Them and Now: Jackie McAuley

Though not as angry nor as young as he was fifty years ago, the blues legend has at last lifted the barriers back on his days with Van Morrison and co.

Belfast multi-instrumentalist Jackie McAuley has had one of the most dizzyingly varied careers of any Northern Irish rock musician. On the cutting edge of the British blues boom in the mid-60s as keyboard player with the Van Morrison-fronted Them, by the late '60s McAuley was playing with psychedelic-folk cult band Trader Horne.

He later recorded a classic, self-titled singer-songwriter album, became Lonnie Donegan’s long-term guitarist and musical director, wrote a hit single for Status Quo ('Dear John'), led the popular Celtic-rock band Poor Mouth and, now in his late 60s, he remains creatively active with his own band.

Perhaps the only constant in McAuley’s career up until the present has been his determination to always push on to another project, another style, another artistic challenge and never to look back. This year however he at last caught the nostalgia bug, releasing the album Them Good Old Songs, on which he revisits the songs he played with Them as a teenager.

'I hadn’t heard those songs for fifty years,' he says. 'Them really haunted me and I wanted to get away from it and to get on with my own life so I never played any Them stuff. I was in denial.'

It was a reunion with Them guitarist Billy Harrison that led McAuley to re-evaluate his musical past. 'Meeting Billy was great,' he says. 'It was all hugs and stuff and we were almost in tears and we were talking for hours about the old days.'

Listening to the Them material again was a revelation for McAuley. 'Van wrote those songs like ‘I Like It Like That’ when he was seventeen or eighteen,' he marvels. 'They’re little gems but they’ve hardly been done by anybody else since - Energy Orchard did do 'One Two Brown Eyes' but it was bloody awful!'

'Van was magnificent. Even before I joined the band I was at a couple of parties with him and we sat playing guitar together and to hear that voice from three feet away was just brilliant. He was just a wee skinny fellow then but he had a massive voice, a perfect, soulful voice.'

McAuley can now, after his decades in denial, concede that touring with a band that had charted with 'Baby Please Don’t Go' and 'Here Comes The Night' was exciting. 'It was,' he agrees. 'I was seventeen when I joined the band and we had girls chasing us all over the place.'

And he can now chuckle about the notoriously mismanaged band’s adventures and misadventures. One such occurred at the New Musical Express (NME) Poll-Winners Concert at Wembley Empire Pool in 1965, where the band played alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, Donovan, Dusty Springfield and others.

'I remember it very well,' laughs McAuley. 'We arrived in this crappy wee Ford Thames van because our manager wouldn’t give us the money – the money we were in fact owed – to get a decent van and there’s all the rest of the bands with their limousines and coaches!

'And you only had a few minutes to set up. A team of guys with white coats went on and lifted all the gear off [from the previous band] and lifted the new band’s gear on. And they just put the gear up anywhere! Van was standing on one side of the stage, my brother Pat was behind him on drums, which weren’t secured, and the rest of the band was on the other side of the stage.'

Viewable in the above video (skip to one hour, eight minutes), Them’s performance is exciting – but nobody could accuse them of being polished. 'On 'Turn On Your Lovelight' my brother’s drums are falling all over the stage. And Van made a mistake on 'Here Comes The Night' and came in too early,' recalls McAuley.

Them’s reputation has been undermined by accusations that their records were actually made by session men. In particular it is widely believed that future Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page played the immortal lead guitar on 'Baby Please Don’t Go'.

In fact, in his liner notes for the recently released anthology The Complete Them 1964 - 1967 Van Morrison confirms that the band’s Billy Harrison played lead while Page 'tuned his guitar down until it sounded like a bass … then he put another part on, behind the vocal, while I was singing in the quiet section.'

'What Jimmy Page played was totally unnecessary,' adds McAuley. 'I could show you the part he played and it’s nothing to talk about.'

But although Harrison played guitar McAuley doesn’t deny that other session men were used on the tracks that appeared on the 1965 Angry Young Them album and on early singles.

'When I joined the band we needed a B-side for 'Here Comes The Night' so we went into the studio to do 'All For Myself'. And I thought, "Who are these f***ing guys?" I was told to play the piano while someone else played my organ. Piano’s not even on the track!

'But all the people brought in weren’t necessary. Why was Them there in the first place? Because they were going down a bomb live – so they must have been all right. Why would they all of a sudden need session musicians? It was a divide and conquer tactic by the manager.'

Extraordinarily, McAuley has revisited another aspect of his past recently in Trader Horne, his duo with ex-Fairport Convention singer Judy Dyble. After forty five years apart, the two reformed in November for a one-off gig in London.

The performance was to celebrate the reissue of their 1970 album Morning Way, an album which is now regarded as a cult classic. 'It was strange,' says McAuley of the gig, which was given a four star review in The Times. 'At first I thought, "I’m not going to remember the words, we’re not going to get it together, we’ll all look stupid." But I was amazed how well it went and how good everything sounded.'

McAuley played guitar, celeste, harpsichord, organ, piano, flute and congas and sang on Morning Way. At the reunion gig he and Dyble were backed by a septet and McAuley only played acoustic guitar and sang.

'On the album we were under pressure for time because I was playing everything myself so I thought at the gig, with the full band, the stuff sounded far better than on the album,' he says. 'And it went down very well. I was delighted.'

The band’s original split had been frustrating. 'She didn’t tell me, she didn’t tell anyone, she just vanished,' recalls McAuley of Dyble’s departure. In retrospect he recognises that life on the road had taken its toll.

'It was very, very tough. We were travelling all over. The funny thing is because I was driving life was a bit easier for me. To go hundreds of miles just sitting in the front, looking out the window, like Judy did, is more stressful than driving.

'We also had worries about the car. And we did have a bad breakdown once and the two of us had to leave absolutely everything in the car – the guitars, her autoharp, everything – and walk about a mile through the snow. I went back the next day and the car was still there and everything was still in it. But it was stressful and it got a bit much for her. I put it down to bad management. They should have said, "You guys need a break."'

Their relationship long since repaired, McAuley enthuses about Dyble’s singing. ‘She has a fabulous ear for instant harmonies,’ he says. 'I could sing something to her once and she will just automatically harmonise with it. She’s just a very good singer.'

Them Good Old Songs by Jackie McAuley and the Regular Gas Band is out now on iTunes and in selected music retailers throughout Northern Ireland. Trader Horne’s Morning Way reissue is available from Earth Recordings. McAuley is also currently seeking a publisher for his autobiography.