He’s in a reflective mood as he prepares to collect his third Ivor Novello Award, this time for his outstanding achievement in British music. ‘Songwriting is so much a part of me that my life would be bereft without it. If I didn’t have the music to represent me, I wouldn’t be a complete person.’
Justin is referring to a vast body of work which spans six decades and has spawned huge international hits including Nights in White Satin and Fly Me High for The Moody Blues and Forever Autumn for Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. Together with The Moody Blues, Justin has sold more than 70 million albums and has been awarded more than a dozen platinum and gold discs. He knows the trade better than most, having cut his teeth as a session musician and in covers bands during the early sixties, before moving to London to hook up with the musicians that would take his career to the world stage.
‘I think a really great song is one that you can put yourself in as a listener,’ he says. ‘You have to want to say the words the songwriter is saying. I’ve always believed that the listener brings more to a song than the writer puts into it. Because, when you break down a song into its component parts, the lyrics often appear scant, or meaningless. But, when you listen to those words in the context of a particular melody, their meaning comes to life.’ Justin’s self-taught understanding of the songwriting craft has helped him forge a lasting career that keeps him recording and touring to this day.
Born in Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1946, Justin developed an early interest in music through listening to his mother playing parlour piano and joining in with hymns at church. He learned the piano himself aged five, ‘wrapping his little fingers around a few chords’ but never really took to the mathematics of music, he admits. Still to this day, Justin can’t read music at speed and doesn’t write out the notes to his own melodies.
Justin’s formative years coincided with a breakdown in the traditional notions of popular music in Britain, when teenagers were new and rock ‘n’ roll was at the cutting edge. Throughout the fifties and very early sixties, British youngsters were tapping into the latest trans-Atlantic seven-inches, desperately trying to emulate the Yankee twang in bedrooms around the UK.
Testament to its power, the first wave of British rock n’ roll went on to form the bedrock of pop music and its leaders, including Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde, influenced a generation of songwriters, including Justin.
Like many of his contemporaries, Justin started out playing guitar in youth clubs and pubs around his sleepy hometown, emulating the sound of fifties’ America. By the end of the decade he’d formed a covers group called The Woodpeckers and within three years had turned semi-professional playing regular gigs and picking up session work. But it wasn’t until 1965, when Justin answered an advert in the back of music paper Melody Maker that he had his first stroke of luck.
‘When I was 17 I saw the advert and went to a house in east London where Marty Wilde opened the door,’ Justin recalls. ‘I auditioned for Marty as his guitar player and spent the next 18 months with him and Joyce. We went round the world working hard and were almost exclusively on the road. It was a baptism of fire. Marty was writing and he’d had some success. I learnt so much from him, I owe everything to Marty.’
Justin recorded two singles with The Wilde Three before branching out on his own. The times were changing and British pop music was starting to come into its own. The Beatles had taken America, while Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Yardbirds and Dave Clark Five were bending traditional American rock n’ roll in an entirely different direction. Justin responded by writing his own songs.
‘I did it to try to form an identity for myself,’ he explains. ‘I knew from all the cover groups I had been in or supported in Swindon that it was the people who had established their own identity that were going to make it. Not the cover bands who were copying Bo Diddley. It was crucial. After Marty, I just started doing my own material. And because of that I had another huge slice of luck – I joined the Moodies.’
Justin recalls: ‘I was sitting on the bed in a Bayswater bedsit. Mike had written a lovely song called Dawn is a Feeling and he’d asked me to sing it. I was very flattered. I wanted to write a counterpoint to that. I was at the end of one big love affair and at the beginning of a new one. For someone who was 20 years old, this was huge. I started off by writing the basic words. It was a series of random thoughts – an odd structure for a song, but there is a lot of truth in it.’
He took the song down to the rehearsal studio but the rest of the band didn’t seem too keen until Mike picked up the mellotron he’d been messing around with and came up with the strong orchestral line in the verses. Suddenly everyone got into it. The first recording they did of it was for a BBC radio session, and Justin remembers: ‘It came on the radio when we were in our transit van on the way to a gig. We pulled the van over onto the side of the road and we were startled because we heard something in it. But nobody else did at the time to be honest. We encountered a lot of resistance to that song because singles were supposed to be less than three minutes long and up-tempo.’
Nights in White Satin went on to become the band’s biggest hit at home and across the world and is the most requested song at their gigs to this day. Since the band’s first album with Justin in the line-up – 1967’s Days of Futures Passed – The Moody Blues have gone on to release 14 successive studio albums and are still regularly touring the world. Justin has written several successful solo albums, collaborated with 10cc and joined Jeff Wayne for his ongoing War of the Worlds concept.
Reminiscing on the early days, Justin says: ‘We were fortunate enough to find ourselves right in the centre of sixties London, when it was really happening. We were part of a small set of musicians; there were only a few hundred people and you knew them all. We were very privileged to be part of that. The Beatles were the unchallenged leaders of that community and they showed us all the way, they opened the door for everyone else.
‘Looking back now it was brilliant; stoned and crazy and sleeping on people’s floors with no worries. It was amazing. Everyone was listening to what young people had to say. It was very curious; I’ve never seen that since. In fact, I listen to the early songs from the Moodies, and I think, “How on earth did we do that? Where the hell did it come from?” I can’t really grasp the person that did that stuff anymore.’
Watch the video interview with Justin from the 2013 Ivor Novello Awards here.