Today I listened to a radio interview with Van Morrison that was broadcast on the BBC last week. He does not sound obviously nuts, but I wouldn’t call it insightful, exactly; to say the interviewer is “fawning” would be an understatement. No hard questions are asked, though at one point it is mentioned that some of the song titles on Van’s new album are “weird.”
And I can sympathize with the desire to keep music and politics separate; I generally prefer to do the same. It would have been nice if Van had just written more songs about Tupelo honey and caravans, and he could have — no one put a gun to his head and said, “Write a song about who owns the media, and one about how Western man is losing ground to his inferiors.” At one point in the interview he is heard to claim that the songs are “satire,” a half-assed excuse if ever there was one. If this stuff is supposed to be funny, what is the joke exactly?
The interviewer makes much of the fact that, at 28 songs, Latest Record Project is Van’s longest studio album to date. (And Volume 2 is promised before the end of the year.) This reminds me of nothing so much as the infamous 1968 “revenge” or “contractual obligation” session. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
After leaving Them, Morrison was convinced by producer Bert Berns to come to America and record for Berns’ new label, Bang Records. In March of 1967 he cut eight songs that he thought would be released as a series of singles. Instead, Berns turned them into an album called Blowin’ Your Mind! — a title that Morrison hated — which he adorned with quasi-psychedelic cover art:
But the album sold well and “Brown Eyed Girl” was a big hit, so Van allowed himself to be persuaded to go back into the studio in November, recording nascent versions of some of the songs that would eventually appear on Astral Weeks. Then in December Berns died suddenly of a heart condition, and control of the company went to his widow, Ilene.
Van was eager to move on from the Bang debacle and had been negotiating with Warner Bros. Records, who were willing to buy him out of his existing deal. But Ilene Berns blamed the stress of working with Van for her husband’s death and took a hard line, going so far as to try to have him deported — a fate he avoided by marrying this then-girlfriend, Janet Planet. Eventually it was decided that Van could jump to Warners, but only after providing enough songs to satisfy his Bang contract (most sources say 36, though in the end there were fewer than that).
And so sometime in 1968 — details are appropriately vague — Morrison headed into a studio and, accompanied only by his not-quite-in-tune acoustic guitar, recorded 31 stream-of-consciousness numbers that don’t really qualify as “songs.” The first five titles may give an idea of the amount of thought that went into them: “Twist and Shake,” ”Shake and Roll,” “Stomp and Scream,” “Scream and Holler,” and “Jump and Thump.” (There are also two separate pieces called “Blow in Your Nose” — as in Blowin’ Your Mind — and “Nose in Your Blow,” as well as the trilogy “Goodbye George,” “Dum Dum George,” and “Here Comes Dumb George.”)1
As intended, this material was deemed commercial poison and went straight into the dustbin, only appearing on the occasional bootleg or compilation of dubious provenance. Then in 2017, CBS Records — who had bought the Bang archives from Ilene Berns — decided that there was money to be made, and included it on an official release called The Authorized Bang Collection. As a result you can hear it now on YouTube or Spotify, if you are so inclined.
And there is some entertainment to be had. The tracks average about a minute each and are often obnoxiously funny, like “The Big Royalty Check”:
Or “Ring Worm”:
Or “Want a Danish”:
But to listen to them all becomes rather trying. They were not meant to be listened to — they were meant to give Van a chance to vent a little spleen while fulfilling the letter of his legal obligation, giving the middle finger to Ilene Berns and anyone else he was annoyed with at the time. 13 songs in there’s one called “Freaky if You Got This Far,” which reminds me of Lou Reed’s famous pronouncement — re Metal Machine Music — that “anybody who gets to side four is dumber than I am.”
How does this relate to Latest Record Project? Well, LRP is of a similar scope (28 songs rather than 31) and has a similar production-line feel to it, as if the songs were mostly an excuse to rant about whatever was pissing Van off that day (Facebook, lockdowns, the media, psychoanalysis — and as always, the music business). Unfortunately, though obviously more polished, the new tunes lack the admirable economy of, say, “You Say France and I Whistle”:
And this time Van has no one to blame but himself and the target of his revenge seems to be all of us. Even so, a significant segment his audience remains loyal; almost all of the comments on that BBC interview are supportive, though some are from people like “Stormbringer Coming,” “It’s ok to be a nationalist,” and “Face tampon.” Well… they have a right to their opinion, and Van Morrison has a right to his. As for me, I’m going to go listen to Oliver Wood’s new album instead.