Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b George Ivan Morrison, 31 August 1945, Belfast, Northern Ireland) Singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader. A great troubadour who has married lyrics, tunes, and arrangements influenced by folk, soul and R&B into a style that is not a hybrid but unique and his own, its most compelling component an almost unbearable nostalgia, transmuted into art by talent. He is one of the few artists of the rock era to whom critics can accurately ascribe genius. He is scornful of the music press and the record business, rarely grants interviews; like Dylan, he knows that the important thing is the music, and that fans who want revelation are missing the point. He grew up influenced by his father's record collection (including Leadbelly, Hank Williams) while the Beatles were listening to Buddy Holly; he left school at 15, joined the Monarchs, played rigorous gigs in Germany, returned to Belfast and formed Them. He disbanded '66 because the music business would not allow the band simply to be what it was, and he had also learned the necessity for complete control over the recording process (the profusion/confusion of Them LPs on several labels is a good example of what the record business will do to you if you don't watch out).

Bert Berns had been impressed by Morrison's handling of Berns's 'Here Comes The Night', sent him a one-way ticket to NYC; they worked on Morrison's first LP Blowin' Your Mind '67, reissued under many titles; Morrison was scornful about the finished product, though it included a top ten hit with engaging 'Brown Eyed Girl' and offers insight into his early creative process (tracks from this period too have been subject to recycling in various forms). Following Berns's sudden death he was stranded in NYC, signed a solo deal and taped Astral Weeks in 48 hours, one of the decade's most haunting, engigmatic albums, regularly featuring in critics' list of the all-time best, his Celtic mysticism played against largely string-based instrumentation, with 'Madame George' and 'Cyprus Avenue' regarded as classics. Moondance '70 was overall more integrated, with a harder, brass-based lineup; the title track has Morrison a first-rate jazz singer, followed by beautiful, gently rocking, richly lyrical 'Into The Mystic', famous 'Caravan'. Van Morrison, His Band And Street Choir '70 was lighter and optimistic, including the hit 'Domino'; Tupelo Honey '71 mellower still, with celebratory 'I Wanna Roo You' and 'Moonshine Whiskey'. He guested on the Band's Cahoots '71 (later appeared in their valedictory Last Waltz film/ concert/album '76 singing 'Caravan'). Saint Dominic's Preview '72 returned to the brooding mysticism of Astral Weeks, including a marathon 'Almost Independence Day', exuberant 'Jackie Wilson Said (I'm In Heaven When You Smile)' (covered by Dexy's Midnight Runners for an '83 hit). Hardnose The Highway '73 was patchy, though a version of the traditional 'Purple Heather' was definitive, 'Warm Love' a minor hit. It's Too Late To Stop Now '74 was a two-disc live set: he insisted that every note be live, not tinkered with in the studio; the result is regarded as one of rock's best live albums. Veedon Fleece same year was a result of his first visit to Belfast in eight years, and as beguiling as Astral Weeks, though some fans were baffled by inscrutable lyrics.

A hiatus was filled with rumours: an album's worth of material with the Crusaders was scrapped; he tried various combinations of musicians, settled on Mac Rebbenack for A Period Of Transition '77, flawed by some uncertainty, but including the notable 'The Eternal Kansas City' and 'Flamingos Fly'. Wavelength '78 was altogether more successful and Into The Music '79 a serene and contemplative work, as was the beautiful Common One '80, including a marathon 15-minute 'Summertime In England', benign 'Haunts Of Ancient Peace'. With the new decade he seemed to enter artistic rebirth: Beautiful Vision '82 again revelled in Celtic background and featured the swinging, cheerful, autobiographic 'Cleaning Windows', also 'She Gives Me Religion', 'Dweller On The Threshold'. Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart '83 included an inscrutable 'Rave On, John Donne', wistful 'Cry For Home'. Live At The Royal Opera House, Belfast '84 drew on recent material; the immaculately executed concert recording was regarded as disappointing by critics who wanted new stuff. A Sense Of Wonder '85 was impeccable, notably the title track and 'Tore Down A La Rimbaud'; No Guru, No Method, No Teacher '86 was a return to Celtic feeling, with 'Tir Na Nog' and 'One Irish Rover'.

An honest working man whose work happened to transcend category, he was described as enigmatic because the work must speak for itself; if he could explicate the songs he wouldn't have to write them, and he was not required to talk about himself with anyone who knocks on the door. With Poetic Champions Compose '87 he was beginning to repeat himself, but not yet becoming tiresome; Irish Heartbeat '88 was by 'Van Morrison and the Chieftains', obviously a labour of love; Avalon Sunset '89 was a combination of religiosity and Celtic feeling, a sort of superior New Age music. He carried on with Enlightenment '90, Hymns Of The Silence '91, Too Long In Exile '93, and seemed to be running out of steam. How Long Has This Been Going On '95 on Verve was made in London, a tribute to his roots, with Georgie Fame, Alec Dankworth, Robin Aspland on piano, guests such as Alan Skidmore and Annie Ross (he had also recorded with Chet Baker at Ronnie Scott's). Days Like This '95 had horns arranged by Pee Wee Herman and duets with his daughter Shana on two tracks. He organized and performed on Tell Me Something: Songs Of Mose Allison '96 on Exile, a tribute album with Allison, Ben Sidran and Fame; he had guested on John Lee Hooker albums and produced Don't Look Back '97; his own The Healing Game '97 with Herman again was another set of songs that mostly didn't seem quite finished, as though he were content to lie back on his persona: 'Anonymity is all I want you see/ You may think it's mediocrity' was a lyric to make us wonder if he should retire, but, again like Dylan, there are always enough bright spots to keep fans listening.

Further albums have been Back On Top '99, The Skiffle Sessions--Live in Belfast 1998 2000 with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber, You Win Again the same year with Linda Gail Lewis, Down The Road 2002, What's Wrong With This Picture? 2003, Magic Time 2005, Pay The Devil 2006 and Keep It Simple 2008. Astral Weeks: Live At The Hollywood Bowl was to be released in February 2009, also with a two-disc vinyl edition, and a concert-film DVD to follow, an elaborate recreation of the classic album with a large orchestra of world-class musicians, some of whom played on the original, absolutely live with no editing or fooling around, on his own EMI/Listen to the Lion label. As usual, he was doing it his way: 'There are certain dynamics that you can get in live recordings that you just cannot get in the studio...You get the whole thing right there, unabridged, raw and in the moment.'

It's Too Late To Stop Now '74 was remastered and reissued in 2016 by Sony Legacy, packaged with three previously unreleased albums and a DVD. The original live concert album had him showcasing his two previous albums, Saint Dominic's Preview and Hard Nose The Highway, as well as covering songs by Bobby Blue Bland, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson; the three new albums added Louis Prima, Little Willie John and Kermit the Frog (we're not kidding), all drawn from the same series of concerts, covering almost his entire career to that point, mixing forms, celebrating all his influences and ignoring rock's already stodgy orthodoxy, with an excellent jazz-flavoured band called the Caldonian Soul Orchestra, including Jeff Labes on piano and David Hayes on bass: it was all a reminder of "greatness in its prime", wrote Jim Fusilli in the Wall Street Journal.