As a solo artist, Van Morrison immersed himself in the spiritual experimentation of Astral Weeks, the pop-soul astuteness of Moon Dance, the old-school jazz of How Long Has This Been Going On, and the pure MOR schmaltz of Avalon Sunset. Of course, the Van Morrison story is not complete without checking out what he did before his given name became his brand name, and his work as the lead singer of Them may toss a shock into anyone who primarily thinks of Morrison as the voice of such oldies radio and dentist office staples as “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Have I Told You Lately”. Barking one and two-chord wonders like “Don’t Start Crying Now”, “Baby Please Don’t Go”, “Gloria”, and the demonic “Mystic Eyes”, Van Morrison was as legit a punk predecessor as Roger Daltrey or Sky Saxon. The mass of Them’s early singles and debut album, The Angry Young Them, are ripped, raw Rock & Roll at its insanity-making best. Morrison even sounds like a cranky rottweiler on the slowed down soul numbers, though there are occasional flashes of his future sensitivity on things like “Don’t Look Back”.
Them’s second and final album, Them Again, expands the band’s sound with strokes of Impressions-style sweet soul (“Hey Girl”), smokey jazz (“I Put a Spell on You”), and borderline psychedelia (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”), and Morrison diversifies his approach accordingly. Here we hear him developing into the more nuanced artist he’d become in the late sixties onward, though he can still tear up the nosebleed seats with mad stomps like “Turn on Your Love Light” and the studio-musician backed “I Can Only Give You Everything”, another pre-punk fuzz fest.
Sony/Legacy’s new triple-disc comp The Complete Them 1964-1967 is as truthfully labeled as The Angry Young Them, gathering all the material from the two proper LPs (though not with original running orders intact) with singles, demos, outtakes and alternate takes, new stereo mixes, and BBC sessions. This collection tames the first couple of Stones albums and makes Eric Burdon sound like a lounge lizard. The remastered sound is too bright and loud—Them never needed assistance in the volume department—but this is still a handy way to get everything there is to get from Them. Van Morrison, himself, provides the surprisingly even-tempered liner notes. Such a nasty net of aural onslaughts might have been better represented by a bit of the old Van-the-Man cantankerousness, but I’d probably be wistful too if I could claim “Mystic Eyes” among my achievements. Yow!