The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 4:
“I write songs. Then, I record them. And, later, maybe I perform them on stage. That’s what I do. That’s my job. Simple.”
THE VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: WEEK 4
Part 4 (Days 22-28) of an ongoing retrospective on the music and career of Van Morrison
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 22
“Whenever God Shines His Light” (1989)
This is the opening track on Van’s Avalon Sunset, but was then released 30 years ago as the one-and-only Christmas-themed single in the singer-songwriter’s lengthy career. So, it seems most appropriate as the musical offering on this day, December 25th.
This is far from one of Van’s best songs, but it’s among the most deeply personal, honest, and expressive. It’s a clear testament to faith, which Van has revisited in his music many times. To this day, Van often shows up unannounced at church services while he’s on tour, grabs an acoustic guitar, and performs something spiritual from his vast catalog of original music.
True to Van’s virtually rapid-fire pace of songwriting and composition, all ten songs on Avalon Sunset were rehearsed in just two days and summarily recorded during the following two days. Given the diversity of styles on this album, including lots of ornate instrumentation, some songs accompanied by a symphony orchestra, it’s astonishing that this entire album project came together in just four days.
Avalon Sunset produced two original hit songs, “Have I Told You Lately” (later recorded by Rod Stewart, which became an even bigger smash hit) and “Whenever God Shines His Light,” which sold well enough in the crossover Christian-rock crossover genre that was emerging at the time to hit #15 in the charts in the U.K.
Joining Van on backup vocals in the studio (and in the video, which is posted here) is Cliff Richard, who is well known in the U.K., but might not be nearly as familiar to American audiences. Here’s a stunning trivia question: “Who ranks third as the best-selling artist in British music singles history behind The Beatles and Elvis Presley?” Answer — Cliff Richard, with 250 million records sold worldwide.
No matter what your beliefs, this is a catchy, upbeat, song with obvious appeal. Van’s piano riff adds immensely to the joyous spirit of the track. Van’s lyrics aren’t too bad, either.
Whenever God shines his light on me
Opens up my eyes so I can see.
When I look up in the darkest night
And I know everything’s going to be alright.
In deep confusion, in great despair
When I reach out for him he is there.
When I am lonely as I can be
And I know that God shines his light on me.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 23
“Ordinary People” (circa 1974)
Let’s stick with the blues. Van has written some extraordinary blues-driven tunes. Few if any of these songs were commercially successful, perhaps one reason why so many of these lost treasures end up on the B-sides of singles and rare bootlegs.
Consider this blues masterpiece, “Ordinary People,” which has no liner notes available, anywhere, but which was believed to have been written and recorded sometime in 1974 before Van took his unannounced three-year career hiatus from recording and performing. He composed a massive number of songs during this combustible period, some of which were intended for a 1975 album tentatively titled, Mechanical Bliss, which was never released. Most of the songs from this period were shelved and forgotten for almost 25 years.
In 1998, Van released an extraordinary collection of lost B-sides and previously unreleased original songs which became The Philosophers Stone. There were so many songs available (30 ended up making the cut), that a double-album became mandatory. On the so-called “compilation” album — which is something of a misnomer since most of the songs had never been heard before — appears “Ordinary People.”
Van is in absolute top form here on vocals backed by a bluesy piano. But this musical canvass clearly belongs to Ronnie Montrose on electric guitar, who shreds the melody for five-full minutes. Montrose, who died in 2012, was one of rock’s most respected guitarists and was once described as “America’s answer to Led Zeppelin.” When you hear his guitar on this piece, especially the instrumental interlude, you’ll understand why.
Chances are, you’ve probably never heard this rare track before. So, crank it up. Loud. After listening to Van on vocals and Montrose on guitar, it’s inexplicable this was considered a track that wasn’t fit for release until many years after it was recorded. What were they thinking? Just listen.
In many ways, this simple yet impeccable tune exemplifies so much about the vast and varied Van Morrison musical catalog. The deeper one digs, the more treasure one finds.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 24
Practically everyone knows this song or is at least familiar with the chorus.
It’s been described as one of the first songs that every beginning guitar player learns to play, easily explained, since it requires knowing just three simple chords. It’s the ultimate garage band song. But, it’s also experienced unanticipated staying power in popular music. Indeed, “Gloria” has been covered by everyone from The Doors (and their so-called “dirty version”) to Patti Smith. “Gloria” has been described as one of the very first “punk rock” songs, with Van’s raspy Howlin’ Wolf vocals and the lyrics’ overt sexual suggestion.
Van was only 18 when he wrote “Gloria” sometime during 1963, He was the lead singer for the newly-formed Northern Irish band — Them, a collaboration which lasted less than three years but which launched Van as a singer-songwriter with a rebellious streak. Recorded and released in 1964, this was Van’s first original hit song, even though no one expected it to be a success. In fact, “Gloria” was actually picked as the B-side to the single, “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” which was thought to be far more commercial.
Now, 55 years after it’s release, “Gloria” is nothing to marvel at, musically speaking. However, most critics place it in the Top 100 pantheon of songs which influenced rock n’ roll.
This video is scandalous for its day (flashing frightening images of a donkey, which makes no sense). Not great sound quality, but worth a look for nostalgia purposes. Along with “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” this is arguably Van’s best-known song.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 25
“Down to Earth” (1975)
Yesterday, we explored “Gloria,” one of Van’s biggest hits and most popular songs. Today, we’re veering in the opposite direction, examining rare and previously unreleased material that somehow has never surfaced publically. Trust me about today’s lesson, this one’s a gem.
Van’s burnout between 1974’s Veedon Fleece and 1977’s A Period of Transition made for some glorious failures and undiscovered musical chestnuts. A number of album projects (at least three, and perhaps more) were simply abandoned, with no explanation given. Consider one of the forgotten tracks from this period titled, “Down to Earth,” written and recorded in the fall of 1975. This song was planned for inclusion on a jazz collaboration to be produced by Stewart Levine, best known for working with artists including Simply Red, Dr. John, B.B. King, Joe Cocker, Patti Labelle, Sly Stone, among many others.
After Stewart Levine’s death, Sunny Levine (his son) wrote from conversations with his father about those forgotten sessions:
“….Morrison and the…..band got along great and the sessions were a joyful experience. Morrison was very relaxed and sounds extra soulful as you can hear on the tape. The whole tracking experience was a pleasure with no drama in sight. (Then) they went away for a week and planned to put the finishing touches on the record, which would have been the Tower of Power horns, followed by mixing. When they returned to the studio, Morrison and Levine had an argument that abruptly ended the sessions and that was that! The record was never released….”
So, nine tracks on a 7 1/2 IPS, half-track reel-to-reel Dolby tape are all which are known to remain from those fascinating recording sessions (see the image of the hopelessly deteriorated tape, which is posted here).
Unfortunately, the sound quality isn’t very good. Nearly five decades sitting in a garage will do that to reel-to-reel tape. But it’s still good enough to recognize there’s a really great song here. Have a listen to Van’s unreleased “Down to Earth,’ an original composition with the singer in top form backed by some powerful horns.
Here’s yet another track buried deep in the vault that inexplicably has never been re-done nor re-recorded, let alone released to the public. Well, at least not until — now.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 26
“Golden Autumn Day” (1999)
The album Back on Top is aptly named. It’s one of Van’s best albums.
The 10-track collection (plus two more bonus tracks on the re-issue) features an album cover showing Van silhouetted in black shadow with his back to the camera. Musically speaking, this isn’t so much a nostalgic return to his rhythm and blues-driven roots, so much as a glorious reinterpretation of all-too-familiar themes updated with brand new concepts. It’s almost as though Van took his 25 years as a singer-songwriter and decided to use early passions as a foundation. Here, the organ and harmonica — which appear so often on Van vinyl — aren’t the typical instrumental accompaniments. Instead, they seem intent on complementing a much richer and more complex orchestration. The song which is the subject of today’s lesson exemplifies this melding of influences and combination of styles.
“Golden Autumn Day” isn’t the best track on the album by any stretch. Alas, picking a favorite is made all the more difficult by a final finished product that doesn’t seem rushed (unlike so many of Van’s album releases, before and since). Another viable explanation — perhaps Van didn’t get bored this time around and storm out of the sessions as he’s been prone to do on many projects. The extra time spent in the studio crafting this album to near perfection pays off handsomely. The work was praised lavishly by Rolling Stone magazine, which labeled the collection as “one Monet and nine Normal Rockwells” — the Monet referring to “When the Leaves Come Falling Down,” described as “a masterpiece.”
There’s a lot happening here musically in “Golden Autumn Day,” which runs for nearly 7 full minutes. Van’s gruff but quirky lyrical realism. The unmistakable heart and soul of the Hammond organ. A full string orchestra, the volume cranked up slowly until a final grand crescendo. Van taking the lead on harmonica. Bluesy piano. A catchy upbeat chorus with a message of hope and aspiration.
Pay particular attention to the instrumental interlude at the 3-minute mark, where Van inserts his own harmonica followed by Pee Wee Ellis on sax. The fade out in the final minute with full strings is also a brilliant touch. The piece plays out like the closing credits to a movie.
Back on Top hit the top of the charts in Scandanavia when it was released in 1999. It peaked at #11 in the U.K. Although the album spawned three singles that charted and enjoyed modest airplay, it didn’t fare nearly as well in the U.S.
Back on Top is a suburb album from start to finish. It’s fitting that Van ends the 1990s, and indeed the century, not falling from the mountaintop but reaching for higher musical peaks, and hitting them once again.
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 27
“On Hyndford Street” (1991)
“On Hyndford Street” isn’t a song so much as a sermon.
It’s a fond remembrance of childhood memories, a homily to a simpler time.
Van was born in a red-bricked terrace house with a blank facade, utterly ordinary and identical to all the other working-class homes on Hyndford Street in east Belfast. The only thing that now distinguishes the building — which still stands — is a small brass plaque beside the front door, announcing that George Ivan Morrison was born here on August 31, 1945.
His father worked in the Belfast shipyards. He brought home records from America regularly, which virtually no one else in Ireland had heard at the time. Van grew up an abundant musical diet of Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Lead Belly, and others far away but with a kindred spirit.
Van has written affectionately of Belfast (Northern Ireland) and much of the Irish Republic. Song titles including “Cypress Avenue” and “Orangefield” reflect both the then and now. One need not be Irish nor even be familiar with these places. We all have our own “Hyndford Street.”
The original song includes Van’s spoken lyrics which overlap extended background chords from an electric organ. It sounds like a spoken prayer.
“On Hyndford Street” was included on the astounding 21-track double album released in 1991, Hymns to the Silence. The album received mixed reviews from critics and was even criticized for being “too long.” It did not do well commercially. In retrospect, though, it’s a definitive personal statement connecting with listeners of all ages and backgrounds, with multiple timeless compositions.
I’ve posted a live rendition of “On Hyndford Street” from a 2012 recording in Belfast. The audience, intimately familiar with these places and references, react to every vocal syncopation with wild enthusiasm. Van, best described as an erratic, dispassionate performer these days, connects to his Belfast brethren in a manner that really brings the song to life.
Have a listen.
“Take me back, take me way, way, way back….”
VAN MORRISON MASTERCLASS: DAY 28
“Celtic New Year” (2005)
Congratulations — and, Happy New Year!
We’re now four weeks into the class.
Rarely will we repeat songs and topics, but since today is special, I think one item is well worth re-visiting.
“Celtic New Year” was released on Van’s 2005 album Magic Time. This is 100 percent trademark Van all the way, with the gruff accented vocals serenading a special time and place. Catchy riffs punctuate lavish melodic orchestration. And, as Van so often does in song — he starts off slowly and builds to a glorious crescendo.
This is a live version of Van’s original composition (which isn’t as well-known outside Ireland). One need not be Irish to reflect and enjoy.
I’m a huge fan of the creation of music. I like to know how music is made. I want to learn what inspired an artist and know why strings or a trumpet or some other instrument was added to the mix.
This live version of the song, recorded during Van’s BBC sessions broadcast in the U.K. in 2008 is a beautiful rendition with ornate instrumentation. It’s almost an anthem. Listen in particular to the Piccolo flute come in as part of a duet. I also love Van’s guitar work here, plucking notes which accentuate the folksy narrative. And the strings are truly magical.
“Magic Time,” indeed!