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!
“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
The old graveyard
The morning fog
I looked at you
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.
My readers know that I’ve often expressed the wish that I had timed my birth so I could have hit the legal drinking age in the 1960’s. My image of the 60’s is one of liberation on multiple fronts, people fucking with abandon, the greatest explosion of creativity in the history of popular music and no goddamned smoking restrictions! I have a DVD of 1,001 television commercials, so I know for a fact that everyone in the 60’s was walking around smiling and showing off their Lark packs or proudly wearing black eyes for refusing to switch from Tareytons. I’ve always thought that the 60’s would be a perfect environment for someone with my carpe diem attitude and unimaginably free spirit.
After listening to Sunshine Superman, I’m rethinking my position.
Where Dylan goeth, Donovan shall follow, so now he’s got a rock band backing him up. Where The Beatles leadeth, Donovan shall follow, so the album is loaded with sitars. If he had used the rare opportunity of a public open to new musical possibilities to expand musical boundaries (like The Yardbirds, The Beach Boys, Love and so many others did in 1966), I’d have a different take on the album, but the truth is these are largely very dull, simple songs dressed up in funny instruments and hippie regalia. The best songs on the album are elementary three-chord patterns, no more complex than “Louie, Louie.” Even worse, some of the songs are pathetic examples of pandering to the hippie movement and embarrassing episodes of name-dropping in an effort to show the hippies how cool, hip, groovy, out of sight and in-the-know Donovan had become.
It worked. What Mickie Most had done for Herman’s Hermits, he did for Donovan. The single made it to #1 in the states and the U. S. album sold well, proving that even those who had tuned out and dropped out were still susceptible to effective marketing tactics.
My readers also know that my father manipulated me into reviewing two Donovan albums when I was under the influence of the grape. Lots of grapes. I’m now at that uncomfortable point in the process where I realize that I can’t blame him anymore and that getting myself into this mess was my own damned fault.
Fuck! Okay, let’s get this over with.
Let me start with a positive comment. Sunshine Superman is the perfect soundtrack for a hippie-themed soirée as long as you play it in deep background and prevent your guests from attempting to make sense of the lyrics by feeding them plenty of Alice B. Toklas brownies. The patchouli-scented women can dress in headbands and beads and the guys can wear paisley Nehru jackets, moccasins and eau de hashish until the time comes to strip and get down to the love-in.
Translation: it’s a relic that belongs in the Smithsonian basement.
The title track opens the album. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones are listed in the credits, a bit of recognition I hope they find thoroughly embarrassing. If that’s Page on the lead solo, it’s the worst thing he ever did. “Sunshine Superman” is a catchy song but certainly nothing special unless you lived during that period and it formed part of your summer soundtrack. The lyrics are peppered with period clichés (“tripped out” and “blow your little mind”) and a couple of references to superheroes. Yawn. At least the lyrics express a coherent and ebullient expression of love for future wife Linda . . . but if a guy had sung these lyrics for me, I would have laughed him right out of the bedroom. “And take your piece of shit guitar with you,” I would have shouted as his bony ass disappeared through the beaded curtains.
Donovan’s love for Linda takes a medieval turn in the tortuously boring “Legend of a Girl Child Linda.” The only value of this song is in its possible use as a lullaby, because it can put even the most extreme insomniac to sleep in less than a minute. The lyrics primarily consist of absurd combinations of visual effects. The first verse:
I will bring you gold apples and grapes made of rubies
That have shone in the eyes of a prince of the breeze
Bright cascading crystals, they danced in the sand dunes
On the beach of no footprints to harpsichord tunes
There’s absolutely zero poetic discipline or Keats’ negative capability in these lyrics: they’re a goulash of shiny baubles with no meaning. How do you eat a grape made of rubies? What’s a prince of the breeze? Wouldn’t the roar of the ocean drown out an unamplified instrument like the harpsichord? It gets worse. Completely oblivious to the concept of cruelty to animals, Donovan sings proudly of “a throne of white ivory.” Later, another fucking seagull appears (see my review of Fairytale for my comments on this despicable image) and children dance and scratch their heads . . . either because they’re entirely confused as to what the fuck Donovan is singing about or because they’re trying to get the seagull poop out of their hair. This self-indulgent mess goes on for almost seven minutes!
I knew it wouldn’t take long for the raga dudes to show up, and sure enough, a sitar accompanies Donovan’s vocal on “Three King Fishers.” Still fascinated with baubles, he gives us the inexplicable line: “Oh, I dreamed you were a jewel/Sitting on golden crown on my head, my head, my head.” I think he should have seen a shrink about that dream. Predictably, Donovan expands the predictable melody with a touch of Indian dissonance, giving the song an aura of mystical meaning. Not a bad idea, since there is no meaning in the lyrics.
Magicians call that technique “sleight of hand.”
“Ferris Wheel” is sort of a faux Caribbean-Indian tune with bizarre lyrics that tell of his girl getting her hair caught in the ferris wheel. Ouch! His comforting words for the girl are anything but comforting:
Far off as it seems your hair will mend
With a Samson’s strength to begin again.
Take time and dry your pretty eyes,
Watch the seagull fly far-off skies
To build its nest in the ferris wheel on top.
Enough with the fucking seagulls already! I leave this song with horrid images of the poor girl with a bleeding scalp in the comforting arms of a devilishly grinning Donovan. Yuck.
“Bert’s Blues” is the bluesy-jazzy song on the album, completely ruined by the incredibly poor decision to spice it up with a harpsichord. Yes, that famous blues-jazz instrument, the harpsichord! Donovan threw in one or two of these songs on every album; this one’s reminiscent of the earlier “Cuttin’ Out” at first, then turns into “Sunny Goodge Street” with cellos in the middle. The fucking seagull shows up about halfway through, a string quartet (or approximation thereof) pops in with no particular place to go, and Lucifer makes a guest appearance on his way to Hades. All the marijuana in the world couldn’t save this turkey.
Finally (thank God!) we get to “Season of the Witch,” easily the best track on the album with its blessedly uncomplicated arrangement and excellent groove. The lyrics aren’t much in terms of meaning or significance, but they work with the feel and are a kick to sing. I’ve seen the song criticized for having only two chords (no, a third chord appears in the chorus), but that’s like criticizing a blues song for sticking to a twelve bar pattern. The song has been covered a billion times, but Donovan’s version holds up surprisingly well in comparison. Listening to it made me wonder what he might have become if he’d explored his R&B side a bit more instead of becoming a flower in the garden; “Hey Gyp” was a pretty good song, too (though I like Eric Burdon’s take better).
Oh well, that didn’t happen because Donovan just had to be the hippest of the hipsters. The horribly lame “The Trip” allegedly describes an acid trip in LA, but his references to Fellini and “Bobby” Dylan tell me he made the whole thing up. Further evidence is the jarring inclusion of a verse of medieval images, which tells me he had some song fragments lying around and decided to throw them together to create a psychedelic stew. This loser is followed by full-blown indulgence in his medieval fantasies in “Guinevere.” Here (as he did on Fairytale) he substitutes colors for thought (maroon, indigo, white) and paints a rather incomplete image of the lady in question. I should add that at this stage, his manipulation of syllable accents is becoming quite tiresome. I cringe every time he sings “foreboDING skies.” Was he attempting a bit of onomatopoeia to emulate a bell? Why not use a real one? This phonic manipulation would become a common Donovanian stylistic choice in the future, another indication of a poor lyricist who lost his copy of Roget’s.
The most offensive song in the lot is “The Fat Angel,” where Donovan practically begs for a place in the pantheon of hippie heroes. Once you get past more accent manipulation (“consenTING”) and irrelevant use of color (why a silver bike?), you find a song full of gratuitous drug references (“happiness in a pipe,” “blow your mind,” “Captain High at your service”) written by a trend-seeking missile (“Fly Trans-Love Airways,” “Fly Jefferson Airplane”). Donovan said he had Mama Cass Elliot in mind when he wrote the song, but since there’s no mention in the lyrics of a disgusting fat broad who made no meaningful contribution to music whatsoever, I have to conclude that this another example pandering to the trendy.
Dad, if you ask me to review a Mamas and the Papas album, I’ll cut your frigging nuts off.
The album thankfully closes (hooray!) with “Celeste,” a song I adored when I was an innocent pre-pubescent. Sigh. Well, it’s still a pretty song and features one of the more coherent arrangements on the album, with celeste and harpsichord complementing the medievally-tinged story line. The medieval tinge is probably what fascinated me when I was a little girl (I thought I deserved to be a princess until my mother cleared that shit out of my head), but now I see how the Arthurian references detract from the main theme of expressing empathy for someone going through a difficult period of change. What could have been a moving piece of musical poetry (à la “Hey Jude”) is sapped of its power by too many Donovanian clichés: crystals, princesses, magic wands (but thankfully no fucking seagulls). There is one moment in the song where it sounds like he might be getting sick and tired of the fantasy he’s peddling:
There’s no magic wand in a perfumed hand,
It’s a pleasure to be true.
Unfortunately, that proves to be wishful thinking, as he follows that couplet with more fairytale fluff:
In my crystal halls a feather falls
Being beautiful just for you.
“Celeste” is still a keeper, though, and a nice way to end this medieval relic of an album.
Donovan was likely extremely gratified when Peter, Paul and Mary mentioned him in the same verse with The Beatles in “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” their hopelessly corny attempt to show they were still relevant. They mentioned Mama Cass, too, the poor dumb bastards. Anyway, my whole take on Donovan is that when the schoolmaster told him, “Leitch, be a leader not a follower,” his brain reversed the word order. That’s probably why it took him so long to get into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, an institution known for its exceptionally low entry standards.
This ends my brief (not brief enough) fling with Mr. Leitch. I will not do Mellow Yellow (and “Sunny South KensingTON”), the pretentious A Gift from a Flower to the Garden, The Hurdy Gurdy Man (tip: you can imitate his voice on the title track by jiggling your belly with your fingers just below the diaphragm while singing), Barabajagal or whatever the fuck he did after that. I have fulfilled my obligation to my father and have maintained my status as an honorable woman. Thank you for your patience and understanding.
Oh, one more thing . . .