Legacy/Sony Music 88875150542
When I was 12, two friends and I decided to start a rock’n’roll band. I had a cheap Woolworth guitar, my friend Brad played his brother’s set of Rogers drums, and his neighbor Kevin played a powder-blue Sekova hollow-body guitar. We didn’t have a bass player. The first song we learned had three chords. At that moment we joined kids around the world who, in the mid-to-late ’60s, were filling their parents’ basements and garages with the sound of “Gloria.”
In the US, most of us heard “Gloria” when the Shadows of Knight, a Chicago band, had a hit with it in late 1965. The song was Van Morrison’s and he had recorded it the year before with his band, Them. Although Them was thought of in the US as a British Invasion band, it was Irish. Like its British counterparts, the Rolling Stones and the Animals, Them was steeped in American blues and R&B, and was as tough and uncompromising in its dedication to its roots as those bands.
Morrison recorded 45 tracks with Them, and the three-disc The Complete Them 1964-1967 includes all of them and more. Disc 3 gathers together 24 demos, alternate takes, and live performances. Morrison’s extensive liner notes recount the band’s history, including personnel changes (“The lineup was unstable,” Morrison writes), and help sort out the session players brought in for some tracks.
From the beginning, Morrison had an impressive command of blues and rock’n’roll singing. He found “Don’t Start Crying Now” on a Slim Harpo LP, but delivers it with Howlin’ Wolf’s roughhouse energy. His take on Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light,” and Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Times Getting Tougher Than Tough” showed more maturity and natural blues feeling than similar performances by his contemporaries, including Eric Burdon.
Morrison was already writing great songs in 1964, but even songs his producers wrote were clearly tailored for him. No one else, though, was writing tunes like “One Two Brown Eyes,” the second track Them recorded in 1964. The guitarist for the session, possibly Jimmy Page, used a penknife instead of a bottleneck for slide, and the effect, coupled with Morrison’s snarling vocal, is truly menacing.
“Mystic Eyes” employs a Bo Diddley beat and a strong harp solo from Morrison, but the vocal and lyrics already hint at the direction Morrison would take in his later work. The unusual lyrics show a talent for vivid imagery and subtle poetry. Morrison could also transform and take ownership of songs well established by other singers, such as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Richard Cory” or Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The latter, which Beck later sampled on “Jack-Ass” from Odelay, is at least as strong as Dylan’s original.
Completists will be pleased to have the demos and alternate takes on disc 3, but the live tracks from two performances on the BBC’s Saturday Club in 1965 are the real bonus. The band is solid both times, but on their second appearance, in June, they are tough and fierce. “One More Time” is an early example of how Morrison can take a song he has already recorded and pull even more out of it.
The mastering on The Complete Them 1964-1967 is a model for how reissues should be handled. The two-disc The Story of Them featuring Van Morrison (1997) sounds over-compressed and harsh by comparison, and the sound on the new set also improves on the bland American CD release of Them from 1988 and the UK release of Them Again on CD from 1989. The soundstage on the stereo recordings is deeper and the instruments are given more room. The full glory of the recordings, with their spring-loaded reverb and the vibrato of guitar amps cranked to “10,” is easier to hear now.
The Complete Them 1964-1967 is certainly essential for Morrison fans, both for the music and for his liner notes. Anyone interested in the first wave of rock’n’roll in the ’60s from the UK will also want to own it. It contains everything from blues-rock to garage punk, all of it delivered with conviction and talent. Morrison’s genius started with these songs.
. . . Joseph Taylor