Tony Clarke: Visionary producer and 'sixth member' of the Moody Blues

Tuesday 09 March 2010 01:00

The record producer Tony Clarke played a crucial role in the career of the Moody Blues and helped turn them into one of the most distinctive rock groups to come out of Britain. In 1967, he produced "Nights in White Satin", the band's gorgeous, evergreen signature song and Days of Future Passed, their groundbreaking concept album whose blend of neo-classical arrangements, récitatif and psychedelia ushered in the progressive-rock era. Clarke oversaw the making of their eight most successful studio albums, including the UK No 1s On the Threshold of a Dream (1969), A Question of Balance (1970) and Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (1971), as well as the US chart-topper Seventh Sojourn (1972), and became known to fans as the "sixth member" of the Moody Blues.

When the band took a five-year hiatus he worked with its mainstays, Justin Hayward and John Lodge, on their Blue Jays album and their 1975 Top Ten single, "Blue Guitar", as well as their respective solo albums. However, after a particularly stressful time making Octave, the Moody Blues' 1978 "comeback" album, he decided to stop working with them. Clarke subsequently produced Legend – music from the TV series Robin of Sherwood – by the Irish group Clannad, which spent most of 1984 on the British charts, and albums and soundtracks by the virtuoso keyboard player Rick Wakeman.

Anthony Clarke was born in 1941 in Coventry, and had vivid memories of the German bombs raining down on the city during the Second World War. As a teenager, he played in several skiffle groups. In 1963 he joined Decca Records, then EMI's main rival in the British music industry, and soon moved from the promotion to the production department run by Dick Rowe, the man who had turned down the Beatles but signed the Rolling Stones, Them and, indeed, the Moody Blues.

In 1966 Clarke produced his first Top Ten hit, "Mirror, Mirror" by Pinkerton's Assorted Colours, as well as "Baby Come Back" by the Equals, the racially integrated group featuring Eddie Grant, which topped several European charts that year but only reached No 1 in the UK when re-issued in 1968. He also penned the occasional composition, including "Our Song", which was recorded by the ballad singers Malcolm Roberts and Jack Jones.

But Clarke really made his mark with the Moody Blues, who were at something of a low ebb in 1967 following the departure of bassist Clint Warwick and guitarist Denny Laine, the soulful lead vocalist on their 1965 chart-topping cover of Bessie Banks's "Go Now". Lodge (bass) and Hayward (guitar) joined founder members Graeme Edge (drums), Mike Pinder (keyboards) and Ray Thomas (flute) and the group became more democratic, with all five musicians composing and contributing lead or harmony vocals.

During their first session with Clarke they recorded "Fly Me High", a song Hayward had written on a 12-string acoustic guitar. The visionary producer suggested a less frantic approach to the main riff, while the band's soaring harmonies hinted at the lushness of their future sound. "It was the moment when we all first knew we really did have something magical between us. "Fly Me High" really was the beginning for us," Hayward later recalled.

Though neither "Fly me High" nor the subsequent single, "Love and Beauty" – a Pinder composition featuring the Mellotron, which would become part of their trademark sound – charted, the Moody Blues were nevertheless evolving into a psychedelic group in tune with the times. With Decca launching its Deram subsidiary under the aegis of A&R manager Hugh Mendl, the label suggested they record a rock version of Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony to promote the company's new Deramic Stereo Sound. This idea was quickly abandoned as Clarke and the band concentrated on a song cycle entitled Days of Future Passed.

Incorporating orchestral interludes by Peter Knight which segued seamlessly into Pinder's quasi-symphonic Mellotron parts, poems written by Edge and the Hayward compositions "Nights in White Satin" and "Tuesday Afternoon", the ambitious album was initially rejected by Decca executives but championed by Mendl, its executive producer. Released at the end of 1967, it proved a slow burner and became a staple of FM radio in the US as the format developed into the 1970s. "Nights in White Satin" has endured even better, charting three times in the UK and still rates highly in surveys of popular songs four decades on.

During his 12-year association with the Moody Blues, Clarke also produced the hit singles "Voices in the Sky", "Ride My See-Saw", "Question", "Isn't Life Strange" and "I'm Just A Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)", and the Top 5 albums In Search of the Lost Chord (1968) and To Our Children's Children's Children (1969). His interest in the cosmos seemed a perfect match for their lofty pursuits. He was also closely involved in the running of Threshold, the label launched by the group, and produced Ever Sense the Dawn, the 1972 album by Providence, one of their signings. In 1971, he oversaw the Four Tops' majestic version of the Moody Blues B-side "A Simple Game", which became a Top 3 single for the Motown group in Britain.

Clarke died of emphysema. Paying tribute to Clarke on his website, Lodge said: "We made beautiful music together. His energy and enthusiasm kept us focused on our creativity day and night, in the studio or not! I remember when we had finished recording Days of Future Passed sitting in the studio listening to the first playback of the album, the joy, and pride, on Tony's face was infectious. As a songwriter and musician, it was a privilege and honour that Tony came into my life and that we shared for that moment in time our musical dreams together."

......... Pierre Perrone

Anthony Ralph Clarke, record producer musician and songwriter: born Coventry 21 August 1941; married (six children); died Brighton 4 January 2010.

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