What Does It Mean When You Like Slow R&B Music The Decline and Fall of Astral Weeks

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The Decline and Fall of Astral Weeks

How to explain the critical fall from grace of George Ivan Morrison, aka Van the Man, aka the Belfast Cowboy and particularly of his 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks? Poll after poll confirms that the reputation of Van Morrison’s stream of consciousness epic is under serious threat. The NME, although no longer occupying the position it once did, as a cutting edge music journal, is a useful barometer when it comes to measuring the album’s steep decline. In 1985, NME’s writers produced a list of the greatest 100 albums of all time. Morrison’s Astral Weeks was at no 2, behind Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. In 1993, the NME repeated the exercise, this time Astral Weeks was ranked at no 15, Marvin Gaye had slipped to no 4, while The Beach Boys Pet Sounds, listed at no 20 in the previous poll, occupied the prestigious top spot. By 2003’s poll, Astral Weeks had plummeted to no 83! Pet Sounds was holding its ground at no 3, while What’s Going On had dipped down to no 27. The Stone Roses’ eponymous debut had, somewhat ludicrously, catapulted the band straight into the much coveted no 1 position.

By 2013 Astral Weeks had recovered its standing slightly, weighing in at no 68. The Roses had started to wilt and were down to No 7, having been usurped by The Smiths (The Queen is Dead) and Marvin and The Beach Boys had become next door neighbours at numbers 25 and 26. It wasn’t just the NME either, Q’ magazine’s 2006 poll placed Astral Weeks as low as 54.

Why all the fuss, I hear you ask? After all, declaring somebody to have made the 54th greatest album of all time wouldn’t normally lead them to reach for the duelling pistols, would it? Well, it’s a bit like calling Pele the 54th best footballer of all time or Orson Welles the 54th best director in Hollywood; exception should, indeed, be taken. And, what of Morrison’s follow up, 1970’s Moondance, a joyously romantic extravaganza, the polar opposite of the tortured soul of Astral Weeks, for sure, but every bit as magnificent? It’s as if it never even existed!

This undeserved diminution of Morrison’s legacy is highlighted, yet again, in the treatment meted out to him in Bob Stanley’s otherwise authoritative history of modern popular music, ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’. Whilst Stanley does doff his cap to Morrison for his role in influential sixties outfit, Them, calling them the ‘loudest and most fractious group since Johnny Burnette’s Rock and Roll trio’ and asserting that their song ‘Friday’s Child’ “practically invented R.E.M.”, his subsequent solo career is almost entirely dismissed. There’s certainly no mention of Astral Weeks and bizarrely no mention, either, of Morrison’s best known composition, the acknowledged classic, “Brown Eyed Girl”.

The single, released in June 1967, has gone on to attain a stratospheric level of popularity. It is one of only ten songs registered with the British Music Industry as having attained over 10,000 plays on US Radio. As of 2015, “Brown Eyed Girl” remains the most downloaded and most played song of the entire 1960’s decade! A glaring oversight on the part of Mr Stanley, then, but he almost salvages the situation with his excellent physical description of Morrison – “Their lead singer was Van Morrison, who had a ruddy, sponge-pudding face and a mop of red hair”.

Of course, Van’s brought it on himself to a large degree; he’s still around for one thing and on the verge of turning a very un-cool 70. There was no “glamorous” rock ‘n’ roll death for the portly protestant boy. He didn’t end up over-dosing in a Parisian bathtub like his namesake Jim or disappearing into the snowy ether over Iowa, like Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Nor did he hang himself from his mother’s clothes rack, like the ill and dispirited Macclesfield miserablist, Ian Curtis. Not for him, either, the life of a rock ‘n’ roll recluse, like Syd Barrett or Grace Slick. If Van had really thought this through, he could have retreated to the Appalachian Mountains and become rock’s very own J.D Salinger, with Astral Weeks as his ‘Catcher in the Rye’. After all, he shared Salinger’s mystique and his surly disposition!

No doubt, he dabbled with one strange religion too many, whined indulgently about the sharp practices of the “music biz” once too often for his own good. In general, he outstayed his welcome, became the spectre at rock ‘n’ roll’s splendid feast. Of course, he never did have too many friends in the rock press, given his liking for reducing many of them to tears at the drop of a hat! Maybe it’s a straightforward case of ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’, but reviewers have been unkind to him over the latter part of his career.

He fares better in the States, though, where his life-long champion, the pioneering rock writer Greil Marcus came to his defence once again with 2010’s, excellent book ‘Listening to Van Morrison’. In the chapter dedicated to Astral Weeks, he declares the record’s quality to be such that it ‘leads people to take the album as a kind of talisman, to recognize others by their affection for it, to say “I’m going to my grave with it. I will never forget it”‘. The Rolling Stone poll of 2003, positioned Astral Weeks just inside the top 20 at No 19. Even the oft overlooked Moondance, a record you might regard as The Magnificent Ambersons to Astral Weeks’ Citizen Kane, made a rare appearance at No 65. Incidentally, Pet Sounds and What’s Going On both made the Top 10 stateside.

Since the nineties, Van has just soldiered on, blindly following his fast retreating muse through every twist and turn of popular music. Unfortunately, she’s led him down many a cul-de-sac of supper club soul, elevator jazz and Chelsea pensioner pop with depressing regularity. His last wholly satisfactory album was 1990’s Enlightenment, which boasted an outright soul classic in “Real Real Gone”, a bizarre collaboration with Irish Poet Paul Durcan on the absolutely unique “The Days Before Rock ‘n’ Roll” and the title track itself, a richly spiritual number of the kind Morrison had trademarked decades before. Around this time, Van had a sort of ad hoc residency at the King’s Hotel, in Newport, and it wasn’t unusual for him to play there two or three nights running. They were remarkable gigs, far removed from the countless other times I’ve seen an unenthused Van simply going through the motions in soulless venues. Watching him turning the clock back at the King’s, there could be no doubt that you were in the presence of genius.

The fire’s that once raged deep within him, that made Astral Weeks such an incendiary record, that threatened, indeed, to torch the Maritime Hotel, London’s R&B circuit and San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Club during his halcyon days, have long since been dampened down. Each record seems to diminish the legend. He didn’t re-invent himself as a song and dance man, a la Dylan, that much is true. Then again, he didn’t cheapen himself by advertising Victoria’s Secret Ladies underwear like Dylan did, either. Van didn’t sell his soul, just his soul music!

Sadly, there is very little archive footage around of Van fronting his legendary sixties R&B combo, Them. A couple of mild-mannered studio performances of “Baby Please Don’t Go” and his all time classic “Gloria”, which he penned at the tender age of 17, is about all there is. Therefore, we must rely on the written word for evidence as to just how emotionally-charged a performer the youthful Van Morrison really was. Johnny Rogan’s definitive biography, No Surrender, details any number of incidents, particularly during the bands residency at the Maritime Hotel. He also has an interesting account, though, of a Them gig on Boxing Day 1964 in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.

‘In Cookstown expectant fans, eager to hear the popular tunes of the day were outraged when Them stubbornly ignored requests and persisted in playing R&B standards. A steady thud of slow handclapping greeted each number as Van prowled the apron of the stage leering menacingly at the spectators. Morrison was often aggressive in performance and became downright belligerent when faced with a hostile audience. As the show was reaching a tense climax and pennies started landing on stage he bellowed into the microphone “Goodnight Pigs”‘. The unrest soon degenerated into a near riot with the band locked in their dressing room for four hours, as the crowd ransacked the place.

It’s probably fair to say that a few moments like this, preserved on you tube, would have shored up Van’s reputation with the teenagers who constitute NME’s readers and writers today. Nevertheless, the rawness and the venom of Morrison’s voice remains ever present on vinyl. “Gloria” became a staple of many a garage rock band’s set and, of course, turned up on punk-poet Patti Smith’s landmark album, Horses, in 1975.

Time, of course, has taken its toll and Morrison’s voice these days is often characterised as “clogged” or “bloated”, but for those who seek out the vintage works of Them or, indeed, Astral Weeks itself, a different voice awaits. In his book, From a Whisper to a Scream (The Great Voices of Popular Music) Barney Hoskyns describes the Belfast Cowboy’s voice as “a sound at once black and white, beautiful and barbaric, yearning and raging, one which must rate as the most exciting punk- R&B voice of all time”.

Almost unclassifiable as a record, part soul, part folk and part jazz, Astral Weeks was clearly without precedent on its release in 1968, and it remains without equal nearly fifty years later. Not only is Morrison a pure soul singer, with a jagged voice that can rip your heart to shreds, he has the eye of a poet too. Often, he can’t quite articulate his longing, can’t dredge to the surface his enchanted vision. Sometimes, he falls back on repetition, as if recanting the words over and over will somehow set them in stone, sometimes he scat sings himself to the point of inanity (“Listen to the Lion”, “In the Garden” and countless others) Seldom, though, in the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll has a singer sounded as bereft and as brutalised as Morrison does on the seemingly ecstatic “Beside You” as he frantically searches for a redemption that might already be beyond him. Incredibly, he repeats this soul sapping exorcism on the enigmatic “Madame George” and the excoriating “Ballerina” a few tracks later. And, I haven’t even mentioned the best song on the album, the revelatory “Cypress Avenue” or perhaps its most romantic track, “Sweet Thing”.

Author and journalist, Paul Du Noyer, double-checking the following lines from “Sweet Thing” on a song lyrics website –

“And I shall drive my chariot down your streets and cry: Hey! It’s me I’m dynamite and I don’t know why”,

discovered a besotted reader had posted “I cannot wait until a boy can feel this way about me”, directly underneath the couplet. Such is the power of a pop song, to scramble the senses and set us all of a quiver!

One can only hope that, in the future, a fair wind gets behind Morrison and he breezes back into the safe harbour of critical acclaim. Until then, we can cling to the words of Du Noyer for consolation, as he makes the case for Astral Weeks as a work of art that will truly stand the test of time, regardless of popularity contests –

“Nobody realised, in 1968, how long this music would endure, how often it would be heard and what a weight of cultural commentary it would attract. What makes popular music special isn’t only the numbers who buy it, but the countless times they listen to it, and define its meaning for themselves. Over the decades, so many lives have been repeatedly enriched by this masterpiece”.

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