1974 – Dark Horse
A couple of things need to be contextualized about the Dark Horse album/period, and these things are very revealing about the character of George Harrison, I think:
1) George hated being a solo artist, essentially. His ideal was being guitarist in a combo, where he could step into and out of the limelight at his own pace. Most of George's energies in 1973-74 were directed at Ringo's album ("Sunshine Life for Me", "Photograph"), and especially Splinter's The Place I Love (1974), which he actually spent more time working on than on his own album. (The album was mostly recorded at George's house; the cover photo is taken at Friar Park.) Just speculating, but I personally think George semi-intentionally reduced the time to work on his own album in order to sort-of excuse himself for the record's impending mediocrity.
I think ATMP was never intended as a grand "solo artist" statement – it was just George releasing song-diarrhea that had been building up for years. (The fact that it was an enormous seller almost certainly surprised George.) I think his only fully committed "solo" album statement of the '70s was Living in the Material World – he spent a lot of time on it, crafted it carefully, and was proud of it when finished. The mistake he made, I think, was not going on a mid-sized tour in 1973 and instead planning his solo career around an enormous 1974 tour, which leads me to...
2) The only reason this album existed was to advertise, and be a tour-addendum for, his 1974 American tour. This was still the early-era of massive corporate-arena cocaine concerts traveled to in chartered planes. Not surprisingly, then, the album was thin.
In addition to these points, it can also be added that George's wife had just left him for Eric Clapton, and that George was directionless enough to invite the L.A. Express to Friar Park for one night, during which they laid down the basic tracks for both “Hari's On Tour (Express)” and “Simply Shady”. As Simon Leng aptly points out, spontaneity was not George's forte, and suddenly here he was jamming aimlessly with a crack touring band for one night and then putting both tracks to lead off his new album.
Hari's On Tour (Express) – Title pretty much sums up the only point of this LP. More an L.A. Express jam than a George song. It's fine, I guess, for the tour opener, but as an LP opener it's overlong for an instrumental and not that exciting. (As an instrumental, this pales compared to the wonderful “Marwa Blues”, which is really pure George.)
Simply Shady – Second song in a row with the L.A. Express. This one also isn't particularly good, I think, and many have noted his weak vocal on it. I have no idea why George would make this weeper the first vocal song off the top.... Just not a strong enough composition. The guitar licks and some musical touches sound incongruous to me.
So Sad – This song was originally released by Alvin Lee & Mylon LeFevre, with George on dobro. It's a really good song, but at this point we're kind of waiting for something a bit more uptempo.
Bye Bye, Love – Poor arrangement of a classic, and his vocal sounds like one of Michael Jackson's lesser-talented brothers. (It's also in incredibly bad taste, as he actually identifies Clapton as the wife-stealer.) More than anything, this track shows that George was not in a good place, mentally, in fall 1974. Weird.
Maya Love – This is a pretty good, funky cut, but I just would have liked a stronger vocal from George. Even though the style and band performance are strong, I can't help but feel that this is a “going-through-the-motions” Harrisong. The chord changes and the guitar licks are over-familiar.
Ding Dong, Ding Dong – A nice holiday tune, but as such it doesn't really belong on an album. (John & Paul had the good sense to keep “Happy Christmas” and [gag!] “Wonderful Christmastime” as singles.) George went for the Phil Spector-type of big production job. It's all pretty good, but the song isn't really quite up to its lofty aims... but as this is a weak album, it's one of the best tracks.
Dark Horse – What a fabulous composition! It's a classic, and one of the very best of 'solo'-Beatles' 1970s' tunes. Somewhere at the heart of the rich lyrics lies the essence of George, or at least his self-image of the time. Much was made of his hoarse vocals... I dunno, it doesn't bother me very much. Having said that, the pre-laryngitis demo / rehearsal / whatever is also precious.
I suspect this song would be seen as a classic today if not for the slightly crappy album attached to it. The idea of George as a “dark horse” winner of the ex-Beatles' race made sense in 1973, but after this album it appeared inaccurate.
Far East Man – Very 70s' soul, like a preview of Extra Texture. This is a really good song, and hard to believe Ron Wood co-wrote it – and released it first, just before Dark Horse came out! I think we can assume George wrote most of the lyrics... George channeling Smokey Robinson. This is a fine song... if a touch too long.
It Is 'He' (Jai Sri Krishna) – As Leng writes, it's George's "bhajan, a Hindu devotional love song". I like how he describes it as "Krishna skiffle"! Indeed. It's a nice song that wouldn't sound out of place on (the much superior) Brainwashed. Having said that, it's nothing great, and George should have foreseen his audience not really wanting another krishna song at this point.
The best six or seven (of nine) songs here are actually all decent. The problem is, as I keep saying, the album is THIN. In the first four tracks, we've got:
- instrumental (knocked off in one night)
- dull, whiney song
- recycled song from the previous year
- bad 50s' cover
I mean, there are really only 4 or 5 new and good-ish to great songs. It could have been a strong EP....
1975 – Extra Texture (Read All About It)
George's "L.A.-soul-cocaine" album. Here we go!
You – Great soul-pop single... even if was written in 1970 and dusted off from a 1971 demo for Ronnie Spector.
The Answer's At The End – Interesting track, but this is the "death-by-mid-tempo" problem of much of George's mid-70s' stuff... still, good orchestration, and I like how it suddenly turns into a Smokey Robinson song in the break, and then becomes pure George with the slide-guitar near the end.
According to Wiki: "Part of the song lyrics came from a wall inscription at Harrison's nineteenth-century home, Friar Park, a legacy of the property's original owner, Sir Frank Crisp. This aphorism, beginning 'Scan not a friend with a microscopic glass', had resonated with Harrison since he bought Friar Park in 1970, and it was a quote he often used when discussing his difficult relationship with his former Beatles bandmate Paul McCartney."
This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying) – Really good song, which aptly shows George's fragile emotional state in 1975. Weirdly, the last single issued on Apple – it failed to reach the top 100 in either the US or the UK, which kind of shows how the label had quickly declined from the start with “Hey Jude”. He seemingly re-recorded this song many years later with Dave Stewart...?
Ooh Baby (You Know That I Love You) – To me, this just sounds like George doing 70s' slow jams, as a kind of "written to order". It's not bad or anything, just sort of inconsequential.
World Of Stone – Hard to know what to make of this one. David Foster is all over it on keyboards. I guess lyrically George is a bit lost.
Can't Stop Thinking About You – I like this one. The only issue is his vocal, which just doesn't quite convince me. But holy, interesting lyrics! George said he wrote this at Christmas '73, which leads some to believe he's "thinking about" Patti, whom he can't see anymore. But it was supposedly just two days earlier – December 23, 1973 – when he announced to Patti [and Ringo, and Chris O'Dell] that he was in love with Maureen Starkey. So, was he thinking about... Maureen? Of course, by the time he recorded it, he was [hopefully] thinking about Olivia...
Tired Of Midnight Blue – Really good track. This is George starting to wake up from the music-industry sleazy cesspool he was falling into, and wishing he was home with a loved one.
Grey Cloudy Lies – Depressive George. Just not very inviting as a song.
His Name Is Legs (Ladies And Gentlemen) – Pointless, and incongruous with the rest of the LP. And why the hell is this the longest song on the record?
Once again, as with Dark Horse, we have an almost-good-but-very-THIN album. What George maybe should have done was have a smaller-scale (short, British) tour in 1973 after Material World, and then he could have cut one really good album before a 1975 American tour. That one album could have run something like this:
- Dark Horse
- So Sad
- Far East Man
- Ding Dong, Ding Dong
- This Guitar (Can't Keep From Crying)
- Can't Stop Thinking About You
- Tired of Midnight Blue
- The Answer's at The End
...or some-such combination, and – voila! – suddenly, George's mid-70s dip actually becomes a fairly strong period. But in 1974-75 he was too far-gone with side-projects, chasing Maureen, cocaine, and L.A. parties to really put his nose to the coke-spoon... er, grindstone.
1976 – Thirty Three & 1/3
This one was meant to be a fresh start for him – new record label and done with Apple. But George got sick and there were problems. Anyway, in the end, it's quite a fine album:
Woman Don't You Cry For Me – Fabulous song/composition, but for me this never sounds right after hearing his stupendous acoustic-guitar demo of it from 1970, which is about 10,000 times better. By comparison, this ends up sounding very "middle of the road". Still awesome slide-guitar middle-part, though.
Dear One – Not a bad song, but this continues the trend of mid-tempo, overly long tunes coming 2nd on his albums. This is, of course, inspired by Yogananda and Autobiography of a Yogi.
Beautiful Girl – Another composition from 1969-70, but I like the way this one turned out in the studio. This is just a really nice, charming pop song. Great tune! George is able to write love/pop songs with resonance (Paul generally is not).
This Song – I've never enjoyed this one much. Like on Dark Horse, George indulged himself, with questionable taste, by addressing his legal/personal issues in song. I'm actually surprised to see this reached #25 in the US charts, as I don't think it's even that good (it deservedly flopped out in the UK). "There's no point to this song"... yep.
See Yourself – Another hold-over from The Beatles' era, dusted off and re-written a bit for 1976. I admire the lyrical message and attempt to say something, but the music/melody just aren't overly interesting.
It's What You Value – Not so good, not so bad. The piano/bass groove in the breaks is nice. In fact, the best part of the track is the final 75 seconds or so, which have no vocals.
True Love – George doesn't do such a good job with this tune, I think. Vocal could've been better. (This was issued as an A-side in the UK, for no reason I can imagine.)
Pure Smokey – Fabulous song! The groove is just right, like a Quincy Jones production. It's smooth and it's soulful. Very good track. (I like how he refers to Smokey's voice and says "you really got a hold on me".)
Crackerbox Palace – The best melody/pop-song on the album, by far. Interesting production and guitar work. I just wonder, though, given that George was trying for a more commercial/slick sound on this album, if he mightn't have written a simpler, more accessible lyric? I mean, he could changed the chorus to: "I love you baby" or something, and I think he'd have had a top 5 hit. But I guess he wouldn't be George if he had done that.
Learning How To Love You – Wow, great! The soul-vibe is back, but with jazzy chords shaping a very musically sophisticated tune. Just beautiful. His voice hits some heights here.
It's typical of George to put the three best songs right at the end....
I like this album quite a bit, but I think, in re-listening to it, it's actually not quite as good as I'd previously thought. It just doesn’t quite rate rave-worthy status. The best four tracks are superb; two more are good; but the weakest four are all kind of forgettable, for me. It isn't as far above Dark Horse and Extra Texture as I'd previously thought (but it is better than both, for sure).
It is just hard for any individual writer to come up with more than 5-6 great songs per album. Hmm. And if George was going to do a cover, I am not sure Cole Porter songs were the best way to go...
1981 – Somewhere In England
This is not a particularly good album, and in fact I’d rate it as the weakest such that George ever issued. That’s not to say it’s terrible (no George album is), and it’s still better than most Ringo LPs and Paul’s late-70s/80s’ dreck. But it’s telling that the back-story, which was that the 1980 version of the record was coolly received by Warners' execs who advised George to write some new songs (particularly about boys and girls in love), is more discussed than the actual record.
The one other memorable aspect of this one – which is musical – is the big hit single, “All Those Years Ago”, an elegy of sorts for the slain John Lennon. I can never decide whether it’s a great song or a hokey one. The lyrics are nice and seem heartfelt enough, but the musical approach seems incongruous to the tone of the message. (The song was originally given to Ringo but George pulled it back after John’s death.)
Anyway, the record has a lot of good British musicians on it (as did the much better George Harrison – see its “rave” review), but the sound is less engaging than the 1979 album. This one has a more sterile, studio-bound sound rather than the warm, homemade sound of the former. The keyboards are particularly high in the mix in a lot of tracks. Befitting George’s disinterest in the music industry from this point, the first two tracks are sardonic disses of the music industry (“Blood From a Clone”) and discotheques (“Unconsciousness Rules”) respectively. Neither is very enjoyable. The slow and philosophical “Life Itself” and the hit single follow, and are better, but it’s clear by this point in the record that we’re not in for a winner. After that, we’ve got no fewer than two (!) Hoagy Carmichael covers, a rather cheesy half-assed attempt at a pop single (“Teardrops”), and some mid-tempo unmemorable tunes (“That Which I Have Lost”, “Writing’s On The Wall”, “Save The World”).
“Life Itself” and “Writing’s On The Wall” at least are interesting deep cuts for fans of Harrison, but to the average listener, there’s not really much to recommend here, especially if you’re not a George completist. Better to start almost anywhere else.
1982 – Gone Troppo
Wake Up My Love – Simon Leng notes that George is going for an Elton John sound here, fishing for a hit single. I tend to agree, and I do not like this track very much. It's far too harmonically simple, and the synth-riff is more than a little repetitive... His vocal is kind of weak, too. (George, incidentally, plays bass on this track.)
That's The Way It Goes – Pure George, from the easy-on-the-ears slide to the sardonic lyrics. Maybe his vocal could have been better, but that seems to be a recurring problem on this record. Too many years off the gigging-circuit, I guess. Anyway, this is a fabulous song; one of the highlights of George's 1980s.
There's an actor who hopes to fit the bill
Sees a shining city on a hill
Step up close and see he's blind
Wined and dined
All he has is pose
And that's the way it goes
I Really Love You – A 1961 doo-wop hit for The Stereos. No guitars on this track. It's well done, I guess, but kind of proves the claim that George was just doing whatever the hell he felt like here, with little or no commercial consideration.
Greece – Dobro and bouzouki! I like this tune a lot.
Gone Troppo – A classic. Guitar arpeggios and mandolin. Ray Cooper on marimba. Fantastic tune!
Mystical One – Interesting lyrics, but maybe the tune isn't really strong enough. The instrumental approach here is too similar to other, better tracks for this one to stand out much. But it's tasteful and interesting. Not bad.
Unknown Delight – Leng claims this is a "love song from father to son". Maybe so. Anyway, it's charming enough and easy on the ears, but doesn't really stand out. (Leng also aptly notes that George's solo copies "Something" note for note at the start of the break.)
Baby Don't Run Away – Really poor use of the synthesizer. Adding to that incongruity, Billy Preston is on backing vocals. Weird. (Anyone know who this 'Rodina Sloan' is on backing vocals?)
Dream Away – Uptempo and catchy; I've always liked this one. (It was a single here in Japan.) It's from the Time Bandits film. Good tune.
Circles – Not one of my favorites, either in Beatle-demo form or on this LP. I find it musically plodding and dull, with the lyrics stopping to touch on only the most mundane aspects of Hindu reincarnation.
Gone Troppo is a good George Harrison album, with plenty to interest fans of George, but it is not rave-worthy.