There can be no disputing George Harrison’s gifts. From the mid-1960s through the early ’70s, he was one of rock’s savant geniuses, an underdog who sat at the feet of master songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as well as friend Bob Dylan, learning their craft and later writing songs that rivaled and occasionally exceeded theirs. In addition, Harrison’s 1970 opus, All Things Must Pass, is universally regarded as the finest solo album by any ex-Beatle and rightly so. Yet only a few years later, it all began to unravel. From 1974 to 1982, Harrison recorded a string of LPs that, in retrospect, range from the quirky and mediocre to the shockingly awful. How did the former Fab Four guitarist stray so far off the path of inevitable pop stardom? PopMatters investigates.
If you watch Martin Scorsese’s much-heralded recent film, Living in the Material World, you may get the idea that George Harrison, who died in 2001, led a largely flawless music career—and that’s the way fans like it. They like to jump straight from 1973’s hit single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” to Harrison’s late ’80s comeback with Cloud Nine and the ensuing supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys. But there’s a 14-year gap that fans don’t like to discuss or even recall. In fact, the Quiet Beatle recorded six other studio albums during that epoch, each of which gives us insight into a rock ‘n’ roll legend literally at the bottom of his game. No question, there are some Harrison gems to be found here, but sadly, they’re often lost in the mire of this dreary epoch.
Let’s frame the tale with 1973’s Harrison LP, Living in the Material World, the second #1 album hit for the guitarist. Its single, “Give Me Love”, was not as passionate as the material on All Things Must Pass, but still a breezy, tuneful pop song that highlighted George’s Hawaiian-influenced bottleneck guitar work. It was released in May, 1973, and shot to the top of the charts effortlessly. Backed up with other strong tracks, the LP further cemented his position as the ex-Beatle to watch, especially in light of Lennon and McCartney’s erratic solo careers to that point. That was all about to change.
Dark Horse was released in December, 1974, right in the middle of Harrison’s first US tour. In retrospect, this LP has received more critical venom than just about any other record in Harrison’s catalog. By all accounts, it had been a rushed studio job, compounded by George’s divorce from wife Patti; the fast-impending US tour; a case of laryngitis; and reputedly buckets of booze and coke. True, it’s a notch down from Living in the Material World, but 38 years down the road, we can look on the album in much softer light and, in fact, it’s miles better than some of Harrison’s work from just a few years later. What saves the album is the same thing that made the critics hate it first time around—its sloppy, jammy sound, which would have been heresy in the over-produced ’70s. Yet today, in our post-punk and grunge-informed universe, Dark Horse has enough garage/DIY grit to save it from history’s cruel pen.
The opening track, “Hari’s on Tour (Express)” is, admittedly, the slickest thing here, an almost-jazz/fusion instrumental featuring the crack musicians from the studio group, the LA Express. It’s dated sounding—the uptempo intro could be ’70s game-show music—but at least, George is having fun. That may seem insignificant, but as fans would be able to hear on coming albums, he would be enjoying the process less and less, and this directly impacted the music. Next up, “Simply Shady” has a loose, soulful vibe that wouldn’t have been out of place on All Things Must Pass. The Quiet Beatle’s voice is fairly shot on “So Sad”, but it’s a sturdy Harrison melody with a straight-to-the-heart hook in the chorus and some nice slide-guitar figures. “Bye Bye Love” is the infamous rearrangement of the Everly Brothers smash, reconfigured into a still-sore account of Patti’s departure. Clapton himself plays on the session, if that isn’t ironic enough. Yet it’s a clever, witty update and George correctly—and appropriately—gives credit to the original songwriters.
For dash of humor, “Ding Ding, Dong Dong” is one of George’s periodic novelty tracks; think “Piggies” or “Johnny’s Birthday”. It’s not great Harrison, but many still love its quirkier qualities and play it each December 31st to ring in the New Year. The song “Dark Horse” is a more interesting as a medical display of the singer’s ragged voice just days before the US tour, but the song itself is innocuous. It’s more comparable to period work of Seals & Crofts, America, the late Jim Croce, or the theme to Chico and the Man—funky folk-pop with flutes and a calypso-tinged chorus. Perhaps the worst thing you can say about the song is that it was chosen for the album’s lead single, which was a marketing blunder, plain and simple. Co-written with Ronnie Wood, “Far East Man” is a better attempt at American soul than almost all of Harrison’s latter attempts, propelled by Tom Scott’s punchy alto-sax work. Blissfully, George saves the album’s worst song for last, “It Is ‘He’ (Jai Sri Krisna)”. This Indo-pop frippery features the kind of preachy, spiritual-laced lyrics that alienated so many Harrison fans in the middle of that decade.
It deserves to be reasserted that Dark Horse was slagged far worse in the press than it deserved. Certainly, Harrison should have held off another year before putting the record out, gathering up his best songs for a more potent LP. It seems he was suffering from the same syndrome that befell John Lennon and Paul McCartney during the same time—that of being more prolific than inspired. But no doubt, there was also label pressure to put the record out during the US tour and keep those hits a-comin’. This was to plague Harrison frequently throughout his solo career.
Following the negative reviews and the US tour, Harrison decamped to Los Angeles where he began recording new songs at A&M Studios in the spring of 1975—barely six months after cutting Dark Horse. Released that September, Extra Texture (Read All About It) is simply and utterly this: a dismal LP attached to one terrific single. “You” was a holdover from Phil Spector sessions from 1970-71 and it sounds great, steeped in the deep washes of reverb that marked the producer’s best “Wall of Sound” recordings. Bass was expertly handled by Carl Radle, while drums were performed by legends Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner. It was also Harrison’s most uptempo, exciting rocker since “What is Life?”, sporting sparkly guitar arpeggios, airhead lyrics (“You…I love you!”), and a honking sax solo of the type that were becoming de rigeur on rock ‘n’ roll singles, this one by the great Jim Horn. It was a thrilling moment, one that suggested to fans that Harrison was back.
Sadly it was not to be—the rest of Extra Texture is a trainwreck of moody ballads, impotent soul, and scads of poor lyric writing. And like many of the albums we’re discussing here, it was also self-produced. Following the opening rifle crack of “You”, Harrison immediately slips into balladic doldrums with “The Answer’s at the End.” The lyrics here squarely fall into George’s preachy category, as he attempts to enlighten his fans with muddled philosophizing (“Scan not a friend with a microscopic glass, You know his faults, now let the foibles pass; Life is one long enigma, my friend, So read on, read on, the answer’s at the end”). Another error is his attempt writing a sequel to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with “This Guitar Can’t Keep from Crying”. It’s a passable-enough effort, but sounds more like Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” than anything from the hand of a former Beatle. It’s nearly saved by some extended bottleneck-guitar soloing, one of few times Harrison cut loose for a long jam on a studio record.
The rest of Extra Texture is mostly an eyeball-rolling affair. “Ooh Baby (You Know that I Love You)” captures George jumping on the decade’s soul bandwagon, but his warbly, off-kilter vocal melismas are pale parodies of Marvin Gaye or Al Green. Side 1 ends with a turgid epic called “World of Stone,” a song full of pretentious lyrics, Genesis-like synthesizer pads, and a “Hey Jude”-like sing-a-long finale that can’t end soon enough. Harrison’s most impressive feat is that he crammed all of those motifs into one song. It was also the B side of the “You” single.
Side two begins with “A Bit More of You”, a brief snippet of “You” that sounds like a straight 45-second edit of the hit single. Feel free to scratch your head. Things perk up with “Can’t Stop Thinking About You”, a piece of cocktail pop that sounds like it was born and bred in an LA recording studio. “Grey Cloudy Lies” is another decent Harrison ballad, one that could have been on Living in the Material World on a better day, but it’s lost at the end of Extra Texture. Still, both are evidence of a few guilty pleasures here.
The LP comes to a screeching finish with a novelty track called “My Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen)”. Named for his friend “Legs” Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the song is more uptempo than most of the album, but the lyrics are staggeringly bad (“Everything is dinky doo…” croons George slickly), with a dense, quasi-Vaudevillian chord progression and cloying horn arrangements. Listeners must further endure weird, spoken-word sections that might conjure up an English music-hall vibe or a dash of his beloved Hoagy Carmichael, but it doesn’t work. Granted, this was neither the first nor last time Harrison attempted to mix screwball humor with his pop, but it’s hard to regard “My Name is Legs” as anything but an unholy mess. In retrospect, Extra Texture is mostly for the Harrison completist, yet it’s also a fascinating listen for those who want to dive deep and experience a Beatle-gone-bad. Otherwise, you can buy an original vinyl single of “You” off eBay for just a few bucks and be done with it. Here’s one more tantalizing thought—while Extra Texture remains a lackluster listening experience, it was hardly Harrison’s weakest album. Not by a longshot. Indeed, his worst was yet to come.
Fortunately, there would be a brief reprieve: 1976’s Thirty Three and 1/3, the first on Harrison’s new Dark Horse label. Unlike the scattered Extra Texture, this LP featured vastly improved audio fidelity and better songs, despite an eclectic assemblage of material. It also continued Harrison’s penchant for hiring top US sidemen to play on his solo records, such as saxman Tom Scott, bassist Willie Weeks, and keyboardists Billy Preston, Gary Wright, Richard Tee, and a young David Foster (yes, that David Foster—he of multiple-Grammy Award fame). It was also recorded at George’s estate, Friar Park, and perhaps as a result, most of Thirty Three and 1/3 reflects a positive state of mind—Harrison is hanging in his home studio with great musicians and having a good time.
Although George had been experimenting with funkier American grooves for several years, the album kicks off with Willie Weeks’ hammering slap bass on “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me”, a song that had been kicking around since Harrison’s 1969 tour with Delaney and Bonnie. What is immediately evident in this arrangement is how much George is channeling Eric Clapton’s famed “Tulsa band” of the mid-’70s and their unique sound, fusing blues, R&B, Bakersfield country, and New Orleans textures into one greasy gumbo. Harrison adds lazy blues-slide licks on top of the beat, adding more to the overt Clapton connection. Indeed, it would be easy to imagine this same track on the 461 Ocean Boulevard or There’s One in Every Crowd albums.
Next, George throws in one of his typical curveballs, a spiritual ballad called “Dear One” with soaring church organ mixed with more of a carnival organ sound á la “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. It’s a likeable song, but oddly placed in the album sequence. “Beautiful Girl” is another keeper, a gentle pop song with heavenly overdubbed slide-guitar solos. It’s not A-list Harrison, but very good all the same.
This leads us to “This Song”, one of the very best George Harrison singles of the era. A brisk pop-rocker, its lyrics wryly alluded to his recent “My Sweet Lord” court case without being mean or preachy. Tom Scott lends a certain amount of barrelhouse, Saturday Night Live¬-ness in his sax solo, while Monty Python’s Eric Idle jumps in with a humorous voiceover. Today, “This Song” sits nicely alongside of “Taxman” and “Piggies” as an example of Harrison’s best satire and, better still, it’s fitted over a catchy pop tune with a crackerjack arrangement. It was a modest hit in the US, but deserved better.
After a strong start, Harrison begins adding filler to bulk out Thirty Three and 1/3. An older track from the Beatles era, “See Yourself” finds George’s pointed cynicism misses the mark a decade later, while “It’s What You Value” offers more pop moralizing. His tribute to Smokey Robinson—“Pure Smokey”—is a nod to the West Coast soul-pop sound popularized at the time by Boz Scaggs. Alas, Harrison would revisit this blue-eyed soul sound down the road, much to his detriment.
One of the best songs on Thirty Three and 1/3 is buried towards the back of Side two: “Crackerbox Palace”, an ode to American comedian Lord Buckley. Like “This Song”, it’s sharp, crisply arranged pop of the sort Harrison could occasionally nail with far greater precision than McCartney and Lennon. Sadly, the rest of the album slips back into filler with the R&B dreck of “Learning How to Love You”, more of George’s unfortunate experiments with soul, bringing Thirty Three and 1/3 to a vaguely unsatisfying close.