The Moody Blues’ frontman describes his journey on the bass guitar and how he’s found new life through touring on his own.
In Birmingham, England, when John Lodge was a teenager, bass guitars weren’t readily available, and he admits he didn’t even know what one was. “The first time I saw a real bass guitar was with a band called the Treniers, who did the film The Girl Can’t Help It,” he recalls, referring to the 1956 musical starring Jayne Mansfield. “I think I was probably 13 at the time, and they came to England with Jerry Lee Lewis. I went to see them — the left-hand boogie side of the piano with Jerry Lee Lewis is just brilliant. He didn’t actually show; he canceled, but the Treniers still played. And I saw this guy at the back and thought he was playing a Stratocaster, but it only had four strings, and I realized that was it.”
It would be another 18 months before one eventually turned up in Birmingham for sale. On Saturday mornings, like every budding musician, Lodge went to the local music shop, where he’d have a look at the amplifiers and the guitars, and he and his friends would show each other the new chords they had learned. “It was called Jack Woodruff’s, in the middle of Birmingham, and there in the window, ‘Direct from the USA’ — the Fender Precision Bass.” Lodge then went home and asked his father to help him buy it. And he did. “We went back to the store and signed the papers and bought that bass. Can you believe I’ve still got the paperwork? I found it the other day … amazing. That bass recorded nearly every Moody Blues song I’ve ever recorded, and my new album,.”
Born on July 20, 1945, in Erdington, John Lodge became famous as the bass guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for iconic Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2018 inductees the Moody Blues. Songwriter of such hits as “Ride My SeeSaw,” “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band),” “Isn’t Life Strange?,” and many more, Lodge has been performing and recording with the Moody Blues for more than five decades, selling over 70 million albums. He’s been honored for his songwriting acumen by ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Publishers), and he’s even received an Ivor Novello Award (presented by the British Academy of Songwriters). Lodge’s latest release, B Yond – The Very Best Of John Lodge, is a mix of new tunes, re-recorded classics, and some remixed Moody Blues tunes. Lodge went back into the studio and recreated songs like “Street Café,” “(Evening) Time to Get Away,” and “Legend of a Mind,” with the musicians of his 10,000 Light Years Band, which includes Alan Hewitt on keyboards, Duffy King on guitars, Billy Ashbaugh on drums, and Jason Charboneau on cello. The result feels fresh and modern, while still retaining the magic of the originals. “Legend of a Mind” was particularly important for Lodge to include on the album, as it is a tribute to his recently deceased friend and former Moody Blues bandmate Ray Thomas. The original 24-track recordings of “Say You Love Me” and “Summer Breeze, Summer Song” were also remixed and remastered. The tracks were co-produced by John and Alan Hewitt, and they feature Lodge on that original Fender Precision Bass — the one his dad bought at Jack Woodruff’s all those years ago.
“It’s beautiful,” he attests, returning to the topic of the bass. “Every note is superb. I bought it in 1960, so it’s a late-’50s model, really. I think it was one of the very first of those basses to reach England. It was incredibly expensive — £115, say, $150, but that was in 1960. You could buy a car for £450. You could buy a house for a £1000. So, it was an investment, money-wise, but it had nothing to do with that. Being a budding musician, that was the only bass I wanted to play, and I’ve loved it ever since — proud owner.”
We spoke with Lodge at home in England, after recently completing Yes’ North American Royal Affair Tour this past summer. The complete tour lineup featured Yes, Asia, Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy (with guest vocalist Arthur Brown) — and, of course, Lodge, who was a charming, curious, detailed interviewee and a bass aficionado of the highest order.
What made you gravitate toward bass?
That’s what drove rock & roll. Everyone listened to the vocalists and everything else, but for me the bass — Carol Kaye, James Jamerson, all these people — drove everything. It still does drive everything. And the left [hand] side of boogie piano was everything I ever wanted: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Gene Vincent. They’re all iconic, but what I realized, what was driving the music for me, was that boogie piano. I used to try to copy all of that boogie on a guitar.
You play a custom Fender Jazz Bass live.
I use a long-neck Fender Jazz Bass, which was customized by the Fender Custom Shop for me probably 25 years ago. And they did a few things for me — adjustments with the nut, the imitation tortoiseshell pickguard, and I think they tweaked the active pickup for me. Having the long neck is just brilliant for me. It seems to play itself, somehow. I look down at my fingers when I’m playing and think, “How do they know where to go?” [Laughs.] As soon as I put that bass on, it just felt right.
Can you elaborate on what felt right about it?
For me, being a singer as well, you’ve got to get the balance right, because you can’t have anything in the way of trying to get the vocal over. You want the bass to be exactly right, so it feels as though it’s all part of you. And to be honest, I found that with all of my Fender basses. From day one, when I bought my Precision Bass, it just worked. I’ve tried every other bass there is, and a lot of them are good and they get great sounds and everything, but onstage the Fender seems to work for me. There’s something about the balance with a Fender bass. Leo Fender got it right.
You make singing while playing bass seem effortless, but it can be one of the hardest things to do. With guitar you can let a chord hang while singing a phrase, but the bass has to keep going.
You’re exactly right. Lead-guitar singers have it easy, because they play the lead guitar bit when they’re not singing, like BB King. I think what you need, as a bass player, is a great drummer. I’ve been really lucky to have great drummers behind me. If you move off the feel, the drummer can always get you back in somehow. I’m not saying that I go off tempo. It’s not just being on the beat; it’s being able to get the feeling, the emotion, from the bass as well as the vocal. For me, that is really important — really important.
Do you mostly play with a pick or with your fingers, or both?
I would say 99% [of the time] I just wear a pick, and my picks are very strange compared to everyone else’s. When I first bought the bass, there was a magazine called World’s Fair, which came to England about once every month, and I read that a lot of bass players used big felt picks. So, I had some of those and they seemed to work quite well, except they didn’t dig into the strings, so they didn’t have any punch. Apparently, a lot of the studio musicians used to use these in America. So, I got the size and went to a manufacturer — this was like 1968 — and I’ve used the same picks since then.
Are they felt picks?
No, they’re plastic, but tortoiseshell-looking. They’re really good because one end is pointy and one end is round. If it’s a slow song, sometimes I turn it around and use the round part. If it’s a faster song, I use the pointy bit. It’s quite good using up and down strokes with the pointed end.
I understand you prefer recording with flatwounds, but live, you use roundwounds. What is it that you like about the flatwounds for recording?
Whatever note you’re playing, it all seems to be the same range. It doesn’t matter if you play an A on the E string, or an A on the G string; they seem to take up the same space in the audio spectrum. There seems to be a good balance.
Do you write songs on bass?
Sometimes I do. I wrote “Singer in a Rock and Roll Band” on bass.
Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that.
Yeah. A lot of songs are written on bass. “Eyes of a Child,” “House of Four Doors” — I’ve written a lot of songs on bass. On bass, you can either play the roots of chords, or you can play the cello part of the bass. A lot of my bass playing is really cello playing on a bass. So, I’m always looking for a note that’ll go with the chord, which may not be the root of the chord. Or I can get it to motor through, like on “Legend of a Mind.”
You often tour with a cellist and a flute player. That seems to be an essential component of your songcraft.
I’ve always enjoyed the cello, and that’s why I’ve got a cello onstage with me. I understand what the cello is doing and what I’d like the cello to do. And when I put my bass with it, we’re relating, but not necessarily in harmony. I think it’s because all my life I’ve mostly been in a two-guitar band, so I’ve always had to cover a lot of ground.
The bass can be a bridge between the melody and the rhythm, so you should be able to know the song without any other instrumentation — just by the bass line.
Absolutely. You’ve got to be well aware of the song’s melody, so you don’t play the same note. That’s important, as well. And so, if you play the bass, you’ve got to know what the song is. If you took everything away and you heard the bass, you’d still know the song. James Jamerson was brilliant at that. It didn’t matter what the song was; when you heard those bass lines going, you knew what was happening. So, like on “Tuesday Afternoon,” if you play the bass part, you should be able to sing the song. “Singer in a Rock and Roll Band” and “Legend of a Mind” are the same.
What were your goals in remixing “Say You Love Me” and “Summer Breeze”? What was your aim in making them sound more contemporary?
With more contemporary sounds, the drums are louder, the bass is louder. The systems these days are so good, even in headphones. So, when I came to do the album, I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to go back and find those original 24-tracks.” I baked them first, because the oxide probably would have come off, and then I digitized everything and went back into the studio and remixed them. The drums are a lot louder, the bass is louder, and I think the [overall] spectrum is louder.
It’s a very cohesive-sounding record.
I wanted to make B Yond feel as though it was all recorded at the same time. The dynamics needed to be the same; it was very important to me that it didn’t sound just like a random collection of recordings.
“Summer Breeze, Summer Song” has a fantastic sax solo.
A guy named Jimmy Jewell played that. I just love that sax solo, and I thought, “Well, if I love it, perhaps other people are going to enjoy that solo as well.” It’s a really beautiful piece of playing. I’ve always been interested in saxophone players, from the days of Fats Domino and Little Richard.
I hear the sax influence because of the Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and boogie-bass influences — but what about the cello and the flute? Do you have any classical training?
No, none whatsoever. I didn’t really get into music at all until I was 13, and I only got into it because of rock & roll. But in school when I was six, seven, eight, nine, we used to have what was called a quiet period, and the teachers would play classical music. I think it was to give them a break from the kids [laughs]. And Birmingham, where I was born, has an incredible orchestra called the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Whether that sort of went into my psyche, I don’t know, but somehow, I seem to be able to hear flute parts and cello parts. I don’t know where it comes from — no idea.
So, you’re completely self-taught?
In Birmingham, when I was growing up, there was no one who could teach you rock & roll at all. If you wanted guitar lessons, you had to learn Spanish guitar with gut strings — no steel strings. So, it was a matter of teaching yourself, taking the guitar into your bedroom every night and trying to figure it out. It was as simple as that, really.
When you come up with these flute and cello parts, how do you translate them to the other musicians? Do you play the part on bass and say, “This is what I’m hearing,” or do you sing it?
Sometimes I make a demo of the song and I’ll whistle the part, which I’ve often done, or I will just sing the part to the person. I did an acoustic version of “Isn’t Life Strange” with the cellist from the Miami Symphony Orchestra — he was from South America. Wonderful guy, fantastic. I’ve forgotten his name, unfortunately. He asked, “Where is the music?” and I said, “Well, I’ll sing it to you.” He couldn’t believe it. I don’t think anybody had ever done that to him before. But he sat there, and I just sang the part to him, you know, and it was great because once he’d mastered that we could fine-tune it. I could change a few notes here and there; I was really pleased with the end result. So, I’ve usually got no preconceived idea what I’m going to do, to be honest [laughs]. –BM
Basses Fender Custom Shop replica ’62 Jazz Bass, late-’50s Fender Precision
Rig Ampeg SVT-CL, SVT410HE, SVT15E
Strings GHS Boomers
Picks Custom (tortoiseshell teardrop)
B Yond – The Very Best Of John Lodge [2019, BMG]
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