Them

TrackSingle / Album
Baby Please Don't GoDecca F12018
GloriaDecca F12018
Here Comes The NightDecca F12094
I Gave My Love a DiamondThe Angry Young Them
You Just Can't WinThe Angry Young Them
Mystic EyesDecca F12281
Could You, Would YouThem Again
My Lonely Sad EyesThem Again
It's All Over Now Baby BlueThem Again
Friday's ChildMajor Minor MM 509

 

Them photo 1

Them (clockwise from top left): Van Morrison (vocals, harmonica), Pat McAuley (keyboards), Billy Harrison (guitar), Alan Henderson (bass)

 

 

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Them playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

When friends were friends
And company was right
We’d drink and talk and sing
All through the night

So started The Story Of Them, released as a two parter single in the UK in May 1967 after the break-up of the group.

Within the song, Van moves from the general to the specific – “With the help of the three J’s, started playin’ at the Maritime” – even describing members of the band, “That little one sings, and that big one plays the guitar, with a thimble on his finger” (a clear reference to Billy Harrison) and “The bass player don’t shave much, I think they’re all a little bit, touched”.

In its conversational manner, the record owes a lot to the Howlin’ Wolf version of Goin’ Down Slow; Van even borrows the “Good Times, mmmmm”, changing the ordering but catching the intonation. What he makes no attempt to do is capture the near-death bed drama of the Wolf rendition which is unusual in itself since our man rarely resisted an opportunity to let it all hang out. It could be that he was already mentally putting Them to bed and moving on, or maybe he just wanted to record a slow blues, something that was relatively rare in the Them recorded career, or was he already reaching out for immortality? On a more mundane level I’d note that the Animals had already included an Eric Burdon written Story Of Bo Diddley on their first (1964) album which might just have given Van the idea.

 

THE HITS

Like many things about Them, their recording career was hardly conventional. They bagged themselves a hit in the UK with side one of record #2, Baby Please Don’t Go, followed it with a minor hit in the US with its flip, Gloria, though the A-side did nothing over there. Then they had a hit on both sides of the pond with their next record, Here Comes The Night which has to be seen as the peak of their career, singles wise. There were to be no more UK hits but a later single, Mystic Eyes, did well enough in the US to get into their Top Forty. And that was it.

All those records were remarkable and they were all different. What they had in common was a high level of musicianship, a willingness to experiment beyond what might have been expected of a British & Irish R&B based band of the era and an extremely distinctive and in-your-face vocalist in young George Ivan Morrison who was 19 when Baby Please Don’t Go/Gloria was released in November 1964.

Baby Please Don’t Go was ostensibly that familiar thing, an updating of an American black blues number to appeal to a new, young white audience. Most writers have the original source as Big Joe Williams who recorded the title in 1935 and again in later years. Morrison could well have heard multiple versions of the number plus I’m Alabammy Bound by Leadbelly and, separately, Lonnie Donegan, both early heroes of his; the latter song had melodic similarities to Baby Please Don’t Go. But the direct source usually quoted in relation to the Them recording was John Lee Hooker’s take on the song: it appeared on the 1959/60 LP, Highway Of Blues (which he shared with Sticks McGhee) under the title Don’t Go Baby.

Which is all fine and dandy but what was of key significance in this instance was the updating. The band – and one has to give credit to the full occupancy of the studio rather than just Morrison – had produced a transformation to that song which was every bit as major as the one that Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black did to Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right. Elvis & co turned blues into rockabilly; Them and Van turned blues into electric rock. And yes, I know I’ve used this analogy before but as transformations go, Elvis and his cohorts set the benchmark. There were hints in Billy Harrison’s biting guitar riff of the Hooker ‘original’ but the propulsive two note bass riff came from nowhere; was it an attempt to emulate John Lee’s stamping foot one wonders. Then there was the surging organ that emerged from somewhere down below (and was to be a regular feature on Them records). And I’ve not even mentioned the speed of the Them cut. It was hard to the right of the dial, as far as you could go, and when Morrison entered he seemed to be pushing the band on to an even greater expenditure of energy. The usually forceful Hooker sounded almost intimate when compared to the near desperation of the Morrison/Them agonised pleading.

I’ve seen the record referred to as one of the finest examples of white blues. I’d differ. To me it’s a rock record and a brilliant one.

Gloria was another brilliant rock record. Given its provenance – it was one of the earliest of Van’s compositions, indeed Wiki report (and they’re not alone) that it was kicking around in Van’s set in the summer of ’63 when he was fronting the Monarchs – then the rather short and tubby singer can file a justifiable claim for having invented US garage rock before anyone in the US did. The tropes were there and by golly were they executed well. And I’ve found a genuine live clip this time, from “Les” Them in France, date not given:

Like to tell ya about my baby
Lord, you know she comes around
She about five feet four
Right from her head down to the ground

Bert Berns was in the producer’s seat for Baby Please Don’t Go though his influence wasn’t strongly apparent; the arrangement was worked up by the band, with or without Jimmy Page and the consensus is without – see also Footnotes. He, Bert that is, was back for the A-side of single #3, Here Comes The Night, and the fact that he’d also written the number suggested that more aural evidence of his presence was likely to be heard than on the boys’ preceding effort. As indeed it was. The near baroque intro with hints of Espana plus organ washes was Bert writ large though the break to the verse with a sort of country knees-up taking over (though it might have been intended more as a cool, jazzy interlude), wasn’t Bert, and it shouldn’t have worked. Strangely though it did and repeats of that intro as a chorus didn’t disturb the flow either. Van and the boys and Bert had managed to break into George Martin plus Beatles territory circa Rubber Soul (which wasn’t out yet!) with a more than significant level of success. It wasn’t perfect. The lyrics give the impression of being rushed. But that doesn’t matter. It’s only the advancing gloom (and magnificence) of the repeated title line in the chorus which really strikes home.

Here Comes the Night was hardly the sort of black material that we’d already learned to expect from Van and company even if it did evoke memories of the sounds that were coming out from Atlantic a few years earlier, via Berns and other producers like Leiber & Stoller; The Drifters’ There Goes My Baby is a good example but there were plenty more.

Mystic Eyes, on the other hand, was an example of a distinctly Brit approach to American R&B that you heard in the clubs those days from groups like the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things and the Animals, often, but not always, using a Diddley number as a base on which to build guitar, and sometimes bass or organ and often harmonica improvisation. Such numbers were usually no more than one or two chord based and built to one or more climaxes over an extended duration. ‘Mystic’ was probably the best example of its type to be captured on record. According to Wiki, it originated from a long instrumental jam that the boys got rolling in the studio with the switches set to ‘On’. Out of nowhere, Van suddenly puts aside his harmonica and breaks into life vocally using words he’d been putting together for an as yet unrealised song. The engineer edited down the initial eight minutes or whatever of instrumental work to leave a still lengthy – one minute plus – introduction before the Morrison vocal and, lo and behold, the record was created.

One Sunday mornin’
We went walkin’
Down by
The old graveyard
The mornin’ fog
I looked into
A-yeah, those mystic eyes

As a digression I’d note that Them were unlike the ‘norm’ for British R&B groups of the period in that they didn’t cover any Diddley or Berry songs, on record that is; they could well have included them in live gigs. The only exception I’m aware of is the fact that they did produce a version of Bo’s You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover in their first recording session but it’s still not surfaced within the rarities that have appeared on compilations within the last decade or two.

 

THE OTHER SINGLES

Looked at in black & white, that heading almost lumbers a significant amount of Them’s output with the throwaway title, ‘The Rest’. But it was almost like that. With a few honourable exceptions, the other eight Decca and Major Minor singles – with Major Minor being a subsidiary of Decca – had nothing like the quality of the hits. All were good records but they didn’t stand out in a highly competitive marketplace.

The debut single warrants attention. Somehow, Van or one of the boys – it’s unlikely to have been the producer – had gotten hold of the US 1961 single of Don’t Start Cryin’ Now by Slim Harpo (see also Footnotes). The original took the form of a semi-urgent shuffle with Harpo on top telling his lady, in no uncertain terms, that he’s about to leave her even if his vocal didn’t carry a lot more intensity than his normal insinuating style. The Them version ups the tempo – by a lot – and delivers the message at almost an emergency level of priority. Slim would hardly have recognised the song. This record should have warned potential buyers of the level of reinvention the group would go on to apply to numbers like Baby Please Don’t Go and several of the cover tracks on the first album.

The flip, to my ears, was even better. One Two Brown Eyes was the first Morrison composition to see release. It might have been little more than a one chord thing over a bouncy latinish rhythm but the performance was so good that it almost got into my ten. Alan Henderson on bass finds a riff and sticks to it, Billy Harrison on guitar is an absolute star, switching between semi-slide work (using a thimble we’re told) and indulging in a counterpoint riff to the bass, with Morrison up front, extemporising all over the place very much in the manner he would on many of those later solo efforts.

I highlight some of the other singles under the Almost-Made-Its heading but I’d request the reader to give a listen to couple of late releases which seem to indicate that Van and maybe the band were headed in a folk rock direction. Richard Cory was a cover of the Paul Simon written number which had appeared on S&G’s Sounds Of Silence. While there’s more immediacy and identification in this version (and the rumbling guitar sounds even more ominous), I still have some attachment to the elegance of the original.

My final track under this heading appears to have been something of an afterthought. It was released to accompany a reissue of Gloria in April 1967. The song was written by Morrison and entitled Friday’s Child. According to the Chrome Oxide sessionography, it was recorded the best part of two years before release which might scotch the theory of a late Van/Them switch towards the folk direction; it was more likely to be evidence of Van moving in multiple directions at once, almost from the start. And duty tells me that this was more of a mood piece than folk, with or without rock. But with banks of acoustic guitars and complex chords – well, one anyway – this was miles away from typical Them music. A little beauty.

From the North
To the South,
Ya’ walked all the way.
Ya’ know ya’ left your,
Left your home
For good to stay

 

THE ALBUMS

There were two LPs released in the UK, The Angry Young Them and Them Again, and one EP. That’s not including compilation sets from well outside the group’s lifetime or an EP released in 1984. If you ignore the comps then both of the albums should be viewed as essential purchases for anyone interested in sixties music in general and the British ‘beat boom’ in particular, or for solo Morrison fans aiming at building a more representative collection.

Spread across the two LPs were a dozen cover versions (that’s if you regard Little Girl as a cover, more on which later). The covers ranged from major reinventions like their take on Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights, Big City which managed to purloin the highly recognisable descending chord sequence from Ray Charles’ Hit The Road Jack, to the relatively straight take on Turn On Your Love Light which might have indicated that Van would have been happy to have gone head to head with the great Bobby Bland. A few years downstream, the Grateful Dead would turn this number into one of their epics; Bobby and Van between them said it all in less than two and a half minutes.

But there are covers and there are covers. Even before you heard Van utter the immortal words, “You must leave, take what you need, you think will last” on Them Again, you knew you were into something special. I’m far from alone in viewing the boys’ shimmering take on Dylan’s It’s All Over Now Baby Blue as among the very best covers of Dylan material. Lester Bangs has stated that the Them version was “… perhaps the most unusual version of this song ever recorded” with Van showing “real love and regret, shot through with painful resignation” as opposed to the “self righteous putdown” of the original (these quotes appear in a piece from Lester in 1972 entitled “Spawn Of The Dublin Pubs: Them Creatures & A Wight Named Van” and yes, he did get a tad confused with his geography).

At least as interesting, if not more so than the covers on the two albums, was a load of numbers penned by Morrison which hadn’t seen single (or EP) release (see Footnotes for information on the EPs). I’ve selected one such track from The Angry Young Them called You Just Can’t Win which could be regarded as a curate’s egg – that’s to say good in parts but less so in others. The song has been reported as having been Dylan inspired and the lyrics aren’t bad for pop (but nothing like Dylan). The initial melodic picture painting is very good but the climax portion of each verse is clumsily structured. An interesting failure perhaps but it was pleasing to see the ambition.

If the occasional Van composition was appearing in an incompletely formed state on The Angry Young Them, that wasn’t the case with Morrison tracks on Them Again. There was obviously some faith by Decca in the marvellous Could You, Would You since they gave the track the starting position on the album. Quite why they didn’t go a step further and release it as a single we’ll never know. This was Berns without Berns; the Atlantic label hybrid of proto-soul and pop but delivered by some boys from Belfast (mainly) who’d learned their lessons well. An absolute triumph. According to Van himself in the sleeve notes to The Complete Them 1964-1967, the track and certain others were originally intended for a solo album which didn’t happen, and the backing came purely from session musicians. But I should add that there was a consistency and continuity of sound across the tracks on The Angry Young Them and Them Again which strongly indicated a stable group in the Decca studio, though as we’ve subsequently learned that was far from the case.

From the same album, My Lonely Sad Eyes was another very fine Morrison composition but one that didn’t look to the past and across the pond for inspiration. Rather this was one of the few that looked forward to the solo work of, say, Moondance, with influences buried more deeply – faint hints of jazz and the Celtic tradition deep down there somewhere. Yes you could call it folk but folk as performed solely by George Ivan Morrison. His lyrics were improving too:

Fill me my cup
And I’ll drink your sparkling wine
Pretendin’ everything is fine
‘Till I see your sad eyes

I’m dropping back to The Angry Young Them for my final selection from the albums. The track, I Gave My Love A Diamond, is another that could be said to be flawed. Written by Bert Berns but in cohorts with Wes Farrell, it has that Bert feel whereby you could imagine it being sung by the man who so often interpreted his songs, the great Solomon Burke. Not only that, approximately half way in the band break into Bert’s patented Twist And Shout chord sequence. The problem with the whole thing is that Morrison is, at least in part, disconnected from the backing; he’s either slightly before or slightly after the beat, I can’t make up my mind which. The song also seems to be performed at an agonisingly slow tempo such that the whole thing, reverb guitar and all, sounds like it’s coming through treacle. It puts me in mind of the Neil Young album, Tonight’s The Night and tracks like Tired Eyes. It’s no secret that the contributors to that album, including Young, were high on a range of substances when the album was cut. To make matters even more curious, two alternate takes of ‘Diamond’ have emerged, the first on The Story Of Them and the second on The Complete Them 1964-1967. This is the first of the two; it’s even slower and more intense than The Angry Young Them version. It’s the most uptight Morrison ever got in the studio in the Them days. You can imagine him wrapped up in a tight little ball about to explode.

 

THE ALMOST-MADE-ITS

My opener, The Story Of Them was a candidate, as were:

If You And I Could Be As Two (flip of ‘Mystic’) – yearning ballad from Van featuring spoken intro and a recitation section plus double time support in which both piano and organ appear but maybe there’s just a little too much going on.

Call My Name (single) – penned by producer Tommy Scott and it’s a poppish item not unlike some Berns songs.

Bring ‘Em On In (flip of Call My Name) – Van composition and fast chugger – 12 bar structure somewhat disguised by the punchy, declamatory vocal approach – sax break (was this Van?)

Little Girl (The Angry Young Them) – two chord romp from Van and he claims credit for writing even with words part plagiarised from Good Morning School Girl (sometimes Good Morning Little Schoolgirl) which is believed to have been first recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson I. In its original format it received covers from several Brit R&B bands/artists inc. the Yardbirds and Rod Stewart.

Just A Little Bit (The Angry Young Them) – a song which featured in the set list of several Brit R&B groups but Van & co completely expunge the New Orleans style riff which was the most distinctive feature of the Rosco Gordon original and replace it by a backing that could almost have come straight from Sonny Boy Williamson II’s Help Me, but with increased insistency. For those not aware I’d also comment that the arrangement of Help Me wasn’t unrelated to the famous riff in Booker T. & the M.G.s’ Green Onions.

Don’t Look Back (The Angry Young Them) – another cover but a most unusual one in that it derives from a completely atypical John Lee Hooker ballad, and yes I mean ‘ballad’ in terms of almost teen ballad, which was released as a single in the US in 1964 but not in the UK. It also appeared on the Hooker LP, On Campus, that same year. Van and the boys stick pretty close to the original this time, unlike the other covers on The Angry Young Them.

Something You Got (Them Again) – the song was written by New Orleans native Chris Kenner but it had received covers from Fats Domino, Alvin Robinson, and Chuck Jackson with Maxine Brown, before Them got their hands on it (and further covers were to follow). The writer of the sleeve notes to the Them Again LP states that Van recorded the song as an acknowledgement to Chuck Jackson who he admired. That may be the case but this version is far more raw than any of those I’ve mentioned, putting it broadly in line with I Gave My Love A Diamond for approach/attitude.

I Can Only Give You Everything (Them Again) – another Tommy Scott composition (with Phil Coulter) but this time aimed squarely at the US garage market – it was released as a single in the US but not in the UK – while the track might have had the air of a pastiche about it, it was still head and shoulders above most garage releases.

Hello Josephine (Them Again) – another much covered song (from Fats Domino) with several of those covers having merit of their own – Them contribute their distinctive version to the pile with a bar room piano and splendid sax standing out in the arrangement – the words ‘urgency’ and ‘insistence’ appear in my brain all over again, as they do on so many Them tracks.

Time’s Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough (didn’t see release till it appeared on a Dutch EP in 1967 – no clip available) – in which Van and the band demonstrate with assurance that they were perfectly happy to take on a slightly jazz-inclined jump blues – the original came from Jimmy Witherspoon who recorded the song several times – Van probably heard the ’64 Stateside single release.

Mighty Like A Rose (didn’t see release until the Backtrackin’ compilation LP in 1974) – something of a mystery record which didn’t even get included in the Chrome Oxide sessionography – I only came across it recently but it’s growing on me – reportedly (Simon Gee in Wavelength 14), Van wasn’t too keen on its possible inclusion in The Story Of Them claiming it was only a demo though the mentions of sugar cubes and fourteen summers might have been on his mind too

And the, the hazard, oh
The wind blows
Through your ears
Ya haven’t got enough
Of those
What ya haven’t got for years
Yeah, but never mind
Steppin’ on my toes
Yeah, child
You’re gettin’ mighty
Like a rose

 

POST VAN THEM (PART 1)

In August 1965 (date from Wiki), the first serious breakaway within Them occurred; it was eventually to lead to the final group breakdown in early ’67. Billy Harrison and Pat McAuley left and attempted to form a rival Them which almost inevitably led to legal action. The Van Morrison/Alan Henderson grouping won the case and retained the name (and the Henderson ‘rump’ inherited that name after Morrison himself split, but that comes in Part 2). Pat’s brother Jackie also left Them and joined the new grouping and Billy Harrison left the new group at broadly the same time. Jackie McAuley took over the vocal lead in a manner that owed a lot to his erstwhile leader.

The new group called themselves (The) Belfast Gypsies but that name change didn’t occur until their first single had seen release in France and a few other countries. Hence on Disques Vogue we had “Them” with Gloria’s Dream c/w Secret Police sometime in ’66 – 45cat doesn’t specify more than that. The A-side was an obvious sequel to Gloria but the flip was more interesting: an original composition which, while sticking to the garage mode of delivery, did have a few things to say and an attractively energetic way of saying them. The name “Fowley” appears in the credits of both songs. It won’t come as any surprise to learn that that was the surname of the ubiquitous Californian, Kim Fowley, whose tentacles reached as far as London where the boys were based at the time.

If my counting is correct, the group released ten numbers in all, spread across singles and EPs. The second of the UK singles which was evidently aimed at more of a psych market with the titles, People! Let’s Freak Out and The Shadow Chasers, was credited to The Freaks Of Nature. If that selection of tracks gives a rather one dimensional view of the Belfast Gypsies then it might be worth bending an ear to their one and only album, Them Belfast Gypsies (with the “Them” in much larger lettering than the group name) which initially only saw release in Scandinavia. Tracks like their version of Derroll Adams’ Portland Town and The Last Will And Testament (a copy of St James Infirmary) plus the harmonica work on Magnificent Train show that the group had taken on board much of Van’s taste as well as his vocal styling.

 

POST VAN THEM (PART 2)

After Van followed his muse in the direction of Bert Berns and Bang Records, the ‘legitimate’ Them decamped to the American west coast in early 1967 after recruiting new lead vocalist, Kenny McDowell. A clutch of singles appeared from the band in the US over the next few years across several labels. These didn’t appear in the UK though a few other countries picked up on one or two releases. One of the most frequently seen singles in terms of number of countries it appeared in, was Walking In The Queen’s Garden in late ’67, an example of garage psych which was fairly popular in the US.

That same year the group released an album entitled Now And Them which contained the singles plus a load of new tracks. Sonically, the album didn’t tell the listener much about the group other than the facts that they bore minimal resemblance to the ‘old’ Them and that they had a sound level of musical competence but little idea what to do with it. They appeared to have a desire to be seen as ‘in’ and ‘current’ judging by one or two psychish tracks though others weren’t too many miles from west coast easy listening. The LP kicked off with a decent version of I’m Your Witchdoctor which might have been there to burnish the Brit connection but didn’t add any value to the Mayall/Clapton original. Given the new fashion for lengthy pieces there was a jam weighing in at 9 minutes and 59 seconds entitled Square Room. I’ve mentioned it for completeness. It’s not bad but hardly in the class of Kaleidoscope or the Dead.

There were to be four more albums but, judging by the decreasing level of interest shown by YouTube uploaders, they don’t warrant in depth investigation.

 

FINAL WORDS

“Van Morrison, the lead singer with Them, sometimes throws his supporters into a frenzy of hair-tearing despair . . . moody, unpredictable, perverse, often downright wilful – but always creative. On sessions, when asked to alter the phrasing of a number, he will say with quiet rebellion: ‘No! I always sing this way . . . the way I feel’ and he is invariably right.”
(Sleeve Notes to the Them Again LP)

“Van Morrison sings “Gloria” in a lustful croak, like a demented horny frog”

and

“The best truly dirty record ever.”
(Dave Marsh in “The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made”, where he made Gloria his number 69)

“In 1965, Them’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” was out loud, on the radio, and its yarragh was its heedlessness.”
(Greil Marcus in “Listening To Van Morrison” – not everyone was blown over by Baby Please Don’t Go though he was complimentary about other numbers in his/their output – see quote below)

“Morrison made two brilliant albums, Them (called The Angry Young Them in the United Kingdom, it sounded it) and Them Again.”
(Greil Marcus in “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll”)

“The original Them had the best of everything, their British blues chops down so solid they could let the standard forms ride and cruise out on some stuff that was pretty damned experimental, and successfully so, for its day (some of it still is). An impeccably tight and always driving ensemble sound, and soloists who knew how to compress enough feeling and enough ideas into a few deliberate seconds as to make you sob in this post Cream era of rampant guitar ego tripping. And a little tiny cat who was pretty funny looking, it seemed to us at the time.”

and

“And as gorgeous as Van’s recent work has been (and as fine as he must feel to have somehow, finally resolved the tensions brimming from his early music), any reasonable ear just gotta fess up to the fact that one or two “Wild Nights” an album don’t really satiate, especially when these early Them albums were burger heaven and wham, bam, thank you ma’am from stem to stern.”
(Lester Bangs in the 1972 piece referred to earlier – and in reference to this comment I would note that at the time he wrote this piece there had only been 5 or 6 solo Morrison albums released, with number depending on precise time of writing)

I’ve commented more than once that if a musician creates just one record that is seen as remarkable, or going beyond the day to day run of singles and album tracks, then he, her, or they, should be remembered with a place in musical history. Them did this on multiple occasions – at least half a dozen by my count – others may differ. They were something very special.
(Yours truly)

 

Them photo 2

Them (l to r): Peter Bardens, Alan Henderson, Van Morrison, Billy Harrison, Pat McAuley

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Sir George Ivan Morrison was born on 31st August 1945 in East Belfast. The knighthood came later. He was interested in music from an early age and his interest must have been fuelled by the large and wide-ranging record collection accrued by his father George. That collection, a portion of which came from a period George spent in Detroit in the early fifties, included blues, jazz, gospel, early soul and country, much of it unsurprisingly, American in origin. But it might well have been Scottish singer Lonnie Donegan on the radio who persuaded young Ivan to try to start playing guitar and sing along with his strumming – a common backdrop which, with some variation, was shared by many British musicians who came to fame in the sixties.

At the tender age of 12, Ivan, or Van as it got shortened to, started his first skiffle group which, within a year or so of its formation, was playing some gigs at local cinemas. A second skiffle group called the Midnight Special followed, then other short-lived bands. He persuaded his father to buy him a sax which made him more attractive to groups looking to broaden their sound. He left school in 1960 and got a job as a window cleaner but picked up extra cash from working with a band in the evenings and weekends.

Them Monarchs photo

By 1962, he had joined the Monarchs who (a) toured Europe, and (b) made a record which included Van on sax – unfortunately said record didn’t find its way to YouTube. The Monarchs disbanded and Van (second from left in front row in above photo) played and sang with other groups over the next year or so with his focus shifting more towards blues.

An opportunity arose for a band to play at the opening of a new R&B club in the Maritime Hotel in Belfast, a venue that had in its past been a dance hall often used by sailors. Van was involved with the set-up of the club along with entrepreneurs Jimmy Conlon, Jerry McKernan and Gerry McKervey (the “three J’s” mentioned in The Story Of Them). He recruited a band from an existing outfit called The Gamblers whose members consisted of Ronnie Millings (drums), Billy Harrison (guitar) and Alan Henderson (bass). They brought in young Eric Wrixon on keyboards and Van himself played harmonica, rhythm guitar and sax, and fronted the band vocally. It was Eric who came up with the inspiration for a new group name: “Them” came from the fifties horror film Them!.

The band’s performances at the Maritime have now acquired almost mythological proportions. Numbers could stretch out well beyond their original two or three minutes. Gloria, one of Van’s earliest compositions, would sometimes last for up to 20 minutes. This called for extemporisation well beyond any original lyrics which might or might not have been written down. Their set was largely based on covers of American black material but with Van’s growing list of compositions also starting to get an airing.

Word of the group got to Dick Rowe of Decca Records in late spring/early summer 1964, possibly via a fan’s taping of the group with Turn On Your Lovelight (Wiki on Them). They were signed to a two year contract and their first recording session was held in the Decca, West Hampstead studio on 5th July 1964. A number of songs were cut during the session including both sides of their first single. The shuffling of group members had already started before the session was held; Eric Wrixon was technically still a minor and his parents wouldn’t sign the contract for him which led to Pat McAuley replacing him on keyboards (and later, drums).

This was merely the start of an almost continual process of change in membership for Them. In a piece entitled “Band History”, Richie Unterberger of AllMusic discusses the subject, opening with the following paragraph:

“Them’s history is more confused than that of any other significant British Invasion group. In his The Beatles and Some Other Guys: Rock Family Trees of the Early Sixties, Pete Frame documents no less than nine lineups of the group between 1964 and 1966. His extensive Them family tree does not take into account several occasions in which original members Eric Wrixon and Billy Harrison rejoined the band briefly. And let’s not even talk about the post-Van Morrison version of Them, which managed to make four albums in America – twice as many as Them had been able to put out while Morrison was in the group. On top of all this, confusion persists to this day whether session men played a large role in their recordings. About the only thing certain is that Van was the only one singing lead on the pre-1967 discs. This has made it difficult to give the group a solid identity, other than that of an amorphous Van Morrison backup unit, to historians.”

As a footnote to a footnote and in regard to Jimmy Page’s rumoured appearance on several Them records, I’d state that he undoubtedly was there on some but on precisely which and in what role, is more difficult to ascertain. However, for Baby Please Don’t Go there appears to be agreement that he was on rhythm guitar or in synch with bass player Alan Henderson while Billy Harrison took the lead guitar role.

2. I can’t claim originality for opening this piece with the record, The Story Of Them. The first CD era compilation of the group, released in 1997, was entitled The Story Of Them featuring Van Morrison. It placed the track as starter on CD1 prior to switching to the chronological order of singles, EP and LP releases. In my somewhat feeble defence I can only claim that I came up with my approach before investigating the album.

That album is still available but its content has largely been superseded by the 3CD set, The Complete Them 1964-1967, which contains the singles, the content of both LPs plus a number of demonstration, live and alternate tracks.

3. These are the facts on Them’s hits. Baby Please Don’t Go reached the #10 spot in the UK Chart in February 1965. Its flip, Gloria, did nothing in the UK at the time but got to #65 on rerelease in 1991. In the US, Gloria achieved the #71 position at the start of 1966 but a cover version from US band, the Shadows Of Night stole Them’s thunder and reached #10. Record #3 from Them, Here Comes The Night charted at #2 in the UK and #24 in the US. Record #5 in the US (but #6 in the UK) Mystic Eyes, reached #33 in their chart but did nothing over here.

4. Slim Harpo who recorded for Excello Records in the US in the late 50s and 60s, didn’t have an outlet in the UK until his most famous tracks got included in Authentic R&B, the compilation put together by Guy Stevens which shone a spotlight on Louisiana Excello material. However, Don’t Start Cryin’ Now wasn’t on that album. I wonder if Van had managed to find Transat Imports, that basement shop in Lisle St., Soho, which sold US soul, blues and R&B records. I bought Excello singles from there and maybe Van got wind of the place (see the relevant Blue Moment from Richard Williams.

5. There was one EP from Them released in the UK between 1964 and 1967 (as mentioned in the main text). It came out in February 1965, was entitled simply Them and contained 4 tracks; 3 of which had already seen single release but the remaining track, a Morrison composition, was entitled Philosophy. This track, which was certainly not without interest, wouldn’t receive single release, nor would it appear on an album other than compilations. There were a small number of EPs released in other countries. By far the most interesting was one that was released by Decca in the Netherlands in May 1967 entitled Friday’s Child. Its content included the song with that title plus three covers which hadn’t been released anywhere up to that date: Jimmy Reed’s Baby What You Want Me To Do, T-Bone Walker’s Stormy Monday and Jimmy Witherspoon’s Time’s Gettin’ Tougher Than Tough.

6. For non-British readers and for some who aren’t as long-in-the-tooth as yours truly, the expression ‘curate’s egg’ is one that has come down through the years (with slight change only) – it refers to something that is partly good and partly less so. It came from a cartoon which appeared in a satirical magazine in 1895:

SCENE: BISHOP’S BREAKFAST TABLE. Bishop (to timid Curate on a visit). “Dear me, I’m afraid your egg’s not good!”; Timid Curate. “Oh, yes, my Lord, really – er – some parts of it are very good.”

7. I was curious about the song I Gave My Love A Diamond, wondering whether any other artist had recorded it. The only one I came across was cut by a South African group named John E. Sharpe And The Squires and the YouTube uploader was kind enough to tell us that it was included in an album entitled Maybelline and that it was a cover of the Them track. This is it. The song is taken at a much faster tempo than the Them version which technically works better (although the lead vocal lets the whole thing down somewhat).

8. “Lozarithm”, a reviewer of the Them Belfast Gypsies album in Amazon UK, retells a story that apparently appears in the sleeve notes to that album:

“They had yet to acquire a proper name in February 1966, being known simply as the Other Them, when maverick American producer Kim Fowley met up with them in the Gioconda coffee bar in Denmark Street, a favoured Tin Pan Alley watering hole. I suspect Kim Fowley’s recollection of events may have an apocryphal element, but according to this album’s sleeve notes, Kim said, “I went in and had a ham and cheese sandwich and saw these guys sitting at a table near by. ‘Are you in a group?’, I asked, as so many people who used the café were, and they replied, ‘Yeah, we were in Them.’ ‘Oh really?’ I said, ‘Let’s go and make an album’, and that was that.””

9. All dates for record releases given in the text come from 45cat.

10. I mention the Animals (from Newcastle) in my introduction. There were parallels between the groups. Both were from major UK cities other than London or the broad South East which is where all other Brit R&B groups seemed to come from – John Mayall had to move south to find fame. Both featured organ as a prominent instrument in their respective line-ups – the bands who did this in the south tended more to a jazzy approach. Both groups had more varied repertoires than southern groups. The lead singers of both bands had a particular fondness for the work of John Lee Hooker.

11. Peter Bardens played keyboards on Them’s first album in 1965, The Angry Young Them. In that same year, he went on to form Peter B’s Looners (with Peter Green on guitar and Mick Fleetwood on drums) which became the Shotgun Express in 1966 and featured Rod Stewart and others. In 1971, Bardens was one of the founder members of the prog rock band, Camel. Although his contribution to Them was fleeting, he was a key player in British rock music. He died in 2002 at the age of 57.

12. Jackie McAuley, who also played keyboards and toured with Them in 1965, teamed up with ex-Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble in 1970. As Trader Horne, they released the now-classic, psych-folk album, Morning Way. He went on to become Lonnie Donegan’s guitarist and musical director.

13. I commented on the scarcity of clips of live work from Them. What I didn’t say was that I found a fine clip of Here Comes The Night, marred only slightly by a little misunderstanding on the switch from the first run through of the chorus to the verse/bridge but Van looks totally unconcerned. It comes from the 1965 NME Poll Winners Concert:

 

Alan Henderson (1944-2017)

Eric Wrixon (1947–2015)

Peter Bardens (1944-2002)

Ray Elliott (1939-1993)

Pat McAuley (1944-1984)

 

Bring ‘em On In: webpage dedicated to Them

Them at 45cat

Them at Discogs

Van Morrison official website

Billy Harrison recordings

Them biography (Apple Music)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Animals, Bobby Bland, Solomon Burke, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Lonnie Donegan, Drifters, Slim Harpo, Howlin’ Wolf, Chris Kenner, John Mayall, Van Morrison, Pretty Things, Rod Stewart, T-Bone Walker, Yardbirds

TopperPost #791

16 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 26, 2019

    Dave, thanks for this fine piece on a truly great band. Perhaps the only person I have met (albeit briefly) who played on a genuine rock classic was Ray Elliott. He told me then that he had played the keyboards on ‘Gloria’ and described sitting between Van and Jim Morrison in a bar in LA.
    Met him in my local, Paupers bar, in Toronto where he played sax. Paupers is also mentioned in this tribute to him.

  2. Steve Paine
    May 26, 2019

    Thanks for the great piece, Dave. I was reminded of much I had forgotten and learned much I had never known. I don’t remember “Gloria” as a “minor” hit here in the US so much as an underground hit that punched up through the surface. In any case, it may be the most enduring and well-known “minor” hit of the 1960s. There is no one here who came of age in the ’60s who does not recognize it, and start singing along, after the first two or three notes.

  3. David Lewis
    May 26, 2019

    Another excellent comprehensive piece. Them is very influential on AC/DC – not only is Jailbreak the riff from Gloria, but they do a great cover of Them’s version of ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’.

  4. Peter Viney
    May 27, 2019

    Van Morrison has said “There was no Them.” Wish I could find the quote, but the sleeve notes Van wrote for “The Complete Them” 3 CD set in 2015 make the same point (and he says ‘there was no band.’). QUOTE: “There wasn’t any kind of affinity or communication like I’d had in my previous band … things got even more short circuited by using session musicians. They had Alan White who played a lot of the sessions, and Bobby Graham … Jimmy Page played guitar on some sessions as well … we didn’t have our own keyboard player. Phil Coulter was on keyboards a lot, Pete Bardens did some, Art Greenslade was playing on the first album (including Gloria) … Jimmy Page played rhythm on Here Comes The Night, Alan White was on drums, Phil Coulter was on keyboards. The guys from the Ivy League were on backing vocals … Billy Harrison put a different slant on the John Lee guitar part … Jimmy Page also played on Baby Please Don’t Go … he tuned his guitar down so it sounded like a bass, so it sounded like two basses, then he put another part on behind my vocal section … the most consistent group line up happened at the time of our second album … there were also three songs on ‘Them Again’ which had nothing to do with any Them line-up … Could You Would You,’ ‘Lonely Sad Eyes and ‘I Can Only Give You Everything.’ Those songs were me with session musicians.” END QUOTE
    So Billy Harrison, yes, and you quote Van on Could You Would You being all session. But if you follow Van’s points, I’m reminded of Robbie Robertson who said Creedence Clearwater Revival were just “John Fogerty and some guys.” I’d say Them were just “Van Morrison and some guys.”

  5. Merric Davidson
    May 27, 2019

    As an alternative to Van Morrison’s memory (as outlined above) it’s maybe worth extracting this from Richie Unterberger’s piece on Them for All-Music:
    In a 1995 issue of the Ugly Things fanzine, original Them keyboardist Eric Wrixon asserts, “There’s a story that Jimmy Page played guitar on ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. But the world is full of witnesses who can testify that in 1962 Billy Harrison was playing ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ exactly the way it turned out on the record two years later. I can’t see what need there would ever have been for a session man. Possibly to play rhythm, I don’t know. I can’t conceive of any reason why anybody was needed. We did use on some tracks a second drummer, Bobby Graham. He did embellishments. There was no other session men.”
    Richie goes on to write:
    In John Collis’ biography ‘Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart’, Billy Harrison, the man one would think most likely to claim authorship of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’s guitar parts if he had indeed played them, has a fuzzy recollection. “There were two session guys on that one. Bobby Graham on drums and Jimmy Page on guitar. That riff on ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ was my riff. I created it. We’d been playing the song like that all over Northern Ireland for a year and a half before it went on record. People will believe whatever they want to believe, but those session guys weren’t needed. With other bands, maybe. Quite a lot didn’t have the musical ability. But we’d been playing for two years by then. We knew the music–what we didn’t have yet was the studio technique. In those days if you made a mistake you started all over again. So session men were often used simply to save money, to get it right first time. But in our case they just weren’t necessary. They were on that first session, but after that, what the hell. As far as I’m concerned we’d proved ourselves.” Yet Collis goes on to note that “Harrison neither confirms nor denies” whether Page played on the “Baby Please Don’t Go.”
    Who knows where the time goes!

    • David Lewis
      May 27, 2019

      It becomes murky for all kinds of reasons – pay, ego, professional bragging… for example, Pete Townshend has both admitted and later denied that Jimmy Page played on ‘I Can’t Explain’. He also gave an intriguing interview on the 1981 BBC radio show ‘The Guitar Players’ in which he claimed that he played secretly on Rolling Stones records for reasons he couldn’t get into, but would tell all in his memoirs. As great as the memoirs are, he doesn’t mention it. Allan Holdsworth continually denied playing on a Donovan record, despite Donovan himself stating it to be true. George Martin replaced Ringo with another drummer once.
      The point about studio technique is well made. As good as you can be live, studio technique is hard, and set up needs to be done quickly, let alone playing it once or twice. Having said that, a tight band with an engineer like, say Geoff Emerick, could get by, or even be better than the studio guys.
      It’s even messier in places like L.A., Nashville and New York.
      And of course Rod Stewart probably had the best/worst liner note when he credited the mandolinist on ‘Maggie Mae’ by stating that ‘his name escapes me’. It was Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne, though John Peel pretended to play it on Top of the Pops.

  6. Peter Viney
    May 27, 2019

    On Eric Wrixon’s memory, Van says on The Complete Them, “By the time we got to London, Eric Wrixon had already left, to go to school.” Van says of the session men “producers always brought in guys like these, kind of like insurance for making recordings.” And “If it hadn’t been session musicians, it probably wouldn’t have happened at all.” Drums are often cited as the one where producers wanted session men … Alan White, Bobby Graham and Clem Cattinni being favourites. It’s reliability, efficiency, time. I’d have to trawl my Wavelength mags, but I’m sure John Paul Jones gets mentioned by Van somewhere too. Jimmy Page often turns up at Reading Record Fair. Sellers tell me he’s seeking every record he played on, a near impossible task.

  7. Merric Davidson
    May 27, 2019

    I prefer the late Eric Wrixon’s memory. So much in Them’s history seems to have been rewritten for the benefit of Mr Morrison.

    Anyway, more myth-busting below in the ‘Van Morrison and some guys’ controversy, more alternative views, fake news and fascinating facts (surplus to requirements in a toppermost piece arriving at a Them top 10!):

    Them’s reputation has been undermined by accusations that their records were actually made by session men. In particular it is widely believed that future Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page played the immortal lead guitar on ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’. “What Jimmy Page played was totally unnecessary,” adds Jackie McAuley. “I could show you the part he played and it’s nothing to talk about.” But although Harrison played guitar McAuley doesn’t deny that other session men were used on the tracks that appeared on the 1965 Angry Young Them album and on early singles. “When I joined the band we needed a B-side for ‘Here Comes The Night’ so we went into the studio to do ‘All For Myself’. And I thought, “Who are these f***ing guys?” I was told to play the piano while someone else played my organ. Piano’s not even on the track! But all the people brought in weren’t necessary. Why was Them there in the first place? Because they were going down a bomb live – so they must have been all right. Why would they all of a sudden need session musicians? It was a divide and conquer tactic by the manager.” (from an interview with Jackie McAuley on the Culture Northern Ireland website 2016)

    Them started as a three-piece band called The Gamblers with Billy and Alan as founder members. The fifth and final member to join was Van Morrison as a saxophone player and the band became known as Them. Billy Harrison, 74, still lives in Northern Ireland while Alan had been living in Minneapolis since the late sixties. “When we were on tour with Them he met a local girl and never came home again,” said Billy. Billy said he had not seen or spoken to Van since he left the band in 1967. With Alan on the other hand they stayed in regular contact. “Any time you read Van put a group together, he didn’t,” Billy joked. “He was the last guy in.” (from the Belfast Newsletter at the time of Alan Henderson’s death in 2017)

    When Van “The Man” joined the group in 1964 they were still called The Gamblers and he had to share the lead vocal role with guitarist Billy Harrison, while also contributing on saxophone and harmonica. It wasn’t long before Morrison adopted the position as all his own. It was during their regular gig at the R&B lounge of the Maritime Hotel that he really hit his stride. He later said of the experience, “Them lived and died on the stage at the Maritime Hotel”, which was meant to be commentary about how they never had a regular routine. Instead, they fed off the energy of the crowd, often ad libbing and stretching out songs, like “Gloria”, to as long as 20 minutes. Many of their tunes were even written right on that stage in front of their adoring crowds of mod kids. (source: The Green Gorilla)

    In January 1965, Them toured England for a second time, staying at the Royal Hotel, which disc jockey Jimmy Savile used as his London base. Savile helped promote the band in his column for “The People” but Them earned a reputation for bad manners and sarcasm in their interviews. Billy Harrison said the attitude problem may have been caused by anti-Irish sentiments in the country at the time. (from Wikipedia)

    Some UK gigs. Them played the Bristol Jazz Club on 18th May 1965 and Tom Jones and Them played the ABC Great Yarmouth in July 1965. Them were on the same bill as the Byrds and Donovan on a tour of the UK in August 1965 and played Croydon, Slough, Coventry, Hove, Ipswich, London, Bournemouth, Portsmouth.

    From 2nd to 18th June 1966, Them were resident at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. For the final week The Doors opened for Them and on the last night the two bands and the two Morrisons jammed a 20 minute version of “Gloria”. On 26 June, Them topped the bill at the Oakland Auditorium over The Association and The Grassroots.

  8. Andrew Shields
    May 27, 2019

    I think the best antidote to the idea of Them as just “Van Morrison and some guys” is watching the live clips of the group in action above. Also through reading the reminiscences of those who saw them (no pun intended) play in their glory days at the Maritime.
    Morrison’s lack of graciousness or gratitude in regard to the other members contributions is hardly to be unexpected but they deserved far better.

  9. Peter Viney
    May 28, 2019

    We need to listen to “New Biography” by Van Morrison (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZFKnr8pB5I) , in which he takes a swipe at all comments and especially Wavelength magazine, for which I was a regular contributor. I went to the two big biographies, Johnny Rogan and Clinton Heylin. Both agree that Wickham went back to school as Van says, but that he “attended” the 5th July session. More tellingly, Heylin says they were asked to run through their raw arrangements for Art Greenslade prior to the session, then “it was common practice for record companies to augment groups with session musicians, not necessarily because band members were incompetent but simply to save on session time.” Rogan quotes Solomon as saying the drummer was terrible. Heylin says he was put in one booth with the mic off, and Bobby Graham in another and only Bobby Graham was used, but that Them members maintain there are two drummers.
    Anyway, it’s compatible with session guys reproducing parts originated by Them members. They also quote Jimmy Page doubling Harrison’s guitar part, though Rogan has Van downplaying Jimmy Page’s role years ago, in contrast to what he said in 2015.

  10. Merric Davidson
    May 28, 2019

    Wrixon not Wickham. I don’t think his young age (and inexperience at the time) is in doubt but he’ll forever be a founder member of Them and the guy who named Them.
    It’s funny but until Dave put together this excellent post I hadn’t thought about Them in ages, apart from sitting next to Billy Harrison at an Irish cousin’s wedding in Edinburgh around 20 years ago and liking the man and his company and his honesty immensely, the same Billy Harrison of the memorable riffs, the ‘garage’ guitar wizz. And then, the more I lived with Dave’s post, editorially, the more I came to know that there were some fine, soulful musicians in there, guys who would have laid down the right sort of rhythm for their exceptional frontman who was developing his craft; not just Henderson and Harrison, but the McAuley brothers who went on, who made good, Ray Elliott the fine musician who our contributor Andrew Shields rightly reveres, Pete Bardens, always right place, right time, right moves. These were all players of the 60s R&B era, genuine blues lovers, not incidental at all. Minor footnotes in the career of a rock legend maybe but who isn’t!
    As the moderator of the Comments section of this soulful website, those of you who know me will know I don’t come out to play on here too often. But these young musicians, I needed to fight their corner. Hopefully those who heard them play will still be around to come on here and tell us how it was.
    I think I’ve said all I need to say. Long live Them, those records were magic and all those guys played a part. You are all legend.

  11. Peter Viney
    May 29, 2019

    There is a recent live Them EP, on the “1960s Records” label. “1960s Records” have done a lot of vinyl EPs and LPs, off radio and TV from the 60s. This was Record Store Day 2017, I think. Many sound like a Grundig mono tape recorder plastic mic in front of a Rediffusion TV speaker. “Them” is a recording from 1965, Baby Please Don’t Go, Here Comes The Night, Turn On Your Lovelight. The Shindig Review reckons Here Comes The Night is the NME Poll Winners Concert on video here. The others aren’t dated, but are in front of an audience. We have no idea which line-up was playing, but Turn On Your Lovelight is a very rough performance. Dave has given the Richie Unterberger quote on at least nine line-ups already.
    Dave mentions that Van was “short and tubby.” I reviewed Johnny Rogan’s “No Surrender” for Wavelength and mentioned how often he referred to Van’s height and girth (pudgy was a favourite word). This led to heated but friendly correspondence, and when they did the paperback, Johnny kindly sent me a copy, and he’d revised those comments. He is a meticulous biographer. The trouble with all writing on Van (so on Them) is mostly they result in personal dislike.

    • David Lewis
      May 29, 2019

      I think Clinton Heylin drew the ire of Van fans in his book. But then, he drew the ire of patchouli-smelling, pot-smoking, pacifist Sandy Denny fans, so…

      • Peter Viney
        May 29, 2019

        David, Heylin’s “certainty” on his interpretations raises even more ire among Dylan fans. Heylin and Rogan are the definitive books on Van & Them. I find Rogan more readable, but I have to admire Heylin’s cheek in calling his “The New Biography” after Van’s song berating biographers.
        In the end, “history is written by the victors.” which is Van.

  12. Dave Stephens
    Jun 16, 2019

    Them made some fine records. Van the Man made some fine records as a solo artist. Comparison is of interest but doesn’t negate those points.

  13. Peter Viney
    Jun 16, 2019

    Mmm … what about comparing the live “Too Late To Stop Now” with Them? Van on both, bit I know which band wins.

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