Van life — Brian Boyd on Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl

The most downloaded and most played song of the entire 1960s

There’s a small piece of land in Belfast that can rightly claim to be both more important and significant than Paul McCartney’s Penny Lane or Ray Davies’s Waterloo Sunset. Just behind Albetta Lane — just a half hour stroll away from Belfast city centre — lies a small, grassy play area known locally as “The Hollow”.

1967 was an annus mirabilis for a trio of musical compositions that still feature in the Best Song of All Time polls and are all instantly recognisable from their first few bars. All three evoke a sense of nostalgic childhood reverie; all three are firmly rooted in specific locations.

In February of 1967, The Beatles released Penny Lane; in May The Kinks released Waterloo Sunset; and in July Van Morrison released Brown Eyed Girl. The received wisdom is that both Penny Lane and Waterloo Sunset were bigger hits than Brown Eyed Girl. But the figures show that it is Morrison’s song about a patch of land in Belfast where he used to play as a child that is the most downloaded and most played song of the entire 1960s.

Furthermore, Brown Eyed Girl is one of the very few songs to have had over 10 million plays on radio — far ahead of Penny Lane and Waterloo — even more plays than “Yesterday” even. In short, 55 years on, Brown Eyed Girl won the musical battle of 1967 hands down.


But while thousands of musical pilgrims descend on Liverpool’s Penny Lane each other, and the same amount pose for photos at London’s Waterloo Bridge with the obligatory caption “As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset …”, few know of Belfast’s The Hollow.

This has now all changed thanks to a new Van Morrison walking tour of Belfast and the injection of a £40 million community project fund which has seen new pathways, better lighting and seating areas put in around all points on the tour. “Cultural tourists” from as far away as Canada, Australia, Hong Kong and all points closer to home are now acquainting themselves with The Hollow and other Morrison landmarks.

The stops on the tour are instantly familiar as he’s written songs about all of them: Cyprus Avenue, Hyndford Street, Orangefield, the Beechie river. But it’s at The Hollow where the camera phones come out.

The Hollow is where all the action in Morrison’s signature song and biggest hit takes place. “Hey, where did we go, Days when the rains came, Down in the Hollow, Playing a new game, Laughing and a-running, skipping and a-jumping, In the misty morning fog, Our hearts a-thumping and you, My brown-eyed girl”.

On its release, the song was promptly censored by radio stations. The line “Making love in the green grass behind the stadium” was deemed too prohibitive at the time and replaced with “Laughing and a-running behind the stadium with you”.

Nevertheless, on the tour you get to see the stadium behind which he got up to no good and then you get to see the street, Abetta Parade, where the local brown-eyed girl came from. Morrison has always kept her identity a secret.

Name-checked by both Boris Johnson and Bill Clinton as one of their favourite songs, Brown Eyed Girl is by no means a favourite of its writer and singer — for a very good reason. He recorded it in New York, aged 22 and inexperienced in the music industry just after leaving the Belfast band Them. The contract he signed with the record label which released it (Bang Records) was arranged, Morrison claims, so that he has received no royalties from the song.

He has remained angry about the contract, downplaying the song entirely in an interview with Time magazine in 2009, saying: “It’s a throwaway song. It’s not one of my best songs. I’ve got 300 songs that are better than it”.

Musically the song is an oddity. It’s a white Belfast man using a Caribbean guitar riff and African-American backing vocals to produce a mini-masterpiece. The song’s trademark opening guitar line uses a calypso rhythm and the Sha La La backing vocals come courtesy of the best African-American backup singers of the time - The Sweet Inspirations, who were headed up by Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother). The Sweet Inspirations had just sung on Aretha Franklin’s I Say A Little Prayer For You and before going on to become part of Elvis Presley’s band, stopped off to help Morrison record Brown Eyed Girl.

Cissy Houston still remembers “this really shy, young Belfast man who was wringing wet in the vocal booth from perspiration as he did 22 takes of the vocal”.

All of these images float around your mind as you stand in “The Hollow” on a bright Belfast morning. Because what this magical mystery tour offers you is a chance to go laughing and a-running and skipping and a-jumping through a piece of Irish musical history.