Van Morrison – ‘Moondance’

By 1988 I had developed an unhealthy relationship. Charivari had been my chapel of joy, but for a year or two it was the gym, or a swimming pool, or a very steep hill. My employ had changed too. Still retail, but I was selling cricket bats, football boots and tennis rackets instead of shit clothes. I’d go swimming before work, to the gym straight after and punched bags, skipped, did squats, pull ups, aerobics, ran up zig-zags at Bournemouth beach and generally anything to generate a pool of sweat. I was about to get as fit as fuck, but become a bore. Fitness became a shallow addiction. My passion for music however, was flourishing as much as my strength.

I’ve no idea how I came about Van Morrison, and Moondance in particular, but it was bound to happen at some point. I was aware of his legend and had dug his stuff with Them in the mid ’60s, but another beautiful musical discovery was about to unfold. I love Van’s story, his musical heritage and knowing he could be a cantankerous sod, up there with the best of them in his stubborn single-mindedness. Astral Weeks was a year or two down the line for me, and would rival Moondance for top spot, but Moondance was my first love, and for that reason alone, the best.

Moondance has a swing, a groove, it’s a beat more uptempo and a touch less dark than Astral Weeks and therefore slightly more accessible. I’ll listen to either endlessly, depending on my mood, but it’s the soul and the gorgeous overwhelming feel of Moondance that gripped me. Van’s lilt bleeds emotion, whether it be the subtle beauty of Crazy Love or the gypsy soul of Caravan.

“I can hear her heart beat for a thousand miles
And the heavens open every time she smiles
And when I come to her that’s where I belong
Yet I’m running to her like a river’s song

She give me love, love, love, love, crazy love
She give me love, love, love, love, crazy love”

Crazy Love

My Van Morrison catalogue would expand to double digits over the years with his ’74 live double LP It’s Too Late To Stop Now blowing my mind, but since this first purchase one song has remained my favourite. Into The Mystic has it all. The aura, the sentiment, the arrangement lifts me, coming as close as any song to affect me spiritually.

Then there’s the subtle simplicity and Van’s restrained passion, cut loose when the fog horn blows…

“And when that fog horn blows
I will be coming home
And when the fog horn blows
I want to hear it
I don’t have to fear it

I wanna rock your gypsy soul
Just like way back in the days of old
Then magnificently we will float
Into the mystic”

The few times I’ve seen Van Morrison live have been a disappointment, but I’ll forgive him anything for the sheer beauty contained in his music, being one of those artists that just connects with your soul. Van, is indeed, the Man.

Stevie Wonder – ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’

Stevie Wonder. Where do you start? I think I remember my first vinyl purchase was The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. At 12 years-old Little Stevie Wonder was an absolute dude, shining like a star on drums, bongos, keyboard and harmonica. Having binged on soul and Motown for a few years, I was totally aware of Stevie’s genius, and had worn out the grooves on Looking Back, his triple LP anthology that was a thorough compilation of ‘60s Stevie. Next was another comp, Original Musiquarium I, which upped the ante, showcasing his golden era during the ‘70s. But still the best was yet to come.

Songs In The Key Of Life was Stevie’s masterpiece. Preceded in the ‘70s by four absolute classic albums, it was an almost impossible ask to go one better, but Songs In The Key Of Life is more than an album, it’s a work of art, a visceral musical discovery, a perfect illumination into melody and musicality. Two years in the making, Stevie was still just 26 years old when it was released, and whilst the likes of George Benson, Herbie Hancock and dozens of jazz and soul musicians contributed, this was totally Stevie, having written, arranged and composed everything and performed more than one man should ever be capable.

Songs In The Key Of Life covers the same kaleidoscopic range of musical styles and it does human emotions, but you’re never in doubt as to Stevie’s sentiment; an appeal for love and humanity in a world of growing inequality and injustice. Stevie is at his absolute best in all senses. I Wish, Sir Duke and As show Stevie at his funkiest and most soulful, but whatever the song or style here it’s sense of joy and grace are completely overwhelming. Love is ever present, and whilst the whole double-album is an uplifting euphonic rollercoaster, I remember the LP one, side two just blew me away, and hey, Stevie’s drums are the highlight, oozing effortless soul.

Now, I Wish is a stone cold classic, and Summer Soft is an absolute beauty but I just couldn’t get enough of Knocks Me Off My Feet. There are three tracks on the album on which Stevie plays everything, and this is one.

“I see us in the park
Strolling the summer days of imaginings in my head
And words from our hearts
Told only to the wind felt even without being said
I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin’ about your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet”

I love everything about this song, but what killed me was Stevie’s drumming; it feels like he’s making love to the hi-hat, caressing it with such perfect subtlety… “I don’t wanna bore you with it oh but I love you, I love you, I love you”. Oh Stevie, you got me.

Songs In The Key Of Life was, and still is one of my all-time favourite albums. There are artists who inspire you to become a better person simply through their music. Stevie Wonder does that more than any other.

Jackie Wilson – ‘The Soul Years’

I’d been a soul obsessive since picking up This Is Soul at Snu-Peas in 1981. Soul was the staple of my DJ set at Charivari, and intensified by my love of The Agency. By 1986 my ears had been focussed on the classic artists: Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown. Also heavy on my turntable rotation was War & Peace by Edwin Starr, a glorious soul-stomper with hints of psychedelia that like Grease, had copious amounts of groove and meaning.

War & Peace also dipped into northern soul, and these tracks, plus the prompting of Pete Young guided me towards some new sounds and new labels. Pete made me a mixtape. They were a thing. The cassette was littered with northern soul classics and some stompers from the Kent label by the likes of Young Holt Unlimited and Johnny Otis, and best of all it turned me on to ‘Mr. Excitement’, the R&B and soul legend, Jackie Wilson.

My Top 5 all-time soul singers:

1. Jackie Wilson
2. Marvin Gaye
3. Aretha Franklin
4. Al Green
5. Otis Redding

Pete’s tape motivated me to check out a load of new, mostly northern soul singers, but it was Jackie Wilson’s The Soul Years that was my first post-tape purchase. Jackie Wilson is best known for the classic Higher and Higher and the 1957 single Reet Petite, a rock n roll staple nowhere to be seen on The Soul Years, which showcases Wilson’s vocal flair and prowess. Jackie Wilson’s stage performance was up there with the very best, but I was just blown away by the sincerity and sheer depth of soul on the likes of I’m The One To Do It, You Got Me Walking and the euphoric northern soul floor-filler, Because Of You.

Of the 16 tracks on Soul Galore, all but a few I’d play in a DJ set. But this was no ‘best of’. Jackie Wilson had huge success for ten years before these gems were recorded, but in 1966 he joined forces with Chicago soul producer Carl Davis, and began recording with Motown musicians including the legendary Funk Brothers. An absolute match made in heaven and this album is perfect proof. If there’s a singer who gives me goosebumps way beyond the norm, it’s Jackie Wilson. But on The Soul Years it’s the energy, the strings, the production, the songs, along side those stunning vocals. It’s all there. The complete package.

The Agency

Towards the end of 1985 I’d managed to land a plum gig, DJing at Charivari with my mate, Gary. We’d been regular punters for many months and had got to know Pete and Toby well enough to ask for a slot. A two-week trial doing the first hour led to a permanent residency and we fucking loved it. We could pretty much play whatever we wanted, but they knew our tastes, so we just played what we loved. What an absolute joy, and looking back, the opportunity to DJ to 275 young, musically receptive kooks, freaks and hipsters who shared a distaste for the mainstream was a bit of a life changer.

In ‘85 the destruction of Bournemouth’s pub, club and live music culture was years away. Outside Charivari, The Third Side, Whiskeys, Bacchus and Micawber’s became our most frequented watering holes, but there was no shortage of choice for alternative tastes. We were befriending musos and mavericks with gusto and around that time, mejor amigo Simon, a young dude with prodigious confidence knew a character of much repute named Sandy, who was the singer in a band. A soul band. The Soul Band. The Agency.

From 2006 my business would be promoting local music, my passion for which started twenty years earlier with The Agency. Formed not many months before my first experience, these guys already seemed not just seamless, but masters of their art. Sandy was the front man; cool, pork-pied, sharp-suited, a mover and groover whose performance personified soul. Behind Sandy was Tim Holt aka Mr.Soul on rhythm guitar and a motley crew of absolute funksters who ripped it up every one of the dozens of times I saw them play.

After a deep trawl, I discovered this beauty on the band’s facebook page. One of The Agency’s first gigs in 1985…

The Agency had a tight as hell rhythm section with badass bass and toms & tablas as prominent as the full kit, and a lead guitarist who looked like a prog-rock god but like played like Ernie Isley. The icing on the mille-feuille was the band’s own version of The Memphis Horns, a three, four or do I remember five-piece horn section. The band’s line-up was as fluid as the music, and years down the line Sandy left and Andy hit the front adding guitar and no less groove.

Playing a few of their own but mostly covers of soul, funk, R&B and Stax, The Agency cemented and enhanced my love of the likes of Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett and fed my desire to learn more. I danced my fucking ass off to these guys for the next few years, venue Little Peters was sweaty basement heaven and I soul-shuffled with as much mastery as I could muster. The band continued in various guises over the next three decades and may have stopped playing now. A 30 year anniversary gig stormed the Tivoli Theatre in 2015 and beyond that I’m really not sure, but fellas… 35 years later, thank you for your soul and inspiration.