The Beatles’ legacy is like that certain 19th century empire “on which the sun never sets, and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained”. These are invisible, temporal confines, true but, still, there is a subtly disturbing feeling of uneasiness behind this concept. There’s a reassuring, yet creepy awareness that certain ideas can’t be perfected, and yet they remain the paradigm through which art must be — sometimes unwittingly — judged. “The biggest break in my career was getting into the Beatles in 1962. The second biggest break since then is getting out of them”, George Harrison once famously stated. The third opening was undoubtedly the beginning of his and the other Beatles’ solo careers; a long-lived and often tedious debate revolving around a bunch of records to be saved from a sea of hopelessly tired and self-congratulatory efforts.
Let’s state the obvious: if the first two albums (Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound) were experimental and daring in an undeniably convoluted and somehow unfavourable way, it was with All Things Must Pass that this quiet Beatle managed to express that creativity which had been choked and mostly silenced for too long by the egos of that duo at the helm of the band.
This is an album with no fillers, where the angst for what has been and should have been is tamed into a melancholic binge (“Wah Wah” and “Run of the Mill”) and excellent pop (basically the rest of the – back then — triple LP). It will take Harrison 3 years – mostly spent raising money for Bangladesh – to come up with a worthy successor: Living in the Material World raises the bar of social awareness that had only been touched on lightly in the previous release. Musically, Living marks a clear departure from the oneiric ambiance of what is seen, by Harrison himself, as his solo debut. It is a work that enjoys a more elaborate dynamic development, where layers are kept together by Harrison’s clever work behind the mixing desk. However, the critics at the time didn’t seem to buy his newly found artistic line and quickly forgot about this and Harrison’s former bandmates’ contemporary endeavours. But who are we to neglect an ex-Beatle? That’s right. For this (and other reasons, I suppose), the Harrison family has decided to publish a digitally remastered version of these first six albums, and that includes a number of video pieces, one of which features a new seven-minute film with previously unreleased footage.
Listening to the entire production on offer here means delving inside an artist’s trajectory, his highs (All Things Must Pass and, at least partly, Living In The Material World) and the obvious lows (the rest). From the naivety of Electronic Sound to the creative stability (ergo “weakness”) adopted by Dark Horse, an album that is quintessentially and dramatically pop.
Similar debates have been taking place somewhere else, but it is undeniable that the termination of the band’s artistic unity generated four individuals unable to return to the splendour of their past. As it always happens with art, however original, a renaissance takes its cue from the olden days, and for this reason – and with the delightful exception that is McCartney’s Ram – a former Beatle’s masterpiece coincides with a return to his origins. This applies to All Things Must Pass, but also to Lennon’s Imagine and John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band).
George Harrison’s artistic output remained coherent with itself, and later works such as Thirty-Three and 1/3 or Cloud Nine are still miles away from ordinariness and well above the average pop songwriting. But this was George Harrison, and his guitar gently wept for us, so people’s benign disappointment with his later, upstanding production is not only justified, but it is somehow an integral part of his production. And this relation comes with this box set. Even if neither Universal Music, nor Dhani Harrison will ever admit it.