Wow In Music – Summertime In England
Editor | On 22, Jan 2018
In February 1980, Van Morrison and a group of musicians travelled to Super Bear, a studio in the French Alps, to record (on the site of a former abbey) what is considered to be the most controversial album in his discography. Coming in the wake of punk rock, the music press was merciless in its condemnation. The resulting album, Common One, was deemed to be over-indulgent, esoteric and willfully obscure. Later “Morrison admitted that his original concept was even more esoteric than the final product.” The album consists of six songs; the longest, “Summertime in England”, lasted fifteen and one-half minutes and ended with the words, “Can you feel the silence?”. NME magazine’s Paul Du Noyer called the album “colossally smug and cosmically dull; an interminable, vacuous and drearily egotistical stab at spirituality: Into the muzak.” Greil Marcus, whose previous writings had been favourably inclined towards Morrison, critically remarked: “It’s Van acting the part of the ‘mystic poet’ he thinks he’s supposed to be.” Morrison insisted that the album was never “meant to be a commercial album.” Biographer Clinton Heylin concludes: “He would not attempt anything so ambitious again. Henceforth every radical idea would be tempered by some notion of commerciality.”
The only problem was, the fans loved the album. To the point now where it is frequently voted amongst Morrison’s best. And especially Summertime in England. It became a live favourite that was an almost constant feature in Morrison’s set-list for the next twenty-five years. Over that time the basic song underwent – as one would expect from The Man – a whole series of evolutionary shifts. If you wanted to see and hear Van in his most improvisational and transcendent mood, Summertime was where you were bound to find it.
Morrison started rehearsing the song in November and December 1979 along with “Haunts of Ancient Peace” at club gigs in the San Francisco area. According to guitarist Mick Cox, “we did ‘Haunts’ and ‘Summertime in England’ in 4/4 time…Van brought it right down at the end to nothing, so he’s just saying, ‘Can you feel the Silence?’ but he’s still keeping the beat, and then Pee Wee Ellis takes his mouthpiece off and Mark Isham takes his mouthpiece off, and they’re both making quiet percussive noises in time to the rhythm.” Cox felt like the rehearsal performances were “far better than the final recordings.” The song on the album was recorded in February 1980 and according to Mick Cox the second take was the one used on the album. The spoken section is in 3/4 time that begins with John Allair’s church organ fugue.
Morrison originally wrote the song as a poem about William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge making a literary trip to the Lake District in England where they worked together on the poems that were to become their landmark joint venture, Lyrical Ballads. Morrison has been quoted as saying, “[‘Summertime in England’] was actually part of a poem I was writing, and the poem and the song sorta merged… I’d read several articles about this particular group of poets who were writing about this particular thing, which I couldn’t find in the framework I was in.”
The lyrics also refer to Jesus walking down by Avalon — an allusion by William Blake with the lines: “And did these feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountain green?” The lyrics verge between several layers of consciousness but always return to the central occurrence of a holiday in the country that the singer spent with his sweetheart (the “red-robed” Toni Marcus) and/or daughter.
Biographer Brian Hinton believes “The song leaves most classical rock fusions dead in the water.” In an essay in 2000, Allen B. Ruch wrote that “the music is supported by a wonderful string section that completely avoids the treacle that strings can sometimes lend to songs like this. And as usual with Van Morrison’s lyrics, passages that seem awkward or even silly on paper take on a soaring and majestical intensity when sung by Van in their proper place.” It is quite simply, in my opinion, one of the most transcendent moments in the history of modern music.
There are several versions of Summertime In England available online. This one is an early version from Montreux in 1980: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMLaHEwEX7Y
Things to listen out for include the extraordinary ebb and flow (Principle 15) of the intensity of the performance, the (Principle 19) time signature shifts, Van’s stream-of-consciousness repetition (Principle 20) of the key themes, the alternating sung and spoken portions (Principle 3) and the improvised fills of the different musicians.
By 1998, a Rockpalast concert version shows how the song has been trimmed in length, but still manages to be a showstopper. Thanks in no small part to the signature call-and response (Principle 26) between Morrison and Pee Wee Ellis. This part of the song often became the final climax of the set. You’ll find the start of the song at 1:09 and if you want to cut to the call-response section, it occurs around 1:12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hfXDqsBrVOQ
My own favourite portions are when Van sings, “It ain’t why why why why why why why / It just is,” and he sings each why as if it were an individual animal. Watch how, in the Montreux version, he signals the band with a convulsive movement of his arm—Van’s bands have always acted as sensitive ecosystems—and the horns reduce their volume to a spectral hum. Into the remaining space, arctic in its emptiness, Van leans toward his microphone and whispers, “Put your head on my shoulder, and you listen to the silence, Can you feel the silence?”
We can now.