Author’s Note: I had already written this before the recent kerfluffle and, being reluctant to see the effort to go waste, I’m going to go ahead and post it. I don’t necessarily plan on continuing the thread from here. Not so much because I want to [cough] cancel Van, as because having seen now the enormity of the task — and given that it’s taken a solid eight months just to get to this point — I am not unhappy to see a graceful way out. The channel will remain open for the time being, but I can’t say for sure what will be coming through it.
In the song he wrote about his time as a windowcleaner, Van Morrison made it sound pretty idyllic. Doing good, honest work as aromas waft by from the bakery down the street; breaking for pastries, lemonade, and cigarettes; listening to Jimmie Rodgers, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Muddy Waters, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee; reading Jack Kerouac and Christmas Humphreys; playing sax on the weekends.
I don’t know if he experienced it that way at the time. Maybe he was indeed happy cleaning windows, but when his band the Monarchs got the opportunity to tour Scotland in 1962, he did not hesitate to hang up his squeegee and hit the road.
After beginning as a skiffle band called the Thunderbolts, the Monarchs had evolved into an Irish “showband.” What is a showband, you might well ask? Our friend Wikipedia says:
The Irish showband is a dance band format which was popular in Ireland mid-1950s to the mid-1980s… The showband was based on the internationally popular six- or seven-piece dance band. The band’s basic repertoire included standard dance numbers and covers of pop music hits. The versatile music ranged from rock and roll and country and western songs to traditional dixieland jazz and even Irish Céilí dance, Newfie stomps, folk music and waltzes. Key to a showband’s popular success was the ability to perform songs currently in the record charts…. The line-up usually featured a rhythm section of drums, lead, rhythm and bass guitars, a keyboard instrument, and a brass section of trumpet, saxophone and trombone. The band was fronted by one or two lead singers, who were assisted by other band members on backing vocals. Comedy routines were sometimes featured.
Van was one of the “other band members,” but though he was initially shy on stage, he soon developed a tendency to steal the show with his antics. “Van was a complete nutter on stage,” said his bandmate Roy Kane. “We had one number based on a blues riff called ‘Daddy Cool,’ and during this he used to throw himself on the floor, split his trousers and throw his shirt off.” 1
In Steve Turner’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, a friend tells the story of Van appearing as a guest vocalist with another Irish band called Johnny Johnston and the Midnighters.
He was wearing a smart Burton’s suit and a white shirt, and he took his jacket off and threw it among the girls. He then jumped off the stage and rolled around on the floor. When he got back up his shirt was as black as your boot. Whenever Johnston came back to start his set up again they wouldn’t let Van off.
But he was still just the sax player when the Monarchs moved on to England and then to Germany, which as we all know is where British bands of the era went to hone their chops. (We are now in 1963, and The Beatles had just finished their last residency in Hamburg in December 1962.) They spent a long time in Heidelberg, in the southern part of the country. There was an American airbase nearby and many of the airmen who attended the shows were African-American. This meant that after years of listening to blues and jazz records, Van was for the first time in the regular presence of actual black people, who were few and far between in Ireland at the time.
Morrsion befriended some of the GIs and would spend time on the base listening to the latest R&B records from the States (as well as cadging food, drink, and cigarettes). As a result the Monarchs got rawer and bluesier, and having to play five sets a night caused them to start to rely on amphetamines. Like The Beatles they became preternaturally tight and learned to do whatever it took to fill those hours on stage. According to band member George Jones,
We did a lot of things to pass the time, the boredom of playing every night. We gagged about, leapt all over the place. We’d start an instrumental that might last for fifteen minutes and maybe call it “The Green Head,” and the guitar player’d take his guitar off and leave it on the floor and let it feedback [sic] on its own, then pull the guitar towards him.
From Heidelberg the Monarchs hauled their gear to the Storyville Club in Cologne, only to be told they’d been hired to play the Storyville Club in Frankfurt. So it was off to Frankfurt for a while and then finally back to Cologne, where they came to the attention of an aspiring record producer named Ron Kovacs.
Kovacs apparently had a thing for George Jones, so he temporarily renamed the band Georgie & the Monarchs and paid them 50 pounds each2to record two songs he had written. This would be Van Morrison’s first appearance on record, though he was just the sax player.
Although there are a fair number of copies of this single in circulation — it was a minor hit in Germany — one song is not to be found online at all, and the other is misleadingly credited to “Georgie and the Motives.”
One suspects that Van Morrison has minions out there erasing evidence of his embarrassing juvenilia, something David Bowie often did before he decided to embrace “The Laughing Gnome” and such as part of his legacy. In any case, like The Beatles — whose first single (“My Bonnie”) was also recorded in Germany, also issued under an alias (Tony Sheridan & the Beat Brothers), and also reached the lower regions of the German charts — Van did not make it big on his first try. Shortly after recording the single, the Monarchs concluded their German engagement and returned to Ireland, splitting up not long after.