Monday, October 26, 2015

If You're Only Going to Buy One Greatest Hits Set From... Van Morrison

My friend Tom suggested I take on Van Morrison this week.  He’s a huge fan – if he doesn’t have all of Morrison’s albums, he’s not far off.  I’m very much the same way with Neil Young, whose attitude toward the music industry is fairly similar (“If you like it, great, if you don’t, your loss – I’m not making any changes”)Anyway, Tom told me today “it could be short, I don't think he has many... Best of, Best of Volume II, [At] the Movies... it might not even be worth it.  But you could knock it out quickly, noting the scarcity of choices!”

I wish.  I found stuff he didn’t even know existed, and the disks he listed are now out of print.  To start with, there’s only one best-of available on iTunes, and none available for download on Amazon.  I’m not 100 percent certain of this, but here’s my guess as to what’s going on:

  • Morrison owns his own catalogue from Astral Weeks, which came out in 1968, onward.  He doesn’t own the Them tracks, or the albums he did for Bert Berns’ Bang label in 1967 (more on that later).
  • It looks like the distribution rights have switched from Universal (which had them for about 30 years – his classic albums in the late 1960s and 1970s came out on Warner Brothers, but they dropped him around 1985) to Sony/Columbia.  His most recent album, Duets: Reworking the Catalogue (which is exactly what it sounds like, rerecordings of his old hits done as duets) is listed on Amazon as on the Exile/RCA label.  RCA’s catalogue was acquired by Sony a few years back.
  • He’s releasing new greatest hits sets slowly, to get fans to drop a few more bucks.
  • Accordingly, here’s my choice – because it’s apparently the only one now available:

The Essential Van Morrison

Generally speaking, I like what Sony has been doing with reissues – Warner Brothers has also been pretty good for the most part, while Universal’s reissue program is, to put it kindly, scummy.  This Sony release is pretty good – 37 songs crammed onto two disks, neatly divided into the hit years (60s and 70s) and the more introspective years (80s and onward).  It also includes what’s worth including from his first band, Them (“Gloria” and “Here Comes the Night”), as well as a few of the Bang songs, which are owned (or were owned) by Sony anyway.  I wouldn’t have chosen the songs selected here from Astral Weeks (the title track and “The Way Young Lovers Do”), but that’s personal preference – many of Morrison’s anthologies ignore this crucial album altogether because it contained no AM radio hits.

Right now, this is available for $14.99 for the download off iTunes (but not from Amazon yet!), or you can order the two-CD set from Amazon (which will not be available until this Friday, October 30 – I told you it was new!).  I saw it at Best Buy last week, if you have to have this right now; I think the price was around $13.99.

Here’s what was available, and may still be new in record stores if you look carefully (and if you can find a record store, I guess).  Links are to the Wikipedia listings:

  • T. B. Sheets (1973) and Bang Masters (1991) are two official names for the music Morrison recorded for Bang in 1967.  Bert Berns, who ran the label, died December 30, 1967, at which point Bang had two major artists under contract:  Morrison and Neil Diamond.  Diamond apparently used an out clause in his contract to sign with Uni (later MCA) Records the following year, and Morrison also split for Warner Brothers, after a series of arguments with Berns’ widow, Ilene (who blamed Morrison’s battles with Berns for his husband’s death).  Morrison was required to submit 36 songs, mostly recorded in one session, to gain his release; the “revenge” songs were mostly unreleasable.  Anyway, the legit Bang sessions and bits and pieces of the “revenge” songs all seem to be on a pile of releases today – anything from the perfectly legitimate Playlist: The Best of Van Morrison (The Bang Masters) on Sony, to The Essential Van Morrison (not to be confused with the album listed above, so be careful about what you download!) on the Purple Pyramid label – they seem to specialize mostly in rerecordings.  I’ve also seen the lengthier The Complete Bang Sessions and The 1967 New York Sessions.  The sound quality of all of them seems the same, so here are my thoughts:  1) get one cheaply, 2) listen to a few tracks first to make sure it’s not a super cheap remaster, 3) at least “Brown-Eyed Girl” is the original hit, 4) the versions of “Madame George” and “Beside You” are not the ones you’ll find on Astral Weeks, released the following year.  (I’m listening to the earlier version of “Madame George” now; the lyrics are the same, but the music is vastly different.)
  • The Best of Van Morrison (1990) was released after Morrison had issued 19 solo studio albums, so he wasn’t lacking for material.  Apparently he wasn’t thrilled about having a best-of come out under his name, but it actually exposed him to a whole new audience, who probably loved his hits but wasn’t thrilled about slogging through his more idiosyncratic albums.  If you want the hits, they’re all here.  Now out of print.
  • The Best of Van Morrison, Volume Two (1994) was selected by Van the Man himself, and focuses on releases between 1984 to 1991.  As a result, many listeners will find the music unrecognizable, because only “Real Real Gone” was a radio hit.  (Morrison hasn’t hit the U.S. pop charts since 1978’s “Wavelength” – which inexplicably isn’t on any of these sets – but has been charting more regularly in the U.K. since the 1990s.)  Also out of print.
  • Van Morrison at the Movies (2007) takes all of the songs U.S. listeners should be familiar with – the songs reused in one movie or another – and shuffles them together on one disk.  A few live versions are included, and although I’d quibble with a few selections (where’s “Tupelo Honey”?), it’s a good place for the uninitiated to start.  Again, out of print.
  • The Best of Van Morrison, Volume Three (2007) is a two-disk set with 31 songs, primarily from 1991 onward.  A few alternate versions and live in concert pieces round out the set.  Out of print.
  • Still on Top – The Greatest Hits (2007) makes me think Van was trying to finance a vacation house or something in 2007; I can’t think of another reason why he would be willing to release three anthologies in the same year.  One-disk set that covers his entire career; this would be a nifty purchase for the novice, except (stop me if you’ve heard this one) it’s out of print.

I'm hoping sometime in 2016, Sony and Morrison will release a one-disk set encompassing his entire career, for those who think two disks are too much.  Also, if anybody could fill a box set, this is the guy.  After all, Neil Young released a 10-disk box set in 2009, and it only covered the first decade of his career.  (I may have to start taking money from my son's college education fund if Young brings out any more of them.)
For the infatuated, The Story of Them (1997), featuring 50 songs from Morrison’s mid-1960s band, is out of print but should be reasonably easy to find (warning:  I have this myself, and 50 songs for this band is way too much for most people).  Be careful about downloading their studio albums; many of them were recorded after Morrison left the band.

1 comment:

  1. Flabbergasted pretty much across the board by the discography here. Glad to see a fairly definitive double CD Greatest Hits, surprised all the others are out of print.

    Filtered through the eyes of a guy who thinks Van Morrison is the pre-eminent singer/songwriter of the 20th Century, "The Story of Them" has a lot of good raw pop and bluesy stuff--"Mystic Eyes" is just as good as "Gloria" or "Here Comes the Night," and there are several knockout covers--but I agree it's too long overall. But it gives you practically every song Van sang or played on with the band before exiting.

    "Bang Masters" is all you need from the Bert Berns days--it's got the finished tracks, none of the throwaways, two versions of "Brown Eyed Girl." "T.B. Sheets" and a couple terrific bluesy songs like "The Back Room."

    Every fan can always grumble about a song or two left off any "Best of" Collection, but I have to say the "Ultimate Van Morrison" did a decent job.