1973 – Living in the Material World (Apple)
George Harrison's Living in the Material World is his second "solo" studio album (after the blockbuster All Things Must Pass triple-album). It was recorded between October 1972 and March 1973, and hit the shops on May 30th, 1973. Amazingly, George was still only 29 years old when most of the album was recorded.
Other notable musicians on the recording include: Nicky Hopkins on piano (he was the defacto piano-man for most 60s' era rockers); Gary Wright (yes, the "Dream Weaver" guy) on organ, harmonium, and harpsicord; Klaus Voorman (George's and The Beatles' best-friend from Hamburg club days) on bass; Jim Keltner (probably the most popular and decorated session drummer of the entire rock era) on drums; Ringo Starr on drums (duh!); Jim Horn on saxophone and flute; and Indian musician Zakir Hussain on tabla. George produced the album himself, which gave the recording a very different aural quality from its Phil Spector-ed predecessor.
Living in the Material World kicks off with its big single, "Give Me Love
(Give Me Peace on Earth)". This track hit #1 on the US pop charts in an era when George's radio-currency was worth a lot more than it would be
just a few years later, but this one stands the test of time. Musically, it's not
an easy song to describe, but certainly "mellifluous" wouldn't be far wrong. And yeah, it's a bit lightweight with a backing that wouldn't be out of place on a contemporary Carol King LP. But, boy, it knocks you over with its melodic strength. The keyboards by Hopkins provide one of the many pop-hooks of the track. George's trademark slide guitar is on great display — as Simon Leng points out, the slide-style is George's true musical voice. If there's anything less than ideal about this great track, it's the vocal: George had sung, and would sing, better than this. Frankly, the vocal sounds a bit strained and
lacking some power that should have carried it home. But anyway it's a hell of a beautiful song and a deserved major hit.
"Sue Me, Sue You Blues" was demoed by George alone on an acoustic guitar (hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoAcOlIkezk) and sounded cool, but I really like the full arrangement on this LP. The lyrical tone of this album already starts to get a little heavy here, man — despite the jaunty backing, the lyrics clearly reference the endless litigation that enveloped all the ex-Beatles from 1971 onwards. (And it didn't end until 1994, literally hours before the Anthology series aired on television... yes, that's depressing.) Still, if you take the song as cute and witty, as George probably intended, it's more amusing than bitter, and the music really cooks. Great track.
Then we get to the "The Light That Has Lighted the World". Here is a mid-tempo song with no chorus, in which the melodic enjoyment is supplied almost entirely by the piano runs by Hopkins, and with lyrics criticizing the small-minded "down in a hole" who are spiritually reluctant to embrace change and authentic soul. Ready to run yet? The amazing thing is, this song is very good. It probably could have done with a bit more of that tasty slide guitar that magically follows Hopkins' keyboard solo, but anyway a killer track that is very easy on the ears. (Try not to interpret it as George pointing his finger at you. He isn't... probably.)
Next: "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long", a jaunty guitar-pop tune that clearly could have been a big chart hit. No one seems to know why it was never issued as a single, as Apple had originally scheduled it as such. As with most of George's "love" songs, you can interpret the lyric as being written to a woman or written to God; either way, it's a lovely little number and is near the top of the list of solo-Beatle songs that should've been big hits.
"Who Can See It", however, just doesn't float my boat. The song is harmonically acceptable and a little bit interesting, but it's ponderous as hell and, again, George's vocal just doesn't convince, possibly because of the challenging melodic sweeps that really challenge his chops. Lyrically, this a fairly boring Philosophy 101 lecture, probably reflecting on The Beatles again. (George performed this live in Vancouver on the first night of his 1974 tour, but quickly dropped it, presumably because his then ravaged voice couldn't handle the high notes and/or the dramatic melody. But I kind of doubt his strong voice could have handled it either.)
The first side of this LP concludes with the uptempo and charming title tune, "Living in the Material World". For the arrangement, George throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix: lead electric-guitar licks, thumping drums, keyboards, roaring saxophones, flutes. It's a BIG sound. We even get the Indian tabla in the cute little breaks, and these quiet musical oases are important to this harmonically and melodically simple song. This track probably doesn't justify its five-and-a-half minute length, but then again it's pretty darn enjoyable and it's lots of fun, so I'm not griping.
Living in the Material World's second half begins with another interesting title guaranteed to invite critical manslaughter: "The Lord Loves the One (that Loves the Lord)". But, once again, it's a very good song. Musically, it offers little we haven't heard prior, but the song's brew of keyboards, slide guitar, subtly mixed R&B-style horns, and — this time — a pretty strong vocal from George make it a winner. Lyrically, by the way, I don't think George's intention is to damn you to hell (or with karma); he's just saying that people have to get off their asses first if they want to see something good in their lives. It's not such a bad message.
Things get mellow as hell with the beautiful acoustic guitar strumming that opens "Be Here Now". Obviously a spiritual statement, lyrically, and less obviously a subtly tuneful musical piece, the song all but forces you to acquiesce before its sheer sparkling loveliness. The tabla droning in the background sounds great!
At this point in this particular LP, perhaps you're chilling with a cold beer in hand or perhaps you're meditating before Govinda, but however you're listening you'll get an awkward feeling when "Try Some, Buy Some" emerges from your speakers. Yeah, it's a little disappointing that this track is here. The song itself isn't that bad, but it's disappointing that it dates from 1970 and was written by George for Ronnie Spector (who, incidentally, didn't like it either). George got a bit lazy in late 1972 and couldn't be bothered to re-record the song; he simply lifted the previous backing track and re-mixed it. What really irks is the lingering smell of Phil Spector, whose overcooked reverb from the 1970-recordings nearly swamped All Things Must Pass. This sound was not needed near the end of this fine LP. There's another spiritual message about the material world in the lyrics, but musically and auditorily the track does not fit the prevailing tone of the record. (Gee George, couldn't you have just re-recorded "Don't Bother Me"? Would have been better. Never mind.)
The penultimate track, "The Day the World Gets Round", was written the day after The Concert(s) for Bangladesh (August 1st, 1971), and expresses George's frustration with the legal, financial, and political complexities and red-tape that marred his noble pursuit of charitably-raised money for starving refugees from (the former) East Pakistan. Instrumentally, the track is mostly minimal (like "Be Here Now"), but then has some busy horn flourishes in its bridge. I like this song very much. Sadly, George became yet more frustrated with the aftermath of the Bangladesh concerts in the months after composing this tune, as most of the money raised was delayed and taxed.
The final track, "That is All", is another (like "Who Can See It") that I frankly don't like. At this point, you know the musical formula — keyboards high in the mix, subtle horns, a wall-of-sound of acoustic guitars, a plaintive vocal with some not-very-convincing falsetto attempts, and of course the tasty George slide-guitar licks. Actually, that's a great formula but it only works when the songs are really solid. This one is a bit of a snoozer.
(Trivial note: Curiously, the two songs I do not enjoy — "Who Can See It" and "That is All" — both feature unusual time-signatures, the latter in its "middle eight". I would guess this is merely coincidence, as I generally enjoy me a good, wacky time-signature, but maybe it doesn't play to George's strengths as a composer. I dunno.)
Latter-day CD reissues of this album add the wonderful B-side (to "Give Me Love") "Miss Odell". It's a fabulous little bouncy guitar and harmonica track that would have added a bit more easygoing charm to the album-proper had it been included. What's most notable about it is that George decided to issue a take of him breaking up laughing (twice) in the middle of the song. It's proof-positive that George was a funny bloke who did not take himself too seriously in 1972-73; unfortunately, this side of him is quite absent from the original album, and American critics took him to task for his "preachiness" once the record started moving down the charts — and they never really forgave him for perceived crimes against rock and roll (until he was dead, of course).
In sum, then, we have an 11-track album, wherein 8 tracks are winners, 1 is okay but from another project, and 2 are largely forgettable (to my ears). The record is a little too mid-tempo for its own good, and George's vocals are sometimes not his best. So, why is this album deserving of "Rave" status on my blog?
Well, this album is simply very special and worthwhile. For one thing, it's akin to the very last "Beatle-era" album. It was the last album by any Beatle recorded, in part, at Abbey Road (even though, according to Klaus Voorman, most of it was recorded at George's Friar Park home). From age 19 to 29, George had gone from obscurity and "Love Me Do" through the entire Beatle period, and onto massive solo success with All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh (and the start of a lot of litigation). This unfathomable ten-year period was capped by Living in the Material World, and its self-conscious references to "Beatles" as a third-party outside of both George and the listener. Listening to it, you get the impression that George, like his audience, now views "The Beatles" as a curious phenomenon. This album is also special because it's the only George album that has only him playing all the major guitar parts. There's no Eric Clapton to play the wilder leads here, just George, which is one reason the album took a long time to make — George was a perfectionist craftsman in the studio, except with his voice. So, it's a "purer" statement, if you like, of George as a guitarist and musician. Finally, this album, feels like the last days of Rome. It's one last blast of the 60s' utopian spirit (call it "hippy" if you must) before the dread realities of the 70s settled in. This is a final flowering of an era in which the leading (mostly white) musicians thought they could change the world by singing about peace and love. And who knows, maybe they did?
Perhaps the likable Klaus Voorman should get the final word on this record: "All Things Must Pass might be better, but those songs are incredible. I love it. But you can hear from the LP what his aim was; he definitely had a message he wanted to get across." Indeed.
RANDOM NOTE: I have the vinyl sleeve of this album on a wall in my apartment. The Kirlian photo (look it up) of George's palm freaks out my wife, who often requests of me to remove it. To which I say: Baby, "don't bother me".