The Van Morrison MasterClass: Week 8
“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 8
DAY 50: Van Morrison at Montreux
“Smoke on the Water” (Deep Purple — 1971)
“Smoke on the Water” begins with one of the greatest guitar riffs in rock history.
“Dun, dun, dun
dun, dun, dun, dun-dun….”
Then the rat-tat-tat of drum cymbals come in, accompanied by a thundering bassline, which then launches into vocals that, until this writing project, I’d never really contemplated before.
I doubt many rock fans reading this who likely know every note of the song are quite as familiar with the backstory which led to the unusual lyrical narrative. Word-for-word, the true story is told of what happened during a deadly fire that broke out during a rock concert inside the casino ballroom at Montreux, Switzerland.
In December 1971 British rockers Deep Purple arrived on the shores of Lake Geneva to record a new album. The entertainment complex was part of the Montreux Casino…..
“We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn’t have much time.”
The night before recording was set to begin, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were playing at the casino. The scene got really wild. Someone in the crowd fired a flare gun into the stage cover, which suddenly burst into flames. The scene turned into chaos.
“Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground.”
Deep Purple watched the bizarre scene from their hotel room. The entire casino complex and entertainment venue burned to the ground. Frank Zappa’s band also lost all their equipment in the fire. Witnessing the surreal experience, “Smoke on the Water” somehow materialized out of the ashes and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Smoke on the water,
a fire in the sky.”
The entire casino and entertainment complex was gutted by fire. Deep Purple’s recording plans were ruined. With no other option, they set up a makeshift recording studio in the hotel and laid down most of the tracks for what would become their most successful album, titled Machine Head.
The impromptu song wasn’t expected to do much and was a reluctant addition to the album. It became Deep Purple’s biggest hit. Today, “Smoke on the Water” is honored by a sculpture along the shores of Lake Geneva.
Which now brings us to….Van Morrison.
Van made his first of 18 appearances (so far) at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974. He’s performed at Montreux more times than anyone, other than anyone other than B.B. King and Herbie Hancock. Van’s first of two live shows the first year ignited a bit of controversy when he screamed to someone in the audience to “fuck off.” Often cantankerous while onstage and obtuse to the extremes of disbelief, the debut performance is nonetheless, widely regarded as one of the best of his career.
During this week’s installments, I’ll be writing more about Van’s live concerts at Montreux, because there have been so many and such great music came from that stage. But first, it’s fun to know the real backstory of the special venue where all this takes place and its indelible impact on our rock n’ roll memories.
This song and soundtrack (posted here) have a great video collage of the 1971 fire.
DAY 51: “Street Choir” (1974 — Live Performance at Montreux)
After the Montreux Casino on Lake Geneva in Switzerland burned to the ground in 1971, the famed international jazz festival was in limbo. There were questions about where to hold the performances. There were also fears that unruly crowds might recreate the incident that inspired “Smoke on the Water.” But the real crux was rapidly changing musical tastes at the time, and a debate as to whether rock n’ roll, R&B, and other non-jazz acts belonged on the festival bill.
The Montreux Jazz Festival would quickly grow into the second largest of its kind in the world, thanks to the pragmatic decision made by organizers to broaden the invitee list to big names, some not commonly associated with jazz.
Fortunately for Van Morrison, his jazz credentials were solidly in the bag by 1974. He’d recorded numerous jazz-infused tracks, had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz standards, released a transcendent smash hit album, Moondance that enjoyed rare crossover appeal with both rock and jazz audiences. And — Van played the saxophone!
Van and his hastily assembled band played two shows at Montreux in their first year. It’s inconceivable as to why these live shows turned out so well. The best explanation is superior musicianship, led by drummer Dallas Taylor, sitting in with Van for the first time. Taylor was the drummer for Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Van’s debut at Montreux is a juxtaposition of awkwardness and near-total withdrawal from rock superstardom which oddly metastasizes into par excellence. The four musicians onstage had barely even rehearsed together, yet they cover an entire set of Van’s original recordings, with no notes nor sheet music. It’s astounding to watch. Van is clearly in a period of transition here as a live performer. He’s abandoned all pretense of rock expectation, showing up on stage looking like a math tutor. There’s even a false start at the beginning of the track.
“Street Choir” was the only song played that night known to the audience. Fans expecting to hear “the hits” were upset, leading to an infamous incident that shall be discussed later. “Street Choir” was originally written as an acapella song, intended as the title track on an entirely non-instrumental collection. In fact, the entire album was to be acapella, which would have been quite a stretch to pull off. But Van abandoned the concept after a few sessions.
“Street Choir” ended up as the title track for the album His Band and the Street Choir, released in 1970 as a rapid follow-up to the success of Moondance. Van, already bitter towards the music industry, was infuriated when Warner Bros, the record company decided to rename his album without his consent. It was originally titled “Virgo’s Fool.”
Van’s gradual slide into loathsome anger at the music industry, which he often took out on his audiences, was well underway. Nonetheless, as the Montreux shows from the 1970s reveal, it’s all about the music.
Put on the headphones, crank up the volume, and watch brilliance on display.
DAY 52: “Moondance” (1970)
“It’s a fantabulous night for a romance…”
So writes and sings Van Morrison in “Moondance,” one of the most successful songs of his storied career, which was released 50 years ago this week.
Since then, “Moondance” has been covered by hundreds of different artists, of all genres — from harpists to sax players, from jazz and blues bands to the winner of last year’s Mongolia’s Got Talent. Really. They’re covering Van in Ulaanbaatar.
The title track on Van’s widely-acclaimed 1970 album, this song was considered an oddity that didn’t fit the norms of the day. The style of music certainly didn’t comply with conventional rock playlists. Indeed, rock-oriented radio stations were reluctant to play the track because it didn’t sound like a hit song with the usual instrumentation common to the most popular artists of the era.
Instead, “Moondance” was entirely jazz-infused, with its idiosyncratic timing, a standup bass, and Van’s offbeat vocals, punctuated with a swinging piano laced with brass. Fortunately, album-oriented radio was coming into its own as a force, and the staggering quality of content spread throughout both sides of the Moondance album became immensely popular, thus becoming Van’s first bona fide collection of solo hit recordings. “Crazy Love” covered by Ray Charles became a hit. “Into the Mystic” is also off the Moondance album. It is certainly among the most whole of “album rock” collections ever made, the sprawling sum of its parts greater than any single.
Indifferent to commercial tastes and appeal, Moondance did enjoy tremendous critical and popular success as an album but the actual track wasn’t released as a single until seven years later. It charted in 1977, making it one of the most unusual recordings in pop music history both for its duel release dates and staying power as an enduring record now five decades later. “Moondance” is the song Van has played live more times than any other original recording.
The song’s origins go back to a jam session in 1967 when Van was rehearsing in Boston. His pick-up band was covering an old show tune called “Lazy Afternoon.” Van began to improvise from that standard and quickly came up with the melody that would later become “Moondance.” He had no idea at the time it would reignite his career and establish him as one of pop music’s most creative yet unpredictable artists.
Here’s the original recording from the 1970 album.
As Van would say, it’s “Fantabulous.”
DAY 53: “Troubadours” (1979)
“Troubadours” is a gorgeous track off of Van Morrison’s 11th studio album, Into the Music. It’s a celebration of life and love laden with neo-classic instrumentation. This song and most of the album’s collection foretells the looming horizon of Van’s songwriting and music, which increasingly will become more introspective and spiritual into the 1980s.
When Van took the stage at the 1980 Monteux Jazz Festival in Switzerland just months after the album’s release, most in the audience were hearing “Troubadours” for the first time. Indeed, most of his band, which includes the great Pee Wee Ellis on sax, is performing live with Van in a spontaneous, unrehearsed setting. Throughout this stage performance, Van can be seen displaying uncertainty as to entry points and occasionally barks out chord progressions to his fellow bandmates. A few of his sidemen had been part of the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, which backed Van’s albums and live shows in the early 70s (they disbanded in 1973). So, they were somewhat familiar with Van’s free-flowing format.
Also, note Van smoking a cigarette during the song.
We’re covering the “Montreux” period because it merits a closer and more thorough retrospective. His 1974 and 1980 performances were among the best of his career, though he’s far more subtle, even distant, from the typical rock routine. This too foretells Van’s evolution into a deeper more withdrawn state, which certainly alienated some audiences far more accustomed to flashy rock acts and the pizzaz of the disco period. Van is about as un-cool as he can be in this show, which (I believe) allows us to focus on the marvelous song structure and vocalization. One can almost see the patriarch of David Byrne (Stop Making Sense) in this clip. Byrne later noted Van’s influence on his own (anti-) style and faux act.
Van has played Montreux on 18 different occasions during the course of his storied career, mostly concentrating on jazz compositions, which is third in line to a huge list of greats which includes Herbie Hancock (27 times) and B.B. King (21 times). After the Montreux Casino burned down in 1971, the venue shifted around. However, this stage hosted many of the greatest performers and show in jazz history.
Rarely is Van ever upstaged, but “Troubadours” allows his band to flourish. Especially the piccolo trumpet. The song really takes off at about the 2:00 mark.
DAY 54: “Twilight Zone” (1974)
Van Morrison’s first live appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival was by all accounts a disaster.
Fresh off the stunning It’s Too Late To Stop Now USA-UK tour (which resulted in an ambitious three-disc collection many critics label as one of the greatest live albums on rock history), Van arrived at Lake Geneva in the Summer of ’74 with a scaled-back band and much more mellow sound. The Caledonia Soul Orchestra’s lush brass and string section were replaced with a simple keyboardist and bassist. Even Dallas Taylor, from Crosby, Stills, and Nash on drums couldn’t keep up with the crowd’s restless expectations.
Making the sour mood even more acrimonious, Van opted to perform unfamiliar material almost exclusively from the Veedon Fleece sessions, along with tracks which were supposed to be on the (later shelved) follow-up album. He skipped all his well-known hits, an omission that didn’t go over well with the audience. Moreover, Van didn’t seem to put in the same vibrant energy his fans were used to seeing. In Van’s defense, he presumed the more laid back “jazz festival” setting would be far more open to new music and sounds, but then quickly discovered he couldn’t escape the shadow of his own towering reputation as a dynamic live performer.
At Montreux, on a makeshift stage, Van played an esoteric setlist, which also included his sax solo and a harmonica solo. Then, for reasons unknown, Van took longer than expected to return for an encore, up to 10 minutes by one witness account. In the awkward void, an intoxicated fan jumped up on the stage and began yelling into the microphone, commanding Van to play his “hits.” Finally, Van arrived from backstage to do a rare encore. As the fan was escorted out of the venue, Van — in characteristic disdain of criticism that would mark his career as a live performer — barked out, “Hey, I’m going to play what I like, and if you don’t like it — go fuck yourself!” Almost as though to rub it in, Van and his three bandmates then closed with the instrumental “Harmonica Boogie,” and with that, the concert was over.
Sometimes referred to as the Go Fuck Yourself show (which became the title of the bootleg album before the actual live concert was released years later), the show opens with “Twilight Zone.” Note the awkwardness and lack of production in the clip. This is actually the first time (and song) Van had played with this band, which appears in other segments of the series because they are quite good. “Twilight Zone” is highly unusual as Van, typically a bass-baritone vocal sings in falsetto during most of the song. Van’s intentionally-mistuned guitar also adds a raw folksy feel to the sound.
“Twilight Zone” was an outtake from the Veedon Fleece album, which bombed both commercially and critically. This disappointment led to a three-year hiatus from touring. The song was later included as a bonus track on the re-issue 30 years later, which is now acclaimed as a collection ahead of its time, much in the vein of Astral Weeks. The studio outtake also made its way onto The Philosopher’s Stone, a 1998 compilation album.
DAY 55: “I Will Be There” (1972)
Van Morrison was heavily influenced by the classics, especially by what’s been called the “great American songbook of standards.” Musical icons included the Isley Brothers, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and many others. Morrison even cited country acts, including Hank Williams and the Carter Family as part of the foundation for his vast musical canopy.
Long before doing retro-recordings became chic, Van wrote a new song that was clearly inspired by Duke Ellington’s jazz standard from the year 1940, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” I haven’t seen anyone make the direct comparison; but to me, this original composition credited to Van is nearly identical in rhythm, melody, and timing. Van’s songwriting repertoire was overflowing with material by the time the Saint Dominic’s Preview album was released. He didn’t need to copy other artists. However, this track has the trademark Ellington sound. It’s unmistakable. Perhaps even something from the subconscious.
During the early 70s, Van was in the midst of his flirtation with many different styles of music. But he always seemed most comfortable within the R&B groove. This outlier of a recording, mostly forgotten now, fits in nicely with the other material on the album.
Saint Dominic’s Preview became Van’s most successful US-album all the way up until 2008’s Keep It Simple. Remarkably, it contains only 7 songs, but each has resonated with critics and fans alike long after the release date.
“I Will Be There” deserves more love and attention, and we’re delivering that today.
DAY 56: “Wild Honey” (1980)
Van Morrison was once asked to name his favorite album. He gave a surprising answer. From his vast pantheon of dozens of studio albums and live recordings, he chose the somewhat obscure and esoteric 1980 release Common One.
Indeed, Common One is one of those magical brews that takes time to process and savor. This is not a party album. It’s the disc you play loud while driving a long trip, or sipping a goblet of Port alone, reflecting. Its five disjoined tracks do not make for a concept album. There’s no prevailing theme throughout. Two of the songs are more than 10 minutes long.
“Wild Honey” doesn’t fit either, as a song or track on the album. It seems oddly misnamed. There’s nothing wild about it. It’s the slow dance song that comes on 15 minutes before closing time.
Two things stand out from this long-forgotten track — Van’s phrasing and the unique sense of timing, which seems slightly off, but fits perfectly, infused with the STAX-like horns.
Van closed out the 1970s with yet another album that was eviscerated by critics, but which today is looked upon with far more curiosity and appreciation.
Usually indifferent to criticism and openly hostile to commercial metrics, Van was greatly disappointed with the response to this album. Common One marks a demarcation in time, a transition from one era and sound to the next. This album buried Van as one of the decade’s greatest R&B soul singers and most gifted songwriters, but it stands today as a glorious tombstone and a proud exclamation point on a definitive chapter of the VM canon.
“Can’t you feel my heart beating, just for you….”