The first sound that jumps out at you after inserting Van Morrison's The Authorized Bang Collection is that of the familiar "Brown Eyed Girl," but something about it is different. As presented in its original stereo mix as remastered from the original 1967 first-generation tape, it's more vibrant than ever, with pronounced instrumental separation and a crisp sheen - as if that misty morning fog has been lifted, and the green grass smells fresher than ever. It will have you singing sha la la la la la la la la la la te da - but then again, so will all of this new 3-CD set from Legacy Recordings and Morrison's Exile Productions. The Authorized Bang Collection is the gleaming crown jewel so far of Legacy's impressive Morrison reissue program which has already encompassed the stellar It's Too Late to Stop Now Volumes II, III, IV & DVD, and The Complete Them 1964-1967.
For decades, Morrison's pre-Astral Weeks recordings, save the blissful "Brown Eyed Girl," have been largely devalued in the context of his entire discography. Even the very first presentation of the artist's core material for Bert Berns' Bang label, the Blowin' Your Mind LP, was released without Morrison's consent and wasn't shaped as a true album. Finally, all of Morrison's released Bang recordings, plus two discs' worth of unreleased ones, have been brought together and in full context of where he was coming from, and where he was going. Moreover, the original recordings are finally presented on this new set in their original mixes as Bert Berns envisioned them, rather than in the remixed form utilized for both the 1991 Bang Masters release and the 1998 expanded reissue of Blowin' Your Mind.
Disc One of this set, The Original Masters, brings together the 8 tracks on Blowin' Your Mind (Tracks 1-8, in their album sequence) plus the outtakes issued by Bang following Morrison's departure from the label on the Best of Van Morrison and T.B. Sheets collections in 1970 and 1973, respectively. The disc is rounded out with the single "Chick-a-Boom" and the demo of "The Smile You Smile," first issued on Bang Masters.
While these tracks only give fleeting glimpses of the mystic majesty of Astral Weeks, Morrison's "proper" album debut for Warner Bros., they do reveal a gifted singer-songwriter working in tandem with one of New York's most successful yet underrated producers to create a fresh riff on blues and rock-and-roll. Bert Berns brought his R&B sensibility, while arranger-conductor Garry Sherman added a pop sheen. A crack group of musicians (including Eric Gale, Hugh McCracken and Al Gorgoni on guitar, and Artie Butler on keys) and even singers (Jeff Barry, plus Dee Dee Warwick and Cissy Houston and Myrna Smith of The Sweet Inspirations) was enlisted.
On the other end of the spectrum from the bright pop perennial "Brown Eyed Girl," the late March sessions that would become Blowin' Your Mind introduced the harrowing, 9+-minute epic "T.B. Sheets" (so different than anything Berns had recorded previously). The other material comprising the eight-song LP was equally varied. "Spanish Rose," a sweet song of memory, is as charming as "T.B. Sheets" is disturbing. The withering, London-set blues-rock of "He Ain't Give You None" as well as the moody "Who Drove the Red Sports Car" both show Morrison's sense of vivid imagery already developed. The straight-ahead rock-and-roll of "Ro Ro Rosey," with its blues harmonica licks, is just one of the tracks that showcase the considerable talents of Morrison's New York backing band; tellingly, he wasn't as happy with the group that would play behind him on his next Bang sessions. A couple of covers show off Morrison the interpreter. He made Berns and Wes Farrell's "Goodbye Baby (Baby Goodbye)," a slice of taut garage-pop, his own, and even tackled the traditional "Midnight Special" with a soulful assist from The Sweet Inspirations and a riff that might remind some of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," though the Morrison/Berns track predates it.
In his compelling and lengthy liner notes for The Authorized Bang Collection, Morrison acknowledges that his subsequent Bang recordings from later in 1967 (which follow the Blowin' Your Mind tracks on Disc One) "didn't seem to gel as much...they didn't have the same energy, the same vibe, didn't have the same kind of groove." It's hard to disagree with Morrison's assessment of such songs as "It's All Right," with its elliptical, sub-Dylan wordplay over a slow-burning groove, or "Send Your Mind," a frantic garage rave-up that emphasizes riff over melody. The famous Irishman had a bit of fun with the Scots-derived reference to "roamin' in the gloamin'" in "The Smile You Smile," a bluesy love ballad with prominent background vocals from the Sweet Inspirations. (He used the same lyrical reference in the poetic story-song "Joe Harper Saturday Morning.")
Still, there were worthy standouts from the later Bang sessions including "The Back Room," filled with atmosphere if not a compelling melody, and the original version of the Belfast tale of a certain, mysterious "Madame George," which he would remake for Astral Weeks with altered lyrics and a slower, more haunting tempo. The haunting "Beside You," too, would find its way to Astral Weeks. "Chick-a-Boom" is an unexceptional Berns co-write, but glides along on its party atmosphere and Latin groove in the producer's patented style.
What may have been most surprising to Berns - but not to a contemporary audience accustomed to Morrison's experimental, ambitious streak - was that there wasn't a solid commercial single in the mold of "Brown Eyed Girl" among the second group of tracks. But the seeds of greatness certainly exist in these embryonic recordings.
Disc Two, presenting fifteen alternate versions as Bang Sessions and Rarities, offers further insight into Morrison and Berns' collaboration and how the producer helped shape the singer-songwriter's work. These mostly previously unissued performances offer variations large and small on the familiar tracks, as well as fly-on-the-wall studio chatter. "T.B. Sheets" is a couple of minutes shorter in Take 2, but no less dramatic with the singer's panting and pleading. The alternate of "Send Your Mind" is captivatingly urgent. Van works out the tempo and feel of "He Ain't Give You None" on its fourth take (one of the handful of previously issued tracks, having first appeared on Bang Masters), and is even looser with "Ro Ro Rosey" than on the album version.
"Beside You" is heard with two unique versions as Morrison and Berns hone the song's sound and style; how much did these in-studio experiments inform the shape and form of the "final" version on Astral Weeks? Two tracks and nearly fifteen minutes of "Brown Eyed Girl" alternates are happily here, too, with distinctive variations as the familiar arrangement and the famous opening figure take form. Morrison's delivery and the background vocals, too, vastly differ from the finished version on these early takes. The mono single mixes of "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Ro Ro Rosey" are included on this disc; while the former suffers from editing, the latter gains an AM-friendly veneer with its bolder, punchier mix and the addition of prominent background vocals.
The third disc of this collection, The Contractual Obligation Session, is the first official release of an oft-bootlegged session in which an angry young Morrison, past the point of no return with Bang Records, made good on his promise to fulfill his contract and record new material for the label. (Bert Berns died on December 30, 1967, and was never able to make amends.) Guitar in hand, Morrison ran through over 30 improvised "songs" with titles like "Jump and Thump," "Shake It, Mable," "Ring Worm," "Freaky If You Got This Far" (less than halfway through the session!), "You Say France and I Whistle," "Blowin' Your Nose," "Want a Danish"...and so on. In his liner notes, producer-compiler Andrew Sandoval states that these tracks - goofily humorous with an undercurrent of anger - have been included for "the sake of completeness." While this disc is hardly one most fans would wish to have on repeat play, it's a surprising and welcome, warts-and-all coda to this definitive Van Morrison at Bang Records collection.
The Authorized Bang Collection, housed in a digipak, is everything for which Morrison collectors could have hoped. Morrison himself provides a candid and revealing essay in the full-color 24-page booklet, which has been beautifully designed with period flair by John Sellards. Though there are no remastering credits, this material sounds better than it ever has before - both a testament to Berns' original recording and the sonic wizardry accomplished by producer Sandoval and his engineers for this release. Van Morrison's early recordings can finally be enjoyed - perhaps even by the artist himself, based on his own words here - in comprehensive, lovingly curated form, with a Bang!