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Reissue CDs Weekly: The Belfast Gypsies | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Belfast Gypsies

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Belfast Gypsies

Definitive statement on the band Van Morrison can’t have coveted while with Them

Where's Van? Not what it appears to be: a 1966 EP credited to "Them"

There’s something wrong with the picture above. It’s the sleeve of a French EP issued in August 1966 credited to a surly looking band called “Them”. The chap standing in the middle has what appear to be bullet holes in his shirt, but where’s the band’s frontman and main songwriter Van Morrison?

There’s something wrong with the picture above. It’s the sleeve of a French EP issued in August 1966 credited to a surly looking band called “Them”. The chap standing in the middle has what appear to be bullet holes in his shirt, but where’s the band’s frontman and main songwriter Van Morrison? Further confusing matters, the EP was also issued with the band credit altered to “The Belfast Gypsies”, where otherwise the sleeve was the same (pictured below left).

The band on the sleeve was not Them, or drawn from the outfit Morrison was with in 1966. Them had split in Hawaii in June 1966 following six weeks of live dates in California. The band carried on without Morrison and despite constant line-up changes issued a raft of singles and four albums in the US, the last of which was released in 1971. During the same period, the solo Van Morrison hit the American charts with “Brown Eyed Girl” and released albums including Blowin’ Your Mind, Astral Weeks and Tupelo Honey. All the while, in addition to being dogged by this zombie Them he was haunted by intermittent releases of unissued archive studio recordings of him with the pre-split Them.

Them Belfast GypsiesAll that's bewildering enough, but there was yet another Them – one active while Morrison was still with the band which recorded “Gloria”, “Here Come the Night”, “Mystic Eyes” and masses of other wonderful tracks. This particular band – the one seen in the header picture here – rather than the one which carried on after the split in Hawaii is the subject of Belfast Gypsies, a great new collection of the band known variously as The Belfast Gipsies/Gypsies, The Other Them, Them, Those and The Freaks of Nature. For the sake of clarity they’re referred to here as The Belfast Gypsies. (Crazily, there was also an unrelated Ohio band which traded as It's Them and TTHHEMM). The post-Morrison Them and The Belfast Gypsies both presumably thought the band name worth capitalising on, that the absent frontman would be unnoticed or that Van Morrison was superfluous.

The Belfast Gypsies was formed by brothers Jackie and Pat McAuley in August 1965. Jackie had been the keyboard player in the actual Them and was ejected after they were late for a 23 April 1965 Ready Steady Go! appearance. Pat was their drummer and left in mid-July 1965. Together, they deduced (for reasons unknown) that their former band had split so decided to form a new band – also called Them. The name had not been registered for copyright. This manoeuvre happened at the time of the release of the actual Them’s “Half as Much” single and before the November 1965 appearance of the “Mystic Eyes” 45. The McAuleys had some chutzpah.

The Belfast Gypsies French EP August 1966However, the actual Them’s management took legal action against the brother’s counterpart Them. The case resulted in a bizarre determination allowing the McAuley aggregation to be called Them beyond UK territory, but in the UK they would have to combine “Them” with another word – hence their early handle “The Other Them”. By February 1966 – after a couple of ex members of The Pretty Things briefly passed through the line-up – the band settled as: Jackie McAuley (organ, vocals), Pat McAuley (drums), Ken McLeod (guitar) and Mark Scott (bass). This is the band caught on Belfast Gypsies.

There was no hiding what was going on. The Belfast Gypsies were the ersatz Them and Jackie McAuley – later in the folk-leaning legends Trader Horne – helped it along by nailing the Van Morrison vocal style. Their most well-known track is titled “Gloria’s Dream”. It’s a “Gloria” makeover and, irrespective of what it apes, is excellent. “People! Let’s Freak Out” is a another re-write, of “Mystic Eyes” this time. There’s a version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, which Them had recorded.Their pummelling take on Donovan’s ode to cannabis “Hey Gyp (Dig the Slowness)” is a punky blast. “People, Let’s Freak Out” is one of the Sixties most arresting garage-punk recordings. The unhinged, paranoia-infused “Secret Police” is so deep into the garage-punk bag it could be by California’s Seeds. It's all wonderful.

Them Belfast Gypsies Sweden single September 1966But whatever the quality of the recordings, becoming a shadow Them was hardly a long-haul strategy. After floundering for months early on as The Other Them and even playing Blackpool impersonating the genuine Them, McAuley and Co were taken under the wing of American producer-come-scenester Kim Fowley who, while in London, organised two recording sessions in May and June 1966 and renamed the band The Belfast Gypsies. (pictured right: double fault – a 1966 Swedish Belfast Gypsies single with the wrong band credit and an erroneous picture of the Van Morrison Them)

Late June to November 1966 was spent in Scandinavia, mostly Denmark where they also recorded. It all fell apart in mid November 1966. Even so, the tracks taped in Copenhagen were married up with the London recordings on the 1967 Swedish Them Belfast Gypsies LP, which was subsequently reissued to become the band’s most easily available recorded legacy. The album, EPs and singles released in 1966 and 1967 are extremely rare.

Belfast Gypsies is a makeover of the last Them Belfast Gypsies comp from 2003, and confusingly has much the same front cover. As per 2003, the Swedish album is supplemented by alternate mixes from singles and EPs. Now though, the London tracks made with Fowley come from the master tapes for the first time. Two tracks from a demo acetate recorded on 4 February 1966 are fresh discoveries. Of the pair, credited on the label to "Those", a brutal version of Graham Bond’s “I Want You” is astounding. Also, an alternate “People! Let’s Freak Out” (apparently with overdubs by members of Soft Machine) released as by The Freaks of Nature is unique to this new release. With its thorough new liner notes on the convoluted story, this is the definitive statement on one of the Sixties most anomalous and exciting bands.

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