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From the Moody Blues to Wings to the Rock Hall: Q&A with Denny Laine

Denny Laine was the only constant member of Wings aside from Paul & Linda McCartney. The trio recorded "Band on the Run" 50 years ago under trying conditions, but it was a massive success. Laine began his career in 1965 as co-founder of The Moody Blues (right).
Clive Arrowsmith, Nicholas Wright
EMI, Decca Records
Denny Laine was the only constant member of Wings aside from Paul & Linda McCartney. The trio recorded "Band on the Run" 50 years ago under trying conditions, but it was a massive success. Laine began his career in 1965 as co-founder of The Moody Blues (right).

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Denny Laine was there for the founding of not one but two wildly successful bands: The Moody Blues and Paul McCartney & Wings. He’s kept a low profile in recent years but is now on tour, coming to Cleveland’s Music Box on Friday. The singer-songwriter-guitarist says he was always influenced by different sounds growing up.

Denny Laine: I do have some gypsy blood. That's the first thing that people don't realize. I was always attracted to that kind of… Spanish Flamenco music for some reason. My sisters had all sorts of different music. My mother played the piano. I remember the war made everybody entertain at home. So, that's what it was like in my neighborhood. I got into it through going to see Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson at the Hippodrome. I thought, “This is the life for me.”

Ideastream Public Media’s Kabir Bhatia: You played in bands, as we all do, and eventually you hooked up with Ray Thomas, Mike Pinder, Graeme Edge and Clint Warwick.

Laine: We were a blues band, the M & B Five. We were not called the Moody Blues, because it was named after a brewery called Mitchell’s and Butler’s, and they were gonna sponsor us. That kills the romantic name of the Moody Blues. But the fact is it got us off the ground. Somebody came to us from London, [listening to] all that different music paid off in the end. And the Beatles were into the same influences. We used to get Radio Luxembourg, which is in Germany. We got that. So, we were getting all the music coming in and nobody could afford any instruments. It was very competitive. And after the war, all you gotta do is try and get a job. And my parents encouraged me to do whatever I wanted because beggars can't be choosers. The only job I ever had was a trainee buyer in a big departmental store in the music department. Can you believe it? Selling grand pianos. It was very, very posh. Stayed there for about a year just after I left school. And then I said, “Listen, I've gotta go and do my own thing because I'm never gonna make it if I stay doing this job.”

Bhatia: Eventually, the band had several more hits in England, but then eventually you and Clint Warwick split from the group.

Laine: It's like what happens in life. The bass player left because he was the only married one, and that changed the dynamic of the band for me completely. It took a couple of years to get it anywhere near good, but we knew what we were doing. We were a good band. When we came down to London, we met the Beatles. I'd already met the Beatles in Birmingham when we opened for them with my band, the Diplomats. But when the Moodies came down to London, we were exposed more to the blues scene [and] jazz scene. Birmingham was just, “Play the pop songs and you'll get work, otherwise you won't get work.” And we didn't want to do that. Or at least, I didn't want to do that.

Denny Laine with Paul & Linda McCartney
From 1971-81, Denny Laine was a key component of Wings' success -- and the only constant member of the trio aside from Paul & Linda McCartney. After the group disbanded, McCartney included Laine on his albums "Tug of War" and "Pipes of Peace" alongside guests such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Ringo Starr, Eric Stewart, Carl Perkins and Stanley Clarke. Laine and the McCartneys also contributed to George Harrison's 1981 hit "All Those Years Ago."

Bhatia: You had some solo singles after that and then a group. Tell me about Balls, because the lineup there looks amazing. Alan White, who would later play with Yes, Jackie Lomax, who had been on the Beatles' Apple Records, and Trevor Burton.

Laine: I knew Trevor from the Move. He was down in London. It ended up with just me, Trevor and Alan White. I got them into Ginger Baker's Air Force cause Ginger asked me to do something with him. Actually, we met down at Traffic's cottage one weekend and were all playing away. And then Ginger - after Cream, it wasn't happening - he just got in touch and said, “Listen, do you wanna do something?” So, I did. I got those two guys in, so that was the end of the Balls period. The problem with that was it was the same management as the Moody Blues. We never made any money even though we were getting hits all over the bloody place in Europe or whatever. We weren't really going anywhere yet, but I decided, “Well, I'm writing songs and if this isn't happening here, I'm gonna go off and do something else.”

Bhatia: And from there, the next stop was a call from Paul McCartney, who had admired "Go Now" and was putting together a new group: Wings. "Band on the Run" turns 50 this year. I know it was recorded in Nigeria, but you mentioned Ginger Baker a moment ago, tell me about his involvement.

Laine: Paul was signed to EMI. He picked somewhere on the map where they had a studio. And of course, we loved all that music. They weren't up-to-date exactly with the equipment, but we didn't need it. We got more out of just being there and being influenced by all that music, which was fantastic. Ginger being there was great for me, because I felt more at home because I had a friend in the same town. We did go over to Ginger's one day just as a courtesy. Ginger put some sounds [on the session], if you like. He… actually played a fire bucket full of gravel for a shaker sound.

Band on the Run.jpg
Denny Laine says there's no hidden meaning in the differences between the British (left) and American back covers of "Band on the Run."

Bhatia: Throughout the 1970s, you were the core of Wings with the McCartneys. And aside from Nigeria, you recorded in New Orleans, Scotland, the Virgin Islands, New York, London and Nashville. Was that exciting? Hectic?

Laine: A lot of artists do that. They go and are influenced. Bob Dylan's a good example [with] "Nashville Skyline." He went down there. He used those guys. If you love certain kinds of music, you go looking for it. You're like a fan. And when you go there, you work in Nashville, you've got some of the best players in the world. It spills over into your music and that's where we get our data to put into our own little memory banks.

Bhatia: What about Buddy Holly? You made a whole tribute album to him at the height of Wings' fame in 1977, called "Holly Days." How did that come about?

Laine: Everybody loved Buddy Holly. He was the ultimate influence when it came to songwriting. Paul and I knew all the Buddy Holly songs. We could jam to any of those things. The Buddy Holly album came about because he bought... some of [Holly's] publishing. At the same time, he's promoting Buddy's music. We were gonna do it with all Nashville people, but the guy who was going [to] produce was busy at the time. Paul was up in Scotland and he put the backing tracks together and I went up, did a few extra things, and we used that instead of going to Nashville and doing it that way. That's the way that worked and it was a tribute to Buddy, that's all. He was the first singer-songwriter.

Bhatia: After Wings disbanded in 1981, you were still playing with Paul on his solo albums, "Tug of War" and "Pipes of Peace,” where I see you actually played synthesizer?

Laine: Yeah, I played a bit of everything. Even if you can't play it, you kind of learn something. You get sound out of something. We were having guests come along: Carl Perkins, Ringo Starr, Steve Gadd, Stanley Clarke. I mean, we had a lot of great people come onto those records. It was not a Wings record, it was just us being influenced by [people like] Stevie Wonder. I mean, one of the most enthusiastic guys in the world is Stevie Wonder. He's a fantastic musician, but he's just so open to anything new, and that's what really I like about him. People like that, they're not stuck in a group forever or in the past.

Bhatia: Going back to “Band on the Run,” on the back cover there's little passport photos of Paul, then Linda, then you. On the American album, they're reversed and you're the one closest to Paul. Did you ever notice that? Is there some hidden meaning there?

Laine: No way! I don't know. You experiment with the photographer, just like everything else. It's like the guy who did the "Band on the Run" front cover, he had the wrong film in his camera! It turned out that it was sepia-toned. The color was just, like, weird because it wouldn't have been that way with the right film. Then I think it was Paul or Linda [who] said, "We like the color." And he went, "Oh, thank you," [from] a mistake. A lot of things happen like that. You just make the most of it.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.