Busting out of Birmingham into the rock hall of fame

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

When it comes to rock and roll Ground Zero in the U.K., London gets most of the attention, with Liverpool a close second.

But Birmingham, U.K. was no slacker when it came to launching the careers of iconic bands. For instance, Black Sabbath, Duran Duran, Judas Priest, Traffic, UB40, and the Electric Light Orchestra all came out of the city, which lies about 120 miles northwest of London.

Probably the most influential band to come out of Birmingham was the Moody Blues, which took the orchestral template set by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” and refined it. These members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were one of the first bands to be accompanied on an entire album by a symphony, “Days of Future Passed.”

The band’s long time bassist and vocalist John Lodge is taking a break from the Moodies to tour the United States to promote his new album, “Live from Birmingham—The 10,000 Light Years Tour.” He performs at the Infinity Hall in Norfolk on Saturday, Oct. 20.

Talking about his home town during a phone interview, Lodge said, “It’s amazing (of the amount of talent that came out of Birmingham).”

At 15, Lodge said he and the late Ray Thomas, the Moody Blues’ longtime flautist and vocalist, were in a band together. “During that period of the late 50s’, there were tons of bands,” said Lodge.

Lodge remembered how bands from all across the city would perform and try to prove themselves as the best in Birmingham.

Birmingham represented “everything brilliant” about the U.K. at the time, said Lodge. It was the second largest center of automobile manufacturers—only topped by Detroit. And it had a world symphony, the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Lodge said the mixture of youthful rock and roll, industrial economic energy, and mature classical music helped build the Birmingham music scene, he said.

Another dimension that made the Birmingham scene unique was that every band was trying to write their own music rather than perform cover songs. The Idle Race (which included future ELO member Jeff Lynne), the Spencer Davis Group, Steve Winwood were among the artists who performed their originals, said Lodge.

And each band in Birmingham watched what the other bands were doing, they tried to beat it, said Lodge.

In the context of the Moody Blues catalogue, Lodge typically was responsible for the group’s more rocking numbers, such as “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band” “Ride My See Saw,” and “Gemini Dream.”

Lodge said there was a café that he used to go to all the time in Birmingham. That café had a jukebox. And he and his friends would go just to play rock and roll on the juke box, listening to Little Richard, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Lodge said the beat was the selling point of rock and roll to him. You didn’t even need drums, he said. The left hand bass line on the piano from the likes of Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis, drove the songs.

When it came time to learn an instrument, he said, he tried to recreate that left hand boogie on the bottom four strings of a guitar (there were no electric bass guitars in Birmingham at the time).

Although the Moody Blues made their mark on rock and roll history, its recordings, the group also has a long history as a consistent figure on the touring scene.

“I have always said, have bass will travel,” said Lodge.

After the band recorded “Days of Future Passed” and its follow up, “In Search of the Lost Chord,” the group came to America for a three month tour.

“It was the best thing we ever did,” said Lodge. “We made so many friends.”

The touring also helped keep the band fresh, said Lodge. On the road, he said, you get to meet people. And from that contact with other people, the  band’s songwriting found its inspiration.

Additionally, he said, when you’re in a studio, you’re not sure if anyone will like the music. But on the road, you get the feedback you need to tell you did something good.

Also in a live setting, songs begin to evolve and take on a new life, said Lodge. For instance, “I’m Just A Singer In Rock and Roll Band” gives his band mate Justin Hayward an opportunity to stretch out on a guitar when it’s played in concert. When Thomas toured with a band, Lodge said he would do an “incredible” flute solo on “Legend of A Mind.”

“You need to get that energy into a live performance,” said Lodge. “Too many bands are just like a karaoke machine.”

Lodge’s new album “Live From Birmingham—The 10,000 Light Years Tour” was recorded in the iconic Birmingham Town Hall.

The venue is important to Lodge’s own musical origins.

When he was 17 and 18, Lodge said he and his band used to play there. All the bands used to play there, said Lodge, such as Steve Winwood, the Spencer Davis Group, Wizzard, Idle Race, and so on.

Even before he had a chance to perform at the Birmingham Town Hall, the used to attract iconic performers that inspired Lodge as well.

Lodge remembered seeing Buddy Holly at the theater. He was just 13 and he sat in the front row. That performance sparked a lifelong love for music. After seeing Holly, Lodge said he just knew he wanted to play rock and roll, write rock and roll, and record rock and roll.

When Lodge comes to Connecticut, the set list will be different than a typical Moody Blues show. He will be performing songs from his solo efforts. He will do some songs from The Blue Jays, the side group he had with Hayward. And he also will perform some Moody Blues songs that they typically don’t do in concert such as “Eyes of a Child” and “Candle of Life”

Lodge said also will perform some songs written by his former band mates, keyboardist Mike Pinder (who left the band in 1978) and the late Ray Lodge (who died in January). “They were my friends all my life,” said Lodge, explaining why he wanted to honor Pinder and Lodge.

As for the future of the Moodies, Lodge when the group– Hayward and drummer Graeme Edge— are all together, they will discuss what to do with the band next.

John Lodge will perform at the Infinity Hall, Route 44 ,Norfolk on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $69 to $89.

For more information, go to www.infinityhall.com or www.JohnLodge.com

Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver. com.

John Lodge of the Moody Blues is on a solo tour in America, which comes to Connecticut Saturday.