Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Van Morrison: The Early Albums

The following brief article comes from Bill Hart’s interesting vinyl record blog known as The Vinyl Press.  Lots of stuff about music and vinyl records is to be found on this attractive site.  

Van Morrison- The Early Albums

Van Morrison is a quixotic character, even by the standards usually applied to artists- a mercurial personality who has had some huge radio hit songs, but performs publicly with great reluctance; a man who created new paths for “soul” music and R & B who hails from Belfast and revels in his Celtic roots; an artist whose most critically acclaimed work was, for decades, far less commercially successful than the “pop” tunes for which he is most often recognised.

My introduction to Van Morrison’s work began with four albums released between 1970-72: Moondance, His Band and the Street Choir, Tupelo Honey and St. Dominic’s Preview. Although his first solo album, Blowin’ Your Mind (Bang Records, 1967) contained the radio staple, Brown Eyed Girl, I didn’t dig down into Van until later. Astral Weeks, his first album on Warners (1968), was too esoteric for me at the time; it took me many years to fully appreciate its jazzy poetry. Though a critical success, it was not a commercial one at the time. I’m not sure it is the best album as a point of entry to Van Morrison if you aren’t familiar with his early work. More about this album, below.

Moondance is, of course, the album that contains one of Van Morrison’s most well recognised tracks- the eponymous title track seems to be a romantic favourite for the ages. But, the album offers far more: mostly short, accessible tunes, soulful and somewhat unconventional love songs that take advantage of his voice. I have several copies of this album.

His Band and the Street Choir is also very accessible, a collection of short tuneful songs that work together as an album. I was always disturbed when Domino was played as a single track, without the next song, Crazy Face, which seemed to belong with it. And so it is with the rest of this album: I’ve Been Working, Call Me Up in Dreamland, I’ll Be Your Lover, Too and If I Ever Needed Someone all benefit from the singer’s almost unique way of interpreting these songs, but none sound “the same.” It is one of this artist’s “great” albums in my estimation. Elliot Scheiner is given a credit as a “production coordinator” and the record was mastered at Sterling Sound (an “RL” no less). My copy is a “standard issue” green label that I probably bought new at the time.

Tupelo Honey seems to continue where the Street Choir album leave off, and brings Ted Templeman into the fold as a producer. I don’t think it is as strong an album as Street Choir or St. Dominic’s Preview.

The first three tracks of side one of St. Dominic’s Preview are, in my estimation, as good as it gets: Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile) is a soul-belter; the transition to Gypsy is studied contrast, and I Will Be There is rendered with such conviction that I can think of few singers that could bring this one home the way Van Morrison does. 

I find some of the other tracks to be more spacey and ethereal: Listen to the Lion and Almost Independence Day are not cut from the same cloth as the first three tracks; I’ve come to appreciate how Van reaches down into his gut on Independence Day, but Lion still loses me. It’s OK, because it is such a great album. (And a good sounding one too, Templeman at the helm on this one too). I have several copies, including some ubiquitous reissue from a decade ago that sounds pretty sterile, an old green label or two, and a WLP that I bought a few years ago that looked like it had only been handled by an archivist with white gloves. That’s my go-to copy these days.

Now, to Astral Weeks. I’ve come to “get” it; I don’t think I could have appreciated this album as a youngster. But it has grown on me over the years. I don’t listen to it often, but when I do, I’m fully engaged. I tracked down an early W7 pressing, which is pretty desirable, but you could probably live with an early green label at far less cost.

I did buy a few more Van Morrison albums after this era, including Hard Nose the Highway, A Period of Transition, Avalon Sunset and perhaps a few others. But the early records described in more detail above capture, for me, what Van Morrison is all about. I think part of this is the listener’s “point of entry.” The above-described albums from the early 70’s were the ones I listened to repeatedly in my youth and I know them well. Someone who comes to Van Morrison’s work at a later stage of his career may take a different view.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Van Vs Bob

Let’s Talk Music is a music blog specialising in forum topics.  The following discussion was initiated by someone calling himself Rimbaud82

Van Morrison

So how many Van Morrison fans do we have here? What are your favourite lyrics of his? What about songs? Just generally what do you think about him, and his music? For me, although in a different way, he is tied with Bob Dylan for the greatest lyricist of all time (and by that I mean they are my favourites of course, I wouldn't suggest that they are the literal best). However, though I love both Bob and Van equally, Van is my favourite singer (as in vocalist) of all time, his voice is amazing. In my opinion it’s the richest, and most expressive voice in all of rock music, there is no one better. Someone described it as “aural poetry” and that’s incredibly accurate. Rolling Stone say this “He’s the most painterly of vocalists, a master of unexpected phrasing whose voice can transform lyrics into something abstract and mystical”.

I like this quote too: “I know of no music that is more lucid, feel able, hearable, seeable, touchable, no music you can experience more intensely than this. Not just moments, but extended … periods of experience which convey the feel of what films could be: a form or perception which no longer burls itself blindly on meanings and definitions, but allows the sensuous to take over and grow … where indeed something does become indescribable.”

Van holds a special place for me…he comes from the same place I do and so I can relate to him more. Dylan, and other great songwriters may be more ‘intellectual’(for lack of a better word) in their lyrics, but Van’s are exceptional in another way. His words come seem to come from a another time and place — they are pure poetry and his view on things is really like my own, his pastoral, romantic, wonder-filled lyrics really strike a chord with me.

Forgive this eulogy of a post, I am a huge fan and want to see who else loves his music as much as I do, or alternatively what others think. I’ll just leave you with these songs and await your thoughts: Summertime in England, Astral Weeks, Sweet Thing, Into the Mystic and Listen to the Lion.

Reader Comments

Jagedar   -   Astral Weeks is one of my favourite songs of all time, without question. It's such an adventure, a mystic invitation to this other place performed in such a natural way with guitars and flutes and Van's incredible vocals. Not to mention the cryptic lyrical poetry that is quite possibly some of the best songwriting ever: "If I ventured in the slipstream/ between the viaducts of your dreams/ where immobile steel rims crack/ and the ditch in the back road stops/ could you find me?".

veraciousful   -   It's like slowly falling asleep in during a long car ride at the end of a warm summer day spent on the beach.

Jagedar   -   I've always seen it as a sleepy, clear early summer night.

Rimbaud82   -   and that's whats so great about it! 

heady_hood   -   I always saw it as a marvellous night for a moon dance, in the cover of October skies.

weinerdog12345   -   Van Morrison is my all-time favourite musician, and I believe that Moondance is among the greatest albums of all time.
Admittedly, it's tough for me not to use hyperbole when speaking of Van's music. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on his collaboration with Dylan. Although those two are my favourites, I didn't care for the collaboration at all. In fact, I thought it was Dylan who took away from much of the richness of Van's music.

It occurs to me that I listen for different things when I listen to Dylan than when I listen to Van. I feel a much greater attachment to Dylan's lyrics and passion, but I am more moved by the whole package of Van. Not sure why - just a preference, I suppose.

Rimbaud82   -   I actually feel the exact same way about their collaboration, and as I say they are two favourites also. I love both, Dylan's lyrics have a very different sort of attachment for me. I have two framed posters of him on my wall for goodness sake, but he connects on a much more 'intellectual' (bad word probably, but for lack of a better one as I say) level for the most part (Not exclusively of course, Mr Tambourine, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, Chimes of Freedom for example all go to similar places as Van's lyrics albeit in a different style). 

Stuff like Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row though (Perhaps his finest lyrics, up there anyway) is much more rooted in Ginsberg-ian, Beat style poetry...something more like Rimbaud (Who of course, is one of my favourites). In comparison, Van just hits me right there, I don't know where that is but somewhere - he rocks my gypsy soul you could say. With him the words are wonderful in a different way, and really it's combined with his incredible voice as well, the pauses, grunts, repetitions and phrasings just make it all the more special. If Dylan is Ginsberg or Rimbaud, then Van is clearly Yeats, Kavanagh or romantics/mystic poets like Blake. If you'll forgive the cheesy comparisons...

dikbutjenkins   -   I think Van Morrison has almost made his own genre of music where he blurs the line between folk and soul music. Sweet Thing is my favourite song by him but I've recently been getting into his work he did with the chieftains in the late 80s.

Rimbaud82   -   Absolutely mate, "Celtic soul" it gets called. I like The Chieftains stuff too, though haven't got into as much as some of the earlier albums.

Caverndish   -   I'm not a fan of Van Morrison, though I've never really given his music a proper listen. Though I was working in a studio a few months ago and him and his band was recording in the studio next door. I didn't see anything but what I heard was pretty good. A good set of musicians.

spurios   -   Astral Weeks could be described as an album created by good musicians. It deserves a proper listen.

MrsJohnJacobAstor   -   This thread has inspired me to check out more Van Morrison!

Rimbaud82   -   I love Van. Love his phrasing, his vocal range, his explosive presence. I also love the vulnerability behind all of his performances. A lot of people are not aware Van suffered from excruciating stage fright; I've always thought that it somehow compelled his music to this state of perfection.
Lately I've been addicted to the Tupelo Honey record, particularly Moonshine Whiskey. I also want Caravan played at my funeral with everyone drinking whiskey.

SicMus   -   The entire Astral Weeks album is simply transcendental. The album has taken me to places no other album has. Also, I can't stand it when people hear the name Van Morrison, and their mind just automatically jumps to Brown Eyed Girl. No where close to his best song, and he deserves a better appreciation than that.

MCanavan14   -   I love Van, one of my favourite artists of all time. My Top three by him are probably: Snow in San Anselmo, Moondance then Tore down A La Rimbaud but he has so many good songs it's tough to pick. Moondance is by far my favourite album of his. One of the best things for me about Van is he's made so many songs I'm always stumbling on new ones.

jord0hh   -   Into The Mystic is one of my favourite albums. I don't think their will ever be another voice like his. His music takes me to a different place.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Believe It or Not - Part 10

On the day Van was knighted by Prince Charles (Feb, 2016) he was asked what his favourite album was from his back catalogue.  Surprisingly he named Common One from 1980.  

Singer Jamie Cullum was only 16 when he was credited as an assistant engineer on Van's Days Like This album.  

On June 6, 2016 Van sang three songs at St Donnard’s Church in East Belfast at the funeral of his 94 year old mother Violet.  He sang On Hyndford Street which was a fitting tribute to his mum. Fifty years or so ago Violet ran Van’s short-lived fan club.  

Van used to go buy Chinese food for Little Walter and he then taught Van some harmonica skills.  

Tupelo Honey was listed as number 26 on Paste Magazine's "50 Sexiest Songs of All Time".  Winner was Marvin Gaye's Let's Get it On.

Brown Eyed Girl is listed in Joshua Calixto’s article 6 Bands Who Hate the Songs That Made Them Famous.  Other songs include Radiohead’s Creep, Baauer’s Harlem Shake and Beastie Boys’ (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).

Van made number 6 on the list of 17 Notoriously Prickly Interview Subjects compiled by Sam Adams, et.al. 

Owen Barder was serious when he posted this list of the top five list of great singers who can’t actually sing: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler.

In an interview in 1981 Van said "I wanna forget about reggae because I don't like it."

According to musicologists Dr Alisun Pawley and Dr Daniel M├╝llensiefen, Brown Eyed Girl was  the 8th “catchiest” song of all time.  The top spots went to Queen’s We Are The Champions and the Village People’s YMCA

Van Morrison has stated that the song Brown Eyed Girl was "vaguely inspired", by the novel Sylvie and Bruno, by Lewis Carroll.

In the SFist website St Dominic’s Preview was listed at number 10 in their list of the 20 Best Songs About Places In San Francisco.

The Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard has its place in rock history.  People like Andy Warhol, Jim Morrison, Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Bob Marley and the Wailers all supposedly stayed there at key moments. Van Morrison wrote T.B. Sheets and several other songs while staying at there. 

Van Morrison was the first musical guest on Jimmy Fallon's first show. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Even More Fan Stories

Gmoke   -   Ran into Van Morrison in Harvard Square years ago.  I recognised him and thanked him for his work.  He grunted in response and I started walking off.  Then he asked me where Cardell’s was, a cheap cafeteria from back in the day, and I said, “Oh, dude, that was yuppified a long time ago.”  Legendarily bad tempered person but a fine musician, singer,  and songwriter.

Westyny   -   He also made a lot of his great music in the Bay Area.  I remember seeing him at the Lion’s Share with the Moondance band in San Anselmo when I was 17.  My girlfriend was 16.  So lucky.  I grew up in the foggy side of of San Francisco and Brown Eyed Girl, then Astral Weeks were essential parts of my young adolescent soundtrack.  I remember Greil Marcus once called Astral Weeks the greatest album ever made.  Hard to argue, really. 

Antonio Balson   -   Even if you do not realise it, if you have ever listened to the radio, you have heard Van Morrison. This was my case until one winter afternoon in the early nineties, relaxing on the patio of a slope-side coffee shop in Sugarloaf Maine I realised I was listening to Van Morrison, Moondance, of course. I bought that CD and listened to it endlessly. One summer I was alone in the country house at La Navata it was all I listened to.

Fast forward to the mid-nineties. Right after breaking up with my first wife, I was on a business trip to a convention in Las Vegas. Bored at the thought of spending a whole weekend alone in the city of sin, I called a friend in San Francisco and I was on a plane. The weekend was fantastic as I had not seen my friend in years and had not been to San Francisco in even more years. She had Van’s Wavelength CD in her little BMW, and that was all we listened to all week-end long as we tooled around the city.  As soon as I got back to Madrid I bought that CD and listened to it over and over again. Then I bought another and another until I had the whole Van Morrison discography – over 40 CDs. In fact I listened exclusively to Van Morrison for eight full months straight. I did not realise it at the time, but it was therapeutic for me. One summer morning when I woke up and played a Rolling Stones CD, I knew I was on the mend!

Richard Selinkoff   -   at the Troubadour in West Hollywood in the late 60s and early 70s a number of pop and underground legends dropped in at the bar.  Probably the least convivial was Van Morrison, whom I idolised. Between his stunningly magnificent sets he sat at the bar over what looked like straight whisky, his stay-the-f***-away-from-me body language and facial expression so powerful that it was tangible as well as visual, to the extent that nobody in the crowded room of socialising musicians and music-biz people dared to penetrate that palpable barrier and sit within two barstools of him.

Brian Rouff   -   A few months ago, I read an interview in Time magazine with the Irish rock legend, Van MorrisonToward the end of the interview, the reporter asked, “Do any musicians or groups today excite you?” “No,” Morrison said “Absolutely not. It’s all been done, you know?”

Weeks later, a Time reader wrote to express her disappointment in Morrison, commenting on how jaded he seems. In essence, she said she could never listen to his music in quite the same way again. A couple of problems with that. First, Morrison has always been a bitter man. He’s just gotten worse in his old age. Second, who cares what he thinks? The music is brilliant, his songs have stood the test of time, his voice is as distinctive as they come. He’s also grown as an artist over the years, managing to stay relevant while being true to himself. No sellout, here. For me, he’s an artist who consistently forges an emotional bond.

Paul Pearson   -   Mechanical Bliss was supposed to be Morrison's 1975 follow-up to Veedon Fleece. Reading from a transcript of an interview Van did with San Francisco radio legend Tom Donahue around that time, Mechanical Bliss was mere inches away from being mastered and pressed. To Donahue's disbelief, Morrison gave a release date of February 1975, which was only about five months after the release of Veedon Fleece. The gaps between artists' releases weren't quite as long in the '70s as they are now, but even considering that, five months was a speedy turnaround time. But it got far enough down the pipeline that an album cover was commissioned. Parts of Mechanical Bliss were released on The Philosopher's Stone, but a bunch of it never obtained an official release. The proposed artwork for Mechanical Bliss was recycled and used for Steely Dan's album The Royal Scam.

Since it never existed, we don't really have any insight as to what the lineup for Mechanical Bliss was going to be. But we do have excerpts from the Mechanical Bliss sessions, parts of which are some of the wildest stuff Morrison had recorded as a solo artist. One song was called I'm Not Waiting for You and bears a stunning resemblance to Bachman-Turner Overdrive.  Mechanical Bliss the song, packs in a bunch of oddities, apparently extemporaneous lyrics and vocal decisions, let's call them. It almost sounds like the careless, vengeful songs Van recorded to get out of his Bang Records contract in 1967, but perhaps even more decapitated from reality. It's fascinating.