It’s been nearly 11 years since we lost George Harrison to cancer, yet it feels as if we’ve been living without him for much longer. Over the last decade and a half of his life Harrison spent far more time tending to the sprawling gardens (which, it should be noted, cover an area the size of a small town) than he did recording music. A reflective, deeply spiritual man for whom the daily grind of a working musician’s life held no allure, Harrison was determined to live according to his own rules. While he never officially retired, in his later years he seemed to have found an inner peace from his non-musical pursuits that he never would’ve found schlepping around the world with a guitar in his hand.
Save for one final studio album and a couple of remasters, the posthumous career of the Quiet Beatle has also been pretty quiet. Unlike other grossly mismanaged estates (looking your way, Courtney Love) the guardians of Harrison’s music and likeness, widow Olivia and son Dahni, appear to be determined to protect and honor the legacy of a man who lived with a lot of dignity. Rather than cobble together some rush-job documentary, the Harrisons allowed themselves time to grieve and then went out and hired one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, Mr. Martin Scorsese, to bring George’s complicated life story to the big screen. Scorsese and his team spent several years piecing together Living in the Material World, a moving yet occasionally exhausting documentary that should stand as the final word on the journey of George Harrison. Arriving with little fanfare in conjunction with the domestic release of Scorsese’s film is Early Takes, Vol. 1, a seemingly random collection of demos from the early 1970s that makes for a thoroughly satisfying listen despite its brief running time.
Not all of these mostly acoustic sketches appear in the documentary, and there isn’t a shred of information about when this music was recorded and who’s playing on it. We have to rely on what we already know as fact to piece together a narrative. By the time The Beatles split up in 1970, Harrison was sitting on a wealth of material, much of which had been, for reasons far beyond this reviewer, denied placement on the last few Beatles albums. While Paul McCartney released the pastoral McCartney and John Lennon purged his soul on Plastic Ono Band, Harrison linked up with Phil Spector for All Things Must Pass, a towering triple LP that’s widely considered to be the greatest solo album released by a Beatle. More than half of the songs on Early Takes, Vol. 1 are All Things Must Pass-era demos. Pulled away from the shadow cast by Spector’s mighty wall of sound, the beauty at the core of Harrison’s compositions is allowed to shine through.
Much credit is due to Giles Martin, son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, who has meticulously restored Harrison’s original recordings. At no point do these songs sound like demos that were recorded over 40 years ago, due in no small part to the strength of Harrison’s performances. We’ve rarely heard Harrison sing better than he does here. Tracks like “Run of the Mill” and “Behind That Locked Door” are one-take run-throughs, yet they’re flawlessly executed. More fully formed are covers of Bob Dylan’s “Mama, You Been on my Mind” and The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me”, the latter of which features some impossibly gorgeous self-harmonizing from Harrison. Hearing Harrison in such an intimate setting is a revelation and it makes one wonder why he rarely worked in this format throughout his solo career. Not to take anything away from his work with Phil Spector or Jeff Lynne, but it’s a shame that, more often than not, Harrison’s gentle voice and aching melodies were overwhelmed by production.
It’s a pair of full-band demos that provide the missing link between All Things Must Pass and Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Before Spector showed up with his army of session musicians, horn players, and gospel singers, Harrison was working on something that sounded every bit as raw as Lennon’s album. Of course, Harrison is using the same rhythm section of bassist Klaus Voorman and drummer Ringo Starr (Note: there’s nothing in the liner notes to confirm this but I’ll be damned if that isn’t Ringo behind the kit). Ringo, who never played better than he did in 1970, gives “My Sweet Lord” a laid back, vaguely bluesy feel and then goes absolutely apeshit on a blistering work-up of “Awaiting on You All”. The only indication that this track, with its crunchy guitars and backwards drum fills, wasn’t pulled from the Plastic Ono Band sessions is Harrison’s voice.
Both The Beatles and John Lennon have been anthologized, and those projects, while comprehensive and informative, are a bit of a chore to sift through. George Harrison’s Early Takes, Vol. 1, on the other hand, practically demands to be listened to on repeat. Rather than throwing open the vaults and inundating us with a deluge material, the Harrison family has made a wise choice in rolling out one slim volume at a time. Hopefully we’ll continue to be reunited with Harrison’s gentle spirit through these archival releases for many years to come.