Van Morrison’s inimitable 1968 longplayer Astral Weeks is the enduring enigma of the ornery Ulsterman’s oeuvre, and remains a unique landmark in the canon of popular music. Here, Dylan Jones sings the praises of ‘the greatest album ever made’.
It opens with a guitar, a double bass and some light percussion, although the record could have started just about anywhere. When Astral Weeks begins you feel as though the engineer has simply started the tape where Van Morrison told him to. There is no real beginning to the record, and it sounds as though Morrison just said, “Play”. So the players kick in, and Morrison starts singing – “If I ventured in the slipstream, Between the viaducts of your dream” – at least a bar too soon, and then we’re off, disappearing into an aural dream world that for the last 46 years has been justly considered the greatest album ever made.
However, the sound is actually quite sloppy, and you can imagine the other players furtively glancing at each other, wondering where on earth they might be going, and what might happen to them if the supposedly taciturn young Irishman in the half-moon recording booth doesn’t like what they’re playing. Yet they bash on, over hill and dale, through fields all wet with rain, over the hills and far away. Without a route map, or properly drawn-up charts, they are flailing around in the dark, but some weird alchemy – they’d never done a session like this before, not least with an introverted, monosyllabic “White Irish” – seems to be getting them where they need to be.
The percussion is one of the first things you notice, because as the double bass corrals everything else into play, brushes, maracas and triangles determine the rhythms. This music doesn’t stride into view; it meanders, hovering in the middle of the lawn, hissing like a sprinkler.
It all sounds hesitant, as though it could just collapse at any minute, as though a single studio door slamming could bring it all to a halt.
When the musicians were finally finished with the sessions – there were three of them, at Century Sound Studios on New York’s 52nd Street, the town’s ‘Swing Street’ – none of the musicians was really sure what they’d achieved, but at least they could say they’d made a fair fist of the journey, having all arrived in one piece without any casualties. Hey, and “White Irish” was even smiling! He’d told them to “stretch out” and they’d done just that, pulling the Ulsterman’s extraordinary songs, with their fugue-like lyrics, in all sorts of improvisatory directions in an attempt to fuse folk, blues, gospel and rock with Morrison’s greenhorn idea of jazz.
When they’d finished, none of them really knew what they had created. And although “White Irish” was already some way down the path of most resistance – he would spend the rest of his career refusing to engage with criticism – his customers and the hacks who came to peer at him would soon make up their own minds: this was quite simply the best record that had ever been made.
Dylan Jones is the Editor-In-Chief of GQ and the Chairman of London Collections: Men
(reproduced courtesy of HIX magazine) www.hixrestaurants.co.uk