What is left to say about George Harrison that hasn’t been said already?
As a Beatle, his role was nearly infallible. Harrison was the meticulous quiet presence whose arid, minimal guitar defined songs like “Something”, “Here Comes the Sun”, and “I Me Mine”, the experimental mind that brought forth “Within You Without You” and “The Inner Light”, and the pop artist who created some of the band’s best output with a single guitar riff or two. Think about songs like “It’s All Too Much”, “Long Long Long”, and “Blue Jay Way”, and think about how much they stand out and stand in as a separate and equal legacy of The Beatles. Without Harrison, The Beatles are distilled down to a simple pop duo, an instance of The Everly Brothers with more parts Elvis Presley than Bob Dylan. My affinity for Harrison notwithstanding, I can easily understand why his legacy, his songs, his heart and soul, endure. Probably now more than ever before.
But the understood legacy of George Harrison is spotty in places; his time in the biggest band in the world has been well-documented as have sections of his post-Beatles solo career. But, even for the most intense fan of Harrisongs, it’s difficult to piece together—and to endure—parts of his solo career. It seems we’re only able to digest it in manageable chunks; portions for fans to parse through delicately, separating the wheat from the chaff. But the new box set of his solo output, The Apple Years: 1968-1975, does Harrison, in the role of non-Beatle, a great service, further cementing his bright legacy. It recasts his fruitful journey out of the shadow of yesteryear and into the current light of the ever-brilliant present.
Let’s start with the record we all know, All Things Must Pass. So, do we really need another release of this seminal record? In this case, yes, you do. As a Harrison fan, you need this release of this record. All Things Must Pass, an enormous outpouring of Harrison’s emotional soul, is rendered in rendered in full on this box set release. Finally cut loose from the shadow of his magnanimous songwriting partners, Lennon and McCartney, the album is mammoth in size and runtime. But its enormous output is the only fitting artistic statement Harrison could have made at the time. (He was the first one out of the gate with a solo album after the breakup of The Beatles.) Harrison stuffed All Things Must Pass with some of the best songs in his solo catalog, ones the endure even today, and then, just because he could, he packed on a third disc of free-wheelin’ jams to close out the whole damn thing. Songs like “Apple Scruffs”, “Thanks for the Pepperoni”, and “I Remember Jeep” are not mere throwaways; They are captured tracks of Harrison flexing his guitar playing prowess, cutting a stark path into a new decade, and, of course, letting his hair down and having a lot of fun. Rife with guest stars and a huge sound, All Things Must Pass still looms large in sound and scope. It’s either the biggest influence on modern songwriting (would we have Elvis Costello or Elliott Smith without it?) or the most successful pop record that everyone has heard but never truly paid respect to. Does that make it a record of cult status? Is it possible that a former Beatle put out a record that has influenced every musician who has heard of it, let alone spent nights alone digesting it on the turntable? Yes, and Harrison did it almost single-handedly through the grace and poise of songs like “My Sweet Lord”, “Beware of Darkness”, and “All Things Must Pass”. Any collector worth their salt knows you can’t have too many copies of this record (I’m up to five and counting); but this is the definitive version of All Things Must Pass.
The remainder of The Apple Years box set can’t match the heights of All Things Must Pass but some of it comes incredibly close and does well to reinvent Harrison’s image as a musician’s musician. Where on later albums his songwriting falters a bit or he chases his muse to places that were less than hospitable to the casual listener, he never lost his inner self. Every movement he made was in service of the song, even when the songs were lyric-less and wandering. Wonderwall Music is Harrison’s journey to center of the mind, if you will, the first album released on Apple Records and the first album released by a solo Beatle. The soundtrack to a film of the same name, Wonderwall Music is mixed bag of tricks, as much as any film soundtrack is. But there’s a indescribable element of candor and craftsmanship to Wonderwall Music, the kind that comes from an artist that is deeply invested in the type of music they commit to tape, no matter how uncommercial it may be.
The same investment applies to Harrison’s most “experimental” work, included here at long last, the simple, two track album Electronic Sound. Where Wonderwall Music hangs together by the thread of its cinematic theme, Electronic Sound is cinematic in its own right, though lacking in story. Essentially, Electronic Sound is Harrison cavorting around the keys of a Moog synthesizer, pushing the gain and the gate open and shut in an effort to explore virgin territories of sound. Harrison is no Brian Eno or Jeff Lynne, his musical brother-in-arms who found great success in his own synth-pop group, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), but the intention behind Electronic Sound is one of exploration and discovery, an artist limbering up his musical mind to discover how far the boundaries of modern instrumentation could take him. Out of context, Electronic Sound would sound maudlin, even dull. Here, as a key step in the progression of Harrison the solo artist, it sounds audacious in its primitiveness and offers listeners a glimpse into his music-making mindset. Clearly aching to set himself apart from that other group he was currently shackled to, both Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound are living documents of his internal expressiveness. Given the remastered treatment, they sound raw and gorgeous, alive and capable of sparking ingenuity.
Post-All Things Must Pass, Harrison’s solo catalog is deep and, at times, intensely personal in its simultaneously grand and minute offerings. The groove that Harrison locked into on All Things Must Pass is still present and accounted for on Living In the Material World and Extra Texture: Read All About It. The pair of albums complement each other well, finding an AM radio gold formula and hooking it into Harrison's dry wit and ultra-spiritual teachings. "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)" is still heartbreaking in its earnestness, while other would-be hits such as "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long" and "Be Here Now" offer much more than just Harrison's Hindu-inspired teachings; they also offer up the chance for larger dialogue within music. Where other bands in the early '70s were getting rich and high off corporate largesse, Harrison made it a point to move beyond the external draws of the flesh. Making a statement about materialism in the '70s (even if it did have a throwaway, eye-rolling number like "Sue Me Sue You Blues") was only a move an enlightened soul like Harrison could have accomplished without being brushed off as insincere. Not only did he manage to do it and be moderately successful at it, but he managed to wrangle a few other musicians to his cause, most notably by organizing The Concert for Bangladesh, whose rallying cry and primary single, "Bangla Desh" appears on Living In the Material World in awesome live version.
Extra Texture drapes a little extra soul and some loose-end swagger onto Harrison's workmanlike formula. Horns blast out at the intro, lifting lead track "You" out of normalcy, while "The Answer's At the End" and "Tired of Midnight Blue" rely on some 12-bar piano to give them their own groove. An extra, alternate version of "This Guitar Can't Keep From Crying" shows up to conclude Extra Texture, demonstrating the skeletal frames that Harrison worked with before throwing layers of (ahem) extra texture on top of the tracks. And while Extra Texture is a funky, downright enjoyable album, there is a bit of a sense that Harrison is running out of steam, a weariness that belies the otherwise peppy tracks. The song titles sound like retreads of old ideas ("This Guitar Can't Keep From Crying"), arrangement are used and reused ("World of Stone", "Grey Cloudy Lies"), and some tracks are just off-the-rails ("His Name is 'Legs' (Ladies and Gentlemen)"). Extra Texture is hardly a weak spot in the collection, though it is the best bookend to Harrison's prodigious late '60s and early '70s output. Any album post-Extra Texture is better left outside of this powerful collection.
Then, last, there's Dark Horse, the 1974 album that's the true overlooked jewel of the box set. Harrison fans are quick to praise Dark Horse as an underrated gem in Harrison's catalog, but otherwise, one may never hear much about the album, save for the name that would become Harrison's own label, Dark Horse Records, which Harrison was actually running while recording Extra Texture. Harrison's voice isn't quite up to par on Dark Horse; he was ill during much of the recording and it shows in the way that his vocals are buried beneath layers of dueling guitars and a new bottom end (especially bass guitar) that has been boosted incredibly well on the reissue. What makes Dark Horse so unique is that, aside from All Things Must Pass, Dark Horse sounds and feels like Harrison is playing music like he has nothing to lose and all the world to gain. "Simply Shady" and "Maya Love" (which features the great Billy Preston on keys) are not just more of what Harrison had grown accustomed to, they are tracks that experiment subtly with tone, mood, and, most surprisingly, darkness.
In some ways, Dark Horse is more experimental that Electronic Music; Harrison seems to be shifting the lay of the land and redrawing the borders for himself, however slight on Dark Horse. "So Sad" inverts "Here Comes the Sun" and turns it into melancholic lament; "Ding Dong, Ding Dong" makes literal use of the bells from its title and Harrison's voice hasn't ever sounded as menacing as it does when he barks "ring out the old, ring in the new, ring out the false, ring in the true"; "Far East Man" has more soul and groove to it than any of the phoned-in R&B Harrison smeared on Extra Texture. Dark Horse is a album from man operating at the peak of his talents with no one left to impress and no grand statement to make. Granted, prior to recording, Eric Clapton has snatched Harrison's wife from him, and that may have led to some of the devil-may-care attitude on Dark Horse, but that sort of contextual reading lessens the impact of what Harrison had to offer with Dark Horse. With nowhere to go but up, and with a few less eyes watching him as the other solo Beatles ascended with their own antics, musical and otherwise, Dark Horse is the sound of freedom and it sounds like a livid dream committed to tape.
When Harrison passed away on November 29, 2001, it was a time for mourning. The world lost a great voice, a great humanitarian, and an astonishing musician who never stopped trying to facilitate change and encourage higher thought through music. The world owed a debt to "the quiet Beatle" that seemed impossible to pay. Yet, Harrison was always the first to remind us that death was not the end, that a higher, more spiritual life awaited those of us who were intelligent and open-hearted enough to believe. "All Things Must Pass" was Harrison's proclamation in more ways than just song. Still, his passing seemed unfair and tragic. In his absence, musicians, fans, and friends alike have come to recognize the effect he had on modern music and, in many ways, some of his greatest achievements have been the legacies he left for those who followed him.
To suggest that this collection of his albums honors the legacy of Harrison and his influence seems maudlin and cheap in a way. Harrison's legacy and his work was much more than a reduction of earthly values wrapped in a song. He was an entertainer, yes; an entertainer in the biggest band in the world. But he was also, first and foremost, a human with a vested interest in the words and deeds of other humans. Though that may not seem like enough when compared to the works of others -- the works of scientists, spiritual leaders, and healers -- it is, in retrospect, more than enough. Everything begins and ends as it should and no one knew that better than George Harrison. Until we can join him, his love and his music remain as a vestige of his spirit, put down on tape for all to hear. And there's no better way to honor him than with a proper visitation to the music that he created for us all.