(CAPITOL RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP, 7 CD/1 DVD Box Set; 2014)
For whatever reason, the quiet Beatle’s solo records always seemed to get the short-shrift in the good ol’ US of… with, not only fans of the Fab Four, but with the critics, as well. I guess a lot of people found the albums a little… patchy. That’s a fallacy that persists still, maybe because George wasn’t as outrageous or outspoken as John Lennon (comparatively, his solo material and career was wildly more uneven); wasn’t as “Aw, shucks” self-effacing as Ringo Starr; wasn’t as readily accessible as the Pop Meister General (some would say, the Schlock Meister General), Paul McCartney. He was just… well… George. Honestly, some of the criticism can probably be traced back to George’s first two solo records and, maybe, his embracing Hinduism at a time when such spiritual enlightenment was not readily accepted by America’s Christian majority. This beautifully produced set (including a hard-bound book) should go a long way in dispelling the belief, by some, that George Harrison’s music was somehow… less. Here, we’re going to examine each of the records singularly and on their own merits, beginning with…
WONDERWALL MUSIC (1968)
Somewhere out there, there exists a movie called WONDERWALL, starring the beautiful Jane Birkin as, somewhat fittingly, Penny Lane. Birkin was probably best known for being a scenester and, generally, for being a scantily clad (if clad at all) scenester; she famously appeared nude with an equally nude Brigitte Bardot in a bedroom scene for a 1973 movie called DON JUAN (OR IF DON JUAN WERE A WOMAN) (I know that most of you men are currently away, Googling the movie title for pictures of that scene… I’ll be here when you get back). But… I digress! As there was a movie called WONDERWALL, it seems only fitting that there should be a WONDERWALL soundtrack. And, there is.
WONDERWALL MUSIC, aside from being that soundtrack, is an historic piece of musical history: Not only is it the first solo album by George Harrison, it is the first solo album by ANY Beatle, as well as the first release on the lads’ own Apple Records imprint. Even more history-making is the fact that George doesn’t play on the album; he’s credited with writing, arranging and producing only (kinda like John Williams on his numerous soundtrack albums). However, several experts on the Beatles and their music (including Bruce Spizer in his book, THE BEATLES SOLO ON APPLE RECORDS) cite Harrison as providing guitar and mellotron, as well as mentioning appearances by Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Peter Tork (yes… THAT Peter Tork!). The album was recorded at the end of 1967 (and released a full year later, about a month before the movie opened), so George’s work here is heavily influenced by Indian music, into which he had immersed himself after a trip there earlier in the year. There are more than a few of the traditional, droning Indian ragas on display here and, even within the more Western-oriented rock music (credited to the Remo Four), it’s an integral part of the mix (the lone exceptions being the aptly titled “Cowboy Music” and the langorous, piano-driven gypsy love theme, “Wonderwall To Be Here”). Most of the tunes don’t really stick around to be too annoying and too interesting (12 of the original 19 tracks are less than two minutes each), but a couple of those shorter numbers, I wouldn’t have minded to see fleshed out a bit (“Red Lady Too,” “Guru Vandana” and, a track purported to feature either Clapton and Harrison or Clapton alone, “Ski-ing,” which couples with a much more traditional Indian piece called “Gat Kirwani”). Of the longer tracks, “Drilling a Home,” with its jaunty, playful tin-pan alley sound and “Dream Scene,” which is studio deviltry from Harrison – taking three distinct pieces (recorded in London and Bombay), splicing, dicing and looping them together, with various instruments dubbed over the top. You’ll get a very definite “Revolution 9” vibe from the track, which was apparently recorded some months before the Beatles recorded their trippy sound collage. WONDERWALL MUSIC may not be as readily accessible as some of George’s later albums, but it is still quite listenable. Which isn’t bad, considering that, by all accounts, the movie it provided the soundtrack to was virtually unwatchable.
Of course, then, there are the bonus tracks, because… well, there are always bonus tracks, right? The Remo Four provide “In the First Place,” a wholly Western, mildly psychedelic George-as-Beatle track (which features an odd, very wobbly piano sound, compliments of Tony Ashton). It’s the only true vocal number recorded for the soundtrack and could very well have been a hit single if it had been released in 1968. “Almost Shankara” is a spry, bouncing Indian tune. I could imagine this one popping up in some period movie, as a sheik brings in dancers to entertain his dinner guests. What I’m guesing must be the original, instrumental version of “The Inner Light” completes the trio of bonus tracks. Without Harrison’s vocals, it almost sounds like a completely different song than the version first heard as the B-side to the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” single.
ELECTRONIC SOUND (1969)
Barely six months after breaking ground with WONDERWALL MUSIC, the quite Beatle is back with another, even more experimental album of solo music. The music on ELECTRONIC SOUND was so experimental, in fact, that it barely even touched the outer fringes of what was then considered music (even by drug-addles hippies), forcing Apple Records to create a subsidiary label – Zapple – just to release it (as well as John and Yoko’s UNFINISHED MUSIC NUMBER 2: LIFE WITH THE LIONS). I guess when you’re a Beatle, though, people give you a bit more latitude than if you were one of Freddy’s Dreamers.
Thirty-five years later, though, and music’s kinda caught up with George. Listening to the two long tracks (“Under the Mersey Wall” is almost 19 minutes long; “No Time Or Space” comes in a tad over 25 minutes) in a world that has since brought us such obnoxious oddities as Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber and music by such outre artists as Throbbing Gristle, the Residents and Tangerine Dream, the album sounds pretty darn good. So, what, exactly was going on in the mustachioed dome of Beatle George that prompted the recording of these noisy soundscapes? Well, as we are all wont to do when we get a new toy, we wanna play with it; George was no different. Having acquired a Moog III synthesizer, he fully intended to put it to use. The first piece, “Under the Mersey Wall,” is the better of the two tracks. It’s more cohesive and, as befits George, is a little more pastoral. When the piece was over, I wasn’t even aware that I’d been listening for over 18 minutes. The second piece is another animal all together. While I generally like the skrees and electronic farts of such music, I found it hard to listen to; at one point, I actually thought that the track must be close to being over, only to discover that there was barely seven minutes gone.It ain’t awful, it just seems to stay a bit too long. Interestingly enough, an electronic innovator and musician named Bernie Krause claims that “No Time Or Space” is actually him teaching George the ins and outs of the Moog III synthesizer. Krause further claims that he didn’t know that he was being recorded until the album was released. The album credits do read, “Recorded in California; with the assistance of Bernie Krause,” so there is some validity to the fact that he did at least work with George in some capacity on the track. I’m guessing that these two numbers were the only ones created/recorded for the album, as there are no bonus tracks on the new reissue. That really doesn’t matter, though, if you’re into this very early, psuedo-Krautrock stuff.
ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970)
Harrison’s third album is, for all intents and purposes, his first proper solo album, filled with the sort of tunes that one would expect from a now-former Beatle. The album was a sprawling three-record set, comprised of (mostly) unused songs written for latter-day Beatles releases. George has been quoted as saying of the set, “I didn’t have many tunes on Beatles records, so doing an album like ALL THINGS MUST PASS was like going to the bathroom and letting it out.” While the record may not be perfect, it’s hardly filled with disposable (or flushable) material… though there are those that would question that remark as regards the third record’s “Apple Jam.”
By the second song, “My Sweet Lord,” it’s obvious that this is going to be a special album. Released as the lead single from the record, the tune marked another milestone: It was the first solo Beatles single to reach number one in both the US and the UK (it topped the charts worldwide). The production, a joint effort between George and Phil Spector, is everything that John Lennon had hoped for when he and Spector began work three years later on what would eventually become the ROCK ‘N’ ROLL album. The sound of ALL THINGS… is as sparkling and vibrant as one would expect from a Spector production, highlighted by Harrison’s airy vocals and brilliant slide guitar work. And, of course, as mentioned elsewhere, being a Beatle (or, by this time, ex-Beatle) does have its advantages; George had the cream of the crop to pick from, as far as musicians to help bring the record to fruition: Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker, Dave Mason and Alan White (the former Plastic Ono Band and future Yes drummer) all make appearances alongside, seemingly, a cast of thousands. The album has plenty of now-familiar highlights, including “What Is Life,” the loping Bob Dylan tune, “If Not For You,” the light country lilt of “Behind That Locked Door,” the Dylan-esque paean to adoring fans, “Apple Scruffs,” the strident, almost giddy pop of “Awaiting On You All,” and the rocking “Art of Dying,” which seems to be the inspiration for the BAND ON THE RUN tune “Missus Vanderbilt.” As far as the “Apple Jam” segment, it is exactly what it sounds like: Harrison jamming with Clapton, drummer Jim Gordon, bassist Carl Radle and keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, the players that would go on to become Derek and the Dominos. As a piece of rock history, I suppose it has a place here but, as I was never a big jam band kinda guy, these tracks don’t get much playing time around here.
There are bonus tracks – the same five (demos, alternate takes and a totally disposable 2000 remake of “My Sweet Lord”) that have been on most CD reissues since the remastered version from 2001, which brings me to my primary problem (the only problem, really) with this version of ALL THINGS MUST PASS: I don’t like the sequencing. I don’t really care for bonus material showing up in the middle of things; I would much rather see such things nailed to the end of the original album. I have a couple of fixes that would have worked better for me: First, the first two albums fit nicely onto one CD (trust me, I’ve done the math), which leaves the looser “Apple Jam” material of the third record and the bonus tracks for a second, shorter CD; second, you put the first three sides of the original on disc 1 and the final three (with bonus material) on disc 2, allowing for a more even distribution (time wise) of the material. I would probably opt for the first solution, for exactly the reasons stated; it just makes more sense to me.
LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (1973)
After two albums of experimental music and the three record set ALL THINGS MUST PASS, which was comprised mostly of songs left over from his time in that other band, as well as the enormous undertaking that was the Concert For Bangladesh relief effort and a world tour, our George was ready to get back to the business of making (new) music. It took nearly three years to follow up ALL THINGS… with the spiritually upbeat LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD. Although the album is highly enjoyable and features a few exceptional tunes, the strain of filling an entire album alone shows. The one consistent running throughout the record’s eleven tracks is the exceptional guitar playing; George has always flown under the radar, talent-wise, because he was surrounded by players like Eric Clapton and Dave Mason or the overpowering personalities of McCartney and Lennon in the Beatles but, the fact was: George Harrison was one of the best guitarists on the face of the planet, mastering and artfully playing in any style the song and the arrangement dictated.
The opening track, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” a great song with a hopeful message – and reminiscent of “My Sweet Lord,” both melodically and lyrically – was another number one single for George. Possibly the best tune on the album, “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” is a murky, stomping rocker with a swampy slide slithering through out and a great boogie piano over it all. The lyrics are a reaction to the various legal actions taken by the four Beatles, their various management teams and shared holding companies (Apple Records and Apple Corps among others). It stands as one of the meanest (in the nicest kind of way) lyrics ever written by George Harrison. Other stand-out numbers include the pumping title track, the beautifully lilting acoustic love song, “Be Here Now” and the majestic “Try Some, Buy Some,” highlighted John Barham’s soaring orchestration. Overall, the set does tend to an awkward sameness, but is saved by George’s imaginative guitar work and vocal sincerity.
The bonus tracks are the two B-sides from the 2006 reissue, “Miss O’Dell,” from the “Give Me Love… ” single and “Deep Blue” from the “Bangladesh” single. As an added bonus, the A-side of that single is presented for the first time anywhere since the 1992 reissue of Apple’s THE BEST OF GEORGE HARRISON package. I must admit that though there are fewer bonus cuts here than on ALL THINGS MUST PASS, this is definitely the better selection, particularly “Bangladesh.”
DARK HORSE (1974)
With DARK HORSE, George is back in the saddle (so to speak), after a busy year touring, writing and recording, all the while producing several outside projects. The wear and tear was showing, as George fought a worsening bout of laryngitis that drastically affected his vocals. The record may actually give some an indication why George never had more than a couple of songs on the Beatles’ albums; DARK HORSE ain’t all great, but…it ain’t all bad, either. It definitely has problems. This is an instant where Harrison may have been better off staying away from the studio, giving himself time to heal and to write a few more songs to choose from; a writing partner may have helped at this juncture in George’s career, as well. But, having said all of that, let me add that the stuff that works tends to work very well.
The record starts strong with “Hari’s On Tour (Express),” a complex instrumental that coalesces funky rock and boogie woogie with a little country honk with some “smooth Jazz” horns over the top. There’s a very odd, virtually deconstructed cover of the Everly Brother’s “Bye Bye, Love, apparently a shot at Eric Clapton and George’s ex-wife, Patti, who both inexplicably appear on the album. I gotta be honest: That one is hard to listen to. These, on the other hand aren’t: “So Sad,” a jangly Wilbury-esque mid-tempo rocker; “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” a moderately rocking, rather nonsensical song that mysteriously gained an additional “Ding Dong” in the three days since the song was released as a single; the title track, also released as a single, is a solid rocker, with George’s voice sounding very ragged, which actually helps here. There are moments on the other four tracks where you’ll think, “Okay, that sounds pretty cool.” The problem is, those “Oh, wow!” moments aren’t sustained for the entire song.
Things are a bit short on the bonus material, but one, a strong acoustic demo of “Dark Horse,” has never been released and, the other, “I Don’t Care Anymore,” the B-side to the “Dark Horse” single in the States and the flip of “Ding Dong” just about everywhere else, is seeing its first CD release. Both are worth a listen.
EXTRA TEXTURE (READ ALL ABOUT IT) (1975)
So, maybe, in retrospect, a layoff to recover from laryngitis wouldn’t have been a good thing. EXTRA TEXTURE (READ ALL ABOUT IT) sees George morphing into a Vaudevillian version of James Taylor. There is probably a really good album between DARK HORSE and EXTRA TEXTURE… because, again, there is gold amongst the dross.
The first UK single from the album, “You,” is a strong opener, with a ’60s American pop music vibe featuring horns and that charging Motown percussion sound. “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying),” the first US single is a “sequel” to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and, despite the goofy name, features some nice piano and an awesome slide solo from George. It’s probably most evident here than any other track on the record that Harrison is suffering some lingering effects of his illness. For whatever reason, George invisioned himself a soul crooner on “Ooh Baby (You Know That I Love You),” aiming for a smooth Teddy Pendergrass or Smokey mid-’70s soul vibe. Needless to say, it doesn’t work. At all! The sound of “Tired of Midnight Blue” moves between an archetypical soft rock piano thing and a bluesy, hand-clapping guitar groover with the bass laying down a funky underpinning that is hard to ignore. There are some good ideas floating around in there which would probably make a couple of pretty decent songs. As they are, “Tired of Midnight Blue” is just a jumbled mess of missed opportunities. “Grey Cloudy Lies” comes on sounding like a slowed down, more somber mix of “Hey, Jude” and “Let It Be,” the doleful tone creating one of the most memorable songs on the entire record. One of the better tracks, album closer “His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen)” is a heartfelt ode to George’s long time pal, Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It’s a goofy, jiving number that brings back memories of the fun-loving atmosphere of the Beatles’ A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP! Movies and features Legs himself, doing his Doo-Dah thing.
The sole bonus track is a “reconstructed” demo, originally offered to Dave Stewart in 1992, a reiteration of “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying).” It features George’s acoustic accompaniment and vocal tracks, Stewart’s overdubbed guitar from ’92 and, from a session in 2002, drums from Ringo, guitar from George’s son, Dhani (of which, more later) and vocals from Kara DioGuardi were added. On the whole, this version is superior to the original, as it features a stronger vocal performance from George and heavier, more substantive backing. Harrison’s solo on the original and Stewart’s here… well… it’s a toss up; both are of the finest kind. Had the majority of EXTRA TEXTURE had this sound (or, at least, a close 1975 technological approximation), it may have fared better over the years.
The exclusive DVD features plenty of archival material, most of which seen (and heard) before as bonus material on various reissues of the individual album. It’s kinda cool to have them all in one place, though. The highlight is, of course, a new seven-and-a-half minute feature called (what else?) “George Harrison – The Apple Years,” lovingly directed by George’s wife, Olivia. While all of the albums are housed in extravagant replicas of the original sleeves, the DVD is cradled in a beautiful book with new essays and rare images.I can’t honestly say that this DVD is worth the price of admission alone but, as you can’t get it anywhere except THE APPLE YEARS, 1968-1975 box set…
The entire project, meant to complete and compliment THE DARK HORSE YEARS, 1976-1992 set released in 2004, was overseen by George’s son, Dhani, and ably assisted by Olivia. Dhani comments: “I am so happy that what we started a decade ago by releasing THE DARK HORSE YEARS… is now complete with the release of his first six albums as THE APPLE YEARS… .” Dhani spearheaded a premier group of engineers as the music was digitally remastered from the original analogues. Each album is released individually, as well, with the upgrade in sound, for those fans who already have one or more on CD already or for the casual listener who may not want to jump in with both feet on such a huge package.