In the 1960s I was an apprentice electrician at Harland & Wolff, in its Belfast shipyard in Northern Ireland, and like all teenagers who could play a few chords on the guitar, I was in awe of The Beatles, four working-class boys from Liverpool who had turned the music scene upside down.
We would always be discussing the merits of the latest groups in the charts but usually you were Team Beatles or Team Rolling Stones.
George Morrison was an older electrician in the yard, who was a blues fanatic with a great record collection. These records were hard to come by but George would get them from the sailors on US ships that came in to Belfast for repairs.
He told us that a lot of the music we were listening to originated from these Afro-American artists. In the 1950s Ricky Nelson’s ‘I’m Walking’ and Pat Boone’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ were both covers of Fats Domino recordings. The Animals’ ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, was written and recorded by Josh White and also recorded by Leadbelly and Bob Dylan.
‘Shout’, which was a huge hit in Australia for Johnny O’Keefe and in the UK for Lulu & The Luvvers, was an Isley Brothers’, original as was ‘Twist And Shout’ for The Beatles and Brian Poole & The Tremeloes.
The Searchers’ ‘Sweets For My Sweet’ was a minor hit in the USA for The Drifters. The Rolling Stones’ first hit was a cover of an obscure Chuck Berry track ‘Come On’.
But George the electrician had a real interest in a local Belfast band called Them. The lead singer of Them was George’s son, Van Morrison, who followed his father’s great love of blues.
Van ‘The Man’ started with a band called The Monarchs, who took the same path as The Beatles by playing in sleazy night clubs in Hamburg, but when they broke up Van was back in Belfast to team up with Billy Harrison, Alan Henderson, Eric Wrixson and Ronnie Millings to form Them.
They took up residence at The Maritime Hotel and were billed as Ireland’s specialists in rhythm and blues, attracting a cult following not unlike The Beatles at The Cavern or The Rolling Stones at The Crawdaddy Club.
In July 1964 the band travelled to the London Studios of Decca and recorded Slim Harpo’s ‘Don’t Start Crying Now’. Decca called in specialist rhythm and blues producer Bert Berns and Them had their first big hit ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, an old Big Joe Williams standard that was also recorded by Muddy Waters.
The flip-side was the Van Morrison-penned ‘Gloria’, which was a favourite with the fans at The Maritime Hotel.
‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ raced up the UK charts when it was used as the theme tune of the TV show Ready Steady Go.
Next was ‘Here Comes The Night’, which became their biggest hit, rising to number three in the UK charts.
Although their live performances were great, they could not produce the same sound on records, though, so session musicians (one of which was Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame) were brought in to complement Van Morrison’s vocals.
So the band Them had a short life and Van Morrison relocated to the US in 1967, but they left behind a legacy of pure ‘Belfast blues’, highlighted by a fantastic seven-minute autobiographical track called ‘The Story Of Them’ with the opening line “Who are, what are Them?”.
Australia was not ready for the group that has been credited with creating the original garage sound, with only ‘Here Comes The Night’ from Them registering in the lower half of the top 20. It was only when Van Morrison started his solo career that interest in Them resurfaced in Australia.