I think most music observers who are fans of Van Morrison – and could there be any who are not – consider this song a bit of a trifle, given the outrageous output that Morrison had already assembled at the point that ‘Wavelength’ was released in the fall of 1978 (just for example, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘Astral Weeks’, ‘Moondance’, ‘Into The Mystic’, ‘Caravan’, ‘Crazy Love’, ‘And It Stoned Me’, ‘Domino’, ‘Blue Money’, ‘Wild Night’, ‘Tupelo Honey’, ‘Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)’, ‘Saint Dominic’s Preview’…I could go on). I do love this tune, though. And perhaps surprisingly, the album on which it appeared as the title track was in fact Morrison’s best selling record at the time of its original release. I always assumed it was generally about Van, or any of us, expressing the yearning and joy for listening to music on the radio (a quaint idea in our present file streaming age). But upon reflection it seems it was more targeted, specifically to his fond memories of the Voice Of America, a U.S. government-funded international radio broadcast source that the Northern Irish Morrison listened to overseas as a kid. “The first time I ever heard Ray Charles,” Van said of one of his earliest influences, “was on the Voice Of America service.” It’s even right there in the song’s lyrics, “I heard the voice of America / Callin’ on my wavelength / Tellin’ me to tune in on my radio.”
The live clip here is taken from a 1979 concert in Belfast, Morrison’s hometown, which was the first time he’d performed back in his native city since departing for the U.S. to record ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ in 1967. And it looks as though he made certain he had all his bases covered with the band: A two-saxophone horn section, violin, two backing singers, keyboard, electric and acoustic guitars, bass and drums. That’s ten. But you could add another ten and still not overshadow the man behind the mic, that is, Van The Man.
So why don’t we tune it in, lose the static, and get on the wavelength, with a little video play-by-play:
The first minute is introduction, but in it you do begin to hear the bubbling synthesizer sounds, meant to mimic the interference and feedback often found when trying to dial up distant radio stations, and at :45 the first appearance of Van’s trademark repetitive scatting.
Van starts snapping his fingers at :58 then cues the guitar; shit’s about to go down.
The guitar comes in at 1:04 as Van starts clapping the beat; drums, sax and keyboard enter, then some bass, a quick drum fill, and finally at 1:23…“Waaay-yah-ah-aah-ave-length”, and we’re into it.
At 1:36, the pan down and then close-up of the massively flared-leg pants.
1:42 Van takes the first verse pumping his left leg and popping the mic with his left arm.
Hard pan right at 2:01 for our first look at the pair of back-up singers, clapping, then with the lights reaching them, joining Morrison on the chorus. The camera begins turning away, but at 2:25 still just catches the hands of the red-dressed singer executing the famous end-of-chorus pair of hand claps. As we slide past the acoustic guitarist helping out on vocals, it takes us right into…
The guitar solo break beginning at 2:26. With the drummer and bass player bopping in the background, lead guitarist Bobby Tench (who looks like a cross between Joe Piscapo and the Geico caveman) covers the notes we’ve heard so many times on the radio but that look so much more impressive played out live, especially the rapid fire turns beginning at 2:52, concluding with a quick slide-up and then slide-down at 3:04.
Back to Van at 3:06 with the saxes now powering a background riff.
3:32 and the light hits violinist Toni Marcus as the singers go:
“Do do do dou dit do do dou dit do di da da da
Do do do dou dit do do dou dit do di da da da
Do do do dou dit do do dou dit do di da da da
Da dum da do da da dum, Do Do, DO DO DO DO!”
We’re back to Van for the verse at 3:46, his tightly closed eyes re-opening for “Singin’ come back, baby come back / Come back, baby come back”
A quick shot of the bubbling keyboards at 4:15.
4:31 break it down.
4:37 break it down again.
4:44 break it down some more.
A slow pan left to the darkened violinist, skronking away for 20 seconds, then as it begins to brighten, at 5:07 Morrison’s snapping fingers return to frame.
“The heart is strong / the heart is strong / my heart is strong”, and we’re building back up. Morrison flings his right arm down to conduct, the instruments and singers all continue to swell, and he’s in Van-mode, improvising, scatting away, and bringing it home strong in a staggered-leg stance.
6:08 “I say now, Ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama / Alright / Ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama”
The band is bouncing, the singers are clapping, the bass is walking..
“Ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama, ooh mama”
Two downbeats at 6:26, 2 more, the coda, then Morrison thrusts the mic towards the audience at 6:34 and…Lights out.
Too much detail, or is anybody still on my wavelength?