“Blowin’ Your Mind” is the missing link between Van Morrison’s rambunctious days with Them, having hits with “Here Comes The Night” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” and the other worldliness of “Astral Weeks”. It’s tempting to try to pigeon hole his music by ascribing different musical styles to different times of his early life, but the reality is more complex than that.
Them released just two albums when Van Morrison was their leader, “The Angry Young Them” and “Them Again”. Both of these are very good albums and the second of them contains a couple of songs (a cover of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Hey Girl”) that are much more mellow than the fast paced, in-your-face R’n’B of most of the rest of the songs. There are several other songs that Them recorded at the time, which were only released when Van Morrison achieved fame in later years, that show a different, more melodic, soulful and gentle side to Van Morrison than the surly tearaway that screams out covers of “Route 66” or “I Got A Woman” as well as the well known punk anthem “Gloria”.
Having toured the USA with Them, famously sharing the bill with The Doors at The Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, Them dissolved and Van Morrison went back to live with his parents in Belfast. He was twenty two years old. He wanted to return to California and, when Bert Berns called to offer him a chance to record in New York, he agreed to go, figuring that New York was closer to California than Belfast was. Bert Berns had written “Under The Boardwalk”, “Twist And Shout” and “Here Comes The Night”. He had produced Them when they recorded “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Here Comes The Night” and he had just started a new record label called Bang. He wanted Van Morrison to record four singles so, over the course of three days, he recorded eight songs and then returned to Belfast. The first of these singles was “Brown Eyed Girl” which was a Top Ten hit in the USA but didn’t chart in the UK. I had never heard it until Peter found a second hand copy of “Blowin’ Your Mind” for me in 1970.
It was a complete surprise to Van Morrison when a friend of his told him that he had just got his album because he had assumed that the eight songs would be four singles. I have to say that I find this part of the story a bit hard to swallow because one of the eight songs he recorded was a ten minute stream of consciousness song about visiting a dying girlfriend in a hospital called “T.B. Sheets”. I would have bought it but I can’t imagine that Tony Blackburn would have played it on his breakfast show. It doesn’t sound like a single to me, I must say.
Van Morrison went back to the USA to tour and to make some more recordings, some of which were released on an album released in 1970 called “The Best Of Van Morrison” which, confusingly, has the same name as a compilation released in 1990. The earlier version consists of five songs from “Blowin’ Your Mind” and five other songs. Another album consisting of tracks from these sessions emerged in 1973 called “T.B. Sheets”, consisting of early versions of “Beside You” and “Madame George” (from “Astral Weeks”) along with six previously released songs. In 1991 another compilation of these songs was released called “The Bang Masters” and in 2017 “The Authorized Bang Collection” was released, this time with interesting liner notes by Van Morrison. He recorded a total of seventeen songs and they have been packaged into at least five different releases. It’s no wonder that so many of Van Morrison’s songs complain about “the music business”.
Bert Berns died of a heart attack in 1967 and his widow expected that Van Morrison would fulfill his contract and record thirty new songs. He did this – each song was about a minute long and contains songs such as “Twist And Shake”, “Shake And Roll”, “Stomp And Scream” and “Jump And Thump” – all variations on “Twist And Shout”. Another theme consists of songs with a variation of “Blowin’ Your Mind”, including “Blowin’ Your Nose” and “Nose In Your Blow”. They’re nonsense but they are songs sung by one of rock’s greatest ever singers. If anyone ever thought they could listen to Van Morrison sing anything, even singing in the shower, they should try listening to “Ring Worm”. “I can see by the look on your face that you’ve got ringworm. I’m very sorry but I have to tell you that you’ve got ringworm. It’s a very common disease. Actually, you’re very lucky to have ringworm ’cause you may have had somethin’ else.“
Side One of “Blowin’ Your Mind” is sensational. It starts with “Brown Eyed Girl” which started life as “Brown Skinned Girl” – a song about an inter racial relationship – but Van Morrison changed the lyrics at the last minute. There are two versions of the song which can be identified by the lyrics in the last verse. My (mono) copy of “Blowin’ Your Mind” contains the radio friendly lyrics “laughin’ and a’runnin’ hey hey behind the stadium with you” instead of the more widely available “making love in the stadium with you“. It’s a classic but Van Morrison reckons he has never received any royalties from it. He has also said that he thinks it’s an okay song but he’s got about 300 songs that are better. I can’t work out whether, in this TV performance, he is deliberately miming badly or whether it’s just that the synchronisation is poor.
“He Ain’t Give You None” follows and it’s brilliant. At one point, he sings “stay on the mood, stay on the mood” and it’s the sombre mood that holds the song together over five minutes. It’s slow and claustrophobic with a pronounced organ part played by Paul Griffin who has played with everyone, including John Lennon, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. The song seems to be about a love affair that took place in some of the seedier parts of London (Curzon Street, Notting Hill Gate). His voice is remarkable – well, everybody knows that, but on this song he is wild and raw. In that way, this song is a perfect bridge between “Here Comes The Night” and “Astral Weeks” – although the instrumentation is electric, the free form lyrical improvisation towards the end of the song is not that far removed from the “in another world” part at the end of the title track of his next album.
I’ve already mentioned “T.B. Sheets”. It’s nearly ten minutes long and is like nothing that Van Morrison or anyone else has ever recorded. The singer is visiting his girlfriend, Julie, who is dying of tuberculosis in a hospital bed. He starts by telling her that it’s not natural for her to cry all night. The organ, harmonica and stabbing guitar create an atmosphere that is harsh and unsympathetic, which describes the uncomfortable way that the singer feels visiting a dying girl. Some of the words are from Julie as she tells him to open the window and let her breathe at which point Van Morrison makes a repeated gasping noise. Later she begs him for a drink of water but he says he has to go but it’s okay because another friend, John, is coming to visit her later with a bottle of wine; but he has to go. Clearly, he can’t bear it. The guitar from Hugh McCracken is piercing and stabbing. He has also played with everybody including Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Towards the end of the song the singer offers to turn the radio on for Julie and tells her it’s all okay. The intensity with which he sings this part is like few other Van Morrison songs. He later laughs nervously but acknowledges that her illness is not funny. Legend has it that after recording this song, Van Morrison was so upset that he cancelled the rest of the day’s sessions. On the other hand, “The Authorized Bang Collection” includes a Take 2 of the song but I suppose that might have been recorded the next day.
Side Two of this album is good. Of course it is – it has five songs sung by Van Morrison so how could it not be? “Spanish Rose” and “Ro Ro Rosey” are Van Morrison originals and were clearly earmarked as singles. “Midnight Special” is a traditional folk song previously recorded by everybody including Huddie Ledbetter (Ledbelly). “Who Drove The Red Sports Car” is more of a spoken piece and reminisces about a happier time that he spent with two girls. It started when he drove the car to a field in the Summer and lay upon the grass. It started raining and he was wearing “nothing but a shirt and a pair of pants” and Maggie invited him to come on in out the rain. The missing link between “Brown Eyed Girl” and “And It Stoned Me” from “Moondance”?
I’ve been sent a message today from Peter telling me to never ever listen to Van Morrison’s latest release called “No More Lockdown” as it will destroy my love of him. Why would I when there are so many fantastic songs from the forty one studio albums and six live albums that he has released over the last fifty three years?