VAN MORRISON-BACK ON TOP.
VAN MORRISON-BACK ON TOP.
Recently, I have been listening to a wide variety of music, with a view to writing articles for this blog. It was when I was sitting looking through a huge pile of albums, that I re-discovered the album I am going to write about. This album is Van Morrison’s album Back On Top. Morrison released Back On Top in 1999, and it was his twenty-seventh album. Prior to this album’s release Morrison had been going through a somewhat lean period. His albums lacked the quality that his earlier music had, and critics and fans were left disappointed. Back On Top was a return to form for him, and many people including myself, believe this to be the last good album he produced. Prior to telling you why this album is so special, I will tell you about Van Morrison.
Van Morrison was born George Ivan Morrison in November 1945. Morrison was an only child, and was fortunate to grow up in a house where music was plentiful. His father George, was reputed to have one of the country’s largest record collection, which he purchased during a trip to Detroit. The young Van Morrison grew up listening to an eclectic collection, of some of the greatest music, that has ever been recorded. In his formative years he heard Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, Solomon Burke, Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. This music would prove to be a huge influence in both his choice of career, and the music he would produce.
Morrison was given his first acoustic guitar when he was eleven. Having bought the book The Carter Family Style Alan Lomax’s book Then a year later, he formed his first band The Sputniks, who played skiffle music. The Sputniks played various concerts, with Morrison singing and arranging the music. Other groups were formed after The Sputniks demise, they however, were short lived. After hearing Jimmy Giuffre play saxophone, he convinced his father to buy his saxophone. He learned to play the tenor saxophone and read music. Having learnt to play the saxophone, he joined several groups including The Javelins, who went on to become The Monarchs.
Aged fifteen, he left school, and found work as a window cleaner. He would sing about this in two of his songs, Cleaning Windows and St Dominic’s Preview. As well as playing with The Monarchs, he also played The Harry Mack Showband, The Great Eight and with his friend Geordie (GD) Sproule. When he was seventeen he toured Europe with The Monarchs, now called the International Monarchs. The group continued until 1963 when they disbanded. Afterwards, Morrison joined Sproule in the Manhattan Showband with Herbie Armstrong. Armstrong would later join Brian Rossi and the Golden Eagles, and Morrison was hired as a blues singer.
In 1964, Morrison was to join the band that gave Morrison exposure internationally. The group would become Them. Morrison answered an advert to play in a R&B band at Belfast’s Maritime hotel. He created Them from a band was then known as The Gamblers, who changed their name to Them, after a 1950s horror movie Them! They quickly gained a reputation as good live band, with Morrison playing saxophone and sharing vocals with Billy Harrison. Them played a mixture of cover versions and original songs written by Morrison. Dick Rowe of Decca Records spotted the band’s potential and they signed a standard two year record deal. During that two year period, Them released ten singles and two albums. Three of the singles charted, Baby, Please Don’t Go in 1964, Here Comes the Night and Mystic Eyes in 1965. The singles did well in the US, so Them toured the country in May and June of 1965. The even performed at the legendary Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles. Towards the end of the tour, Them left the US after having problems with their manager Phil Solomon, over monies paid to the band. This and the fact that their visas had expired, meant Them returned home dejected. Them would only played two more concerts in Ireland, before splitting up.
After leaving Them, Morrison would spend time finishing the songs that would be found on Astral Weeks. However, prior to the release of Astral Weeks Morrison encountered a problem. He had not read the contract he signed with Bang Records in 1967 carefully enough. So when he had recorded eight tracks, with Bert Berns, which Morrison believed would be for four singles, the Band Records released them in 1967 as the album Blowin’ Your Mind! One of the tracks, was Brown Eyed Girl, and it proved to be one of Morrison’s most popular songs.
Berns died in 1967, and he became involved in a contractual dispute with Berns’ widow which resulted in him not being allowed to record or perform in the New York area. This was a huge blow to Morrison, and he struggled to get concert bookings. When he did perform, he did so with professionalism. Warner Bros then decided to sign Morrison, and managed to resolve the dispute with Bang Records.
1968 saw the release of Astral Weeks. Astral Weeks includes a mystical song cycle, and contains music that people have struggled to classify since its release. The music within the album is enigmatic, and defies description. It is a beautiful album, quite easily the best album Morrison has ever released. So highly thought of is Astral Weeks, that it is routinely referred to as one of the greatest albums of all time.
The follow up to Astral Weeks was Moondance, released in 1970. Moondance became his first million selling album. It was released to critical acclaim. This decade was one that saw some of his best work. Like Astral Weeks, Moondance is always seen as one his greatest ever albums. These two albums, were a fantastic start to his solo career. The problem he had was, he had set the bar exceptionally high. Anything less than the the standard of these two albums would be deemed a failure. Unlike many artists, Morrison had not spent time working up to the release of two of music’s greatest albums. Instead, he had arrived almost unknown, and gone on to make the greatest of starts to a career.
In total, during the 1970s, he released nine studio albums and one live album. It was the most fertile period of his career, and he would release some fantastic albums. My favorites from this period include 1970’s Moondance, Tupelo Honey in 1971, Saint Dominic’s Preview in 1972, Hard Nose the Highway in 1973, Wavelength in 1978 and Into the Music in 1979. Looking back at his output in this decade, the quality of his music back then was consistently good. It is hard to think of many artists who were consistently producing this standard of music.
The 1980s were not as kind to Van Morrison. This new decade began badly, his first album of the 1980s, Common One was pilloried by music critics. Many people were left shaking their head after listening to Common One, and wondered had Morrison lost his midas touch. Common One’s follow up, Beautiful Vision appeared two years later in 1982. It was a partial return to form, and included the song Cleaning Windows. Scandanavia, an instrumental, from the album was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental.
Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, released in 1983, like some of his previous albums, focused on the theme of faith and spirituality. Morrison believed that here, he was “moving towards producing music for meditation”. This is one of my favorite Van Morrison albums. It features a number of instrumental tracks. He justified their inclusion by saying it was not the words used, “but the force of the conviction behind the words that mattered”. In my opinion, this is his best album during the 1980s, closely followed by Avalon Sunset.
Throughout the remainder of the decade he released a further five studio albums and one live album. Of those five albums, 1986’s No Method, No Guru, No Teacher and 1989’s Avalon Sunset are the best of the remainder of his 1980’s output reaching numbers twenty-seven and thirteen in the UK charts.
The next decade started and ended well for Morrison. In 1990 he released Enlightenment and in 1999 released Back On Top, which this article is about. During the remainder of the decade, Morrison released seven studio albums and one live album. These albums included tributes to Mose Allison and collaborations with The Chieftans, Georgie Fame and John Lee Hooker. Apart from Enlightenment and Back On Top, the 1990s were not a vintage period for Van Morrison.
Since 2000 Morrison has never really produced anything that comes anywhere close to his best work of the 1970s. Between 2000-2011 he has released six studio and two live albums. None of the studio albums have the quality his early music has. However, it should be remembered that during that period he was in his fifth and sixth decade as a recording artist. He has, between 1967-2009, recorded thirty-three studio albums and five live albums. Unlike Neil Young for example, Morrison’s career has not had the same consistency and longevity.
Having told you a little about Van Morrison, I will now tell you about his album Back On Top. The album opens with Goin’ Down Geneva, which has a blues influence to it. Rather than set the song in the American south, Morrison has set in a number of European cities. I know that it is maybe hard to take seriously an aging, multi millionaire, rock-star singing a blues song with Geneva in the title, but stick with the song. It has a glorious bluesy start and features a really tight band. Morrison sings the song well, although his voice maybe shows the vagaries of age. The piano playing on this song really makes this track. It seems as if the rest of the band are merely sitting back and letting Geraint Watkins showcase his talents on piano. This is a good start to the album, and one is left wondering can this possibly be a return to form for Morrison.
Philosopher’s Stone is the second track on the album, and when one listens to the track, it is very much a return to form for Morrison. Here, he rolls back the years, producing a track that would not be out of place on some of his finest albums of the 1970s. His voice on Philosopher’s Stone is stronger and much better, and shows a glimpse of what he sounded like at his peak. The song features some of the best lyrics Morrison has written for a long time. In the lyrics, Morrison is searching for something elusive, striving to find it, he calls it the Philosopher’s Stone, but maybe what he is searching for is what we all search for, happiness. Like Goin’ Down Gevena, Philosopher’s Stone’ are not lyrics that are written by someone who seems to be happy, they seem to be searching for something, could that be happiness?
There is a change of tempo with the next track In the Midnight. The song is a love song, one he sings slowly and with a tenderness. When the album was released, Morrison described the song as “bedroom music, pure and simple”. In the Midnight features some tender and thoughtful lyrics, and Morrison does not disappoint, he has delivered a quite beautiful song, one that I am sure many people will be able to relate to. Everyone will be able to think of someone who has made them feel the way Morrison describes in the song’s lyrics. This song is a thing of beauty, and must be one of Morrison’s finest love songs in a long time.
The title track, Back On Top sees Morrison in a reflective mood. He is in an optimistic frame of mind, either about his personal or professional life. I feel it must be the former, rather than the latter, as his career was not going particularly well at this point in time. The song is another strong song. It has a lovely hook in it, and features a great performance by his band. Special mention must go to Geraint Watkins on hammond organ, Pee Wee Ellis on tenor sax and Morrison on harmonica. When one looks at the list of musicians Morrison has used on this album, it he has assembled a fantastic group of musicians to accompany him on Back On Top. Four songs into the album, and this is looking like a return to form for Morrison, the big question is, can it last a whole album?
When the Leaves Come Falling Down sees Morrison produce a stunning vocal performance on one the albums best songs. It is slow, has minimalist feel. The arrangements benefits from the vocal sitting prominently in the mix, with everything else, including a beautiful string section, sitting behind the vocal, very much playing a supporting roll.
On High Summer Morrison uses religious imagery in the song. Listen carefully, and you will hear references to both Lucifer and God. He also revisits some of his work from the 1960s by using the phrases “red sports cars” and “mansions on the hill. None of this matters though. Why? The reason is simple, Morrison has produced a great song, one he sings well, and plays a fantastic harmonica solo on.
The song Reminds Me of You, starts with the band playing slowly and softly, then Morrison’s vocal enters the mix. He sings the song with feeling, and he phrases the words carefully, as if wanting to highlight them, make someone listen to them. This could well be the case. The song is about love and heartbreak, that he wrote in 1996, after he broke up from a long-term relationship. However, by the time he recorded the song, he had been reunited with the lady in question. When you listen to the lyrics, you can share his pain, feel his hurt, after all, surely everyone has felt like this, at one time in their life? This truly is, an absolutely beautiful song, vintage Morrison, and I don’t so that lightly.
New Biography, sees Morrison singing about people who he thought were friends, who betrayed him. This is based on people who spoke to someone who wrote a biography of Morrison, and betrayed his trust. The song also sees Morrison commenting on the subject of celebrity, and people who have written books about him. Van Morrison has a novel, and doubtless profitable way of dealing with unwelcome publicity, he writes a song about it. Why bother with the expense of a super-injunction when you can write a song about the subject? Incidentally, it is a good song, one Morrison sings well and one the band play well. It has swing about it, and has another lovely hook in the song.
Precious Time is the next song on the album. It is a song Morrison wrote about how quickly time slips away, and how it is important that one enjoys each day. The song features a very insightful lyric “it doesn’t matter to which God you pray, precious time is slipping away”. In the space of thirteen words, Morrison says something we should all remember. This track is a good song with intelligent, insightful lyrics. The song has spiritual lyrics, and sees Morrison dwelling on how precious life is. I wonder whether this is a song that only an older artist could write and sing, as when we are younger we all feel we will live forever.
The final song on Back On Top is Golden Autumn Day, and is the second song on the album to be set at this time of year. The song sees Morrison enjoying being in an unnamed town or city. However, quickly the mood of the song changes, and Morrison is mugged, and he reflects that things are no longer what they once were. The song sees Morrison sing some great lyrics that have a really strong narrative. Close your eyes and you are almost there, and can almost picture the seen. He has reserved one of his best vocal performances for this song. Golden Autumn Day also features some fantastic performances by the band. Once again, Pee Wee Ellis on tenor saxophone deserves credit for a great performance on this track. Fiachra Trench’s string arrangement also deserves a mention, as it really adds to the track, and without the strings, the track would not be as good as it is. This is a great track to close a great album.
During the last few days, when researching and writing this article, I have spent a lot of time finding out more about Van Morrison, and even more time listening to his music. That is something I always enjoy doing. Having listened to Back On Top a number of times, I am struck by how good an album it is. There is not a poor track on this album. It really was a return to form for Van Morrison. Sadly, however, after Back On Top, he never produced anything of this quality. This saddens me greatly. What saddens me even more, is that in my opinion, this was Morrison’s last good album, and that was twelve years ago. Should after reading this article, you decide to buy this album, you will not be disappointed, it is a great album, packed full of fantastic songs. If you want buy other Van Morrison albums, here are some of my recommendations: Astral Weeks and Moondance from the 1960s; Hard Nose the Highway and Into the Music from the 1970s; Inarticulate Speech of the Heart and Avalon Sunset from the 1980s; and Enlightenment and Back on Top from the 1990s. Should you buy any, or all, of these albums, you will hear some of Van Morrison’s best music on these albums. Standout Tracks: Philosopher’s Stone, In the Midnight, When the Leaves Come Falling and Reminds Me of You.
VAN MORRISON-BACK ON TOP.