When Van Morrison released his third album, Moondance, in February 1970, little did he know he’d just released not only a classic album, but an album he’d never surpass. This wasn’t unexpected. After all, two years earlier in February 1968, Van Morrison has released Astral Weeks, an album which was a game-changer.
Astral Weeks has been described as concept album. That’s wrong. It was a song cycle where Van fused jazz, blues, poetry and classical music. Full of symbolism, this stream of consciousness was an exploration of earthy love and heaven. Critically acclaimed upon its release, Astral Weeks was very different from Van’s debut, 1967 Blowin’ Your Mind.
Critics was spellbound by Astral Weeks, this groundbreaking album from Van Morrison, who was seen as part-poet, part-musical visionary. On its release, Astral Weeks wasn’t originally a huge success. It was certified gold in the US, but failed to make much of an impression in the UK, where it stalled at number 140. Things would be very different when Van Morrison released Moondance, which will rereleased by Rhino on 16th October 2015.
Van Morrison was only twenty-five when he released his third album, Moondance in February 1970. Moondance had been two years in the making and was an introduction to Van’s Caledonian soul. It had taken Van ten months to write the lyrics to Moondance. The lyrics were written at Van’s mountaintop home, not far from Woodstock village, in upstate New York. For some time, Van had been living in Woodstock, which was now home for him and his wife. This was the perfect place to write a classic album, Moondance.
Inspired by his surroundings, family and memories, Van set about writing the lyrics to Moondance. They are poetic, evocative and mystical. Like an artist used his palette to create pictures, Van used words. He takes you on a series of journeys. On And It Stoned Me, Van takes you back to the Belfast of his youth, while Caravan conjurs up images of living life as a gypsy. You can imagine the pictures unfolding before your eyes. These were the lyrics that Van took into A&R Studios, in New York.
For the recording of Moondance, Van recruited his band from musicians based in Woodstock. They headed along to A&R Studios, in New York. When they got there, they discovered that Van hadn’t written the music to Moondance. No. The music and the arrangements existed in his head along. Somehow, Van had managed to make his band understated what he was hearing in his head. That’s no surprise. Van had recruited a crack band of musicians.
The musicians who played on Moondance included a rhythm section of bassist John Kingberg, guitarist John Platania and Gary Mallaber on drums and vibes. Jef Labes played clavinet, organ and piano and Guy Masson played congas. Horns came courtesy of Jack Schroer on alto and soprano saxophone, while Colin Tilton played tenor saxophone and flute. Adding harmonies were The Sweet Inspirations, Doris Troy, Cissy Houston and Jackie Verdell. As for Van, he played acoustic and rhythm guitar, plus harmonica and tambourine. Moondance marked Van’s debut as producer. Producing a critically acclaimed and commercially successful classic, was quite a start to Van’s production career.
When critics heard Moondance, they hailed it an instant classic. There were no dissenting voices. Moondance was perceived as a coming of age for Van Morrison. He’d set the bar high with Astral Weeks, but surpassed it. Moondance was no ordinary album. Far from it. Genres melted into one. Blues, country, jazz, rock and soul combined with Van’s Celtic roots. The result was a cerebral, challenging and genre-melting of poetic genius, which showcased Van Morrison at the height of his powers. Just like the critics, music lovers loved Moondance.
On its release, in February 1970, Moondance reached number twenty-nine in the US Billboard 200 and was certified triple-platinum. In the UK, Moondance reached just number thirty-two. Come Running was released as a single, but reached just number thirty-nine in the US Billboard 100. Then when Crazy Love was released as a single, it failed to chart. Maybe the problem was, that the singles released from Moondance didn’t work in isolation. Instead, they were part of something bigger, a classic album, Moondance, which I’ll tell you about.
Opening Moondance is And It Stoned Me, is a song about an experience Van had as a child. He was on his way fishing, when he asked an old man for a glass of water. Van was given some water the old man got from a stream. When Van drunk it, he remembers time standing still and heading into another dimension. With its mystical, almost surreal lyrics, Van paints potent pictures. There’s references to rural Ireland, where there’s county fairs and mountain streams. Van even references veteran jazzer Jelly Roll Morton. It’s as if when Van’s delivering the lyrics, he’s transported back in time. He’s right there, the scene unfolding before him. Behind him, a jazz-tinged piano, rasping horns and the rhythm section provide the perfect backdrop to this outpouring of surreal memories. Later, Van adds an acoustic guitar that’s a perfect foil for the piano. It sets the scene for his impassioned vocal, on this fusion of blues, jazz, country and Celtic soul.
Very few songs are as recognizable as Moondance. With its familiar jaunty arrangement, it skips and swings along. Driven along by an electric bass, the jazz-tinged arrangement is mostly acoustic. A guitar, flute, piano, saxophone and drums combine to create a small jazz band. Over-dubbing the flute was a masterstroke. It transforms the tracks. So does the piano solo, before the blazing saxophone panned left takes centre-stage. Together, the band ensure the song swings, as Van unleashes a vocal masterclass. Feeding off the band, he delivers the lyrics about autumn. You close your eyes and Van the poet, paints pictures. Evocative, images of Woodstock village where Van wrote Moondance come to mind. Later, as Van scats and the song reaches its dramatic crescendo, there’s only one word to describe this track “classic.”
Crazy Love shows another side of Van Morrison. An understated ballad, Van’s tender, heartfelt and needy vocal is joined by The Sweet Inspirations. They’re the perfect foil to Van. Bursts of their tender harmonies soar above the arrangement. Meanwhile, the band play thoughtfully, taking care not to overpower Van’s vocal. The result is an ethereal and beautiful paean, which shows Van’s romantic side.
Flourishes of piano open Caravan, a song about gypsy life. Straight away, Van unleashes a vocal powerhouse. Soon, he’s delivering lyrics which are full of imagery. So much so, you can imagine life on the open road, no worries, just days stretching in front of you. There’s a romanticism in the lyrics, which seems idealistic. There’s a melancholy, romantic sound. Van’s band provide the backdrop for his vocal. One minute his vocal is wistful, the next minute it’s a scat, as he trills. The guitar and Van’s vocal feed off each other. They’re crucial to the song’s success. As for the arrangement, it veers between understated to dramatic. Horns blaze adding drama, and with the piano add a jazz-tinged sound to this evocative, Joycean track.
Just an acoustic guitar, then meandering, thoughtful bass open Into The Mystic. As Van’s vocal emerges, it’s pensive and thoughtful. There’s a mysterious sound, as gradually, the arrangement unfolds. The band play gently, as if deferring to Van’s vocal. Piano, bass and acoustic guitars play an important part in the song. So do bursts of growling, jazzy horns. Again, imagery and romanticism are omnipresent. Van describes the sea, and the foghorn blowing as he makes his way home. Just on cue, a saxophone replicates the foghorn. Then his vocal grows in power and passion, as he unleashes another of his trademark vocal powerhouses. Along with his band, the lyrics come to life as Van poet and painter, create one of Moondance’s highlights.
Come Running has a country influence that’s obvious from the opening bars. Just the rhythm section, driven along by the bass, and the piano join forces to accompany Van. He sets the scene with even more imagery. You can imagine the train running down the track in the wind in rain. In the train, is Van lover. He’s sure of that. So sure, he delivers the line: “you’ll Come Running to me.” There’s a certainty that almost borders on arrogance. No wonder. This seems to be a game they play, given Van’s confident, feisty vocal. Their relationship is a turbulent one, one that’s brought to life in this fusion of blues, country, jazz and rock.
These Dreams Of You are driven along by a bluesy harmonica and the rhythm section. Chiming guitars accompany Van’s grizzled, heartbroken vocal. There’s a reason for this heartache. Van dreamt his idol Ray Charles had been assassinated. Soon the song becomes a mini soap opera. Soon, growling horns and Hammond organ are dropped in. They ensure the song swings and add the finishing touch as Van lays bare his soul and dreams for all to hear.
Brand New Day has a melancholy sound as piano and country guitars combine. Van’s vocal is slow and full of hope, hope for the future. He wrote the song when he was having problems spiritually. What follows is a cathartic outpouring of doubt. Cleansed of this doubt, it’s as if spiritually, his life begins again. His masterstroke on Brand New Day was having The Sweet Inspirations add gospel-tinged harmonies. Dramatic and spiritual, they’re the perfect accompaniment to Van on this spiritual awakening.
A clavinet opens Everyone, as the song explodes into life. It’s played powerfully and confidently. That describes Van’s impassioned vocal. It’s a mixture of power and passion, while the rhythm section provide a pounding, driving 12/8 beat. Later, a flute is overdubbed. It carries the melody, while acoustic guitar and occasional drums play supporting roles. With the 12/8 beat and choice of instruments, this track is very different from the rest of Moondance. Having said that, it showcases Van and his band’s versatility and undoubtable talent.
Closing Moondance is Glad Tidings. Inspiration from the song came from a letter Van received, marked that said “Glad Tidings” from London. With its R&B and soul influence, it’s as if Van’s been inspired by labels like Fame and Stax. That’s no bad thing. There’s a joyous, celebratory sound to the track, as Van’s vocal becomes a scat and vamp. Horns blaze, growl and rasp, punctuating the arrangement while the rhythm section provide the heartbeat and a Hammond organ adds its atmospheric sound. Van seems determined to close Moondance on a high. Encouraging his band, he vamps his way through this joyful, celebratory track. This seems a fitting way to end what’s a classic album.
Following up an album as critically acclaimed and commercially successful as Astral Weeks wasn’t going to be easy for Van Morrison. However, he wasn’t like other artists. Although he’d only released two albums, he was already establishing a reputation as one of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation. Van was part-poet, part-musical visionary. Proof of that are the ten tracks on Moondance.
Van Morrison’s lyrics are on Moondance are poetic, evocative and mystical. Van’s songs takes you on a series of journeys. Full of imagery, he conjurs up images. These pictures unfold vividly before your eyes. Using inspiration from his life and everyday life, you’re introduced to a cast of characters and scenarios. Other tracks feature lyrics that are almost mystical and surreal. Then there’s songs about love, and love gone wrong. This includes Crazy Love and Come Running. Brand New Day is Van’s spiritual awakening. Of course, there’s the classic title-track, Moondance, which since 1970, has been a staple of radio stations everywhere. It’s one of the best known songs Van Morrison wrote, while Moondance is perceived as Van’s finest album.
Think of that. Van Morrison wrote Moondance, the best album of his career when he was just twenty-five. Moondance was just Van’s third album. After that, he’d go on to release another twenty-nine albums. While many of them were critically acclaimed and commercially successful, they never quite matched the quality of Moondance. Following Moondance, Van was constantly trying to replicate such a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed and commercially successful album. That must have been hugely frustrating. There were times when we heard tantalising glimpses of the quality of music on Moondance, which will rereleased by Rhino on 16th October 2015..
Quite simply, the music comes alive on the newly remastered version of Moondance. You hear subtleties and nuances you’ve never heard before. They clarity of music is much better than previous CD versions. It assails you and surrounds you. There’s a depth to the music. Layer upon layer of music reveal themselves. You can’t help but let the music wash over you and revel in is ethereal, emotive and spiritual beauty. As the music washes over you, Van Morrison’s unique brand of Caledonian Soul comes alive on Moondance.
Genres melted into one on Moondance. Blues, country, jazz, R&B, rock and soul combined with Van’s Celtic roots. The result was Moondance, a cerebral, challenging and genre-melting album which showcased Van’s Morrison’s poetic genius. Moondance, like its predecessor Astral Weeks, featured Van Morrison at the height of his powers. That’s why Moondance is worthy of being referred to as a classic, which belongs in the record collection of anyone remotely interested or passionate about music.