Escaping from the logy meanderings in the netherworld of his previous album, A Period Of Transition, both the song “Wavelength,” and the entire album of the same name, seemed like a new beginning for Van Morrison in 1978.
The single would chart in the middle of the Billboard Top 100, but its power and glory tell us that something was amiss – album sales by that year had finally fully dwarfed singles sales. (The album Wavelength went gold in a mere 89 days.)
Where Transition is murky, and unfocused, the album and single “Wavelength” burn like laser beams, sharp, unapologetically pop-inflected, amorous, and filled with the lovable eccentricities that are Van’s trademarks.
“Wavelength” – Van’s return from wandering
The song opens with stylized sound effects mimicking an old-timey radio dial being turned and tuned into a distant signal. Slowly, the music comes to life with a bare acoustic guitar before it kicks into overdrive. Two lovers getting on the beam with one another and gliding across the airwaves of affection and affinity is the song’s loose motif. (Eventually another wave – one of nostalgia – zaps into the song to leave the listener to wonder whether the love connection is time present or time far past.)
Before the reminiscing, Van belts out some of his best Rock-N-Roll singing since “Jackie Wilson Said” and “Domino,” earlier in the decade.
You never let me down, no no
You never let me down, no no
When I’m down you always comfort me
When I’m lonely you see about me
You are ev’rywhere you’re ‘sposed to be
And I can get your station
When I need rejuvenation
The mood never wavers. Love sparkles are scattered everywhere, carried by a combination of Skiffle, sped-up Reggae licks, and old-fashioned good-time Rock. Van has always been a demanding bandleader and in the case of “Wavelength” you can sense that a fierce discipline has overcome the musicians. The work is capital T tight.
Of particular note is the zinging, joyous lead guitar of Bobby Tench, who had played previously with The Jeff Beck Group, Ginger Baker (once of Cream), and Freddie King. His concise solo at mid-song is uplifting, bending notes every which way while displaying a special adeptness at speed noodling. It is truly pleasurable.
Peter Bardens carts in a slightly out-of-place Moog synthesizer to the party, which almost threatens the otherwise euphoric ambience of the sound. Bardens is a real pro, however, so he manages, if barely, to steer away from turning “Wavelength” into a Prog Rock layer-cake smash up.
The arrangement might have been stronger if it relied more on Herbie Armstrong’s healthy Rock-N-Roll rhythm guitar, which is beautiful, but mixed back too far.
Aside from Mr. Van’s routinely great lead vocals, a few words of praise should be given to the female back-up singers on “Wavelength” who add a sweet Gospel choir air to the proceedings. Ginger Blake, Laura Creamer and Linda Dillard have enough backing credits to fill a small book.
Either on their own or in various combos, these women sang with Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band; Johnny Rivers; Glenn Campbell; recent incarnations of The Beach Boys; Roy Orbison on his original, early works; Billy Joel and Eric Clapton. Their voices are absolutely stunning.
Throw in Beatlesque hand-clapping, a touch of Motown, and a hint of “La Bamba” style riffing out in the distance, and you’ve got a killer hit.
“Wavelength” takes an interesting twist late in the song. Van recalls his younger days when he would tune into post-WWII, American-government-sponsored radio broadcasts that blanketed battle-weary parts of the planet:
During this meditation on influences – American music (for the VOA was part propaganda, part entertainment) – he tweaks the chorus to scan, “come back, baby, come back.” This is partly addressed to his own psyche and partly to the ephemeral girl of his dreams.
Van longs to hear his own “Brown Eyed Girl,” which he references:
Won’t you play that song again for me
About my lover, my lover in the grass
The lyrics to “Brown Eyed Girl” contain the exuberant, legendary lines that were once banned from the airwaves:
Cast my memory back there, Lord,
Sometimes I’m overcome thinking about
Making love in the green grass
Behind the stadium
“Wavelength” is a Rock-N-Roll jewel, perfectly cut, highly polished, gleaming back and forth through the dusky hallways of time and experience.
- Wavelength producer Mike Glossop has worked on 17 of Van Morrison’s albums. He has also worked on a dozen projects for British punk rockers and new wavers. He even produced for Frank Zappa.
- Beyond “Wavelength,” much of the album is a love letter and farewell to the United States, where Morrison had been living for ten years. It is where he became a star. The album feels American. Other songs on it include “Venice, U.S.A.”; “Santa Fe / Beautiful Obsession”; and “Take It Where You Find It,” which features lyrics like:
Men saw the stars at the edge of the sea
They thought great thoughts about liberty
- The refrain to the song is, Lost dreams and found dreams in America…