Friday, April 16, 2010

A Buyer’s Guide to George Harrison

George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once as a member of the Beatles, the second time as a solo artist. A humanitarian, he is credited as being the first rock star to organize the charity concert with his Concerts for Bangladesh in 1971. He started his own record company, Dark Horse Records. He started his own film production and distribution company, Handmade Films, originally as a way to get the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian made. Other notable movies from Handmade Films include Mona Lisa, The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, and Nuns on the Run. He was a devotee to the Hare Krishna tradition from 1969 until his death in 2001. He was an avid fan of Formula 1 racing. After the Beatles run ended in 1970, he became quite the accomplished gardener, and wanted to be remembered as such. Despite all these things, he will always be remembered as a musician and songwriter. Oh yes, and as the lead guitarist in the Beatles. Not a bad resume to have.

During my short time on this Earth, I’ve owned copies of all the Beatles’ works and most of those of George Harrison’s solo career. What you will find below is one pinhead’s point of view [mine!] about what to get and what to avoid if you’re interested in George’s solo work. So without further delay, here are my picks and pans. Note: if there is an album that is not mentioned here, it is because I never owned it nor heard it.

1. Wonderwall Music [1968] – George Harrison’s first solo album. In fact, it’s the first solo album by any Beatle. Although George himself does not appear as a musician on this album, all the songs were written by him. As the soundtrack for the movie Wonderwall, this was George’s way of introducing the Western world to Indian music. Of the nineteen songs contained therein, eight of them are Western songs recorded in England in December 1967. The remaining songs were recorded with Indian musicians in Bombay in January 1968. It’s an interesting soundtrack. Both Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton appear under the aliases Richie Snare and Eddie Clayton respectively. It’s not available domestically, but for the cool price of $47.99 you can get an import copy from Amazon. For completists only.

2. All Things Must Pass [1970] – Before I go any further, just let me say this – of all the Beatles solo albums, this one is the very best. If you are going to own one George Harrison album, this is the one. It was George Harrison’s misfortune to be a good songwriter in a band that had two great songwriters. As I mentioned in my last blog [Taxman], George was allotted two songs for every Beatles album. This being the case, he stockpiled a lot of unrecorded songs. During the filming of Let It Be, George was overheard telling John Lennon that he had enough songs to fill his quota for the next ten Beatles albums, and that he had a plan to record them on his own to clear out the backlog.

Once the Beatles dissolved in 1970, George was able to execute his plan. There are some truly great songs on ATMP, including My Sweet Lord, Isn’t It a Pity [two versions!], What is Life, Beware of Darkness, Let It Roll [The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp], Let It Down, and the title song. In fact, the song All Things Must Pass nearly became a Beatles song as it was run-through with the band many times during the making of Let It Be. But, George ended up keeping it for himself. All Things Must Pass finally became a Beatles song in 1996 when a demo of the song was included in the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection. There is one Dylan cover [If Not For You] that is far superior to the original from New Morning, and there’s one Harrison/Dylan collaboration, I’d Have You Anytime. Many have said that George Harrison’s best love song was Something [from Abbey Road], but I disagree. I think I’d Have You Anytime is better. One can tell immediately the Dylan influence from the words: All I have is yours/All you see is mine/And I’m glad to hold you in my arms/I’d have you anytime…
There are also four jams included. This was originally released as a triple LP back in the day, and the four jams were included on the third LP. It was labeled “Apple Jams.” If one is a fan of recorded jam sessions, this one is a good thing to have because it spotlights George Harrison playing with Eric Clapton and his band [which would soon become Derek & the Dominos], Dave Mason, Klaus Voorman and Ginger Baker. All Things Must Pass is essential for any George Harrison fan.

3. The Concert for Bangladesh [1971] – In the 1970 East Pakistan was hit by a cyclone [the Bhola cyclone] so terrible that over 500,000 people perished. To compound the humanitarian problem, unrest between East Pakistan and the government in West Pakistan escalated into the Bangladesh Liberation War. It was estimated East Pakistan [which became the nation of Bangladesh when the war finally ended in 1971] suffered between 200,000 and 3,000,000 casualties. Bangladesh was a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. Sitar master Ravi Shankar told his friend George Harrison about his county’s troubles and asked him if he could provide any help. George’s response? Two benefit concerts that predated Live Aid by 14 years. George made a bunch of phone calls and got quite a few friends to participate. The friends? Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Jesse Ed Davis, Klaus Voorman and others. The shows were recorded and filmed with all proceeds supposed to go to UNICEF for Bangladesh disaster relief. To begin the show, Ravi Shankar performed Bangla Dhun, a traditional raga. George played three of his Beatles songs [Here Comes the Sun, Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps] and four songs from All Things Must Pass. Ringo did It Don’t Come Easy [he forgot the words!], Billy Preston did That’s The Way God Planned It, and Leon Russell performed a Youngblood/Jumpin’ Jack Flash medley. To top it all off, Bob Dylan performed A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry, Blowin’ in the Wind, Mr. Tambourine Man and Just Like a Woman for both shows. He also played Love Minus Zero/No Limit for one of the shows. This album won the 1972 Grammy® for Album of the Year. This album is a bit pricey [about $32], but it’s a good album to have. Not essential, but good to have.

4. Living in the Material World [1973] – Coming off the heels of All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh, there were high expectations for this one. Unlike ATMP, which featured many musicians including an army of guitar players, George is the lone guitarist on this release, and he does not disappoint. The music is great, but the words are a bit preachy. Each of the Beatles had his own distinct personality following the breakup in 1970. John Lennon was the political agitator, Ringo was the happy-go-lucky entertainer, Paul was the hit-making machine, and George was the preacher. While John’s studio was his political soapbox, George’s was his pulpit. The leadoff song, Give Me Love [Give Me Peace on Earth], was a Number 1 single for four weeks. Sue Me, Sue You Blues is one of the few secular notes on the album that gives insight to the Beatles’ legal entanglements. Of note is George’s acoustic slide playing here – that alone is worth the time spent listening to it. The title track features some tasty guitar/sax trade-offs. Also included are stuff from his own life, including the Beatles, to wit: "Met them all here in the material world / John and Paul here in the material world / Though we started out quite poor, we got Ritchie on a tour..." The Lord Loves The One Who Loves the Lord - more excellent guitar playing, and a tongue-in-cheek slam on world leaders who “act like big girls.” Be Here Now is a quiet acoustic song inspired by Baba Ram Dass’s “Remember Be Here Now” book on spirituality and meditation. Two B-sides are included in the 2006 remaster, Deep Blue and Miss O’Dell. If there is one thing I don’t like about this album is that the single version of Bangla Desh was not included. This CD is a must have for George Harrison fans.

5. Dark Horse [1974] – This is the album where George’s solo career starts to slip. There are three good songs on this album – Dark Horse, So Sad, and Ding Song, Ding Dong. This album was recorded while George had a bad case of laryngitis. It probably should have been named Dark Hoarse, but I digress. The music is ok, but the words are too preachy, and the signing is just plain awful because of the aforementioned laryngitis. Avoid this one.

6. Extra Texture [Read All About It] [1975] – There’s one good song on this album – This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying). If you think it’s a follow-up to The White Album’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, you’d be right. If you can find a MP3 of this song, get it. Don’t waste your money on the rest of the album. Is it that bad? Yes, because it’s boring. Definitely avoid this one.

7. Thirty-Three and 1/3 [1976] – George’s first album for his new Dark Horse label. It’s a much better album that the two that preceded it. There are many happy, upbeat tunes. The first of these, Woman Don’t You Cry For Me, showcases George’s slide playing. It’s also the closest any of the Beatles ever got to being funky. Unlike Dark Horse and Extra Texture, there is only one overtly religious song – Dear One. It’s dedicated to Premavatar Paramahansa Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi. Since it isn’t a dirge it’s actually enjoyable to listen to. Thirty-Three and 1/3 spawned one hit single, Crackerbox Palace. A good CD to have.

8. George Harrison [1979] – This one is a good one. It has an unintentional sequel to Here Comes the Sun [called Here Comes the Moon], an ode to Formula One racing [Faster], a song that didn’t make it onto the Beatles’ White Album [Not Guilty], a song inspired by the ingestion of some magic mushrooms [Soft-Hearted Hana], and a Top 30 single [Blow Away]. It’s all good – buy it.

9. Somewhere in England [1981] – One good song – All Those Years Ago. It can also be found on Let It Roll: The Best of George Harrison. The rest is crap. Avoid at all costs.

10. Gone Troppo [1982] – Three good songs – Wake Up My Love, That’s the Way it Goes, and Mystical One. They’re available in MP3 format. Get the MP3s, forget the rest.

11. Cloud 9 [1987] – After being away from the music business for five years to concentrate on gardening and his Handmade Films company, George teamed up with ELO frontman Jeff Lynne to make a comeback with this gem. Got My Mind Set On You was his first hit since Give Me Love [Give Me Peace on Earth] in 1973. My favorite from Cloud 9 is the Beatles tribute When We Was Fab. It has a definite I Am the Walrus vibe, which is a good thing. Other standout songs include the title track, Devil’s Radio, This Is Love, Wreck of the Hesperus, and Fish on the Sand. There’s quite a bit of guitar interplay with guest Eric Clapton on a few of the songs. This is his best album since Living in the Material World – a must-have CD.

12. The Traveling Wilburys Volume 1 [1988] – This one came about by accident. Warner Brothers Records told George he needed another song as a bonus single for the European market. He and Jeff Lynne were in Los Angeles on business, so George decided to stop by Tom Petty’s house to pick up a guitar. Jeff Lynne was involved in two projects at the time – Tom Petty’s first solo album Full Moon Fever, and Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl album. Before they knew it, there were four guys working on a new George Harrison song, but they needed a place to record it. George knew just the place to go on short notice, so he called his friend Bob Dylan, who had a home studio. So they did one song called Handle With Care. Warner Brothers took one listen to the song and decided it was too good to waste as a B-side. So, they asked these five guys “do you have any more?” Thus, without any advanced planning or anything, a “supergroup” was born. A couple of weeks later, this album came to fruition, and it’s a damn good one. Each of the Wilburys sings lead on several songs, but a couple of songs stand out for me. One of these is Not Alone Any More, sung by Roy Orbison in all of his glory. The other, Tweeter and the Monkey Man, is a hilariously funny spoof on Bruce Springsteen sung by Bob Dylan. It also has some nasty acoustic slide playing from George. Another hit from the album is George’s End of the Line. Sadly, shortly after this album’s release, Roy Orbison died. This is an excellent companion piece to George’s Cloud 9. George was definitely on a creative roll. It had been out print for several years, but now it is available with Volume 3 as a 2 CD/1 DVD package that is well worth having. Buy it!

13. The Traveling Wilburys Volume 3 [1990] – Reduced to a four-piece with the death of Roy Orbison, this one starts with the high-energy She’s My Baby, which features the playing of Irish guitarist and “Friend of George” Gary Moore. Just to hear Bob Dylan sing the line she likes to stick her tongue right down my throat alone is worth the price of the CD. The album ends on a funny note with Wilbury Twist. There’s many several tongue-in-cheek moments in between. Nothing really Earth-shattering, but still enjoyable to listen to.

14. Live in Japan [1992] – After releasing the Traveling Wilburys Volume 3, Eric Clapton convinced George to go on tour with him and his band in Japan. George didn’t like touring, but Clapton kept after him and George finally said “yes.” This tour was very well-received by his Japanese fans, and this album is a good-sounding souvenir of the tour. If you have the extra money, this CD is good to own. I have one minor complaint – the female backup vocals on While My Guitar Gently Weeps have got to go [shoowop shoowop wahoo? Gag me…].

15. Mantrum: Chant of India [1997] – This is not a George Harrison album per se. He produced this recording of Sanskrit and Vedic prayers for his friend Ravi Shankar, and he does play many instruments on it. A nice change of pace. If you can find it, get it.

16. Brainwashed [2002] – George’s final album, released posthumously. George had begun working on Brainwashed shortly after the completion of Cloud 9 but never finished it because other things came up [the Wilburys albums, the Beatles Anthology project, the Chant album, etc]. He recorded enough bits to be put together as a proper album and he left detailed instructions to Jeff Lynne and his son Dhani about how he wanted the pieces to be put together. A few months after George’s death Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison resumed work on Brainwashed and produced a very good album. Standout songs include Any Road, P2 Vatican Blues [Last Saturday Night], Looking for My Life, Stuck Inside a Cloud, Run So Far, and the title track which ends with the “Namah Parvati” prayer chanted in unison by George and Dhani. The instrumental Marwa Blues is excellent.An excellent CD – buy it!

17. The Concert for George [2003] – On November 29, 2002, one year to the day after George Harrison’s death, George’s friends and family gathered at the Royal Albert Hall in London to perform a tribute concert to their departed friend. Not only was the concert recorded, but it was also filmed for theatrical release. Everybody involved in the concert knew George, which gave the show a sense of warmth you won’t find from most all-star shows. The all stars include the usual suspects: Eric Clapton [who was the show’s musical director], Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Jools Holland & Sam Brown, Gary Brooker [from Procol Harum], Joe Brown, and Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka. Four surviving members of Monty Python [Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam] performed Sit On My Face and The Lumberjack Song after a half-hour of Indian music courtesy of the Shankars. The Pythons were included in the movie, but left off the CD. So you have Indian music to reflect George’s spiritual side and Monty Python to reflect George’s sense of humor. What made the Python bit even more effective was that it lightened up the atmosphere because it immediately followed the solemn Indian music. Musically, I have one gripe about the CD. If you watch the movie, the song that stole the show was Sam Brown singing George’s Horse to the Water. Inexplicably, it was left off the CD, but at least it was in the movie. Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney reprised their roles from the original White Album recording of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Billy Preston’s rendition of My Sweet Lord was outstanding. Ringo Starr provided the most touching moment when he performed his own song Photograph, which he wrote and recorded with George in 1973 [Every time I see your face it reminds me of the places we used to go/But all I’ve got is a photograph and I realize you’re not coming back anymore…]. Paul McCartney had fun with For You Blue, and did a wonderful rendition of All Things Must Pass. A nice moment came when Paul talked about having dinner at George’s, and when dinner was over out came the ukuleles. So with that in mind, he dedicated Something to “our dear friend” and accompanied himself with a ukulele given to him by George. After the first verse, Eric Clapton and the whole band came in and finished the song. The show finished with Joe Brown singing the 1920s song I’ll See You In My Dreams. Well done, and well worth having.

18. Let It Roll: The Best of George Harrison [2009] – This is the only George Harrison compilation to span his entire solo career. I bought it because I can’t find Cheer Down anywhere else, and one MP3 just wouldn’t do. Included are the three Beatles songs from the Bangladesh concert album. Olivia and Dhani Harrison missed an opportunity to include the Bangla Desh single – it should be here but is not. Horse to the Water, George’s final song which he recorded for Jools Holland [Small World, Big Band if you’re looking], should be here as well but is not. No Crackerbox Palace either - a serious oversight. So yes, I could have made a better compilation of George’s solo career.

19. Honorable mention-

a. Day After Day [1971] by Badfinger. George produced this 1971 hit from Badfinger, and played slide guitar. It is some of the best playing you’ll ever hear from George Harrison.

b. Imagine [1971] by John Lennon. George plays dobro on Crippled Inside, and electric slide on I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier, Gimme Some Truth [another song with origins from the Let It Be sessions], and How Do You Sleep?

c. Ringo [1973] by Ringo Starr. George plays on Photograph [which he co-wrote with Ringo], Sail Away Raymond, You and Me Babe, and John Lennon’s I’m the Greatest. Of note, John, George and Ringo were all on I’m the Greatest with Billy Preston and Klaus Voorman, just one Beatle shy of a full reunion. This would be the last time all three played together.


wardo said...

Interesting writeup -- we have similar opinions on the man:

Nice blog, I'll be checking back,

El Viejo Loco said...

Thanks for reading. Cheers!

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