Journalist Chris Ryder shares his impressions of the evening’s performance and takes a retrospective journey to the places where Van’s career began.
As I sat in the colonnaded elegance of the iconic Belfast Europa Hotel on Sunday night, enchanted as ever by a stellar Van Morrison set, my mind wandered back some fifty years to my initial encounters with his unique musical and poetic talents.
The Europa was a particularly suitable location to spark my reminiscences for it is merely a few hundred yards from College Square North, where arguably, the entire Van Morrison story began. Indeed Van mentioned the proximity of the Maritime several times. The premises, originally built in the 19th century as a station for the Royal Irish Constabulary, later became the Maritime Hotel, a base for seafarers stopping over in the busy port of Belfast. (Its former location is now marked by a blue plaque.) But by the early 1960s it had become the signature venue for young local musicians with ambitions to emulate the success of the Mersey beat groups, led by the incomparable Beatles, who turned their innovative music for young people into a cultural and financial phenomenon. In Belfast, at the time, while a few small jazz and folk clubs modestly flourished, the principal musical entertainment was provided in glitzy ballrooms by a troupe of gaudily suited showbands who specialised in playing cover versions of old dancing standards and mainstream popular hits. But many of the gifted musicians, who belted out this safe repertoire, harboured a secret distaste for the music they were forced to play and nourished ambitions to perform the raw, emotional rhythm ‘n’ blues and jazz genres they favoured, hopefully to appreciative audiences.
Belfast had long boasted a series of lavish, mirrored dance studios where skilled tutors taught young people the intricacies of traditional steps like the waltz, the tango and the cha-cha. But as the showbands adopted popular, mainly American tunes featuring impromptu dance steps like the twist and the locomotion, young people widely copied the free-style movements leaving the traditional tutorial studios on the verge of financial oblivion. In a bid to compensate for the haemorrhage of pupils and revenue, the dance school proprietors, like Betty Staff, Cecil Clarke and Sammy Houston began to promote ‘beat nights’ to bring in younger people attracted by the new groups hoping to create a Belfast sound and emulate performers like the Beatles and Rolling Stones who had transformed the popular music landscape. There was no shortage of aspiring groups to play at these venues most of them equipped with expensive sound systems, drum sets, organs and guitars financed by modest performance fees and nearly extortionate hire purchase schemes. As was to be expected, while some individuals were far more able than their musical peers and many of the groups were enthusiastically proficient but pretty average, one alone soon emerged as the most original, innovative and impressive: their enigmatic name was Them.
In no time after they had formed, with lead singer Van Morrison fleeing from the musical orthodoxy of the Monarchs Showband, they had created a unique buzz with their individual, driving sound and an ability to energise crowds with their distinctive repertoire, which included rousing versions of old R’n’B standards and self-written works by Morrison which would eventually evolve and become standards in their own right. Van’s unique creativity was rooted in a shared appreciation of his father’s unique record collection, founded as it was on a then obscure minority taste for jazz and blues. As far as I can recall, the first time I saw Them play live was in the Sammy Houston dance studio, then located in a long since demolished building, directly across the street from where the Europa now stands. Houston, who was a sharp suited, Brylcreamed ballroom dancer of some repute, had established what he called his Jazz Club on the hitherto unused fourth floor of his studio suite. He created a number of seating booths alongside the dance floor and installed, for the time, state of the art lighting, which allowed him to create a dark night-clubbish environment. For the groups, however, playing their chosen music involved hauling their equipment up several steep flights of stairs before a chord was even struck. At this point, a couple of budding entrepreneurs had identified an unused conference room, with a suitable stage, in the Maritime Hotel as a suitable venue to promote similar ‘beat’ events. It was an inspired initiative and, having booked a series of dates with Them, their growing number of followers flocked there in ever growing numbers to be entertained. Over the next few months, time and time again, at both venues, I was transfixed by their music. It was clear they had a driving, individual sound, great musical skill and, in Van Morrison, a supreme emerging talent. While I clearly remember rousing, lengthy and improvised renditions of the eventually classic ‘Gloria’, my most vivid recollections are of ‘Turn on your love light’ and the Ray Charles classic: ‘What’d I Say’. The Maritime was unfailingly packed and excited by Them.
Like many others, Van and his group, lived in straitened circumstances in those formative days although they socialised with the likes of Gene Vincent and P J Proby in a nearby cafe. Although it was only a minor success, Them’s debut single earned them a spot at the New Musical Express awards concert at Wembley where they played alongside the big names at what was probably their largest audience to date. It was not until their second single ‘Baby please don’t go’ was released soon afterwards that things began to brighten up. One of the most influential TV music programmes was ‘Ready Steady Go’ which went out live at teatime every Friday on ITV from the Associated Reddifusion basement studios at the corner of Kingsway and Aldwych. Every month the producers chose a new record to be used as the programme signature tune for four weeks. For other groups, notably Manfred Mann, it had turned out to be a passport to chart-topping success and so it proved for Them. Looking back now, I am especially privileged to be able to say I was there when they appeared on Week One to preview the record. Among others on the programme that particular Friday were The Rolling Stones, Jerry Lee Lewis and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. It was astonishing for me to watch these famous people up close during rehearsals and to see the Belfast boys mixing as equal participants in such distinguished company.
Not long after that I returned to Belfast to follow a mainstream journalistic career, some years later returning to London to work on the London Sunday Times, during which time I reported on the Irish troubles and other events elsewhere in the world. In due course I also worked from Belfast again, as the Irish correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. During these years, while Van steadily established his global reputation as a songwriter, poetic lyricist and musician, we met infrequently. I recall one brief contact in London and a memorable afternoon session in the magnificent Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. But many times I quietly attended his concerts and became ever more admiring of his multi-layered brilliance and international success.
As first Cassette Walkmans and later Personal CD players arrived, I was able to take Van Morrison music with me to while away long plane and train journeys. More recently, as Van has increasingly focused his activities on intimate gigs, like those at the Culloden, Slieve Donard and Europa hotels in Northern Ireland, I have attended many of them. What astonishes me is his enduring ability to captivate audiences, play to them songs of ever increasing musical and poetic subtlety and repackage his most popular songs in different styles and genres. I am also astonished by the considerable band of international ‘Vanatics’ who come to these events time after time from many countries and who are so enthusiastic they enjoy his performances on two or even three consecutive nights. At long last, Van, who has always and rightly closely protected the privacy of his personal life, is being given proper recognition in his native Belfast. A year ago he was made a Freeman of the City and, more recently, acknowledged a ‘Van Morrison trail’ through his native East Belfast taking in the many local locations immortalised in his songs. More recently still, he has published ‘Lit Up inside’, a collection of the lyrics of about one third of his vast repertoire of compositions, which underlines the poetic brilliance of his writing when read stripped away from the music. So, as I basked in the Europa glow of yet another epic Van performance, I could not help but reflect on our parallel journeys over the last fifty or so years. My admiration of him has never diminished and he has been a recurring anthem to the ups and downs of my own life. For all the excitement and pleasure he has given me, I am very grateful.