Music

Van Morrison: Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl

Photo: Art Siegel

Perhaps this burdened generation will find some of the hope they are desperately seeking in this reconstruction of a classic record.


Van Morrison

Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl

Label: Listen to the Lion
US Release Date: 2009-02-24
UK Release Date: 2009-02-09
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In 1968 Van Morrison released Astral Weeks to great critical acclaim. Ten years later Lester Bangs wrote a fervent appraisal of its enduring power. In his critique in Stranded, Bangs posits the music against the tumultuous socio-political landscape of the late '60s": “It did come out at a time when a lot of things that a lot of people cared about passionately were beginning to disintegrate, and when the self destructive undertow that had always accompanied the great sixties party had an awful lot of ankles firmly in its maw and was pulling straight down.”

Surfacing 40 years after that album's birth is another incarnation of Astral Weeks: a live recital of the entire classic, with Morrison regaling an appreciative audience at the Hollywood Bowl. The timing is somewhat curious. Whether it is pure coincidence or conscious design, Morrison has summoned his masterpiece in a transient global environment dominated by economic insecurity. As the initial introduction (“Ladies and gentlemen, we present to you Astral Weeks") makes way for the early notes of the title track and Morrison’s plangent voice intones the first verse, it becomes clear this is no blatant cash-grab. Morrison and his virtuoso band are clearly reaching for something far greater than a fat paycheck.

The songs on Astral Weeks, as a set of lyrics, can be entirely subjective. Lines like, “If I ventured in the slipstream between the viaducts of your dreams / where immobile steel rims crack / and the ditch in the back roads stop / could you find me”, from the song "Astral Weeks", transposed though Morrison’s wizened, oaken timbre in today’s atmosphere, could very well evoke visions of infrastructure on the verge of collapse.

One of the centerpieces of Astral Weeks, “Cyprus Avenue”, with its borderline-pedophilic subject matter, is yet another that echoes recent headlines. The fact that “Cyprus Avenue“ predated the Bill Henson scandal (last year’s big controversy that one of Australia’s best known artists photographed a bare breasted pubescent girl) means it could only be Henson that was inspired by “Cyprus”, and not vice versa. As insightful as ever, Bangs notes that there was nothing sensationalist about the topic “…I was wrong about the ‘pedophilia’ -- It’s about a person, like all the best songs, all the best literature". And now, all the best art. Contemporary relevance aside, one senses that there is a deeper subliminal plot within the mysteries of all of Morrison’s compositions. When the opening track moves from “We are going to heaven / in another time / in another place” to iterations of “I believe I’ve transcended” (which is not heard in the original Astral Weeks album), Morrison could very well be providing an insight into his mystical perspective.

Among his many vocal idiosyncrasies, much has been made of Morrison’s repetition of a phrase or verse. As Bangs puts it, “He repeats certain phrases to extremes that from anybody else would seem ridiculous, because he’s waiting for a vision to unfold, trying as unobtrusively as possible to nudge it along.” Here, the shamanistic chanting ritual is once again in full flight. “I believe I’ve transcended” is repeated until the words are subsumed by vocal emotion. The sharp intake of “breath-in you, breathe-out, breathe ‘an youbreatheout” on “Besides You” suffuses the air with tension. The extended “lovestolovethelovestolovetheloves…” circumnavigates an immeasurable empathy for the titular transvestite on “Madame George”.

Morrison doesn’t stop at that. He stammers through “my tongue gets tied / every every every time I try to speak” on “Cyprus Avenue” and unleashes an energetic scat on “The Way Young Lovers Do”. He changes the original sequence of songs, improving the flow by fitting the jazzy waltzes of “Sweet Thing” and “Young Lovers” together. He adds two songs from other albums, “Listen to the Lion -- The Lion Speaks” and ”Common One". These fit the tone and the mood as welcomingly as a pair of lost siblings rejoining the Astral Weeks family. The band of proficient jazz musicians backing him up turn in an astounding performance brimming with precision, subtle floridity and, when required, heart-rending beauty.

This is essentially Morrison pulling all stops in attempt to fulfill his never-ending quest for transcendence; in this instance, to transcend the average concert experience. Apart from the cover art that sees Morrison in a rather unbecoming pose (he looks more like a smarmy used-car salesman than a music legend), every aspect of this release remains vital. In their dark era, the children of the '60s would have found solace in the poetic beauty of what is probably Van Morrison’s greatest work. Perhaps this burdened generation will also find some of the hope they are desperately seeking in this reconstruction of a classic record.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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