There are many peculiar stories in the annals of rock and roll, but surely one of the most peculiar is the tale of Them and The Other Them – and it’s just been chronicled anew in Cherry Red/Grapefruit’s release of Them: Belfast Gypsies.
The Northern Irish band Them always had a fluid lineup; frontman Van Morrison wrote candidly in 2015 that “Them was intended as a vehicle, a way for me to sing and play the blues.” The first line-up, featuring Eric Wrixon on keyboards, only ever recorded demos. The first group that recorded commercially, in July 1964, consisted of Morrison, Alan Henderson (bass), Pat McAuley (organ), Billy Harrison (guitar), and Ronnie Millings (drums). When Ronnie quit, Pat McAuley switched to drums; soon, Pat’s brother Jackie joined up just in time to record the hit “Here Comes the Night” with producer-songwriter Bert Berns and session players including Jimmy Page. But that roster didn’t last, either, and Eric Wrixon was briefly back in upon Jackie’s departure. A still-different group played on the first Them LP (Morrison, Harrison, Henderson, Pat McAuley, and keyboardist Peter Bardens). Before 1965 was out, Pat McAuley, too, left Them. He took Billy Harrison with him; the guitarist protested in 1966 that Van “didn’t want a group, he wanted a backing group.” Only just over a year after they’d formed in 1964, Them had gone through five or six line-ups.
Pat McAuley and Billy Harrison were finished with Van Morrison but they weren’t finished with Them. Once the band was down to just Morrison and Henderson from the original line-up, McAuley and Harrison believed Them was through. They then assembled a new group with lead singer Nick Wymer (previously of The Fairies), drummer Skip Alan, and bassist Mark Scott. David Wells’ liner notes report a September 1965 article stating that McAuley and Harrison had “registered [the name] with the Board of Trade” but that didn’t stop Decca Records – representing the Morrison camp – from taking legal action. The revolving door of personnel would also plague this version of the band; Skip Alan and Billy Harrison left in the face of the lawsuits. Drummer Viv Prince was in briefly, then replaced by Ken McLeod. Nick Wymer left at the end of the year, and Jackie McAuley returned to the fold.
The rival Them factions headed to court in 1966, and the judge’s March decision decided that Morrison’s group held the rights to the name. But, he confirmed, the other Them could call themselves by that moniker out of the United Kingdom and could use it in Britain if conjoined with another word. Hence, the other Them became The Other Them. (In the “strange but true” department, The Other Them filled in for Them on at least one occasion when the Morrison band was unable to perform.) The recordings made by The Other Them – as The Belfast Gypsies (or Gipsies), as The Freaks of Nature, and simply as Them – comprise Grapefruit’s 21-track complete anthology.
The centerpiece of this set is the 1967 album Them Belfast Gypsies, originally issued in Sweden on the Sonet/Grand Prix label. Seven tracks were produced by Sunset Strip scenester Kim Fowley to whose management company the band had signed. Fowley encouraged them to recycle the famous riff to 1964’s Morrison-penned “Gloria” into a new track, “Gloria’s Dream.” (Fowley is quoted in the notes: “There was ‘Shout!’ by The Isley Brothers and there was ‘Twist and Shout.’ So in my mind it was ‘Gloria’ and ‘Gloria’s Dream.’ It was a continuum – a continuing narrative.”) Fowley’s imprint is even more keenly felt on “People Let’s Freak Out,” a ragged Bo Diddley-esque garage rock rave-up. Under Fowley’s aegis, the group took in various influences. Donovan’s “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” was also reinvented with a Diddley beat; “Aria of the Fallen Angels” was Bach gone mad and “The Last Will and Testament” was “St. James Infirmary” turned upside down. Fowley’s own “The Trip” was given a makeover as “Secret Police.” The original album was rounded out by a quintet of songs produced by the band in Copenhagen, including Bob Dylan’s jangly “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” and a frenzied original, “Suicide Song.” With its raw, gritty production and Jackie McAuley’s Morrison-esque vocals, Them Belfast Gypsies fit comfortably on the Them continuum, as Fowley would say – even if the band lacked a songwriter as strong as Morrison or, for that matter, Bert Berns. Its lightly psychedelic overtones even distinguished it from the hard-hitting R&B of the original Them.
Nine bonus tracks complete Grapefruit’s package including the U.S. Loma Records single mixes of “Gloria’s Dream” and “Secret Police” (billed as The Belfast Gipsies); the U.K. Island Records overdubbed single version of “People Let’s Freak Out” (by The Freaks of Nature); three tracks including the groovy organ-led instrumental “The Gorilla” from a French Vogue EP (which the notes indicate might not be the work of The Other Them at all, but rather Shotgun Express); and two demos predating the album (“I Want You” – not the Dylan song – and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”). (Morrison’s group had also released their take on “Baby Blue” in 1966.)
The Other Them met with some success. “Gloria’s Dream” earned airplay on the pirate station Radio Caroline, and “Gloria’s Dream” b/w “Secret Police” scored regionally in American markets like Orlando, Seattle, and Detroit. In the latter city, the pre-fame Iggy Pop became a fan; Sonny and Cher also briefly took up the cause of the band. But The Other Them was plagued by personnel changes and general confusion; David Wells tells us that the bandmates weren’t even aware of The Freaks of Nature single for decades after its release; even the Sonet LP was released without the band’s permission. Once The Other Them disbanded and Morrison left the group to pursue solo stardom, bassist Alan Henderson carried on the Them name and continued to record through 1972 (with one “reunion” LP of Henderson, Eric Wrixon, and Billy Harrison in 1979).
The 20-page full-color booklet, housed in a digipak, has Wells’ detailed notes in addition to numerous memorabilia images. These include reprinted articles with such titles as “Some of Them” and “Legal Row Over Who Is Them.” No remastering credits are provided but sound is solid and consistent throughout. Grapefruit’s Belfast Gypsies is a comprehensive yet compact collection which tells one of the most convoluted stories in rock. It’s a fascinating adjunct to any Them/Van Morrison collection. Look for the CD on June 26 at the links below! (Amazon U.S. and Canada are still showing June 19 for the release, but the later date is more likely.)
- Gloria’s Dream
- The Crazy World Inside Me
- Midnight Train
- Aria of the Fallen Angels
- It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
- People, Let’s Freak Out
- Boom Boom
- The Last Will and Testament
- Portland Town
- Hey Gyp! (Dig the Slowness)
- Suicide Song
- Secret Police
- Gloria’s Dream (Single Mix)
- Secret Police (Single Mix)
- People! Let’s Freak Out (Single Mix)
- It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Early Demo)
- Portland Town (French EP Mix)
- It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (French EP Mix)
- Midnight Train (French EP Mix)
- The Gorilla (French EP)
Tracks 1-12 from Them Belfast Gypsies, Swedish Sonet/Grand Prix LP GP 9923, 1967
Tracks 13-14 from Loma (U.S.) single 2051, 1966
Track 15 from Island (U.K.) single WI 3017, 1966
Tracks 16-17 demo recordings, rec. 1966
Tracks 18-21 from French Vogue EP INT. 18135, 1967