- 15 Sep 20
As one of the founders of the Asgard agency in London, Paul Charles has worked with Van Morrison both as a promoter and an agent. Here, he talks about falling in love with Van’s early work in Belfast; recalls the circumstances leading up to the 1979 Wavelength tour, which he promoted; and remembers how he became Van’s agent for seven hugely satisfying years…
I remember the very first time I met Van Morrison. To totally understand the impact this had on me, you’d have to know I had completely immersed myself in his music, particularly the legendary Astral Weeks, over the previous 15 years. Eventually, in February and March 1978, I was promoting my first concert tour with him. But I had yet to meet the man himself.
I was in my office in Oxford Street one day when the receptionist buzzed through and whispered in a tone of semi-disbelief, “There’s a man out here who says he’s Van Morrison.”
I walked through and this musical genius, this master of words, walked up to me, stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Van Morrison.”
And I was literally dumbstruck – a state I’ve never known before or since.
I had been aware he was planning to be in town a few weeks early to start band rehearsals for the tour, but I hadn’t realised that he’d be so hands-on, as to drop into the office himself. So, how did a wee boy from Magherafelt, in Mid-Ulster, end up working as agent, promoter and manager for his all-time hero, Sir Van Morrison?
Okay, I’ll tell you…
A BULLISH OFFER
Around the time of A Period Of Transition (1978), Van Morrison appointed Harvey Goldsmith as his manager. In those days, Harvey was already the UK’s top promoter. The Asgard Agency was up and running and we were representing a lot of great artists – and I was using Harvey as a promoter for some of the Buzzcocks’ UK shows. Which was how I blagged an invite from Harvey to a showcase Van was doing with Dr. John in his band in a small club in London, to launch A Period Of Transition.
It was the first time I had seen Van live since his famous Rainbow appearance in July 1973, part of which was included on It’s Too Late To Stop Now (on a side note, this is most certainly worthy of its universal ratings as one of the best live albums ever released). Van sang his heart out at the showcase but sadly there was to be no other touring at that time. At this stage, I had built up a very successful circuit of campus and town gigs in Ireland. I rang Harvey with a proposition. “Look, Van hasn’t played in Belfast since the Them days,” I said. “Is there any chance I could book him to do some shows in Ireland?” Harvey reported back that Van seemed very responsive to the idea. Harvey and I continued our discussions. I put together a potential tour for Van with three nights in Dublin, two in Belfast and one in Cork. The offers I made were quite high, because I felt confident about how well the dates would do. I was sitting around waiting for confirmation when Harvey’s office dropped a bombshell by informing me they were no longer representing Van Morrison.
I rang Moira Bellas, a friend at Warner Brothers Records, Van’s record company, to check if Van had appointed a new manager yet. Moira reported, that yes, as a matter of fact he had, and Van’s new manager was the legendary American promoter, Bill Graham. I blagged Mr. Graham’s number from the ever-helpful Moira and put in the call. I shared with Bill the ideas for my proposed Irish tour for Van. Bill Graham was very amiable but in essence said, although that sounded very interesting, Van couldn’t possibly come over from America for just six shows in Ireland.
“It just wouldn’t make financial sense,” he reasoned.
“Okay,” I replied undeterred, “in that case, I’ll promote the UK dates as well the Irish dates.”
I gulped in some desperately needed oxygen. I’d never promoted a show in the UK, with the sole exception of a gig featuring Genesis with Peter Gabriel and Fruupp in Wimbledon Town Hall, a few years previously. Bill said he would be happy to look at a routing and some numbers.
Soon afterwards, Mick Brigden from BGP (Bill Graham Presents) called me to introduce himself as Van’s project manager in the BGP organisation, and to say, “Look, we also have other promoters we work with in the UK, namely Mel Bush and MAM, and, so BGP feel it would be proper form to allow these promoters to also table an offer.”
Mick Brigden was an Englishman. He’d gone over to America with Humble Pie – the band that launched the career of Peter Frampton – and never came home again. He was a very clever man. Although he was potentially giving me bad news, he had put such a positive spin on it that I didn’t feel bad until about half an hour after I put the phone down.
I assembled an offer and submitted it to Mick. I felt good about it. Everyone, absolutely everyone I knew, was a major fan of Van. The majority of these fans were already onto their second or third copy of Astral Weeks, their previous ones having been worn past their tolerable crackle level. Now this may have said more about me and the people I mixed with, than it did about the UK ticket-buying public. However, I didn’t think so. My offer was bullish.
A few nights later, Mick called to say it was by far the best. Now they needed to send it to Van for approval.
The following night, Mick rang to say Van had given the tour the green light. Mick later explained to me that the confirmation had nothing to do with the size of my offer. Back in my days as a columnist for Belfast’s City Week newspaper and Thursday Magazine, I regularly wrote pieces on Van and his music. Once, I lashed out a live review of Demick & Armstrong, noting that they had performed a beautiful song called ‘Friday’s Child’, which Herbie Armstrong had introduced as a Van Morrison original. In my review, I commented on the quality of the song and asked if anyone knew where I could find a copy of a recording. You have to remember, this was before the days of the worldwide web.
A POWERHOUSE SINGER
The following week a package arrived at the City Week offices. Opening it I discovered a copy of a Them single, featuring Van Morrison on lead vocals. As it turned out, there was a convoluted story behind this precious artefact. ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ – a cover version of a Big Joe Williams song that had later been adapted by John Lee Hooker – was released as a single by Them in 1964. On the B-side was ‘Gloria’, an original song written by Van. That was the first of the band’s two UK Top Ten singles, peaking at No. 10. The other was the classic Bert Berns-penned ‘Here Comes The Night’, which – with Van’s powerful vocals to the fore – reached No. 2 in 1965.
By early 1966, ‘Gloria’ had started to gain a lot of attention in its own right, becoming a Top Ten hit in the USA for The Shadows Of Night. It was also covered by The Doors and Jimi Hendrix and was well on its way to becoming every garage band’s inaugural song. In 1967, some time after Van Morrison had departed the fold, Them’s manager, Phil Solomon, decided to re-release the track on his own label, Major Minor Records, with ‘Friday’s Child’ on the B-side. For some reason I had been totally unaware of the ‘Gloria’ re-issue and had completely missed hearing the excellent ‘Friday’s Child’ on record, until it arrived in the mail at the City Week office.
Accompanying the single, was a very charming letter from Van’s mum, Violet Morrison (a powerhouse singer herself: please check out the YouTube clip). The letter was heartfelt, the sort that only a proud mum could have written, and in it she thanked me for all the Van write-ups. She’d also mentioned the City Week reviews and mentions to Van and so, the way Mick Brigden told it, when Van saw my name it clicked, and he’d advised Mick that if my offer was acceptable on a business level, he was okay doing the tour with Asgard Promotions.
Using the imagery of the Wavelength album (1978) for the artwork, we put the UK and Irish 1979 Tour on sale. The 22 shows sold-out incredibly quickly. Our competitors had offered a tour to include The Venue, Richard Branson’s 650 capacity club opposite Victoria BR Station, as the London show. The second competitor had offered one show in the Dominion Theatre, which had a 2,069 capacity. We’d offered three nights locked-in at The Hammersmith Odeon which at 3,400 a night, was 10,200 tickets in total for London. Luckily for us, Asgard, BGP and Van had made the right call.
The excitement at every gig on the tour was unbelievable. The anticipation of the audience each night was absolutely overwhelming and the surge of emotion as Van Morrison walked onto the stage took my breath away on each and every one of those twenty-two shows. The feeling was so powerful you could actually sense every member of the audience sink deeply into their seats in reverence. But you know what was even more incredible? Every single night, bar none, Van and the band rose to the occasion and played a blistering set. They never left the stage until they had absolutely nothing left to give.
I came to realise it was a very Van Morrison thing to do, in that everything was very professional. The show would go up on time each night, as per the time listed on the ticket. There was a brilliant sound-system; smart, non-intrusive, lights; a well-rehearsed, nattily turned-out, note-perfect band, who could (and did) turn in a heartbeat to follow their leader through the stunning arrangements.
The band was an incredible collection of musicians: Peter Van Hook (drums); Mickey Feat (Bass); Bobby Tench (lead guitar); Herbie Armstrong (acoustic guitar and backing vocals); Katie Kissoon (backing vocals); Anna Peacock (backing vocals); Peter Bardens (keyboards); John Altman (sax); Pat Kyle (sax) and Toni Marcus (violin). The set-list on the first tour favoured the Wavelength album, but also included many of Van’s classics. There would be massive spontaneous roars of “Oh!” every time Van started to sing something like ‘Into the Mystic’. Van acknowledged the instant reaction, by sticking a quick, Sinatra-like, “Thankyou” into the lyric.
The audiences, the band, the crew even, were thoroughly enjoying the shows. The feel-good factor of the audience departing into the winter-cold, would be at an off-the-scale eleven after each show. Van was singing his heart out. He was visibly enjoying the tour and when the singer is enjoying the tour, each and every member of the band is in heaven when they see him smile. During the Irish leg, Van played The Whitla Hall, Belfast for two nights, on Tuesday 20th and Wednesday 21st February 1979. There was a major frenzy from the numerous UK news-media in attendance, who were extremely keen to create a local-hero-returns-to-walk-on-water type coverage. They were literally queuing by the dozen to interview him, some even going as far as hanging out 24/7 in his hotel, in the hope of hijacking him.
Van was having none of it; he ignored them. He did what he’s always done, by making the music the priority, when the music was always more than enough. I always felt that what the news media really needed to do, to understand what was going on, was to just to join the audience and watch and listen to an entire concert. Just experience a performance, the likes of which few others in the world were capable of delivering. Then, and only then, would they have a chance of understanding what all the fuss was about.
After the second Belfast show we all drove down to Dublin, arriving at the Shelbourne Hotel in the early hours of the morning. I was just about to fall asleep when my phone rang. It was Van. “Do you fancy a cup of coffee?” he said. I thought it would have been churlish of me to suggest my preference was a good old cup of tea. After doing the box-office settlement in Belfast a few hours previously, I thought I might even break the bank and order a few sticks of shortbread as well. We met in the lounge of the once grand hotel and a kind night porter delivered our coffee, tea and shortbread.
Van was very happy with the way the tour was going.
“Do you also book shows in Holland?” he asked.
“Yes, we do.”
“And Germany, and Belgium and France?”
“Yes, we book tours everywhere, outside of North America and Canada,” I replied, hoping, wishing, that I knew where this was going.
“Could you set up some dates for me in Holland and Belgium?”
‘Why, yes, of course,” I replied.
And that was how I became Van’s agent for the following seven years.
Forty-one years later, my abiding memory of the Wavelength tour, is driving back to London after the final gig in The City Hall, Newcastle (Monday 19th March 1979), in the coach with Van and the band and their trusted, able tour manager, Stephen Pilster. Again, it was another early-hours of the morning trip, but the difference this time was that Van was walking up and down the aisle of the coach, while playing an acoustic guitar, and acting as a human jukebox.
He played every request thrown at him, and more besides. Hank Williams, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Dylan, Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, John Lee Hooker, plus every country music classic known, and on and on for the 280 miles journey, never once hesitating over a chord or a lyric.
With later tours it only got better, a fact I would have thought impossible in March 1979…