The making of the Moody Blues' 'Nights In White Satin'
(Since its inception in 1973, the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame has enshrined nearly 1,000 recordings across all genres. The Making Of … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of the essential recordings of the 20th century. You can read more Making Of … accounts, and in-depth insight into the recordings and artists represented in the Hall, in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition book.)
"Nights In White Satin"
The Moody Blues
(As told to John Sutton-Smith)
I came to the band as a songwriter trying to find an outlet for my songs. They had only been together for a short time and cut "Go Now" and that was about it. The three guys that were left, after [bassist] Clint [Warwick] and [singer/guitarist] Denny [Laine] left, their heart wasn't into the rhythm & blues stuff. Mike [Pinder] was into doing new material and so was I, so we stopped wearing the blue suits and overnight it changed for us.
I got back from a gig about 4 in the morning, sat on the edge of the bed and just wrote down the basic thing. I was at the end of one love affair and at the beginning of another. And I do write letters never meaning to send, so there's quite a lot of truth to that song. When I played "Nights [In White Satin]" initially to the other guys, they were quite unimpressed until Mike did that phrase on the mellotron. I have to give him a lot of credit for that.
[Producer] Tony Clarke gave me a wonderful guitar sound and he knew how to record my voice, and with Mike he got that mellotron sound that is so sensational. The recording was a very happy relaxed time, because we didn't think we were under any pressure. It wasn't a huge career thing. We just wanted to get our stage act recorded, really, and here was this opportunity to make this stereo demonstration record for Decca. Hardly anyone had stereo, so it would only appeal to a few people, but it gave us a chance. Peter Knight the orchestral arranger had seen us and liked our material and said the best way to do it was to record the orchestral breaks between our songs.
I was the only one in the studio when they recorded the London Festival Orchestra. They only did it once. They did a rehearsal with Tony Clarke, and prepared the tape long enough with blank tape onto a 4-track, with Peter Knight, counting down. It's unbelievable how they did this. They'd already put the songs in the right order with the gaps in between, and then Peter would conduct the orchestra to his own voice counting. They rehearsed it once without [recording] it, no alternative take or anything, then took a break for a cup of tea, then they did a take and that was it; it was over.
We first heard ["Nights In White Satin"] in our transit van, going to a gig up north. They played it on the radio, and we pulled over. It was, like, spooky. There was something strange about it, that we hadn't really heard when we were playing it, but you got when you listened to it.
I had no idea that FM radio in America would pick it up and that "Nights…" would happen. I often wonder to this day what it is about the record that people like, because there's hardly anything on it. I mean we double-tracked the guitar, Mike did some double-tracking on his mellotron, and we were really only bouncing between two-track and four-track anyway. There's some fabulous Decca echoes on it, but there's really nothing else.
(John Sutton-Smith is a music journalist and TV producer who helped establish the GRAMMY Foundation's GRAMMY Living Histories oral history program, currently comprising almost 200 interviews.)