Gary James' Interview With
Former Wings And Moody Blues Guitarist
He was the guitarist and lead vocalist for The Moody Blues. He also co-founded Wings with Paul McCartney. We are talking about Denny Laine. What an incredible musical career he has had!
Q - Last time I went to your website I thought I saw some of your guitars up for sale. How can you part with your prize possessions that were no doubt used on some of the hit records you played on?
A - I only have one guitar that's up for sale. The only reason I'm selling it is because I would never play it 'live' because it's too valuable. You can't take that kind of guitar around with you. It belonged to Pete Townshend before me and now to me since the '70s. So, I'm trying to sell it to a musician or somebody that is going to keep it and display it. It's not a playable thing because it is one of those antiques that belonged to Pete Townshend.
Q - You never used it, did you?
A - No. I bought it off Pete. Since then I've never used it. I've actually got a replica of it, a new version of it which I do use. There's no way I'm able to travel around with a guitar that's got The Who written on the case and have it stolen. So, I want to sell it to a good home where it's gonna be displayed like a museum as I said, or something like that.
Q - Is it true you're writing your autobiography?
A - That's a little bit out of date. That's not quite right. I'm actually about to write a book about London in the '60s because I was there. I was in The Moody Blues. We were all friends with The Beatles. We used to go and see a lot of the American bands that came into town actually like (Bob) Dylan. People that. Lovin' Spoonful. Jose Feliciano. A lot of bands came to England to get seen. That's what they did. So I was around at that time. Paul and I would go and see people like that. Hendrix. We went to see him for the first time. So we were kind of on the scene. I've been approached to write that book. It's with a friend of mine who was also on the scene at the time who's done books for other people. So, we're sharing the ideas and we're going to write that book. We haven't actually started yet, but we're researching at the moment.
Q - You were born in Birmingham, England?
A - I was, as far as I can remember. (laughs)
Q - Is that in the Northern part of England?
A - It's in the midlands actually.
Q - How far is that from Liverpool?
A - Well, Liverpool was about a hundred miles northwest. London's about a hundred miles south.
Q - Did you see groups like The Beatles come through Birmingham or did you have to travel to Liverpool to see them?
A - I didn't do that. The Beatles would be like us. They were doing all the circuits, see. I was based in Birmingham. We would go to Liverpool to work. I actually worked The Cavern. I met The Beatles for the first time in Birmingham. They were on tour and doing "Love Me Do". I met them that one night. Then when we moved to London we all became friends there.
Q - So, with all the bands that were on the circuit, did you sense that something special was happening? Did you have this idea the music would be popular all over the world?
A - I wouldn't say the world. There was definitely a renaissance because there were so many groups around. We weren't involved in record labels in the early days. It was all about playing 'live' music. The Beatles had already been to Germany. I was asked to join The Moody Blues because two of the guys had just come back from Germany and they wanted to go back. That's where the work was at the time. There was no real sense of it, but soon as everybody started to move to London and all the bands came into London and started to get hits, yeah. There was Top Of The Pops, Ready, Steady, Go! and all these TV shows going. The Beatles set the trend for everybody else in the way we went. Yeah, because of that you could sense that something big was going on. I'm talking about not just in the clubs anymore, and dance halls, but in the music business and the record world. There'd be tours. We could see it was going somewhere. But there was a lot of competition. You really had to be on your game. You had to have the right team behind you to get anywhere. It wasn't just about doing it as a band.
Q - Your first band would have been Denny And The Diplomats?
A - Yeah. Not the first. I had bands in school before that. The first recognized band, yes.
Q - You guys all wore suits and bleached your hair?
A - (laughs)
Q - I take it that was kind of unique? Next time I saw that done was in The Romantics. Do you remember them?
A - No, I don't, but I get the picture. It was a little about being noticed. We were probably one of the top five bands in Birmingham, but it was all about being noticed. It's all about gimmicks, just like it is today. I mean really. The look is important and you had to try and be as different as you could to everybody else. It was all about that. You tried to be different with the music. You had to be different with your look. That was all part of it. That was the fun part of it, but it was also business.
Q - Where did that name Moody Blues come from?
A - Well, the guys who came back from seeing The Beatles in Hamburg, Mike Pinder and Ray Thomas, the keyboard player and the flute player, the they came into Birmingham looking to put a band together and go back to Germany. They picked me out and we started to put a Blues band together and we were still a few months into that and then somebody came along with a sponsorship. It was from a beer company, a brewery company called M&B, Mitchells And Butlers. So M&B became the M&B Five which we were to start with and the when we decided to change that into a proper name, because we were already known as the M&B Five, and I think it was Mike Pinder who came up with Moody Blues because he was a big fan of Miles Davis and he had an album called "Indigo Blue". So that's where it came from.
Q - You were on the same bill as The Beatles on July 5th, 1963. Are we talking about The Cavern?
A - Well, maybe, because we did play The Cavern, but I don't remember being on the same bill with them at The Cavern. That might've been the Rich Ballroom or something like that in Birmingham. The first time I met The Beatles I was in my own band, but the first time The Moody Blues were on the same bill as The Beatles as far as I know was their second British tour and that wouldn't have been '63. So I don't know what show that was. It was a long time ago!
Q - You guys shared the same manager, Brian Epstein. How good of a job did he do for The Moody Blues?
A - Well, we were with another company before we went with Epstein and it was The Beatles who told Brian to manages us basically or asked him to manage us. We'd been through another management and we got ripped off. A lot of the bands got ripped off financially. So, we were getting a lot of work and we were doing The Beatles' tour, second British tour, and we were looking for management. So somebody went to Brian and said why don't you manage The Moody Blues? So that's how that came about. He didn't have a lot of time for us because he was trying to launch The Bee Gees at the same time, or Robert Stigwood was. I sort of looked at it as more of an agency than a management. He had an agency called NEMS and we were part of that stable. So, we did a lot of work with those people. Brian was a good friend. He did what he could. He got us on Hullabaloo, things like that. He was connected. His client was The Beatles obviously.
Q - I never understood why he had so many bands he was trying to manage and / or book.
A - That's because in the wake of The Beatles being so huge a lot of those bands were looking for somebody to look after them, but most of them weren't actually managed by Brian. They were more part of that stable of artists who were run by that agency really.
Q - That puts a new perspective on everything. I've interviewed a lot people and no one has told me that before.
A - That was the name of his shop in Liverpool, NEMS. It was the same name, but I knew it was an agency because we all worked under the same stable. I suppose it was a mixture of management and agency.
Q - You would go to the same nightclubs The Beatles and The Stones would go to. Do you remember the names of those clubs?
A - First one we ever went to was called the Ad-Lib and that was where I met The Beatles for the second time in my life. We were all sitting there ordering drinks. I remember that. It was John that invented Scotch and Coke. That was the first drink he asked for. Then there was places like The Speakeasy. A lot of the American bands used to come there. The Scotch Of St. James was another one. That was next door to Indica Gallery, which is owned by Peter Asher and that's where John met Yoko. Then there was a few others. The Cromwelian, Bag O' Nails is where I saw Jimi Hendirx for the first time.
Q - What would you talk to The Beatles about? Would you talk about business? Would you talk about girls?
A - (laughs) There was no real talk. It was just we were having a laugh really. There would always be some reference to the music. It was more about having fun rather than talk about business. They would come by our house and play us their latest record or whatever they were doing or we'd go out to their houses. We weren't really talking about the business. We were just doing our own thing as bands. Everything we talked about was never really that deep. It was all about having a laugh 'cause you were the center of attention and we were dealing with that. We would just party and hang out together. We never really sat down and discussed anything serious, (laughs) for want of a better word.
Q - And you could talk to The Beatles just like you're talking to me, couldn't you? You weren't in awe of say Paul McCartney, were you?
A - No We were all in bands. We were all kind of friendly competitors. It wasn't like that at all. We weren't fans. I mean the fan scene came later. I was a fan of The Beatles and The Stones. I liked their music. Brian Jones was a very close friend of mine and Ronnie Wood and people like that. We weren't fans as much as we were into each other's music. Sometimes we were very likely influenced by each other is what was going on.
Q - Since you were friends with Brian Jones, I must tell you I consider Brian Jones, The Rolling Stones.
A - That's interesting because Brian was the creative force behind The Rolling Stones. I mean, even though Mick and Keith were into the Blues and loved collecting the records, Brian was more the creative, artistic director of The Stones. He was a very close friend of mine at the time, yeah.
Q - Do you believe Brian's death was accidental?
A - I can't say really. There's too much speculation to talk about things like that. It's really not my place to talk about it. I wasn't there. I don't know. You can't say. I do know that he used to do a lot of drugs at the time. It must've added to whatever went down, but whether that was an accident or by somebody else, I don't say things I don't know about. It's as simple as that really.
Q - Why do you think you got along so well with Paul McCartney? Is it because you knew him early on in his career?
A - Yeah, absolutely. I knew Paul like I say, we used to go and see Dylan in his hotel room or we'd go hang out with Donovan or we'd go see Jimi Hendrix. We'd see people. As I say, I knew all The Beatles at the time, but he was the one in London. He was the one who lived in London. Although I was based out of London, I spent a lot of time in London. I hung around a lot in London just to be part of the scene. Paul and I would actually go out to places together. I used to do it with John, but not as much. Anyway, the fact that we knew each other obviously is when we got Wings together. I think the reason he called me is because he saw me doing my own thing with Jimi Hendrix and one night playing at one of his gigs, at the Saville Theatre actually. It was owned by Brian (Epstein) at the time. I had this thing called The Electric String Band and it went down really well that night. A few months after that, Paul called me because obviously he wanted something different. He couldn't copy The Beatles. I couldn't go out and do The Moody Blues. So we had to do something different. He needed somebody as a friend who would be into doing something experimental and that's what Wings turned out to be. It was really because he knew me and we got on well. So it was an easier job than if he picked a stranger who might've been in awe of him and been a bit scared around him. He picked me because of that reason, I think.
Q - Was he a no-nonsense guy in the studio? Did he know what he wanted before he walked in those studio doors?
A - I don't think anybody knows what they want. He's the kind of guy same as me. I go in there with the idea of coming out with something. I don't go in there to mess around. You know you've got enough experience to put something down. You have a rough blueprint of what you want to do whether it be a song or just an idea. You go in there to fine tune it into a finished record and that's basically what he was like. But if an idea came up, if I was to come around and say, "Why don't we do this? What about doing that?", he would change according to whatever idea was there. He was very good at picking up on ideas and going with it. It wasn't about him doing it all his way. He would basically instigate a lot of the songs 'cause that's what he was. He was a songwriter. I wasn't so much as a songwriter then, but I'd done songs in The Moody Blues. I'd written few. But he was more prolific because as a Beatle had had success and he knew that's where the money was too. He would always come in with some idea and I would help him do that.
Q - Did it seem like songwriting came effortlessly to Paul? Did he spend a lot of time with the songs?
A - You don't know about songs. Sometimes it takes two hours. Sometimes it takes a day. Sometimes it takes a year 'cause you might keep going back to an idea. There's no answer to that. When you do something over and over again you get good at it. And you don't want to repeat yourself all the time. You kind of have that in mind when you come up with new ideas. You always try to sort of come up with some new idea and change your style as much as you can. He was very receptive to what was going on around him, same as I am. We're like musical journalists in a way. We're always aware of what's going on and we need to write about our environment and that's what we do. So, you get better at it the more you do. It's as simple as that.
Q - So what is Denny Laine dong with his time and life these days?
A - Well, I've got this book I'm doing. Then I've got a project I'm working on with a New York management company called 21st Century Artists and that's going to be a big package show we're putting together with various members of Wings actually. We're trying to do something that incorporates all of us. Then I have my own band called The Denny Laine Band who I go out and do shows with. I've actually done the "Band On The Run" album. I'm also going to be doing the first Moody Blues album on the show. Then I have another band called The Cryers, out of New Jersey. I have three different shows I go out with. I've started to work much more steadily now than I ever used to. So I'm enjoying it really, seeing a band getting really tight. So, I'm enjoying that.