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Classic Tracks: Van Morrison’s “Moondance”

Van Morrison remains one of rock's most enigmatic figures, and today, nearly 35 years since the recording of his most famous album, Moondance, most of

Van Morrison remains one of rock’s most enigmatic figures, and today, nearly 35 years since the recording of his most famous album, Moondance, most of his fans know little about him. Ironically, tracing the recording history of that album’s title track also turns out to be something of a mystery.

What is known for certain is that a young engineer by the name of Elliot Scheiner ended up mixing a number of tracks on Moondance. “It was right at the beginning of my career,” says Scheiner. “I must have been in the business for about a year-and-a-half. The way things worked over at A&R Studios was that if a new client didn’t request anyone in particular, the traffic manager assigned people to a date.”

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As Scheiner remembers it, several different A&R engineers contributed their talents to the project, Morrison’s second album for Warner Bros. “Shelly Yakus, Steve Friedberg and Tony May all worked on the Moondance album. The tracks were pretty evenly divided between us. There were some overdubs, but for the most part, the record was cut live.”

But Scheiner says that the song “Moondance” wasn’t tracked at A&R, and this is where things get murky. “‘Moondance’ was the only cut that wasn’t done at A&R,” he says. “I remixed the album in surround a few years ago and I remember that a guy named Neil Schwartz was listed as the tracking engineer on that song. By the way, they spelled my name wrong on the original album, and when we did the remix, I was asked if I wanted them to correct the spelling, but I told them to leave it the way they had it:Schierer!” (That’s all right — they also misspelled the names of nearly half of the bandmembers.)

Time out. Dixon Van Winkle, also a fledgling engineer at A&R at the time (Van Winkle would later mix Paul McCartney’s “Uncle Albert” at A&R and lay down Frank Sinatra’s version of “Send in the Clowns”), recalls things differently. “I remember the ‘Moondance’ tracking session well,” says Van Winkle. “Tony May was the engineer for that session, which was cut in A1 over at A&R. What a big, great-sounding room that was. I’d only been working at A&R for about two months when I got called to be the setup man on that session. I ended up working with Van on several projects, including ‘Brown Eyed Girl.’ Elliot was the engineer on that record and I was his setup man. I ended up finishing one of Van’s albums; I don’t remember which one, though.

“Anyway, the ‘Moondance’ date sticks in my mind because I almost ruined it! I was green at the time and didn’t really know how things worked. I was sitting behind this great Altec tube console that we had, there were blue lights set up in the tracking room to enhance the mood and take one was going down perfectly. All of a sudden, I see Tony [May] waving his finger at me, and I don’t have any idea what’s going on! Eventually, I thought that he was telling me to stop the tape machine for some reason, so I did. We had an Ampex MM-1000 16-track recorder. Tony gave me a look and then got on the talkback, told the band that we had a little problem and that we needed another take. The next take went down perfectly from start to finish, and that’s what’s on the air.

“It wasn’t until about eight years later that I found out what Tony was actually motioning me to do. We had three Altec 604Es mounted in a utility cabinet. In those days, everyone wanted to listen to all three of them in mono. They were powered by a 75-watt McIntosh tube amplifier and there was magic in that sound. Most of the smart engineers at that time, including Tony and Shelly, monitored in mono. We learned that if you can make a record sound great in mono, particularly a live date, then you have something. Tony insisted that all the players use mono earphones. Everyone had the same mono cue mix. That way, everyone was on the same page. You’d work like hell to make that cue mix work.

“As I was saying, years after the session, I found out that Tony had been bothered by a rattle that was coming from the utility cabinet. He wanted me to try and get rid of it, not shut down the session by stopping the tape machine! I never made that mistake again!”

“You should call Steve Lang,” offers Scheiner about the memory discrepancies. “He works in the Warner Bros. library out in L.A. Ask him to pull the tape for you.” Shortly thereafter, that’s exactly what the accommodating Lang did. “It says on the box that ‘Moondance’ was recorded at Mastertone Studios,” says Lang, “but I know that many of the cuts were re-tracked when Van and the band went into A&R, so it’s hard to tell where the final take was recorded.”

Either way, completed tracks for the entire album were handed off to Scheiner. “It was just before Christmas, 1969,” says Scheiner. “Van went up to Woodstock to be with his family and I ended up mixing the entire record with Gary Mallaber, the drummer in his band.

“Back in those days, we were working mostly with 8-track technology, and the mixing largely took place as you were recording. The drums, for example, were in mono, so you had to balance the toms, kick, hat and snare while you were tracking. Same with backing vocals. I remember that ‘Crazy Love’ only had six tracks: drums, bass, guitar and vibes had their own tracks, Van had one and the girls who sang backing vocals had the sixth. You mixed as you recorded and you had to commit to things as you went along.

“We had a theory at A&R,” Scheiner continues. “When you recorded a track, if it was taken somewhere else to be mixed, all the engineer should have to do is set the faders even to have a mix that was pretty much complete. So it just wasn’t a big challenge to mix back then. These days, everything’s completely different. We’ll get a record with 80, 90 or even 100 tracks. It’s all about fixing things later on in the process.”

Most of the tracks that Scheiner cut at A&R in those days, including those by Morrison, were done on a custom-built console. “The board came from 112 West 48th Street, Phil Ramone’s original building from the 1950s,” Scheiner recalls. “It had mostly Altec components, four rotary faders and a rotary master. Equalization controls were above each fader. The EQ covered the high and low ends, but I’m not sure what the frequencies were. When 8-track became a reality, we added three more faders above the master fader. These faders had no EQ modules, so we had dedicated tracks to them that sounded pretty good as they were. In addition to the Altec 604Es, we used KLH 3s as radio mono references.

“I remember that one track on the Moondance album had more drum leakage than any of the others, but I can’t recall which one it was. Whatever song that was, it was definitely not recorded at A&R. Our stuff had incredible separation. ‘Moondance’ had much more of a live sound than the other songs on the album. I recall that there was more drum leakage in the guitar and piano tracks, and that I had tried to contain it to make it sound more like the rest of the album.

“From an artistic point of view, back then the album was a concept, a complete body of work. This was in the early years of FM radio — anything could be on the radio. We didn’t think about what song was going to be the single — all of the songs were great.”

The ornamental flute lines that dance over Morrison’s singing and the band’s gentle swing were performed by Collin Tilton. Tilton, who also played sax on the entire Moondance album (along with the late Jack Shroer), says he remembers the dates well.

“We were all living in Woodstock and playing in a group called the Colwell-Winfield Blues Band. We were working on our second record and our leader fired the singer without having a replacement lined up. At about the same time, Van fired his band. He was doing what was going to end up being the Moondance album. They were rehearsing or something and he fired everyone in his group. One thing led to another, and we all ended up jumping ship. Jeff Labes [pianist] was a member of Colwell-Winfield. Jack Schroer and myself were also in the band. John Klingberg, who played bass on Moondance, was a friend but wasn’t a member of the Colwell-Winfield group. The drummer, Chuck Puro, cut a couple of songs and then got out of there; he wasn’t happy. I had never heard of Van Morrison at the time. Everyone else was going to play with him, though, so I went along.”

Okay, here we have a bandmember who played on the sessions. Surely he will clear up the mystery of where the “Moondance” keeper track was recorded. “My memory is that at first we spent an entire week in Mastertone, but the only song from those original sessions that was used was ‘Glad Tidings,’ which is the last song on the album. We went into A&R and re-cut everything else.”

As Tilton remembers it, the tracks at A&R were not cut live but “on the first swing through at Mastertone, that’s how we worked. But when we went to A&R, they did a million rhythm tracks, which was Van singing and John Platania on guitar along with bass and drums. They would go over and over it until Van got what he wanted. Then after they did that, we came in and did the horns relatively quickly. The horn parts were all written and rehearsed by the band; we were going for a band sound. We did the horns as overdubs. And it’s funny, we were at every session. The rhythm section would set up and Jack and I would sit around doing whatever until they brought us in.

“I basically wrote the arrangement on ‘Moondance.’ There are some little things…when it gets to the part where he sings — ‘Can I just have one more Moondance with you?’ — if you listen to the horns in the background, it’s sort of a cop from [John] Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. It’s the same interval. That’s where my head was at back then.”

And that famous flute noodling, where did those lines come from? “I’m not a very good flute player, particularly. I think I just got lucky. I played that on a student model flute that I had paid $80 for.”

Moondance hit the charts in March 1970, and instantly established Morrison as a powerful creative force in music. Although the album would eventually climb to Number 29 on the Billboard charts and the track “Moondance” quickly worked its way onto FM stations throughout the rock world (along with “Caravan,” “And It Stoned Me,” “Into the Mystic” — hell, practically the entire album got airplay), the song never made it to the pop charts as a single. In fact, the only single from the album to chart was “Come Running,” which topped out at Number 39. “Domino,” from Morrison’s next album, His Band and the Street Choir, would rise as high as Number 9 and secure the singer’s place in the pantheon of blue-eyed soul singers. Through the years, he’s made occasional forays into the pop mainstream, but mostly he’s followed his muse down less-commercial roads, all the while building one of the most intensely loyal followings in pop music.