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The stamping ground for young soul rebel, Van Morrison, THEM were Belfast’s answer to London R&B stars such as The YARDBIRDS or indeed The ROLLING STONES. Also inspired by American pure-blues acts such as HOWLIN’ WOLF, MUDDY WATERS and JOHN LEE HOOKER, the Northern Irish 5-piece originally comprised Morrison (on vocals, harmonica and sax), Billy Harrison (guitar), Eric Wrixon (on keyboards), Alan Henderson (bass) and Ronnie Millings (drums); a year after they formed in ’63, the band were lured to England when signing to Decca Records.
Part of the British Invasion contingent to sweep into America after The BEATLES had earlier cornered the market, the band’s debut, SLIM HARPO-scribed single, `Don’t Start Crying’, flopped. The brothers Jackie McAuley (guitar) and Patrick McAuley (organ) superseded Wrixon who joined The People, and then The Wheels (he later helped form THIN LIZZY), while Millings became a milkman. Producers Tommy Scott and Bert Berns duly recruited session men Jimmy Page (future LED ZEPPELIN) and Peter Bardens (future CAMEL) to feature on their hot-wired cover of Big Joe Williams’ `Baby Please Don’t Go’, a single that rocketed into the UK Top 10 in early ’65; its B-side `Gloria’ was even more primal, a riotous piece of garage that inspired generations of spotty youths to pick up guitars and has subsequently been covered by everyone from The SHADOWS OF KNIGHT to The DOORS and PATTI SMITH.
THEM’s equally classic follow-up single, `Here Comes The Night’ (one of their many songs penned by Berns) climbed to No.2 in the UK charts, while America cottoned on by way of a Top 30 placing. Due to fourth platter, `One More Time’, failing to register anything, THE “ANGRY” YOUNG THEM! (1965) {*7} debut LP bombed, although it was a precocious collection of either Van-penned originals, Berns contributions or incendiary covers; JIMMY REED’s `Bright Lights, Big City’, JOHN LEE HOOKER’s `Don’t Look Back’, Roscoe Gordon’s `Just A Little Bit’ and BOBBY TROUP’s `(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66’, staples of their repertoire from the get-go. Like for other combos of the day, America released a slightly different version of the record as THEM featuring HERE COMES THE NIGHT.
When the MacAuley brothers pulled out; they’d form Them Belfast Gypsies for one eponymous set released only in Sweden and the Netherlands, the “real” THEM looked to be falling apart. Shoring up their vacant positions, John Wilson (drums) and Peter Bardens (keyboards) were in place the group reached the US Top 40 via, `Mystic Eyes’, but once again Van and Alan were left hunting down for new members when Harrison and Bardens bailed out; this time Jim Armstrong and Ray Elliott were found.
Sophomore set, THEM AGAIN (1966) {*7} fell four tracks short on the American version, producer Tommy Scott matching Morrison for song contributions; covers coming from Chris Kenner (`Something You Got’), SCREAMING JAY HAWKINS (`I Put A Spell On You’), RAY CHARLES (`I Got A Woman’), FATS DOMINO (`Hello Josephine’), JAMES BROWN (`Out Of Sight’) and DYLAN (`It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’).
Successive singles also failed to chart, and all seemed to lack the urgency of their 1964/5 period. There were occasional flashes of their frontman’s maverick genius, and it was clear he was the lynchpin holding the party together. When VAN MORRISON left to go solo in ‘67, the band inevitably split, only to re-form a number of times (minus Van) around differing line-ups, trading on past glories but predictably producing no new material of any great note.
NOW – AND “THEM” (1968) {*5} had the usual mix of group originals and covers, the latter sourcing `Witch Doctor’ (from JOHN MAYALL), Clyde Otis (`What’s The Matter Baby’), Jimmie Cox (`Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out’) and Goffin-King (`You’re Just What I Was Looking For Today’ and `I Happen To Love You’). Delivered later in the year, TIME OUT! TIME IN FOR THEM {*5}, offered up little to whet the appetite of fans missing their “brown-eyed boy”.
THEM (1969) {*5} was little more than a karaoke covers projects, while THEM IN REALITY (1971) {*5} reprised a few golden nuggets from the past in `Gloria’ and `Baby Please Don’t Go’.
As a new bunch of Brit bands had instigated a new wave invasion all of their own, the low-key and German-only reunion album, SHUT YOUR MOUTH (1979) {*4} – featuring a line-up of Henderson, Harrison, Wrixon and newcomers Mel Austin (vocals) and Billy Bell (drums) – at least tried something updated. Meanwhile, the blissfully mystic MORRISON was on his own “Wavelength” and indeed “Into The Music”.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD // rev-up MCS Sep2012

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