Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Them—
The Story of Them Feat. Van Morrison


Released 1997 on Deram
The Seth Man, January 2004ce
There was something alive and wriggling in the dimly lit Maritime Hotel...a shining light that burned tiny but hard, deep within the enclosure of the nighttime Belfast gloom of the early sixties. Something “defiant, angry, sad”; Something that lit a warming fire in the brains, breasts and balls of bored and boozy teenagers of Erin. Something called...THEM: an electric R&B, keyboard-based ensemble with exemplary guitars and fronted by a small, young man whose voice dwarfed even his hang-ups by expressing a life of ever-diminishing returns without any bitterness at all. And this unit was a proponent that expressed a distinctly sullen teen isolation that spent most of its time walking and talking while merging into the mystic and not even knowing it.

All of Them’s finest moments are finally available in a 2-CD set that is as complete a compiled affair as was ever issued on the band. You not only get all of their high water marks but it’s back-filled with their remaining recorded legacy, which is as good as anything laid down of 1964-66 vintage to total 50 tracks comprising their entire 2.5-year stretch with Van Morrison at the hollering helm. And although it may seem like overkill, it’s so chock full of solid songwriting, covers that sound like originals and originals that sound like nothing you’ve heard before (except for intermittent flashes of Animals and Stones) with Van’s heart full of soul vox delivering the goods every time. Plus, Them were a tremendously singular and accomplished group with a sound that was distinctive though not confined to any one formula. And even the steady stream of changing personnel that poured through their ranks didn’t diminish the lively qualities of their output at all. In fact, whatever configuration of membership backing Van at the time always seemed perfectly right on with what he was projecting vocally as they fell into his hugely stentorian wail of troubled syllables with arrangements that ranged from exuberance to dark, mean and moody magnificence that slapped up against soul standards while everything merged into nothing less than a primary source responsible for the garage punk explosion of 1966 as much as the usual suspects.

As might be guessed, the most powerful and unifying element of this material is Van Morrison himself, cos Brother Van is givin’ it his all and there ain’t nothing left post-session to perch on his chest like a Redon goblin nightmare ‘cause he’s wrung himself clean of EVERYTHING: every hang up, every sorrow, every scrap of worry, you name it (Of course, that’s not to say by the very next morning he probably had a whole new headful of ideas driving him insane but at least for the moment he had cleared his mental deck big time.) And he does it by howlin’, bawlin’ and tossing in loose syllables whenever they’d add a little something, give the rhythm a little something to think about or to intuitively contour the emotional colouration just so. In fact, Van’s acting up all down the road over women, lack of women, lack of funds, etc. but YELPING it out in such an uncontrollable yet controlled manner that was entirely untroubled by refinement in any degree.

And for “Gloria” alone I hold Morrison in the highest possible regard as a rock’n’roll writer. And what really, really makes it is he writes it like he sings it -- from the gut. Or rather, from a diaphragm located several miles beneath the centre of the earth. And if you don’t know it, I’ll spew it out for yew:

“GEE-EL-OH-AR-EYE-AY...!!!”

“Philosophy” is taken from a 1965 EP with an early glimpse of Morrison’s ever-reoccurring theme of ‘walking and talking.’ Likewise, his atmospheric late night amble of “One Two Brown Eyes” that opens with the great line, “When at last I walkin’...” and the intro is the very one The Doors took on for “Break On Through” -- the very same weird cosmic bossa nova beat driving down the centre, absolutely-positively yes-way, Ho-Say. Only here background sparkling organ tones gently imitating a nighttime apron of stars that twinkle gently as a needling slide guitar skitters and ricochets off into the darkness and Morrison (Van, not Jim) is at his whispering-to-stentorian best here.

Their second single featured the furiously neck-breaking paces of the R&B classic, “Baby Please Don’t Go” -- on which either session man Little Jimmy Page or Them guitarist Billy Harrison played (I’m mentioning both because for all the contention over who laid down that razor sharp riffing in question, neither guitarist has ever really cleared it up beyond vague recall.) “Baby Please Don’t Go” is an absolute driving KILLER: The bass line’s a swooping gas, the guitars insanely cross-stitch and Van gives possibly one of the best studio performances of his career...And this is only the A-side of what is Them’s most incendiary single of all because the B-side was (get this) “Gloria” until it was quickly transposed over to the A-side.

The year 1965 saw the release of Them’s biggest Transatlantic hit, “Here Comes The Night” and it wells up again and again into a larynx throttling vocal sweatstorm that barely observes the niceties of the pop idiom of the day (because Them didn’t) but for the sweet Latin-tinged guitar bridge. Morrison’s own “All For Myself” is living proof that the blues ain’t a colour/it’s a feeling; loosely based on the evergreen template of Muddy Waters’ “She’s All Right” raved up to its dramatic end. “One More Time” finds Morrison testifying as though from the confines of the deepest and dankest cavern with a voice so heavily drenched in echo, it’s nearly tangible. Another Morrison original, “Little Girl” is like “96 Tears” played by earliest version of The Doors but only if they were from Detroit. Especially with that phrasing Van free-forms in: “And miles and miles...of golden sand...A-walkin’, a-talkin’...a-hand in hand...” for these are the same distinct tones that Jim Osterberg would later intone his ‘burning sands’ line in on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (If you think I’m getting too far out on this one, think again: In 1986, Iggy penned a list of his aural faves that was published in the book “The Wild One: The True Story of Iggy Pop” and it included Them’s “Mystic Eyes.” In furtherance of this equation, The Amboy Dukes covered “Baby Please Don’t Go,” Ted Nugent kept it in his set list at least until “Double Live Gonzo” while The MC5 covered Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything” for their first single.) Then everything goes haywire when Van proclaims over “I got you...IN MAH SOUL!!!” to the point of bursting.

The proto-psychedelic instrumental “Mystic Eyes” begins as a rollicking, mouth harp-driven, instrumental raver until Van cuts in a third of the way with free associations to match that magic Sunday walk with his girlfriend past the old graveyard. “I’m Gonna Dress In Black” sees distinctly “St. James Infirmary”/“House of The Rising Sun” vibes copped in order to set Van’s tail on fire with a rendition of this tale of lovelorn monastic retreat that is a dirge and a half. Plus, the vocals are far more ‘miserable’ than Eric Burdon, belted out over sinewy descending organ lines that only build against the steady pendulum of the bass and drums. “Just A Little Bit” is a “Smokestack Lightnin’’” rave up while “You Just Can’t Win” is like Them’s very own “Play With Fire” but far gloomier and with far more boisterous vocals as the return of that king-size echo makes each and every word boom out like a reverbed cannonade. The fantastically simple, hook-laden stomp “Call My Name” was their last major hit, while “Turn On Your Lovelight” is their classic, sex-starved blow out.

Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” is a cover that becomes more a track by the band playing it rather than a niggling reminder that you’d rather be listening to the original. Even The Chocolate Watchband purloined Them’s arrangement for their own version while Joy Division copped the both keyboard melody and emotion and then sustained it for the entirety of “Decades.” And as for “I Can Only Give You Everything,” it stabs out startlingly unlike everything else they ever recorded: That organ that drops in for the second verse and the way it re-edges back into the main verse with that snarling fuzztone guitar on top? Like that?! Amazing.