Them's history is more confused than that of any other significant British Invasion group. In his The Beatles and Some Other Guys: Rock Family Trees of the Early Sixties, Pete Frame documents no less than nine lineups of the group between 1964 and 1966. His extensive Them family tree does not take into account several occasions in which original members Eric Wrixon and Billy Harrison rejoined the band briefly. And let's not even talk about the post-Van Morrison version of Them, which managed to make four albums in America--twice as many as Them had been able to put out while Morrison was in the group. On top of all this, confusion persists to this day whether session men played a large role in their recordings. About the only thing certain is that Van was the only one singing lead on the pre-1967 discs. This has made it difficult to give the group a solid identity, other than that of an amorphous Van Morrison backup unit, to historians.
It's a fact, however, that Them definitely were a real group, not a tossed-together studio concoction, before they began recording in 1964. Indeed, some of the members of the first lineup have gone on record as noting that guitarist Billy Harrison was the leader of the band at its inception. It was Van Morrison who got the most attention, though, not just because he was the lead singer, but because he was the band's only songwriter--and quite a good one. Morrison could not be replaced in the studio. But Decca Records were unsure of the band's merits. Them's early records have a pretty consistent sound--mean, slicing blues-rock guitar riffs, a similarly cutting organ, a pumping bass--but it may never be resolved who played on what song.
The most controversy revolves around Them's second single (and first British hit), "Baby Please Don't Go," which was driven by magnificent, crazily ascending and descending guitar riffs. Some books (such as the Pete Frame volume mentioned above) attribute these to top British session guitarist Jimmy Page without any ambiguity. Page also went on record as claiming he'd played on the record, although to be fair to him he was playing on so many records before joining the Yardbirds in 1966 that he could well have gotten the details mixed up.
However, in a 1995 issue of the Ugly Things fanzine, original Them keyboardist Eric Wrixon asserts, "There's a story that Jimmy Page played guitar on it. But the world is full of witnesses who can testify that in 1962 Billy Harrison was playing 'Baby Please Don't Go' exactly the way it turned out on the record two years later. I can't see what need there would ever have been for a session man. Possibly to play rhythm, I don't know. I can't conceive of any reason why anybody was needed. We did use on some tracks a second drummer, Bobby Graham. He did embellishments. There was no other session men."
In John Collis' biography Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, Billy Harrison, the man one would think most likely to claim authorship of the song's guitar parts if he had indeed played them, has a fuzzy recollection. "There were two session guys on that one. Bobby Graham on drums and Jimmy Page on guitar. That riff on 'Baby Please Don't Go' was my riff. I created it. We'd been playing the song like that all over Northern Ireland for a year and a half before it went on record. People will believe whatever they want to believe, but those session guys weren't needed. With other bands, maybe. Quite a lot didn't have the musical ability. But we'd been playing for two years by then. We knew the music--what we didn't have yet was the studio technique. In those days if you made a mistake you started all over again. So session men were often used simply to save money, to get it right first time. But in our case they just weren't necessary. They were on that first session, but after that, what the hell. As far as I'm concerned we'd proved ourselves." Yet Collis goes on to note that "Harrison neither confirms nor denies" whether Page played on the "Baby Please Don't Go."
Adding to the Rashomon view of Them's need for session musicians, Jimmy Page weighed in with a far more dismissive comment (quoted in The Beatles and Some Other Guys: Rock Family Trees of the Early Sixties): "It was very embarrassing on the Them sessions. With each song, another member of the band would be replaced by a session player. It was really horrifying! Talk about daggers! You'd be sitting there, wishing you hadn't been booked." Incidentally, Them's credits as a first-class instrumental unit are not bolstered by two live cuts that have surfaced on a bootleg recording of the 1965 New Musical Express Poll Winners' Concert, on which Them, whoever they consisted of at the time, sound pretty ragged.
One can only make the educated guess that, not giving much thought about whether rock historians (which were a virtually nonexistent concept in 1964-65) would care who played on what record, the musicians' memories have dimmed with time. Right before speculating in Ugly Things that Billy Harrison probably played the guitar on "Baby Please Don't Go," Eric Wrixon admits that he's not sure what Them records he himself played on--"I can't remember. The tracks were done so quickly. I've listened to it and I think it's [later Them keyboardist] Peter Bardens, not me."
Jimmy Page is also usually credited as the probable guitarist of "Mystic Eyes," which like "Baby Please Don't Go" has some great ghostly picking, emphasizing descending runs which sound as much like harsh plucks as musical notes. These two tracks contain the finest guitar work on Them's records, which usually gave more weight to the organ. But is it possible that Page, even if he played these riffs, was working from patterns that had been developed by Harrison anyway? In addition to Wrixon and Harrison's claims that the "Baby Please Don't Go" riff was developed by Harrison (regardless of who played on the recording), a similar technique is used on "One Two Brown Eyes," the B-side of Them's first single. Interestingly, the Frame book gives Harrison unqualified credit for having actually played this on the record, noting that he used "a thimble on his finger to create a bottleneck effect." If this was indeed Harrison, this track alone demonstrated that he was a capable and imaginative guitarist.
Finally, Van Morrison himself weighed in with some rare comments on the subject of Them's personnel in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview: "Around mid-1965 we all decided to split it up. I was still under contract, as was one of the other guys, the bass player [Alan Henderson], so we decided to finish the contract out. We got a new group together but it just wasn't the same group. I mean, the name was 'Them' but it ended up that I was making records with four session men, and they were putting 'Them' on the label. Then they got me and some other people on the road, and 'Them' was just a name...Then we put out a record called Them Again...We were making records where I was making maybe three songs on an album with just studio cats, and maybe the rest of the songs with two studio cats and three members of the group. It was kinda like mish-mash, and it wasn't really any good."
Them's records usually featured the finest organ sound of the British Invasion, with the exception of Alan Price's work with the Animals. Again nobody seems sure of who was primarily responsible. Peter Bardens seems like the most likely candidate, yet he was only in the band for about six months in 1965 (although he could have played sessions when he wasn't in the official lineup). Jackie McAuley and Pat McAuley both had stints as keyboardists in Them (although Pat switched to drums for most of his Them tenure); both were in the Belfast Gypsies, a Them spinoff group that did one album that had some convincing Them-style organ parts.
Ultimately it doesn't matter much who played the organ and guitar as how the records sound (although it would be interesting to find out who played them), as the records usually sounded great. It is true, however, that by the time Harrison, Bardens, Wrixon, and the McAuleys were no longer involved in the band--around late 1965--the records started sounding less distinctive, instrumentally at least. The organ and biting guitar became less prominent, and saxes, flutes, and acoustic piano more prevalent. This is the point at which the records do begin to sound somewhat like Van Morrison solo discs with a backup group. From then it was only a matter of time for Morrison to evolve into a solo artist--Them by 1966 were more of a concept, defined by the presence of Morrison (although bassist Alan Henderson stayedwith Them the whole way through), then a true band. -- Richie Unterberger All-Music Guide