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MUSICIANS AND INSTRUMENTS PLAYED
Peter Van Hooke: Drums
David Hayes: Bass
John Allair: Keyboards
Herbie Armstrong: Acoustic guitar, electric rhythm guitar
Mick Cox: Lead guitar
Mark Isham: Trumpet, flugelhorn
Pee Wee Ellis: Sax, flute
All songs composed and sung by Van Morrison
NB: The image and description at the top of this article appears to be for a re-mastering or maybe even a re-working of "Common One", released in 2008; the version I am reviewing below is the original 1980 issue of the album. The genre is also described as "country" - I myself certainly wouldn't classify it as "country" - it's not even close. I'd say it's altogether uncategorisable.
Van Morrison's album "Common One" was recorded in February 1980 in the south of France, and was released in the UK a few weeks later. Sadly it didn't reach the top 40 UK album charts - in a way I can understand that, as it isn't Van's most commercial piece of work, but I would have thought it to have shone out like a glittering gemstone for those to who Van is one of the gods of the music world; obviously not enough to have put it into the charts though.
There was no promotional single released from this album, as none of the tracks could be considered commercially suitable. Also, I feel it would have been sacrilege to remove one track for single release, as that would have broken the whole mood of this unusual and mind-blowing album, trivialising it somewhat.
"Common One" is from Van's spiritual period, and is a small collection of fairly long songs that I personally believe are easy to listen to, so long as you are tuned into an almost ethereal wavelength when listening to the album. For me, "Common One" is a gentle, yet very powerful suite of songs; very "up" in mood - a laid-back, yet profound celebration of everything that love, spirituality, weather and nature have to offer. Some of the verbal images contained within the songs are mystical, taking the listener who is able to tune in, up to a high plane, soaring way above the mundanities of everyday life, into a pink cloud of euphoria and awareness.
Please skip to the end if you don't want to read the actual details of this review.
1. HAUNTS OF ANCIENT PEACE
(NB: Has been described on my Van Morrison "Live At The Grand Opera Belfast" review, but here is the original recording which is significantly different from the live version)
This begins with gentle, slow and soulful guitar harmonics, electric piano and muted trumpet. There is a very subtle jazzy flavour - Van's voice begins to sing very gently, and an organ joins in with the instrumentals. As described in my other review, the track is largely (and very poetically) about the celebration of a deep, satisfying love - aligning it with nature, and tuning into the deep vibes of history, sensing not just the present, but the long-ago past. This is a sensitive, peaceful song with a very haunting tune, and Van's voice at its very best. Halfway through, a choir of voices backs the main singing - a low-voiced choir, sounding a little "churchy" - joined by a lovely soft and tender sax sound, giving a deep and inspiring, slightly jazz-flavoured solo. Van then joins back in with the main tune, continuing to search for the holy grail in haunts of ancient peace, seeing the new Jerusalem....and the song draws to a close, with Van winding the tune down and ending with the words, softly spoken, "Be Still".
2. SUMMERTIME IN ENGLAND
This is a laid-back, yet jerky little track beginning with soft drumbeat and bass, then Van's voice sings the main tune, inviting somebody to join him in the summertime in England. He makes reference to the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, and wants to retrace their steps through Kendal, then invites the person to meet him in Bristol in the countryside, to pick up on the vibes of William Blake and T S Eliot, moving on to the Church Of St. John down by Avalon. The middle of the song goes very slow and soulful, almost dirty, yet religious-sounding (if you can imagine that), with Van's voice more soulful than it's ever been....comparing walking through Avalon and the wonders of nature to gospel music, the voice of Mahalia Jackson coming through the ether...and he wishes his lover a red rose, while describing that Yeats and Lady Gregory corresponded....James Joyce wrote streams of consciousness, and T S Eliot joined the ministry. Vibrant strings then join the instrumentals, and the song gets very - not intense, but excitable, before Van quietens things down again, with the strings following suit and playing rather a wistful, slow tune. We then have a holy-sounding piece of solo organ, backed by some incredibly soulful yet quiet, almost indistinct sax, as Van repeats some of the earlier phrases from the song. It's so very very hard to describe this song, as it's a strange and interesting mix of quite deep soul, ballad and uptempo, jerky sort of music. Van very gradually and slowly winds the song down with a quite long piece of soul singing....chanting about his "suffering one" and giving his "it just is" observation which he is famous for, backed by drums, sax, guitar, cymbals and strings; his singing here could possibly put the old soul masters such as Otis Redding and James Brown to shame. Listen out for the sax on this track...it's one of the most interesting uses of the instrument I've ever heard, anywhere. Can you feel the light in your soul? Yes Van, I can!
This next track begins with quiet and a little jazzy organ, drums and guitar, then Van's voice sings the main tune. It's mostly a song about the wonders of nature, about being satisfied with the world and what's around him. The guitar on this track is a little funky, despite the overall mood of lazy gentleness. Here and there we get a blast of brass that is very reminiscent of 60s soul style, and Van's voice is intermittently accompanied by some male backing singers. There's some lovely twiddly little guitar bits through the song. Van then goes on to sing about the days when he feels he knows where it's at, and other days he feels completely in the dark - but that he's satisfied with his world, because he made it what it is. The middle-eight of the song is some nice sleazy sax playing. It's either two players, or one player who is over-dubbing himself - the whole song exudes a kind of cool, benevolent sense of smugness; laid-back, relaxed, and......satisfied!! The only thing which stops this song getting a 10/10 from me, is the male backing voices which every so often throughout, yell "satisfied" behind Van's voice - I just think it spoils the song, as it sounds a bit daft. Otherwise, it's perfect.
4. WILD HONEY
This track begins with an unusual flurry of notes, played on violin and brass. Van then begins to sing this slow and slightly sloppy love song. The words are very tender and intimate, gently aligning (as isn't unusual for Van's work during his spiritual period) the expressions of love with nature, weather, and all that surrounds. Though this is in itself a very good song, I feel the arrangement which is far too in your face, spoils it, thus making it my least favourite track on the album. The song carries very slight tinges of "Have I Told You Lately" - albeit that was written and recorded some 7 or 8 years later. There is one saving grace in this track though, in that it has a lovely, deep and heartfelt, somewhat slowly jazzy sax break in the middle. Perhaps the song in its entirety would sound better without the strings, as it all sounds a bit overdone. There is a nice piano tinkle which closes the track down though.
This song begins with a gentle mood of expectancy - guitar backed by soft drumming, organ, and a little of the "Van wistfulness". Van then begins to sing what largely is a song of encouragement and positivity - urging that when we have given up hope, when we are down, alone in our room, deep in despair - that we should "never let spirit die". I don't think Van is making any kind of reference here to "spirit" in the religious sense.....I feel certain he's talking about our inner core, our momentum, the thing that makes us US. The middle eight of this song has a rather cheeky, lazy little muted trumpet solo. This is going to sound very weird, but the whole track gives me the feeling of a creeping, cute little mouse. Van goes on to describe that when we're down, we go inside for a while...before following the road that gets us back out, back "home". For the most part, this song is exceedingly quiet and laid-back, but every so often the whole band bashes out a few chords, to Van's voice singing the "never let spirit die" line. On the serious side, this song has seen me through quite a few dark times in my life, as the words and whole mood of it are very inspirational...you keep walking on, your spirit and your soul keep moving on, through and out of the darkness, into the light.
6. WHEN HEART IS OPEN
This track begins with some strange, mystical-sounding guitar, that is a little reminscent of "The End" by The Doors. A long note on flugelhorn sounds as if it's heralding something wonderful about to happen - and other instruments which I feel are mostly guitars, tinkle away in the background in an odd way. Van's voice then glides in....with more of a low-down chant than actual singing as such - taking us into this incredibly mesmerising and unusual (not to mention rather long!) song. The track is largely Van explaining that "when heart is open" - you will change, just like a flower, slowly opening....when heart is open, you will meet your lover. A lot of the guitar backing is played harmonics style, creating something mystical, spiritual - little mewing noises in the background sound like seagulls, and a gently trilling flute is reminscent of soft birdsong. The best way to listen to this track is on headphones, with an empty yet receptive mind. The floaty feel of the music combined with Van's voice will take you on a euphoric journey to somewhere indescribable; possibly like suspended above the earth, or drifting on a calm sea with the sun gently warming your body. As the song evolves, Van turns the words towards a description of a lover - watching her, as she moves just like a deer through the forest. The blend of instrumentals and Van's voice on this song is probably one of the most unusual and interesting musical creations I have ever heard, and I marvel that someone can envisage something like that in their mind, then being able to arrange it into musical form. Though this track is repetitive up to a point and is over 15 minutes long, it isn't in the slightest boring - as with each avenue the music turns down, the listener is transported onto a higher plane....the whole thing coming to a gentle close on a single, softly plucked guitar note. The song really has to be heard to be appreciated and believed, as it is all but impossible to describe within the boundaries of the spoken/written word, and its spirit is far beyond my vocabulary - I tried though lol.
In my opinion, "Common One" is high up in the group of Van's better albums throughout his whole career. It lacks a commercialism that some of his other stuff has, yet is still easy to listen to, especially if you have a "Van-trained" ear. Despite it being what I call "prettily sleazy", it is a very deep, complex album - at times unfathomably so - yet without being draggy, or too intense.
It is very hard for me to say whether this album would have across the board appeal or not, as I can't step outside of the arena of being an almost lifelong Van Morrison appreciator, who finds all his work extremely easy to listen to and overwhelmingly appealing. If you fancy giving it a listen, and if you are a lover of quality music, try and find a friend to borrow it from first before you decide to take the plunge into buying it?
"Common One" is currently available for purchase on Amazon as follows:-
Used = from £3.48
New = from £9.84
As seems to be the norm these days on Amazon, it isn't clear if these albums are on vinyl, cassette or CD/DVD. At least for the time being, it appears that "Common One" isn't available for downloading from the Amazon downloads store, but there is a website called 7digital where it can be downloaded in mp3 format directly from the site, for £7.99 (it appears that this mp3 download is a re-mastered version of Van Morrison's "Common One", released in 2005).
Alternatively it's always worth visiting EBay at any time to have a snoop as to what's available. Just to give an example, I have this minute visited EBay to see if anyone has a copy of "Common One" for sale - here are a couple of the results (at 24th January 2009, 9:30pm):-
Re-mastered CD + bonus : Starting/Buy it now price = £5.99
(offer ends in 20 days, 13 hours)
Re-mastered CD (new) : Starting price = £1.99
(offer ends in 1 day, 18 hours)
Cassette : Starting/Buy it now price = £2.99
(offer ends in 4 days, 22 hours)
Well, that's this latest piece of ramble over. If you aren't familiar with Van Morrison's "Common One" and decide to give it a try, I hope you aren't disappointed - bear in mind it does take a few hearings to get right into it.
Thanks for reading!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Haunts Of Ancient Peace - Van Morrison, Pee Wee Ellis, Choir
2 Summertime In England - Van Morrison, Jeff Labes, Orchestra
4 Wild Honey - Van Morrison, Pee Wee Ellis, Orchestra
6 When Heart Is Open
7 Haunts Of Ancient Peace - Van Morrison, Pee Wee Ellis, Choir
8 When Heart Is Open