The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 7
“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 7
DAY 43 — “Beside You” (1967-68)
You are about to hear two astonishing pieces of music. They are both identical songs, with two completely different arrangments.
The first track is taken from the 1967 Bang Records recording outtakes in New York City in 1967. Later dubbed The Bang Masters, about 40 songs flooded the underground bootleg market and still remain popular with Van Morrison aficionados.
The second recording is the far more polished version — but still only the first take of the revised song that appeared on Van’s much-celebrated mystical musical masterpiece, Astral Weeks. The words and melody are the same, but everything else about the track is very different from Van’s earlier raw demo. What makes this track fascinating is listening to the studio engineers talking and giving instruction at the start of the first take. Then, wham — out of nowhere Van comes in with a gorgeous guitar melody.
Van was very new to New York at the time. He’d barely been in America for a week before it was time for his studio sessions for the new record label created by Bert Burns, who died less than a year later. Also, along with Berns, Bang Records was co-founded by the legendary Ahmet Ertegun, who would sign and record many of the most popular acts in the history of rock music.
The pulsating guitar accompanying Van’s shrilling vocals is masterful. But the track is totally transformed into something far more cerebral on the finished album recording.
This is a really fun comparison to enjoy. Each arrangement in its own way is a standout. In particular, pay close attention to the organ on the unreleased Bang Records bootleg. My only complaint is, I wish they’d crank it up! Yes, this does sound like Dylan.
Revised version, more polished, with studio instructions (First Take):
DAY 44 — “Little Village” (2003)
Here’s another mostly undiscovered masterpiece. What a gorgeous song.
“Little Village” begins with Van Morrison strumming his acoustic guitar. The melody is gradually engulfed by a saxophone. Then finally, we’re uplifted by the strings and flutes of an orchestra. It’s one of Van’s best original songs of the last 20 years.
The track appeared towards the end of the 2003 album release, What’s Wrong With This Picture? That album was nominated for a Grammy. However, none of the 13 original recordings became hits. Most music fans, even the most loyal “Vanatics” would be hard-pressed to name the most popular song from the album.
What’s Wrong With This Picture? was intended to reflect the jazz vibe of New Orleans. However, Westland Studios in Dublin was selected for the recording sessions. Van hired a backup band made entirely of Irish and English musicians.
The accompaniment of rollicking pianos, racy horns, lush strings, woodwinds, and the effervescent heartbeat of the Hammon organ are consistent throughout the collection. What stands out on “Little Village” is the plucking of strings later in the track mixed with flutes which amplifies a staccato-like melody carried by Van’s soulful vocals and lyrics.
The original studio recording is a pristine arrangement. Van obviously likes the song because he’s performed it dozens of times since in live performances, even to the present day. One reason perhaps Van favors the arrangement is that he finds the basic structure liberating.
If you wither around YouTube and listen to various live recordings of “Little Village,” no two sound the same. This is the source of both praise and criticism. For example, listen to a live recording made in Barcelona in 2005. Van changes up the tempo and brings in a clarinet. Some Van fans might also recognize the very strong musical resemblance of certain parts of this live recording with the so-called “Caledonia Soul Music” sessions recorded circa 1970. The mandoline riffs undoubtedly played here by Van, sound identical to the outtakes of that very obscure unreleased bootleg. I find it astonishing that Van recreates the precise guitar riffs from 35 years earlier onstage in this song. The section I’m writing about occurs about 2:45 into the (unauthorized) Barcelona recording. This entire 7 minute-arrangement is well worth a listen, including some brassy sax work towards the end (the live recording is posted second, after the studio track).
While the original track remains a standout, the alternative versions can be equally as fun to explore and discuss, as these two examples will demonstrate.
See if you agree with the beauty and power of “Little Village.”
Live (unauthorized) recording — Barcelona, 2005:
DAY 45 — “Never Get Out of These Blues Alive” (1972) — with John Lee Hooker
Van Morrison collaborated with legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker on countless recordings over three decades. Most of these blues standards, mixed in with some original compositions, went unreleased. Many are only available on bootlegs. However, some sessions are available on YouTube.
Their long friendship began when Van launched his solo career and recorded one of Hooker’s classics. They played on each other’s records many times. Virtually all the recordings were performed spontaneously. Two masters at their craft meeting in the studio and creating magic. It’s difficult to say how much influence Hooker had on Van and his recording style. Hooker, a genius at improvisation, always recorded and performed *in the moment.* Van quickly came to adopt this freewheeling philosophy, that if the session didn’t get the song down in the first take or two, then it “wasn’t working.” The vaults of Van’s rejects overflow with raw, half-written, would-be gold. All the tunes that “didn’t work” could fill several albums. (*see footnote)
Hooker recorded a new album in late 1971 that didn’t chart at the time but has since become regarded as a classic. Van joined Hooker at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco and they laid down what would become the album’s title track. It’s clear this jam session is entirely unrehearsed. JLH and VM can be heard prompting each other throughout the 10-minute back and forth duo.
Some things don’t need to be explained. Just listen.
* Someday perhaps, these dormant recordings will be polished and eventually released. It would be great if Van had a Let it Be musical epiphany — where old tracks that were left vaulted in the studio were given to a Phil Spector-like producer, who cleaned up the Beatles January 1969 studio tapes and pressed the collection into what became the group’s final album.
DAY 46 — “Someone Like You” (1987)
The word *masterpiece* is overused in art and music. But “Someone Like You” is an almost perfect song. It’s a masterpiece.
From the very first lyric….
I’ve been searchin’ a long time
For someone exactly like you.
…..we become immersed in song.
“Someone Like You” remains one of Van Morrison’s most endearing compositions and most popular songs, even today, more than three decades after its release. “Someone Like You” is one of the most played and requested songs at weddings and anniversary celebrations. It’s easy to understand why from both the gloriously uplifting melody and the lyrics which promise, “the best is yet to come.”
The track appeared on Van’s 1987 album Poetic Champions Compose. The album received mixed reviews from critics and sold poorly. It peaked at #90 on the album charts in the U.S. “Someone Like You” was also released as a single and did manage to reach #28 on the charts. However, at the height of MTV’s influence and the popularity of music videos with younger and hipper performers, Van’s simple love ballad wasn’t contemporary enough for the times. It was more of a throwback. Nonetheless, as most of the dreadful music from the mid-1980s has since disappeared and been forgotten, Van’s ode to love has become a timeless classic that’s likely to endure for many more years, and even decades to come.
“Someone Like You” includes a simple instrumental arrangement. There are no flashy guitar solos or sax interludes. The stars are Van’s vocals backed with a piano and string section. Critics’ reviews wrote Van’s gruff voice and off-key lyrics don’t quite fit the conventional notion of a romantic ballad. They’re certainly right. That said, the odd imperfection of this mismatched mature baritone gives added authenticity and even surprise to the joy of finding love in the song.
This composition was included in the soundtrack in several hit movies. This list includes Only the Lonely (1991); Prelude to a Kiss (1992); French Kiss (1995); One Fine Day (1996); Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001); and American Sniper (2014). There was even a movie made using the title song, “Someone Like You” (2001).
Van has written, composed, sung, and performed a vast array of musical styles over 55 years as an artist. He’s rarely written short tracks suitable for radio airplay or gone along with the record company marketing and promotion gigs (refusing to make music videos, for instance). This song stands as a notable exception. Van almost seems determined to prove here that he can write a crowd pleaser when he really wants to. Thing is, he’s not much interested in satisfying others so much as pursuing what he wants to do — a life’s mantra which from a fan’s point of view can be both frustrating and exhilarating.
DAY 47 — “I’ll Take Care of You” (1993)
Van Morrison is at his soulful best on Too Long in Exile, a 15-track collection of jazz-and blues-inspired recordings released in 1993. It was an odd album title given that Van wasn’t exactly “in exile,” certainly not from songwriting and performing. Indeed, this was the follow-up project to a successful double album, Hymns to the Silence, which pre-dated a two-year hiatus until this album release. For fans, the wait was well worth it.
Every track on Too Long in Exile sounds timeless. It was the first of a staggering six-albums/in a four-year string with his new Polydor label, arguably his most creative output since the early 1970s. The album rocketed to #4 in the UK and reached #26 in the US, despite producing no hit singles. That reveals the overall quality of the material.
“I’ll Take Care of You” is dominated by Van’s vocals and harmonica. However, this is not an original song. It was written by Brook Benton and recorded by Bobby Bland in 1959, and covered by Van, who has often dipped into the retro catalog of R&B classics. Later, Elvis Costello, Joe Bonamassa, and even Miley Cyrus recorded this song. Van’s version is a standout.
DAY 48 — “You Gotta’ Make It Through the World” (1978)
Van Morrison’s longest layoff from the recording studio lasted nearly three years, from 1975 through 1978. He did record enough material for at least two albums within that time frame, but he wasn’t pleased with the outcome. Songs from those sessions were not released and are only available as outtakes from bootlegs. So, Van’s long-awaited “comeback” album was greatly anticipated but ended up as a critical and commercial disappointment. While much of Van’s music has enjoyed a well-deserved renaissance, this album is often overlooked and forgotten.
A Period of Transition was intended as a definitive statement. “Gloria,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and “Moondance” were in the past. 1978 was a new era.
The mid- to late-70s was the height of the disco period. Singer-songwriters disappeared from the charts. Synthesizers and bellbottoms were in. Van’s blues and jazz roots, not to mention his polyester pants and pudgy look, marked him as a relic.
A Period of Transition illustrates this period of confusion and uncertain musical footing. Van’s talent as a songwriter was proven and obvious. But, could he change with the times and be relevant heading into a new decade among a new generation of fans who looked at Van as nostalgia?
This album didn’t answer that question, though it was a noble attempt. In fact, it raised even more questions about Van still being worthy as a voice in music. Wavelength, the best-selling album which came soon after, helped Van get back on track with his fans. Nonetheless, the recordings don’t express a statement, but rather a search. Even iconic songwriters go through ups and downs.
“You Gotta’ Make It Through the World” is from the panned album, which was entirely produced by Dr. John. The track has a catchy 70s Superfly sound, a mix of R&B and funk. It’s a glorious failure, but an interesting revelation into an artist always willing to push boundaries and test new sounds. Dr. John later said there was a real spiritual quality to the song, which is about one thing — survival.
Note: This is a condensed version about half the length of the original album recording.
DAY 49 — “Van Morrison Under Review — Part 2” (Documentary)
Here’s a short documentary clip that covers Van’s career between 1966-68. Later chapters of this film will be attached as this series continues.
Miss a previous week? No problem! Here’s all the prior installments: