Friday, 30 December 2011
What a year it’s been dear readers. If 2010 was 1964 all over again (what with all the fuss about the Lennon box set and anniversary competing against Keith Richard’s autoniography) then 2011 was 1965 all over again, with the ‘second tier’ of musicians like The Beach Boys, The Who, The Kinks, The Hollies and Pink Floyd all releasing special records. We were a bit spoiled for choice for this year’s article (the new Human League, Pink Floyd re-issues and even the growing-on-me Paul Simon album were all competing for the coveted spot #5), but nit’s notable again how many of the albums on our lost are re-issues not new releases. Get writing you musicians! As we said earlier, whether you agree or disagree, own or want to own these albums, use our forum to spread your voice about what you thought about these releases – and what made your own personal top five!
5) Paul McCartney “Paul McCartney II” (Deluxe Edition)
(first reviewed in full as news and views no 106)
I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to hear the originally intended double album version of perhaps Paul’s most under-rated album officially for the first time. Heard as a single album in 1980 ‘McCartney II’ was an oddball collection of classy singles, crazy instrumentals and improvised doodles. Heard as a double album, with a properly thought out running order, it sounds like carefully controlled chaos, as brave and as pioneering as anything Macca ever did, with the perfect one-two punch of ‘Coming Up’ and ‘waterfalls’ at the end to calm things down. Alas this hideously pricey set (£50?! It would be expensive at half that price!) doesn’t give you the proper running order so you have to compile it yourself – that said EMI do have the sense to include no less than five unreleased McCartney songs of varying quality and a never before heard (even by bootleggers) attempt to turn bluesy synth instrumental ‘Blue Sway’ into a proper song (from the aborted ‘Cold Cuts’ project). ‘Blue Sway’ is a hypnotically lovely churning mass of notes, just about similar enough to surf music for Macca to hire a ‘surf’ director to make a special film of this song for the DVD. However the vocal version (actually recorded shortly after the Macca II sessions and originally intended for outtakes set ‘Cold Cuts’) makes it sound like a ‘proper’ song and one of Paul’s best in this period to boot. Like the earlier set ‘Band On The Run’ the accompnaying hardback book is gorgeous, full of glossy unseen photographs and an intriguing interview with Macca who never really got the chance to talk about this album much before first his Tokyo prison spell and later Lennon’s death got in the way of promotion. However this time around the DVD is the weakest not the best disc, featuring a plainly bored Macca and an in-awe Tim Rice clearly getting on each other’s nerves and a very grumpy Wings rehearsal for a concert tour that never happened. Still, I’ve always been impressed by the sheer wilful determination of the original ‘McCartney II’ and the fact that in ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘Coming Up’ it contains two of Macca’s greatest recordings ever. The fact that the unreleased songs and extended running times of certain songs (good new for minor gems likie ‘DarkRoom’, bad news for horrendous inanities like ‘Bogey Music’) by and large improve on the original album makes this a must-have set for Beatles fans, even more than the similar ‘Band On The Run’ and ‘McCartney’ sets (which have less rarities all round).
Highlights to download: ‘Coming Up’ (unedited), ‘Waterfalls’ ‘Secret Friend’ ‘Blue Sway’
4) The Who “Quadrophenia” (Deluxe Edition)
(original album reviewed as review no 60)
I must confess I don’t yet own the new fancy four disc deluxe version of this set (though I hope to soon!), the long-awaited deluxed edition of my second favourite album in the world, ever. But then again I don’t need to: the main talking point of this set, along with the exquisite packaging, is the 25 Pete Townshend demos included on discs 3 and 4. Alas most of these have already been released on Pete’s three very informative demo series ‘Scoops 1-3’ and the few that aren’t have been around on Youtube for years. The bad news is that the demos don’t really add anything to the album. It’s not that they are badly played or badly recorded or anything – quite the opposite in fact, as Pete has gone to such trouble overdubbing bass, drums and pianos that the effect is like hearing a fully fledged alternative album recorded at a slightly ploddier tempo with a slightly more wobbly singer. That said of the 17 out of 25 demos I own there are two worth their weight in gold. On the album ‘The Real Me’ is a storming angry rocker in primal Who mode, a scary rant spitting at everything in the Mod character Jimmy’s life. But on the demo its a much weightier song, played at walking pace and sung, at least in part, from the ‘Godfather’ (ie old rocker’s) point of view. There’s even an extra unused verse, one about how rock ‘did me an evil wrong’, that makes much more sense of the album’s plot. The other delight is ‘Joker James’ – a limp two minute throaway about a teenager into practical jokes, it wasn’t released until the film version of ‘Quadrophenia’ in 1979 – but heard here as a four minute epic and given so much depth that you really do care for Jimmy despite his ability to get on people’s nerves. Alas that’s about it really if you own the Scoop demos already (and if you don’t you’re not missing all that much – not £70-odd’s worth anyway!) And the set loses points for not including either of its ‘famous’ outtakes: the album’s ‘inpsiration’ song ‘Long Live Rock’ and the sverely under-rated ‘We Close Tonight’, both available on the ‘Odds and Sods’ collection but which would have been nice to add here. Still, the music on the original album is so superb this set makes the list just by courtesy of Pete Townshend’s brilliant score!
Highlights to download: ‘I Am One’ ‘Punk And The Godfather’ ‘Is It In My Head?’ ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ ‘Joker James’ (Demo)
3) Beady Eye “Different Gear, Still Speeding”
(first reviewed in full as news and views 93)
For the life of me I’ll never understand why so many reviewers and fans went cock-a-hoop for the Noel Gallagher album, seeing it as the best Oasis-related album since the glory days of ‘Definitely Maybe’ and ‘Morning Glory’. By and large I hated it, with only the four Oasis-era songs of any value (and all four of those botched by comparison to the outtakes). No the real gem in the Oasis catlogiue this years was Liam’s badly received effort, one that managed to build on the old Oasis roar and added some interesting new touches, like psychedelia and folk (mmm, what a good idea!) Not everything on this debut album worked but the few songs that didn’t were interestingly the songs that sounded like the ‘old’ Oasis – the new ‘Beady Eye’ are a real band to watch. We’ll go on to comment about the fantastic ‘Wigawam’ later on in this article but other strong tracks include the stomping ‘Three Ring Circus’ (the best put-down since its likely inspirer, MCCartney’s ‘Three Legs’), the beuatifulo ballad ‘Keep The Dream Alive’ and the wordy folk tune ‘Millionaire’. Beady Eye have done everything I hoped Noel would do with his album – they’ve stretched their formula without forgetting what made them great in the first place and even if no one else seemed to like it I shall be awaiting Beady Eye’s second album with great anticipation. More, please!
Highlights to download: ‘Wigwam’ ‘3 Ring Circus’ ‘Kill For A Dream’ ‘Millionaire’
2) The Beach Boys “Smile – Sessions”
(original album reviewed as review no 101)
As those of you who read this site regularly will know, ‘Smile’ is perhaps the greatest album of all time, full of such pathos, wit and beauty that it’s hard to put into moves how extraordinary this album would have been in 1966 – and how wonderfully, delightfully, unbelivably brave it still sounds all these years later. Now, again I must admit that I don’t know this album yet per se (the £110 price tag is putting me off!) and again I hope to hear it sometime soon, but you won’t be at all surprised to learn that I do kow a good percentage of the original Beach Boys Smile sessions and they’re brilliant (when I got a single CD of the4 sessions ten years ago I played nothing else for six months – something no other album has ever made me do, although others have come close). So why isn’t this set number one (and why haven’t I bought it yet?!) Well,for one thing the track listing is a joke. Bearing in mind what’s in the archive a full disc of ‘Good Vibrations’ sessions (of which about an hour’s worth is available on other albums) is a waste (although pencilled in for ‘Smile’, it dates from sessions held months earlier than the other material here) and the addition of so many ‘speaking parts’ that just aren’t funny are a poor substitute for the tracking sessions of songs like ‘Child Is The Father Of The Man’ ‘Cabieneseence’ ‘Surf’s Up’ and ‘Fire’. I really don’t like ‘Pet Sounds’ as an album that much, but at least when Capitol revisited it as a box set they did the senisble thing and released all the right tracks in the right order, with very little left behind in the vaults that deserved to be released. But this ‘Smile’ set seems to have been arranged by a compiler with a dartboard, randomly selecting the strangest things from the archives. Incidentally, the two disc version looks better but even that seems like a bit of a scattershot approach and doesn’t give a real flavour of what this album was really ‘about’. The definitive ‘Smile’ box set is yet to come, I think.
Highlights to download: ‘Do You Like Worms?’ ‘Cabinessence’ ‘Surf’s Up’ ‘Child Is The Father Of The Man’ ‘Mrs O’Leary’s Cow’ ‘He Gives Speeches’ (outtake) ‘Heroes and Villains’ (10 minute version)
1) The Hollies “The Clarke-Hicks-Nash Years”
(first reviewed as part of news and views no 100)
It might surprise you that my favourite purchase of the whole year is a box-set consisting of mainly previously released material, but this Hollies set is exactly what we’ve been asking EMI for several times in my website and is a good example of how wonderful compilations can be when everyone involved get things right. The set includes every single released recording by the band with Graham Nash in the line up (ie 1963 through to late 1968) all in the order they were recorded (as Abbey Road, where the band worked, kept wonderfully detailed documentation of it all). As a result we get every single A side, B side, album track, EP track and all of the many myriad rarities that have dripped out on other compilations over the years. After over 100 compilations of the same olf boring tracks (or the same old tracks and some truly left-field choices that get in the way) I can’t believe that EMI finally managed to get things right, releasing this six CD set for the marvellously cheap price of £15! (the price I used to pay for some of my single Hollies CDs!) I’ve fallen in love with The Hollies all over again thanks to this set and its a marvellous tribute to their consistency (matches only by The Beatles) that nearly every track here is an old friend, all spruced up and sounding better than ever. There are even a handful of never before heard recoprdings to enjoy, including a full 20 minute concert from 1968, five foreign language recordings (and not just the expected hits either), an earlier and bouncier ‘Taste Of Honey’ than the one on the ‘other’ Hollies box set ‘The Long Road Home’ and the long-lost b-side of ‘Non Prego Per Me’, the Hollies failed entry into the San Remo ssong contest! Superb – and as we said in our original review, please EMI, keep up the good work and release a ‘Clarke-Hicks-Sylvester’ box set next, using this same winning formula!
Highlights to download: ‘So Lonely’ ‘Honey and Wine’ ‘Nobody’ ‘I Can’t Let Go!’ ‘Oriental Sadness’ ‘Rain On My Window’ ‘King Midas In Reverse’ ‘Elevated Observations?’ ‘Wings’ ‘Tomorrow When It Comes’
3) Simon and Garfunkel “The Harmony Game” (Indepndent – included as bonus disc on ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ deluxe DVD and broadcast on BBC1)
(first reviewed as part of news and views no 106)
There’s a lot of curious things about this documentary. #1 – why was it released with no fanfare on a CD/DVD nobody bought (despite being great value for money) and then hailed as a triumph of the age when shown on BBC1 #2 Why was said documentary topped and tailed with an Alan Yentob introduction and billed as part of the ‘Imagine’ series, despite being a completely independent production? #3 why oh why did this CD/DVD set come out not on the 40th but on the 41st anniversary of the album?! And #4 Why has no one made it until now? Whilst ‘Bridge’ is probably my least favourite of the five albums Simon and Garfunkel made there are some great stories to be told and – thanks to the sterling but little seen ‘Voices of America’ TV special from 1970 (also on the CD/DVD and terrific in its own liberal political way) there’s a tonne of footage of S&G at work recording the album. Revealing interviews with Simon and Garfunkel and ‘third member’ Roy Halee are welcome too, far less bitter than on past S&G docs and suggesting that, at last, the duo have come to accept their place in the world. Alas there’s still not much screen time for possibly the best unreleased S&G song (‘Cuba Si, Nixon No’) but otherwise this is a moving, detailed and entertaining documentary, well thought out and made with care.
2) Dave Davies “Till Kinkdom Come” (BBC4)
(first reviewed as –amazingly enough - part of the same issue, news and views no 106)
Dave Davies used to be the key figure in The Kinks, the cocky lead vocalist on many of the early recordings and the guitarist that everybody of a certain age longed to be. A documentary (actually more of a rambling interview) with Dave is long overdue and this one didn’t disappoint (although feedback suggests you had to be a ‘fan’ to get most of the in-jokes and comments!) Ray got his own programme too (technically last year as it was transmitted New Year’s Eve 2010) by the same production team (the Yentob mob again) and the two showcase the differences betweedn the two brothers: Ray was an eccentric old man hiding away from the camera, letting us in on titbits of his life like little secrets and shot walking down Waterloo Bridge singing to himself, safe in anonymity; Dave was the life and soul of the party, like a drunken uncle telling his life-story over a glass of something strong at the Christmas party. Both documentaries, in their own highliy distinctive ways, were superb and it was lovely to see Dave looking comparatively fit and well after the stroke he suffered a few years ago. A lovely surprise from BBC4.
1) Pink Floyd “The Producers” (BBC6, part of ‘Pink Floyd night’)
(first reviewed as part of news and views no 118)
Now for radio’s turn. I have to say I’ve simply adored BBC6’s output this year. What had been till 2010 the real runt of the BBC’s digital output has finally got their act together and rummaged through the Beeb’s magnificent (if sadly incomplete) archives and repeated rare documentaries on, among others, Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, The Beatles (collectively and apart – including the 1st ever repeat for the excellent ‘McCartney and On McCartney’ from 1988), CSN (their 1st ‘classic album’), Dire Straits’ BBC sessions, Janis Joplin, The Monkees, numerous Oasis concerts, documentaries and interviews, a whole Pink Floyd night with six hours of programmes, dozens of Rolling Stones docs and interviews, The Paul Simon Story (an absolute milestone of how documentaries should be made!), The Small Faces (Ogden’s as a ‘classic album’),10cc’s ‘The Producers’, Pete Townshend’s Peel Lecture and Keith Moon’s stint filling in for John Peel in 1975. Even with the odd cancelled programme and some tortuous months dedicated to punk and soul I have to take my hat off to BBC6 for a great year. So it makes sense that I should give the coveted AAA documentary award to this station, for their ‘new’ documentary broadcast as part of Pink Floyd night, as part of the excellent ‘Producers’ series. Alongside excellent interviews with Waterrs, Gilmour and Mason some experts went back to the master-tapes of key Floyd songs to see what was there and found multiple examples of abandoned takes, mis-starts, ‘dropped in’ edits and abandoned overdubs. It all made for enticing, enertaining listening and I’ve listened to this programme many a time since it aired (hmm, I might even give it a listen tonight actually if I can’t sleep again...) In short, wonderful and let’s hope there’s plenty more documentaries about AAA musicians to be had in this series (so far only 10cc have shared this accolade – and that programme was even better than this one!)
3) John Lennon “Sometime In New York City”
(first reviewed as part of, erm, well I’m struggling to find it to be honest but I think it was late last year)
First shown as a throwaway late at night on BBC One and strangely ignored by the Beatles world, on the surface this documentary didn’t have much going for it – the ‘American’ theme restricts Lennon’s life to the years 1972-1980 (the period of some rather dodgy albums) and has already been covered by the excellent ‘Lennon Vs America’ documentary a few years back. However, this little known documentary is actually superior in every way, featuring strong powerful interviews with the people that matter, came with Yoko Ono’s full support (contrary to popular opinion I’ve always maintained that she’s supported Lennon’s legacy well after his death, however you consider her behaviour in their lifetime) and best of all features audio clips and studio speech so rare even the Lost Lennon radio series missed them! The choice of concentrating on the Lennon story from ‘Sometime In New York City’ onwards is also a clever one, dispensing with the overused stories about the Beatle days and the ‘white piano’ Imagine period in favour of discussions of Lennon’s political anarchist side, his struggles to fight deportation from America, the Lennon-Ono’s desperate search for Yoko’s daughter Kyoko (‘kidnapped’ by her father) and Lennon’s retirement and house-husband stage. Even though I’ve known the end of Lennon’s story all my life (he died some 18 months before I was born) and even though I’ve seen countless documentaries Lennon’s sudden death still comes as a shock, treated well by the film-makers because it comes just at the point where everything seems to be going right and you least expect it. Few documentaries make this battle-hardened writer cry but this one did. A programme that deserved greater respect from Beatles fans.
2) George Harrison “Living In The Material World”
(first reviewed as part of news and viewses 120 and 121)
Despite the Lennon documentary and the McCartney deluxe re-issues 2011 belonged to just one Beatle: George Harrison. Ten years on from his sad death and with backing from widow Olivia and son Dhani, film director Martin Scorcese helped put a photo-book and film together celebrating the Beatle’s lifetime, too long overshadowed by John and Paul (and even Ringo!) Both the book and the DVD were a tale of two halves – the Beatles side of things seemed tortuous and slow, sloppy editing meant one song crashed into another and the same old stories were trotted out over and over, even with some rare photos taken by and of George to look at. But oh the second half – despite what I said above this is the second time all year a documentary made me cry! Olivia has never spoken at length about her husband before (and didn’t want to much for this film!) but she and son Dhani were the stars of this film, talking about George the gardener and husband and father, the side of him we never knew and revealing the same magical, spiritual and humble man we all suspected was there. The other star is George’s Friar Park house, built by an eccentric Victorian and left in ruins till George came to the rescue, it was a dream come true for many fans to be able to ‘look’ round this famous house (and garden) at last. Sensitive interviews with Eric Clapton, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Jackie Stewart and a moved Paul and bored Ringo drew out other sides of this complex and contradictory character too, whilst there’s enough rare footage of George the musician to excite fans (the best shot is George watching back his younger self from 1963 and shaking his head, clearly disbelieving it was really him). Like the Lennon doc, though, its the sad bits you remember: the intruder who broke into Friar Park and punctured Harrison’s lung, intent on killing him and all of George’s friends and family still struggling to adjust to a world without George in it. Sure this film isn’t perfect – everyone really needed to re-think their approach to ‘part one’, the join between the two is intrusive (The Beatles end 10 minutes into part 2 – why?!) and as many fans have pointed out there’s no ‘talking heads’ from George’s brothers or sisters and first wife Patti Boyd gets such short shrift she needn’t really have turned up for filming. But for all its faults ‘Material World’ does George’s legacy proud and if you have the patience to sit through the lesser moments it is a worthy addition to our ever-growing Beatles DVD shelves.
1) The Hollies “British Invasion: Look Through Any Window”
(first reviewed as news and views no 123)
More than any other band, 2011 was the year of The Hollies. Forget what you’ve read about Lady Gaga and Justin Beaver-face, to true music fans one of our finest bands finally got the recognition they deserved. As well as that excellent Clarke-Hicks-Nash box we got the first ever TV documentary (albeit straight to DVD) on the band (the first one not in German anyway), just two years after the UK’s first ever documentary on the band (On Radio 2). Overlooked for far too many years, it’s a huge pleasure to me to see my ‘first’ proper band getting something approaching the recognition they deserve. This DVD is the long-awaited follow up to the first batch of ‘British Invasion’ sets by ‘Reelin’ In The Years’ and like our past favourite ‘The Small Faces: All Or Nothing’ it features a superb array of vintage TV footage of the band from around the world and some sensitive modern-day interviews in-between. Graham Nash seems happier with his past in his first band than ever before, Allan Clarke is seen for the first time in years, Tony Hicks gets to doodle on his guitar and Bobby Elliott shows off an amazing memory that enables to recall everything (no wonder many consider him the band’s archivist!) And oh the footage: a pre-Elliott Hollies taping ‘Little Lover’ for a ‘video jukebox’ (remember those?!) in the middle of a shopping centre while some very 1950s looking people walk past with their noses in the air; the band at their rockiest at the NME Pollwinners Concert of 1964, classy promos for ‘King Mida’ ‘Dear Eloise’ ‘Listen To Me’ and even ‘Wings’ that I had never ever seen before and some classic ‘Beatgroup/Beatroom’ performances that show just what a great act The Hollies were live. Best of all though is a five minute film of the band recording ‘On A Carousel’ at Abbey Road Studios – watching those harmonies come together as the band stand round the same mike in the studio where they recorded 90% of their whole output is – yes alright then – enough to make you cry (that’s three times this year then, this is costing me a fortune in handkerchiefs!) I’d love to have seen more of The Hollies’ later years (especially the Mickael Rickfors ones) and there’s still more than enough footage available for a volume 2 and even 3 one day (if the rights are still available for some clips) but all in all this is a beautiful tribute to a band that deserve nothing but the best.
3) “Dazzling Blue” – Paul Simon ‘So Beautiful, Or So What?’
(first reviewed as part of news and views 107)
Most of Paul Simon’s new record is, unfortunately, ‘so what?’ rather than so beautiful, but the one true addition to his remarkable back catlogue is this tender love song for new wife Eddie and it ranks among his greatest achievements. Like many of the songs on this album, it mixes a ‘world music’ backing with lyrics debating death and the afterlife, though it makes a rather better first at summing up how and why we life our lives on Earth the way we do than the other, more eccentric tracks. After several songs about the randomness of life and how there probably isn’t a God or deity in charge of such confusion and strife, it’s doubly gratifying to hear about a love that seemed like ‘destiny’ where a ‘cat’s scan eyes’ sees all the hidden beauty in a partner that no one else does. Paul sounds young again for the space of this song and manages to mix the best of all eras of his work: the harmonies of Simon and Grafunkel, the guitar work of his 1970s ‘classic period’, the backing of ‘Gracelabnd’ with the drummers from ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ and the chattier, more conversational style of the last few albums. A truly beautiful song, that’s as deep or as simple as you want to make it, this is a classy triumph up there with the best records he’s ever made.
2) “Stop The Clocks” – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
(first reviewed in full as part of news and views no 119)
As discussed, I was bitterly disappointed by the elder Gallagher’s first release post-Oasis, whose new songs continue the lethargy of the past few band albums (where Liam and bassist Andy Bell were writing all the best material) and Noel ended up going back to four songs that, in a parallel universe somewhere, make some of the lesser Oasis CDs sound magnificent. The best and most welcome of these four songs is the oldest, ‘Stop The Clocks’, one of Noel’s all-time best songs first heard as long ago as 1999 (if the title sounds familiar that’s because Big Brother wanted Oasis to add a few outtakes to their Oasis compilation before Noel realised he wanted this song for his own project one day). One of the best songs about death ever written, this is Noel imagining himself in the future on his death bed, wondering which breath will be his last and whether he’ll actually ever know when the end does come. The one big fear his narrator has about death in this song is that death will be one long silence – a horrible thought for any musician – so he attempts to fill his last moments with a tension-releasing guitar solo, all chaos and angst, to drive the demons away. Along with ‘The Masterplan’, this is Noel at his best, writing about deeper subjects most songwriters refuse to touch. It’s just a shame that it’s very quality shows up what a sorry mess the six new tracks on this album are...
1) “Wigwam” – Beady Eye, ‘Different Gear, Still Speeding’
(first reviewed in full as part of news and views no 93)
However the greatest addition to the AAA canon, in my opinion, is possibly the least known song from a not very highly regarded album by brother Liam and friends. ‘Wigwam’ is nothing like any Oasis song, starting off as an angry, depressed song about fighting a losing battle against obstacles that never end and having to say sorry for things you aren’t sorry for simply because it makes it easier to get on with the people you live with. We’ve never had such realism from Oasis before and only rarely, as on ‘Little By Little’, have we had such pessimism, but the song’s not over yet. After a wonderful little interlude the whole song kind of ‘shimmers’, moves up a gear (and a key change) and announces ‘I’m coming up!’, spiralling that phrase out again and again and again until it sounds like salvation for all our ills is at hand. Like ‘Hey Jude’ and the song it ‘steals’ from (‘Coming Up’ – see McCartney II above!), it manages to be genuinely moving and conciliatory even though it doesn’t appear to make any sense. Liam Gallagher has never ever been better than this (‘Slide Away’ is the only close competitor, his vocal is that good), Beady Eye have more fire and energy and sound more like a band than at any time on the past three Oasis albums and the end result is a song that I’ve played and re-played endlessly throughout this year. More gems like this one in 2012 please, chaps!
Think we’ve missed out a classic? Thought Brian Wilson’s album of Disney songs was the best thing you heard all year? Wondered why we hated the Noel Gallagher album so? Waited in vain for us to review a solo spice girls spin-off? If so, what’s wrong with you?! Err no, we mean why not write in and tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message on our forum!
And that ends this article, this issue and indeed this year’s newsing viewsing and music-ing. We hope you’ve enjoyed revisiting old friends and getting to know new ones with us this year – we’ve certainly enjoyed having you along for the ride. See you in 2012! Till then, keep rocking, keep listening and keep going. See You soon!
'Unknown Delight - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of George Harrison' is available to buy now by clicking here!
George Harrison “Dark Horse” (1974)
Hari’s On Tour (Express)/Simply Shady/So Sad/Bye Bye Love/Maya Love//Ding Dong Ding Dong Dark Horse/Far East Man/It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)
Surprisingly enough, there has only ever been one AAA song about new year’s eve. In fact technically there still hasn’t been an AAA written song about new year’s even because this album’s best known song ‘Ding Dong Ding Dong’ is actually cobbled together from phrases left to George by Frankie Crisp, the eccentric Victorian architect of his Friar Park mansion home who shared a similar sense of humour. (our favourite pun: the statue of a monk holding a battered frying pan full of holes; the caption reads ‘two holy friars – contemplate this the next time you read about the house being taken over by first monks and later nuns before George bought it). What’s perhaps even more surprising is that said excuse for a nonsense singalong about not a lot occurs on perhaps the most heartbreaking, autobiographical and saddened solo Beatles records of all.
By the way, don’t worry if you don’t know the ins and outs behind the making of ‘Dark Horse’. Few of even the committed George Harrison fans do and fewer play this album regularly, with the usual comments made that it is ‘uninspired’ ‘bland’ or ‘poorly recorded’. There are reasons for these things: firstly, this album was made in a tremendous rush in order to be ready for a supporting tour (George’s one and only solo tour in Europe) and, unlike some of our AAA members, George is at his best when taking his time, not slaving away in a slapdash manner (its no coincidence that ‘All Things Must Pass’ took more hours to make than nearly all his other solo records combined). It’s also true that George sounds at his worst on this record, thanks to a bout of laryngitis that, in other circumstances, he’d have waited to recover from – sadly ‘Dark Horse’ didn’t have that luxury (Beatles fans, who often have a sense of humour about their star’s lesser moments, nicknamed both this record and tour ‘Dark Hoarse’ – you sense that the pun-loving Monty Python fanatic George himself had a quick smile at that one). Critics have long trotted out those two stories with a sniff, decided that this record ought to be consigned to the history bins and grumpily carried on to talk about George’s late 70s slight revival in artistic and commercial fortunes.
But not so fast, because I really admire ‘Dark Horse’, perhaps the greatest ‘dark horse’ in George’s back catalogue, if you can look past the gravelly voice and occasionally very 70s sounding production techniques. For a kick off, it contains perhaps the greatest solo Harrisong not released on ‘All Things Must Pass’ in the title track, a wonderful affirmation of all the things George was all about (namely getting on with things quietly and trying his best not to be distracted by the ‘maya’ or illusionary trappings of life). I also rank ‘So Sad’ and ‘It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)’ as amongst his higher achievements, two songs rarely if ever sought out for praise but containing all the beauty, splendour and accessibility that we moaned about ‘Living In The Material World’ for lacking (see news and views no 58). Even the other tracks are quietly impressive in the way they don’t shy away from what was quite possibly George’s lowest point in all his 57 years on Earth, naked and honest in a much quieter, more humble way than ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’ or even ‘All Things Must Pass’. In fact, the only song that really doesn’t work is the forced jollity of ‘Ding Dong Ding Dong’, which as we said earlier was recorded at the time when George probably longed for the end of a year more than any other.
The reason that 1974 was so painful is that George had lost his first wife Patti Boyd to his best friend Eric Clapton. On the surface this had all been handled with surprising maturity – Eric remained a close friend of George’s right up to his death and you only have to look at footage of the 2002 memorial ‘Concert For George’ to see how close the bond between the Beatle and Cream/Yardbirds guitarist was. Patti by the way is possibly the most influential non-musician of the 1960s, inspiring George’s best known song ‘Something’ and Eric’s best known songs ‘Lyla’ (about an unreachable mythical Goddess the narrator longs for but can’t have, released in 1971 three years before this record) and ‘Wonderful Tonight’. Beatles fans still feel close to her, partly because her marriage to George (in 1964 when he was 21 and she was 19) was at the height of Beatlemania and made more newspapers than any other Beatles marriage before or since. It was also a union that lasted longer than John’s to Cynthia, Paul’s to Jane Asher or Ringo’s to Maureen (by about a year), made all the more special because the couple had met on the set of bona fide Beatles classic ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and for years fans were convinced that they too could nab a Beatle if they hung around the band for long enough and caught their eyes. Compared to most men in this situation George was undoubtedly merciful, telling one reporter he was ‘pleased that she was with Eric, someone I knew and trusted, rather than some dope’, but nevertheless ‘Dark Horse’ is still a, well, dark record. ‘Bye Bye Love’, only half a cover of the old Bryant Brothers Everly Brothers song despite what some guide books tell you, is George’s darkest point. George got his ex-wife and her new husband to sing back up vocals by telling them it was a straightforward cover but re-wrote the lyrics about how ‘Clapper’ ‘took her away’ and he ‘threw them both out’. It’s a very human reaction, but one that must have hurt George’s two ‘best friends’ awfully. ‘So Sad’ ‘Maya Love’ ‘Far East Man’ and especially ‘Simply Shady’ are lesser digs on the same theme, not really that nasty by any other standards except George’s, whose clearly feeling bitter and betrayed in private by now if not in public.
Only God (and the hope of a better new year in 1975) give any light at the end of a tunnel of George’s darkest half hour or so – and even then the one track devoted to Hare Krishna on this album (compared to about nine on the record before) is much more puzzled, rather less sure of ‘Him’ than before. From hereon in Gos is just another of George’s many inspirations, like his friends and his loved ones and his garden, rather than the whole point of his records and his life. As Patti’s moving autobiography of a few years back makes clear, the George of 1971-3 was far more serious than the George of the 60s, impatient to better himself and his world to the point where he was in danger of leaving those closest to him behind (perhaps that’s why we get ‘Ding Dong Ding Dong’ at this very point in George’s recordings, as if he’s trying out being silly for no reason on for size, in the name of a new year’s eve party where everyone does the same). George is re-thinking his life and his priorities here, although it’s to his credit that instead of running off the rails or spending all his time rubbishing his former wife and friend that he still tries to keep a hold of what made him turn out the way he did in the first place. Don’t forget George is only 31 when this happens – albeit an older and wiser man than most 31-year-old’s thanks to the teachings of first Beatlemania and later Ravi Shankar and friends. As a result, ‘Dark Horse’ ends up being a very Harrison mix of the light and the darkness, of the humility and the assured belief in a higher power, of the belief that what has just happened to him must be very right, because it hurts so very much.
Musically, it must be said that this is a much happier album than ‘Material World’. That album’s pastoral washes and so-quite-its-hardly-there musings about the word have been replaced by a much more traditional ‘rock’ record, perhaps George’s response to the public’s distaste for ‘Material World’ (a very heavy going if ultimately impressive album) although in the end they hated ‘Dark Horse’ even more. It seems odd to me that George’s response to a public cooling that had been going on since the days of the Bangladesh benefits (when George was clearly the world’s ‘favourite Beatle’) was to do more of the same rather than, say, going back to the ‘All Things Must Pass’ way of doing things (ie humble songs about life and death made to sound huge by way of horns and echo chambers). But then George never looked at his career in a traditional way, simply using the musicians he enjoyed hanging round with (most of the men working on this record were met at sessions George attended by John or Ringo – alas he never did get to play with Paul again till the ‘Threetles’ reunion of the mid 90s). As a result, this album has a much less personal feel about it, complete with a few sax solos spread across the album. I might be reading too much into this but it seems that, despite his big successes just a few years before, George no longer believes in himself and is looking to become like an everyman idea of a rock star in this period (albeit it a rock star who still ends his album with a Hare Krishna mantra). That’s sad because ‘Dark Horse’ had it been treated like ‘Pass’ or ‘Material World’ might have become much loved. Despite the sometime anonymous backing this is still very clearly a George Harrison record, one that reaches deeper than most and goes to places other albums would shy away from. He’s still a dark horse, this musician, one that could still win and overtake the others, even if the public seem to have fallen out with him somewhat.
It’s very George too that he should name his new record label ‘Dark Horse’. George gave his life to some extent to helping other people he believed had talent, no matter what field they belonged to (comedy, film, motor racing – they were all helped with George’s generous donations). Technically the record label didn’t start releasing records till 1976 (George’s ’33 and a third’ album was the first release on it), but its in 1974 that George lays down the paperwork for it, before difficulties with EMI saw Harrison delaying his grand masterplan until he’d settled down with new label Warner Brothers. Ironically, he should have stayed with EMI, who were used to working with smaller record companies (including many set up by ex-Beatles) – Warner Brothers treated George shamefully from the very first, suing him for late delivery of his first record (and having a telegram to that effect delivered to George’s hospital bed where he was recovering from what most Beatles sites list as bronchitis. But at the time of this album that Warner Brothers deal and the Dark Horse label were the major things that got up George up and away from his precious garden, a chance to redeem himself by giving help to others. Most are forgotten by everyone but Beatlenuts now but actually Dark Horse such as Splinter, Stairsteps and Java were pretty good, more square pegs that didn’t fit in most record company holes that nevertheless deserved their time in the spotlight and were no more unlikely to find fame than George had himself. It speaks volumes too that that the record logo was of Uchchaihshravas, a seven-headed pony said to be the ‘king of horses’ and the vehicle of God in Hindu mythology. Could it be that the ‘dark horse’ track on this album is also another pun, that as a working class school drop out from Liverpool, George too was a ‘dark horse’, seemingly destined for the ‘material world’ rather than the spiritual life he led? Hari Krishna texts mention the horse too, by the way, in a speech made by Krishna about the afterlife.
Unusually, this record also features a text other than song lyrics on the sleeve. Generally, George leaves his religious influences to his song lyrics but here he quotes from a poem about the listener wandering through a garden, asked not to study the imperfections too closely because it was all done out of ‘love’ for the listener. Most reviewers of the day assumed George was talking about his voice problems but actually this little passage says more than this. For the first time George is revealing himself on a record as ‘human’, not in an impersonal we-all-have-faults way but by showing up his darker side for the first (and pretty much only) time. How very George, too, to equate making a record with growing a garden – although in this context ‘Dark Horse’ is full of thorn bushes as well as roses and is in bad need of some weeding.
In fact, let’s talk about the sleeve some more. EMI hated it, to the point of replacing it with an innocuous shot of George sitting on his own park bench in his garden for the re-issue a few months later, but it’s fabulous. It features an old picture of George with his classmates at the Liverpool Institute (so old I can’t even tell for definite which one he is, though I suspect he’s the lad with the bored expression dead centre in the back row with his face painted blue; that could well be a young Mr McCartney second row from the back far right though I’m not sure) but tainted with religious symbols and colour washes. The idea is that George was always destined for the future fate has given him – which, in the context of this damaged, troubled album, makes a lot of sense. He also stands out from the crowd even before his face was painted blue, assuming that is George at the back, standing at a distance from the others and without the same fixed grins. It’s as if George has seen through the whole charade of life straight away and wants to get on with things. Arguably he did too, eclipsing all his colleagues (barring a possible McCartney just in front and to the left of him) and yet he’s clearly the ‘dark horse’ of the photograph, the last person you’d have picked from this photograph to become a millionaire. Even the original inner sleeve of the album is quite revealing, with a rare shot of George’s Friar Park grounds, showing Peter Sellers proudly round his grounds. I think I’m right in saying that this is the first time any of the ‘outside world’ ever saw anything more of his grounds than the brief bit of gnome-covered lawn on the front of ‘All Things Must Pass’, so it makes sense it appears on what may well be George’s most revealing and honest album.
‘Dark Horse’ also occupies a strange place in Harrison’s oeuvre, caught halfway between the ‘God’ records of the early 70s and the much more commercial records to come (starting with ’33 and a third’). On the plus side, God is back to being a ‘mystery’ rather than the subject of George’s this-is-how-to-get-there sermons of ‘Living In The Material World’. George is back to sounding in awe again rather than lecturing us on how to become like him and although most fans don’t like it I love the bouncing beat of ‘It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)’, a song more about George’s belief than an RE lesson that is every bit as lovely as his best non-spiritual songs like ‘Long Long Long’ and ‘Beware Of Darkness’. Religion also crops up on ‘Maya Love’, the second in a sort-of trilogy about the tug of war between our spiritual and material sides. It’s not as good as either predecessor ‘Living In The Material World’ or the later ‘Brainwashed’ title track, but it is the only of George’s songs to have the two worlds living side by side and that we can’t have the one without the other. If the troubled, chaotic, doubtful ‘Dark Horse’ has a theme then it’s this: that you can’t have the good times without the band and that an untroubled life would teach us nothing. ‘Our’ world is ultimately one of illusions that are only fleeting and will soon pass – which is a good message for an album recorded at the midway point of George’s career, caught between the highs of yesteryear and the re-appraisal to come. Even without the name ‘Dark Horse’ was always destined to be the ‘dark horse’ of his catalogue – here’s why.
Unusually, though, ‘Dark Horse’ starts by distancing George from any of his past. Whereas his last two records started humbly, with the acoustic gentleness of ‘I’d Have You Anytime’ and ‘Give Me Love, Give Me Peace On Earth’ on ‘Pass’ and ‘Material World’ respectively, ‘Dark Horse’ opens with one of only three instrumentals in Harrison’s catalogue. ‘Hari’s On Tour (Express)’ was written primarily as a warm-up song to kick off George’s tour and has a driving horn-led riff that sounds so mid-70s I’m surprised it isn’t wearing platform boots and sparklers. That said, George’s distinctive guitar-work is all over this track, working in counterpoint for much of the time, as if this is George trying to show how he is at once a part of this rock and roll material world and outside it, all at the same time. Like Gone Troppo’s ‘Greece’ it doesn’t sound like a natural instrumental and you could easily imagine vocals over it (where the guitar part is, for instance), suggesting that this is actually an unfinished song left this way because of the speed of recording rather than because the song simply sounded like it should be this way. There’s a nice jazzy middle section and the way the song falls back from the ‘chorus’ (in as much as an instrumental has a chorus) into the main riff by way of a spiralling melody is clever indeed, in fact more like a McCartney song than a Harrison one. But ultimately ‘Hari’s On Tour’ sounds either like filler or a too-desperate attempt not to scare off the punters with any religious references or anything too like ‘Material World’ without actually putting any other ideas over. You’re best bet is to treat it like a rather more finished sounding version of one of the ‘Apple Jams’ from the ‘Pass’ album, although this song doesn’t even have the exciting spontaneity where-is-this-going? feel of the best of those tracks. A real curio.
‘Simply Shady’ is a strange choice for next song too, introducing us to George’s gruff singing voice at perhaps it’s worst, with this song coming late in the sessions when Harrison had all but used it up. Like many a song on ‘Dark Horse’, this song sounds like a cute little piece with a tinkling piano accompaniment and a sing-songy melody that belie just how troubled these words are – something that makes a lot of sense when you realise that this is a song about trying to keep your grip on life while losing it. ‘Simply Shady’ is actually the tale of a narrator who turns to alcohol and drugs to blot out the pain of living, registering how futile and useless the idea is while being unable to stop. Interestingly, it’s the narrator himself whose ‘simply shady’, with this song perhaps the most self-beating song George ever wrote, with the narrator in his depths of his despair kicking himself over the fact that ‘it’s all been done before’ and yet he’s still left in the alcoholic trap rather than what its done to those around him. There’s a clever pun where the narrator is ‘drowning’ in his troubles and finds strength by ‘sucking through a straw’, as if its the alcohol not the air in his lungs getting him through and another, quite worrying line about the narrator knowing he’ll have to face the consequences of his actions in the morning with the feeling that its more than a hangover he’s worrying about, with ‘my influence in motion rebounding into space’. Listen out too for a Beatles-pleasing reference to the White Album’s ‘Sexy Sadie’ in the last verse, which appears to be on the surface a throwaway line about a good-time girl getting access to your front door when your inhibitions go – but given that song’s genesis as a Lennon song about the Maharishi and his supposed sexual advances on a young girl it may be George questioning his religious faith for perhaps the only time in his solo years (given the events of 1974 it would be unusual for anyone not to question their faith, seeing as it was religion that made George ‘distant’ to his wife and friend). In fact, overall this is one of George’s better lyrics of the time, with some impressive half-rhyming schemes throughout the middle of each line as well as the more obvious ones at the end of them. Overall, though, a combination of George’s lost voice, the rather twee melody and the anonymous backing mean you can’t really get involved in this song or care about the character in it. We badly need a remix of ‘Dark Horse’ a la ‘Double Fantasy Stripped’ to get the most out of this fascinating little song.
I have no such qualms about ‘So Sad’, however, which is one of George’s most perfect songs from start to finish, albeit a very depressing one. A lovely folkie guitar part sets the tone for George’s goodbye song to Patti and one that, neatly, uses many of the chord changes for his deep song of love for her, ‘Something’. Few songwriters have ever been so self-indulgently sorry for themselves as beautifully as this, with George not pinning any blame on anything and instead repeating a chorus about how he feels ‘so sad, so bad’. If that chorus sounds trite, it really doesn’t in context with some of George’s most poetic writing on the verses, equating the loss of the love of his life to such natural phenomena as a solar eclipse, arrival of Winter and the ‘dawn of the day’ arriving for someone else instead. It’s like hearing the advice of ‘All Things Must Pass’ repeated, but with George’s narrator right at the heart of things, a sufferer of life’s ups and downs rather than an on-looking bystander. The end of the chorus, where the narrator desperately tries to hold his heart ‘at arm’s length’ whilst putting his love ‘back on the shelf’ with the other so that he won’t get hurt again, is especially moving. The only negative points are the rather nagging guitar part that stings perhaps once too many times in the chorus (repeated for a full minute on the fade) and another vocal that’s clearly painful to record (although at least here, unlike ‘simply Shady’, it helps that the narrator sounds as if he’s cried his throat sore). If it wasn’t for those facts ‘So Sad’ would be rightly remembered as one of the highlight’s of George’s records in the 1970s and I’m amazed more Beatles fans don’t know it, not least because it features a guest appearance by Ringo (rare for this period).
The bizarre cover of the Everly’s ‘Bye Bye Love’ with new words is either the funniest or the nastiest of Harrisongs, depending on your mood. George delivers his vocal with more of a cackle than anything before or since and seems to be relishing the chance to get his own back on his former wife and friend. The fact that he ‘tricked’ them into appearing on their ‘goodbye’ record is George at his most malicious, although in truth most musicians in the same situation would have gone further than recording a simple damning song on the theme. It’s uncomfortable, though, to hear such naked hurt delivered in this way, where George sounds more like vengeful wrath-maker than the peacemaker he usually does. In any other context his ‘re-writes’ would sound awful, full of in-jokes (‘Clapper’ is his nickname for Clapton if you hadn’t guessed, although Eric’s appearance on backing vocals is credited to ‘rhythm ace’) and some really clunking rhymes – you certainly wonder what the Bryant brothers would have made of having their best-known creation capsized in this manner – but here it makes perfect sense. George isn’t in his right mind and it’s actually a wonder that the song’s new, slower arrangement, complete with a wonderful rise-and-fall bass line (like everything here except the backing vocals by George), sounds as good and as menacing as it does. On another album this cover might have been the highlight, up there with McCartney’s reggae re-make of ‘Love Is Strange’ and Stills’ re-invention of partner Young’s delicate ballad ‘New Mama’ as a pop masterpiece, but the result is too strange and too, well, damaging for most George supporters to listen to for long. In fact, so uncomfortable is this record that George played everything himself and even mixed it himself, as if afraid of letting anyone else in on this little bit of rage-induced madness.
In Hindu philosophy, the world we live in is a projection of ourselves and, had we as a race turned out differently, we would have had a very different spiritual ‘plane’ to work on. The word ‘maya’ doesn’t really have a Western equivalent but relates to the idea of ‘illusion’, of something that isn’t really there. With this in mind, ‘Maya Love’ isn’t the sweet, lovely love song of the album – the most ‘normal’ song here to most people – but another damning song about being taken for a ride. ‘Love’ on its own, ‘like the sea – flowing in and out of me’, would be a good thing – but maya love, illusory love, is people who don’t really like you and you don’t really like in your life clogging up your soul when you could be spending time on something better. In this context, this is clearly another song about the Clapton-Patti affair and about having your trust betrayed, although George actually sounds as if he’s having a good time on this record, with some nice slide-guitar work and a bouncy country-rock tune that could easily have been a breezy Eagles hit with different words. I’m especially impressed with Billy Preston’s organ part, one that manages to both back up the seriousness of the song and add a tongue-in-cheek mischievousness that hints at the darker message behind this track and a lovely muted horn arrangement by Tom Scott that says more in a few carefully controlled lines than the outburst on ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’. Again, though, a combination of the elusiveness of the lyrics and George’s shot multi-tracked voice makes it difficult to work out what’s going on in this song and you don’t really feel the need to care too deeply.
Side two starts with ‘Ding Dong Ding Dong’, then heralded as a Beatles xmas number to rank with ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ and now relegated to one of George’s most embarrassing moments. The truth, as ever, is somewhere in between: this song isn’t as bad as some naysayers will tell you, with a proper tune and a catchy hook, but neither would you recommend it as a favourite record seeing as it says absolutely nothing in it’s 3:40. As we said in our introduction, this happy sounding jolly and, well, jolly empty song sounds badly out of place, as if George has got fed up of being miserable and rounded up some drunken friends for a quick singalong. The lyrics, such as they are, were all coined by George’s architect Frankie Crisp a long time before he was even born and don’t say much you couldn’t learn from ‘Auld Lang Syne’. That said, it’s nice to hear George so happy and he does a good job with the vocal, even with his voice going and there’s a nice riff going on in the main theme song. There’s an all too brief middle eight that works well too, with the thought that ‘tomorrow today will be yesterday’ (which suggests George popped hi head round Abbey Road studio no 3 when The Hollies were recording their still-then unreleased ‘Tomorrow When It Comes’ in 1968, which it repeats almost word for word). Yes, the basic things here are fine - you just wish there was more to go on, to be honest and a chorus that didn’t repeat ‘Ding Dong Ding Dong’ quite so much. It was also either a brave or a desperate choice for a single (released barely weeks after being recorded in mid-November), which should really have been next track ‘Dark Horse’. Look out for the sleevenotes for this track too which are very funny – Ron (Wood) would have done the guitar part ‘if I’d let him’, while Frankie Crisp gets credited with ‘inspiration’ some 100-odd years after decorating Friar Park with messages for his future occupants.
I love ‘Dark Horse’ tremendously, a song that seems to be growing in reputation with each passing decade but not quickly enough in my opinion. Here is George’s autobiography as a ‘dark horse’, the boy written off at school for being ‘lazy’, written off as a musician because Lennon and McCartney shouted louder, written off as a songwriter because of having John and Paul in the same band. This song could easily have become bitter a la ‘So Sad’ or ‘Bye Bye Love’ but instead its a life-affirming song about George has always been under-rated so this latest dip in form shouldn’t trouble him. It’s also a plea to Beatle followers not to guess what his next move should be: that his character will always be ‘too slippery’ to grasp even for himself and that, even if he is sometimes left at ‘the starting gate’, he usually gets there in the end. As if to prove his point, George gives this song a folky, part-CSN part-Moodies arrangement, full of flutes and acoustic guitars quite unlike anything he ever wrote again which is a shame (he clearly has a feel for folk-rock). In fact, the closest AAA song to it is ‘The Boxer’ – another song that’s vague rather than specific and yet still rings true in every line and every punch that lays the narrators down, with the same epic-yet-humble quality. George’s battle-worn laryngitis fuelled vocals have put off many a Beatles fan used to their lusher records, but actually they work better here than on most songs on this album, giving this recording a bruised-but-I’m-still-standing feel that suit it well (that said, it sounds horrible on live recordings of this track from the tour when George has even less voice than he does here). Of all the records George Harrison made in the wake of ‘All Things Must Pass’, this is the only one to match that album’s wit, honesty, melodic touches and shining brightness – it somehow seems fitting that it’s the title track of a record that few of his even biggest fans rate. A dark horse indeed. Perhaps of most significance though is a new name in the credits, one who’ll come to dominate George’s music for the rest of his life, Olivia Arias (soon to change her name to Harrison) is credited as ‘Trinidad Blissed Out’, for reasons best known to the soon-to-be happy couple. Why she’s credited on this song particular is not known – perhaps she inspired George to find his way again? (We don’t have recording dates but judging by George’s shot voice this song is a late addition to the sessions, despite being the title track).
‘Far East Man’ was co-written with future Stone Ronnie Wood and as a result is the only Beatle/Stone writing credit in songwriting history (though Ronnie technically became a Stone two years after this record; you can hear his much harder-edged version of this song on his 1974 record ‘I’ve got my own album to do’). As such this song should be a huge, giant monument in modern recordings – instead it’s the most muted anonymous song on the record (and as such I’m puzzled that most reviewers nowadays tend to single it out as the album highlight – truly its among the weakest songs here). The song was inspired by a t-shirt Ronnie was wearing with ‘Far East, man!’ written on it – the phrase tickled George, the man who did more than most to introduce Eastern culture to the West over the years, who equated it with the slang term ‘Far out man!’ Curiously, though, this song about karma and brotherhood is delivered in a term more akin to the inter-war crooners (George even gets his own back for Sinatra calling George’s own ‘Something’ ‘the greatest Lennon/McCartney song’ during his concerts by opening with the line ‘this is for Frank Sinatra, we love you Frank, hope you do this one sometime...’ Unsurprisingly Frank never did record this song and probably never knew it existed. It’s not too late for Tony Bennett to give it as go, though...).Some of the lyrics here are good, especially the way George juxtaposes a first verse about his friends letting him down before a second verse where he wonders if he’s let God down and this is karma coming back to haunt him – but the chorus is awful (what’s all this about drowning? Do they drown more often in the Far East?) George covers his lost voice here by harmony vocals in falsetto, which really isn’t a good idea and leaves him sounding either drunk or mad, or both. The latest Tom Scott recording is also a tad overdone, making the song sound too schmaltzy even for a crooner-era pastiche. Give it a miss.
That just leaves us with ‘It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)’. On paper this should be everything we attacked the lesser moments of ‘Material World’ for being: a bland repetitive song full of religious imagery baffling to the uninitiated and with no clause for the non-believer to join in with. But I feel a lot closer to this song than those other tracks (not least due to an odd dream where ‘my’ band seemed to be singing this on stage the other night – that’s the last time I’m drinking vimto before going to bed), thanks to the wonderful tune, the yearning pull of the chords (very George, especially the lines at the start of the verses) and the sense of awe and mystery in George’s voice that made his early religious records with The Beatles so appealing (‘Love You Too’ ‘The Inner Light’ ‘Within You Without You’ etc). Usually when George speaks of religion with awe that means we’re in for his most complex lyrics, with him trying to fathom out why he feels like he does and how to put it in words, but here he’s content just to be happy. There aren’t many words to this song – or mantra, as that’s pretty much all this song is – but those that are say a lot in a few words, with Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, ‘he who is complete’ and ‘whose eyes have seen what we have been’ a much more believable – and merciful – God than the one of ‘The Lord Loves The One That Loves The Lord’. The flutes in the verses tie this song firmly both to the ‘call’ of prayer in Hindu mythology and to the folk-rock roots of much of this album and their first unexpected appearance on this record is one of the most beautiful and hymn-like of any of George’s record. The repetitive bouncy chorus is less appealing, but even this has a feeling of splendour and weight that the likes of ‘My Sweet Lord’ had (this song’s close cousin, building a song on little more than a verse-long prayer). Overall, it’s a fine end to the record and one that finds George happier in spirit and in voice (which sounds at its best here compared to the rest of the record. Whatever you think of George’s lifelong devotion to Hare Krishna, it saved his life on more than one occasion and, given what’s come before on this troubled and often dark record, that’s what’s happened here with this exotic, compelling track.
If you’ve followed George’s story from the beginnings as a school-avoiding rebel hooked on guitars to this point then it’s hard not to be moved by this record, with lines like ‘when your friends have left you down...I hope I don’t let Him down’ (‘Far East Man’) ‘the Winter has come to block out the sun that has lighted my life for sometime’ or the character analysis that is ‘Dark Horse’. There might not be the atmosphere of ‘Pass’, the melodies of ‘George Harrison’ or the crass commerciality of ‘Cloud Nine’ but that doesn’t mean this humble, stumbling record is bad. You just have to do a bit of work to search for the good bits and put yourself back in the shoes of someone whose life has just been torn apart. Three strong songs out of nine perhaps aren’t enough to make this record a classic but neither is that bad enough odds to destroy this record’s reputation and the nihilistic reviews it received on release. For ‘Dark Horse’ ‘So Sad’ and ‘It Is He’ alone this is an important album, one that saw George re-evaluating himself and everything he stood for. It is our privilege to be able to hear those thoughts in song and – whilst this is unlikely to be anybody’s favourite Harrison record – there’s enough to celebrate here to make ‘Dark Horse’ the dark horse of your record collection, going the distance when favourites fall by the way side.