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‘Moondance’: Why This Van Morrison Classic Is “Part Of The Universe”
In Depth

‘Moondance’: Why This Van Morrison Classic Is “Part Of The Universe”

Setting out to produce a simple ‘album of good songs’, Van Morrison emerged with the painstakingly created masterpiece ‘Moondance’.

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Belfast-born singer-songwriter Van Morrison started writing the songs for Moondance in the autumn of 1969, a year after the release of his previous album, the seminal Astral Weeks. Morrison said his only intention with Moondance was “to produce an album of good songs”, and he did this and more: the ten tracks on the album, released in the UK on 27 January 1970, are all top-class, shining examples of accomplished lyricism and musicianship.

Listen to ‘Moondance’ here.

“The type of band I dig, two horns and a rhythm section”

Morrison and his first wife, Janet Planet, were living in an artistic community in New York’s remote Catskills region, near Woodstock, at the time he recorded Moondance. He hired, he said, “the type of band I dig, two horns and a rhythm section”. The horn players were Collin Tilton (tenor saxophone and flute) and Jack Schroer (alto and soprano saxophone); Morrison had seen Schroer in a blues bar in New York City and invited him to work with him the next day. He met guitarist John Platania in Woodstock and the pair became long-term collaborators. John Klingberg (bass), Gary Malabar (drums), Guy Masson (congas) and female back-up vocalists Emily Houston (of The Sweet Inspirations), Judy Clay (who had several hit singles with Billy Vera) and Jackie Verdell made up the session band. Morrison sang and played rhythm guitar, harmonica and tambourine.

The album’s ten songs – And It Stoned Me, Moondance, Crazy Love, Caravan, Into The Mystic, Come Running, These Dreams Of You, Brand New Day, Everyone and Glad Tidings – have a freshness that resulted from the spontaneity at the recording sessions at A&R Studios in New York. Morrison’s vocal parts were recorded live on eight-track, one-inch analogue tape, and the two horn players, along with Morrison and Labes, improvised on the arrangements as they worked. Moondance marked Van Morrison’s debut as a producer, though he was helped in the mixing process by engineers Elliott Scheiner and Tony May.

“How it was when you were a kid and just got stoned from nature”

What makes the album so outstanding is that Morrison’s songs were so personal and imaginative. He told biographer Ritchie Yorke a couple of years later that And It Stoned Me was about a real experience from his childhood, “how it was when you were a kid and just got stoned from nature and you don’t need anything else”. Morrison said he was “fascinated by gypsies” and wrote Caravan after hearing the mysterious sounds of a radio drifting through the woods near his home in Woodstock.

These Dreams Of You evolved out of a real dream the singer had about his idol Ray Charles. Brand New Day was inspired by a difficult time he’d endured in Boston when he was “struggling spiritually”. Morrison said listening to I Shall Be Released by The Band left him feeling uplifted. “Brand New Day expressed a lot of hope,” he explained. He wrote album closer Glad Tidings in New York after being he was tickled by that phrase when it came in a letter he received from a friend in London.

“I guess the song is about being part of the universe”

Morrison wrote the catchy melody for Moondance’s title track before he composed the lyrics and after he had been playing around on a soprano saxophone looking for the sort of elegant jazz melody “that Frank Sinatra would sing”. The brilliant Into The Mystic, which Morrison originally called Into The Misty, remains one of his most popular works. “I guess the song is just about being part of the universe,” he said.

Moondance peaked at No.32 in the UK and No.29 in the US, and remains an album acclaimed by critics. The single Come Running, which Morrison, then 24, called “a happy-go-lucky song”, was a minor hit, selling more than 300,000 copies.

In 2013, Morrison released a 5CD Moondance deluxe-edition box set, with 50 songs, including studio outtakes, unheard mixes and unreleased tracks. The collection showed the painstaking work and creative effort that went into the final, magnificent record.

Ten years later, a 3LP deluxe edition of Moondance was issued, featuring the 2022 Steven Wilson remix of the album, along with two discs of outtakes. A companion Blu-ray release also boasted an Atmos Mix and Steven Wilson’s instrumental mix of the album. Highlights of the outtakes include a previously unreleased version of the old Bessie Smith blues classic Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out, an 11-minute version of I’ve Been Working – a song that would appear on Morrison’s next album, His Band And The Street Choir – and the sweet ballad I Shall Sing.

‘Moondance’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

And It Stoned Me

When Van Morrison was making Moondance, he was living a bucolic existence in rural Woodstock. And It Stoned Me is one of his best naturalistic compositions, driven by the memories of a six-mile fishing trip he took with a friend as a young Belfast boy in the rolling hills around Ballystockart and Gransha, leading down to Comber and Strangford Lough. His brilliant song is about a nature trip and about the deep and unbridled joy of being lost in adventure, untroubled even by being drenched. Confirming his place among the best Irish musicians, Morrison’s voice is quenching against the sublime brass and guitar lines.

Moondance

Morrison, who started off playing tenor saxophone before switching to alto, said that the roots of Moondance’s title track, with its jazz four-note bassline, lay in an instrumental jam he came up with in the mid-60s. Among the many pleasures of this superbly arranged song is the flute playing of Colin Tilton, whose work was included in the book 25 Great Flute Solos. The lyrics Morrison wrote – “It’s a marvellous night for a moondance/With the stars up above in your eyes/A fantabulous night to make romance/’Neath the cover of October skies” – are part of what makes Moondance one of the best love songs of all time. Morrison has played the song more than a thousand times in concert, and it is no wonder that, when George Clooney picked it for Desert Island Discs, he quipped: “You can’t go wrong with Moondance.”

Crazy Love

Morrison’s gorgeous Crazy Love is one of Bob Dylan’s favourite songs – Dylan has sung it in duets with Morrison a few times over the years – and the sense of intimacy and seduction is emphasised by Morrison’s musical bond with the three female singers on the track: Emily “Cissy” Houston (of Aretha Franklin backing vocalists The Sweet Inspirations), Judy Clay (who had several hit singles with Billy Vera) and Jackie Verdell. The final version of Crazy Love, which Morrison sang in falsetto, was recorded with the singer so close to the microphone that you can hear the sound of his tongue hitting the roof of his mouth as he sings.

Caravan

Pianist Jeff Labes has recalled how “excited” Morrison was about the new material for Moondance, including the wonderful track Caravan, which expresses Morrison’s romantic view of a traveller’s life and also his deep-seated love of listening to the radio. The live performance of this song that will remain indelible is Morrison’s one in 1976 for the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz, a documentary about The Band’s final performance. Morrison, wearing a purple velvet suit, leaves the stage high-kicking as if leading a chorus line.

Into The Mystic

Into The Mystic started life with the title Into The Misty. It remains one of Van Morrison’s best songs, a soulful work about life, existence and connection. “I guess the song is just about being part of the universe,” said Morrison, who was 24 at the time of its recording. When Warner Bros released the 5CD Moondance box set in 2013, it contained studio outtakes, unheard mixes and unreleased tracks. One of the most interesting aspects of the release was the way it showed the painstaking work and creative effort that went into the final, magnificent version of Into The Mystic – especially the way that guitarist John Platania, whom Morrison met in Woodstock, honed his playing on the song to perfection.

Come Running

Come Running, the shortest song on Moondance, at just two minutes 30 seconds, was described by Morrison as a “light, happy-go-lucky song”. The track shows how drums and vibes player Garry Malabar was perfectly in sync with saxophonist Jack Schrorer. Come Running, which was originally demoed for Astral Weeks, was released as a single and peaked at No.39 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling more than 300,000 copies.

These Dreams Of You

These Dreams Of You was triggered in Morrison’s imagination by a dream he had about an assassination attempt on singer Ray Charles. At the time, Morrison told a reporter he always got “caught up listening to the same Ray Charles live album all the time”. The lyrics to These Dreams Of You also contain a line about “paying your dues” in Canada, and Morrison has said he’d had a romantic idea about living in Canada. The singer played harmonica on the track, and the bass guitarist was John Klingberg.

Brand New Day

Brand New Day, one of Van Morrison’s most optimistic songs, was written when the musician was having a bad time in Boston, struggling spiritually and, as he later recalled, “living on a shoestring – a very hand-to-mouth existence at that time”. The longest song on Moondance, at over five minutes, Brand New Day has a lovely gospel-infused atmosphere, with backing singing again courtesy of Houston, Clay and Verdell.

Everyone

Morrison enjoyed working with the session musicians on Moondance, and the freshness and spontaneity conjured in New York’s A&R Studios come across in songs such as Everyone, which Morrison described as “just a song of hope, that’s what it is”, with its message of being able to “make dreams come true if we want them to”.

Glad Tidings

Morrison’s dislike of aspects of the music industry is well documented, and Glad Tidings refers to “businessmen who shake hands and talk in numbers”. The song was inspired by a postcard Morrison sent to a friend in London when he was residing in North America, with the sign-off “Glad Tidings from New York”. Blending images of deceit and chivalry, Glad Tidings was used to memorable effect in the final episode of the fifth season of The Sopranos.

Moondance marked Van Morrison’s debut as an album producer (though he was helped in the mixing process by engineers Elliott Scheiner and Tony May), and in the immediate aftermath he was pleased with the result. “The way I did it was classic. I put things together that nobody’s ever put together like that before. I’m proud of that,” he said.

Buy the ‘Moondance’ deluxe 3LP box set.

Original article: 27 January 2022

Updated: 1 December 2023

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