Music

George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Reissue of the Quiet Beatle's fourth solo album from 1973 includes a few extra b-sides and a bonus DVD.


George Harrison

Living in the Material World

Subtitle: CD/DVD special edition
Contributors: Ringo Starr, Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voormann
Label: EMI
US Release Date: 2006-09-26
UK Release Date: 2006-09-25
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Living in the Material World (1973), George Harrison's fourth solo album and second following the break-up of the Beatles, was a return to humble pop music after experimental asides (1968's Wonderwall Music and 1969's Electronic Sound) and sprawling artistic liberation (1970's three-LP All Things Must Pass) were shaken from his then-prolific system. It was his second #1 album in three years (it would also be the last #1 album of his career), and in a year inundated with solo Beatles' hit singles (Paul McCartney's "Hi, Hi, Hi", "Live and Let Die", and "My Love"; Ringo Starr's "Photograph"), boasted the effervescent "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)", a #1 single that remains one of Harrison's most iconic and well-loved -- both the album and the single knocked McCartney and Wings from the top of the charts.

"Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" would come to define Harrison's post-Beatles "signature" sound, even retroactively to some: the weeping slide guitars that slink around its wistful melody would later be used on the Beatles' Anthology "reunion" tracks, "Free As a Bird" and "Real Love", even though the slide-guitar style was never an element of the Beatles' original recordings. More importantly, however, the song is a simple and effective distillation of Harrison's ongoing unification of the spiritual and the secular, stowing open-faced prayer within Top-40 commercialism. Harrison had moved on from his mid-'60s fascination with Indian instrumentation and motif; a song like "Give Me Love" reflects more the Bob Dylan of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, or even earlier influences like Carl Perkins (the sticky near-yodel of "heart and so-ou-oul" signaled Harrison's deep-seated country-music bias). "Give Me Love" is as straightforward as All Things Must Pass' spiritual-seeking songs like "My Sweet Lord" and "Hear Me Lord", but its functional production and acoustic genesis, devoid of Phil Spector's cluttered ostentation, serve a more direct purpose.

For the most part, Living in the Material World follows its lead-off track by dropping the Spectorized sound overall (its production was credited to Harrison alone), although the chorus of "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long" guns for plumped-up bombast and "Try Some, Buy Some" (originally intended for Ronnie Spector) had been recorded during the All Things Must Pass sessions. The effect of the album's stripped-down sound is one of intimate petition rather than thunderous extravagance, noteworthy given the thematic similarities to its weighty predecessor. Both albums search and pine for spiritual transcendence, but where All Things Must Pass is weighted with cathedral-grade significance, Living in the Material World suffers from a more anonymous tract. "Be Here Now" and "Who Can See It" are rendered a little too slow-moving and dramatically anemic by the unfussy atmosphere -- tracks like these, in particular, would have benefited from the hyper-drama of All Things Must Pass' resonant abyss. The title track and "The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)", the album's most uptempo rock songs, fare much better as eager bids for secession from this life, or at least from the clutches of its material concerns.

"Sue Me, Sue You Blues" provides the one true break from the record's otherwise pervasive philosophical musings; its passive-aggressiveness feels at odds with the album in general. It's a sarcastic response to the acrimonious elements in Harrison's lawsuit-addled life at the time, including the ongoing fall-out from the Beatles' break-up and the Chiffons-ignited plagiarism suit against "My Sweet Lord". The track sounds a lot like the mid-tempo blues-based numbers on John Lennon's Imagine (1971) (not surprising, given the musicians that the two shared on their early '70s recordings), but its lineage is more aligned with Harrison's own "I Me Mine", which "Sue Me" effectively rewrites minus the subtlety. Harrison would pad later releases with more clunkers than here, but Living in the Material World was the first in what would be a long, steady line of inconsistent albums. (No Beatle, arguably, was any different, releasing his best solo work immediately after the band's dissolution.)

The CD/DVD deluxe version of Capitol/EMI's new reissue of Living in the Material World bestows lavish attention upon a record that may not exactly deserve it. While the remastered audio is a crisp and welcome update to inferior transfers of the past and the packaging is sleek and attractive, the DVD seems an unnecessary bonus. It's made up of a meager assortment of scraps, including a 1991 performance of "Give Me Love" in Japan and brief footage of the original vinyl being pressed and stuffed. The other audio clips (an alternate version of the b-side "Miss O'Dell" and a solo demo of "Sue Me, Sue You Blues") are merely set to photo collages and printed lyrics, all of which begs the question: exactly how many "extras" from the proverbial vault warrant the production of a bonus DVD? Very few, apparently -- but then again, this is the material world, and transcendence for the modern-day collector is often marked by needless self-indulgence.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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