Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The earliest Van Morrison “album” I own is Bang Masters (Epic/Legacy 1991). The reason I placed “album” in quotes is that these recordings were never designed to be a proper album. By 1967 Van had left his R&B group Them, and at 21 years old he found himself at a crossroads. He recorded numerous songs for Bert Berns’ Bang Records label in New York, including the immediate hit single “Brown Eyed Girl.” Some of these were released in the ‘70s as the Blowin’ Your Mind and T.B. Sheets LPs, but Bang Masters was the first time all of the recordings were included on one collection.
Until I revisited this CD, my recollection was that these were recordings of then-current Brill Building songs using sessions musicians, so I was surprised to discover that all but one of the songs were written by Van himself (although I was right about the session musicians). On first listen, it sounded like half the songs were covers, as they didn’t have many elements of what I’ve come to expect from Van Morrison. However, after several listens in the last week, many of the songs grew on me, and I could hear his style in a somewhat embryonic state.
One of the things I love about Van’s music is his ability to vamp, either lyrically or musically. He can take a phrase and repeat it, altering it slightly as the song progresses. He’ll coax new feeling or meaning from the lyric, or let the power of the groove build slowly. In years to come he could take this to extremes of 10+ minutes. The song “The Back Room” is an early indication of this approach, and it’s the first song that really stood out for me as I began my reappraisal of his catalog.
Story songs like “T.B. Sheets” and “Madame George” (which he re-recorded for Astral Weeks, to be re-appraised later) are also standouts for me, although it’s clear that the musicians took the party atmosphere a little too literally on the latter. Even the seemingly tossed-off songs like “Ro Ro Rosey” and “Chick-A-Boom” grew on me with each listen. Van was clearly not in charge of these sessions, but he wasn’t quietly following everything the producer said (as most artists at the time were inclined to do) either. Supposedly these songs were all recorded in a few sessions over a short period of time, but it sounds to me as though the last batch of songs (starting with “T.B. Sheets”) were done later than the initial recordings. Van seems to be leading the musicians as opposed to playing along with them.
And then there’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” a song played so much on the radio, at your local bar, at nearly every sporting event, party, wedding, and possibly funeral. Many people probably claim to hate the song, mostly because it’s “overplayed.” I’ve always thought that a great song continues to be a great song, even if you get tired of hearing it. And to be honest, I’ve gotten tired of hearing it and often change the station when it comes on. But in the context of this collection of songs, it’s the anchor, the lynchpin, the perfect introduction to a young artist who’s just finding his way. Most artists would kill for just one song this good, yet this was only the beginning for Van Morrison. It would’ve been a hit no matter when it was released.
I originally planned this post as an overview of Bang Masters and the 4 albums released after Astral Weeks, but I found there was a lot on my mind regarding Bang Masters and decided to present this separately. It’s clear to me now that these recordings were an important part of his development as an artist, as opposed to my initial perception of them as mostly unimportant artifacts of his early career.
My next step is the cluster of albums he released between 1970 & 1972, which I’ve been checking out for the last week. I will post on these shortly, as I’m already enjoying the albums immediately succeeding them.