Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

VAN MORRISON Part 4 – Closing Out The ’70s

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.

10 comments on “VAN MORRISON Part 4 – Closing Out The ’70s

  1. Brian
    April 1, 2011

    “Into the Music” is the only album I have of the above mentioned. I love love love “Bright Side of the Road”- one of my top ten Van songs. Great write-up Rich!


    • KamerTunesBlog
      April 1, 2011

      Thanks Brian. That is a great song. Of this batch, I would highly recommend checking out A Period Of Transition. Biggest surprise so far.


  2. Alan Cohen
    April 2, 2011

    So your “influence” is that I’ve started to listen to Van Morrison “again”, albeit in my own way – via You Tube. Anyway, you mentioned a Bittan influence from Springsteen and helped me make a connection that is common rock knowledge but I never made, and that is Van’s influence on Springsteen. From the live performances that are revivalist, euphoric and “spiritual”, to the heavy use of syncopation and dynamics in the music, and the mix of songs; straight out joyous danceable accessible tunes alternating with introspective, slow and extended ones. There are probably many more parallels.

    Also, I think that if you tweak the intro of “Domino”, you get the intro of “Rosalita”. And I hear the last melodic part of “Caravan”, tweaked again, throughout Thunder Road. But then, “Kingdom Hall”, harkens to “Rosalita” and that post dates it, so as you said, that Van was listening to Springsteen too, as they became contemporaries.

    I haven’t heard Bein’ Green off the album, but I heard a live version of his that totally turns it inside out and infuses it with soul as only Van can do. Also, there is a hilarious clip of him on American Bandstand doing “Brown Eyed Girl”. He must have been coerced, because he looks so out of place and is so uncomfortable with the lip syncing. Dick Clark attempts to interview him, but sees that he is getting nowhere so he wisely asks Van to do another song.

    Lastly, and this is common knowledge too, and I’m not naming any particular version of his live bands, but the playing is always “so” tight. There’s not an ounce of fat off the music. I don’t think that bands have to be tight to necessarily be good, but when they are, it’s a musical marvel, and that’s as much of a joy as listening to the vocalizations of the never smiling, squat, pudgy, and balding master.


    • KamerTunesBlog
      April 2, 2011

      Nice call on the “Domino”/”Rosalita” connection, which I had not previously picked up on, but I can now hear in my head. You & I have always enjoyed playing “spot-the- influence,” whether it pre- or post-dates the song in question. Very little these days can be considered original, but it always seemed like music from 30-40 years ago had more originality. Although I still believe that to be the case, it’s fun to see where artists of that time were cross-pollinating with each other, yet still creating a unique sound.

      I will have to seek out that clip of Van on American Bandstand. Sounds unintentionally hilarious.

      As for the “squat, pudgy and balding” comment, I haven’t yet reached that point in his career here. I believe he was still in good fighting shape at the dawn of the ’80s. And as for “never smiling,” just check out that bottom-right photo of him on “A Period Of Transition.” I meant to include that in my post but somehow left it out. Looks like I may have to edit that soon.


    • Alan Cohen
      April 3, 2011

      Okay, here’s another one. If you take the horn phrase right before “There’s no need for argument” on Domino, which is the same that closes out the song, and slow it down and tweak it just a bit, you get the second horn phrase in the intro for “10th Avenue Freeze Out” – the one that defines the song and occurs right before the lyric.
      Back to the band. While the Stax/Volt influence is obviously there, I think a big nod (and Van has acknowledged this in interviews) is to James Brown, in terms of many things – groove, attack, dynamics, tightness and playing off the leader. While there are differences, it seems at times that all that’s missing is “take me to the bridge” and “Maceo”.
      There is a You Tube of a live version of “Moondance” with Van, Santana, George Benson, Dr. John, Tom Scott and Etta James that you might take a shining to.


      • KamerTunesBlog
        April 3, 2011

        Hi Alan. I’m deep into Van’s 80’s albums, so I’ve made a note to go back & check the “Domino”/”10th Avenue Freeze-Out” connection, as well as the YouTube clip of “Moondance” when I have a chance.

        I like the James Brown comparison, but I think that only applies to portions of Van’s catalog, most notably the live album It’s Too Late To Stop Now…, where he and his band (er, orchestra) are a well-oiled machine. However, both Van’s & James Brown’s voices often play the role of another instrument punctuating the musical backdrop, so in that aspect they’re quite similar. I haven’t really discussed Van’s voice in my previous posts, but as his 80’s music became a little more subdued, I expect to be focusing more on his vocals.

        Thanks for your comments. I’m enjoying this back-and-forth.


  3. Grant
    April 22, 2011

    Regarding the album “A Period Of Transition”, I suggest you revisit the track “Cold wind in August” perhaps after listening to this live version:

    I really feel this is one of his greatest songs, and a real underrated gem!


    • KamerTunesBlog
      April 28, 2011

      Hi Grant. Thanks for that video. Van looked & sounded so good. I agree that “Cold Wind In August” is a wonderful song. I may not have pointed out the song in my post about A Period Of Transition, but it was a definite standout track. In fact, I think that album was my favorite re-discovery.


  4. Pingback: KamerTunesBlog Year In Review 2011 | KamerTunesBlog

  5. Pingback: Forty Year Friday – VAN MORRISON “A PERIOD OF TRANSITION” | KamerTunesBlog

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