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.

Comments

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

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