The bassist and vocalist from Birmingham’s legendary progressive rock band reveals how his modestly titled hit single came to be
Born and raised in Birmingham, John Lodge is bass guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for the iconic rock band, The Moody Blues. After joining keyboardist Mike Pinder, multi-instrumentalist Ray Thomas, drummer Graeme Edge and guitarist Justin Hayward in 1966, John and the band went on to pioneer the development of art rock and progressive rock through the early 70s.
John has been performing and recording with The Moody Blues for more than five decades, selling in excess of 70 million albums, includes 18 platinum and gold LPs, and in 2018 they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The band’s eighth album, 1972’s Seventh Sojourn, spawned two singles – Isn’t Life Strange and I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band) – both of which John wrote. As we learn here, the latter release reached No 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it one of their highest-charting hits in the US. We also learn how the song was inspired by the Vietnam War and some crazy fans camped out on John’s lawn…
“Everyone wanted to do that, and we realised the secret that it wasn’t about us individually, it was us collectively that made The Moody Blues. We used to sit around a coffee table and every song we ever recorded was talked about first, round that table. If any of us wrote a song, as soon as we played it to the rest of the guys, it became their song. That was the brilliance of The Moody Blues. Everyone had their own commitment to it and that’s how we approach everything – The Moody Blues was the vehicle.
“[With Seventh Sojourn], obviously we’d got the songs together before the recording, but it was a strange time. Because when we started there was just five of us and a roadie, and by the time Seventh Sojourn came around we had our own touring company, our own publishing company, a string of record shops, and we had lots of people working for us.
“Also, Mike had built his own studio in his garden and wanted to work there, the record company wanted us to work somewhere else, and in the States we were playing huge arenas, and we’d become a really good live, working band. So I think we approached Seventh Sojourn more as a live band where all the songs on the album could be played live on stage – I know I did.
“This is where one of the lyrics for I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band) came from… I remember coming back from a tour and there was a whole load of people camped out in my front garden! I was like, ‘Er… What are you doing?’ and they all said, ‘John, we’ve come to tell you you’re going to save the Earth. You’re going to be flying the spaceship and fly us all to safety…’ And I was like, ‘Pardon? Just a minute, I actually don’t like flying! So I won’t be me.’ And they said, ‘When the time comes, it will be you.’
“So that’s when I started thinking: ‘Hang on, I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. I know nothing.’ And that’s why, at the very end of the song, I wanted to put, ‘We’re all just singers in a rock ‘n’ roll band.’ Also, it was the Vietnam War and around Europe there were riots going on all over the place, so I included lyrics like ‘Riots by the people for the people.’ In other words, you’re destroying yourself.
“And I talk about, ‘Scorched earth, scorching this earth,’ and there was that incredible photograph of the young girl on fire and that hit me really hard, so that’s why I put that into the song. I wanted to put all that into a rock ‘n’ roll song, so I remember sitting in my music room with my guitar. I was at home in Cobham and I’m still here – I’ve written so many songs in my home, I think it vibrates with music!
“I probably wrote it on an acoustic guitar, because it would’ve given me lots of harmonic notes. It was a Harmony Sovereign – I don’t think they exist anymore – and it was the first acoustic guitar I ever bought. I wrote a lot of songs on that. It wasn’t a great guitar, but it has great harmonics and great depth – the bottom E string used to resonate really well. Then the bass I would’ve worked on at the same time with my Fender Precision – I’ve recorded nearly every Moody Blues song we’ve done on that bass.
“I like writing in B or F#, because I’m always looking for that bass riff and you can find one from there. You’re avoiding the open notes and I find my fingers can get on with it, then I can sing! It’s a bit like that thing where you rub your stomach and tap your head.
“First of all, I wanted to find the right rhythm and got that going, then I knew I wanted the bridge parts to go to minors – it makes it, not sinister, but it makes you aware of something – and then change to a major, to make it take off somehow.
“[The bass riff] is really nice to play. Then Justin came with his great guitar riff, then we had the Chamberlin on top, which I wanted because I still wanted to have a tinge of orchestration. So the rhythm came first and then the idea of the lyrics came afterwards.
“I think, in a strange way, The Moody Blues have travelled a different route to, shall we say, pop success. Okay, we had Nights In White Satin but that took four years to get the recognition. And I think the media, radio and television in the UK ignored us – we never seemed to do any of those Top Of The Pops things and all that. I think it was because, maybe, we concentrated on being an album band.
“Seventh Sojourn was No 1 in the UK, so although I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band) may have done well in the States, perhaps our [British] audience was a listening audience, not a radio audience, and they just wanted to buy the album. But I’ve never really analysed it because, to be honest, when we do a concert the audience is there, so we all share it together, which is wonderful.”