Tom Maxwell | Longreads | August 2019 | 12 minutes (2,134 words)
Sometime between the massive success of his first single “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the extraordinary musical statement of Astral Weeks, Van Morrison walked into a New York studio and recorded thirty-one of his worst songs.
To be fair, he was terrible on purpose. What became known as Morrison’s “revenge” or Contractual Obligation album is perhaps the most distinguished of many record label f-yous. Comprised of over thirty songs supposedly recorded in an afternoon, with titles such as “The Big Royalty Check” and “Blow In Your Nose,” the work was, understandably, shelved. Apparently that was the point: Morrison wanted to get out of his contract with Bang Records and make a new home with Warner Brothers, and the Contractual Obligation songs were supposedly central to that transition. Morrison’s Bang Records contract stipulated quantity, not quality. The truth, about all of it, is a lot more interesting.
George Ivan Morrison was born in East Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father, an avid record collector, turned young Van on to American blues and R&B artists like Ray Charles. By the age of twelve he was forming skiffle groups and performing. In 1964 he joined a band called Them. Even then, the young Morrison was known for being difficult.
Regardless, the young Morrison was a force of nature. Though issued as a B-side in late 1964, his song “Gloria” put the band on the map. Its three chord insistence also helped lay the foundation for punk rock.
The following year brought Them greater exposure. “Here Comes the Night” was a sizable hit in the UK and US. The song was written and produced by Bert Berns, already the author of several hits, including “Twist and Shout,” “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and “Hang On Sloopy.” Morrison was not particularly pleased with the exigencies of success. “Them were never meant to be on ‘Top of the Pops,'” he once said, referring to the British television show. “I mean, miming? Lip syncing? We used to laugh at the program; think it was a joke. Then we were on it ourselves. It was ridiculous. We were totally anti that type of thing. We were really into the blues…and we had to get into suits and have makeup put on and all that.”
When Morrison left Them in 1966, Berns offered him a solo recording contract. It was a fateful decision. Morrison signed the deal, which he barely read, in exchange for $2,500. Berns, once described as reeking of “Pall Malls, cheap cologne, and hit records,” said he wanted Morrison to become the “rock and roll version of the Irish poet Brendan Behan.” Actually, Berns probably just wanted more hit records. For two days in March 1967, Berns brought Morrison into the studio to work on some singles.
“I showed up for a session, and forty people are there,” Morrison remembered. “Four guitar players, four keyboard players, five singers, four entire rhythm sections. It was bizarre.” Coming from a rough and tumble touring band background, the singer was thrown by this wall of sound production approach.
“It should be freer,” Morrison said after one break down during the Bang sessions, obviously talking about the feeling as much as the rhythm. “At the minute, we have a choke thing going, know what I mean?”
And so, sometime in 1968, Van Morrison walked into a New York recording studio and recorded 31 terrible songs.
One of the songs, a simple pop gem, came together beautifully. Berns quickly changed the name from “Brown-Skinned Girl” to “Brown-Eyed Girl.” And that was that. Morrison returned to Belfast, telling his girlfriend he’d come back to the states if he had a hit. One day, a friend rang Morrison up to tell him he had a copy of his first solo album, Blowin’ Your Mind! A picture of a sweaty Morrison is on the cover, surrounded by cheap psychedelic art and balloon lettering. “I got a call saying it was an album coming out and this is the cover,” Morrison said. “And I saw the cover and I almost threw up, you know.” Morrison was unaware of the album, or even that such a thing was a possibility.
“And Van blows and Van sings and Van screams and Van listens and Van says ‘up them all’ and becomes Van and what the hell that’s his friend and now he can live with himself,” read the liner notes to Blowin’ Your Mind! “This LP is Van Morrison. We won’t explain it to you. With this one, go for yourself.”
“Brown-Eyed Girl” peaked at number 10, but Morrison didn’t initially get paid. Childhood rheumatic fever weakened Berns’ heart, and he died of a heart attack on December 30, 1967, after a heated argument with Morrison over royalties. He was 38. Berns’s widow Ilene blamed Morrison for his death.
Carmine “Wassel” DeNoia, a person the FBI classified as a “low level” mobster, became Morrison’s contact at Bang. DeNoia was convicted of payola in 1975. During a “Brown-Eyed Girl” 1967 record release party on a boat, Wassel threw Tiny Tim overboard into the Hudson River. One night, after being screamed at by a drunk Morrison, Wassel broke an acoustic guitar over his head.
Berns had been associated with organized crime for a while. He formed Bang Records and Web IV publishing company with Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records. At one point, Berns demanded full control of Web IV publishing. “When the Bang fallout began, the mob said, ‘You’re fucked,’” Jerry Wexler remembered. “‘We did this for you. We own you. But we’ll just take Bang Records and call it a day.’” As added incentive, the mobsters also apparently threatened to break the legs of Wexler’s fourteen-year-old daughter Anita.
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“My mother would say, ‘I never want you to think your father was a gangster,’ Berns’s son Brett once said. “I had no idea what she was talking about. But he was the most mobbed-up guy other than Sinatra.”
Thankfully for Morrison, Warner Brothers Records expressed interest in singing him. He moved to Boston to escape mob threats and signed with Lewis Merenstein’s Inherit Productions, which allowed Morrison to record for Warner. One condition for his contractual release was that he write 36 songs for Bang Records’ Web IV publishing, as well as include two of his Bang-era compositions on a forthcoming Warner Brothers album. According to guitarist John Sheldon, a Bang Records representative came to Boston in 1968 “sporting an out-of-date Beatle haircut and talking a lot about trendy, bubblegum pop songs.” Ilene Berns forced Morrison to record his contractually obligated songs.
And so, sometime in 1968, Van Morrison walked into a New York recording studio and recorded 31 terrible songs. Even though it’s obvious that he’s not really trying — Morrison manages to sound both angry and bored for most of the session — the end result is worth a listen. For starters, Morrison appears to have made up every song on the spot, playing a guitar going increasingly out of tune. Couched in apathy, repetition, and cheap blues licks, Morrison describes what must have been an impossible time.
“This here’s a story about dum dum George who came up to Boston one sunny afternoon,” Morrison tells us in the longest song from this session, “Dum Dum George,” which clocks in at just under a minute and a half.
He drove up from New York City
And he was freaky
And he wanted to record me
And I said, George, you’re dumb
And he said, I know. Why do you think I make so much money?
I wanna do a record that’ll make number one.
“Do you want a danish?” Morrison asks on “Want a Danish.”
No, I just ate. I just ate.
Do you want —
Like, I want some bread up front.
Bread up front? Do you want a sandwich?
“We’ll get three guitars — no no, we’ll get four guitars…and we’ll do the sha la bit. We’ll get sixteen guitars,” he sings on “Thirty Two,” his vocals sounding like a cross between Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man and The Fall vocalist Mark E. Smith.
In “The Big Royalty Check,” Morrison plays chords and a melody strangely predictive of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1997 song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” while he complains tunelessly.
I’m waiting for my royalty check to come and it still hasn’t come yet
It’s about a year overdue
I guess it’s coming from the Big Royalty Check in the sky
I waited and the mailman never dropped it in my letterbox
In other songs, Morrison regrets that the listener has ringworm, and claims, “You say France, I’ll whistle.”
The recordings were shelved, but not forever. They were given official release on The Authorized Bang Collection in 2017. And to be honest, there’s much to be gotten out of them. Although clearly not releasable at the time they were made, the “revenge” oeuvre gives us a window into the music industry of the late 60s and this stormy artist’s temperament. It’s as if we’d just discovered Michelangelo’s diary from 1508, featuring a profane caricature of Pope Julius II, who bullied him into painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Does it compare to his proper work? Not at all.
Contrary to popular belief, these songs were not enough to release Morrison from his Bang Records contract. The last requirement was left up to Warner Brothers executive Joe Smith to fulfill.
Smith had mixed feelings about his new artist. “[Morrison] was a hateful little guy,” he once said. “His live performance? He may as well have been in Philadelphia. There’s no action from him. But his voice! I still think he’s the best rock ‘n’ roll voice out there.” Later, after one terrible meeting, Smith threw his pen set at Morrison as he headed for the door. “There were points when he seemed certifiable,” Smith recounted. “He was so angry at everybody and everything with no grace or charm.” Still, everyone at Warner knew Morrison was capable of greatness.
“There was a guy in town named Joe Scandore, who was Don Rickles’s manager,” Smith remembered. “And he was connected. I had to go to him and say, ‘How can I get this deal through so I can release this guy?’ And he set up the arrangement.”
Even as he recorded ‘Want a Danish,’ Morrison had songs in his head that would end up on Astral Weeks, the album that would properly start his career.
One evening, Smith brought a sack containing $20,000 in cash to a Manhattan warehouse. “I had to walk up three flights of stairs, and there were four guys,” Smith said. “Two tall and thin, and two built like buildings. There was no small talk. I got the signed contract and got the hell out of there, because I was afraid somebody would whack me in the head and take back the contract and I’d be out the money.” Smith dropped the sack on the floor. Van Morrison was now officially signed to Warner Brothers. Ilene Berns pursued Warner in the courts until she sold her interest in Bang Records to CBS.
Even as he recorded “Want a Danish,” Morrison had songs in his head that would end up on Astral Weeks, the album that would properly start his career. “I’d started to write [that album] earlier,” he once said, “but Them wasn’t the right vehicle for, um, that kinda music, for any kinda extended songs.” Nor, obviously, was Bang Records, but during that two-day session in March 1967, Morrison was allowed to record a very dark song called “T.B. Sheets.” “The sunlight shining through the crack in the window pane numbs my brain,” Morrison sings, about a loved one dying of tuberculosis.
“Morrison could later joke about this song,” John Collis wrote in Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. “I’m writing ‘T.B. Sheets Part II’ now,’ he said in 1972. ‘Keeping the same riff, the same groove.’ However, it’s on record — though the story could be exaggerated — that after laying down this track he broke down in tears, unable to continue the session.”
The sessions for Astral Weeks began in September 1968. None of Bert Berns’s production trickery would be there: Morrison accompanies himself on guitar, backed by flute, vibes, upright bass, and drums. The result is a unique blend of soul, folk, and classical. Morrison’s voice is anguished and ecstatic by turns.
“And I shall drive my chariot down your streets and cry,” he sings in “Sweet Thing,” coming across as a man emancipated by emotional honesty.
‘Hey, it’s me! I’m dynamite and I don’t know why’
And you shall take me strongly in your arms again
And I will not remember that I even felt the pain
And this is something that Bert Berns couldn’t grasp, even as he understood potential and believed he could wring profit from it: Van Morrison’s object was transcendence, and that’s impossible to get on purpose.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.