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 Van Morrison:  Them and Beyond

by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in Time"  


I’ve just recently finished listening to Van Morrison’s latest album, appropriately called Born To Sing, and my thoughts are whizzing back to 1965 when, as a young editorial assistant on The Guardian newspaper in London, I often saw rock stars arriving at reception prior to boarding the lift up to the neighboring Sunday Times offices where iconic photo shoots were held for the paper’s groundbreaking glossy magazine. Among these visitors was a group with attitude from Belfast, namely Them, the band that brought Morrison to the forefront of British rock.

All five members of the group looked the part of surly rebels, but it was obvious that Morrison was the star of the outfit. He oozed an aura of confidence that stood him out from the crowd. He made the walk across the foyer a statement of intent. All eyes were on him. Even in those early days of fame, he was indeed Van The Man.

The band had had a sizeable hit the previous year with their version of the catchy blues classic Baby, Please Don’t Go. It had a raw intensity about it that shouted out for attention. One writer at the time summed it up so: ‘Listen up, there’s a great new voice on the music scene. It may have been nurtured and nourished in Northern Ireland, but it sure sounds like it was given its final tune-up in America’s Deep South.’

I first heard the record on the radio, thought it merited a further listen and so bought it within a few days. Along with a group of friends, I was an ardent blues fan. We usually bought and listened to the original recordings that regularly found their way across the Atlantic via returning sailors and visitors. We didn’t always have much time for what we called ‘lame copies’, but we made an exception for Them. Surely, the band was the real McCoy, thanks to Morrison’s mastery. His voice was so full of soul: it shook you right down to the tips of your toes. It was clear even then that he was destined for bigger and better things.

At around the time of the above-mentioned photo shoot, the band released Here Comes The Night. It would be their biggest UK hit and cement their reputation as a hard-hitting blues band. Then, an album, aptly titled The Angry Young Them, was a summer treat, giving the group added kudos and featuring a lively version of Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City. Plus there were several memorable Morrison compositions that heralded his talent as a burgeoning singer/songwriter. The album also gave the group a chance to make their mark on the US market, albeit not as spectacularly as some other British invaders. But a break through it was and although Them’s journey was a comparatively short one, they left a legacy for other band’s to dip into and try to emulate, while Van Morrison himself set off on the road to superstardom …

Apart from his Brown Eyed Girl, which played continuously on the airwaves throughout mid to late 1967, I rather lost touch with Morrison’s career and musical output. He didn’t, I have to confess, figure very highly on my must-buy list. The grip of the bombastic Them had loosened temporarily and other musicians and singers were attracting my attention. So, it was with some surprise that I heard an album in November 1968 that completely blew me away. Its achingly soulful melodies and lyrics were like nothing I had heard previously from a rock/blues singer, such was the power and punch of Van Morrison’s magical Astral Weeks.

The album was a tour de force, a stream-of-consciousness that I felt conjured up the very core of the human soul. Morrison’s voice cajoled, assaulted, caressed and teased the listener all at the same time and created a rare magic quality that has not been surpassed over the years. For me, it’s Morrison’s masterpiece, his piece de resistance: it’s his lasting legacy of greatness. It’s one of my all-time top albums. Constant playing never ceases to amaze me. It reveals something new with each re-acquaintance.

Boasting eight gems, all penned by the artist himself, they are: the eponymous Astral Weeks, Beside You, Sweet Thing, Cypress Avenue, The Way Young Lovers Do, Madame George, Ballerina, and Slim Slow Slider.

Even odd snippets of lyrics from the songs paint vivid impressions in the mind. Astral Weeks, the opening track, contains the spiritually uplifting sentiment of being born again: while Beside You resonates with the jingle-jangle of Sunday six bells chiming, a worthy partner for the joy of a walk and talk in gardens all wet with rain, from the hypnotic Sweet Thing.

And who couldn’t recognize something in themselves when Van states plaintively in the epic Cypress Avenue that his tongue gets tired? Amazingly, these four exquisite examples are just from the first four tracks. Spoilt for choice, you can tune in to The Way Lovers Do and see the said couple happy as they danced the night away. Then you have the superb imagery of Madame George, the senses stimulated by the clicking clacking of a high-heeled shoe: and then there’s the heroine of Ballerina being told she has to just ring the bell. Finally, you survey the pictures painted in Slim Slow Slider and wonder at the delightful imagery of catching pebbles from some sandy beach. All I can say is that they are all movingly mind-blowing. They were back in 1968 and still are today, which reminds me to listen to the album again as soon as I’ve finished this piece!

So you won’t be surprised that I have no reservations about celebrating Astral Weeks as a soothing welcome addition to a year that had seen tragedy, unrest, controversy and yet more cultural upheaval.

The tragic lows of the year centered on the violet death of two leading figures in America. First to succumb to the madness of an assassin’s bullet was civil rights giant Martin Luther King, followed just a few months later by the fatal shooting of Robert Kennedy, felled in his prime just as he seemed destined to be possibly the next US president.

The war in Vietnam was continuing and violent protests both in America and Britain were grabbing headlines. In March 1968 an anti-war demonstration in London’s Grosvenor Square, home to the US Embassy, ended in chaos. Around 200 people were arrested and scores of police and protestors were injured in the wild scuffles, disturbances and police horse charges that turned the Square into a frenzied battle zone.

At the end of August, the first Isle of Wight festival quietly took its place in the annuals of music history. Planned initially as a small affair, with no big aspirations for longevity, it just grew and grew. The innovative Jefferson Airplane graced the debut with the delicious Grace Slick’s magnificent vocals stealing the show, while a whole host of other acts played their part in putting the event on the map, an event that helped to lay down the template for future open-air rock festivals, and deservedly so. The festival was held just days after the Russians had stamped their jackboots to crush the hope and uplifting excitement of the Prague Spring.

In September the rock musical Hair opened in London to a barrage of publicity, some good, some bad, and some downright ugly. Although the show was given the go-ahead following the removal of theatre censorship restrictions, some opponents still thought that the nude, albeit brief, content of the show was lewd and inappropriate. The show became a cult must-see for many, although just as many who hadn’t seen it, added their voice to the opposition! For my part, I saw a version of Hair while on a working visit to Glasgow in Scotland: I recall thoroughly enjoying the music and the dancing, and although I didn’t get up on stage to gyrate with the cast I did strut my stuff in the aisles.

The year ended with hopes of meaningful moves to bring the Vietnam War to a close … and a new US president just a few weeks away from inauguration, one Richard Nixon. 

David Soulsby lives in Romford, Essex,David Soulsby England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes, including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the Sixties.


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