This post isn’t really about Van Morrison. I do write a little about his music towards the end but the album that I’m going to briefly mention isn’t one of the best selling albums of the 1990’s, also called “The Best Of Van Morrison”, but is a relatively obscure album, released against Van Morrison’s wishes in 1970. The 1990 album is a good compilation spanning 25 years of his career but the 1970 version was recorded over a short period of time in 1967 – I like the album but it definitely is not the “best” of Van Morrison. Back to that later.
I bought the new album by Big Thief a few days ago. It’s brilliant and more of that tomorrow. What’s on my mind now, though, is how to listen to a long album. All the 20 songs fit on one CD which lasts nearly 80 minutes. Now, that’s too much new music for me to listen to in one sitting so I decided to buy the album as a double record, or vinyl, as I think we are supposed to say these days. It was about £26 as opposed to £10 for the CD but I’m not drinking beer at the moment, so I convinced myself that I could use the money I’ve saved by not sipping delicious pints of Harvey’s to splash out on an extravagance. Having four sides of music, each lasting about 20 minutes, has made it very much easier to ease my way into the album. I listened to Side A on Friday, Side B on Saturday, Side C yesterday and Side D today. It’s a great way to break down a big album into manageable chunks. It takes me back to the old days, pre 1990, when I only ever bought records and not CD’s.
John bought be a vinyl copy of “Spirit of Eden” by Talk Talk in 2020, for which I was extremely grateful. Looking at that album, and the Big Thief album, I’m blown away by how beautiful a modern record is. The cover is large, the artwork is beautiful and it’s possible to read the lyric booklet without using a magnifying glass. The actual record is really heavy in complete contrast to the “Dynaflex” records issued by RCA in the early 1970s. These records were very pliable and you could almost bend them in half without breaking them or making them unplayable. I have some David Bowie and Lou Reed albums made with Dynaflex. They used less vinyl and were, allegedly, less liable to warping. They were not, however, lovely objects and I was aghast when a friend of mine demonstrated their flexibility to me.
I went into a record shop in Rupert Street in 1975 and bought “Songs Of Love And Hate” by Leonard Cohen for 50p. The reason that it was so cheap was that it was being sold without an inner sleeve. It played okay – well, it was a vinyl record so obviously it had scratches and surface noise but for 50p, it was fine. Again, it wasn’t lovely and for reasons I don’t really understand, I still store it without an inner sleeve. It was the same for “Number Five” by The Steve Miller Band. No inner sleeve, so no information about the tracks, the musicians, the producer, the studio – all the essential information needed for a proper listening experience.
The purist would argue that the only thing that matters is the sounds that I hear. It doesn’t matter whether or not the music was recorded in 1968 or 2022, it doesn’t matter whether or not the lead guitar was played by John Lennon or George Harrison in “Get Back”, it doesn’t matter who wrote the song and it certainly doesn’t matter that a modern day vinyl album is a heavyweight object of beauty. Luckily, I’m not a purist so all of those things do matter to me.
Which brings me back to “The Best Of Van Morrison”. When I was at Royal Holloway College, there was a great record shop in Egham called “Recordwise”, owned by someone called Adam who loaned out albums before selling them as new. He also sold albums without covers and when I saw that an album called “The Best Of Van Morrison” was being sold for 75p in 1973, I snapped it up, even without its cover. At that time, I had “Blowin’ Your Mind” and I was slightly disappointed to see that there was a lot of overlap between the two albums. Bert Berns had released “Blowin’ Your Mind” on Bang Records in 1967 without Van Morrison’s approval. Warner Bros bought out Morrison’s Bang contract in 1968 for $20000, in order that he could record “Astral Weeks“. However, Van Morrison’s contract obliged him to record 36 original songs within a year to Bert Berns’ music publishing company. He recorded them in one session on an out-of-tune guitar, with lyrics about subjects including ringworm, sandwiches and danish pastries. After Bert Berns’ death at the end of 1967, Bang Records continued to release other material that Van Morrison had recorded in the same sessions as “Blowin’ Your Mind”. A further album, recycling this material, called “T.B. Sheets” was released in 1973. Finally, all the material recorded for Bang were gathered together in a compilation called “The Authorised Bang Collection”, released in 2017.
“The Best Of Van Morrison” starts with “Brown Eyed Girl” which is, according to Wikipedia, the most downloaded song of the 1960’s. I suppose that might be true. According to Spotify, it’s been listened to 636,111,192 times.* Five of the tracks previously appeared on “Blowin’ Your Mind” but “Joe Harper Saturday Morning”, “It’s All Right”, “Send Your Mind”, “The Smile You Smile” and “The Back Room” were previously unissued.
“Joe Harper Saturday Morning” appears to be a song about Van Morrison’s childhood as he walked around a rainy Belfast, encountering a number of people, most of whom tell him to go and see Joe Harper. Whoever he is. My over-fertile imagination reads all sorts of things into lyrics such as “I shined my glory all around. Did not disguise what I did. Tried to keep it underground but they said – ‘Go see Joe Harper, Saturday morning, kid'” The best thing about this song is the brilliant vocal performance from Van Morrison.
“The Back Room” is another song of reminiscence about how Van Morrison used to hang out with a group of people not doing much in a room. Presumably at the back of a house. His friend Charlie tells him “Man, you gotta go out there and do something for yourself” and presumably, the rest is history. Charlie, you sorted out Van’s life for him when he was at a low ebb. It’s thanks to you that he went to America and recorded these great songs. Humanity owes you a great debt. I’m rambling and fantasising. It’s a remarkable song because most of the lyrics are spoken, or, more accurately, shouted over a pastiche of Sixties electric guitar and keyboards. I love it.
Listening to the new album by Big Thief on headphones this morning, I became a late convert to the idea that vinyl sound is better than CD sound. The Spiritualized album is set for release in six weeks. I’ve ordered the CD (£13). The vinyl is £18. What shall I do?
*During the course of writing this post, “Brown Eyed Girl” has been listened to 321,008 times. It’s now up to 636,432,200.