Classic Music Review: The Story of Them

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Them is a problematic band for the music critic, for two reasons.

First, the general consensus is that they were a better live band than a studio band, but very few live recordings exist: a classic case of “you had to be there but you weren’t.” Okay . . . so what do I do with that piece of useless information when all I have are studio recordings?

Second, the members were frequently replaced on the recordings by studio musicians, so most of the time there’s no way of knowing if that’s Billy Harrison on lead guitar or Jimmy Page or a drunk who happened to stumble into the studio. AllMusic opines that on their second album, “To this day, nobody knows who played . . . other than Van Morrison and bassist Alan Henderson.” Studio substitution was certainly not unique to Them—it was a very common practice on both sides of the pond in the 60’s—but it makes it difficult to answer the question, “How good are these fucking guys, anyway?”

What is known is Them followed the same pattern of The Stones and The Animals by starting their recording career with a heavy emphasis on covers of R&B, blues and soul classics. The difference is that they performed those songs with a rougher edge, probably a result of Van Morrison’s deep grounding in R&B and the band’s Belfast origins. The Troubles were still a few years away, but Belfast in the early 1960’s was a declining relic of the Industrial Revolution like many other cities in the U. K. Its status as a port made it a virtual twin of Liverpool, and the youth in both cities liked their music rough and sweaty. Them mixed gritty R&B covers with primitive Van Morrison originals, and what you hear on this extended album is about a 50-50 split.

I’m sorry, but that’s such a weird sentence: “Them mixed covers . . . ” I feel like I’m writing in Klingon or one of the ancient Aztec languages that used the rare object-verb-subject linguistic typology. It will try to get over I.

Them released only two albums before Morrison went solo. The Angry Young Them is a garage rock classic, and most of the songs that people associate with Them came from that period. The follow-up album—Them Again—failed to chart in the U. K. and didn’t do dick in the U. S. That album is less garage than their maiden album, and its touches of folk and jazz have led many to consider the record a rehearsal for Van Morrison’s solo career. The title of this collection implies that Them was Van Morrison, but after his exit some of the other members carried on and became a decent U. S.-based psychedelic group before fading in the early 70’s.

Given that The Story of Them compiles songs from two albums in an era when albums weren’t all that important, there’s a lot of filler material on this record. The alternate takes in particular are trivial pursuits, and about half the songs fall into the “okay” category, either because Van Morrison hadn’t fully developed his songwriting skills or because of a relative lack of enthusiasm in the studio. After listening to all 50 tracks three times in succession, I think I can safely say that Them was probably a great house band, and if you were lucky enough to hear them live in the early days, you probably had a good time sweating the night away with the lads.

Fifty tracks amounts to a Them overdose, so I’m going to skip most of the so-so pieces and cover the rest in three groups: the hits, the best covers and the better originals. Allons!

The Hits

“Mystic Eyes”: If there’s one song that hints at what a Them performance might have sounded like, it’s “Mystic Eyes.” Them were famous for extending songs for twenty minutes, letting the improvisational impulse rule the night. In the case of “Mystic Eyes,” the band was just fucking around in the studio on an extended instrumental when Van Morrison decided to throw in a fragment of a song he’d been working on. The improvisation was caught on tape and caused some excitement in the booth, but also presented the producer with a serious marketing problem: the song was ten minutes long. This was before “Like a Rolling Stone” opened up the possibility of long singles, so the engineers snipped off most of the seven minutes before Morrison enters and cut off a slice from the end to get it down to 2:41. The results were so satisfying that “Mystic Eyes” became the opener to The Angry Young Them.

What we have is akin to a fragment of an old photograph, full of tantalizing clues. But what a fragment! The song starts at full throttle with Morrison taking the lead on harmonica, drums pounding, maracas shaking, guitar helping to drive the rhythm. The bass is relatively unnoticeable until about 27 seconds in when Alan Henderson starts a simple run to signal a move. That move comes with high-speed guitar chords, allowing Morrison to lay back for a moment. The build gets more intense, ending with a spine-tingling full-strummed chord dripping with natural distortion that signals a semi-stop-time passage where Morrison returns with harmonica fills that are stunningly melodic and soulful. Billy Harrison (I hope!) plays call-and-response with Morrison with a nifty little lick, then the band lowers the volume for Morrison’s vocal. The lyrical fragment serves to enhance the manic eeriness of the song:

One sunday morning
We’d been walking
Down by
The old graveyard
The morning fog
I looked at you
Yeah
Those mystic eyes

Morrison’s vocal is an expression of lusty fascination with a hint of terror. It’s as if the mystic eyes are taking control of his soul and, like a man on a roller coaster, he doesn’t know whether to scream with delight or pee in his pants. In the background Alan Henderson catches the feeling by extending his bass runs and Billy Harrison (please!) plays high-speed, high-fret licks like he’s consumed with the devil’s fire.

“Gloria”: According to dear old dad, “Gloria” was one of the songs that any garage band had to learn if they wanted to have any credibility with the teenage audience. To prove his point, he played me a snippet of “Gloria” recorded by one of the bands he played with in his teens. It turned out to be an accidental hoot because the lead singer kept forgetting how to spell G-L-O-R-I-A! Once he spelled it G-O-R-I-L-A, leaving him one L short of condemnation by P.E.T.A. as a practitioner of bestiality.

While I like the trebly roughness of the guitar on Them’s version of “Gloria,” I find Patti Smith’s expanded remake a far more compelling experience. I respect Them’s version as a cultural icon, but their “Gloria” lacks the sense of erotic mystery you get with “Mystic Eyes.” Okay, so there’s a chick who stands five-foot-four and likes to visit boys at midnight to give them head. Well, I’m five-foot-four and I used to do that all the time when I was in high school! There’s nothing mysterious about a horny teenager!

“Baby Please Don’t Go”: This was the A-side to “Gloria,” and I’ll take Them’s version of Big Joe Williams’ song over “Gloria” any day. Studio musicians dominate this track, with Ringo tonsillitis replacement Andy White on the drums, a very young Phil Coulter on second keyboard and Jimmy Page on rhythm guitar. But that’s definitely Billy Harrison on lead guitar, bless his heart! Billy’s solos in the intro and instrumental break are garage-superb, and Alan Henderson should get the Nobel Prize for his bass work. Van Morrison is hot on the vocal and on the harp, and the supporting organ makes this a far more compelling listening experience than the B-side.

“Here Comes the Night”: Written by producer Bert Berns, this rhythm-shifting number is the least Them-like of their hits, but allows them to demonstrate surprising versatility. Van Morrison gets the chance to vary his vocal style and pulls it off with aplomb, and the guitar work here combines the chord tones of “Mystic Eyes” with the sound of simple, clean picking. It’s not a song for the dance floor, but it certainly works as a listening experience.

The Best Covers

“(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66”: The Stones’ version of this oft-covered song is better than Nat King Cole’s, but I think Them’s version tops them all. Over a tight rolling piano, Van Morrison steps up and owns this sucker, varying his phrasing with more than a touch of street-wise cheekiness. Them’s version really rocks, and I hope they find missing tapes of Them’s live performances, because I’d love to hear an extended version of this one.

“Don’t Look Back”: This sweet version of a John Lee Hooker number stands out because of Van Morrison’s unusually tender vocal and a piano part I’d describe as pretty and primitive—it sounds like they either ran the piano through a cheap amp or used a knock-off-label electric piano, but whatever it is, the sound is sweet and ear-catching in a curious way. The easy groove makes this song a good slow-dance number.

“How Long Baby”: Them recorded three songs by Them Again producer Tommy Scott, aka M. Gillon. This one’s an organ-driven R&B ballad about a girl who’s been playing the field and humiliating the narrator in the process, but you can stop me if you’ve heard that story a million times before. What turns the trite into a keeper is Van Morrison’s commanding vocal and a delightfully Neanderthal lead guitar on some kind of distorted and flanged vibrato. Okay—so I have a fetish for early electric guitar sound effects. Wanna makes somethin’ of it?

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”: This truncated version of the Bob Dylan classic also features unusual piano effects and a Van Morrison R&B-style vocal that gives the song a refreshing texture. Dylan covers were a dime a dozen in the 60’s, but this is certainly one of the better interpretations from that Zimmerman-obsessed decade.

“Hello Josephine”: Van Morrison really steps up on this Fats Domino number, supported by New Orleans sax and Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano slides. The lead guitar solo is pure garage supported by a nice tube amp tone. My only problem with the track is that it’s too short: they could have easily added another instrumental passage and I wouldn’t have complained.

“Times Getting Tougher Than Tough”: A Jimmy Witherspoon number that would work for someone like Brian Setzer, Van Morrison and the boys thankfully keep the roadside blues house sound of the original, giving us a nice sassy number with a pretty respectable sax solo. The lyrics are a hoot, and kudos to Van Morrison for a snappy lead vocal that doesn’t blur the words in the process.

The Better Originals

“Philosophy”: The “philosophy” is the tired males-can-sow-their-oats-but-chicks-need-to-wear-chastity-belts myth, but the chintzy garage guitar is irresistible. The song also allows Van Morrison to extend his range, and I love it when he soars to the high notes in the melody, backing off the mike just enough to avoid sonic overload.

“One More Time”: Releasing this song as a single caused some dissension in the band, and since the single bombed, the producers should have listened to their artists. While it may not fit the limited criteria for a hit single, it’s a very strong slow dance R&B number with tremolo-heavy arpeggiated chords and an exceptionally rich vocal from Van Morrison. It’s difficult to resist comparisons to Mick Jagger and Eric Burdon while listening to this song, and on this performance, Van leaves them both in the dust.

“You Just Can’t Win”: A minor key delight opening with slightly edgy arpeggiated guitar and superb cymbal work, this song about a girl who has substituted her lower-class origins for life with the jet set is one of Them’s most interesting songs. The chord changes defy expectations and the sudden shift to heavy toms and bass drum on the chorus catches the listener by surprise. I don’t think this is single material, but it is a clever bit of arranging.

“Friday’s Child”: An unusual acoustic guitar number that presages Van Morrison’s solo work, the structure is very Dylanesque and probably borders on plagiarism. Legal issues aside, I love the simplicity of the arrangement and Van Morrison’s passionate vocal. The effect-drenched acoustic guitar solo is another beautiful garage-type experiment, like “Hey, what do these knobs do?” “Cool!”

On a two-disc kitchen sink extravaganza there are going to be some stinkers. Why on earth they chose to cover Paul Simon’s ripoff of “Richard Cory” is beyond me. Them’s version of “I Put a Spell on You” may be more true to the original, but pales in comparison to the Alan Price classic. The very long album opener “The Story of Them Parts 1 and 2” is a self-indulgent yawner and a weak attempt to imbue the band with an in-crowd kind of cachet. It doesn’t work for me because you had to be there and I wasn’t.

Even with the weak tracks, I found the full listening experience pretty satisfying. The album is probably way too much Them for any but the most devoted fan, but I’d rather listen to a whole lot of Them than a whole lot of Freddie and the Dreamers. At their best, they were defiant outsiders, living on the edge of the Swinging Sixties, leaving behind some of the purest guitar-based music of the era.

They call that music “garage” now, and in a world dominated by software and synths, it sounds terribly exciting.

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