Watching “Charlie Is My Darling”, the film of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 tour of Ireland we were struck by how well spoken, particularly Mick and Brian, the band was. The London R&B boom was centred on the Art colleges. Jagger, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, members of the Yardbirds and Manfred Mann had all been students at one time. These educated boys found an energy and an attitude in this American music which was lacking in a British society still looking back to the War and a time when youth were expected to show deference and to know their place. It was two groups from the British provinces who produced some of the most interesting interpretations of both the rhythm and the blues. The Animals, from Newcastle, had worldwide success with their 2nd single “House Of The Rising Sun”. Them, from Belfast, did not enjoy such renown or longevity but their almost primal take on the music was to influence the sound of garage rock and the punk bands which followed later.
“One, Two Brown Eyes” is the B-side of Them’s first single. A young Van Morrison’s ecstatic vocals and an equally wild guitar part from Billy Harrison sat on a dirty simple backbeat. Iggy Pop at his maddest covered the song but even he struggles to capture the abandon of this original. The band had a reputation as an awkward squad. They were just serious about their music and did not quietly jump through the hoops put in front of them. In lip-synched TV appearances they look uneasy and uninterested. Interviews were not helped by the intricacies of the Belfast accent, an alien tongue to London journalists. At a 1965 award winners concert the band stepped off schedule and delivered a wild, ramshackle 6 minute version of “Turn On Your Lovelight” rather than just play the hits. Their first LP was aptly titled “The Angry Young Them.
This is the best clip of Them around. “Mystic Eyes” was a single, “Gloria” was a 1965 B-side that has become a rock classic. The more I watch the better it gets. Of course, at the centre of it all is Van Morrison, singing the music he loves and working out a way of putting his own feeling and experience into it. Billy and the rest of the band are totally on it. From Belfast bars to TV in Paris to The Fillmore in San Francisco. It was a big journey in a short time and it did not last. At the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles the opening act was the Doors, on the last night the two bands and the two Morrisons, Van and Jim, jammed a 45 minute medley of “Gloria” and “In The Midnight Hour”.
Arguments about money led to Van and bassist Alan Henderson leaving. In 1973 Morrison said “You can’t take something like that, put it in a box and place a neat little name on it, then try to sell it. That’s what they tried to do. That’s what killed Them.” The group had released a second LP, “Them Again”.
Van stayed in America. He hooked up with Bert Berns, a New York pop manager/ producer and immediately had a hit record with “Brown Eyed Girl”. In 1967 Berns died and Morrison was maturing as a musician. By the next year he had extricated himself from a contract he should not have signed and released “Astral Weeks”, a cycle of songs of unrivalled agony, ecstasy and magnificent enigmatic beauty. The rest of the group, already marginalised by the time of recording the second LP, gigged for a while but Morrison had been the heartbeat of the group.
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is a jewel of a Dylan cover. Greil Marcus called it “dramatic and terrifying” as Van struggles and conquers the up-tempo keyboard hook, later sampled by Beck for “Jackass”. Every British R&B group was maturing and changing in 1966. This track gives an indication of what them could have achieved had they still been around for that Summer of Love musical explosion.
Because Them burned brightly and crashed so quickly the group is not considered to be in the premier league of golden British groups. In the US the energy and abandon of their music influenced so many of the young garage bands of the day. I am not going to list who covered what and who sounds like Them because it is too long a list. Their straight ahead no-bullshit attitude came around again in 1976. I don’t have the band’s complete work in my collection but that’s OK. I’m still encountering 60s blasts of wild and imaginative soul-blues and thinking…Well, I know who this is by !