Category Archives: Van Morrison

Van Morrison Discography

Poet, philosopher, priest and patron saint of eternal childhoods and endless summers. Van got his first break in Them, a Northern Invasion band from Belfast that scored several R&B-inspired hits including “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Here Comes The Night” and “Gloria.” Them had the makings to become as big as The Animals, but internal dissension split the band in two and Morrison left after two albums to record an album with Atlantic Records’ Bert Berns in New York on his new label, Bang.

The Bang sessions resulted in a hit single, “Brown Eyed Girl,” and an album, Blowin’ Your Mind (1967). Unfortunately, leftover tracks from the sessions have been the bane of discographers ever since. Morrison then signed with Warner Brothers and recorded a new album with an ad hoc group of jazz musicians. Astral Weeks (1968) revealed a completely different side of Morrison; recorded with no rehearsal and little direction, its fragile and beautiful soundscape was an inspired mix of felicity, fearlessness and genius. The albums that followed were more flesh-and-blood creations but no less inspired. It’s to these records that some of Morrison’s most recognizable hits belong: “Moondance,” “Domino,” “Wild Night” and “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile).”

Christianity, nature and the past have long played an important part in Van’s music. In the mid 70s, Morrison’s singles were more likely to be frothy creations like “Warm Love” than the hook-driven hits of yore. Still, his music has been remarkably consistent over the years; even into the 80s, it was comforting to know that you could put the needle down on a Van Morrison record and go home again.

Over the last couple of decades, Morrison has continued to release albums at a steady pace while experimenting with new genres (traditional Irish music, country, jazz). In many ways, his career has followed the path of another bard, Bob Dylan, both of whom have managed to maintain their enigmatic stature over the years. Throw Neil Young into the mix, and you’d have a trio of mercurial Mystery Men for the ages.

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Them: The “Angry” Young Them (1965)

Kronomyth 1.0: AND THE VAN COMES ON THE RADIO. Them were Northern Ireland’s answer to The Rolling Stones, which would make Them an answer to a question few were asking. After all, the world had The Who, The Animals, The Kinks and countless other bands to indulge their teenage daydreams of rebellion. Yet none of those bands had a lead singer who could match Mick Jagger’s wide-mouthed white punk so naturally and convincingly. Van Morrison wasn’t copping Jagger, they were cut from the same cloth: wonderstuck by rhythm and blues, wild boys whose savage breasts could only be tamed by that seductive muse, rock and roll. And so a certain faction of teenagers rallied around Them as the next great white hope. They were, like most of their contemporaries, a product of their time, with the emphasis on product. The labels played up the band’s antisocial image, the usual R&B suspects were lined up (“Bright Lights, Big City,” “Route 66”), professionally penned tunes were provided (“I Gave My Love A Diamond,” “I’m Gonna Dress In Black”), session players brought in to help out. None of that, however, distracts from the powerful presence of Morrison; whether he’s singing or wailing on the harmonica or sax, Van is a one-man gale. That’s not to say that the rest of the band doesn’t have talent; my original interest in Them, in fact, was their organ player, Pete Bardens (of future Camel fame). The band’s chemistry is clear on songs like “Mystic Eyes” (a Top 40 hit in the US), and if the production is a little messy (the Stones recordings sounded much cleaner), it gives their music a raw energy all its own. Despite the UK habit of separating singles and albums, The “Angry” Young Them reprised the earlier B side, “Gloria,” pure musical genius, that. (The US version, simply titled Them, added the recent and equally brilliant “Here Comes The Night.”) While nothing else on the album is a match for those two tracks, quality material from Morrison (“If You And I Could Be As Two,” “You Just Can’t Win”) and scorching cover versions (their spin on Rosco Gordon’s “Just A Little Bit” is downright menacing) put it right in the front ranks of the English R&B revolution. Yes, you could argue that’s it all just a clever copy of the Stones, but that Van was the genuine article is clear on every track.

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Them Again (1966)

Kronomyth 2.0: THEMPEROR’S NEW CLONES. Their first album sounded like the second coming of the Stones. This followup sounds more like a second-rate British Invasion band which, sorry, they really were at this stage. Only Van Morrision and bass player Alan Henderson remain from the lineup that recorded their debut, and Morrison himself would be out of the picture soon enough. Producer Tommy Scott clearly hoped to reproduce the success of their first album and even provides the material to do it: a rocking rewrite of “Gloria” in “I Can Only Give You Everything” plus a few clever contenders in “Call My Name,” “How Long Baby” and “Don’t You Know.” Kids weren’t buying it, though, and the record failed to produce a hit single along the lines of “Here Comes The Night.” As one of only two records that Morrison recorded with Them, the album is historically important and not without its moments. Van’s versions of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “I Put A Spell On You” (included in the expanded UK version) and “Turn On Your Love Light” are well worth hearing, and his originals “Hey Girl” and “My Lonely Sad Eyes” point to the good things to come on Blowin’ Your Mind. New Them-bers Jim Armstrong, Ray Elliott (who doubles on sax) and John Wilson do a solid job, although the organ playing of Pete Bardens is sorely missed. Originally released in mono, the record suffers from the same tinny sound that marred the first, minus some of the energy that made you forgive those sonic shortcomings the first time around. As an artifact from the British Invasion, Them Again is worth discovering and not simply as a vantiquity, although it doesn’t belong on a pedestal like the first Them record. A lot of what’s here seems second rate, especially in lieu of what original acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks and The Animals were doing.

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Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (1968)

Kronomyth 2.0: THE VAN YOU LOVE TO LOVE. After the success of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Van ditched that horse and strolled off the beaten path for the poetic, powerful Astral Weeks. It was the first of many unpredictable moves and cultivated the image of Morrison as a jazz spiritualist. From the beginning, it was an unconventional venture: Morrison and his guitar locked away in their ivory tower while a group of hired jazz minstrels followed behind him in due deference, nibbling at the notes he dropped. It’s the magnetism of Morrison that holds it all together on the first side, subtitled “In The Beginning.” Honestly, the backing band adds little that the singer himself doesn’t achieve with acoustic guitar in hand; some strings ebb and flow, an acoustic bass comes loping in on occasion, but mostly you’re held mesmerized by that voice and the words behind it. I haven’t met a Van Morrison album that’s more poetic than Astral Weeks, and it’s here that the Bob Dylan comparisons come easy. Of the four tracks, the opening “Astral Weeks” and the enchanted “Sweet Thing” stand out. On the second side, subtitled “Afterwards,” Morrison and the band work better as a unit for some reason, especially on the overtly jazzy “The Way Young Lovers Do.” The highlight, however, is a nine-minute version of “Madame George” where the sounds and visions move like a slow parade of ghosts and Morrison drops such hidden mysteries as “the love that loves to love.” On first sitting, Astral Weeks is an underwhelming album that seems like so much standing in place. On subsequent sittings, however, it becomes a big pointillist painting with a larger-than-life man in the middle. That enigmatic ending, Van shaking his guitar to wring out the last drop of color from it, suggests an artist who’s emptied everything he has for his art. But with Moondance came replenishment, and again, and the story ever since has been of a man replenished by that magic trilogy of God, Nature and Music.

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Van Morrison: Moondance (1970)

Van Morrison never lost the little boy in him who sat spellbound listening to rock & roll for the first time on a record player. That same wide-eyed wonder is at work on Moondance. When he sings on the opening track, “Hope it don’t rain all day,” he’s not being completely honest. He wants to get wet, to baptize himself in rhythm and blues. Moondance is his sharing of the rapture. It contains some of his most memorable music: “And It Stoned Me,” “Moondance,” “Crazy Love,” “Caravan.” His songs have the earthy intellect of Dylan, the soulfulness of Ray Charles. Earthy intellect? Man I’m sorry about that. Dylan was a loquacious Loki, a troublemaker, an intellect first but also, somewhere under the veneer, a balladeer. Invert that and you have Van Morrison. There’s a kernel of chaos in every song, but Van Morrison isn’t preaching revolution to the world, he’s preaching freedom from within. The same freedom I felt as a kid when I first heard rock & roll. You wanted to hoard it, share it, run down the street singing it and end every conversation with it. That’s the message of Moondance: love and music will set you free. I don’t see the mystic at work in this music so much as the imagery of allegory. Trains, boats, gypsies are all signs of freedom. Really, there’s nothing that mystical about it. But Morrison is a converted man, singing from the other side. He wants you to jump in the water with him, to dance under the moon, to turn up the radio and feel free. You should. It’s a marvelous night for it.

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Van Morrison: “Come Running” (1970)

If I were to pick a single from Moondance, I would have selected the title track or “Crazy Love,” but that’s why I’m writing record reviews in my basement and not making business decisions for a big record label. Well, that and an odd predilection for pajamas over pants. “Come Running” sounds like Nashville Skyline filtered through R&B/soul, which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying a “black Bob Dylan,” although a trite description like that would be insulting to everyone involved. The sensual, soulful “Crazy Love” is pressed into service here as the B side and, over the years, artists have made a bee line to it rather than “Come Running” when looking for something of Van’s to cover.

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Van Morrison: His Band And The Street Choir (1970)

Kronomyth 4.0: HIS BAND AND WIFE. Sounding like New Morning-era Dylan in spots, His Band And The Street Choir is cryptic, tuneful, with R&B sensibilities at once keen and informal. Morrison, in further imitation of the Bard, has been evasive while dismissing the album as product and citing an original desire to make an a capella record without musical accompaniment. Now you might wonder, who goes into the studio with seven musicians to make an album without instruments?, so maybe Morrison was simply miffed that the album artwork suggested a spiritual album that wasn’t there. Or maybe he was self-conscious of the fact that many of the songs were holdovers from earlier sessions. Whatever the songs’ origins or Morrison’s original intent for the album, His Band And The Street Choir is a soulful, joyful record that features some great tracks: “Domino,” “If I Ever Needed Someone,” “Call Me Up In Dreamland,” “Gypsy Queen.” As always, Morrison had shaken things up a bit since Moondance; half the band had been sacked, more horns had been added, a choir (featuring wife Janet) included. The new band played with a deceptively loose style and Morrison recorded them with a certain looseness as well, even including snippets of studio dialogue to bring the recording experience one step closer. Listening to Dylan’s work from this era (Nashville Skyline, New Morning), you had the same sense that the veil had somehow been lifted. However, beneath the veil was the same inscrutability; were any of us ever intended to understand the meaning of “Went To See The Gypsy” or “Crazy Face?” There’s not even a consensus on the meaning of “Domino,” a song that millions have sung along to, convinced that it must mean something. There is no deeper meaning on His Band And The Street Choir than the deepness of the music, and there needn’t be.

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Van Morrison: “Call Me Up In Dreamland” (1971)

Wake me up when “Call Me Up In Dreamland” is over. The flip side, “Street Choir,” doesn’t do a whole for me either. It sounds as though Van Morrison had adopted the boozy Salvation Army sound of The Band and The Kinks (c. Muswell Hillbillies) for His Street Choir. Compounding the problem is that Morrison is flat-out unintelligible (i.e., he’s got some Joe Cocker-size marbles in his mouth). I like Van Morrison and willingly buy into the whole soulful mystic thing, but the vocal inflections strike me as disingenuous, similar to when Elton John tried to sing country music. Had it not been for “Domino,” I doubt that Dreamland would have been roused from its sleepy quarter and pressed into service as a third single. Today, it’s best forgotten as an album track that pales beside his better singles.

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Van Morrison: “Gypsy” (1972)

This is vintage Van Morrison, when the man didn’t seem capable of writing a bad song. “Gypsy” and “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (both from the album of the same name) are bittersweet treats that have more than a little in common with mid-career Dylan. Van’s voice could still steer a line without bruising it, his inflection (like Dylan) could add weight to an otherwise ordinary word (check out the way he hangs up on “storey block” in St. Dominic’s). Based on this preview alone, I can see why Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh found parts of St. Dominic’s “as soul-searching and soulful as any modern music.”

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Van Morrison: T.B. Sheets (1973)

Kronomyth 7.5: MORE BUCKS FOR BANG. The late Bert Berns’ much-maligned Bang Records had now released three albums from the material that Van Morrison recorded with them in 1967, including Blowin’ Your Mind (1967) and The Best of Van Morrison (1970). This compilation features five tracks that appeared on the first, one unique to the second (“It’s All Right”) and two early versions of songs that would appear on his breakthrough Astral Weeks, “Madame George” and “Beside You.” Now, those last two tracks may have piqued your interest, and well they should. They’re radically different from the jazzy arrangements featured on Astral Weeks; “Madame George” appears far more playful here, lending credence to Morrison’s assertion that the song was originally intended to be called Madame Joy, while “Beside You” is nailed to a concrete arrangement. In a sense, T.B. Sheets offers an alternate view of what Blowin’ Your Mind might have been. Fortunately for us, Berns left “Madame George” and “Beside You” in the bank vaults, and the gossamer versions we know from Astral Weeks exist today. Although it’s product, T.B. Sheets isn’t a bad listen by any measure. Morrison may be a bit in the bard’s shadow here, often sounding like Highway 61 Re-Revisited—not surprising given that some of the same musicians (Paul Griffin, Russell Savakas) appear on both sessions—but delivered in a stream of spiritual consciousness that approaches a soulful sermon at times. Given that many missed Morrison’s debut the first time around, the encore performances of “Brown Eyed Girl,” “He Ain’t Give You None” and “T.B. Sheets” were welcome at the time, and the compilation’s absorption into the Columbia catalog has added an air of legitimacy to the release since. If you’re intent on blowin’ some cash on Morrison’s pre-Astral days, I might even recommend this over Blowin’ Your Mind, since every Van fan owes it to themselves to hear these versions of “Madame George” and “Beside You.”

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