3D Great Rock Bible
Van Morrison iTunes Tracks Van Morrison Official Website

Van Morrison

Perpetually dressed in black, rock’n’roll mystic/poet VAN MORRISON has transcended the art and soul of singing through the odd genre or three, a classy act wedging a symmetry between Celtic-folk, gospel-tinged R&B and contemporary jazz – as flexible as it may seem. From a whisper to a scream, “Van The Man” (as he’s been dubbed by fans and critics alike), has bypassed the boundaries of popular music, consistently pushing the envelope while seeking the emotion and spirit within and the vision necessary to thrive in a fickle pop world.
Born George Ivan Morrison, 31st August 1945, Bloomfield, East Belfast, Northern Ireland, and raised by his musically-minded and gifted parents, he was reared on such eclectic musical fare as HANK WILLIAMS, JIMMIE RODGERS, LEADBELLY and Duke Ellington. Influenced by the skiffle scene and The CARTER FAMILY (songbook), his first taste of the spotlight came via schoolboy combos, The Sputniks and Midnight Special. The young Van began his professional musical apprenticeship on the Irish show-band circuit, mastering acoustic guitar, piano and saxophone and laying the fertile seed bed of vocal improvisation and innovation that would come to distinguish his career. Following in the footsteps of The BEATLES, Georgie And The Monarchs had a minor hit on German soil with `Boozoo Hully Gully’ b/w `Twingy Baby’.
A rough and tumble tour of the Rhineland with the aforementioned Monarchs (who’d derived from Deanie Sands & The Javelins) was followed by spells in The Manhattan Showband, The Golden Eagles and finally, The Gamblers, who, in turn, evolved into THEM, the brooding R&B bovver boys with whom MORRISON first stamped his guttural howl on a nation’s musical consciousness.
Along with The ANIMALS, The PRETTY THINGS and The ROLLING STONES, Belfast’s hopefuls formed an integral part of the mid-60s British R&B boom from whence came rock music as we now know and love (or loathe, as the case may be) today. Though the band only released two official albums, `Them’ (1965) and `Them Again’ (1966), their place in legend was assured as the garage leer of `Gloria’ came to be one of the most covered songs in rock history. One of the few constants in their ramshackle approach and ever changing line-up was MORRISON; his dour, threatening demeanour and erratically electric live performances coupled with a precocious gift for songwriting indicated a star in the ascendant.
When the group finally disintegrated, Van took up an invitation from Bert Berns (composer/producer of THEM’s `Here Comes The Night’) to lay down some tracks in New York for his fledgling independent Bang label. The resulting sessions produced eight finished songs, among them the youthful exuberance of `Brown Eyed Girl’ and the harrowing, churning claustrophobia of `T.B. Sheets’, polar opposites between which MORRISON began to develop his song-craft. The former song edged its way into the US Top 10 during the summer of love, the label duly releasing all his cuts as an album, BLOWIN’ YOUR MIND! (1967) {*6}, without the consent, and much to the annoyance, of MORRISON himself.
Nevertheless, the singer entered the studio once again later that year to record another series of songs, including early versions of `Beside You’ and `Madame George’ (later appearing in their full glory on the masterful Astral Weeks), some surfacing on the hopefully titled 1970 “Best Of” cash-in, while the remainder were eventually unearthed on 1974’s exploitative `T.B. Sheets’ set.
Following the sudden death of Berns in December ‘67, Van moved north to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was eventually spotted and signed into a management deal with New York’s Inherit Productions. A contract was subsequently secured with Warner Brothers and the cream of the Big Apple’s jazz musicians were rounded up to back the man on his solo debut proper, ASTRAL WEEKS (1968) {*10}.
As hotly debated, analysed, shrouded in myth and generally deified as any recording in the history of music, the enigmatic, ethereal allure of the album remains ultimately impenetrable. Recorded, quintessentially MORRISON-style, in two spontaneous four-hour sessions, the record transcended any notion of “rock” per se, nor could it be bracketed under jazz. A darkly intoxicating stream of inspired musical consciousness, Astral Weeks traded in conventional verse/chorus song structures for free-form explorations and fragments, languidly vivid imagery floating in and out of focus. From the yearning warmth and acoustic strum of the title track and `Sweet Thing’ to the harpsichord tapestry of `Cyprus Avenue’ and the epic, dizzying `Madame George’, MORRISON set out the blueprint for much of his later work, an eternal quest for spiritual enlightenment that both embraced and transcended hope and despair, contentment and restlessness. Fittingly, then, this music is timeless, the only indication of its 1968 birthdate the supple potency of Van’s young voice. An instrument in its own right, MORRISON’s vocal faculty is arguably among the most powerful, seductive and ultimately healing to have emerged in the last thirty or so years, capable of everything from a primal grunt a la JAMES BROWN, to a child-like, awestruck breathlessness. An album that has grown in stature with each passing year, Astral Weeks was met with mixed reviews upon its original release, and it initially sold relatively poorly. Undeterred, Van moved to Woodstock with his new wife, Janet Planet (yep, she was a fully paid up hippy), where he penned most of the material for a follow-up album, MOONDANCE {*9}.
Released in early 1970, the record was a more solidly constructed affair, MORRISON reigning in his more abstract tendencies into tighter, shorter, brassy bursts. Much of the album reflected the man’s love of soul and R&B, punchy horn flourishes replacing the meandering acoustics of his previous gem. The soporific `And It Stoned Me’ and the classic `Into The Mystic’ were closest in spirit to the debut, the latter track condensing the albums theme of the redemptive power of love. The magical mood of `Moondance’ or the extracting tension of `Caravan’ left one in no doubt of Van’s picture postcard music. By this point, the critics were catching on to the stocky Irishman’s genius, lauding the album and heralding MORRISON as one of the rock worlds most talented visionaries. He was also arguably one of the few white musicians to interpret black music forms in such a way as to retain the spontaneity and richness while creating something completely original.
In saying that, it could be argued that HIS BAND AND THE STREET CHOIR (1970) {*6} relied too heavily on a straight soul/R&B formula, lacking any real depth as a result. `Domino’ was the standout track, a joyous, hedonistic slice of white R&B that gave Van his biggest (US) hit to date. And while there were glimpses of his intimate and uncompromising exuberance on the likes of `Call Me Up In Dreamland’, the OTIS REDDING-like `If I Ever Needed Someone’ and Stateside hits `Blue Money’ and `Come Running’, it failed to live up to the mastery of his previous sets. The album’s inside cover showed a scene of communal domesticity, an apparent contentedness (only rarely glimpsed since) that continued with TUPELO HONEY (1971) {*8}, a country-tinged collection celebrating love and romance. It was the first record to introduce Messrs RONNIE MONTROSE and Bill Church.
The lush balladeering of the title track saw Van putting in one of the sweetest vocal performances of his career thus far, most of the songs finding the singer in laid-back, family man mode, typified on `Starting A New Life’ and `You’re My Woman’. While there was upbeat and celebration in `Wild Night’ (his fifth US Top 40 entry) and a drift back to gentle times in `Old Old Woodstock’, MORRISON had lost none of his blue-eyed Celtic soul.
Entertaining as the album was, follow-up SAINT DOMINIC’S PREVIEW (1972) {*9} was far more compelling. Tellingly, by the time Van came to record the album, his relationship with Janet was on the rocks. While the disc opened with the life-affirming soul shout of minor US hit `Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’, the epic `Listen To The Lion’ formed the album’s centrepiece, a musical and spiritual marathon that set out MORRISON’s agenda of personal quest more explicitly than ever before. The title track was equally inspiring while the almost gospel-like `Redwood Tree’ was manna for the soul, healing harmonies of hope and forgiveness. The billowing, hypnotic ambience of `Almost Independence Day’ closed the album in suitably enigmatic style. The record came at a time when Van was regaining his confidence on stage after a period of relative withdrawal from live performance.
To catalogue the ever shifting personnel of MORRISON’s various bands would probably warrant a book in its own right although the general consensus is that the man reached a zenith of sorts with his Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Recorded for posterity on the double live album, IT’S TOO LATE TO STOP NOW (1974) {*9}, MORRISON’s summer ‘73 shows, the stuff of legend. One of the classic live albums, Van takes his songs to places they were probably never designed for, stretching, remoulding and re-inventing them in his inimitable R&B preacher/spiritual warrior fashion. The result is rarely less than breath-taking. Ironically enough, HARD NOSE THE HIGHWAY (1973) {*6}, MORRISON’s studio effort of the time, lacked the intensity of the live work although `The Great Deception’ is probably the singer’s angriest song, berating the show-business falsity that he’s always made a point of distancing himself from. The remainder of the 70s were MORRISON’s wilderness years as he seemingly struggled to focus on any kind of musical direction, taking time out to explore his spiritual journey on a personal level.
VEEDON FLEECE (1974) {*8}, apparently inspired by a return to his native Ireland after years in exile, presaged this more intense period of searching. Arguably closest in spirit to Van’s cosmic debut than anything else he’s since released, the record shared Astral Weeks’ otherworldly sense of drifting in and out of consciousness, set against a backdrop of Ireland’s rich heritage. The Celtic folk influence was most prominent on `Streets Of Arklow’, haunting Irish pipes conjuring up images of brooding, silent faces peering from rain-lashed doorways. `Linden Arden Stole The Highlights’, `You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River’ and `Who Was That Masked Man’ are cathartic and yearning; Van’s vox on a high (think AARON NEVILLE) on the latter smoothie. The album remains a pivotal release, signalling the more overtly Celtic and spiritual direction MORRISON’s music would take in the 80s and after completing this milestone, the Irishman didn’t surface again until 1977 with the poorly received PERIOD OF TRANSITION {*5}. Co-produced with Mac Rebennack (aka DR. JOHN), songs such as the funky `It Fills You Up’ and `Heavy Connection’ all-too transitional for some and mistimed for the era.
WAVELENGTH (1978) {*7} saw Van back on track, a warmer, full-bodied work that saw him relax again into longer pop-driven pieces; his early 70s one-off collaboration with noted American singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon on `Santa Fe’ – segued with `Beautiful Obsession’ was one such journey, the 8-minute `Take It Where You Find It’ was another. While there was a trio of 45s released at the time, only the title track ballad breached the US Top 50.
INTO THE MUSIC (1979) {*8} was really the beginning of a new phase in his career. Joyously religious but never dogmatic, the song cycle album found MORRISON flirting with Christianity; `Full Force Gale’ was a revelation, a rock of strength with deep-seated conviction. A rich seam of hope and inspiration runs through the whole album, culminating in `And The Healing Has Begun’. Opening salvo `Bright Side Of The Road’ was a minor hit in Old Blighty (his first and last for some time to come!), while slow-burners like `Angeliou’ and `Troubadours’ oozed his passion; even the questionable rendition of staple `It’s All In The Game’ (a hit for both Tommy Edwards and CLIFF RICHARD).
From here on in, MORRISON’s albums were increasingly concerned with religious redemption, Celtic mysteries and ultimately the healing power of music (or navel-gazing nonsense, if you erred towards cynicism). COMMON ONE (1980) {*5} – featuring two 15-minute pieces (`Summertime In England’ and `When Heart Is Open’) – divided the critics with its esoteric new age slant, while follow-up effort BEAUTIFUL VISION (1982) {*7} found the man in Celtic-soul mode. One of three tracks penned with lyricist Hugh Murphy, `Dweller On The Threshold’ (defined by its truly sublime sax tooting by JB’s legend, Pee Wee Ellis), gave the record its upbeat class next to the charm of the title track single and its R&B counterpart `Cleaning Windows’.
INARTICULATE SPEECH OF THE HEART (1983) {*6} introduced a kind of airbrushed, synthesizer sound that didn’t sit particularly well with MORRISON’s organic voice and approach. In fact, Van the man’s vocal chords were posted missing on at least four tracks (`Connswater’, etc), while the mood was mellow for virtual recitations, `Rave On, John Donne’ and `The Street Only Knew Your Name’; name players Davy Spillane and Arty McGlynn were guests on the set. Supported by the likes of Ellis, and usual suspects Mark Isham (a trumpeter but known for his film scores), Peter Van Hooke and Tom Donlinger (on drums), Van’s road tour culminated with homecoming 2-night concert document, LIVE AT THE GRAND OPERA HOUSE BELFAST (1984) {*6}.
While album number fifteen, A SENSE OF WONDER (1985) {*5} was slightly derivative and run-of-the-mill-MORRISON (containing no real stand-out cues and three covers, RAY CHARLES’ `What Would I Do Without You’, MOSE ALLISON’s `If You Only Knew’ and Mike Westbrook’s `Let The Slave’), NO GURU, NO METHOD, NO TEACHER (1986) {*6} – his second set for Mercury Records – was a near convincing return to form. `One Irish Rover’, `Tir Na Nog’ and `Foreign Window’ – tasters for his subsequent Celtic-folk set – were pitted against an altogether fresh version of his/Bert Berns’ `Here Comes The Knight’.
The album in question, IRISH HEARTBEAT (1988) {*7}, a triumphant trad-biased collaboration with Celtic folksters, The CHIEFTAINS, found MORRISON in boisterous form, the resulting tour inspiring some of the most positive reactions since his seminal live shows of the 70s. The devotional POETIC CHAMPIONS COMPOSE (1987) {*7} was sandwiched between these two, another work of nomadic spiritual searching, MORRISON’s singing his pain on the haunting trad piece `Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’; other floating tunes to wet one’s cockles came by way of `Did Ye Get Healed?’, `Queen Of The Slipstream’ and `I Forgot That Love Existed’.
Incredibly, the man’s first (post-THEM) UK Top 20 hit single came courtesy of `Whenever God Shines His Light’, a spiritual duet with Sir CLIFF RICHARD the following year. The success of the collaborative platter helped to boost Van’s commercial clout, the mellow and serene AVALON SUNSET (1989) {*6} opus peaking at No.13. Preceding the truly gorgeous and geographical narrative of `Coney Island’, came one of MORRISON’s most sensual pieces of all time, `Have I Told You Lately’, a minor hit for Van The Man but a giant leap for Rod the Mod (STEWART, that is).
On his mission to bring contemporary gospel and Celtic R&B to the masses and the UK Top 5, subsequent albums ENLIGHTENMENT (1990) {*7} – featuring the crackingly upbeat `Real Real Gone’ – and the heavily gospel-orientated double HYMNS TO THE SILENCE (1991) {*6} – attributing a couple of real hymns and a cover of Don Gibson’s `I Can’t Stop Loving You’ crossed over well. The latter’s title could be used to describe the music that has made up a large part of MORRISON’s career, songs of love and devotion unique in rock’n’roll. TOO LONG IN EXILE (1993) {*4} lacked just such inspiration and a record that drifted between three loves: soul, jazz and the blues. With former star GEORGIE FAME (on organ) in there to guide him through several of his own compositions (including a re-vamped duet of `Gloria’ with JOHN LEE HOOKER) plus the odd nostalgic nugget in `Lonely Avenue’ (Doc Pomus), `I’ll Take Care Of You’ (BROOK BENTON), `The Lonesome Road’ (Gene Austin), `Good Morning Little School Girl’ (SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON) and `Moody’s Mood For Love’ (James Moody).
Van’s nocturnal expeditions (from that December) were again re-energised and roundly praised through the live double-disc of A NIGHT IN SAN FRANCISCO (1994) {*6}, one of the record’s many highlights an electric run through of the aforementioned `Gloria’ (with HOOKER) and a stellar cast of back-up from JIMMY WITHERSPOON, JUNIOR WELLS, saxophonist Candy Dulfer (who’d recently side-lined with DAVE STEWART), singers Brian Kennedy, James Hunter, his daughter Shana Morrison and of course, jazz-pop organ man GEORGIE FAME. Running a gamut of genres, a myriad of mongrel medleys and cool cover cuts (just too many too mention), there was still room for the odd classic, `Moondance’ (segued with `My Funny Valentine’), `Did Ye Get Healed?’, `Tupelo Honey’, `Have I Told You Lately’ among them.
Romantic as ever, the singer-songwriter took the smooth-FM route by way of DAYS LIKE THIS (1995) {*4}, not exactly his best work, although the title track comes up trumphs; covers of `You Don’t Know Me’, `I’ll Never Be Free’ and `Melancholia’ slid into the watching-paint-dry category.
Sidestepping his rather convoluted jazz affair with GEORGIE FAME & friends on a breezy “live at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho” set, entitled HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON (1995) {*4}, plus a 4-way side-project “Songs of Mose Allison” CD for Verve Records (`Tell Me Something’) alongside FAME, Ben Sidran and ALLISON himself, THE HEALING GAME (1997) {*6} saw the man return to Top 10 territory. Comprising ten originals and no cover versions (the first time in many a year), the reclusive and vehemently private singer-songwriter re-surfaced from his Dublin home with his usual passion and spirit on gems like these:- `Fire In The Belly’, `Piper At The Gates Of Dawn’ (no, nothing to do with ‘Floyd) and the title track. A subsequent tour with BOB DYLAN helped maintain his profile, while a “Basement Tapes”-type double CD, THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE (1998) {*6} saw another slight connection to the heart; Van also recorded a cover of `Muleskinner’s Blues’ on Bob’s new Egyptian imprint.
Van’s final album of the 90s, BACK ON TOP (1999) {*6} was his first for Virgin Records offshoot Pointblank, the transatlantic Top 30 set even supplying his first Top 40 single in years, `Precious Time’. A grumpy curmudgeon to some, a Celtic visionary to others, VAN MORRISON is as much of an enigma as his best work. While the album occasionally offered glimpses of the pained soul searching (especially `High Summer’, `The Philosopher’s Stone’ and `When The Leaves Come Falling Down’), MORRISON relaxed back into the bonhomie of contented middle age with THE SKIFFLE SESSIONS – LIVE IN BELFAST 1998 (2000) {*7}. A glowing tribute to the music that inspired him, MORRISON lives it up with two of his oldest chums, LONNIE DONEGAN and CHRIS BARBER. You may have heard them a million times before but a sheer unbridled love of the music elevates the likes of `Alabamy Bound’, `I Wanna Go Home’, `Midnight Special’ and `Goodnight Irene’ to essential listening status; DR. JOHN also guested on this knees-up tribute to skiffle and its component parts of folk, country, blues and jazz; it was sadly Lonnie’s last recording as he died late in 2002.
YOU WIN AGAIN (2000) {*6} was similar in spirit, a feel-good collaboration between Van and singer Linda Gail Lewis, JERRY LEE LEWIS’s kid sister. Again, this was all about the simple joys of playing music with friends, nothing more, nothing less. MORRISON has rarely sounded so at ease, knocking out vintage country, R&B, rock’n’roll and one fresh tune (`No Way Pedro’) with an infectious enthusiasm fired up by the pair’s natural musical synergy.
It seemed the older Van got, the more he wanted to resuscitate the music which inspired him in the first place, and who, after all, can really blame him. DOWN THE ROAD (2002) {*7} continued his recent run of great records, an unashamed trip down memory lane, both musically and lyrically. While his songs have always been peppered with recurring autobiographical motifs, thinly veiled or otherwise, the Irishman indulges himself here, musing on his roots with candour and humour against a lovingly rendered patchwork of blues, jazz, R&B, country and folk. He name-checks the likes of PJ PROBY and SCOTT WALKER, even covering the Hoagy Carmichael chestnut, `Georgia On My Mind’.
Recording an album for Blue Note, WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? (2003) {*7}, meanwhile, was perhaps the logical next step for MORRISON, especially given the record’s feel of an artist finally coming home, opening up his muse to the music which really fires him. And there was a definite sense of some sort of artistic unshackling: the ageing star hadn’t cut such earthy blues, soul and jazz for years, whether sparring with tenor saxophonist Martin Winning, or taking possession of LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS’ `Stop Drinking’. MORRISON’s post-millennium resurgence rolled on with MAGIC TIME (2005) {*6}, sustained by his continuing re-examination of the forms which originally inspired him to pick up a microphone (and a pen). Metaphysical questing replaced with blues-as-truth, the man’s art rarely sounded as comfortable in its own skin; even the doubts – as on THEM-esque opener `Stranded’ – were tempered with conviction. And given that Van was singing about the Rat Pack as far back as the mid-70s, his swinging songbook selections (including a couple of Frank Sinatra numbers) were hardly a concession to fashion. The album’s chart position (at No.3, his highest ever!) suggested the renewed enthusiasm was reflected in his fiercely partisan fanbase, one which greeted the Top 10 PAY THE DEVIL (2006) {*6} with as much fervour as the critics.
Everyone knows that country got soul, but – save for perhaps the late RAY CHARLES – no one knows it better than MORRISON, and his first full-blown, sojourn into country music was hardly without precedent. And given Rosanne Cash’s recent revelation that her family have traced their roots right back to Fife, Scotland, Van’s Celtic-country connection (the album was recorded in Belfast rather than Nashville) felt as timely as it was natural, opening with `There Stands The Glass’ (an early 50s hit for honky-tonk pioneer Webb Pierce), and lolling through decades-deep covers of Leon Payne’s George Jones signature, `Things Have Gone To Pieces’, HANK WILLIAMS’ `Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and Curley Williams’ `Half As Much’ amongst others.
KEEP IT SIMPLE (2008) {*6} was basically what it prescribed in the title, a back-to-basics set of eleven Van Mo originals in a cocktail of usual suspect styles: blues, soul, country, folk and jazz. There was denying the strength and empowering passion Van put into his work, and it again paid off on winning tracks, `That’s Entertainment’, `Lover Come Back’, `How Can A Poor Boy?’ (yes, his own song!) and the title track.
Short on some new material (being laid-back was deserved in this case), ASTRAL WEEKS: LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL (2009) {*7} was Van’s take on the “classic album in concert” series that iconic artists seemed to fall for these days. As potent as its inaugural release way back some four decades past, and re-arranged to suit its live re-emergence (original bassist Jay Berliner took up his position once again), Van bridged the gap between time and transition on an impressive backtrack; `Listen To The Lion’ (the name of his latest imprint) and `Common One’ were placed addendum-like as bonus extras. In a word – cool!
Fresh albums by the icons of contemporary-rock masters (BOB DYLAN, NEIL YOUNG, TOM WAITS, et al) are a hard nut to crack when it comes to fair assessment, and the legend that is VAN MORRISON and 2012’s transatlantic Top 20 record, BORN TO SING: NO PLAN B {*7} was no exception. Cut back in his home city of Belfast, the set of ten originals appear to come via the jazzy backdrop of a Manhattan skyline, while others gave off a sense of sticking one’s head into a pre-prohibition back alley blues joint; `Close Enough For Jazz’, `Goin’ Down To Monte Carlo’, `End Of The Rainbow’ and the JOHN LEE HOOKER-esque `Pagan Heart’, perfect examples that staked their claim to your hearts – and souls.
About to turn 70, MORRISON looked to other great singers to guide him to his master-class promised land by way of Top 5 DUETS: RE-WORKING THE CATALOGUE (2015) {*6}. Definitely one to please his elder faction of fans, names to just roll off the tongue: BOBBY WOMACK, MAVIS STAPLES, GEORGE BENSON, P.J. PROBY, GEORGIE FAME, CHRIS FARLOWE, TAJ MAHAL and, even STEVE WINWOOD, had long been stuff of legend before JOSS STONE, Gregory Porter, Michael Buble, Clare Teal and his daughter Shana Morrison were picking up the mic, while MARK KNOPFLER (here on `Irish Heartbeat’), SIMPLY RED’s Mick Hucknall (on `Streets Of Arklow’) and Natalie Cole (on `These Are The Days’) were no spring chickens. For the most part it worked, but one suspects it might’ve been aimed at the Easter market now that, in some households, presents replace fattening chocolate eggs.
A household name for nigh-on half a century, singer-songwriter VAN MORRISON was happy to open up his mighty vocal chords once again a la 2016’s KEEP ME SINGING {*7}. Whether the man kept it strictly simple (by way of `Let It Rhyme’, `Too Late’ and blues staple `Share You Love With Me’), or exploring fresh possibilities by stretching out his larynx (via `Every Time I See A River’, `Memory Lane’, the title track et al), the Belfast belter oozed class.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/BG-GRD / rev-up MCS Apr2012-Sep2016

Share this Project

Leave a Comment