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.
I’ll give you a very brief summary of what I did during my month-long absence, focusing on how it impacts my work here at altrockchick.com:
- The first week was spent in Côte d’Ivoire at what Westerners would call a “battered women’s center” or “domestic violence assistance center.” All I can tell you right now is that I was thankful I wore no makeup at all during the trip, because I cried myself to sleep every night. I’m still processing the experience and may write about it later.
- Then I met my sweetie on Gran Canaria island, where we stayed for a week in a little bungalow near the beach. She had always wanted to take me to the Canaries, because she has fond memories from family vacations taken there during her youth. I slept for two days straight, holding her close to me and healing from the Côte d’Ivoire experience. We spent the next day visiting a bird sanctuary and soaking in the hot tub, then my mojo returned and we spent the last four days fucking.
- After the passion play, we flew to Madrid and spent a week with her family. Her brother is a big Kinks fan, so I promised him I’d review Other People’s Lives as soon as I got back to writing. Mission accomplished!
- We then flew to Nice and spent the rest of the holidays with my mother and father, which brings us back quite nicely to altrockchick.com.
Long before I was born, my anti-capitalist parents imposed a rule on the purchase of Christmas gifts. From the beginning of their relationship, they agreed that they would spend no more than twenty dollars on Christmas gifts for the other. They extended that rule to me, but by the time I came around, the massive inflation of the 1970’s had raised the price to forty dollars. After I cheated a little bit a few years ago ($44.95!), they agreed to raise the price to fifty bucks. With the move to Europe, we agreed to a converted limit of €40.
This means you must think hard about the kind of gifts you select, because you have to create maximum meaning with limited resources. With that in mind, I bought my mother a hardcover copy of Histoire d’O to thank her for helping to turn me into a pervert, and a leather peek-a-boo thong (a thong with a strategically placed hole to allow clitoral access). Wasn’t that sweet? My dad certainly approved and shouted, “Try it on, Nique!” My mother gave him her cold stare that could cut through ten feet of steel and haughtily replied, “I am not an exhibitionist like your daughter.” She then thanked me and gave me a sly little wink.
For my dad, knowing how much he misses baseball, I bought biographies of Smoky Joe Wood and the Waner brothers, and because he’s a huge Sandy Denny fan, a replacement vinyl copy of Sandy. My mother shied away from sex toys for her daughter and instead bought me The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Dexter Gordon’s Our Man in Paris and Art Blakey’s Moanin’. My dad knocked it out of the park with the biography Walter Johnson: The Big Train and three CD collections of British Invasion bands.
“Hint, hint,” he remarked.
The purpose of the gift was to remind me that I hadn’t dealt with the 60’s British invasion groups who faded from the scene—bands like The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Them (Northern Ireland is a part of the U. K.), The Dave Clark Five, The Hollies, Peter & Gordon, Chad & Jeremy, Freddie and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Manfred Mann and The Zombies. I have avoided them because these are the bands he grew up with. People are very attached to the music of their teens and get very ornery when critics, even critics who are family members, pan the work of their childhood heroes. I completely understand the attachment to the music of our adolescence—it’s the music you heard the first time you received or gave a positive answer to the question, “Is it in?” Puberty heightens all the senses, so it makes sense that we would find the music associated with body odor, menstruation, pimples and wet dreams endlessly intoxicating.
I know my dad will never get off my ass if I don’t go there, so here’s the deal. Over the next three weeks I’m going to do a series I call “The British Invasion and The American Counterattack.” I’ve identified five Invasion bands and three American groups who were on the front lines during this epic engagement. Some were pretty good; others are included because I simply can’t ignore them in the context of the times. Even with such generous criteria, I could only identify three American bands from that era who had any kind of historical significance. The great American music of the mid-1960’s was soul music, not rock music, and the only songwriter the Americans produced who could compete with The British was Bob Dylan, a genre-crosser. Given that, I won’t leave you in suspense as to who won the transatlantic war of the rockers—The British, by a very comfortable margin.
This may be a difficult thing for the Yanks to accept. Many Americans still believe they have never lost a war, conveniently ignoring historical facts that indicate otherwise. However, they never suffered as crushing a defeat as they did in the face of The British Invasion, both commercially and artistically. In 1965, the British had half the #1 songs on Billboard and on May 8 had nine of the top ten songs on the Hot 100. In 1966, the Americans shooed the British out of the year-end top ten entirely (the top fifteen, actually), but their counterattack was orchestrated by non-combatants: Sgt. Barry Sadler (number fucking one!), Nancy Sinatra, Daddy Frank, The Righteous Brothers and Roger Williams. The Supremes, The Four Tops and Jimmy Ruffin made it, demonstrating that Motown and the other soul labels had more firepower than the American rock scene at the time. Only two American rock bands (using the term loosely) made the list: The Monkees and The Lovin’ Spoonful. Not a particularly strong showing from American rockers. The Mamas and the Papas earned two slots, but they were neither rockers nor a group to be taken seriously.
By 1966, though, the battlefield had shifted to albums, and The British clearly had the advantage there. British rock musicians seemed endlessly inventive, exploring new sounds and styles while Americans were returning to the past, in some cases rediscovering blues and in other cases seeking solace in country, bluegrass and other down home derivatives. This is what led to Credence Clearwater Revival’s dominance in the late 1960’s, a development that told me that the Americans had given up and gone home, because that music wasn’t going to lead anywhere but to the past.
So, Ready Steady Go! The British are coming!
Reviews in this series:
The Best of the Monkees