Monday, 30 December 2013

2013 Van Morrison Quiz

Are you a Van obsessive? A Vanatic? Think you know your Van trivia?

1. What Van song appears in the movie As Good as it Gets?  

2. What was Van's best-selling album?  

3. What was Van's first solo album called?

4. Which Hollywood actor did Van invite to share the stage at some concerts?

5.   What was Van's equivalent of Bob's Basement Tapes called?

6.  Who was Joe Raposo?  

7. What's Van's longest album?

8. Did Baby Please Don't Go appear in the movie Good Mornin' Vietnam?

9.  Where did the phrase It's Too Late to Stop Now first appear in Van's work?

10. What 60s group did Van's former manager Ted Templeton play with?  


1.  Days Like This
2.  The Best of Van Morrison (1990)
3.  Blowin' Your Mind 
4.  Richard Gere
5. The Philosopher's Stone (Volume 1)
6.  He wrote Green from Hard Nose the Highway.
7.  Moondance (the deluxe version from 2013  -  a 5 disc set) 
8.  Yes.
9.  In the song Into the Mystic on Moondance
10. Harper's Bizarre


10/10 - You are Pat Corley, Simon Gee or Stephen McGinn

8/10 or 9/10 - You're a loyal fan (and you probably need another hobby)

5/10 to 7/10 - Keep reading the 'Into the Mystics' blog

2/10 to 4/10 - Who cares about silly trivia quizzes anyway?

1/10 - oh dear .....

0/10 - perhaps you'd like to try the One Direction quiz?

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Funny Things People Say - Part 4

Jim Miller   -   Veedon Fleece (1974) is pompous tripe.  Van Morrison doesn't need it and neither do we.  How do you breathe soul into a phrase like contemplatin' William Blake and the Eternals?

Cyberinsekt   -   I love some Van Morrison.  If he's done anything great in the last 20 years, it's completely passed me by.  However, when he was good, he was very good. Summertime in England comes from an album that's never received the critical acclaim it deserves, 1980's Common One.  Summertime is a sprawling 15 minute odyssey through ecstatic Celtic soul, Hammond organ r'n'b, and jazz fusion. It's filled with literary namedropping, searing horns and top-end orchestration. And it's absolutely magnificent. Van has produced a lot of dodgy music, and espoused a lot of dodgy faiths, but this hymn to the spiritual romance of the British Isles is just so good that I could forgive him anything.
Jake Davis   -   From clothing to music I'm always down for a reinterpretation of a classic.  On the style tip Van has gotten kinda gangsta with the ascot, hat, and sunnies... Feeling this extremely hard...

David Sinclair   -   What's Wrong With This Picture? (2004) is torpid. Morrison is getting serious with the orchestral jazz thing.  But Ray Charles he is not. Schmaltzy lyrics, slovenly performances and diminishing returns as the bard slides gracelessly into his pipe-and-slippers years. 

Jon Baines   -   It’s always hard when those you admire let you down like Van Morrison duetting with Cliff Richard or Godfather 3 being released.  

Duncan Richter   -   Homesickness is more what Van Morrison expresses in Astral Weeks ("I ain't nothing but a stranger in this world, I got a home on high"). That might inspire a kind of platonic philosophy or even suicide, but doesn't seem typical of what drives most of us.
Jocelyn   -   On the first day of fall last year, I decided to choose a keyword and a theme song for the season. The keyword I chose was velocity and my theme song was Glad Tidings by Van Morrison. The result was kind of amusing, but the idea was a good one.
Kai Tanaka   -   Gloom Balloon's debut single She Was The One That Got Away is coming out on October 22nd! This track's combination of saxes, flutes, horns, and a classic hip-hop beat make it reminiscent of a modern day take on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

John Vanderslice   -   You’ve got to be Van Morrison to be a jerk.

Wes   -   I view Van Morrison as a lounge act that rose a little too far and fast.  That being said, Morrison went on to make some very pretty, well-orchestrated music post-Them.  To cap it all off, he also holds one of the most iconic pop songs of all time, Brown Eyed Girl, and many well-received albums to his name.
Daphne   -   Seamus Heaney was rather mediocre by my ear, Van Morrison substantially better by far.

J. W. Brewer   -    For extra credit, try diagramming "the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves the love that loves to love the love that loves to love the love that loves," which is one transcription (I haven't collated sources, but I wouldn't be surprised if not all transcribers are in complete accord on the details) of part of Van Morrison's song Madame George. Which I would rather listen to than anything Trent Reznor has recorded.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Sod Sgt Pepper's

Here’s Sean O’Hagan’s provocatively titled post from the Guardian music blog back in 2008. 
Sod Sgt Pepper's
Having just listened to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks over and over again last week while writing about it for the Observer Review, I am more convinced than ever of its unassailable greatness. Nothing in popular music compares with it in terms of its passionate intensity. No one in popular music has sung like that before or since.

The late Spike Milligan, of all people, once described Van Morrison's voice as a mixture of "menace and abandonment". You can hear what he means on Astral Weeks, but you can also hear joy, angst, celebration, desire and regret. While the lyrics are often impressionistic, the voice is extraordinarily articulate – emotionally articulate. It can shift from the harsh to the tender, the guttural to the gentle often in the space of a single line. All the while, the music ebbs and flows around it, everything sounding heightened and spontaneous. You can hear what Beth Orton is talking about when she says it sounds like a record "that has been willed into being" by Van Morrison. The voice is all, the words, the music the melodies and rhythms all seem to flow from it.
As much as I love certain other classic albums – Revolver, Blonde On Blonde, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Pet Sounds, Kind of Blue, What's Going On?, Five Leaves Left - I have never listed to them as often, or as closely, as I have to Astral Weeks. It always draws me in.

Oddly, it is a record that did not change the course of pop music the way Sgt Pepper's or Pet Sounds did, nor did it impinge on the collective imagination as soon as it appeared. It has slowly gained an audience over the years. I think that has to do with its difference – you won't hear anything else like it even if you trawl though the rest of Van Morrison's epic body of work. It seems to have arrived out of nowhere, and no one has run with its possibilities ever since.
What else can I tell you? Sometimes I wish I knew who Madame George was, if indeed it was one person in particular. The image of her/him "playing dominoes in drag" still intrigues; a whole other, hidden Belfast emerges from that line. And why does the landscape shift from Belfast to Ladbroke Grove in the final song? And who is the girl that's dying? Who knows? Who cares? The songs have their own logic, the strange, ever-shifting logic of dreams and heightened recollections.


EyeballTickler   -   Astral Weeks is probably my favourite album. Any fans of it should check out Bruce Springsteen's second album, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, which was heavily influenced by Astral Weeks and has the same beautifully chaotic, wandering and romantic charge to it. Pet Sounds come close to AW for me; Sgt Peppers doesn't. Peppers is a landmark album, and a very good one too, but I don't think it's as consistent or that it reaches the same emotional heights of PS or AW. In fact I think Sgt Peppers is wrongly considered the Beatles' magnum opus - for me Revolver and Abbey Road exhibit more consistent brilliance.
CBKeyWhy   -   Astral Weeks is also my most played album and probably still would be even without one sleepless night in the 70s when I played one side of the album 5 or 6 times before turning the vinyl over and listening to the other side for a similar length of time and repeating until flatmates able to sleep finally rose. Someone once wrote that it was the quintessential album about home sickness and that he encountered travellers all over the world listening to it like a comfort blanket. Lester Bangs (I think) rather unfairly said it showed Van Morrison as a paedophile as though one cannot recall one's adolescent desire without it meaning you fancy sleeping with a 16 year old girl. I think it says more about Lester Bangs than Van Morrison.

I know that Sean doesn't care who the girl seen in Ladbroke Grove was but I read a Rolling Stone column many moons ago which explicated Slim Slow Slider. The theory was that the reference to a white horse was both orthodox symbolism for death and a reference to heroin. As an impressionable teenager it was a revelation that song lyrics could be discussed that seriously. Anyone got any good theories about the albums title?
DontLaunderMyKarma   -   Agree that Astral Weeks is a sensation. Unfortunately for me the listening experience is somewhat compromised by the fact that VM is a moody, self-absorbed, rude wanker who does not care or respect his audience at all, even with most gigs over £50 a pop! So although it is undeniably a superb piece of work, I can't help thinking horrible things about the man himself during every listen. Sorry.
Tomcasagranda   -   Astral Weeks is excellent; however, most of the tracks were recorded for Bert Berns in 1967. It was not that far a journey from Mystic Eyes, My Lonely Sad Eyes, and Friday's Child in 1966 to Astral Weeks in 1968. Van has spent the best part of his career running from Astral Weeks; eventually, he feels that he has to return to it. However, that does not mean that the rest of his catalogue is inferior to Astral Weeks: I am partial to A Period Of Transition, Into The Music, Down The Road, and Hymns to The Silence.
Lilbuff   -   Please tell me I'm not the only person to find Astral Weeks just astonishingly boring and overrated? I must have listened to it 4 or 5 times now, and I just can't hear anything much of merit at all.....sorry and all that....

Johnnie Goat   -   lilbuff, don't worry - you are not alone!! Maybe it's a taste thing, but I find Van Morrison to be the most over-rated singer I have ever heard. Astral Weeks just dull. not as overrated as Trout Mask Replica, but not far off.  I am a Belfast boy, so I am committing heresy saying such things about the much vaunted Mr van. but, I met several ex-members of Them. And they all think he's sh*te too.
Teddydb   -   Astral Weeks was a phenomenal album and to think he was so young and it was all slapped together in a couple of weeks. Such sublime songs. I think there's a zillion musicians who would sell their soul to have written Sweet Thing. During my late teens and university I went through all the classic albums -- Sgt Peppers, Revolver, Pet Sounds, Velvet Underground and Nico, et cetera -- but Astral Weeks is the only one I have regularly played throughout my twenties and still now, as a thirty something emigre, I play it every couple of months.  On the album you can hear -- and feel -- such longing, joy, heartbreak, nostalgia, tenderness, tragedy, and so much more, and again, the fecker was so young -- 22 or 23 I think. Sure, he turned into a grumpy bastard, or was one all along, but that album is a masterpiece.  And who cares what former members of Them think about him.
Teaflax   -   Astral Weeks - like most of Morrison's oeuvre - is a pleasant enough diversion, but nowhere near as transcendent as some people would have it. It certainly doesn't rate with the list of putative classic albums in the article (which contains a few duds and omits some other worthier albums), and as noted did little to change the world of music. For instance, though I'm not much of a Dylan fan, the groundbreaking aspects of Blonde on Blonde are indisputable. Not that that should be the only criterion for being a classic, but an album playing it as safe as Astral Weeks does really shouldn't even be considered.
Jasonaparkes  -    Whilst Astral Weeks is pretty obscure lyrically at times, like parts of TB Sheets loss appears to pre-figure, so I always saw the opening title track as what came after the song TB Sheets. I don't know much about VM, but am assuming that someone he loved when he was young - and she was young - was the influence for those two songs? Not that the song Astral Weeks is confined to that interpretation... 

I think the song Astral Weeks is perfection, certainly one of the greatest songs ever IMO. Though it took me years to "get" that record, I was baffled when I first heard it in 1990s in relation to its classic status (which is as defined in the greatest ever lists as the patchy Sgt Pepper). I've been buying more of his albums and Tupelo Honey, Veedon Fleece, It's Too Late to Stop Now and Common One are as great.
Perhaps his records will make more sense in the years to come.... Astral Weeks made sense for me after I heard and loved records like Happy/Sad and In a Silent Way - the former is in very similar jazz/folk territory (and maybe Common One could be compared to Star Sailor or Lorca?).

Bristol70to73   -   Van Morrison has provided the sound track for my life since I first heard Madame George on John Peel's radio show. I've not heard a better album since then but I expect that's because I first heard Astral Weeks when I was 18. The guy is a curmudgeon and probably always has been but who cares? He doesn't seek to be your friend, it's just the music, nothing else.

Annay   -   yes he is grumpy, not the best songwriter. this album changed my life because of the intensity and depth of the singer. I grew up with soul blues and jazz, before hearing Astral Weeks i believed no European could express like van did on this album. he was influenced by Afro-American music but added folk and mystery. The Beatles or Dylan could sure pen great music but not put it across like Morrison did on Astral Weeks.
GeoffreyHeys   -   I got Astral Weeks and Happy Sad when they both came out in 1968 and love 'em both dearly. Van never hit the same heights again, did he? Ask Sean. Tim did, and then some - just listen without prejudice to Blue Afternoon, Lorca, Starsailor, Greetings From LA, Tijuana Moon. And do not forget, Tim Buckley died at only 28. Van levelled off after Astral Weeks with Moondance, despite the occasional flash with parts of Veedon Fleece and Common One, he is now earthbound. All The Best to Van - he's survived, but apart from Astral Weeks, very little in his Music compares with Tim Buckley's best. Just my opinion of course - don't get too wound up folks. A shame TB wasn't British, eh? We are a bit snobby here in the UK, no doubt about it, but Talent will out! Of course Music ain't a competition, just cos the music biz is, but please give respect where it is due. Thank you.
Referendum   -   A woman I went out with preferred Veedon Fleece on the grounds that it "had better tunes", was "warmer", and was "less arty" ( than Astral Weeks - or Astral Wanks as she used to call it ). 
Paddy cool   -   I think Enlightenment is my favourite van album apart from paul durcan's dodgy poem in the middle) and I think Highway 61 and Blood on the Tracks are better than Blonde on Blonde but then I think Budokan is probably my favourite Dylan album and this week (just this week) I think Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is the best thing I have heard in years..... none of this is to suggest that the music highbrows above ain't right! Just giving you a low brow alternative......
julianem   -   I remember wandering around the dazzling white village of Mykonos with the azure sky overhead hearing Madame George in my head, every note and nuance burned into my memory. Who needed a Walkman or an iPod back in 1969?

I remember seeing Van Morrison at the Rainbow in 1973 and not realising how I had ended up standing on the arms of my seat as the whole audience shouted "it's too late to stop nowwww..." And then there he was, feeding the ducks at the round pond in Kensington Gardens three days later. Grumpy as hell, but I saw you walking down by Ladbroke Grove that morning. I saw Brian Wilson pull off Pet Sounds live and Arthur Lee pour his heart out on Forever Changes. Both at the RFH. Astral weeks is one mountain to climb.
Oldrocker   -   I bought Astral Weeks and I tried, honestly, having seen it quoted consistently among the best albums ever. I hated it. Found it almost impossible to listen to. I tried over and over again. It got no better. I think reputation ran away with itself and it is almost obligatory to like it! For me, one of the worst albums I ever bought!
Loyatemu   -   I've never heard the album, though I have heard most of the "classics" it's compared to here. I guess I've always been put off by Morrisson's voice and his gruff persona, and by toss like Moondance which is never off the radio, and his 80s spiritual nonsense ("Buying biscuits, drinking tea, taking a piss on the way to Coney Island" and so on..). Having said that though, I used to find Dylan's voice off putting, but these days I listen to him relentlessly. Maybe I'll give AW a chance (at the very least its a cheap CD).
m189283   -   A sublime, dreamy album... perfect bedtime listening, with melancholy moments sitting beside pure euphoria (the raw power of that line ''I shall ride my chariot down your street!!!'' takes Van back to his r'n'b growl, he was arguably the best white blues voice of the 60s)...

exodus   -   I'm not & never have been a fan of Van Morrison's work & have never been able to get interested in his other work, but I do think AW is a classic. I've returned to it on a regular basis since discovering it about 15 years ago. The use of the voice, the interplay of the instruments create something that to me is pretty unique. I read a comment on the album a little while ago that it sounds like 'nothing else before or since'.

One thing though - I heard it 4 or 5 times without 'getting' it at all, then heard it at the tail end of a social evening when I was extremely stoned, and got it. Once I had heard it stoned I could hear it straight and love it. Several other people who love the album have also had the same experience, so maybe it is one of those albums where you have to be in a certain mental state to be receptive to it. Not that I'm condoning or promoting illegal activity of course...
Geezahjob   -   I was suckered into buying this album after Mr O'Hagan raved about it in a similar article in The Guardian a few years back. I've played it again and still have the same opinion. Meandering, out of tune drivel.
exodus - that's an interesting thought. I've always found listening to Van Morrison a trial. A particularly ghastly experience was being trapped in a car for a few hundred miles with a driver who insisted only Van Morrison would be played. I can well believe that it took the influence of strong pharmaceuticals before you were in a state to be "receptive," as you put it. It is obvious why such drugs are not legal and I hope I am spared any encounter with them.
GM Caesar   -   As a fan of Astral Weeks (fan is such a weak word for how that recording has been a musical & creative touchstone for me over the decades), I believe that not enough credit has been given to Lewis Merenstein's production. He was the one who brought jazz into the project. I believe that his creativity provided the extra ounce of magic that brought the album to a different place than Morrison had been before. Find copies of his work with Glass Harp & John Cale (not to mention Moondance), and listen to what he did for them. Merenstein is my pick for greatest/most-underrated pop producer.

Nishville   -   Very few musicians bored me to such an extent as Van Morrison.
SkippyisaCult   -   I think it's one of the great albums, and that it's one in a cluster of very bright stars that shone to prominence between 1965 and 1975 - I don't think there's quite been a decade like it, before or since. Perhaps what makes it seem so unique is that it seems to have influenced so little music since its release. I can point to non-derivative albums influenced by Forever Changes, Pet Sounds, the Beatles albums, Blonde on Blonde, the Velvets, Syd Barrett, even Trout Mask; but I can't think of (or don't recall) a single album that has Astral Weeks as its stepping point. A particularly ghastly experience was being trapped in a car for a few hundred miles with a driver who insisted only Van Morrison would be played. For some psychologically obscure reason Van Morrison (and Dylan and Springsteen, too) seem to attract more than their fair share of aggressively proselytising fans who swoon uncritically at every outpouring.
Steviedal   -   First I'd like to thank Sean for the unexpected surprise in yesterdays paper - such joy to read his fantastic piece on my all time greatest album , the mighty Astral Weeks . This is the first time I've read any Guardian blogs and I've thoroughly loved everyone's comments , even from those who don't like the album at all , we all like different things thankfully .

I came to AW back in the early nineties after trying Van's Best Of and initially hating bloody Sweet Thing - what was this piece of rambling nonsense amid so many fantastic hit songs ? Why did they put this garbage on there ? Inevitably it was my favourite track on the album about three weeks later and i scurried into the shops to pick up Astral Weeks at the first opportunity.
It is of course pretty tough going at first but the sheer beauty of it all overwhelms you in the end and I've been adoring it ever since, closely followed by Veedon Fleece. Special shout out to the guy who tips The Magical World Of The Strands - a classic and the Astral Weeks of Britpop! Also , anyone who loves early Van could do worse than check out the amazing Scottish band The Bathers who have made some fine recordings in a similar style .
sonofwebcore   -   Context is important, whether you like the album or not. No other pop/rock singer had ever made an entirely acoustic album with a band he'd hardly met and hardly spoken to. The band was composed of top jazz musicians who were used to working from charts. Even when jamming they'd usually be given a basic chart from which they could begin to improvise. The guitarist was asked to use a classical guitar. Morrison played them the songs on guitar and told them to get on with it. He sat in a booth away from the other musicians and told them to play whatever they felt like playing. They'd never had such freedom, and from their initial surprise grew into the music and eventually produced a singular record, which we're still arguing about 40 winters later

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Van at the Beacon - November 26, 2013

Here's a brief review by Roger Friedman.  Check out the full story on his Showbiz 411 site.  Also check out the Beacon videos on youtube.

I do have to laugh: I stopped going to Van Morrison shows a few years ago because they were so frustrating. He rarely sang recognisable songs. He was off in his own world. The whole thing was interesting for about half an hour. And this from a devoted fan who has every album and knows every note. His performances were colouring my love of the records.
So back I went on Tuesday to the Beacon Theater. The place was full. Shana Morrison, Van’s foxy 43 year old daughter, opened the show and sang And It Stoned Me. She has a wonderful voice and could have been a star in her own right. But she works in the family store.
Van: He sure is a stout little guy, a fireplug in a tight suit and a big brimmed hat clamped down on his head. To get a good picture of him you have to wait until he turns his cherubic face to the key light above him and shoot fast. Van Morrison does not like too much light.

The band is sweet. They are big too, with a lot of independent horns, not a horn section per se. The players are gifted and soulful. Van plays his own memorable horn pieces, too. And the band swings under his own direction. Jazz and big band are his true source material, and their intersection with country, R&B, Irish traditional music makes for his unique sound.

We were lucky: He sings Moondance, or kind of mumbles it. He rushes Tupelo Honey into a medley with the less well known “Tupelo Honey.” That’s it for hits. If you’ve come for Gloria, Brown Eyed Girl, or Jackie Wilson Said, you are out of luck.

An hilarious moment: someone has convinced Van to sing Glad Tidings from Moondance. It was used in a Sopranos episode. “I need the lyrics!” he shouts. “Where are the lyrics.” An assistant hands him a piece of paper, he puts it on a music stand. Glad Tidings lives, gloriously.

There are guest stars: 92 year old jazz legend Jon Hendricks, famous for Lambert Hendricks & Ross, comes out with his daughter Aria and talented vocalist Kevin Burke. During the 90 minute show they do a two or three numbers with Van including Hendricks’ famous Centerpiece. Van looks thrilled and the results are historic. Beautiful.

So after he did In the Garden, he said, 'Goodnight' and left the Beacon stage. The audience, many of whom spent hundreds of bucks to see him, was shocked and disappointed. I just laughed. I knew the way it would end. But it was beautiful for a few moments.

Van, you won’t read this but here’s an idea: you released a new album last year. Why not sing it on tour? Just a thought.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Story of Them

From the Eclectic Parrot blog comes the following edited review of the Story of Them album.  

Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison

Them burst onto the Irish R&B scene in 1964 with a powerful set of shows at Belfast’s Maritime Hotel, tapes of which eventually caught the ear of Decca Records executives, who signed the band to a two-year deal with plans to market them as a British Invasion act. While in any parallel universe worth its salt the presence of one George Ivan Morrison emitting teenage energy like a radioactive isotope would have guaranteed success, instead a fateful synchronicity of record company meddling, constantly shifting lineups and comparatively unpolished public personas led to the initial band’s breakup by 1966 without a single Top Ten entry in U.S. Charts and only two in the U.K. -- Gloria plus Here Comes The Night (while a top U.S. hit did happen with Gloria, it was in an inferior version by the Shadows of Night).

In retrospect, Van Morrison’s early, unique development of an expressive, nuanced style would likely have been at least partially fettered in any contractually-controlled, democratic ‘band’ environment, and with gems such as the single Brown Eyed Girl and the LP Astral Weeks coming soon after leaving Them, followed by a prolific career that shows no signs of abating, it’s hard to grieve too deeply for the demise of Them – but not their continued obscurity.

Those familiar only with post-Tupelo Honey Morrison might be bowled over by the powerful, often snarling delivery of a 19-20 year old Van, clearly an homage to the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, often threatening to overwhelm the sensitive preamps of the era.  Even more astonishing is his pace of development – while on early exercises like 1964’s “One, Two Brown Eyes” he spat out the vocals like superfluous cherry pits, by 1965 his range had broadened to allow the refined shading of “Here Comes The Night” or the breadth of expression seen in “One More Time,” ranging from soulful and heartbroken to determined and nearly vengeful – all in the scope of a single tune.
Van Morrison was surely one of the finest white R&B vocalist of the Sixties.  While some may claim Mick Jagger benefited from initially stronger original songwriting (e.g., “What a Shame”, “Heart of Stone”), by 1966 Van had seriously muddied that argument, having penned the likes of “One More Time”, “You Just Can’t Win” and “Hey Girl.”  Moreover, there was none of the barely concealed self-parody employed by Mick in such items as “Under My Thumb” – no, Van Morrison seemed deadly serious every second of every side from the count-in to the fade-out.

A different kind of Them
While it would be unfair to give VM all the credit for Them’s output, the rapidly changing lineup (nearly a dozen rosters from inception through final form) and frequent drafting of studio musicians by Decca (to save money by minimizing re-takes) allows disputes to remain to this day regarding who played what on specific backing tracks (including appearances by Jimmy Page).  Certainly underrated among Sixties musicians was guitarist Billy Harrison, who occasionally used a thimble for a slide effect, and produced the menacing riffs that pepper early Them singles.  Organ duties hot-potatoed over the years between Eric Wrixen, Pat/Jackie McAuley, Peter Bardens and Ray Elliot, an important sonic element to the Them sound, applied in roughly similar fashion as with The Animals.
Despite varying personnel, Them records are remarkably consistent in producing a high level of musicianship, especially in the guitar breaks, which present nary an unneeded note, and maintain a level of excitement equaling Morrison’s enthusiasm, passing the baton back to him at just the ideal moment.

As it stands virtually nothing from Them remains in print on CD, with just a handful of available MP3s (at least through legitimate means).  The best single bet, providing nearly 100% of essential Them, is The Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison, a 50-track double disk powerhouse.

Even on an early single, Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” from 1964, Them’s trademark sound was fully formed:  bubbling organ, insistent rhythm section, lively harmonica fills, punchy bass and loud, slashing guitar runs, with a 19-yr-old Morrison shout-singing “baby, please don’t go down to New Orleans.”  “How Long Baby” from 1966 employs similar organ arpeggios as The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” though slightly more muted, above which VM belts out the lyric with complete authority.
At the same time, ballads such as John Lee Hooker’s “Don’t Look Back” were tackled with equal aplomb, though by this time (1965) Van’s unique style was an instrument unto itself, taking command of a lyric in a manner that only Jagger could approach.  On Bert Berns’ “(It Won’t Hurt) Half as Much” he effortlessly meshes deliberate couplets with semi-improvisational spoken word breaks, evidencing a remarkable range.

Above all else, three Them cover performances stake their claim as among the best interpretations the Sixties had to offer.  Their version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You” may never be equaled, with the rhythm section slinking along in understated fashion, embellished by Ray Elliot’s piercing saxophone swells and put over the top by an intense, nearly evil vocal performance by Van that covers as full a dynamic range as possible, including a scat-singing duet with the horn.

One of the most ‘tactile’ Sixties recordings is Them’s run-through of James Brown’s “Out of Sight,” with a bass-kick sound that resembles a refrigerator being lifted and repeatedly dropped on a rubber mat between the vocal exhortations (“got your high-heeled sneakers on”).  Not far behind is their cover of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that adopts a paradoxical fusion of relaxed intensity that lopes along quite powerfully.

In the end, the Morrison-penned originals impress the most, tracks that deserve to be better known.  In their hard-driving midtempo splendor, “My Lonely Sad Eyes” and “Could You, Would You” sport tight, insistent rhythms, gloriously brushed with vibrato-laden organ trills, and guitars employed as much for percussion as coloration, Van’s vocals achieving their absolute apex in a Them uniform, introducing his soon-to-be-trademark method of lagging intentionally then catching up in windswept, staccato bursts, holding key notes here and there in perfectly judged, soulful performances.

And while hindsight is always troublesome, those looking for the seeds of Astral Weeks have a number of signposts, including Hey Girl, with gentle, supportive flutes and the lyric a mix of innocent and suggestive elements shaded expertly in the verses then shouted jubilantly in the chorus – “Hey!!  Heyyyy, girl.  You’re so young …” proving that speed isn’t necessary for power.

The ultimate Them track, perhaps the most underrated of Morrison’s entire output, is “Friday’s Child,” which seems to have it all – soaring, churchly organ, a memorable, anthem-like guitar riff, poignant piano fills, a powerfully economic guitar break and a vocal only Van could bring us.

No band since Them has better combined poetry with economy, with tracks that are at once both understated and sledgehammered, powerfully drawn without a note out of place, led by one of the century’s most unique vocal talents.  Why so few have noticed is a greater mystery than the pyramids.