

Review: What about the 'Wings Over America' Tour in '76.  What was it like for you on that tour playing massive arenas? Did it feel like you were cut off from the audience?

Laine: We’d spent our lives being very close-up to audiences – in other words, playing small places, bars, clubs, etc.  We went on to doing theatres – that’s as big as we ever got with The Beatles, and on the Chuck Berry tours.  But we never did a big arena gig.  I think the only arena gig I ever did was the Wembley Arena because it was the New Musical Express Pollwinners Concert.  But even the Beatles hadn’t done that until they went to America. 

So we went on to those big stages – we set up our own, it took five hours to set up our stage and lights and all that stuff. And everywhere we went was the same set, same crew, same show, and it gets to become really smooth and easy.  But the audience reaction in all the different cities around the world was the same.  Because the show took them there, you know, took them on the journey.  It was a great feeling.  Of course, we didn’t even know what the lights looked like from the audience’s point of view, until we saw the Wings Over America footage.  And then it was like “Wow, that’s great, I would have liked to be in the audience for this one!” 

But you do have a close relationship with your audience because they’re all as one, if you know what I mean.  You can’t see them all, but the vibe that’s coming off the audience, you feel like you’re part of it.  You’re not up there trying to get people to clap, or at some of these silly gigs where the audience is miles away from you.  We just had such a great fan base that was dying to see the show, and enjoying it, that you feel very close to the audience.

Review: Wings was a great band and you wrote some great songs with them like Time to Hide and Mull of Kintyre. What do you view as your greatest achievement with Wings?

Laine: Songwriting-wise, obviously Mull of Kintyre, because you know, it was written in Scotland.   Paul and I were having breakfast, he played me the tune and I said, “That’s a hit!”  We hadn’t gotten the words for it yet, it was just a line.  And the thought of doing it with the Campbeltown Pipe Band was great - we knew it would be a fantastic experience. 

We wrote the song in one key, the next day we went up on the side of the hill and sat and wrote the words and the verses, and the tune, and put it all together.   But when we got the pipe band in, we had to transpose into another key to accommodate the drone of the bagpipes.  That’s what gave it the lift, where the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, you know? 

So that was the biggest hit in England, ever, until Live Aid came along.  We did all the Christmas shows, and it was just the three of us.  So that was a huge thing for me, to be involved with that.  A lot of people think I sold all my rights on that – I didn’t, I sold some of them, but that’s because I kind of figured that it was more Paul’s song.  I did a deal where I kept some of my stuff and gave him some of his stuff back.  It was one of those kind of parting things that we did together.

Time to Hide” I kind of wrote on my own.  A lot of the other songs, I would go to Paul with an idea, and he would add to it, or he would come to me with an idea and I would add to that. A lot the stuff I would say “I think we’ve done enough on this song”.  And then we’d be halfway through a song, and the next day he’d come in with another song because he’d gotten bored of that one.  He was a really prolific writer.  You had to be on your toes all the time with him, but I learned a lot from it.  It was very easy to work with him on songwriting

Review: What are your views of the Music/Recording Industry as it exists today?

Laine: It’s a lot like it used to be in the early days because everybody’s trying to be an independent.  When we were with Decca, they really didn’t do anything except distribute.  We did all the work; we took all the people to them.  We even took our own PR people, and managers, everything.  So it’s kind of an indie thing again, and I like it.  What I find lacking in a lot of modern music, especially with the younger people, although they are very influenced by the old music, which is a compliment to us, they cut their teeth on drum machines and stuff, and all that music in the 80s seemed to be a little bit too – “anyone can be a musician if you have a drum machine” syndrome, you know? 

Although some of them were really good at it, a lot of them, including the engineers, didn’t know enough how to program a drum machine to make it sound like a drum kit, and it became another form of music, a more sort of disco style thing. 

And then of course it went back to everybody emulating the 60s and 70s, getting into bands again, Led Zeppelin kind of led the way, and we led the way, for bands to go out and play live.   And so now everybody’s got a mixture of everything out there, so this is really one of the best times there has been for a while for music, because everybody’s playing live again, which is fantastic.  There are so many good musicians out there.

Review: Joe Boyd, an iconic English producer (Nick Drake, Fairport Convention) wrote a book entitled White Bicycles. Boyd writes that you were one of the great voices of the era (immortalized by your vocal on Go Now) and that you never got the recognition you deserved. I agree.  What’s your view about this?

Laine: What is “deserved”?  As far as I’m concerned, it was my own fault – I didn’t really do anything solo-wise after that.  Apart from the Moodies album, which wasn’t a hit in those days – it’s become a cult album now, but it wasn’t a hit until they went on to do Nights In White Satin and all that.  So I didn’t really have a direction as far as a soloist, I went with Paul.  So I didn’t follow a solo career.  If that’s what he’s talking about with recognition, that’s fine. 

But then again, that’s my own choice, I should have made the choice to do more, but I didn’t.  But it’s always a compliment when people say you have the voice.  Because I don’t work as much – the voice is an instrument, you have to use it a lot, and you have to practice a lot.  I’ve had a lot of throat problems over the years because of that, because I don’t work it a lot – you have to keep working at it.  Every now and then I’ll go through a period, like right now for example, where I just spend hours and hours practicing vocals, practicing guitars, practicing keyboards, and re-learning a lot of my old songs.  And it’s a great feeling when you get better and better.

Review: Do you have any current projects?

Laine: I do – and one of them is twenty years old – Arctic Song.  It’s an ecological piece that nobody wanted to know about twenty years ago.  Except I did stage it once at a place called Stonyhurst College with 12-year old kids and it went down a storm for two weeks with them and their parents.   But I’ve had that around and now I’m rehashing it, I’ve got it all finished and done.  Sixteen songs, all about different areas of the world that need help with ecological problems, saving the animals and all that stuff. 

Now I’m going to be putting it on at the University of Las Vegas in the summer, I’ve got the Monmouth Music Academy with the band The Cryers, they’re going to be doing it.  Lincoln Park Center, and the Carnegie Mellon College in Pittsburgh, so I’m really buzzing on that, I’ve got all that going.  And then I’ve got this album to finish, which I’m about halfway through.  But apart from that, I just want to do more gigs, 

Review: Any special plans for this solo performance?

Laine: I like to sit down with a guitar and an amp, plug a proper electric guitar – I’ve got my Ed Roman guitar which he built for me, he’s a friend of mine in Vegas, and he’s one of the biggest, best guitar builders in the world, his company.  And I love his guitar, and that’s why I’m endorsing it.  I also use Carvin Guitars, which I endorse because they have a guitar which is acoustic electric and I can use that for all my acoustic stuff, so two guitars basically, electric guitar and acoustic, and then I might even bring my Spanish guitar along, or get hold of one, because I like to do some stuff on Spanish guitar.  And keyboards, do some songs on keyboards, and like I say, just cover the whole…you know, a few Moodies ideas, a few Wings things, and a lot of my own original material and just, kind of, not talk too much, but give a few stories out there of how songs came together.  It depends on the audience, you know.  I do like to do a couple of the Arctic Song songs, and I like to do things like a song I’ve got called “Food For All”.  It was a song I wrote for the Philadelphia homeless people years ago before Bruce Springsteen did his version

Review: How would you like to be remembered?

Laine: I’ve always kind of been a bit of a recluse in some ways, because I like to spend a lot of time with music, writing, and that’s what I do.  I’m a little mad professor in some ways.  But I want all my stuff now to be out there, that’s why I’ve just put this new website together, that’s what we’re doing as we speak today, we’ve put a new website up at www.dennylaine.com.  I’m going to get all my music out there to everybody. 

I just want to be remembered as a songwriter who said things to help people. I have a lot of faith and hope.  I’ve been a rock n roller like everybody else, I’ve made a lot of bad choices, been involved with booze – not drugs, so much, you know – we’ve all been party animals, gone off the rails once in a while. 

But basically I’m just really a musician, a writer and a performer.   

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