Wednesday, 27 June 2012
George Harrison "Wonderwall Music" (1968) (News, Views and Music 150)
“I don’t like songs – music is just organised noise – and noise is poison for the mind!”
I have seen some pretty weird films in my time, dear readers, and having read my work you’ll not be at all surprised to learn that most of the weirdest films I’ve seen – just like the weirdest music I’ve heard - have become my firm favourites. Standing Head and shoulders above the rest is, of course, The Monkees’ ‘Head’ (see review no 27 for why this bizarre but magnificent annihilation of TV, music and group is so supremely wonderfully unique and misunderstood), but there are plenty of others (one of the perks of sites like this is that I get to bore you with my favourite lists from time to time – for this review I’ve snuck them in as a footnote at the bottom of this review so as not to interrupt the flow of this paragraph. Which I just have with that last sentence. And that one. Oh bother).
Anyway, ‘Wonderwall’ the film is a lot better than its reputation or unloved status suggests, even without George Harrison’s excellent film score to consider. A film about an eccentric professor who gets gradually sucked into the way of life that goes on across the other side of the ‘wonderwall’ dividing the block of flats where he lives, it differs from most surreal and plotless tomes from the period in that there is actual character development. For the most part it’s a silent film, with characters revealing their inner selves not through shouting or exposition, with George Harrison’s music – ‘written’ or in some notable improvised cases inspired by the Beatle – having to work extra hard in order to convey the film’s meaning across. As one film critic writing for the ‘Films and Filming’ magazine put it best with the line “Harrison’s music represents dialogue, waxing almost like a vocal like a cinema organist from the silent days” and it remains perhaps the most under-rated solo Beatle album of all, perplexing the few fans interested enough to buy the soundtrack album or see the movie (which became so obscure that for many years it was considered ‘lost’ , before finally ending up on home video in 1992 – and later DVD in 1998).
George worked on this album by timing the film with a stopwatch, so we know for a fact that this film was completed (in at least rough edit) before he even began adding the music. If so then he must have worked fast for one thing (unlike most soundtrack albums this one really was in the shops by the time people saw the film – although not many people ever did) and most definitely was inspired by what he saw in the movie (unlike some films which commission the music before they shoot a word and then stick the two together). This style really suits some musicians, who get to chart when and where an emotion is felt (Pink Floyd succeeded in this style too), although its puzzling why George should have taken to this form over the other three (George’s music being the most free-form in this period, as you’ll note if you’ve ever heard the Beatles track ‘It’s All Too Much’) Perhaps he saw the film as a good example for breaking away from the spell of the others; perhaps he saw it as a good chance to promote Indian music without having to tailor it to a Beatles style or perhaps he was just flattered to have been asked (Massot knew his stuff – desperate to get a Beatle and low on funds, he realised they wouldn’t be prepared to work on it and a band project and figured John and Paul would reject the offer out of hand; George was the only person he ever asked to contribute on the proviso that anything he recorded would be used; how relieved must Massot have been when George’s unlistenable follow-up album of moog doodling ‘Electronic Sounds’ came out soon after, reflecting George’s new toy of 1968!) Whichever reason, I’m glad he did it because ‘Wonderwall’ is a wonderfully eclectic mix of Indian, rock, pop, orchestral and psychedelia – in one case even breaking off for a bit of ‘cowboy music’ – none of which we’ll ever from him again in quite such undiluted form.
By depicting very 1950s styles and ideas (the scenes with Irene Handl, Tony Hancock’s landlady in two of his films, plus the whole theme of scientists, test tubes and the National Geographic the professor is reading) right up close against the most flower power scenes imaginable (bright green cars, wigs, modelling shoots, nudity, even the exotic looking ski-ing equipment) this film is the best example I’ve yet seen of what the 1960s and its culture was all about.It would be easy to have made ‘Wonderwall’ as a scathing, damning attack on the older society who don’t understand the goings on of their offspring and yet leer and letch at their activities anyway– but ‘Wonderwall’ is subtler than that, suggesting that the only way forward for us all is to understand each other. The professor might be scatter-brained and set in his ways, but he’s essentially a kind old man, one who saves the hippie girl who lives next door at the end of the film and risking his reputation by revealing the fact that he’s been a peeping tom to keep her alive. There’s also the hint that his world turned ‘monochrome’ not because he chose to close his eyes to the world but because of some personal tragedy (one scene has him opening up a case containing an old dress, smothered – like his memory one supposes - in moth-balls; another scene has him tell Irene Handl, his cleaning lady, ‘We shall all be married sooner or later’), as if these are ‘memories’ of a time he experienced first-hand himself.
Equally Jane Birkin’s character, named ‘Penny Lane’ especially for all the Beatles fans in the audience (the girl in the film who works as a model) overdoses because of an unhappy love affair with the photographer that, so its hinted, has resulted in her getting pregnant. Without money, without a partner (who flees the minute things get serious) and with the seemingly definite end to her modelling career, this is the downside of the hippie way of life, lost without the stability and traditions of past generations, even whilst the taste of freedom brightens her life. ‘Paying the price’ is the key theme of a surprisingly few flower power era lyrics from The Hollies’ ‘Games We Play’ on down, with the most aware hippy protagonists aware that for enjoying such splendour comes a later price (the yin and yang of life). The photographer too is a case in point – in other films he’d be painted out to be a hard-nosed tyrant, but in this film he’s merely lost, visiting the professor ostensibly to borrow some ice cubes, bananas and sugar and asking him out loud what he should do about the relationship. Both sides want what the other side has got, with the grass always greener (not a drug reference, despite the context of the film) the other side of the wall: when the professor finally has the courage to travel across the great divide he finds that the psychedelic splendour he saw before is now a drab and rather ordinary grey (and his own flat looks remarkably psychedelicised afterwards too). Only when the two sides of the wall unite together can both realise their full potential (with Jack MacGowran’s lovably dotty professor hailed as a hero) and the theme of the film isn’t so much ‘look at us, aren’t we fab and gear’ (as some reviewers will tell you) as ‘look how similar we are when we tear down the walls between us’. In this way, ‘Wonderwall’ is similar to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and you have to wonder if Roger Waters (a fellow EMI recording artist) ever came across this film or not.
One other key theme of this film and album is that of being trapped. The professor can’t join in with the psychedelic splendour all around him because he is trapped by more than just a wall. For him and his generation inhibitions and manners are everything – otherwise you get the kind of fallouts and temper tantrums that leads to the split between the model and the photographer and the attempted drug overdose. Equally, though, the professor lives a drab and dreary existence, where he’s so lost and confused that he has to write notes to remind him of what to do whenever he goes home and is so isolated that the only people he talks to are his assistant at work at the waterboard (who he manages to insult and accidentally refer to as ‘miss’) and his cleaning lady, neither of whom manage to ‘reach’ him. Throughout the film we get motifs of other species being trapped (the mice in the cage, the praying mantis in the professor’s flat) and notably the first tantalising glimpses of life the other side of the wall are accompanied by the accidental smashing of a butterfly collection, which sees the insects fluttering around the room in psychedelic freedom, going where the professor can’t (and butterflies are themselves a key theme of change, transforming from ugly caterpillars and proof of how beautiful even the most ugly looking realities can turn out to be – see also The Hollies’ ‘Butterfly’, review no 14, recorded in this same period). We are all trapped by something, the film hints, even if its just our own prejudices that prevent us from working out what others around us are enjoying (something that is equally true of parents understanding their children and children understanding their parents). As long as we realise this, we still have hope for a better world – or so the striking front cover seems to be saying anyway, with its bowler-hatted worker on the left gazing at a wall behind which Indian flower children bathe nude in a pond (legend has it that the drawing by Bob Gill featured a complete wall but that George insisted on one brick being left out to create a small tunnel of light; if that story is true (and Derek Taylor claims it was) then it shows just how well George understood the film (and how lucky Massot was to get such a resonant composer), with hope the beacon of light all the way through ‘Wonderwall’.
Just as the elder and younger generations meet head on, equally George Harrison’s album mixes West and East sounds with aplomb, with at first all Indian-related music coming from the psychedelic side of the ‘wonderwall’ (the two become mixed up later in the film). Indian music is just as old as Western music, of course (if not older) and the two sides do become mixed up later on in the film, suggesting – as ever with George – that this soundtrack is about the fight between out material and spiritual selves (this being written by an avid Hare Krishna supporter who meditated most days and yet still took drugs and indulged in motor racing and film making). George was of course deeply into his ‘Indian’ phase at this point in late 1967 and wanted to use this film as a launchpad to get the public interested in the works of the Indian musicians Ravi Shankar had introduced him to. He was initially worried that director Joe Massot wouldn’t accept his music, though (despite the director telling him he’d accept anything the Beatle gave him, no matter how weird) and organised some London sessions with some old friends (including Eric Clapton under the psudeonym Eddie Clayton, Ringo under the pseudonym Richie Snare, members of contemporary Mersey band The Remo Four – some of whom were in Paul McCartney’s class at the Liverpool Institute and had backed fellow Epstein-managed act Billy J Kramer as his second Dakotas line-up - and Monkee Peter Tork, whose banjo piece sadly only appears in the film not the album). The album is divided up like this: Tracks 2, 5, 8, 10, 11, 14, 17, and 18 were recorded in England, while tracks 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16, and 19 were recorded in Bombay – pretty much half and half. The amazing thing is, though, that like the film it accompanies the music ties together well, with an ageless story of generational tension and growing older played by musicians from two spheres that are older than time (only two of the album’s 19 songs are remotely close to 1960s music, the Cream spoof ‘Ski-ing’ and the Merseybeat ‘Party Seacombe’). Only George at this particular point in his life would have had the courage and the means to unite the two sides together and in retrospect it’s just a shame that the two sides never met each other (with an ocean, rather than a wall, keeping them apart).
This film gained a whole new lease of life in the 1990s, firstly with the unexpected un-trumpeted release of the film in 1992 after so many years out of circulation and again in 1995 when Noel Gallagher saw the word in a Beatles discography and liked the name so much he turned it into the basis for one of Oasis’ best-loved songs (he still hasn’t the film yet, though, unless he’s bought a copy since doing a batch of interviews in the mid 2000s). That’s fitting because this idea about generations going round in cycles fitted that generation’s main thrust rather well, what with Oasis sounding like The Beatles mixed with the Rolling Stones, Pulp sounding like The Kinks, the Super Furry Animals sounding like The Beach Boys and groups like Kula Shaker and Ocean Colour Scene sounding like the whole bang lot poured into a cauldron and stirred together. I’m actually surprised that this film only became a cult among Beatleheads and never really hit the mainstream at a time when the 60s was cool again (however briefly) because no film is more 1960s than this.
Well, none except ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ (OK, its a TV special rather than film but you get my point). Similarly scatter-brained and confusing on first viewings, this special sent many a Beatle fan groping for Earth after transmission and has generally been regarded as something of a bad idea. In truth it is a bad idea, with several long and pointless passages, that was always going to go over the intended audience’s head – even if the footage of both ‘The Fool On The Hill’ and ‘I Am The Walrus’ remain among the most dynamic the fab four ever put together in any of their film work. ‘Wonderwall’ often gets stuck into the same bag of being silly and somewhat frilly and doesn’t even have the saving grace of true Beatles songs on its side, but its plot actually makes more sense and the music is much more relevant, rather than simply being inserted to break up the dialogue. ‘Gat Kirwani’ and ‘Love Scene’ are two of the nicest snippets of Indian music you are ever likely to hear (outside Beatles B-side ‘The Inner Light’ anyway – and its no coincidence that the backing track for that piece was recorded during this album’s sessions in Bombay and only later overdubbed with vocals by The Beatles). Equally Glass Box’ and ‘Wonderwall To Be Here’ are marvellous attempts at ‘proper’ orchestral theme music and notably the most traditional-sounding thing we’ll hear George do right up until the Hoagy Carmichael covers on ‘Somewhere In England’ (some fans think George was all about experimentation and daring, but you can’t be that much of a George Formby fan without being in part a traditionalist). ‘Ski-Ing’ is a great heavy metal prototype, the only place you will ever hear George duelling guitars with close friend Eric Clapton (despite their many appearances on record together, generally with one playing and not the other). Finally ‘Party Seacombe’ is the classic Beatles song that never was, with a cracking riff that sounds like a cross between ‘Here There and Everywhere’ and ‘You Can’t Do That’, played with a wah-wah pedal and more psychedelic effects than most of Sgt Peppers.
If most of the rest of the album simply sounds like it was written to go with a film then, well, yes, that’s exactly what it was written to do and in three cases (‘Microbes’ ‘Crying’ ‘Cowboy Music’) the result is pretty unlistenable. ‘Wonderwall’ is not for the casual George Harrison fan looking for something to hum; nor will it be the most played Beatles solo album you’ll ever own. Some fans are always going to have trouble with an album full of instrumentals on which their beloved Harrison doesn’t even play. Some critics have called both film and soundtrack self-indulgent and silly. We say, yes its all those things, but its also a clever pic and mix mash up of both the old-fashioned and traditional and the then-new and exciting and as a result is a unique experience played by some of the finest players from West and East. Given the hurried and low budget circumstances behind the making of it (Derek Taylor’s CD sleevenotes reveal that the Bombay studios had to shut down at 5pm because the sound of cars outside got so loud they got through the primitive sound-proofing and onto the master tapes) there are some wonderful ideas here and some of George’s loveliest melodies. Yes we’d love to have had more input from George (a lyric on the very Beatlesy ‘Party Seacombe’ for instance would have made this album better still) and you do wonder if he really does deserve sole credit for everything here (even the songs that seem to be improvised), but then George did exactly what the director asked him to do with this film, submitting only instrumental pieces for inclusion and was still the ring-leader for the whole thing.
Finally, that quote above in our key lyrics is a quote from the film (being an instrumental album we can’t give you many quotes this week!) and sees the professor in denial that other people have a better life than him. What George spends most of the film doing is proving the professor wrong, creating music so beautiful and emotional that it clearly isn’t just ‘organised noise’ but the very real unexpressed emotions of the characters throughout the film. Director Joe Massot is said to have been pleased with the music he got back from Harrison, who was deeply nervous about his ability to create music to order (fitting to the time lengths of scenes) and his worry about the public’s interest in Eastern sounds. If I was Massot I’d have been ecstatic – George nails a good 3/4s of the scenes with exactly the right balance of feeling and emotion, saying everything the screenplay (which has notoriously few lines throughout) is hinting at but doesn’t quite come out and say. Moving for the most part and excitingly eclectic, this album shows off more dies of George’s multi-layered personality than any other project he ever worked on and as such is a triumph, even if Wonderwall does lack a bit of consistency and unity.
Perhaps most importantly of all, this album became a stepping stone for so many other important pieces in the Beatles’ story that it would be stupidly to dismiss it entirely. The first album released on the band’s ‘Apple’ label (note the many references to ‘apples’ in the film and their relationship to the bible as being sinful – a big hint there as to how bad things would get in the Beatles empire!), it was the kind of non-commercial release EMI would never have dared to put out and clearly inspired some of the more esoteric Apple creations in their catalogue (beating John and Yoko’s ‘Two Virgins’ LP by a matter of months). It was also the first solo Beatle album (ignoring for now the thorny issue of Macca’s ‘Family Way’ soundtrack of 1966 – yes its Paul’s music, but its George Martin who arranged and conducted it, without the Beatle present), leading George in particular to believe that there was a market for his material specifically and that he wouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life mining the Beatles’ style. Although only Ringo took an active interest in the album and film out of the band, it’s notable that the recording sessions for ‘Wonderwall’ kick in a much more experimental and eclectic phase in the band’s career, with ‘The White Album’ around the next corner. For these facts alone ‘Wonderwall’ begs your attention for an hour or so, although whether you choose to ever hear it again is up to you. As for me, I’ve played this record endlessly since long before I ever saw the film attached to it and select parts of it I rate as being among the best that any album has to offer.
There’s a massive 19 tracks on this album to get through and all of them instrumental, so forgive me if I don’t spend quite as long talking about each one as I usually do (my computer’s driving me nuts, too – here I am just a few hours from going away, when it tells me it might crash soon if I don’t fix something immediately, not that its told me what it is yet!). However I will be giving you a few descriptions to whet your appetite, the musicians involved and how each recording relates to the film.
First up, though, is ‘Microbes’ – a song that doesn’t appear in the film that much (the director’s cut replaces it with The Remo Four’s rather Badfingery sounding ‘In The First Place’, although you do get a snippet when the professor first starts noticing the wonderwall) but isn’t one of the better moments on the album. It features what presumably must be ‘shanhais’ playing against each other in a sort of over-lapping loop (I say ‘presumably because I know its none of the other instruments, which include the sitar, the sarod – similar to a sitar; the sur bahar – which is a sort of bass sitar – and the santoor, which is the Indian equivalent of a harp), with out of tune bassoons and oboes the nearest Western equivalent. The melody to this tune is quite appealing and does fit the original opening of the film of microbes dancing under a microscope, but the sound is a little too grating on the ear and badly recorded (the recording is heavy with distortion even on CD) for comfortable listening. You can hear something of the starting point for ‘The Inner Light’ at times, though, with the oscillating tones of the instrument (technically called a melisma – one of the few things I still remember from my grade theory exams, not that I ever needed it) very similar to the ‘instrumental’ passages of the Beatles piece. In short, it’s the offspring between Kula Shaker and Yoko Ono.
‘Red Lady Too’ comes in the film at the point where the professor has just spied a, well, red lady would you believe (due to the spotlights being placed on Penny Lane during her modelling session I hasten to add). A slightly chugging instrumental, it’s from one of the London sessions and yet still sounds strangely exotic and unusual, thanks to its unique use of mellotron-flutes as a sort of organ base note for the whole piece. The main tune comes from a normal piano and a tack piano (played by Remo Four pianist Tony Ashton) set against each other in a counterpointed battle and the effect is rather a good one, with the deep bass note rumble actually pretty close to my own composing methods (as you can hear if you visit the ‘Alan’s Songs’ page of my website. I must have listened to this album more times than I thought!) As such, it sounds like The Moody Blues trying to play one of my songs!
‘Tabla and Pakajav’ is much as you’d expect, very similar in parts to the raga played by Ravi Shankar in the Monterey Pop Festival Film (along with George’s Bangladesh gig still the most viewed piece of Indian music in the Western world). It’s tabla player Mahapurush Misra whose the star of this one, with playing not far off George’s ‘Within You Without You’, a Beatles recording only a few years old at this point (the pakajav is just another form of tabla, a barrel shaped drum also played by hand rather than with a stick; worryingly my spellcheck keeps insisting that I should be spelling the word ‘tabla’ as ‘table’). It’s one of the shorter pieces on the record, this one, and isn’t really heard in the film much.
‘In The Park’ is a curio of a song, from the title on down seeing as there is no actual scene set in a park in the film (not on my copy of it anyway, although a few minutes were trimmed for DVD release).It features the only real example of cross pollination between the Western and Eastern worlds and it’s not entirely successful, with Ashton’s jangly tack piano seemingly improvising a rather slow and involved sloping melody with a bom-ba-da-da-da riff that isn’t one of the best on the album. It’s joined by more table playing (this time by Rij Ram Desad) and two sitars, one for melody and one for atmosphere. The end result drags on far past it’s four minute playing time.
‘Drilling A Home’ is fun, though. George has just bough his own moog synthesiser after admiring John Lennon’s purchase of one (as heard most famously on the intro to ‘Strawberry Fields’, although ironically its the multi-instrumentalist Paul McCartney playing because John was having a hard time getting anything on it to work). It came complete with its own stock tapes, one of which – the backing track of ukulele and brass used for this track – was a Beatles favourite the band mucked around with often (as heard on the tag of ‘Flying’, the outtake version included on Anthology Two). The sound was particularly appealing to ukulele loving George and he might well have overdubbed a bit more of the instrument to strengthen the sound, which sounds slightly different to the ‘Flying’ version (George used to carry two ukuleles with him everywhere he went, so he could get someone else to play too!) George has the ever hard-working Tony Ashton overdub a frantic Goon-style madcap chase across the keyboard over the top of it and its a merry little tune that works well with the film footage of the hapless professor desperately trying to drill holes in the wall with every tool he has to hand, blunting most of them in the process. The middle features a blown whistle (the caption in the film reads ‘tea break’, although most likely its George signalling when the motion in the film changed pace and got quieter) and a very obvious edit. There’s some fun on the fadeout too, with the track speeding up and slowing down and panning violently between the left and right speakers, with Ashton’s piano and the moog alternating between the two. The whole piece is drowned out by sound effects of thunder and heavy rain, incidentally, and I’m not quite sure why as this scene takes place indoors (maybe it was really stormy that day in Bombay – the studio had some very flimsy sound proofing!) It sounds like the lovechild of The Goons and Liberace!
‘Guru Vandana’ is a short minute-long linking piece played by the Indian musicians and features a slow, lonely wavering line set against a busy, over-working one working in counterpoint. Heard on more traditional instruments (or even a sitar) this might have sounded lovely indeed but what are presumably the shanghais are back and their rather off-pitch sound ruins the effect somewhat. This passage is heard a few times across the film, though never complete, representing yet more delights from the other side of the Wonderwall.
‘Greasy Legs’ is mysteriously named, being perhaps the loveliest melody on the whole album. The track starts with a pulsating harmonium deep-throated gulp, so similar in style to Jefferson Starship’s epic ‘Sunrise’ from ‘Blows Against The Empire’ (review no 44) that you have to wonder if Grace Slick et al were sent a copy or saw the film. The main tune itself is played on a twinkly piano/synth (its hard to tell which) and flutes and like many a song on this album seems to be a duet between two very different sounding instruments warily walking round each other and trying to find common ground. In the film this footage is accompanied by, you guessed it, legs – although the legs are those of the model surrounded by the escaped butterflies from the professor’s collection and aren’t actually greasy at all. So there. It sounds like Pink Floyd trying to do the music for a Ken Russel production of ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’.
‘Ski-ing’ is an all too brief moment of magic, as Clapton and George (and possibly Colin Manley of the Remo Four) luck into a wonderful heavy metal riff and keep going, improvising their way round the sound, with someone (possibly Clapton under his pseudonym Eddie Clayton) ending the song in a fabulous outburst of improvised guitar squeals and feedback loops. The result is a fabulous moment, with George adopting what was then a brand new sound (as pioneered by Clapton in Cream among others) of a heavier rock power vibe and using that as a counterpart to the more wistful and earnest sounds of the Eastern instruments. In the film this section does indeed accompany ski-ing – with the photographer and model turning her ‘pad’ into a snow-laden treasure-trove paradise, although the section is even shorter on film than it is on record. The first real evidence of the ‘heavier’ style George adopted in 1968 (‘Savoy Truffle ‘Helter Skelter’ etc), it’s a fascinating piece and its great to hear Harrison and Clapton working so closely together. It sounds like Black Sabbath had they actually had the talent to play anywhere near this level.
That piece dissolves quite dramatically into ‘Gat Kirwani’ , which is kind of the Eastern equivalent of ‘Ski-ing’. Led by a sitar showing off just how quickly and powerfully it can play, its accompanied by table and the high-pitched whine of the santoor and demonstrates just how impressive the three sitar players George worked with on this album are. Fast and furious, its kind of the Western equivalent to a musical jam session, sounding spontaneous and adding bit by bit to the same basic idea each ‘verse’. As far as I can tell this piece isn’t used in the film (although, again, some small footage was cut for DVD), but its a shame it wasn’t used as it sounds urgent and expressive, like all good film music should.
‘Dream Scene’ is the most oddball song on the album, fittingly for accompanying perhaps the most oddball scene of many in the film. The professor dreams that he’s engaged in battle for the model’s affections with the photographer and tries to defeat him with a sword and then a pen (when the blade of the sword magically vanishes). Later the photographer defeats him with an oversized lipstick and a 10 foot cigarette (I told you this was a weird film!) Musically we hear lots of sweeps from the harp-like santoor but played backwards, before Indian voices (unheard in the film) seemingly improvise their way round a song that would sound rather traditional had it not been wrapped up in such odd surroundings. Both the male and the female singers sound superb, adding just the right tone of timid concern, but sadly neither are credited on the song’s sleeve. A sudden angry flourish from the santoor then ushers in more jangly piano triple-tracked, horns galore and Ringo going bezerk on his drums (‘Roy Dyke’ of the Remo Four gets a credit, but it sounds very much in Ringo’s style to me). Another angry flourish then gives way to a moody horn part that’s heard held against an eerie bass rumble and a flourish of double-tracked harmonicas (played by 1940s star Tommy Reilly) and a police siren – though goodness only knows why. It’s a shame that this opening moody section wasn’t turned into a full song as its the most interesting part of a piece that goes on rather too long and ends in a very clichéd and 1967-style way by having someone (possibly George) dictate Hari Krishna sayings while accompanied by slowed down tapes and tape loops of bats and chiming bells. It’s not one of the better tracks on the album and sounds like Genesis in the Peter Gabriel days having a nervous breakdown after being walloped by a sitar.
‘Party Seacombe’, however, is, with a classic churning riff which could easily have become a classic with the addition of lyrics and vocals. Ringo’s drumming gives the song a very Beatlesy effect too, although its The Remo Four’s Colin Manley on guitar rather than George. The main tune is played on a wah-wah pedal that’s very effective, counterpointed as ever on this album by a slightly off pitch (probably varispeeded) acoustic guitar that sounds very ear-catching. There’s also another little tune as heard on the organ, with a very pretty turn of phrase that, had this been a Who song, would have been the yearning reflective serious Townshend passage in between the Daltrey ranting. In the film this scene does indeed accompany a party going on in the model’s flat with the bright lights and effects seemingly out to show everyone having a great time – however scratch below the effects and you can see that everyone is just sitting around and stoned out of their minds; not that far off the professor at his most eccentric in this film. The addition of the word ‘Seacombe’ to this track has always puzzled me, as has the fact that this song wasn’t passed over to the Beatles (as was its sister song ‘The Inner Light’); both pieces show a real promise for becoming full proper ‘songs’ as opposed to flotsam and jetsam recorded for the film. With the power and shuffle of ‘Old Brown Shoe’, the elegant grace of ‘The Inner Light’ and the slight air of oddness that made ‘Only A Northern Song’ so compelling, this is Wonderwall’s peak and a relief after so many less straightforward songs. It sounds like late 60s Beach Boys with a twinge of Jefferson Airplane and a soupcon of Travelling Wilburys in its bright, breezy optimism.
‘Love Scene’ is also gorgeous but in an entirely different way, being one of the most beautiful melodies that George ever wrote (it’s also the only time you can hear him on this album, as he ‘sings’ the end of the sitar line at the end of the intro to this song). It features a sitar and a sarod not so much battling each other this timer as circling each other, improvising phrases in a call and answer session that in Western hands would sound more like Motown or soul. The two players are going at such a rate of knots that the deeper pitched sarod player loses his way and stumbles a bit – the rest of the track is of such high quality, though, that it was thought good enough to be allowed to stand. This track appears in the film alongside footage of the photographer and model having sex and is a suitable accompaniment, given the way that the two instruments on this recording are now working together in tandem rather than fighting each other all the way. Joyous and full of wonder, this is George having fun by employing some of the best Indian musicians around and getting them to work out a song based round a simple phrase that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Beatles record of the time. The other highlight of the record, it s one of the longest songs on the album but doesn’t outlast its welcome. It sounds like nothing less than the sun coming out.
‘Crying’, however, is pretty horrible, for the first few minutes at least, with George taking the film scene of the pregnant jilted model crying alone in her room all too literally (these scratchy tones do an all too good job at sounding like uncontrollable tears). The song really gets going in the second half with a very expressive melody played on the sarod which gives up trying to do sound effects and suddenly starts playing properly, with a very edgy, tension-building section that sounds more like a violin. The tune seems to be full of hate and guilt as well as tears and is such a perfect accompaniment to what the ‘Penny Lane’ character must be feeling that its a shame more of it wasn’t used in the film. The track comes to a sudden end, too, despite sounding as if it was going to go on to something greater. It sounds like The BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop trying to create the sound for the most annoying race of Dr Who aliens ever.
‘Cowboy Music’ is also a bit daft, with Tommy Reilly’s mouthorgan doing a good impression of being home on the range. This actually comes from earlier in the film when the cracks between model and photographer are showing, with the latter making a worried phone call about his ‘delusional’ partner that’s among the most serious moments in the film – while all the time rocking back and forth on a giant rocking horse! The star of this track is whoever is playing the nylon guitar effect (presumably Colin Manley as it doesn’t sound like George), managing to sound exactly like every cowboy serial since the year dot. George Harrison was a big cowboy film fanatic in his youth, incidentally, and may well have picked on the ‘horse’ motif in order to make ‘his’ own cowboy segment, based on all the films he’d have seen at the Liverpool cinema in his youth. It sounds like Clint Eastwood caught in a 60s psychedelic hell.
‘Fantasy Sequins’ starts the way ‘Crying’ ended, with a low and sombre tone played on the sarod, an instrument that really does tug at the heart strings. The tune soon opens up into a much more relaxed and happy sounding song, though, sounding not unlike the accompaniment to a Jewish wedding (this is indeed the point in the film where the professor has dozed off again and imagines himself married to the model, after a helpless period left out in the ‘snow’, as signified by this piece’s moody beginnings). Again this lovely piece of music should have been much longer and is a nice starting point for a full song, complete with lyric, but George is content to let it stand as merely a fragment. It sounds like an outtake from ‘Fiddler On The Roof’.
‘On The Bed’ is another terrific piece, with almost every instrument used so far on the album joining in on an epic piece that sounds not unlike George Martin’s film score for ‘Help!’, James Bond pastiches and all. This song sounds like more than just a spoof, though, accompanying the mad professor’s climb onto his roof, over the ‘wonderwall’ and into Penny’s flat, full of all the guilt, confusion, determination, joy and sorrow that scene encompasses. There are several high points to this track, such as Ashton’s manic piano which chirps like an annoying parrot throughout, along with Vinaik Vora’s surprisingly angry sounding thar-shanhai and another terrific guitar solo from Colin Manley. A great example of how West can meet East and still sound totally convincing, its among the better songs on the album and should have been used in the film more I think. One or two fans have likened the central tune to this song as being in some way related to the Beatles B-side ‘Baby You’re A Rich Man’ recorded around this time – it’s perfectly plausible that one should have inspired the other, but I think its more a case of George loving the wavery sound of the sitar so much it kind of seeped its way into the Beatles’ muses after a while. It sounds like the closing music to a great 1960s sitcom, this music, one where you know something exciting’s about to happen.
‘Glass Box’ is a pretty little Eastern interlude, with Misra’s tabla joined by three sitar players, all eager in their desire to reach the end of the song first and all playing their instruments the plucked ‘Western’ way as if they are guitars. Too short at 2 minutes to make much impact, this is nevertheless another strong ‘riff’ song that could have been turned into a really tight and impressive track with a little more to go on. In the film the professor is hiding in the wardrobe, watching worriedly as the girl commits suicide before his eyes to this track, with all the scary tension of the scene reflected well in the music. The ‘round’ at the end of this song is particularly lovely, like the end to a favourite nursery rhyme (as played on sitars!)
‘Wonderwall To Be Here’ is proof that George could write traditional sounding instrumental film type music when he wanted to, with this heavily orchestrated song not sounding out of place in a John Williams score (and exactly the sort of thing the ‘Help!’ soundtrack by George Martin spoofed). It’s impressive this piece, with a lovely tune full of yearning for times lost that really suits the drama of the end of the film when you think its all going to go wrong (don’t worry, it all goes right by the end). The closest this album gets to a ‘love’ song (even if its between a batty old professor and a dying girl whose unconscious so doesn’t even know her neighbour is there to rescue her), it features a winning mix ofthe traditional and the exotic, with some very Moody Blues-ish mellotrons kicking in near the end of a track that’s dominated by tinkling piano and lush violins. If Paul McCartney wasn’t jealous at George’s ability to create such gorgeous sounding melodies out of nothing then he should have been – given some equally fine lyrics this would have become a Beatles standard without any doubt. The offspring of the 1930s and the flower power era, this lovely instrumental shouldn’t work at all but somehow does effortlessly.
The album - and the film - then ends on a rather down note musically, something which surprises me because the last scene is actually a happy one (the professor returns to work on ‘his’ side of the Wonderwall, but as a hero applauded by his colleagues and with his eyes now open to the other side of life, with the two sides conjoined as the microbes under his microscope turn into the waving figure of the girl and the scientific and emotional existing side by side at last). What we get to accompany that is a slow and stately chant, something more akin to George’s work with the Radna Krishna Temple on Apple rather than the rest of this eclectic record. John Lennon once said that for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ he wanted the sound of a thousand Tibetan monks chanting the secrets of the universe – on George’s budget this is about the closest he could get to that sound but it’s still highly impressive. The tune is lovely and would have made for another fine Beatles song, especially when the instrumental interlude kicks in, with a sorrowful flute circling helplessly around the unmoving held chord of the organ (note how, again, we get the emotional and the stable in the same place together). It’s a fine piece of music, but you can’t help feeling that both the film and the album of ‘Wonderwall’ deserved something just that little bit more special to end on. In short, this is what the CD soundtrack would sound like were Songs Of Praise ever to do an episode on prog rock!
What we have, then, is either an album of aimless doodling on a bunch of wild and wacky instruments with no clear lyrics and set to an unfathomable film, or one of the greatest multimedia creations of the 1960s after ‘Head’, with the soundtrack to this album an eclectic and emotional mix of sounds that perfectly convey the ‘us and them’ message of the film whilst giving kindness and hope to both sides of the conflict. It’s often said of Pink Floyd’s near namesake ‘The Wall’ that the album is too po-faced, overladen in concepts and without the subtlety and humour Roger Waters has in his normal work. Wonderwall is the opposite, a giggling mix of symphonic sounds that do their best to create a mood of tension, yearning and solitude without having to sing a single word (it speaks volumes that the music I knew for years before the film pretty much matched up exactly with what I expected from the film’s contents, having read synopses long before seeing the work). That said, Wonderwall lacks structure when heard as an album, it badly misses at least the odd lyrical song to give it some depth and emotion and doesn’t have the unshaking belief that things are going to work that Pink Floyd’s magnum opus does. I do love the way West meets East pretty equally on this album, though, and Wonderwall (both music and film) deserve better than to be filed away as ‘period curios’ . Certainly Wonderwall was way ahead of its time, only really catching the public’s mood in the late 1990s, when 60s psychedelia was back ‘in’ and it wasn’t quite so odd to veer from 1930s goonery to 1960s flower power to early 60s Merseybeat a few minutes apart. No wonder too that Noel Gallagher named one of his most successful songs after it – like Oasis’ biggest selling single parts of Wonderwall make no sense, its vague enough to mean anything and if you analyse it too hard your brain explodes under the strain. No matter, for all their faults this is why we love both pieces of art and there’s clearly a great brain at work in both, even if I’d struggle to tell you in print just exactly why both projects work so well. Wonderwall to be here? Yes indeed!
NOTE 1: Alan’s favourite films: Naturally enough ‘Head’ is at the top spot and The Beatles’ ‘Help!’ – see review no 3 – is right behind. The best of the rest are the dwarf-criminal escapade ‘Time Bandits’ (yes, OK, there is a George Harrison soundtrack but this is the one Monty Python related film that is actually funny rather than odd or dull – and yes I do include the hideously over-rated ‘Life Of Brian’!), the wonderfully poignant ‘Bridge To Terabithia’ (in which music features heavily too, strangely enough), the greatest and most criminally under-rated film Disney ever made ‘Pete’s Dragon’ (which features Helen Reddy’s singing the drop dead gorgeous ‘Candle In The Water’) and the fascinatingly slow and oblique ‘Lost In Translation’ (which has a cracking soundtrack). Only Tony Hancock’s movingly brave and bleak ‘The Punch and Judy Man’ and the psychedelic ‘The Neverending Story’ have no musical links in my top list – although the first does have a link with this ‘Wonderwall’ film via Irene Handl! You may notice something else about this list too; with the exception of ‘Bandits’ and ‘Dragon’ there are no direct lines between the good and the bad (and the ugly) in any of these films, simply people trying their best to live life their own way – the friction comes from other ordinary people living life their way and the clashes with their own (although you could make a case for ‘apathy’ in the case of ‘Story’). Even ‘Help!’ makes sense when you understand that the Kaiili tribe are simply following instructions left to them that they think will extend peace and tranquillity to their sect (with poor Ringo caught up in the middle of everything!)