VAN MORRISON: An Alternative Top 10

At the end of August 2012, another website posted a short article where they looked at their ten favourite Van Morrison songs. A predictable list, heavily weighted towards the glory years, the extremely well known ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Into The Mystic’, ‘Caravan’ and ‘Domino’ were present and correct.

While there is no denying the ten chosen tracks were all worthy of praise in their almost timeless brilliance, the chart was culled from tunes present on most ‘Best Of’ compilations. With ‘Days Like This’ the only post 70s track chosen, there was scope for such a chart to be far more interesting.

All charts are purely based upon opinion with no hard and fast rules, but there are only so many times you can look at a Van Morrison top ten dominated by “the usual suspects”.

At Real Gone, we have decided to visit Van Morisson’s vast back catalogue and present a few of those more overlooked gems. Hopefully, this will inspire the casual “best of” listener to dig a little deeper, while reminding the more serious fan of a few tunes they may not have spun in a while.

From 1974’s ‘Veedon Fleece’, this tune is nothing short of incredible. Van paints a lyrical picture of his home country, backed with a rattling acoustic guitar, sparse piano and penny whistle. Pulled together by strings and a superb bassline, Morrison’s emotive vocal is, perhaps, a career best.

Morrison’s 1977 record ‘A Period of Transition’ had troubled beginnings. His first attempt at recording a follow up to ‘Veedon Fleece’ resulted in an almost complete album’s worth of material getting shelved at the last minute. By the time of ‘Transition’s eventual release, the public had not heard any new material from Van for three years and were largely disappointed with the album he presented. Seven songs clocking in at thirty-four minutes seemed like meagre pickings, while Morrison’s folk and jazz roots got sidelined in favour of something funkier. ‘Flamingos Fly’ originally dates as far back as 1973 and was first recorded at the 1975 sessions in a much slower rendition, before finding a home here. It is probably this album’s most “traditionally Van” song. Despite the album being critically slammed, this tune’s greatness did not go un-noticed – it was covered by Sammy Hagar on his solo debut shortly afterwards. [Most of those shelved 1975 sessions were released on ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ in 1998. Many fans still feel they are superior to the album Morrison eventually delivered.]

Aside from Elton John, most artists who achieved greatness in the 1970s floundered in the 80s, as the new technology and reliance on synths watered down their sound. Neil Young and Bob Dylan released some atrocious albums during the decade, and Van did not escape guilt free. 1982’s ‘Beautiful Vision’ is a largely lightweight, forgettable affair, but even that album has a gem within. A flop single, ‘Cleaning Windows’ is fun and jaunty (two words rarely associated with Morrison), given extra kudos by the appearance of the unmistakable Mark Knopfler on guitar.

After releasing a string of superb albums in the 1970s, Morrison entered the new decade with an album which was unlikely to grab anyone on first listen. 1980’s ‘Common One’ is best described as slight, since five of its six (mostly lengthy) numbers wander along with a mix of jazz and Celtic ambience. Often drenched in choirs, saxophones and 80s synths, ‘Common One’ is best experienced as a late night record. This opening number sets the tone for the bulk of the album and is a particular highlight. The version below – recorded at Montreux shortly after the album’s release – is a little more upfront than the recorded version, but the mood isn’t too different overall.

Drawing from Van’s R&B roots with Them, ‘Really Don’t Know’ is a straight-up blues number featuring The Man in particularly great voice, against a particularly wonderful piano line. Recorded during the sessions for ‘Moondance’ in 1969, this brilliant track remained on the shelf until it appeared on ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ – a collection of rare and unreleased cuts – in 1998.

Morrison’s 1983 outing ‘Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’ is seen by many as a career low, due to its over-reliance of instrumental material and its Simply Red-esque 80s synths. Despite this, it includes a couple of absolutely unmissable cuts in ‘The Street Only Knew Your Name’ and this song. ‘Irish Heartbeat’ is easy listening, yes, but it has a simple melody and heartfelt quality that ultimately makes it endearing. Even on his off days, it seems that Van can deliver the goods when singing about Ireland… The below rendition, recorded with The Chieftans (released in 1988) reinforces the gentle Celtic melodies, but is otherwise very similar to Morrison’s original 1983 take. [Read a review of ‘Inarticulate Speech’ here.]

Recorded in 1975 but unreleased, this song was re-recorded and included on 1983’s ‘Inarticulate Speech’. Even in its eighties guise – all backing vocals and shiny synths – it’s a superb number, so it’s somewhat of a mystery why Van chose to leave it unreleased so long. It should have been allowed pride of place much earlier on 1977’s ‘Period of Transition’. The 1975 take (as heard below, and again featured on ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’), is naturally superior. While the brassy backing vocals can feel a touch overdone, the bass and piano arrangements combined with Morisson’s commanding lead performance makes this a classic.

Like his contemporaries, Van rattled through the 80s not always achieving best results, but his talent blossomed again during the 90s as technology took a backseat and 60s/70s artists were allowed to make older sounding records once again. Morrison’s later albums from the 1990’s – ‘Days Like This’, ‘The Healing Game’ and ‘Back On Top’ – are all essential listening, but it is perhaps the last of these which is the strongest. ‘Back On Top’ brims with confidence, Morisson fully knowing he’s in top musical shape. Giving plenty of space to Morrison’s harmonica work, ‘High Summer’ mixes R&B chops and a powerful vocal with excellent results.

Just as the 90s reinvigorated Van’s sound, in the early/mid 2000’s his work took a more late night feel, as he experimented with jazz and softer blues works. 2003’s ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’ – his first album for the re-launched Blue Note label – is, perhaps, his best from this period. ‘Goldfish Bowl’ captures a solid, live in the studio vibe with upright bass and organ. It’s hard to imagine longtime fans not finding this absolutely joyous.

1972’s ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’ is widely accepted to be a classic album. While compilations always include ‘Jackie Wilson Said’, each of its other tracks are also first rate. The album’s centrepiece ‘Listen To The Lion’ is a sprawling, experimental folksy number, celebrating the strength of human spirit. Musically, its shift between a definite structure and improvised vocal scats present the essence of what has made Morisson’s career so enduring over the decades.

September 2012