While in any parallel universe worth its salt the presence of one George Ivan (aka “Van”) Morrison emitting teenage energy like a radioactive isotope would have guaranteed success, instead a fateful synchronicity of record company meddling, constantly shifting lineups
and comparatively unpolished public personas led to the initial band’s breakup by 1966 (though music was released under the Them moniker, sans Morrison, for several additional years), without a single Top Ten entry in U.S. Charts and only two in the U.K. -- “Gloria” plus “Here Comes The Night” (while a top U.S. hit did happen with “Gloria,” it was in an inferior version by the Shadows of Night).
In retrospect, Van Morrison’s early, unique development of an expressive, nuanced style would likely have been at least partially fettered in any contractually-controlled, democratic ‘band’ environment, and with gems such as the single “Brown Eyed Girl” and the LP Astral Weeks coming soon after leaving Them, followed by a prolific career that shows no signs of abating, it’s hard to grieve too deeply for the demise of Them – but not their continued obscurity.
Described by some as a cross between early Stones and The Animals given their full-blooded embrace of R&B and frequent use of a swirling organ, in fact Them were, even in their short inception, nearly the equal of the Stones in pairing biting blues exercises with a uniquely powerful vocalist, and the greatest crime in Sixties music is the continued greater knowledge of The Animals among U.S. listeners.
Those familiar only with post-Tupelo Honey Morrison might be bowled over by the powerful, often snarling delivery of a 19-20 year old Van, clearly an homage to the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, often threatening to overwhelm the sensitive preamps of the era. Even more astonishing is his pace of development – while on early exercises like 1964’s “One, Two Brown Eyes” he spat out the vocals like superfluous cherry pits, by 1965 his range had broadened to allow the refined shading of “Here Comes The Night” or the breadth of expression seen in “One More Time,” ranging from soulful and heartbroken to determined and nearly vengeful – all in the scope of a single tune.
Van Morrison was surely one of the finest white R&B vocalist of the Sixties. While some may claim Mick Jagger benefited from initially stronger original songwriting (e.g., “What a Shame”, “Heart of Stone”), by 1966 Van had seriously muddied that argument, having penned the likes of “One More Time”, “You Just Can’t Win” and “Hey Girl.” Moreover, there was none of the barely concealed self-parody employed by Mick in such items as “Under My Thumb” – no, Van Morrison seemed deadly serious every second of every side from the count-in to the fade-out.
While it would be unfair to give VM all the credit for Them’s output, the rapidly changing lineup (nearly a dozen rosters from inception through final form) and frequent drafting of studio musicians by Decca (to save money by minimizing re-takes) allows disputes to remain to this day regarding who played what on specific backing tracks (including appearances by Jimmy Page). Certainly underrated among Sixties musicians was guitarist Billy Harrison, who occasionally used a thimble for a slide effect, and produced the menacing riffs that pepper early Them singles. Organ duties hot-potatoed over the years between Eric Wrixen, Pat/Jackie McAuley, Peter Bardens and Ray Elliot, an important sonic element to the Them sound, applied in roughly similar fashion as with The Animals.
Despite varying personnel, Them records are remarkably consistent in producing a high level of musicianship, especially in the guitar breaks, which present nary an unneeded note, and maintain a level of excitement equaling Morrison’s enthusiasm, passing the baton back to him at just the ideal moment.
As it stands virtually nothing from Them remains in print on CD, with just a handful of available MP3s (at least through legitimate means). The best single bet, providing nearly 100% of essential Them, is The Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison, a 50-track double disk powerhouse that, as this goes to press, can be had for as little as $35 used through eBay or Amazon’s Marketplace, or up to $120 for earlier pressings.
Even on an early single, Joe Williams’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” from 1964, Them’s trademark sound was fully formed: bubbling organ, insistent rhythm section, lively harmonica fills, punchy bass and loud, slashing guitar runs, with a 19-yr-old Morrison shout-singing “baby, please don’t go down to New Orleans.” “How Long Baby” from 1966 employs similar organ arpeggios as The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” though slightly more muted, above which VM belts out the lyric with complete authority.
At the same time, ballads such as John Lee Hooker’s “Don’t Look Back” were tackled with equal aplomb, though by this time (1965) Van’s unique style was an instrument unto itself, taking command of a lyric in a manner that only Jagger could approach. On Bert Berns’ “(It Won’t Hurt) Half as Much” he effortlessly meshes deliberate couplets with semi-improvisational spoken word breaks, evidencing a remarkable range.
Above all else, three Them cover performances stake their claim as among the best interpretations the Sixties had to offer. Their version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You” may never be equaled, with the rhythm section slinking along in understated fashion, embellished by Ray Elliot’s piercing saxophone swells and put over the top by an intense, nearly evil vocal performance by Van that covers as full a dynamic range as possible, including a scat-singing duet with the horn.
One of the most ‘tactile’ Sixties recordings is Them’s run-through of James Brown’s “Out of Sight,” with a bass-kick sound that resembles a refrigerator being lifted and repeatedly dropped on a rubber mat between the vocal exhortations (“got your high-heeled sneakers on”). Not far behind is their cover of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” that adopts a paradoxical fusion of relaxed intensity that lopes along quite powerfully.
In the end, the Morrison-penned originals impress the most, tracks that deserve to be better known. In their hard-driving midtempo splendor, “My Lonely Sad Eyes” and “Could You, Would You” sport tight, insistent rhythms, gloriously brushed with vibrato-laden organ trills, and guitars employed as much for percussion as coloration, Van’s vocals achieving their absolute apex in a Them uniform, introducing his soon-to-be-trademark method of lagging intentionally then catching up in windswept, staccato bursts, holding key notes here and there in perfectly judged, soulful performances.
And while hindsight is always troublesome, those looking for the seeds of Astral Weeks have a number of signposts, including “Hey Girl”, with gentle, supportive flutes and the lyric a mix of innocent and suggestive elements shaded expertly in the verses then shouted jubilantly in the chorus – “Hey!! Heyyyy, girl. You’re so young …” proving that speed isn’t necessary for power.
The ultimate Them track, perhaps the most underrated of Morrison’s entire output, is “Friday’s Child,” which seems to have it all – soaring, churchly organ, a memorable, anthem-like guitar riff, poignant piano fills, a powerfully economic guitar break and a vocal only Van could bring us:
From the North to the South, you walked all the way.
You know you left your home, left your home for good to stay,
while you built all of your castles in the sun.
And I watched you knock 'em down --
knock 'em down, each and every one.
Friday's child, you can't stop now.
And I watched you before you 'came too old,
and I told you, a long time before you ever came to be told:
"You've got something that they all want to know.
You got to hold on, and never ever let go."
Whoa, Friday's child, you can't stop now.
There you go, there you go-- rainbows hanging ‘round your feet.
And you're makin' out,
you're makin' out with everyone that you meet.
You’re even having a ball, and staying up late,
and watched the sun come up
'round Nottinghill Gate.
Whoa, Friday's child, you can't stop now.
As we know from the classic “Monday’s Child” poem, Friday’s Child is “loving and giving,” and in this case it seems she may be a bit too giving for the narrator’s liking. Though the words represent a straightforward rock lyric, not at all self-consciously poetic, enough subtlety is present, both in words and delivery, to suggest the observer is torn, both predicting and exhorting her to freedom (“you cannot stop”) while secretly wishing she’d retain her innocence, and remain in a sandcastle-building phase (“you’ve got something that they all want to know, you’ve got to hold on and never let go”), but in the end it’s too late, youth is gone and she’s “watched the sun come up.”
No band since Them has better combined poetry with economy, with tracks that are at once both understated and sledgehammered, powerfully drawn without a note out of place, led by one of the century’s most unique vocal talents. Why so few have noticed is a greater mystery than the pyramids.