Song of the Week: Baby Please Don’t Go, Them

 Click Here to Listen to “Baby Please Don’t Go,” by Them

Start with the basics: this isn’t a Van Morrison original. American bluesman Big Joe Williams first made “Baby Please Don’t Go” a hit in 1935, and since then everyone under the sun and their sister has covered it. This version, though, released as a single by Van Morrison’s band Them in 1964, is the best there is, and that statements rests firmly on the shoulders of one note.

If you’re familiar with the song, you already know which one I’m talking about—it’s the one 6 seconds in that is so out, so unbelievably wrong that it causes vertigo. It’s rancid, offensive, tense—a note so rotten not even the mangiest dog would take a snap at it. But you need the note, because this one note creates all the tension in the song’s main riff. Without it, there’s no glorious release twelve seconds later when the band kicks in. The note makes the song, and it’s a Them innovation—Big Joe Williams’ version doesn’t have it, and the John Lee Hooker version that Morrison probably first heard doesn’t have it either.

“The note” aside, the whole arrangement is urgent and unsettling. Most of the song’s forward momentum is provided by the percussive bass part, giving it a heavy proto-metal heartbeat that the drums alone can’t produce. And there’s the ubiquitous keening mid-60s Farfisa organ sound (an instrument that conjures the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” released in May ’64), as well as that mournful bass solo during the breakdown at 1:20.

Van’s voice here is raw, nasal, and grating, kind of like Bob Dylan with a sore throat. Though he recorded this at age 19, you can hear how Van’s particular expressive vocal style would develop if you tune in to his subtly shifting inflections in the breakdown. Although it hints at a beginning, it also marks a definite end, as “Baby Please” is probably one of the hardest-edged vocal performances he would give for the rest of his career. Nothing else in his solo catalogue bristles with the same kind of attitude.

Compared with the American blues versions, Them read the song on a different emotional level. They turn a mournful song about a lover leaving into a stinging rebuke, a vicious middle finger with an undercurrent of loss. This is, essentially, what the British Invasion did for American music in a microcosm: the source material gets pumped full of electricity, teen angst, and a certain irreverence, and thrown back in your face.

It’s telling that all other versions of this song that I’ve heard are modeled on the Them interpretation. But none of them come close. They’re either too fast (AC/DC), too long (Rolling Stones & Muddy Waters) or too self-indulgent (Ted Nugent). The only one I’ve ever heard come close is from a London band called Ay Ducane, but in terms of sheer innovation and groove, no one can touch Them.

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Album of the Week: Astral Weeks, Van Morrison

Whenever Pandora brings a Van Morrison song up on one of my stations, the first line in the “artist description” box reads “Equal parts blue-eyed soul shouter and wild-eyed poet-sorcerer, Van Morrison is among popular music’s true innovators…”

I couldn’t agree more. The man who became a household name with “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Domino,” also gave birth to one of the most beautifully bizarre albums in history: 1969’s Astral Weeks. The story goes that Van went into the sessions with just lyrics and a backing band made up mostly of jazz players. They improvised the songs right there and put them on tape.

What resulted is an album that I didn’t understand the first time I heard it when I was sixteen. It was a dense, inaccessible mass of weird guitar parts, strange time signatures and impressionistic lyrics, and it was the first piece of music that truly stumped me. It was only after repeated listenings, many on starry summer nights, that I finally grasped where the beauty of this album lay.

I’ve always though that Van Morrison is more of a conduit than a singer. Normal people make conscious decisions about what notes to sing and for how long, while Van sounds like he taps into a current of music that consumes and possesses him for the length of the song. Part of the appeal of a typical Van Morrison song, like “Jackie Wilson Said,” is that the band that backs him is rock solid, providing a nice counterpoint to the singer’s delivery.

On Astral Weeks, however, the band is as daring in their playing as Morrison is with his singing. The interplay between singer and ensemble feels so delicate that it could break down at any minute–there’s nothing to ground the performances. It’s incredibly daring and emotional, which is why Astral Weeks deserves to be the first Album of the Week.