This song of yearning for love was written by band member Justin Hayward. He was 19 at the time he penned it, and the title was inspired, as it were, by a gift of satin bedsheets from a girlfriend. The Moody Blues recorded it in 1967 and released it as a single as well as on their 1967 album Days of Future Passed. The album was their second one and a concept album, in that the music and lyrics followed a theme. In this case, it is a song cycle about a typical working day. Is it Sixties progressive rock or art rock? That’s your call.
There are different single versions, and it was released a number of times. We’ll leave all the variations to aficionados of the charts, but here’s a short version. In 1967-68, the song went to #19 in the U.K, #1 in The Netherlands, #5 in Germany, and #13 in Canada. In 1972, the song went to #2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on U.S. Cash Box Top 100. It sold more than one million copies and earned an RIAA gold record. That year, it also went to #1 in Canada, #8 in Australia, and #9 in the U.K. In 1979, the song was re-released in 1979 and went to #14 in the U.K.
The Moody Blues formed in Birmingham, England, in 1965. They combined rock and orchestral sounds. There have been many changes in personnel over the years. The group still tours and performs.
On the track were Justin Hayward (acoustic guitar, lead vocals), Ray Thomas (flute, backing vocals), Mike Pinder (Mellotron, backing vocals), John Lodge (bass, backing vocals), and Graeme Edge (drums, backing vocals, percussion). Additional personnel involved were Peter Knight and the London Festival Orchestra. The LP version has a spoken poem, called the “Late Lament,” that was written by Graeme Edge and recited by Mike Pinder. The sounds produced by Pinder’s Mellotron in the song came to be part of their signature sound.
The chord structure is a basic descending line built on E-minor, D-major, C-major, and B-major which is a stereotypical Spanish-sounding progression, made for a flamenco guitar. Upon this structure, the Mellotron plays the instrumental break with a melody dangerously close to Dimitri Tiomkin’s “The Green Leaves of Summer” (featured in the 1960 film The Alamo.) The Mellotron is a clunky analogue tool used to mimic orchestral sounds. When the keys are pressed they activate a series of pre-recorded tape loops. Unfortunately, due to the primitive mechanical nature of the contraption, each note is followed by a loud clunk, making the instrument every recording engineer’s worst nightmare.
Although generally classified as cerebral, “Nights in White Satin” is a song of unrequited love. The musical effect that makes this song so touching is found in the release, when Hayward suddenly breaks from his restrained vocal style. Up until that point the music, lyrics and singing have been calm and predictable. Then, out of nowhere, Hayward lets loose with a surprising and emotionally charged “I love you!” sung over an E-Minor-to-D9 (with the E natural heartbreakingly suspended over the D).