Van Morrison: The Authorized Bang Collection

Van Morrison
The Authorized Bang Collection
(Sony Legacy)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One can only imagine the startled, stunned and perhaps horrified looks on teenaged girls faces five decades ago when, after spinning the opening Top Ten 1967 radio smash “Brown Eyed Girl” on Van Morrison’s first post-Them album, their ears were rubbed in the tough slow blues of “He Ain’t Give You None,” where Van testifies about giving his baby a dose of his jellyroll “in the backstreet.” That was followed by the harrowing, nearly 10-minute vamp on “T.B. Sheets” (sample lyrics; “said open up the window, let me breathe … I can almost smell your T.B. sheets on your sick bed”) closing out the record’s first side and pretty much guaranteeing that most of the audience that flocked to his hit single wouldn’t make it to the appropriately titled Blowin’ Your Mind’s side two. 

So began the lengthy and prolific solo career of one of music’s most creative, idiosyncratic, diverse and ornery artists; a guy who, as early as these 1967 sides, took the “his-way-or-the-highway” attitude. With the evergreen “Brown Eyed Girl” Morrison’s brief, erratic and ultimately contentious association with Bert Berns’ Bang label resulted in the singer’s highest charting, arguably least characteristic song, albeit one that still (occasionally) finds its way into Van’s sets 50 years later. The 17 songs he recorded for the label, over two sessions in 1967 (the second of which occurred after “Brown Eyed Girl” clicked) have been reissued dozens of times over the decades, usually in shoddy, schlocky compilations found in discount bins. Finally Morrison, spurred by his recent association with Sony, has approved all this music — including rushed snippets he was forced to deliver after Berns’ late-1967 passing — to be compiled in this classy, three disc package for which he also contributed liner notes.

Platter one, consisting of all 17 selections Morrison delivered to the label, returns to the original mixes, some in mono, and sounds better than all previous iterations of these songs. Musically, Van was finding his conceptual way. These performances capture his evolution away from the rocking garage blues of his previous band Them, into the more supple, soulful, improvised, introspective Astral Weeks approach he gravitated to less than a year later. Two tunes, “Madame George” and “Beside You,” ended up on that classic, albeit in radically rearranged, ie:far jazzier, form. There remains a sense that Van needed another hit in the simplistic, “La Bamba” riff of “Chick-A-Boom.” But when he nails a gospelized soul vibe on “The Back Room” with backing female singers and his own seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics, it’s clear he’s in a sort of spiritual, muse channeling mode.

The deep slow blues of “Who Drove the Red Sports Car” balances Morrison’s roots with his penchant for oblique, often avant-garde lyrics (“Who said ‘follow your mind, it’s you’re only chance, sit on your throne, you got to make it on your own’”) to spectacular form. Aside from a workmanlike version of “Midnight Special,” most of the material is original, with a few Berns writing credits. Even at its most commercial, it’s essential music, both historically and artistically, and this is its best, most organic it has sounded.   

The second platter rounds up (mostly) previously unreleased outtakes and alternate versions of the same songs, complete with studio chatter. Van takes complete control of the studio musicians (who are credited in bulk, but not on each track in the otherwise comprehensive 24 page book of notes and essays), and decisively leads the proceedings. It’s likely that the most ardent Morrison fan will tire of eleven, mostly incomplete, run-throughs of “Brown Eyed Girl,” although it does show how focused he was, even on that fluffy tune. And hearing another, slightly looser approach to “T.B. Sheets,” along with a fly-on-the-wall look at this brief but creative period, is well worth the time invested.

Not so for disc three that assembles 31 solo, acoustic “contractual obligation” pieces (you can’t call them songs, most running under 90 seconds), Morrison was forced to record to get out of his legal obligations to Bang. Nonsense names given to them such as “Ring Worm” and “Blowin’ Your Nose” speak to the middle finger Van (and this reissue’s compilers) apply to this music that diehard Van lovers will probably not spin more than once. They are provided in the spirit of completeness though and add historical perspective to this essential recap of the formative yet still musically progressive years from one of rock/blues/Celtic and pop music’s most iconic figures.