Sunday, 13 September 2015

Van at the Maritime

The Van Heritage Trail has increased interest in Van’s early Belfast history.  One significant landmark in the Van story was the Maritime, but sadly the building was torn down years ago.  Up until R’n’B came to Maritime the Belfast music scene was dominated almost exclusively by the showband phenomenon.  Nattily attired bands played cover versions of the latest hits.  Van was part of the scene in a showband called The Monarchs

A Really Great Album
In 1964 things were about to change.  In April 1964 a spartan seamens' hostel in College Square North, Belfast, which had formerly been a Royal Irish Constabulary police station, was transformed into the Club Rado and a new rhythm 'n' blues movement in the city was inaugurated.  The promoters were 'The Three J's', enterprising young promoters who helped make the club Belfast's answer to Liverpool's Cavern.  They were instrumental in Them’s history and are mentioned in the Them song The Story of Them.

Them came about at the beginning of April 1964 when Morrison responded to an advert for musicians to play at the new R&B club being created at the Maritime Hotel. The new R&B club needed a band for its opening night and eventually Van and other musicians gathered together as Them for the Maritime launch. For that first gig Them consisted of Eric Wrixon, on keyboards, Van playing saxophone and harmonica and sharing vocals with Billy Harrison, who played guitar. Ronnie Millings drummed. They followed Eric Wrixon's suggestion for a new name, taking their name from the Fifties horror movie Them!

On April 14, 1964, an ad in a Belfast newspaper asked: Who Are? What Are? THEM. Similarly curious ads followed until the Friday before the gig (April 17, 1964) announced that Them would be performing that evening at Club Rado at the Maritime Hotel. Attendance at the two hundred capacity venue quickly grew with a packed house by the third week.

Billy Harrison commented on the opening saying, "Until that Friday night, the Maritime had mainly been a jazz club," he said. "When we played the first gig in the Maritime Blues Club, there must have been around 60 people there and half of those were jazz fans, who'd just come along, out of curiosity.

"I remember that opening night was a good one. The next week, there were about 150 people. By the third Friday, there was a big queue outside. And that was it. Some of the other bands came along to start playing and the blues scene in Belfast exploded."

The early Them performances at the Maritime were electric by gig goers at the time. Van proved to be an energetic and spontaneous front man.  Morrison ad libbed lyrics and ran around the stage as he performed.  "Them lived and died on the stage at the Maritime Hotel" but only very rudimentary recordings survive.

The band's strong R&B performances at the Maritime attracted attention. While the band did covers, they also played some of Morrison's early songs, such as "Could You Would You", which he had written in Camden Town while touring with The Manhattan Showband.  The Them song Joe Harper, Saturday Morning, refers to the Maritime caretaker who frequently let the band use the hall for rehearsals when they could not get a room above Dougie Knights record and bicycle shop in Great Victoria Street where many bands of all musical persuasions practised.  Van’s Gloria, the classic song he had written at eighteen years old, took shape here and could last up to twenty minutes.

People from Uncut Magazine
Them were notorious for the instability of the line-up.  Numerous Northern Ireland baby boomer males have ex-Them on their CV.  Morrison and Henderson would remain the only constants, and a highly unsuccessful version of Them even soldiered on after Morrison's departure. In his The Beatles and Some Other Guys: Rock Family Trees of the Early Sixties, Pete Frame cites no less than nine line-ups of the band between 1964 and 1966.

One fan's recording, of Turn On Your Love Light, the group's most popular number, made its way to Mervyn and Phil Solomon, who contacted Decca Records' Dick Rowe, who then travelled to Belfast to hear Them perform. Rowe and Phil Solomon agreed on a two year contract with the members of the band then signed up to Solomon. Morrison, at eighteen had to have his father sign for him. Within a few weeks, the group was taken to England and into the Decca's recording studio in West Hampstead for their first recording session. 

Over a two year period they released two albums and ten singles, with two more singles released after Morrison departed the band. They had three chart hits, Baby, Please Don't Go (1964), Here Comes the Night (1965), and Mystic Eyes (1965), though it was the b-side of Baby, Please Don't Go, the garage band classic, Gloria, that went on to become a rock standard covered by Patti Smith, The Doors, Shadows of Knight, Jimi Hendrix and others. 

Footnote

After he left the band, George Ivan Morrison would go on to record a few albums and have some success.  

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