As a vocalist, he was nothing special. His voice was not as immediately powerful as Lennon’s nor as sweet as McCartney’s. In fact, it was kind of sub-par. Adenoidal and thickly accented, but I suppose he could carry a tune. As a guitarist, he was admittedly unable to improvise on the fly, definitely out of sync with his flashy Sixties peers, and not criminally underrated the way Ringo was as a drummer. (Relax, we’ll get to him in Part 4). As a songwriter, he couldn’t hold a candle to the great rock poets like Dylan and Springsteen. Harrison’s talents in all these areas can best be described as “modest.” One gets the impression that if there were no Beatles, Lennon and McCartney would have found another path and still be known to us in some capacity, but Harrison was in dire need of his Beatles background to launch his solo career.
But wait! Let’s examine all this again. Harrison’s voice was certainly distinctive and full of character (and blended perfectly with Lennon and McCartney’s to create that special Beatles alchemy, usually pinning down the tricky middle harmony). As a guitarist, it may not have been a bad thing to be out of step with his flashy Sixties peers. Some of those wanky, Vanilla Fudge-style blues-worshipers soloed like there was no tomorrow, often forgetting they were supposed to be playing a song.
Harrison did not go down the very well-trodden blues path, but played in a much more country & western-influenced rockabilly style, patterned after guys like Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins. His major concession to R&B was a healthy dose of Chuck Berry, which is the one thing he had in common with all other Sixties rock guitarists. (Hell, even the great Keith Richards spent most of the decade recycling Berry riffs, until he discovered open tuning in ’68.) Every Harrison solo was short, punchy, and served the song perfectly. Re-listen to some Beatles songs (“Can’t Buy Me Love” and their cover of the Larry Williams scorcher “Bad Boy” come to mind) with an ear on the solos, and you’ll see what I mean. As a songwriter, neither Lennon solo nor McCartney solo were on par with Dylan or Springsteen, either, and the best of Harrison’s solo material certainly equals the best of Lennon’s and McCartney’s. As far as being unable to improvise, who gives a good goddamn? The Beatles were never a jam band, anyway (thank God.)
And when, on a whim, he decided to join American R&B act Delaney & Bonnie on their British tour in 1969, he finally embraced the blues, but in his own way, rapidly developing an almost Hawaiian-sounding slide guitar technique that became the defining sound of his solo career. I still doubt there would have been a George Harrison music career without the Beatles, but luckily for everyone, there was a Beatles. And there’s some great stuff in the Harrisongs catalog…and also some turkeys. That’s why we’re here.
Anything else I have to say about Harrison, I said in my 2010 essay “The Quiet One.” In fact, I’ve probably already repeated myself somewhat, so let’s get on with our examination of the solo Harrison.
Like Lennon, Harrison tentatively waded into solo waters while still in the Beatles with a couple of non-commercial experimental recordings that had nothing to do with the pop music he was associated with. Wonderwall Music was an all-instrumental soundtrack album to a now-forgotten 1968 film. This mixture of psychedelic Western and mystic Eastern melodies is sometimes credited as the first major “world music” release, and reflected Harrison’s deep interest in all things Indian. Although he did not perform on any of the music himself, he was a hands-on composer and producer, even traveling to the EMI studios in Bombay to supervise the recording of the Indian sections. 1969’s Electronic Sound was just an hour of Harrison farting around on the newly-invented Moog synthesizer. It was put out by the Apple Records subsidiary Zapple Records, and soon disappeared (along with Zapple Records). Harrison used the Moog to much greater and subtler effect on the Beatles’ Abbey Road, which was being recorded at the same time (it’s all over that album if you listen carefully.)
At first, Harrison’s songwriting could barely keep up with his two or three solo vocal appearances per Beatles album (“Do You Want To Know A Secret” and “I’m Happy Just To Dance With You” were written specifically for him by Lennon). By the end of the Beatles, he had a huge backlog. He decided to get rid of them all at once with the double-album blowout All Things Must Pass that kicked off his post-Beatles recording career in 1970. In retrospect, he probably should have held a few in reserve…
George Harrison discography:
All Things Must Pass (1970)
Living In The Material World (1973)
Dark Horse (1974)
Thirty-Three And A Third (1976)
George Harrison (1979)
Somewhere In England (1981)
Gone Troppo (1982)
Cloud Nine (1987)
Brainwashed (2002); posthumous
Harrison also released two live albums and two collaborations with the super-group The Traveling Wilburys.
BEST ALBUM: All Things Must Pass — Sometimes the universal consensus is correct. Harrison’s first album really is his best, and may be the best of all solo Beatle releases. Featuring his best single “My Sweet Lord” (sorry for the spoiler), we also get his version of a McCartney-style epic ballad a la “Hey Jude” (“Isn’t It A Pity”), the unhinged, cacophonous migraine-set-to-music “Wah Wah,” (written the same day he had his famous argument with McCartney, captured uncomfortably on film in Let It Be), a couple of Bob Dylan co-compositions (including the terrific “If Not For You” — Bob’s version appeared on his 1970 album New Morning), and the simply gorgeous title track. It’s also the last gasp of Phil Spector’s trademark “Wall of Sound” production style before it lapsed into bad taste and self-parody, and Spector himself lapsed into increasingly psychotic behavior. The thematic concerns of the lyrics are overwhelmingly religious, but as with the best gospel, the sound and feeling transcend dogma. (Unfortunately, this flavor was abandoned in his later albums, and his spiritual songs soon came to represent everything off-putting about religious music — dour, self-righteous and preachy.) In addition to the highlights already (and about to be) described, there are many other treasures scattered throughout ATMP‘s hefty running-time, and almost every track features the guitar of Eric Clapton and the drums of good ol’ Ringo. Curiously, one of the best songs on the album, the thundering, joyous “What Is Life” was not released as a single in the UK.
Don’t be fooled by the frequent descriptions of this as a triple album. The third disc was included as a “bonus,” and it’s a bunch of long-winded jams of the type that were a pox on popular music in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Skip it.
BEST ALBUM RUNNER-UP: Cloud Nine — Harrison found his greatest success of the ’80s by finally embracing his musical past. He and his co-producer, ELO founder and self-confessed Beatles fanatic Jeff Lynne, fill the album with little Beatlesque touches — 12-string Rickenbackers, echo-laced piano trills, and some basic-but-effective harmonized backing vocals. There’s also enough sparkly synths and processed drums to remind you that this is 1987, but the sound isn’t swamped by these modern-then, dated-now touches. Frequent Harrison sideman Eric Clapton also pops up here and there, most notably on the title track, which features dueling lead guitars between him and Harrison. (Yes, Ringo’s here too.) This philosophy of looking defiantly backward culminates in the “I Am The Walrus” pastiche “When We Was Fab” (complete with swooping cellos and a chanting choir), and Harrison’s picture on the cover, holding his old black Gretsch Duo Jet guitar that once played the leads on “From Me To You” and “She Loves You.
It’s easy to hear the album as a kind of sampler of Harrison’s entire musical personality: lashing out at the media and modern culture (the feisty “Devil’s Radio”), looking Eastward for inspiration (the lushly Oriental “Breath Away From Heaven”), offering a rare glimpse at his wry sense of humor (the self-deprecating “Wreck Of The Hesperus” rocks harder than anything he’s done since 1970), and smuggling a little gospel influence into mainstream airspace (the old James Ray number “Got My Mind Set On You,” which Harrison interpreted as being about God, not some broad — its bouncy repetitiveness and Harrison’s exuberant performance sent the single to the top, the last #1 single by a Beatle.)
BEST HIT SINGLE: “My Sweet Lord” — All Thing Must Pass. Perhaps the most towering musical statement of Harrison’s solo career, slightly marred by the fact that he was accused of “subconsciously plagarizing” the tune from the old Chiffons hit “He’s So Fine.” Harrison was dragged into court and found guilty. Sometimes his famous sourness is understandable.
Over an acoustic guitar orchestra laid down by the members of Badfinger, Harrison lets rip with the best-known slide guitar sequence of his career, aided and abetted by a few licks from Clapton. His lead vocal is transported by spiritual ecstasy, and he is expertly backed by the choral stylings of the “George O’Hara-Smith Singers” — oh, wait, that’s none other than George himself, overdubbing his own voice God-knows how many times to create the effect of an entire Krishna choir.
BEST HIT SINGLE RUNNER-UP: “Blow Away” — George Harrison. In a perfect world, All Things Must Pass‘s “What Is Life” would occupy this space. A hit everywhere else in the world, it was relegated to the B-side of “My Sweet Lord” in Harrison’s home country of Great Britain. That disqualifies it by my totally arbitrary self-imposed rules. So the runner-up award goes to the cotton-candy fluff of “Blow Away,” a song so sweet and slight you’ll hate yourself for loving it. “Blow Away” is a simple ode to the power of positive thinking, and seemed to mark a move away from the bitter, self-pitying songs of his mid-’70s period.
BEST NON-HIT SONG: “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” — Living In The Material World. Harrison’s follow-up to All Things Must Pass suffered primarily by not being All Things Must Pass, and alas, the sophomore slump seemed to continue for the rest of the decade. The hit from the album was the very pretty “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” but a lot of the remaining lyrical material was Harrison perched firmly on his soapbox. The album was almost redeemed by the solid musical footing heard throughout, the aforementioned single, and this song — a perfect straightforward and melodic pop song that gallops along nicely and features Harrison singing at the very top of his register. I guess if writing a perfect straightforward and melodic pop song was easy, everyone would do it.
BEST NON-HIT SONG RUNNER-UP: “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me” — Thirty-Three And A Third. Lots of album tracks from All Things Must Pass could fill this slot, but I think I’ve made my point regarding the classic status of that album. So we’ll go with the opening track of Harrison’s 1976 album. Heavily influenced by his brief time touring with Delaney & Bonnie, “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me” is a kind of Anglicized hybrid of Southern rock. In fact, it sounds pretty much like the style Clapton adopted on his albums of the same period. The song is just damn jaunty, with a rollicking clavinet and rubbery bass line. It was an indicator that Thirty-Three And A Third would be a more lighthearted affair than his last few albums, and it was — the heavy-handed philosophizing is ditched, jauntiness continues with the minor hit “Crackerbox Palace,” and there’s some fun to be had, even in the midst of his “My Sweet Lord” lawsuit (the paranoid “This Song” was his sarcastic musical statement on the matter.)
WORST ALBUM: Somewhere In England — Anyone who’s ever wished the Beatles didn’t break up when they did should be forced to listen to the first decade of their solo stuff beyond just the hits. Maybe working as a unit would have kept the Four fab, but I’m dubious since all of their first few solo albums succumbed to the most annoying traits of “mellow” ’70s soft rock (yes, even John’s.) The former members of the best band in the history of popular music individually decided that they wanted to out-bland Bread. Cocktail-jazz keyboards, Moog synthesizers, plus saxophone, saxophone and a little more saxophone. (I’m sure Tom Scott is a nice man, but halfway through listening to the Harrison discography, I began wanting to sew his lips shut.) No, the songs on these albums might not have been 1970s Beatles songs…but what if they were?
Although the 1980s listener might breathe a sigh of relief at Harrison’s move away from his painfully white attempts to recreate contemporary soul music (see below) through the previous decade, the style he chose to replace it with isn’t much better: a busy swirl of mid-range, sub-Elton John theater pop featuring a clutter of instruments strangling the life out of the slight melodies. His first album in this vein, 1979’s George Harrison, had some pleasant moments but never rose above mediocre. Then the unthinkable (for a former Beatle) happened: Warner Brothers, the record label responsible for bankrolling and promoting Harrison’s vanity label Dark Horse, rejected Harrison’s next album. To their ears, Somewhere In England was unreleasable. Overproduced and downbeat (what happened to the sunny cheer of “Blow Away” just the year before?) and featuring not one but two Hoagy Carmichael covers, Warner Brothers bluntly told Harrison to try again, only this time write some hits. Harrison took the album back, dumped four songs and replaced them with four songs that were in every respect inferior to the songs they replaced — but hey! they were uptempo.
And the label got a hit, in the worst way possible…
While the album was being re-vamped, John Lennon was assassinated. Harrison took the backing track of a song he was working on for Ringo’s next album, hastily scribbled some new lyrics, and created the tribute song “All Those Years Ago.” As music fans mourned, the single shot up the charts, pulling Somewhere In England with it. Warner Brothers was placated as the money rolled in, but it didn’t change the fact that the album remained a total mess and became a success on the shoulders of a tragedy.
WORST ALBUM RUNNER-UP: Extra Texture (Read All About It) — As we’ve already seen, George’s sound in the ’70 and early ’80s was as far from the raging rock and roll of his Cavern Club days as you could get. In addition to his devotion to Eastern spirituality, he began worshiping at the altar of Smokey Robinson. Beginning with the Dark Horse sessions, he began to assemble a backing band of soul-oriented session men (such as bassist Willie Weeks) to give him license to recreate all the worst excesses that distinctive style of 70’s soul: arrangements soft and mushy as overcooked peas, syrupy strings, and tempos that rarely raise the dial above “coma.” All forgivable when topped by an authentic soul vocalist like Teddy Pendergrass…but the combination of Harrison’s voice and the hectoring, accusatory lyrics he favored at the time handily sank the whole ship.
That’s Extra Texture in a nutshell. A soulless soul album, recorded in a hurry at the end of Harrion’s EMI contract. The trademark slide guitar that could redeem almost any Harrisong is nowhere to be heard. All we hear through songs like “World Of Stone” and “Grey Cloudy Lies” is how terrible everything and everyone is. It’s not a fun experience for a listener to have Harrison berate him or her for failing to live up to his exacting moral standards over an almost tuneless musical backing. (Harrison cheerfully admitted in private that he failed to meet his own moral standards, but that doesn’t come through on Extra Texture. He later pronounced the album “grubby.”) The only track worth a listen is the sufficiently funky swamp-rock “Tired Of Midnight Blue.”
WORST HIT SINGLE: “You” — Extra Texture (Read All About It). Recipe For Disaster: Step 1 — Write a song with lyrics consisting almost entirely of variations on “I love you” and “You love me.” Step 2 — Fob it off on poor Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes, trying to make a comeback album under the beady eye of her crazy-ass producer husband Phil. 3. After the comeback album is shelved, wipe Ronnie’s vocals off of the master tape and replace them with your own. Step 4 — Profit?? I guess so, as Harrison squeezed a Top 20 showing out of this one. Spector’s vocals were removed so sloppily that her trademark gutsy “whoa-whoa-whoa”‘s are still quite audible on the fade-out. One might assume this was done deliberately to give the song a much-needed boost. (Highest Chart Position, US #20).
WORST HIT SINGLE RUNNER-UP: “Dark Horse” — Dark Horse. At the time of its release, the Dark Horse album was famously panned in the music press as a disaster, and carried the millstone of “worst George Harrison album” in the popular consciousness for years. Now that Harrison’s story is over, we know that there was much, much worse to come, and the scrappy Dark Horse doesn’t seem so bad in retrospect. In fact, it’s kind of charming (except for the misguided cover of “Bye Bye Love.”) The title song is actually okay — some good lyrics and even the jazz flute that leaves its snail-trail all over it isn’t immediately vomit-inducing.
Why is it the worst hit single runner-up? Well, Harrison did not release a huge amount of singles, and those that were worse than “Dark Horse” did not chart. Oh, yes, and his voice. Good God, what is wrong with George’s voice on this song?!! In the rush to get the album on shelves in time for his 1974 U.S. coast-to-coast tour (the first solo Beatle to undertake such an endeavor), Harrison cut some of the vocal tracks in the throes of one of the worst cases of laryngitis in the history of recorded music, leading to many “Dark Hoarse” puns. “Dark Horse,” decent as it is in most areas, will make you wince in pain while listening. (Highest Chart Position, US #15).
WORST NON-HIT SONG: “Who Can See It” — Living In The Material World. Another plodding dirge about a world full of awfulness, with Harrison wringing every drop of tortured pathos out of his overwrought voice. It tries to build toward a “Bridge Over Troubled Water”-style climax, but only succeeds in clearing the room. The fact that it is impossible to sit through was illustrated on the first night of Harrison’s ’74 tour, when he noticed the audience streaming out for a restroom break en masse during its performance. It was dropped from the set list.
WORST NON-HIT SONG RUNNER-UP: “Unconsciousness Rules” — Somewhere In England. Another up-tempo slab of non-rock about a world full of awfulness. This time, Harrison lectures us about the perils of nightclubbing. (Really.)
SURPRISINGLY GOOD: 1982’s Gone Troppo, often thought of as the nadir of Harrison’s career, is actually quite listenable. As the title suggests, a breezy theme of “getting away from it all” permeates the album, and it’s certainly better than anything that jackass Jimmy Buffet ever conjured up in a similar vein. Dumped into stores with no promotion whatsoever, it represented Harrison’s desire to take an extended vacation from the music business to focus on his film company, HandMade Films. As a result, it sounds unforced and relaxed, with his slide guitar all over the place, and a buried treasure on Side Two — “Dream Away,” featuring an infectious nonsense chorus, is one of my favorite Harrisongs, and may be familiar to film-goers as the closing credits music of Terry Gilliam’s classic Time Bandits (a HandMade production).
(I know everyone believes the Holy Bee has facts at his fingertips, but in this case I am indebted to The Songs of George Harrison: While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Simon Leng, which I found collecting dust on a little-used shelf at the Southgate Library. Its fortuitous discovery on a random library prowl made this blog post much better, and yes, longer.)
Coming Soon…Ringo. This is going to get ugly. Or is it?
RECOMMENDED HARRISON SONGS FOR YOUR SOLO BEATLES PLAYLIST: “My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t It A Pity,” “What Is Life,” “If Not For You,” “Behind That Locked Door,” “Let It Down,” “Beware Of Darkness,” “Awaiting On You All,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long,” “Ding Dong Ding Dong,” “Maya Love” (or “Dark Horse” if you can take the voice), “Tired Of Midnight Blue,” “Woman Don’t You Cry For Me,” “This Song,” “Crackerbox Palace,” “Blow Away,” “All Those Years Ago,” “Wake Up My Love,” “Dream Away,” “Cloud Nine,” “When We Was Fab,” “Got My Mind Set On You,” “Any Road.”