It is something of an adage that George Harrison was the Beatle who had the most to gain from the group’s breakup. Saddled with two songs per long-playing disc, Harrison rightly felt aggrieved by the Lennon-McCartney team dominating the albums and singles and marginalizing his contributions. This was particularly the case toward the end of The Beatles’ career, where such contributions as “The Inner Light”, “Here Comes the Sun”, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” had reached parity with his bandmates’ songwriting. Worse still, John Lennon simply didn’t show up to the studio when a Harrison song was on the docket, and contributes to only two or three of his post-Revolver songs.
So it was with great anticipation that George Harrison released his first solo album in 1970, stocked with efforts that The Beatles had either rejected or couldn’t be bothered to record. Used as a valve for backlogged songwriting material, All Things Must Pass clocked in at a whopping 3 record discs, and it still went to #1 on the charts regardless. But quickly, Harrison lost favour with rock critics, who quickly dismissed his subsequent releases as preachy, unexciting, or most damning of all, boring. Many of these criticisms are unfair, but they do point to the tension that underlay Harrison’s solo career and the purpose behind it. George Harrison has always attracted a well-deserved reputation as the most spiritual Beatle, as evidenced most famously in his forays into Krishna consciousness and his adoption of Indian motifs in his music. This is rather at odds with Harrison’s secondary reputation as The Beatle who is most obsessed with money. In early Fab Four interviews, he daydreams about managing other acts, he wrote “Taxman” to express his contempt for the British tax code, he bought a lavish estate named Friar Park that belonged to a Victorian eccentric, and, if rumor is to be believed, only took part in the mid-90s Beatle reunion because he was desperately short on cash. His music does continually seek God, often at the expense of its commercial merit. One is hard pressed to find very many Harrison songs from his solo career that aren’t, in some way, religious allegories. He certainly isn’t writing many songs for Patti Boyd or his second wife, Olivia Arias. Yet, Harrison felt the need to commit these deeply personal songs in search of God to record and to publish them, and to make nascent music videos for them, partly to maintain the lifestyle to which he was accustomed. Even earlier than Lennon, George Harrison grasped that he did not owe the public a continual stream of records, and if he was to keep supplying them, it would be on his terms.
Like many artists, Harrison’s reputation was refurbished as a consequence of his death. The posthumous accolades came in– a Grammy for Best Instrumental in 2004, induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year, and the same critics who lambasted his earlier work insisted he was a visionary. With the release of Harrison’s final recordings in the seminal Brainwashed album in 2003, it is relatively safe to conclude that the Harrison canon is closed for all but bottom-of-the-barrel material. In this second of four installments on the best of each Beatles’ solo work, I’ll detail the ten best tracks from the Quiet One.
10. “If That’s What It Takes” (from Cloud Nine): This track is a good example of how Jeff Lynne, formerly of the Electric Light Orchestra, was an ideal fit to produce Harrison’s later material. Harrison’s first record producer, psychopathic early 60s wunderkind Phil Specter, tended to drown out the core of Harrison’s songs in a cacaphony of background singers, timpanis, and unnecessary horn sections. Such embellishments often added din rather than depth to Harrison’s tracks. Lynne’s production could also be heavy-handed, but it accented and underlined the messages that Harrison was trying to get across, while Specter buried them. Jeff Lynne would never let Harrison get away with the ennui that characterized his mid-1970s albums. “If That’s What It Takes”, for example, features synth parts which would be distracting in most circumstances, but when used here, highlight the creative and unconventional chord changes in Harrison’s work. It also rather nicely features George and Eric Clapton on two separate guitar solos, each of which is given a soft touch and tastefully enhances this determined track.
9. “The Answer’s At the End” (from Extra Texture): An intriguing track from one of Harrison’s least acclaimed solo albums, the guitarist waxes philosophical, urging us to be patient and kind towards those we love, an unconventional sentiment in an age where KC and the Sunshine Band dominated the charts. “Scan not a friend with a microscopic glass, you know his faults, let the foibles pass/ life is one long enigma my friend/ so read on, read on, the answer’s at the end.” It is rare that we seek wisdom in pop records, and rarer still that we find it**; it echoes Tolkien’s proverb that not even the wise can see all ends, compelling each of us to forbearance and mercy.
8. “All Things Must Pass” (from All Things Must Pass): What song by an ex-Beatle has the best lyrics? It is not “Imagine”, but this track, the namesake of Harrison’s debut album. The track sets the tone for Harrison’s solo career; what many assumed was a valedictory statement on The Beatles’ breakup was in fact a spiritual reflection. Finding comfort in the finite, Harrison embraces mortality, since “a sunrise doesn’t last all morning, a cloudburst doesn’t last all day.” While Western thought distinguishes humans from nature, the Indian gurus and mystics whom Harrison followed made no such bifurcation. Phil Specter does his best to compromise the song with his thick Wall-of-Sound horn sections, but even that can’t take away the exquisite beauty of what Harrison had written.
7. “Dear One” (from Thirty-Three and 1/3): Like a sufi mystic, George Harrison deftly wrote hymns of faith and meditation in a form of music which stressed personal intimacy. This particular piece is an ode to Paramhansa Yogananda, the pandit who is credited with first introducing yogic techniques and philosophies to the West. Using open-A tunings not dissimilar to Joni Mitchell’s contemporaneous work, Harrison finds another way to expressing the drone common to Indian music within a Western framework, accentuated by some anomalous, but attractive and subtle, Caribbean touches.
6. “Handle with Care” (from Traveling Wilburies, Vol. 1): When Jeff Lynne brought in some other acts he was producing to help George Harrison record a B-side to a single, he inadvertently brought a supergroup together, boasting Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. With an easy camaraderie, the five guitarists developed a set of alter egos and recorded an album under the moniker of The Traveling Wilburies. Even in this singular company, Harrison’s “Handle with Care” was their first choice for a single. A less serious effort (not even Dylan seemed to have objected rhyming “tolerable” with “adorable”), it is a pleasure for the Beatles fan to listen to Harrison have this much fun in a recording. Jeff Lynne gives the song the strong pop sensibilities that often eluded Harrison, while Roy Orbison delivers a superb vocal cameo. While having Tom Petty and Bob Dylan sing the song’s second bridge in unison may have been a questionable decision, no song radiates joy and friendship as effortlessly as this.
5. “Dark Horse” (from Dark Horse): Harrison’s voice is ripped to shreds on this track, recorded as it was on the eve of his 1974 U.S. tour whilst battling laryngitis. Accordingly, there is a raspy urgency to this track that adds to its appeal; Harrison later said that he thought his voice took on a Louis Armstrong quality on this song, and to an extent he is correct. “Dark Horse” is something of an allegory for Harrison’s role with The Beatles, unknown and underrated. (If you ever meet anybody who can only name three Beatles, I guarantee that George is the one they are forgetting.) There are plenty of nice instrumental touches on here as well, from the use of a flute in the second verse for counterpoint to its aggressive acoustic rhythm guitar track.
4. “Rising Sun” (from Brainwashed): Recorded in the years where Harrison struggled with his diagnosis of terminal cancer, his work became even more reflective than usual. If “All Things Must Pass” addresses the finite, “Rising Sun” is about the eternal. The line “universe at play, inside your DNA, and you’re a million years old today” recalls the passage from the Bhagavad Gita, “there never was a time when you or I did not exist.” Lynne works with his cosmic insights with orchestral swoops that hearken to “I Am the Walrus” while suggesting the cyclical nature of the universe critical to Harrison’s understanding of Hinduism. These thoughts are embellished by some fine slide guitar playing that suggests the transient nature of time and suffering.
3. “Isn’t It A Pity” ~version 1~ (from All Things Must Pass): Initially rejected during The Beatles’ Get Back sessions, Harrison included two different takes of this track in All Things Must Pass. As always with Harrison, ambiguity is the order of the day. Whether this is about an “eros” sort of relationship, or about the human condition in general, is left for the listener to decide, but the smart money is on the latter. Even more so, some of Harrison’s most expressive guitar work is found on this track. His solos are often understated affairs which only give whispers of Harrison’s actual proficiency in the instrument; “Isn’t it A Pity” is a rare look into just how good a guitarist George was if you are willing to listen.
2. “My Sweet Lord” (from All Things Must Pass): Eager to introduce a friend to the record-buying public, Harrison immersed himself in the soul and gospel idioms when producing a record for former Beatles session man Billy Preston. (32 years later, Preston returned the favor by performing a magnificent version of this song for the posthumous Concert for George.) The song is a masterpiece of build-up, starting with acoustic strumming, slowly introducing some sweet slide guitar, and culminating with layered soulful backing vocals modeled off of “Oh, Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. While the background vocalists start with a simple “Alleluia”, as the song progresses they incorporate “Hare Khrishna”s and “Hare Rama”s that use the same meter. It’s only until this moment, fully three minutes into the song, that it occurs to us that Harrison isn’t writing this song to the Judeo-Christian God. It’s an ingenious piece of artifice, and almost certainly the most sincere expression of spiritual longing to become a #1 hit (which this song achieved, for an impressive four weeks.)
1. “Any Road” (from Brainwashed): The opening track from Harrison’s final album, this is the famous guitarist’s equivalent of his “Last Lecture”. As such, it is contemplative, but it is also defiantly cheerful, bordering on whimsical. The track conjures a beautiful kind of futility, of individual choices and paths leading to uncertain destinations. And it is, to use a phrase by another Beatle, a long and winding road, with Harrison’s twists in chords and changes in strumming suggesting a very serpentine path indeed. “If you don’t know where you’re going,” he reminds us, “any road will take you there.”
Honorable Mentions: “What Is Life?” (from All Things Must Pass), “Dream Away” (from Gone Troppo), “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” (from Living in the Material World), “Cheer Down” (from the Lethal Weapon 2 Soundtrack), “Tired of Midnight Blue” (Extra Texture).
*For these purposes, I only include Harrison’s material from pop records– excluding his late 60s experimental releases, Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound.
** This does not include, I hasten to add, people who believe that Eagles songs such as “Lyin’ Eyes” have keen insights into human nature. I assure you, they do not.