Van Morrison’s Fifty-Year-Old War on the Music Business

It takes a special kind of hate to write 31 songs for the sole purpose of torching your record label.

Van Morrison has always hated the record industry.

His catalogue, from a long and storied career – which has included stints with Polydor, Virgin, Blue Note, EMI, RCA, Caroline, Parrot, and long runs with Warner Brothers and Mercury – is sprinkled with songs complaining about the music business – “Drumshambo Hustle,” “Big Time Operators,” “They Sold Me Out” et al. – and his perturbation is always delightfully acidic. In the classic “Why Must I Always Explain,” from the perhaps confusingly-titled album “Hymns to the Silence,” he puts it this way:

Well I get up in the morning and I get my brief. I go out and stare at the world in complete disbelief….. There are hypocrites and parasites and people that drain. Tell me why (“the fuck!” he would insert here in his ‘90’s concert) must I always explain?

Is this a frustration that grew slowly in Mr. Morrison over time, and began to boil over late in his career? Not at all.

In 1967, having left his British Invasion via Belfast combo Them – much beloved purveyors of “G-L-O-R-I-A” and “Mystic Eyes” among many others – Van was bumming around the East Coast looking to launch a solo career. Circumstances led him to Bang! Records in New York – the label whose name was an acronym of its principals’ first names – Them producer Bert Berns, and Atlantic Records legends Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun and Gerald (Jerry) Wexler – whose story is told in detail in a Berns biography by Joel Selvin (“Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues”), and a biopic that got some attention last year (“Bang! The Bert Berns Story”). The output from this semi-ill-fated encounter was one wedding-DJ standard now nearing the proverbial inch of its life (“Brown-Eyed Girl”) and its accompanying LP (“Blowin’ Your Mind”), an interesting if uneven snapshot of the artist at his crossroads.

Van supposedly found out about the album’s existence from a friend who had recently purchased it at his local record store. Morrison was deeply nonplussed (of its cover, he is quoted as saying “I saw it and I almost threw up”) and would embark on a prolonged effort to extricate himself from Bang! Records, and the obligatory bad contract he had signed with them. Berns would tragically expire just months after the album’s release, and his widow would become the target of Morrison’s ire.

Morrison was, we now know, on the brink of a major artistic breakthrough with the album “Astral Weeks.” Early versions of “Beside You” and “Madame George” from that widely heralded classic were recorded during the Bang! sessions. Warner Brothers was stepping forward to put the artist in the proper setting to flourish in a marketplace that was increasingly sympathetic to singer-songwriters. However, one contractual obligation stood in the way of Van’s departure from Bang: he was on the hook to deliver a number of songs to Web IV Music, Berns’ music publishing company. Ilene Berns, Bert’s widow, saw to it that Morrison would not be able to perform live or record until the obligation was fulfilled.

A total of 31 songs – comprising roughly 35 minutes of performance — were eventually submitted.

How hard do these songs troll Berns, the music business, late 60’s pop culture, and, ultimately, Van himself?

Very. Let us count the ways….

Van Morrison is immediately knives out for “Twist & Shout”

Bert Berns wrote “Twist & Shout.” If that was his life’s sole accomplishment, his place in rock and roll history would be secure. That Bert was infuriated by Phil Spector’s awful, fussy, first run at it with the long-forgotten Top Notes – and emphatically reclaimed its Cubano muscle behind an otherworldly vocal performance by the Isley Brothers – just makes the story, and the achievement, even better. Van Morrison, for his part, appears to be underwhelmed. Either that, or possibly – just speculating here – he was put off by inquiries from Berns as to whether Van could write another “Twist & Shout.” He takes a run at that on his contractual obligation song submission to Web IV, with an indifferently strummed, flatly sung ditty he calls “Twist & Shake.” That is followed by a similarly lackadaisical “Shake & Roll.” And “Stomp & Scream.” And “Scream & Holler.” And who can ever remember the dismal “Jump & Thump”? Just like that, five songs off the obligation.

Then he comes for “Hang On Sloopy”

In an effort to put his own spin on the McCoys “Hang On Sloopy,” another AM radio staple credited to (stolen by?) Berns, Morrison delivers the miserably sung “Hang On Groovy.” “Hey Joe” also gets the treatment, on “Shake It Mable” (“Hey Mable where you going to Shake it? I’m going down to shake it down Front and Broadway baby”), as does “La Bamba” (“La Mambo”).

Van Morrison trolls Van Morrison

The centerpiece of “Blowin’ Your Mind” is a nearly ten minute epic called “TB Sheets,” detailing a grim visit to a young woman on her death bed as the ravages of tuberculosis take their toll. Its sequel is an equally grim dirge called…. “Ring Worm.” Morrison does acknowledge that “Ring Worm” is somewhat less ravaging than TB in the inane lyrics: “Actually you’re very lucky to have ring worm. Cuz you may have actually had….something else.” He then moans, very pitifully.

Even Leadbelly gets run through

Morrison had included a version of the Leadbelly standard “Midnight Special” on “Blowin’ Your Mind,” so it stood to reason a Leadbelly-inspired blues number might move some units. Not that “Midnight Special” was a hit, of course. “Drivin’ Wheel,” for its part, fulfills a number of goals apparently set by Morrison for this song cycle: (1) it makes no sense; (2) it has terrible rhymes (“Drivin’ wheel, Go to jail/You look so pale, when you do the drivin’ wheel”) and (3) it contains the phrase “Sock it to me, baby.” Speaking of which…

Bert Berns’ studio banter is mocked mercilessly

Many of these songs seem to channel Bert Berns, and not in a good way. In “Thirty Two,” for example, it appears that Morrison is recounting the making of “Brown Eyed Girl.” In a poorly executed New York accent, he stutters, over a halting guitar strum. “We’ll get three guitars…no, no, we’ll get 4 guitars…and we’ll get Herbie Lovelle to play drums…and we’ll do the sha-la-la bit…we’ll get 16 guitars…” Any idea that this constitutes an actual working Van Morrison composition is laughable. “All the Bits” and “Savoy Hollywood” (another shout out to Herbie Lovelle!) traffic in similar gibberish, and “Want A Danish” ratchets the absurdity up another notch. It recounts, over a dissonant blues strum, a conversation between producer and artist grappling with the eternal question “Danish or sandwich?” Later, “Chickee Coo” settles into 100% gibberish.

Van Morrison announces the set’s terribleness midway through

In what amounts to an admission that he has essentially created a brutal endurance test, Van expresses his astonishment that anyone is still listening as of the thirteenth song, “Freaky If You Made It This Far.” History does not tell us whether Ilene Berns “made it this far” before turning the tape off.

Van Morrison appears to troll Bert Berns in the afterlife

Bert Berns died of heart failure on December 30th, 1967, not long after the release of “Blowin’ Your Mind” (memorialized on the Morrison contractual obligations recordings in the songs “Blowin’ Your Nose” and “Nose In Your Blow”). Although it is unclear what year the half-hour session that yielded the contractual obligation recordings occurred, it is safe to say the man’s corpse could barely have been cold. But Van was already ruminating on the implications of Berns’ death as it related to the terms and conditions of his Bang contract. “I’m waiting for my royalty check to come,” he sings plaintively, “…it’s about a year overdue…I guess it’s coming from the big royalty check in the sky.” Later, around the end of the George song cycle (four songs about (ahem) “George,” including “Hold On, George” which bears a dispiriting resemblance to “Hang On Groovy” – “Here Comes Dumb George,” and “Dum Dum George”), Van Morrison sings “Goodbye George,” to a chord progression which, unlike the torpid G-C-D of the other songs, harkens to a song that would become the first song and title track of Morrison’s Warner Brothers debut: “Astral Weeks.” Goodbye indeed.

And the cherry on top

The utterly listless, pointless, and unlistenable “Wobble and Ball.” It is literally freaky if you make it this far.

 

At this point, you would be forgiven for considering, out of morbid curiosity, what kind of dank thrift store dungeon one would have to descend into in hopes of excavating this artifact. Surprisingly, the search is not that difficult, as the Berns estate has been licensing these recordings for years to any schmo willing to pony up the requisite $6 fee – which also explains “Brown Eyed Girl’’s presence on every dimestore “Super Summer Sixties” compilation on earth. But there is news on this front, too. There is now an official release of these tapes called “Van Morrison: The Authorized Bang Collection.” The contractual obligations songs were amusingly described by one national rock magazine in a news blurb thusly: “The third disc – dubbed the Contractual Obligation Session, as it closed Morrison’s tenure with the label – contains 31 short, stripped-down and less-refined songs that were oft-bootlegged over the years but presented here in its best sound quality to date.” Somewhere Van is very slowly shaking his head in disbelief. We, the fans, meanwhile, can now hear every recorded nuance of one of the most cold-blooded kiss-offs in rock and roll history, and luxuriate in the pristine sonics of a remastered “Want A Danish.”

Postscript: For many, the highlight of the contractual obligation records is “You Say France, and I’ll Whistle” – another number seemingly inspired by the, er, creative process in the studio, Morrison (or more likely “George”) trying to decide who should say France, and who should whistle, though it is clear he himself has no whistling ability whatsoever. This bit would resurface in the incredible performance of “Cyprus Avenue” that would give Morrison’s live album “It’s Too Late To Stop Now” its title. Your correspondent has had no luck identifying where the bit originated, what it means, and why it survived. Any reader insights would be most welcome. Thank you.

Pat Daly is the former proprietor of Empire Records in Chicago and editor-in-chief of its house organ Empire Monthly. He has written for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, the Santa Monica Mirror, Mixed Blessings of Wormtown, and the Observer. He resides in Chicago, Illinois.

3 thoughts on “Van Morrison’s Fifty-Year-Old War on the Music Business

  • April 30, 2018 at 3:05 pm
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    I thought “It’s Too Late to Stop Now” got its title from the last line of “Into the Mystic.”

    Reply
    • April 30, 2018 at 4:49 pm
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      Bryan, thanks, that is indeed where the line came from – but wouldn’t you agree that the album is called that because of Van shouting it out at the very end of the show/album during Cyprus Avenue?

      Reply
  • April 30, 2018 at 4:37 pm
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    This makes me think I was wrong about Van Morrison. Hearing Brown Eyed Girl so many times ruined him, despite Astral Weeks. But this epic gesture of pre punk rock sticking it to the man makes me believe there’s a lot more than meets the ear.

    Reply

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