George Harrison: Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison

George Harrison
Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison

“I wanted to be successful, not famous.”

— George Harrison

“He didn’t really write music, ever, for a commercial market.”

— Olivia Harrison, Let It Roll promotional video

John Lennon made the strongest post-Beatles music, Paul McCartney was the most successful, and Ringo… well, Ringo is as genially reliable as ever, but George Harrison’s solo career was the most interesting of any ex-Beatle. Recent years have witnessed a reconsideration of his work, most prominently through Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film on his life, but also with a dedication on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the arrival of the long-overdue Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison, his first career-spanning compilation. Let It Roll aims to rectify where the last two George Harrison compilations have gone wrong — attempting to bridge both his songwriting tenure as the ‘Quiet Beatle’ with the ups and downs of a three-decade solo recording career that produced ten studio albums.

Picking up from late-period Beatles onwards, there are three of Harrison’s Fab Four tracks here — “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” — and 16 further solo numbers, spanning from 1970’s sprawlingly dogged All Things Must Pass to 2002’s posthumous Brainwashed. In a way, it’s unfortunate that Let It Roll tries to have it all as a compilation, because narrowing Harrison’s Beatles tracks down to just three songs (out of 23 released with the group) appears ruthlessly reductive. Yes, those three cuts are probably the most well-known songs he penned whilst with the Mop-Tops, but the disc spends so little time on that period, that it seems like an afterthought. Plus, the original recordings of these three songs — i.e. from the Beatles’ albums they originally appeared on — have been substituted for live renditions from Madison Square Garden during the Concert for Bangladesh. Unfortunately, these pale in comparison to their transcendent originals. Let It Roll should really also have considered making space for Harrison’s career in the Travelling Wilburys, given that it dominates most of the late part of his recording life. If one supergroup can be included, why not the other?

That said, whatever organizational issues Let It Roll has, it mostly gets by purely on the strength of its songs. Harrison’s biggest solo hits are all present, in a somewhat awkward amalgamation of early and late period George Harrison, with very little in between. Of the 16 post-Beatles songs here, those from either his first two albums (All Things Must Pass and 1973’s Living in the Material World) or his last two (Cloud Nine (1987) and Brainwashed) take up more than half the tracklist. This is done to emphasize Harrison’s two periods of real commercial success, but is made worse by the disc’s slapdash sequencing, responsible for consigning songs into a maze of chronology and a baffling running order.

Bizarrely, the compilation kicks off with “Got My Mind Set on You”, easily the slickest song Harrison ever put his name to. It follows up by diving headfirst into his mystic-spiritual side with “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”. The two showcase such different sides to Harrison’s solo career that they cancel each other’s momentum out. Likewise, it’s hard not to notice the decay in Harrison’s voice between “All Things Must Pass”, a pure and utterly resigned post-Beatles lament delivered at the tender age of 27, and “Any Road”, a Brainwashed number slid in next to it.

At his best, we are reminded what an intuitive touch Harrison had for the guitar; his knack for easing his way into memorable riffs, his fondness for big, ponderous chords. Ignoring “The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)”, all three of the compilation’s opening songs (all of them number-one hits) are great pieces of pop, for different reasons. “Got My Mind Set on You” was a perfect comeback vehicle to re-launch Harrison’s career in 1987; it’s got an undeniable hook, and he sounds reinvigorated on it. The mantra-like “My Sweet Lord” builds and builds in scope, crafted around Harrison’s memorable slide-guitar riff, so much so that the last half of the song is essentially one big chorus. And what a chorus it is. “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”, while perhaps slight, has a beguiling and warm melody, and is one of the better plea-for-peace songs this side of “Imagine”.

Across the rest of Let It Roll, Harrison’s common threads are picked up on fairly well. With the exception of “Got My Mind Set on You”, the songs capture the meditative George, obsessed with karma, quietly singing ‘Hare Krishna’ in a world gone material. There’s a tender, gentle ache in Harrison’s voice, permeating across the various stages of his solo career, painting a man with wisdom beyond his years. This is aided by his slippery and elusive chord progressions, exemplified by the happy-sad “This is Love”, which shifts subtly from major to minor in its refrain, a proclamation of love. Even in his cheerful songs, his lyrics are acutely aware of loss and mindful of materialism — he navigates his way through the metaphorical “Any Road” (“Travelling here, travelling there / Everywhere in every gear”), with a droll, cautious humour.

That said, it’s easy to nitpick the problems with this album, and the most distressingly blatant is that the record company, the assemblers, the producers, whoever, seem to have cut corners. For a first-time listener curious to discover Harrison’s life after Beatles an obvious recommendation would be to dig through his individual body of albums. That’s a problematic suggestion as Harrison’s solo records are notoriously uneven, and conventional wisdom holds that after the first two they take a general slant downwards until 1987’s ‘comeback record’ Cloud Nine. For the casual fan, sifting through all the rubbish Harrison released after splitting from the Fab Four to find his gems (of which there are undoubtedly many) is a daunting and probably unwelcome task. The next step would be to pick up Let It Roll instead. But this compilation is hardly a fair portrait of George Harrison. It doesn’t allow easy access to the worthwhile moments off 1976’s forgotten Thirty Three & 1/3, for example, or Extra Texture (Read All About It) from the year before, both of which are excluded entirely from this compilation. Let It Roll’s balance in the selection process is, on the whole, uneven. What this means is that one way of discovering Harrison’s music is laborious and arduous, the other akin to a snapshot, an overview giving a brief too oblique and sketchy to be truly effective.

This may be reading too much into it. As a collection, Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison delivers the big hits, meaning it does what it’s designed to do. But it sounds too perfect to be a fair document. There are 19 Harrisonian pop confections here — an unusual number dictated, one suspects, by the 80-minute length of a CD. The reality is that Harrison rarely if ever pandered to the mainstream during his solo career. His first release was a triple-album, the third record entirely full of jams. He bickered with his record company over the release of his 1980 album Somewhere in England, released an album even while coming down with a case of laryngitis (resulting in 1974’s Dark Horse), and retired abruptly from the music industry for five years after the flop of 1982’s Gone Troppo. He was a man full of contradictions, to drop a cliché, preaching love and peace while deeply indignant over the end of the Beatles and his role in them. This is reflected as much in his music, often dark, pointed and bitter. Yet Let It Roll either doesn’t respect that or know its subject well enough (beyond the radio hits) to make it a great compilation. It’s not as good, say, as John Lennon’s similar Lennon Legend.

It’s perhaps understandable that Let It Roll was abridged to stop it heading into double album territory, and 77 minutes of music is more than enough bang for the buck. But given that this is the first complete, long-in-the-works George Harrison compilation, it could have given us much more than a 28-page booklet and an unconvincing ‘digital remaster’ at Abbey Road. Listening through it, I think I can hear a slight difference from the originals, a touch-up in the mixing on the songs. However, to play devil’s advocate here, if Let It Roll is going to be sold on the back of a ‘remaster’ claim (by the son of George Martin in the Beatles’ studios, no less!), it could really do with not being so utterly safe. This writer has never liked Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ treatment on All Things Must Pass, and believes that it masks the expressive character of the (very good) songs, while muting Harrison’s vocals into the background. The ‘Wall’ remains intact on the four songs taken from All Things Must Pass. At the very least, they could have fixed up that ludicrously extravagant wah-wah trumpet in the otherwise beautiful “All Things Must Pass” and unburied the opening strumming pattern in “My Sweet Lord” from under a mountain of air. Please. These things sound dated. They deserve an update. The disc is also somewhat hampered in that it contains no new material to tempt devoted fans of Harrison, aside from an obscure cover of the Bob Dylan song “I Don’t Want to Do It” from 1985.

Speaking of which, what exactly does Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison mean, anyway? What kind of compilation does that denote? It’s not technically a Greatest Hits, since several of them are conspicuously missing, so does that make it a handpicked selection of his ‘best tracks’? To fit the former, this needs “Old Brown Shoe”, “Dark Horse”, “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”, “You”, “This Song”, “Crackerbox Palace”, “Teardrops”, even “Bangladesh” for the sake of being comprehensive. If the latter, one would have to argue for “Taxman”, “Piggies”, “I Me Mine”, “Awaiting on You All”, “Beware of Darkness”, and “Wah-Wah”, among others, to be included. One suspects that these tracks were again excised for the sake of squeezing it all on the length of one CD. But in that case, what on Earth is “Marwa Blues” doing on here, and why does a song like “Blow Away” get a spot but not “You”?

As George Harrison’s first complete collection, Let It Roll has some big names backing it. Olivia Harrison has claimed responsibility for assembling the setlist, and Giles Martin, co-producer of the Beatles’ Love, has been charged with remastering duties. It’s disappointing, then, that for all the hype this is just a stock and standard ‘Greatest Hits’ disc; enjoyable, but neither definitive nor fan-proof, with some questionable omissions to boot. Had EMI invested proper time and care (and by that I don’t mean acquiring the support of Harrison’s widow as your PR team) in cleaning up the album’s haphazard sequencing, equalizing the mixing, and for the sake of the listener making the selection criteria clear, it would have been a compilation to recommend without a second thought. As it stands, it comes off as a superficial, almost flippant look into Harrison’s poppiest ditties — though many of them are very good — with an emphasis in all the wrong places. Harrison’s talent shines through in Let It Roll as always, but this is far from the last word on his career.

RATING 6 / 10