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.
The Great Hiatus
Next, George Harrison went on what we might call the Great Hiatus. As punk, New Wave, disco, and reggae raged around the pop universe, the Quiet Beatle left the battlefront for a few years, scarred and perhaps a little shell-shocked from the rough treatment he’d received at the hands of critics. If history had been any example, Harrison should have amassed a goodly store of songs in the interim and been ready for a powerful comeback. Instead, he hooked up with noted producer Russ Titleman for 1979’s George Harrison, an album of soft-pop ballads and mid-tempo material that is slick and overproduced, evidence of the Boz Scaggsification of this former Beatle. The opening track, “Love Comes to Everyone,” is an overt stab at polished LA pop and works on that level. Everything about it seems manufactured for radio airplay and has little of the passion of Harrison’s early solo work. It’s hard to envision this coming the same hand that recorded “Something” a decade earlier, but it is. Perhaps its most redeeming feature is Steve Winwood’s brassy Multimoog synth solo, an instrument that would figure prominently on his 1981 comeback hit, “While You See a Chance”.
“Not Guilty” is a track that hailed from “The White Album” era a decade earlier and while it would have worked well on that album, here is decked with glossy electric-piano chords and other cheesy studio accoutrements of the late ’70s. It’s a poor effort, but not as bad as Harrison’s misguided sequel to “Here Comes the Sun”—the despicable “Here Comes the Moon.” His guitar arpeggios are laced with more dulcet electric piano and an inane “Here comes the moon-the, moon-the, moon-the” refrain. It’s a song that should have never been written, much less released on an official George Harrison album.
The album’s modest hit single “Blow Away” is perfectly serviceable Harrison pop, not exceptional, but a fine radio toe-tapper. Yet the horror show isn’t over, as Harrison and Titelman serve up a pair of true duds: “Faster”, an ode to his fondness for Formula One racing and featuring the dreadful couplet “He’s a master of going faster”; and “Dark Sweet Lady”, which is draped with gooey harp and seems aimed more for the senior easy-listening crowd than a young rock audience.
Then surprise, George does what has he’s done before, burying a great song in the back of Side two. “Your Love Is Forever” is a ballad with a picture-perfect melody, sweet lyrics, and an understated arrangement. Harrison sings over an open-tuned electric guitar laced with lush chorus effects, and it sounds gorgeous. The rest of George Harrison is largely forgettable, but if anything, the album speaks more to a wealthy pop star who’s not hungry for success anymore and is more than a little alienated by the current pop scene. It might be cruel to say that George was merely phoning it in by this point, but the evidence is there.
By the time of the follow-up, 1981’s Somewhere in England, George Harrison’s detachment from pop music was in full flower. Co-produced by Elton John percussionist Ray Cooper, the album feels like the product of a paper-pushing pop bureaucrat, one who bears little resemblance to the rock avatar of All Things Must Pass. Its 10 cuts are almost devoid of any passion—it’s just another day on the job and Harrison has to deliver new product to Warner Brothers. Yet even the label wasn’t buying it and rejected the album on its initial delivery. Harrison then cut four new songs, including the opener “Blood from a Clone”, supposedly his savage commentary on the state of popular music. But the music and lyrics are so hackneyed that the exercise backfires, making the former Beatle seem more out of the touch than ever.
There are a few bright spots on Somewhere in England. “Life Itself” is a tasty song and George’s slide solo is wonderful. Following John Lennon’s murder in December, 1980, Harrison took an existing song and re-tweaked it into the single “All Those Years Ago”. Bringing Ringo in on drums and Paul and Linda McCartney on backing vocals, it proved to be a brief flash of that old Harrison magic and accordingly hit #2 on the US pop charts. But the record’s second single, “Teardrops”, is a grueling listen, sounding like fresh material for Olivia Newtown-John or Laura Branigan than any kind of comeback. The dated synthesizer work is particularly embarrassing. George whips out some Chet Atkins’ style guitar pickin’ on the country-corn “That Which I Have Lost”, and meanders through the ballad “Writing’s On the Wall” and a synth-pop version Hoagy Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues” before delivering the album’s tragic coup de grâce. “Save the World” is one of those songs that is so egregiously awful that it should end up on everyone’s list of George’s worst efforts. Its eco/anti-war lyrics are preachy, heavy-handed, and obvious, especially at a time when others of the period were writing far better songs on that topic—John Hall’s “Power”, Gil Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit”, and Todd Rundgren’s “One World”, just to name a few.
The only thing that saves Somewhere in England from being George Harrison’s worst album is its ignominious successor, 1982’s Gone Troppo. By this time, Harrison clearly wanted out of his Warner Brothers contract, if not the entire music business, and he did so by releasing this bit of musical suicide. His attempt at an updated ’80s sound flops right out of the gate on the album’s single “Wake Up My Love”, which has a jerky, even annoying synth riff and flaccid chorus. “That’s the Way It Goes” goes back to George’s penchant for leisurely calypso pop, featuring acoustic slide licks and a lilting beat, while “I Really Love You” is a remake of the Stereos’ doo-wop hit from 1961. Had it appeared during the ‘50s-retro craze of the mid-’70s (such as American Graffiti, Happy Days, and the band Sha Na Na), George might have had a novelty hit on hands, but this single tanked, as did the entire Gone Troppo album. Soon after, the 39-year-old Harrison retreated from the pop scene again, beginning a full five-year-hiatus from music and not a moment too soon.
What happened next, though, was a textbook Hollywood comeback: George started working with ELO frontman Jeff Lynne who produced 1987’s Cloud Nine, his great comeback album. This was followed by the terrific Traveling Wilburys and soon, George Harrison’s reputation was restored. But let’s come back to the Scorsese film, Living in the Material World. Aside from a few side allusions, he all but ignores the six studio albums we’ve discussed here, records that truly make up the bulk of Harrison’s solo career. It’s in that light that we must view the film as a “tribute” and not any sort of serious documentary, which is unfortunate.
As for the reason behind Harrison’s erratic output of 1974-82, you can probably trace it to the usual suspects: an excess of money, drugs, partying, and well, excess. We also have to remember that George had already been a wealthy pop star for a decade and was now being asked, contractually, for a second act, thus his decreasing enthusiasm for the task. As your own ears will tell you, recording solo albums had become a chore for the former Beatle, as he’d conquered the summits of pop stardom long before. A new studio album meant continued cash flow, which was always beneficial, but clearly, Harrison’s heart was no longer in it, especially as the ’70s rolled to an end.
You also have to wonder why George didn’t have a manager who asked him for better product, or a good producer helping him pull these songs and albums together. Again, it alludes to the fact that he was rock-star royalty and didn’t need to answer to anyone, which is regrettable. In hindsight, most of George’s best solo albums were made with a strong producer in the room, notably Phil Spector and Jeff Lynne (and earlier, George Martin), but perhaps he didn’t like to cede control during this middle period. Yet imagine what a visionary producer—an Alan Parsons, Roy Thomas Baker or Todd Rundgren—might have done for Harrison’s recordings in that era. It speaks to a lost opportunity.
Another new wrinkle is the appearance of the Early Takes, Vol. 1 CD this year, which includes several demos from All Things Must Pass in stripped-down, mostly acoustic form. The results are simply revelatory. If demos for George’s later work exists, it could help rewrite the story of such over-blown albums as Extra Texture and George Harrison. Who knows, but let’s cross our fingers.
Ultimately, the story of Harrison’s recorded work from 1974-82 tells the tale of a talented muse who lost his way and, in his rarified circumstances, we can understand why—certainly, who among us hasn’t strayed off the path for a while? It was an important life lesson for the former Beatle and, considering George’s productive musical output in later years, one that he took to heart. And while that middle era contains his weakest work, it’s still part of the larger George Harrison saga. Without considering it, we can’t understand the larger picture of his extensive solo career.
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Pete Prown is a noted music journalist and author, having published hundreds of articles and currently serving as Gear Editor for Vintage Guitar magazine. And just like George, he’s a guitarist, a gardener, and a Pisces. You can hear Prown’s well-regarded CD releases at CD Baby.