Monday, October 4, 2010

Van Morrison -- "Wild Night" (1971)

And everything looks so complete
When you're walking out on the street
And the wind catches your feet
Sends you flying . . .
Wild night is calling

I have nothing against John Mellencamp.  His 1994 version of "Wild Night" (with Me'Shell Ndegeocello) isn't really bad.  But if you put it up against the 1971 Van Morrison version (which can found on his fifth studio album, Tupelo Honey), it's simply no contest.  

Mellencamp is a performer doing what he hopes will be a crowd-pleasing performance.  He slows the song down a bit and gets more than a little too cute (especially in the music video).  There's no sense that he really means it.

I'm not particularly crazy about Van Morrison's singing on this record.  In fact, I'm not that big a fan of his generally.  What makes this song so good is the band -- a perfectly coordinated group that does Memphis rhythm-and-blues better than anyone I've ever heard other than the Stax Records house band.  Those are the guys who accompanied Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and many others, and also put out great instrumental records under the name of "Booker T. & the M.G.s" -- perhaps more familiar to you youngsters as the Blues Brothers' band.  

"Wild Night" (which was the second song on that homemade compilation cassette I talked about in the Janis Joplin post) starts with a perfect little unaccompanied guitar riff.  (You can't say too much about Ronnie Montrose's guitar work on this song -- he does exactly what a rhythm guitarist is supposed to do.)  Van sings the first verse accompanied just by guitar, bass, and drums, but the horns jump in when he gets to the chorus and they never go away. 

This may be a relatively simple and straight-ahead song.  It doesn't break any new stylistic ground, and the words (written by Morrison) are nothing special.  The tempo feels a little rushed at first, but turns out to be just right.  Morrison and the band find a groove right away and never lose it.

There's nothing unnecessary and nothing missing -- there's a place for everything, and everything's in its place.  You could change it into something totally different, of course.   But if you accept the basic premise of the song and the arrangement, I don't see how you could improve it.

And I'll give Van credit for this -- he's satisfied to be just one of the guys here.  He doesn't try too hard and he certainly doesn't draw attention to himself.  The singer always stands out from the instrumentalists to some degree, but Morrison seems primarily focused on fitting in.  He does this song about as well as a white guy can.

Imagine Joe Cocker performing this song in the style of his "The Letter."  He would have done everything short of singing the song while standing on his head.  I like Cocker's version of "The Letter" a lot but it's a performance first -- everything about it is an 11 on a scale of one to 10.  

Joe Cocker and his doppelganger, John Belushi

Listening to Cocker do "Wild Night" would be exhausting.  Listening to Van Morrison and this band do it is intense and exciting, but they do all the work -- all we have to do is sit back and relax.

Here's Van Morrison's "Wild Night":

Here's John Mellencamp's version -- which was a much more successful single than Morrison's was.  (The music video starts off with a little softcore porn -- very mild, but they didn't put it there by accident.  The rest of the video is pretty lame.)

Use this link to order "Wild Night" from iTunes:

Use this link to order from Amazon: 

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