Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Who Are? What Are? THEM"

It seems quite appropriate that an entry on one of Ireland's most influential rock bands should appear on St. Patrick's Day.

The cryptic title of the entry is a quote from an April 1964 Belfast newspaper, the first bit of publicity Them received in their hometown, announcing a gig at the Maritime Hotel. The Maritime fostered a tremendous R&B scene in Belfast, including The Wheels, Just Five, The Bats, and Luvin' Kind. (If you would like to explore more Irish rock, I suggest snagging copies of Belfast Beat on the Big Beat label and Irish Rock: Ireland's Beat Groups 1964 - 1969 on the Sequel label. Great stuff!)

Originally known as The Gamblers, drummer Ronnie Millings, guitarist Billy Harrison, bassist Alan Henderson and keyboardist Eric Wrixon were soon joined by one of blues music's finest vocalists, Van Morrison. At the suggestion of Wrixon, the band took on a new name inspired by a 1954 horror B-movie about gigantic ants--Them. Famous DJ Jimmy Savile discovered the group and persuaded Decca executive Dick Rowe to sign them.

Them established themselves as the wildest blues/R&B group in Belfast--the Irish equivalent of the Animals or Pretty Things. Their live shows were supposedly phenomenal, with a level of intensity never fully captured in studio recordings. If Morrison was in the right mood, he would perform a 20 minute version of Them's best-known song, "Gloria." According to Morrison, "'Gloria' was one of the first songs I wrote. They tell me it's a classic. But it was a throwaway song. Written off the cuff" (Wilde, Uncut, July 2005, pg. 52). This "throwaway" inspired every garage band since, most notably Chicago's Shadows of Knight, who had the big U.S. hit, and punk goddess Patti Smith, whose unique interpretation remains unequalled. Other classic Them recordings include their interpretation of the blues standard, "Baby, Please Don't Go," "Here Comes the Night," "Mystic Eyes," and "I Can Only Give You Everything" (my favorite Them track.)

Morrison developed a reputation as "angry" and "difficult." He resented the intrusion on his personal life and refused to participate in press interviews. According to Morrison, "To start with, Them was a blues thing. When it stopped being that, it all went wrong....Them started out as something straightforward and it got twisted into something else. We became fodder, that's all" (Wilde 52). He soon left to pursue his illustrious solo career and is now revered as one of the all-time greatest singer-songwriters.

After Morrison's departure, Them ventured on, recording two psychedelic albums before settling on the harder rock sound of the time. Time Out! Time in for Them is a classic UK psych album, belonging in any psych fan's collection. The album is often undeservedly overlooked because of the absence of Morrison.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, and enjoy THEM!

(References: Uncut, July 2005; The Fab British Rock 'N' Roll Invasion of 1964 by Dave McAleer; Wikipedia; CD liner notes)

1 comment:

StevenK said...

Ah, Them, good band. Re: your advice on picking up the Irish Beat comp from Sequel -- I would if I could, but that CD seems to be out of print and I've had no end of trouble finding anyone who has the darn thing. Oh well.