Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
As I approached the five studio albums (and one live album) that Van Morrison released between 1973 and 1979…the years immediately following his run of commercial and artistic success which concluded with 1972’s Saint Dominic’s Preview…I was unsure of what to expect. I had listened to most of these albums perhaps two or three times each, and it had been years since the last time I played them, so in many ways these were new releases to me. I took the CDs off the shelf, looked at the track listings and only recognized a few song titles. Then I spent several days listening to each of them, multiple times, and I’m happy to report that I uncovered some new favorites. I believe there were a couple of minor hits on these albums, but on the surface this would seem like an unsuccessful and unimportant period in Van’s career. I can tell that was certainly not the case.
On Hard Nose The Highway (1973), Van starts with the slow-building “Snow In San Anselmo,” an interesting combination of slow ballad with a middle-eastern sounding vocal line in the verses, mixed with choral vocals and a few fast-paced jazz interludes. The vocals during the verses remind me of Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup Of Coffee,” which wouldn’t be released for another 3 years. Other notable tracks are the minor hit “Warm Love,” the mellow epic “Autumn Song,” the traditional Irish song “Purple Heather” (I love the piano solo section by Jef Labes…that’s Jef with one “f”), and most surprisingly “Being Green,” which was originally performed by Kermit The Frog. I’m pretty certain this was Van’s first and only Muppets cover version.
[Van Morrison – “Warm Love”]
This album, as well as the follow-up 2-record live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now… (1974), featured the short-lived Caledonia Soul Orchestra. The combination of a versatile rhythm section with large horn & string sections made for an exciting collection of live recordings. Van has always been known as a temperamental live performer, but apparently the 3-month tour that culminated in this live album was a rousing success, and you can hear it on every track. Double live albums were all the rage throughout the ‘70s, and this one deserves to be ranked among the best of them. It’s too bad this “orchestra” didn’t stay together longer, but Van needed to follow his muse in a different direction. He did, however, continue to play with many of these musicians in the future.
Veedon Fleece (1974) was the first album Van released after his divorce from Janet “Planet,” who had inspired many of the happiest songs on his previous albums. What I didn’t realize until doing some research is that he then went on holiday to Ireland with his new fiancée and wrote most of the songs included here. I have to say that the album has a tentative feel. There’s nothing terribly distinctive about the music, although the flute is featured more prominently than in the past. There’s some great rolling piano on “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River,” the would-be title track where Van is “looking for the Veedon Fleece.” “Cul De Sac” is a barroom blues that reminds me of the ‘60s soul classic “The Dark End Of The Street.” Overall it’s a good album, but it never really stuck with me.
I was pleasantly surprised by A Period Of Transition (1977). A short album, clocking in at around 34 minutes, I had always assumed this was a collection of outtakes or throwaway tracks. Oh how wrong I was. Produced by the great Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John), and featuring his piano throughout, this might be my favorite re-discovery so far. It’s without a doubt Van’s most joyous-sounding album, featuring a great combination of gospel, jazz, New Orleans funk, and outstanding songwriting.
The opening track, “You Gotta Make It Through The World,” has a slow funky groove that’s reminiscent of Bill Withers. “Eternal Kansas City” is Van’s tribute to some of the jazz greats who inspired him, like Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. The lyrics are simple, but the music has a great groove (after the initial section featuring a choir of female voices). “Flamingos Fly” is the happiest song on the album, and would get me out of a bad mood any day. Lyle Lovett would mine the same musical territory 15 years later, a connection I hadn’t noticed before.
[Van Morrison – “Flamingos Fly”]
I never gave much thought to the album cover before: numerous photos of Van in different poses, taken at the same session. Upon looking more closely, the first 14 photos show him as I’ve seen him before: moody, serious, a little surly, and with an occasional “what are you looking at?” stare. However, in the 15th & final photo he’s actually smiling. I’m not sure if this was intentional, but I imagine the photographer, Ken McGowan, finally decided to play the album in his studio when this photo was snapped, as Van’s joy is clearly captured here.
On Wavelength (1978), what struck me most was the production. It’s the first modern-sounding album of his career, with synth textures similar to what many then-current new wave & progressive rock bands were using. This makes sense to me now, as the keyboard/synthesizer player was Peter Bardens from the progressive rock band Camel, a band I really enjoy. I was surprised to see that Van was the only producer credited here, wrongly assuming the record company forced him to use some hotshot producer to create a hit record. I can see some fans being turned off by the glossier sound, but it’s not slick and several excellent songs shine through.
“Kingdom Hall” is a great opener, Van greeting the listener with “So glad to see you, so glad you’re here.” The rest of the song seems to say that things are similar, but they’re not the same, and he hopes the fans will stick with him. “Checkin’ It Out” is a good song here that would be great live. I can hear him extending it, building to numerous crescendos. The intro to “Wavelength” is like a Marvin Gaye track from the ‘70s, but gives way to a mid-‘70s Fleetwood Mac sound. There’s a great synth line in the chorus. It could’ve been a big hit if it had been released a few years earlier. This is an album I will revisit again, although the production sticks out more than many of the songs.
I decided to close out this segment of his catalog with Into The Music (1979), as Van said goodbye to the ‘70s. This album has a much more overt spiritual feel than previous releases, even religious at times, but it’s not serious-sounding or preachy. The 1-2 punch of “Bright Side Of The Road” and “Full Force Gale” is as strong an album opener as anything he had done to this point, and the third track, “Stepping Out Queen,” with its funky horn pattern & great violin solo, is nearly as good.
The beautiful “Rolling Hills” is a Celtic spiritual that sounds like an old traditional song, but was written by Van. “Angeliou” is a highlight, a gorgeous ballad. “And The Healing Has Begun” features a spoken-word section, something Van would come back to in the future. It’s one of the things I enjoyed on some of his later albums, which I can’t wait to revisit soon. The penultimate track, “It’s All In The Game,” doesn’t appear to be a religious song, but I wonder if the oft-repeated “him” should really be “Him”? This track segues into album-closer “You Know What They’re Writing About,” which includes a piano pattern that’s very similar to what Roy Bittan played on Bruce Springsteen’s slower recordings like “Something In The Night.” Obviously Van was listening to his contemporaries, and adding new flavors to his music.
This album seemed to signal a rebirth for Van, as his songwriting, singing & production are all top-notch. He must have been looking forward to the 1980’s, and now I too look forward to seeing what he did next…in the decade of Pac-Man, Miami Vice, Rubik’s Cube and MTV. I just started listening to 1980’s Common One, and I’ll be checking in again soon with my thoughts on that and the 4-5 albums that followed.