Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Brown-Eyed Girl. This is a wonderful pop song from the mid-60s. We will start with the original version by Van Morrison, and then discuss covers of that song by Bruce Springsteen and Steel Pulse.
Van Morrison and Brown-Eyed Girl:
George Ivan “Van” Morrison is one of the greatest soul singers on the planet. He has had a long and illustrious career.
Morrison grew up in Belfast, North Ireland. His father had spent some time in Detroit in the early 1950s, and returned to Ulster with a terrific record collection.
So Van Morrison grew up listening to American jazz, to folksingers such as Pete Seeger, and to classic blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
Morrison obviously was strongly influenced by the music he heard as a youth. An indifferent student in school, he began forming musical groups even as a high school student.
The photo below was taken in 1967 in New York City. From L: Jeff Barry, Bert Berns, Van Morrison, Carmine Denoia (with cigar), and Janet Planet.Embed from Getty Images
Like so many youngsters in the British Isles at that time, Morrison was also inspired by skiffle artist Lonnie Donegan. By the way, it’s astonishing how many British Invasion artists were drawn to pop music because of Donegan’s influence!
Morrison first came to public attention with the band Them, which was formed in the early 60s. They (Them?) had a few hits, but their main claim to fame was the 1964 single Gloria. Although it was released as the B-side of their cover of Baby Please Don’t Go, Gloria became a garage-band classic and was widely covered by other blues-based rockers including The Doors, Patti Smith and Jimi Hendrix.
The song Brown-Eyed Girl has a fascinating back-story. The great 60s impresario Bert Berns had produced Morrison’s group, Them. So when Them folded and Morrison went solo, Berns brought Morrison to New York for a recording session with Berns’ label Bang Records in March 1967.
They recorded a number of tracks, and in particular one of Morrison’s new songs, Brown-Eyed Girl. In this tune, the singer is reminiscing about an earlier happy period in his life, and in particular is remembering a youthful romance.
Hey, where did we go
Days when the rains came?
Down in the hollow
Playing a new game,
Laughing and a-running, hey, hey,
Skipping and a-jumping
In the misty morning fog with
Our, our hearts a-thumping
And you, my brown-eyed girl,
You, my brown-eyed girl.
At the end, the singer laments the fact that their relationship has ended, and that she has gone on her own way. And apparently flashbacks of their romance continue to haunt him.
I saw you just the other day,
My, how you have grown!
… Sometimes I’m overcome thinking about
Makin’ love in the green grass
Behind the stadium with you, my brown-eyed girl.
The perfectionist Morrison took 22 takes to get the version he wanted. And here is the single that was released in June 1967.
What a great song! It starts out with an immediately recognizable guitar intro. The song is propelled by a bouncy, bubbly bass line and lovely keyboards; it begins with a bang and never looks back. The song’s melody is exceptionally catchy, and the tune also features backup vocals from the group Sweet Inspirations.
This lyrics paint such a lovely visual picture. It’s hard to imagine a more succinct summary of youthful exuberance and discovery, love, loss and longing.
By the way, to appease the sensibilities of conservative audiences, Bang Records issued an alternate “cleaned-up” version of the song in which the phrase “making love in the green grass” was replaced by “laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey hey.” What a bummer – the ‘sanitized’ lyrics nearly ruin the entire song. It’s like telling a joke but leaving out the punchline.
It is no wonder that Brown-Eyed Girl retains its charm. Even today, music Web sites report that it is the most downloaded song from the entire 60s decade.
However, Van Morrison himself does not have fond memories of this song. Apparently he signed the record contract given him by Bert Berns without showing it to a lawyer. Morrison subsequently discovered that
The contract made him liable for virtually all recording expenses incurred for all of his Bang Records recordings before royalties would be paid and later, after the expenses were recouped, they would become the “subject of some highly creative accounting.”
As a result, despite the fact that Brown-Eyed Girl reached the #10 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 record listings, Morrison never received a penny of royalties.
To make matters worse, once the song became a hit, Bert Berns quickly packaged all of the songs Morrison had recorded into an album, Blowin’ Your Mind. Morrison reports that he was never informed that Berns was releasing an album from those tapes, and he discovered this only after a friend told Morrison he had purchased his album at a record store!
So, it must be bitter-sweet that one’s “signature song” has such painful associations. Here is Van Morrison in a live performance of Brown-Eyed Girl in 1973.
Here, the ginger-haired Morrison is backed up by the Caledonian Soul Orchestra. It is great to see him paired up with a lively horn section. You can experience Van Morrison’s great vocal style in this live performance.
Below is a photo of “Van the Man” Morrison in 1970 performing at Massey Hall in Toronto.Embed from Getty Images
Over the years, Van Morrison developed his own inimitable style. Although grounded in soul and R&B, his songs are also infused with influences from jazz and gospel – he was obviously listening carefully to those American records he grew up with!
In addition, his music also reflects his interest in mystical elements, as Morrison has been deeply influenced by poets such as William Blake and William Butler Yeats. Morrison is fascinated with Caledonia, the Latin name given to Scotland by the Romans, as his forefathers had emigrated to North Ireland from Scotland. He incorporates Celtic themes into several of his songs, and he refers to his personal mélange of American roots music and Celtic folk traditions as “Caledonian soul.”
Now, over his fifty-year career Van Morrison has released some of the greatest soul albums of all time. Masterpieces such as Astral Weeks and Moondance are filled with beautiful, haunting songs. I can listen to his Greatest Hits albums over and over without becoming bored.
Morrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, although he skipped the induction ceremony. You can read a detailed review of Morrison’s accomplishments in his Rock and Roll Hall bio (https://rockhall.com/inductees/van-morrison/bio/). He was also knighted in 2015, so now you may address him as “Sir George Ivan Morrison, OBE.”
Unfortunately, Van Morrison suffers from a debilitating case of stage-fright. Apparently he is all right in a small club where he can pick out individual faces, but large crowds terrify him. He has cancelled some performances, and occasionally he performs with his back to the audience in order to deal with this issue.
If you are interested in more about Van Morrison’s music, you may want to check out the blog The Immortal Jukebox by Thom Hickey. He has a recent post that discusses Morrison’s cover of the song It’s All In The Game, which you can find here.
Bruce Springsteen and Brown-Eyed Girl:
Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest rock and rollers of the modern era. His career has been so influential that it will be difficult for us to do him justice in a short bio.
Below is a photo of Bruce Springsteen and the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, from a concert in July, 1984.Embed from Getty Images
Springsteen grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, where his father was largely unemployed and his mother worked as a legal secretary. Springsteen’s maternal grandfather had emigrated to the U.S. from Naples, Italy.
Springsteen was raised Catholic and attended a parochial school through middle school. Although he rebelled against both the religious doctrine and the discipline enforced by the nuns, his Catholic upbringing made a lasting impression on him.
After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different bands. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and began assembling a backup group that would eventually become the E Street Band.
Bruce Springsteen’s first big break came in 1972, when legendary producer John Hammond signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, just as Hammond had signed Bob Dylan a decade earlier.
Much like John Mellencamp, a rocker from my hometown, Springsteen’s songs tend to focus on social issues such as the plight of middle class Americans, veterans, and the poor. Early in his career, Springsteen was the recipient of much critical praise. Furthermore, he developed a cult following due to the energy and exuberance of his live performances.
This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he had achieved any real commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were rather disappointing, and matched neither the promise of his reviews nor the enthusiasm of his fans.
His first big single was Born To Run, the title cut of Springsteen’s third album released in 1975. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed rather poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.
I was conflicted over Born To Run. The song featured an impressive “wall of sound” instrumental backing, with a great climax. Furthermore, the lyrics were terrific – they brought to mind some of the best work by songwriters like Bob Dylan and Billy Joel.
In addition, that album was packed with songs that have become staples of “classic-rock” radio stations. However, I thought that the production values on the record were third-rate, and so I waited to see if Bruce would live up to the hype.
To make a long story short, Bruce Springsteen succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. The 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. Like Born To Run, the album was chock-full of hits – in fact, 7 of the songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10 list. Furthermore, the advent of music videos in this era meant that millions of Americans were introduced to Springsteen’s charismatic live performances.
To me, the clincher was that the production values on this album were superb. The E Street Band was in great form, and the album jumped off the shelves, with over 30 million units sold worldwide.
A delicious irony is that several politicians tried to jump on the bandwagon, by saluting what they assumed to be the exuberant patriotism expressed in the title cut Born in the U.S.A. For example, Ronald Reagan stated that
“America’s future rests in … the message of hope in the songs of … New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.”
Had Reagan ever actually listened to the song, he would have realized that Born in the U.S.A. did not contain any such “message of hope.” The song described a disillusioned American veteran returning from Vietnam, unable to find a job, and discovering that no one cared about his plight.
By now, Bruce Springsteen has become an American icon. He continues to release albums, varying between hard-rocking records backed by the E Street Band, and folk albums inspired by artists such as Woody Guthrie.
Springsteen’s concerts now tend to be epic events. Bruce and the E Street Band generally appear in stadiums or major venues, and his energetic performances last up to three hours.
Here is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing Brown-Eyed Girl live in Charlotte, NC in April, 2014.
Isn’t this great? Springsteen begins by fooling around, as though trying to determine the appropriate key for this song. The audience comes right up to the edge of the stage, and Bruce connects directly with them – he’s obviously having a lot of fun with this cover. Note that the crowd goes wild when they hear the iconic line “makin’ love in the green grass, behind the stadium.”
The video gives you a good idea of what it is like to attend a Springsteen concert. Bruce’s backing band is now sufficiently large that perhaps it should be called the E Street Orchestra. He moves effortlessly through his concert playlist, blending classic Springsteen anthems with some favorite covers.
The musicianship is first-rate, and Springsteen’s energy does not flag – he still produces the dynamic live show that was his calling-card from the earliest stages of his career. Bruce – my, how you have grown!
Steel Pulse and Brown-Eyed Girl:
Steel Pulse is a reggae band that originated in Birmingham, England. The three founding members – lead vocalist and guitarist David Hinds, lead guitarist and vocalist Basil Gabbidon, and bassist Ronald McQueen – met when they were students in Handsworth Wood Boys School in Birmingham.
Below is a photo of Steel Pulse photographed in New York City in October, 1985.Embed from Getty Images
The group has undergone various changes in membership over the years, but is still going strong. They have the distinction that they were the first non-Jamaican group ever to win the Grammy Award for best reggae album.
Much of Steel Pulse’s work is overtly political. They have released a number of anti-racist songs. Curiously enough, early in their career they often toured with punk bands. This led to some interesting receptions for their music, since several of the punk rockers appealed to right-wing racist groups.
Steel Pulse also released a number of anti-war songs, and have also focused on issues such as political corruption, the CIA’s clandestine activities in third-world countries, and songs about global climate change.
As far as I can tell, there is no political undercurrent whatever in Steel Pulse’s cover of Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl. They just seem to be having fun turning Morrison’s song into a reggae tune.
So here is the music video for Steel Pulse doing Brown-Eyed Girl. This appeared on their 1997 album Rage and Fury.
Although the band is simply lip-synching to the sound track, this song is really a lot of fun! Converting Brown-Eyed Girl to a reggae song is not really much of a stretch, considering that Van Morrison’s original title for his song was Brown-Skinned Girl.
So Van Morrison had Caribbean themes and calypso rhythms in mind when he wrote the song. Just like the original, the Steel Pulse cover is bouncy and hook-filled. I find that the Steel Pulse version sticks in my head, and unexpectedly bubbles to the surface of my consciousness. By the way, Jimmy Buffett also produced a Caribbean-themed cover of Brown-Eyed Girl, accompanied by his Coral Reefers Band.
It’s very enjoyable watching the musicians bopping around in this video. They show off their Rastafarian dreadlocks and their colorful dashikis, and one of them is carrying the truly weird keyboard-guitar hybrid the “keytar.” For reference, on the left is the dog Brian from the animated feature Family Guy sporting a keytar. I wonder – is it possible for anyone to look hip while playing a keytar?
Anyway, I hope you enjoy this cover as much as I do. I wish Steel Pulse much fortune. A documentary about the group is supposedly in the works, but it was due out a couple of years ago, so we will have to see if it ever surfaces.