In 1993, George Ivan Morrison was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame; 10 years later the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. He has received numerous other decorations and accolades in a career now topping 50 years, most notably an OBE in 1996 and this year’s knighthood. With a back catalogue that boasts over 30 studio albums, six live albums and over 70 singles, it’s not surprising that he has amassed so many awards over his career, yet he is still remembered most fondly for his first solo single, 1967’s uplifting classic Brown Eyed Girl.
Morrison was just 21 at the time of Brown Eyed Girl’s release, a fresh faced young Ulsterman newly departed from Ireland and struggling to find his feet in the comparatively overwhelming USA. Just a year later, he had recorded and released an album that sits near the top of many music critics’ lists of best albums of all time, the incomparable Astral Weeks.
In 2013, Morrison’s breakthrough album Moondance was given the bells and whistles treatment for a deluxe re-issue, and rightly so; its influence and importance cannot be underestimated. For most, though, Astral Weeks is the pinnacle in a monumental career, so this month’s remastered edition is long overdue. As well as the remastered Astral Weeks, Warner are giving the same treatment to Moondance’s follow-up His Band And The Street Choir (including an extra five tracks), but the fascination with Astral Weeks and how it came to fruition is frankly on another planet in comparison to both of the ensuing albums.
Born in East Belfast in 1945, just two weeks after VJ Day saw the end of World War II and less than a month after twin atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Morrison’s birth could not have been more timely. The world he was born into was one of relief, one where optimism soon reappeared, after years of torment and anguish where family upon family had been torn apart, all over the world. It was time to rebuild.
The only child of George and Violet Morrison, young George soon became known by an abbreviated form of his middle name and was raised on a diet of American jazz and blues his father had acquired from his time in Detroit. His mother was also a singer and dancer in her youth so music was deep in the blood from an early age; he was just 13 when he formed his first ever band and, just like a young John Lennon (who formed The Quarrymen in 1956), it was a skiffle group, known as The Sputniks, named after a Russian satellite.
At 15, Morrison was playing saxophone and harmonica in a band called The Monarchs from around 1961 but his first taste of stardom would arrive in 1964 with Them, who went on to secure a recording contract with the mighty Decca. They would go on to enjoy moderate success when their cover of Big Joe Williams’ Baby Please Don’t Go made the UK Top 10 a year later, but the b-side Gloria would go on to far greater things, being covered itself by U2 and Patti Smith amongst others. Another hit arrived in the shape of Here Comes The Night in 1965. But when the band were marketed to America as young rebels, under the name The Angry Young Them, Morrison walked, unhappy at how they were being represented.
Upon hearing that Morrison had left Them, Bert Berns, the writer of Here Comes The Night as well as Twist And Shout amongst others, persuaded Morrison to travel to New York to start a solo career with Berns’ label Bang Records, but the carefree signing of the contract by Morrison would cause untold future problems. Berns, meanwhile, was pushing for hits and oversaw the release of Brown Eyed Girl in 1967; wanting to jump aboard the psychedelic train that was everywhere in 1967, he also packaged up all Morrison’s solo recordings to date and released them as a début solo album entitled Blowin’ Your Mind! With Morrison depicted on the front cover as looking dubiously as if he’d been indulging in drugs, an argument ensued with the artist wanting his image to convey that of a folky poet.
To make matters worse, all the money from Brown Eyed Girl had gone to Bang Records, Morrison saw nothing and so was living in squalor in an apartment with his soon-to-be-wife Janet Rigsbee. In December 1967, Berns died from a heart attack, at the age of just 38, and Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia became Morrison’s main contact at Bang Records.
Unfortunately, things went downhill even more from this point, the result being that Morrison fled New York for Cambridge, Massachusetts – partly in fear of the gangster-filled surroundings – after Wassel smashed Morrison’s guitar over the intoxicated singer’s head after a row.
In the kitchen of his Cambridge flat, Morrison wrote the majority of Astral Weeks with nothing but his acoustic guitar. The dodgy contract with Bang continued to cause problems, though, with work hard to come by as bar owners feared hiring him in case of repercussions. Berns’ widow even attempted to deport Morrison, leading to his marriage with Rigsbee – an American citizen – in order to prevent any such action.
Battling against the odds, he managed to acquire a series of low-key gigs in coffee houses along with a couple of other musicians he had recruited, performing as The Boston Trio. The Trio managed to play out much of Astral Weeks to tiny audiences, one such gig even being recorded by Morrison’s new friend Peter Wolf (who would go on to front J.Geils Band). It was at one of these performances that Lew Merenstein would spot Morrison – or, more accurately, hear his voice – and this is when things started to change for the better.
Merenstein was fascinated with the voice, calling him a genius, and informed ex-DJ Joe Smith of Warner Bros of his discovery. Smith was impressed enough with Morrison’s vocal, along with the success of Brown Eyed Girl – but hardly anything else about the 5′ 5″ young Irishman – to offer him a recording deal but, of course, there was the small matter of his already signed deal with Bang Records to sort out. Smith ended up buying out the deal for $20,000 from four unsavoury characters in an abandoned warehouse, but even then this was subject to further demands, including a certain number of recordings as well as other conditions such as the rights to any singles taken from his next album. Warner circumvented this problem by not releasing any singles at all from Astral Weeks, and Morrison himself solved the recording problem by laying down 36 tracks of complete nonsense.
“Experienced jazz musicians, including drummer Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet, were hired upon Morrison’s request, but there were no introductions, no camaraderie, nothing…”
Free at last to continue his career, the focus shifted to the recording of Astral Weeks. With The Boston Trio having been tinkering with the acoustic sound of the songs for some time, Morrison felt ready to record the album. Century Sound Studios in New York was the scene of just three sessions that saw the whole of the album laid down, but it was the manner in which it was accomplished that remains fascinating. Experienced jazz musicians, including drummer Connie Kay from the Modern Jazz Quartet, were hired upon Morrison’s request, but there were no introductions, no camaraderie, nothing. Morrison came in, played the songs to his fellow musicians and then just told them to play along with them however they felt. He then went off to a private booth to play and sing his parts while being accompanied by the others in another room. It was this aloofness that caused his fellow musicians to realise this was no ordinary dude they were playing with, but they didn’t particularly care for him.
Nevertheless, professional as they were they followed his lead and played along, jamming in their favoured jazz style. The results were electrifying. The first session saw four tracks recorded – Cyprus Avenue, Madame George, Beside You and then, unplanned, the title track, this time featuring John Payne, a jazz flautist with whom Morrison had been playing at coffee houses. Payne had not been included on the first three recordings, Morrison for some reason preferring another flautist whose name remains a mystery to all to this day.
With four tracks in the bag, the participants departed and returned a few days later. However, this second session produced nothing – the time of day being later quoted as being wrong for jazz musicians to be able to create – and so, after about three hours, the session was abandoned, the musicians unable to recreate the crackling perfection of the amazing first session. Luckily, with another, later slot booked in the studio for the third and final session, things came back together perfectly, enabling the remaining four tracks to be recorded – The Way Young Lovers Do, Sweet Thing, Ballerina and Slim Slow Slider. Two other tracks were also recorded, one of which was Going Around With Jesse James, but as neither of these were felt to be in sync with the other album tracks, they were scrapped.
“It was this instinctive, spontaneous playing that Morrison was aiming for, and against all odds it came off spectacularly….”
With all the recordings in the bag, it was down to producer Merenstein to cut and edit appropriately. Some tracks were considered to be too long and were edited; two of these appear in full on this must-have remastered edition: Ballerina – a song that Morrison had actually written back in 1966 – and Slim Slow Slider. But others survived the original cutting and that is possibly what makes Astral Weeks so compelling. The tracks are drawn out, free to breathe and live as the jazz compositions Morrison intended them to be, and the brilliance of the musicians to be able to accompany him in this manner cannot be underestimated.
Although the introvert singer may have caused some ruffled feathers with his mannerisms, the musicians soon realised they were lucky to be involved in such an undertaking at all. But without their brilliance, Astral Weeks simply would not have worked; the fact that most songs were laid down in just one or two takes is staggering. It was this instinctive, spontaneous playing that Morrison was aiming for, and against all odds it came off spectacularly. In fact, despite Moondance’s success, it’s arguable whether any of his albums ever came close to Astral Weeks, although at the time it failed chart-wise and with critics. Everyone – including Warner – wanted and expected more Brown Eyed Girls and therefore they were all completely baffled at the results. When the dust settled though, just like a painting of an old master, the true genius came out.
It took over 40 years for Morrison to play the album live; in doing so – at the Hollywood Bowl in 2008 – he called up some of the original musicians and recreated the album as best he could in a live setting. It was not quite the same, of course, but it was a show the public had been demanding for years.
If you haven’t listened to Astral Weeks yet, you need to. But it’s not going to blow you away on a first listen; it’s something to be cherished, something to grow into – rather like its crystallisation, it’s a thing of beauty that needs to form itself fully in your own mind. With this newly remastered version now available, there’s no better place to start your appreciation of a classic album that’s been extended even further. As well as the long versions of Ballerina and Slim Slow Slider a couple of earlier takes of Beside You and Madame George – one of two recordings actually included in the get-out clauses Bang Records insisted upon – are included. Astral Weeks is simply a must-have album and one worthy of its place in folklore; if you don’t already own it, go get it. Now.
Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the expanded edition, is out now through Rhino. Further information can be found at vanmorrison.com