The Story of Them
Review by Scott Thomas:
On July 5, 1964 Van Morrison entered a London recording studio with his group Them and made his first recording as a leader. The ill-fated Them recorded for just under twenty-four months before business hassles, a dizzying spate of personnel changes, and Van's less-than-easygoing personality caused the band to splinter. The inconsistency of Them's output and the group's accelerated disintegration are a testament to the conflicting pressures, both commercial and artistic, that were exploding it from within and devouring it from without.
Them were, in their initial and purest incarnation, impassioned fans and raucous performers of American R&B, soul, blues, and rock n roll. This aspect of their musical personality is evident in the cover versions of Ray Charles, James Brown, Fats Domino, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and John Lee Hooker songs that graced their two albums. The one element that distinguishes Them's interpretations from the classic originals, however, is an almost punk-like fury. Their sound, rough and raw as it is, features obtrusive bass, propulsive percussion, loud electric guitars, rudimentary organ fills, and Van Morrison's wildly aggressive vocals. Clearly, Morrison was the man to watch. Even at this early stage, he had mastery over an array of R&B vocal techniques from the Ray Charles-like screams at the end of "Turn on Your Lovelight" to his impeccable scatting on "I Put a Spell on You" to his complete command of melisma. In addition, he was also sensitive enough, despite the bad boy image, to capture the no-nonsense pragmatism, guarded optimism, and tenderness of John Lee Hooker's "Don't Look Back."
Though most comfortable with cover versions, these scrappy, Belfast soulsters were forced to contend with the marketplace. The stockholders were expecting a return on their investment and playing pumped-up cover versions of American R&B hits was not the way to go during the height of Beatlemania. For the most part, Them's attempts at pop stardom (many of them written by a no talent named Tommy Scott) represent their worst moments on record, but the exceptions are worth noting. "Gloria," which has since become a garage band classic, is a magnificent bit of Morrison juvenalia. With its jungle beat, blistering riff, and a chorus that mischievously turns a pep rally cheer into a celebration of getting laid, "Gloria" bears absolutely no resemblance to Van Morrison's mature work. Nevertheless, it is a great one.
An even bigger hit for Them was the Bert Berns composition "Here Comes the Night." "Here Comes the Night" derives it substantial chart appeal from the rhythmic and emotional contrasts between the jittery verses, where the adenoidal singer catches his girl "with another guy," and the slower, anguished choruses which transform, for a few spectacular moments, adolescent paranoia into adult angst.
The third element in the mercurial Them mix was Morrison's budding interest in literature and folk music. Indeed, while many of his earliest compositions ("One More Time," "Bring 'Em On In," and "If You and I Could Be as Two") are good to great approximations of the soul and R&B classics he had grown up with, the influence of Bob Dylan manifested itself in a haunting cover of "It's All Over Now Baby Blue" and in the somewhat heavy-handed alliterative and assonant effects in Van's own "Sad and Lonely Eyes." The most fascinating result of Morrison's desire to wed his newfound pseudo-literary ambitions with aggressive R&B is "Mystic Eyes." "Mystic Eyes" begins as a crazed, harmonica driven instrumental with deep bass guitar runs, rapid fire bass drum patterns, and antsy guitar fills. Halfway through this barrage of harp and beat, the singer unexpectedly breaks into a stream of consciousness monologue, half-spoken, half-sung, that combines the defiant, gallows humor of Robert Johnson, the foggy landscapes of Irish folk music, and the mysticism of William Blake.
The most prophetic of Morrison's Them cuts, however, is "Hey Girl" from Them Again. Here Van supplants the rebellious, street wise persona of Them with the nature poet and restless mystic who would go on to create Astral Weeks. The use of flute bespeaks a tenderness that is far removed from the pubescent lust of "Gloria." With its close ties to traditional Irish folk music ("Let's go walking up that mountain slope") and its expressions of admiration for nature and innocence, "Hey Girl" is the prototype for literally dozens of Van Morrison songs.
Them and Them Again are the only albums released by the group during their brief existence. Them, their 1965 debut, features "Mystic Eyes," "Gloria," "You Just Can't Win," and "Don't Look Back." Them Again is marred by four horrid Tommy Scott songs, but boasts "Turn on Your Lovelight," "It's All Over Now Baby Blue," "Hey Girl," and the transcendent "One More Time." Them Featuring Van Morrison is a good sampler as it contains all of Them's most famous cuts along with a hilarious, semi-autobiographical talking blues called "The Story of Them." The Story of Them, a 2 CD set released in 1998, contains all of the tracks on the other three albums along with rarities like "Philosophy" and the delicate "Friday's Child" remastered to provide the best possible sound.
Review from Simon Gee (from Wavelength
13): "Near definitive, but fatally flawed"
Set for release on October 20th, 1997 is The Story of Them featuring Van Morrison, a 2CD set from Deram on catalogue number 8448132. Containing all the THEM recordings except two, there are 49 tracks on the set in total.
THEM recorded 45 titles, and with four of these tracks re-recorded as Alternate Takes, there is a total of 49 tracks available (or 51 if we allow the disputed Alternate Versions included here). Here we have 49 tracks, missing off "Mighty Like A Rose" which was called a 'demo' by Van, and so, he felt, not suitable for re-issue, and the Alternate "Little Girl".
What do we think of the compilation? It should be pretty easy you would have thought - but there is the minefield of Alternate Versions and Outtakes, and Decca have slipped up badly here, making the set fatally flawed. The remasterer and compiler, Jon Astley, makes a point in his short note about the stereo mixes versus the mono, and this seems to be the main thrust of his activity - it's such a great pity he did not spend more time on the actual music! He says that the tracks "Times Gettin' Tougher", "Stormy Monday", and "Friday's Child" 'only seem to exist in Electronic Stereo' - of course they do - they were early demos, and are three of the six 'other' tracks released after the demise of the band. If we accept the fact that there are no longer the Decca recording logs from '65 and '66 in existence, and that there appear to be tape masters in both the States and the UK, it would seem that there was no overall view of the Alternate Versions, and so they have just not been presented accurately on this set.
As I explain in "You Can't Judge A Book By It's Cover" elsewhere in issue 13 of Wavelength, there are only 4 actual Alternates altogether. By Alternate we mean a totally separate recording - a different take with a new backing and with Van, always unable to sing the same thing the same way twice, varying his vocals considerably. The 4 are "Bring 'Em On In", "Call My Name", "Little Girl", and "Richard Cory". The first and last are correctly presented on this set, but the compilers have used the 45 single take of "Call My Name" twice in error, and so not used the version from Them Again at all.
Then we have the Little Girl problem. The compilers were obviously unaware that Little Girl is an Alternate, even though hinted at in Johnny Rogan, and known about amongst collectors for many years. So, as I mention later on in issue 13 of Wavelength when referring to the original source of the track, the 14 LP [called England's Greatest Hitmakers in the US], Version One with the edited ending has been used by Decca inadvertently for many years and is included here. If the original 14 tape doesn't exist, then surely they could dub off a mint LP and digitally clean it up to get Version One, and then Version Two could be similarly copied from a mint Them LP, if the tapes for the original vinyl no longer exist in the vaults.
What of the other two Alternate Versions included here? Well, both are exactly the same take, and so do not really qualify for such an elevated status. "I'm Gonna Dress In Black", has a 5 second longer fadeout on Version 2 and, similarly, "One More Time" is an Alternate only by virtue of it being released in true stereo in the States, and mono here. "I'm Gonna Dress" is incorrectly labelled as previously unreleased, but it is the longer version as included on many European compilations.
So quibbles aside, the packaging, photos and memorabilia are excellent. Each version of THEM is given a photo (except the very first which never recorded), and the band members are identified - a superb idea for those of us who have always wondered who was what. Now perhaps some collector out there will tell me that the names are wrong! Like the Remasters discussed above the sound is as fresh and upfront as we are ever going to get for these recordings, so any THEM fan will need this set (particularly as this the only THEM material available until next year). Recommended, with reservations.
Notes from 20 December 1997 issue of ICE, via Carlo in Berkeley:
PolyGram Chronicles has January 13 slated for the double CD The Story of THEM Featuring Van Morrison. The comprehensive set has already been released overseas and features newly remastered sound, including "Gloria" in stunning stereo. But the British set had a couple of minor errors which the Chronicles release will correct. The original album versions of "Little Girl," "I Gave My Love a Diamond" and "Call My Name" have been inserted where the British set had alternate takes/mixes of those songs. The American set still has plenty of rarities, however, and will clearly mark alternate takes and mixes where they appear (which the British set didn't). Still, completists may want to seek out the import for at least one reason: the alternate version of "I Gave My Love a Diamond" won't be present on the Chronicles release.
See also the following items:
(as quoted in the liner notes, plus one ("Little Girl") that Decca left off)
Version 2 : (3:41) : Alternate take
Source - UK LP & CD Them Again
Main characteristic - sax & guitar solo, verse 5 begins "When I stepped off the boat"
Reason for another recording - clear drug references in Version 1?
Version 2 : (2:18) : Alternate take
Source - UK LP & CD Them Again
Main characteristic - order of verses changed from Version 1 - verses 2 & 3 transposed. Guitar solo markedly different.
Version 2 : (3:34) : Same take
Source - subsequent releases to Them - (3:34)
Main characteristic - slightly longer fade-out - exactly the same take as Version 1
Version 2 : (2:17) : Alternate take
Source - UK LP Them
Main characteristic - shorter ending, and line 5 is "I walked by your classroom"
Version 2 : (2:45) : Same take
Source - US LP Them Again
Main characteristic - stereo mix - exactly the same take as Version 1
Version 2 : (3:47) : Alternate take
Source - original release unknown
Main characteristic - harmonica intro, slower than Version one.
Now add the new one discovered by Joerg Froescher
Version 2 : Alternate Take :
Source - The Story of Them 2CD set
Main characteristic : Verse 3 Line 2 "In maybe one year's time", ad-libs on fade out significantly different.