Monday, 20 May 2013
George Harrison "Somewhere In England" (1981) (Album Review)
“They say they like it, but down in the market, it may not go down well as it’s too laidback, they want some oom-pah-pah, nothing like Frank Zappa, and not new wave – they don’t play that crap” “try beating your head against a brick wall, hard like a stone, don’t have time for the music, they want the blood from a clone” “I feel the clock ticking, I feel the nitpicking, I almost quit kicking at the wall, there seems a confusion, they’re under the illusion that they know just what will suit you all” “There is no sense to it, pure pounds and pence to it, they’re so intense it makes me amazed” “You dance at the discotheque, that’s why you look a wreck” “You’ve got that look inside that says you’re half alive and you’re lost inside, meanwhile you’re back in your cage, ego’d out on the stage, where the unconsciousness rules” “You are the one that I’d die for, and you’re all that is real, you are the essence of that which we taste, touch and see” “Living with good and bad I always looked up to you, now we’re left cold and sad by someone, the devil’s best friend, someone who offended all” “Deep in the darkest night I send out a prayer to you, now in the world of light, where the spirit lives free of the lies and all else that we despised” “He’s fighting the forces of darkness, limitation, falsehood, mortality and falsehood which bar him the way back into the higher world, while his whole being is bewildered” “you people don’t have time to listen to Him, you’re too busy fighting revolutions that keep you back down in the lower world, your mirrors of understanding they need cleansing, polish away the dust of desire before pure light will reflect in them” “Strange how we hold on to power, while death holds on to us more with every passing hour, and all your friends will always be – until they’re drunk away or shot away or die away from you” “We’ve got to save the world – someone else might want to use it” “Our birds and wildlife all destroyed to keep some millionaire employed”
GEORGE HARRISON “SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND” (1981)
Blood From A Clone/Unconsciousness Rules/Life Itself/All Those Years Ago/Baltimore Oriole//Teardrops/That Which I Have Lost/Writing On The Wall/Hong Kong Blues/Save The World (plus Flying Hour/Lay His Head/Sat Singing)
By 1981 George Harrison had long given up attempts to keep up with the rat-race and as the public paid less and less attention to his new material, so did the ex-Beatle. Famously, when George released his next album ‘Gone Troppo’ he didn’t even tell his own brother, who was working part-time in the garden of George’s Friar Park estate and happened to hear one of the songs by accident on radio. ‘Somewhere In England’ should be another of those Harrison solo albums released solely for the few faithful hanging on his every word, still with a lot on his mind to say but desperate for privacy from the title on down, only two rather unfortunate events took place to put him back in the public eye again. The first came in 1980 when Warner Brothers did the unthinkable and – for the first time ever – rejected a submitted LP by a Beatle (technically Warners weren’t George’s record company but, as part-owners and distributers of the ‘Dark Horse’ record label they could felt entitled to a say). ‘England’ was re-submitted with four new songs to replace three old ones (though probably not the four that Warners were worried about – see below) but for all its worth became known in Beatle-fan circles as ‘the Beatles album so terrible it had to be re-done’. The second event was even worse, the sudden unexpected death of John Lennon in between the first and second submissions of this album in May 1981. As the first Beatles-related release since Lennon’s death, a lot of weight and expectation was resting on this album’s shoulders again and George even referred to the event directly in his half-hearted tribute ‘All Those Years Ago’, written more because he thought he ought to say something about the incident than out of a true need to get things off his chest.
So, what we have here is – like most of the albums we’ve reviewed here recently – a bit of a mixture. George was cajoled into being a bit more ‘upbeat’ for his second submission and so we have three songs that largely say ‘hey, you all, look at me!’ (even if ‘Blood From A Clone, particularly, is a joke; a scathing attack on musicians who make uptempo music just for the sake of it and record companies who don’t know any better than to ask) nestling amongst five understated songs about humility and pursuing a lack of ego and two pre-war Hoagy Carmichael cover songs. No wonder no one in 1981 knew quite how to take this record, which spent half its time getting as close to George’s core as any record since ‘Living In The Material World’ – and then threw it all away with three ‘pop’ songs and two of the strangest AAA covers there have ever been. Personally I don’t rate this second version of ‘Somewhere In England’ much, even if it does contain two of George’s better ‘forgotten’ songs in the gorgeous ‘Life Itself’ (a ‘God’ song far vaguer and therefore far more successful than most of the songs from ‘Material World’) and ‘Blood From A Clone’ (in which George laughs at stupid empty pop songs and then, just to prove he can, sets his caustic words to one of the catchiest riffs of the decade).
Should Warner Brothers have bothered? Well probably not. George was never going to suddenly become a huge seller overnight – not without the sea-change in nostalgia that had occurred by the time of ‘Cloud Nine’ anyway – and although what George added to the album is actually pretty good it just makes the rest of the album sound stranger and even less commercial. Taken as a mood piece, however, the first version makes a lot more sense: the track listing should read ‘Hong Kong Blues/Writing On The Wall/Flying Hour/Lay His Head/Unconsciousness Rules/Sat Singing/Life Itself/Tears Of The World/Baltimore Oriole/Save The World’, omitting ‘Blood From A Clone/Teardrops/All Those Years Ago’, which makes for a much more meditative album on life and direction, rather than a hybrid between that and a dissection of the music scene, one of those ‘standalone’ albums like ‘Pet Sounds’ or ‘Band On The Run’ where each song would sound wacko anywhere else but makes a kind of sense together for one album. And whose to say that introspective albums didn’t sell anyway? ‘All Things Must Pass’ is a triple album that touches on almost all the themes of this album (if from a slightly younger, more giving perspective) and that sold by the bucketload. Frankly, they should have left George alone for this album – but got onto his case before he started the next one, using ‘All Those Years Ago’ as a ‘springboard’ for a more commercial album. It’s a crying shame that the four ‘missing’ songs aren’t more widely available because while they’re not necessarily better than what made the album or particularly different (though ‘sat Singing’ is quite sweet), they do deserve a better fate than to be a freebee single with a book that few Beatle fans could afford to buy (George’s first edition of ‘I Me Mine’, which would have cost you some £175 back in the days of the late 1970s when you could buy cars for less than that; as a result I’m assuming you don’t have a copy of these songs, but luckily for us more modern scholars youtube feature all four). As a result, we’ll ignore what other review sites have done down the years and discuss these four ‘extra’ songs properly at the end of the review.
Perhaps the first thing to notice about this album is how unhappy it suddenly is. While melancholia is not exactly unknown in George’s work, his last two albums ’33 and 1/3rd’ and ‘George Harrison’ had been lesser and greater works respectively about George’s burgeoning romance with second wife Olivia Trinidad and the new, more colourful way the world now looked to him.
That feeling hasn’t gone entirely, but the jollity on this album isn’t as heartfelt – it comes from the written-in-a-hurry pop song ‘Teardrops’, the twin Hoagy Carmichael covers and the jaunty, hummable melody that accompanies one of George’s most gut-wrenching lyrics on ‘That Which I Have Lost’ for reasons of contrast. The general themes of this album are that the world is a lonely, unhappy place that’s been mis-treated by the humans who live on it and where crazy unfair things happen for no reason at all (and remember, most of this was written and recorded before Lennon’s awful death). If it has another Beatle-twin record its ‘Wildlife’, Paul McCartney’s first realisation that there is more to planet Earth than the humans on top of the food chain, and it’s a great shame that Paul and George weren’t talking much in this era as they actually had a great deal in common (George had flirted with vegetarianism while in the Beatles but only took it up after farmer Paul in the early 70s – and second wife Olivia had offered him exactly the newfound confidence-after-a-crisis that Linda had helped McCartney cope with about a decade earlier). Paul is characteristically more upbeat, however, believing that if enough people see the ‘truth’ then things will change – George isn’t so sure anymore, ‘drowning’ in the start of a decade that already seemed like a money-grabbing, back-stabbing anti-60s (as I write this Margaret Thatcher’s funeral was less than a week ago and it amazes me how even her enemies were heard eulogising for her loss – hearing a record like ‘Somewhere In England’ takes you right back to the heart of that uncertainty and fear far more than empty rhetoric and remember this is before the Falklands War truly left the country divided). This unhappy, dark-but-unfocussed feeling is - more than anything else - why ‘Somewhere In England’ was so poorly received when it came out. It’s not a bad LP by any means (its way better – and deeper - than some of Georg’s other records such as ‘Extra Texture’ or even ‘Cloud Nine’ for starters) and to some extent it reflected its troubled times better than almost all other albums out that year, but it wasn’t the soothing tonic fans needed in the wake of Lennon’s death and it’s whole packaging and demeanour screamed ‘leave me alone!’ when most records were more about the publicity and packaging than the songs.
Perhaps that’s why there’s not one but two Hoagy Carmichael songs. People struggle now to accept that a member of the leading 60s youth revolt of the day actually liked the kind of songs the Beatles killed off forever (see most reviews of McCartney’s ‘crooner’ album ‘Kisses on The Bottom’ last year, including our own), but it was even stranger in 1981. Sadly we never heard what the songwriting veteran had to say about it because Carmichael died just seven months after George’s tribute, although George never referred to the idea again, never recorded another Carmichael song before or since and even failed to mention him even again in a list of ‘influences’ interviewers asked him for incessantly down the years. Typically George, Harrison doesn’t cover the obvious songs (like ‘Stardust’ or ‘Georgia On My Mind’), but two obscure songs even huge Hoagy fans don’t seem to know about. Interestingly some fans – who seem to dislike small print – claimed they were ‘George’s best songs in years’, which perhaps shows how eclectic and unusual Harrison’s songwriting tastes had become by this time. I’m convinced it was these two deeply non-hip songs that Warner Brothers objected to so strongly and which they were convinced George would boot off the album when it was first rejected (Harrison, not exactly in desperate need of money but with an expensive estate to maintain would surely not want to give up any songwriting royalties?) They’re certainly the pair of songs I would have chosen, but interestingly many fans do rate them as the best thing on the album – even the ones who know full well who actually wrote them.
The biggest talking point though, beyond a doubt, is ‘All Those Years Ago’. In a way McCartney was lucky – his seemingly doomed ‘McCartney II’ project had been delayed so many times and interrupted by so many awful events (not least of which was his drugs bust in Tokyo, for which he was imprisoned for a week) that many fans thought it was never coming out. But come out it did – in Summer 1980. That left George as the next Beatle ‘due’ to release something (anything!) after Lennon’s death and, more to come to terms with his grief than to truly write a tribute to his friend, a despondent George wrote ‘All Those Years Ago’ soon after. McCartney was lucky in another sense too – after almost a decade of rowing he and Lennon were now, if not quite best friends then a long way from enemies, Paul and Linda often turning up at John and Yoko’s Dakota home to ‘talk babies’ and ‘sing songs’. George, who’d barely ever had a row with Lennon his whole life through (and he’d known him since George was 13) wasn’t speaking to him at the time, after Lennon got slightly more uppity than he should have done about George’s autobiography ‘I Me Mine’ and its lack of references to the Beatles’ self-proclaimed leader (McCartney gets even fewer mentions and – anyway – it’s not that kind of a book, George getting bored with a linear narrative somewhere around the formation of the Quarrymen and turning instead to a discussion of his favourite guitars, racing cars and plants. The person who gets the most mentions in the book is F1 legend Jackie Stewart by some margin and not a musician at all). ‘All Those Years Ago’ is cross more than its sad and guilty far more than its reverential, George indignant in a general sense at the way some human beings cause each other hurt rather than referring directly to Lennon and sounding more upset at not being able to say goodbye on ‘his’ terms than upset at the fact he’s saying goodbye at all. To be fair, with all that history that so many millions of people shared in too, ‘All Those Years Ago’ must have been one of the hardest songs George ever had to write, being personal and universal all at the same time (McCartney gets the formula right for his Lennon tribute ‘Here Today’ from ‘Tug Of War’, a ballad about how much he loved his old partner – and a knowing joke to fans when ‘knowing you you’d probably laugh and say we were miles apart’; released in mid-1982 as an album track, though, Paul had a much easier time airing his song to a heartbroken, grieving world). In a rare show of solidarity, Paul and Ringo agreed to sing backup vocals on the song as early as January 1981 (a single month after Lennon’s death) and Paul brought Denny Laine with him too, making this almost the last official ‘Wings’ outing before calling time on the band. You wonder what Lennon’s three old friends (Denny knew Lennon well too) made of a song that blows hot and cold, ranging from love to hatred in the space of a single verse and with references to religion and life after death – or what Yoko thought of it, still grieving in her Dakota tower and hiding from the world. Was she asked to be on the record? If so, was she too heartbroken to contemplate it – or did old hostilities still wrangle? (It was George, not easygoing Paul as often assumed, who had the biggest problem with Yoko encroaching on studio space and time; it speaks volumes, too, that both Paul and Ringo flew out to be with Yoko within a week of Lennon’s death while a nervy George stayed put, naturally half-afraid some assassin would get him and his family too).
Forget Hoagy Carmichael, though, even forget Lennon for the moment (who George seems to spend more time thinking about across next record ‘Gone Troppo’ anyway): this album is all about one figure and that’s God. George had retreated from writing about his Hare Krishna beliefs in every song he wrote (having lost half his audience by doing exactly that in 1971) and, according to most reports, his beliefs had taken a bit of a knock anyway after the loss of Patti Boyd to Eric Clapton and the frustrating, endless financial struggles over the ‘Bangla Desh’ benefit concert (which was meant to be a simple one-off gesture to doing good and turned into three years of business meetings from hell with cynical record companies and tax officials not understanding the concept of charity – though, to be fair, George and Ravi Shankar had handed Warners with the idea as a fait accompli). But thanks in part surely to the spiritual Olivia and the birth of George’s first son Dhani in 1979 (nothing makes humans more spiritual than the seemingly impossible art of creating a new life), God is back o0n the agenda. These aren’t the sure, wailing, confident songs of a new convert though, but an elder and wiser, definitely more troubled believer. ‘Why?’ go the storyline for most of these songs ‘can’t we do something about these awful events? Why can’t you step in and solve them? Or give us the courage to do so?’ George has moved on from cajoling and threatening his audience that ‘The lord loves the one that loves the lord – and if you don’t love him then you don’t get nothing’ and is instead trying to look for ways to show us, not tell us. To be honest I’m very close to being persuaded myself by the sheer beauty of ‘Life Itself’, which starts off as a simple love song and only gradually makes it clear its being sung to ‘one of the nine billion named of God’, while the lyrics to ‘That Which I Have Lost’ and ‘Writing On The Wall’ make clear just how lost George felt without belief in a higher purpose to life. (In case you want to know, I’m a Jainist, the branch of Buddhism that believes in equality, democracy and the gift of life to all and that mankind was brought here by aliens who still check up on us from time to time. Well, it wasn’t going to be anything straightforward was it?!) ‘Lost’ is a word that crops up a lot on this album, in fact, a word that seems the very opposite of the devout young believer whose only confidence was in his God. But, ironically, it’s by being lost that George knows he is on the right track and that certain mysteries will be denied him till the day he dies.
Spiritualism and England aren’t two words that often go together, despite the fact that the spiritualist church thrived in Victorian England and still has a bigger following in the country today than most of Europe. The title, kept from the original submission of this album although the artwork was changed, is a puzzling one. George had already done the most basic, earthly thing he could do with an album title the last time out (simply calling it ‘George Harrison’), so here he goes one better, making it as vague and as everyman as he possibly can. The exact location of where George is at right now doesn’t matter – what matters is that he’s back in the real world again, sort of. The cover for the album is actually a joke, though – George seems to be lying down by the side of some anonymous A-road with painted yellow ‘non-parking’ lines you can see anywhere in Britain. Only when he walks away (on the back cover) do we realise that he is, in fact, stood in front of a painting and is actually in an art gallery. Looks can be deceptive, you see, with George as spiritually ‘high’ as he can be while at the same time spiritually ‘low’. In other words, spiritual light can come at the most unlikeliest times and in the unlikeliest of places – we just have to be ready to make the most of them when they happen. For the record, there was nothing wrong with the original cover which is a rather arty shot of George with his hair flowing out into the familiar shape of Great Britain (which always looks to me as if God had a bit of plasticine left over which he didn’t know what to do with). I don’t know what it has to do with the album but clearly good money was spent on it and it’s certainly not the worst album cover I’ve ever seen, so I do wonder why Warner Brothers took such a disliking to it?
Overall, then, ‘Somewhere In England’ is a puzzled and often troubled album. It tries hard to be positive, put a brave face on things and place its faith in something bigger – but unlike the old-before-his-years sage Harrison of ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Living In The Material World’ that assurance sounds deeply troubled and insecure. This is one of those albums that works best when it’s trying to be simple and heartfelt, with all those fears and doubts and quiet faith coagulating into some truly wonderful music and the only reason it’s not better remembered or a better seller is, ironically, because Warners threw out so much of that introspective spirit in its attempts to make just another ‘pop’ album. ‘Somewhere In England’ was never going to be a million seller, even with Lennon’s death suddenly making the Beatles fashionable again, and this album is far from the yeah-yeah-yeah moptop filled comfort blanket that fans so craved in early 1981. All that said, I much prefer this flawed record to Lennon’s own all-too-cosy equivalent ‘Double Fantasy’, a comeback that had been less than warmly received until his death sent it back up the charts and gave it a retrospective golden glow, even if I don’t admire it quite as much as the image-breaking ‘McCartney II’ (another album cut in half and all but ruined from record company interference). At least George is trying to write from the heart (when the record company will let him) and he tries quite a few new sounds and styles as well as a couple of songs that no one except George Harrison would ever have thought of doing. ‘Somewhere In England’ is far from the greatest thing George Harrison ever made, but it’s quiet, understated melancholy has much going for it and – certainly – it’s not a bad record for someone who had refused to fight the music business rat race and was really a full-time gardener in this period, making records merely to fill in time and buy a few new potting sheds for his Friar Park estate.
‘Blood From A Clone’ is a wicked opener, with George’s sarcasm the biggest it had been since ‘Taxman’. Ordered by the record company to come up with something ‘commercial’, George has his cake and eats it too, putting together a genuinely thrilling, pulsatingly catchy pop song that instrumentally could have been a track by ‘Blondie’ or ‘The Pet Shop Boys’ with some terrifically caustic lyrics about how stupid and inane pop songs can be when there’s a whole world of experiences out there to convey to audiences. By doing this, George proves that he doesn’t write commercial songs because he can’t but because he thinks they’re beneath him and even if you didn’t know the circumstances behind the song he makes it clear that this song is being brought to us under duress. The closest thing style-wise to the special brand of tongue-in-cheek humour seen in George’s Handmade Films of the day, this song features some truly genius lines: ‘They want some oom-pah-pah, nothing like Frank Zappa, and not new wave – they won’t play that crap.’ The joke of the time, by the way, is that radio stations adored new wave in 1981 when this song came out – but George has been there, done that, got the Beatles t-shirt and knows that new wave is just another passing phase that will have died a death when the next big thing comes along. He’s in music for the long-term and won’t sell his soul to one in-fashion style that will make him a hero one week and a laughing stock the next (well, not yet anyway – ‘Cloud Nine’ is still six years away...) The pun in the title is spot-on too: all the record companies really want is a band that sound like the one that’s ‘hip’ that week, whoever it is – they don’t really care about what the artists are trying to say. George makes his own aging rock God put-down of the new music scene too: ‘Don’t want no music, but they’re making you sick with some awful noises that may get played’. George didn’t always get it right - he jumped on the ‘Oasis are simply a noisy Beatles tribute act’ bandwagon far too quickly – and at just 37 is one of the younger ‘rock dinosaurs’ still around at the time anyway, but for his older fans who’d lived through the 1960s this song must have been greeted with a huge cheer. How very George to tackle the stupid blandness of a genre by using that very medium and spinning it into a song about how awful it is. Being even more stupid than George gives them credit for in this song, the executives at Warners reportedly told him how pleased they were with this song and could they have a few more songs like it, please? Sometimes you wonder just how hard the people who release these albums actually listen to them....Quite deliberately unlike anything else George wrote before and since, ‘Blood From A Clone’ is a very funny joke and among the best songs on this album – though naturally it sticks out on this record like a sore thumb (or a sore head, what with all that beating it against a brick wall and all...)
‘Unconsciousness Rules’ was the original album’s sole truly uptempo song and is one of the catchiest songs here. Although the sound is pure early 70s stadium rock it’s kind of like the last song too in that it tries to put an upbeat, positive spin on what is actually a rather deep and melancholic song. The poor hapless narrator has been living the high life every night, dancing the night away at discotheques (note the disdainful way George uses the full word, here, instead of ‘disco’, like a weary head-shaking parent), finds no time to relax and lives only for pleasure and fulfilling his ego. Inside, though, the man’s subconscious is tearing away at him, trying to get him to stop and take stock of his life, showing itself only in the stains on his clothes, the look in his eyes (‘which says you’re only half alive’) and his natural ‘stance’. For years I assumed this song was a generational put-down a la ‘Blood From A Clone’, but having done a bit more reading in the years since getting to know this album I’m pretty sure George is talking about himself here. Since George’s death a surprising amount of people (including his two wives Patti and Olivia) have come forward to say what a double-life George led, alternating long bouts of religious devotion with debauched nights of drink and drugs. The Martin Scorcese documentary film ‘Living In The Material World’ (itself a highly revealing title) has callers coming round to George’s house and asking ‘is George’s hand in the prayer bag today – or out?’ Harrison’s spiritual side comes across loud and clear on his solo records, but then it would – these songs were messages to himself as much as to the world. Only occasionally does the mask slip, such as this album’s ‘sister song’ ‘Soft Hearted Hana’ from previous album ‘George Harrison’, a song about drugs that starts off comical and ends darkly, the sudden change in consciousness the song represents in the beginning merely ending up as a distorted song where the tape slows and speeds up at random. To me ‘Unconsciousness Rules’ sounds like George’s admission of guilt after one of these hedonistic bouts and his realisation that he might have to clear up his act for good with a toddler in the house to set an example to. The party-loving title track of his next album (‘Gone Troppo!’) suggests this battle was hard-won, though. A clever mix of an upbeat, uncaring tune with something darker behind the surface for fans who pay close attention, ‘Unconsciousness Rules’ is another under-rated song that tries hard to put on a smile but instead comes out crying.
‘Life Itself’ is the album highlight, a gorgeous slide-guitar led ballad that’s the single best God-centric song George had written since ‘Long Long Long’ in 1968. I had quite an interesting discussion with a reader about my review for George’s ‘Living In The Material World’ album where I confessed I felt like a pupil whose beloved and humane teacher had suddenly turned into a bully and I was suddenly being told what tyo do, feel and think for the good of all (something the young George would have rebelled against as much as anybody). Thankfully my problems with that album – the hectoring, breast-beating certainty and the sneering at the way we live our lives (and George had lived his) are over: this is a song that’s equally about faith and being a believer, but it comes from gradual learning from life and is written from the heart, not a short-term song written directly from a lecture. George’s guitar has never sounded warmer and the cosy glow of multi-layered George’s ‘aaah’-ing in the background is probably the single most Beatlesy moment on a Harrison solo record. The melody to this song is graceful and deeply beautiful, rounded and full like a McCartney-song than George’s more Lennonesque, disjointed songs where typically the lyrics take charge. Another song from Harrison’s back catalogue that sounds like this is ‘Something’, George’s best known love song which sounds similarly natural and sculpted; for the first verse ‘Life Itself’ could still be a traditional love song but it soon becomes clear George is singing about his renewed faith in God. This time, too, God isn’t the howling vengeful God of the Old Testament (as per ‘Material World’), but he’s not the cosy healer of the New Testament either; on this song he’s somewhere in between, bringing the ‘sun’ and the ‘rain’ in an opening verse that recalls both Beatles B-side ‘Rain’ and George’s own ‘Here Comes The Sun’. George offers too that he’d ‘die’ for his God’s love, that he’s the ‘light in death’ and ‘the breathe of life’ in one. Like ‘My Sweet Lord’, too, George keeps his religious options open and mentions half a dozen of the supposed ‘nine billion names of God’, making it clear that the God he’s speaking about is the same as any religion’s despite his Hare Krishna leanings. The best part, though, is that unlike ‘Material World’ you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the song – the beauty that George tries to tell us was created by God infuses the song so deeply that its a delight to listen to whatever your agreements on the words. The only negative part is the rather sudden end, in which the song fades just when George starts singing again – was there a verse cut from this song (by Warner Brothers again?) Or was George simply so carried away with his own work that he couldn’t stop singing? (He does sound particularly moved). The clear highlight of the album, ‘Life Itself’ is a marvellous song and clearly one into which a lot of thought and time had been invested, along with ‘Borrowed Time’ and ‘Coming Up’ the best Beatles work of the 1980s.
Strangely George’s tribute to Lennon ‘All Those Years Ago’ couldn’t sound less Beatlesy if it tried, leading many fans to wonder whether George was trying to distance himself from the ‘Mertseybeat’ sound and show how far he’d moved on since the break-up. Actually the truth is more prosaic: the first draft of the song was written for Ringo who was off gathering Beatle originals for his similarly doomed 1981 LP ‘Stop and Smell The Roses’ (actually amongst his very best solo work and shockingly still unavailable on CD). Lennon had written a song for that album too, believed by some to be the last song he ever wrote, a country-and-western spoof called ‘Life Begins at 40’ written on John’s 40th birthday two months to the day before his death (and in which, with a cruel irony, he sings ‘I’ve been dead for 39 [years]’; fans can hear the Lennon demo on the ‘Lennon Anthology’ box set but Ringo never had the heart to record it and replaced it with a Stephen Stills song). The first draft for the lyrics has never been heard but was apparently in the same vein as George’s later ‘When We Was Fab’, a mockingly affectionate look back at the Beatles years. With Lennon’s death, however, the song quickly got re-written into a tribute – a little too quick to be honest, as most of the lyrics have little to do with Lennon and more to do with George’s anger at his death. Unfortunately, the lyrics don’t really fit to the song’s bouncy feel-good tune (leftover from the first version) even though, attached to a ballad, some of them at least would have been deeply moving, George finally admits what John was so upset not to hear with the publication of ‘IMe Mine’ the year before: ‘living with good and bad, I always looked up to you’ and the song’s fifth verse, where George is too afraid to go outside so instead ‘deep in the darkest night, I send out a prayer to you’ is moving indeed. George is more cross than Paul is on his melancholic Lennon tribute ‘Here Today’, but then on ‘All Those Years Ago’ the shock and the anger are newer and George audibly struggles to keep his emotions in check as he roars against Mark Chapman as ‘someone – the devil’s best friend, someone who offended all’. George moves way outside the song to comment on the death of the 60s dream too in a verse surely left over from the original draft, commenting on how in the money-grabbing 80s ‘we’re living in a bad dream where they’ve forgotten all about mankind’. George sticks in another religious reference too in the last verse where he attacks the world for having ‘forgotten all about God – he’s the only reason we exist’, which seems like an odd place to make the comment (and the exact opposite of Lennon’s depiction of ‘God’ as defined on his first solo album – where ‘God is a [human] concept by which we measure our pain’).
Sadly, too, the much discussed ‘Beatles reunion’ (with Paul and Linda and Ringo and new wife Barbara Bach plus Denny Laine on backing vocals) is a let down, all five of them mixed down badly in the mix so that only Barbara and Linda’s falsettos are ever really heard and, annoyingly, even these vocals are all too often put through electronic effects a heartfelt song like this should have done without (its a shame too that Paul and Ringo weren’t invited to play on the song which is instead played by George’s regular band of session men). To be frank, it’s a shame George didn’t simply start again from scratch and make a song that truly fitted his feelings and mood: the cheery synth solo near the end of the song is in such bad taste I’m half-surprised Lennon’s ghost didn’t turn up and whallop his old friend one. Parts of the song do work though and are deeply affecting and the gesture to old friends was a kind one – but there’s a reason why this song disappeared from the airways as soon as 1981 was over, only to be heard again on extremely rare occasions: this was the wrong sort of a tribute to release as a single (and get so much hype and publicity) and yet it sounds wrong in the middle of the album too, where bizarrely the cheery tune makes it sounds like the second happiest song on the album. The irony is that John’s senseless, unforeseen death is exactly the sort of crazy, random death George sighs over elsewhere on the album as he tries to look for guidance and ‘Years Ago’ should by rights be the very heartbeat of the album, the place where the world in general can understand the state George’s head is in (because suddenly we were all in this darker, scarier, more random world too). The fact that it doesn’t and instead sounds like the odd song out is an awful shame – this song could and should have been great, the Rosetta Stone of the album that helps us interpret the other songs through George’s world view.
‘Baltimore Oriole’ at least sounds like a eulogy, although if it is a eulogy for a real person its probably about an event that happened when Lennon was still a toddler. A slow blues, with shades of ‘Blue Jay Way’, its an old obscure Hoagy Carmichael song from 1942 that lyrically reads like a film noire song. Baltimore in winter is ‘no life for a lady to be dragging her feathers around in the snow’, so off she flies to pastures new and the arms of another figure whom the narrator, uncharitably, declares war on (‘I’d like to ruffle his plumage’). This interpretation of the song retains the smoky feel of most cover versions down the years (mostly from the end of WW2) whilst subtly updating the song so that the strings are replaced by one of the better sounding synthesisers on the album and George’s slide guitar adds the dashes of colour in this bleak, bleak world. George copes well with a style so far removed from most things he’s ever had to sing, but sadly the drifting, rather tuneless song – that’s born for a real crooner to soar on and carry from verse to verse – sounds a bit of a mouthful in his voice. Despite some nice touches (one of the better saxophone solos of the period and a delightful wordless choir of multiple Georges ‘aaahing’ together that’s quite effective), this cover version never really comes off and simply fills up space where ‘Sat Singing’ and ‘Lay His Head’ deserved to have been. Odd, but not the oddest thing on the album by a long shot...
‘Teardrops’ is the funky pop single Warner Brothers requested till ‘All Those Years Ago’ got in the way and despite the fact that it was written under duress its one of George’s most inspired and developed songs in ages. Though hardly a substitute for the true sound of heartbreak George had mined on ‘All Things Must Pass’, there’s a kernel of truth in this song about hardship and broken hearts that clearly harks back to the last days with Patti. Ever the gardener, George reflects how ‘rain’ in everyone’s lives is a natural part of life that helps things to grow in time – no matter how ‘hopeless’ they feel at the time. George sings in the third person as if to distance himself from the song (‘In the heart of the lonely man...’) but switches back to first person for the catchy chorus where ‘I feel I’ve taken over from the rain’, crying his own tears long after the rain has stopped and chastising himself for feeling sorry for himself. The tune is upbeat and insistent, with a classic swirly synthesiser riff that really does sound like sparkling raindrops hanging in mid-air and there’s a breathless energy and excitement about the whole thing that this often downbeat album could have done with more. Compared to ‘All Those Years Ago’, however, ‘Teardrops’ is a much better thematic fit for the album, with a sad and quite genuine centre to a song that’s the musical equivalent of putting a brave face and a smile on unhappy events: even in his saddest songs Georrge doesn’t often go as far as he does here: ‘In the eyes of the lonely one everything is cold and hopeless that he looks upon’. While no ‘Blow Away’ (the song from George’s previous album that managed to be 100% heartfelt and delightfully catchy), ‘Teardrops’ is a better song than its often given credit for, a last nervously yelled ‘Teardroo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ps’ on an uncomfortable and unexpected key change hinting at the darker edges of the song. I hate to say it, but perhaps Warner Brothers had a point when they made George go back and record something ‘more commercial’ for the album.
‘That Which I Have Lost’ is another song that tries to sound, not happy exactly, but certainly comical whilst if you read the lyrics you get a whole different idea of what the song’s about. It starts like a patter song from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta which rattles through its first 40-word verse in what must be a record 20 seconds, all to the sound of a limp-legged riff in quadruple time that sounds like a modern take on the Hancock’s Half Hour theme tune. The whole song, though, is accompanied by more slide guitars than a musical playground, turning the song inwards towards country and grief. Whilst not as accomplished or as strong as the juggle between two different worlds heard elsewhere on the album, this is still an under-rated song about being lost and needing direction, as George turns out to the God he once turned his back on ‘give me that which I have lost!’ The wordy verses are highly revealing about George’s state of mind in 1980, even if they sound more like a theological essay than a pop song: ‘He’s fighting the forces of darkness, limitation, falsehood and mortality which bar him the way back in to the higher world...’. George speaks again of a sudden insight that got him back on track (the same spiritual moment that inspired ‘Sat Singing’?!), ‘enriching his life in more ways than words can tell’ and another reference to ‘rain’ as a good thing, washing the slate clean as well as dampening the spirits. However, there’s already signs of the ‘old’ George convert in the last verse as he turns on his audience: ‘You people don’t have time to listen to him, you’re too busy fighting revolutions that keep you back down in the lower world...’ (perhaps someone should have mentioned to George that the Beatles represented the biggest and most successful revolution of the 20th century, if only in a class sense?) A ‘The Lord Loves The One Who Loves The Lord’ for the 1980s, it’s a shame this last verse is here because it goes back to making George sound grumpy and prejudiced, the very opposite of spiritually enlightened – I much preferred the song in its first two verses when it was about George’s own experience and salvation.
‘Writing On The Wall’ is a sad, slow ballad with a vocoder-treated George seemingly talking to himself as a mystical deity, trying to wake himself up from the drug-addled non-believing funk he was in. A sad, slow, reflective song that’s built from two separate sections which keeps switching between the two, I prefer the wordier second half to the more clichéd first half with its reflections on how it’s ‘strange the way we hold onto things that have no grace or power...’ while the currency we should be worrying about isn’t money but our time on Earth. George has rarely sounded as unhappy or sorry for himself as he does on this song, berating himself for ‘thinking it would always last – your life, your friends would always be till they’re drunk or shot away from you’. Fans and critics have naturally assumed George is talking about Lennon again here, but no – John wasn’t dead till several months after this song was recorded (chances are George is thinking about faithful Beatles roadie Mal Evans here, shot by police in 1972 after a drunken depressed fit that led him to threaten to shoot, err, himself – talk me through how their presence helped exactly?) The song then ends with George speaking to us directly, telling us ‘your life is in your hands’ and that we have the chance to put our lives right too. This song is the epitome of understatement, George accompanied by nothing more than a synthesiser squiggle, some scratchy guitar and a rattled tambourine by his old friend Ray Cooper which seems to speak volumes with every rattle. In fact, it sounds like a ‘hangover’ song, George singing quietly so as not to disturb his aching, partied-out body whilst vowing never to fall into the same trap ever again.
‘Hong Kong Blues’ is the second Carmichael cover and if the first seemed unexpected and unlikely, this song is even stranger. George sounds as if he’s rehearsing for ‘Shanghai Surprise’, the ill-fated mid-80s Handmade Film starring Madonna and Sean Penn and filmed during their very ill-fated divorce – the film flops badly despite the presence of three (admittedly pretty lame) Harrison songs on the soundtrack. Written in 1939, this song is unusual in Carmichael’s back catalogue in that the composer wrote the words as well as the tune, which might explain why they’re so, erm, odd. To be fair, Carmichael is clearly on the side of the ‘unfortunate coloured man’ who gets arrested and charged with a white man’s crime simply for having the wrong coloured skin (making this a brave and hippie-ish statement by 1930s American standards), which you can’t help but applaud. But the song never really gets going from there, following the man around from bar to bar as he stumbles drunkenly through the aftermath of the incident, making the listener unsure whether they should be sorry for him or not (though he does turn down the chance of having opium). The words, too, don’t scan: just listen to the opening line ‘It’s the story of an unfortunate coloured man’ which should go ‘do-duh do-duh do-duh do-duh dooo-ooh duh’ but somehow ends up with four syllables too many. There’s no resolution, either, which makes the whole thing sound like a waste: the man isn’t reprieved, the original isn’t caught and no one learns from the story. I’m not quite sure why George decided to revive it for this album, especially as it tries to go for a Chinese feel in the music and last time I checked Hong Kong wasn’t ‘Somewhere In England’. This is the oddest moment on the album – and on pretty much all of George’s solo work too if I’m honest.
‘Save The World’ tries to end the album on another high with a catchy breezy riff and some ear-catching sound effects (of shop-tills, crying babies, machine guns, nuclear bombs and shouting crowds) that make it the most ‘immediate’ song on the album. You don’t have to scratch very far below the surface, though, to hear the glumness at the heart of this song too, which starts with the joke ‘We’ve gotta save the world – someone else might want to use it’ but then awkwardly switches between comedy and sombreness throughout (the best line? ‘Our birds and wildlife all destroyed, to keep some millionaires employed’). While I usually adore George’s dual personality and his ability to go in two directions at fish (he’s a Pisces fish, remember, and the river runs through his soul), this song is a problem because the serious messages sound like they’re a joke and the parts that should make us laugh just make us uncomfortable. I hope, I really hope, that the second verse is tongue in cheek (‘Russians have the biggest share, with their long fingers everywhere...’ – this sort of line is dangerous during the cold war and blatantly untrue); hopefully it is given the daft sound effects added on top (by the way, has anyone else noticed that the sound effect of people shouting is the same one used at the start of ‘Soft-Hearted Hana’?!) and the last verse’s Monty Pythonesque kiss-off (‘To end upon a happy note – like trying to make concrete float...’). But where does that leave the lines about nuclear power being ‘the halfwit’s answer to a need for cancer, death, destruction, greed’? George ends wistfully, telling us all ‘we don’t know how close we’ve come [to annihilation]’. It’s as if George tried to write a serious song but wasn’t in the mood that day so he wrote something silly instead – a shame because, along with McCartney’s ‘Wildlife’ and ‘Looking For Changes’ it’s good to hear an ex-Beatle use his power and following to point people towards conservationism and express what’s in their heart. It all makes for a rather limp end to the album, however, and the demo version of the song (which can be heard as a bonus on the CD issue, sounding quite different shorn of all its sound effects) shows how woefully empty it is as a song.
‘Flying Hour’ is the first of the ‘missing’ tracks from the original album line-up. A lovely, lilting song about the importance of living in the present because the past is dead and buried, it would have been one of the better songs. George tells us that whatever great schemes we did in the past, it doesn’t matter because ‘the past is gone’ and worrying about the future won’t cut it either ‘because the future may not be at all’ – all that matters is our state in the present and whether we can be proud of ourselves from day to day. If that sounds like an odd thing for a former Beatle to be saying, it fits in perfectly with George’s attitude at the end of his ‘dismissive’ period (before Lennon’s death makes him – and the world – think about the fab four a little differently) when being a Beatle seemed like an unwanted and unnecessary distraction from the real purposes of family, artistry and religion. The melody to this song could have been better – it repeats itself a little too often for comfort – but there’s plenty of space for George’s trademark slide guitar and a very sweet middle eight that seems to spin the song backwards, as if to contradict his lyrical statement about living in the present. It may be a minor gem, but it’s a gem all the same and it’s sad to see it kicked off the record.
‘Lay His Head’ is a bit more substantial, a moody ballad that sounds like B-side ‘Miss O’Dell’ would have done had Phil Spector produced it to sound like ‘All Things Must Pass’. We’ve already seen George’s ‘subconscious’ at work on ‘Unconsciousness Rules’ and this sounds mightily like the same again, George seemingly talking to himself that ‘who is it in here? You have often thought, but what can I tell you that you don’t know already?’ Luckily George ‘knows’ that his inner self can ‘overcome the pain’, but can’t help feeling sorry for himself. The title comes from a chorus about being lost, that ‘sometimes a man has nowhere to lay his head’, which may well be another Harrisonesque pun if this is indeed George’s ‘head’ (i.e. brain) talking to himself – after all, what do you do with a conscience when you’re meant to be out having fun? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn, too, that this is an older song than it’s vintage suggests: the mood is much more like the dark, uncertain songs from the ‘Dark Horse’ era when George was splitting up with Patti and wasn’t yet sure if he would keep his Friar Park house with all its unhappy memories (and so would literally have no place ‘to lay his head’). There’s a lyrical reference, too, to the idea that ‘even the worst times like this will blow away’ – it’s unusual for George to refer to past lyrics so it wouldn’t surprise me if George junked this whole song and started ‘Blow Away’ (from ‘George Harrison’ again) anew, only reviving it because he thought he had an album to finish in a hurry. A sweet, reflective, mournful ballad, again its not the greatest thing George ever wrote but its highly revealing and deserves better than to have been lost to the world for so long (why on earth wasn’t it added to the CD re-issue of this album in 2000?)
‘Tears Of The World’ is probably the weakest of the four songs that didn’t make the album. Another song about the stupidity of world leaders and how sad the state of world affairs was in the 1980s, this song sounds like one long sigh. Few Harrison songs are quite as downbeat as this one, where ‘war mongers terrorize us all, our leaders heed us to their call...’ and where ‘big businesses are calling every tune, polluting from her and to the moon’. George calls us into action, the same way he does on ‘Save The World’ but more from the heart, telling us that ‘if we deserve saving then we need to be behaving...’, but the cynicism in his voice suggests he’s given up expecting the human race to ever show their better side. An unusually constructed song, with a chorus consisting of one line leading directly on from the end of each verse, there isn’t really a hook to this song which rather drifts past without you noticing. No great loss to the album, this is still better than a good four of the songs that made the record, however.
Finally, ‘Sat Singing’ is another lovely spiritual with a haunting melody that shares a little similarity with ‘Here Comes The Sun’, telling the tale of an unexpected spiritual revelation on an ordinary day while the narrator sits singing on a hill. One of George’s better spiritual songs, it sounds like one of Ray Davies’ ‘tramp’ songs (i.e. ‘Sunny Afternoon’ ‘Sitting In The Midday Sun’) had The Kinks ever gone religious. The third verse, particularly, seems to speak from the heart: ‘Nothing separates my life from that which we have called our goal, it’s all in this external world, as results from deep within my soul’. Note, too, how George repeats his assertion in ‘Flying Hour’ that only the present really matters, telling us how ‘my sense of time has disappeared’, the blissfulness of the religious experience proving to the narrator that time is a worldly, man-made concept. The song ends with George waving goodbye but promising that really ‘I’ll stay forever in your company’. A warm backing track of slide guitar, saxophones, synthesisers and percussions envelopes one of George’s better vocals with a sort of warm mist, enveloping him and keeping him warm, the musical equivalent of glowing. The best song from these sessions bar only ‘Life Itself’ (the song that followed it on the original album for a knock-out one-two religious punch), you wonder why on earth this song was junked in favour of two Hoagy Carmichael covers and why George never returned to the song during the similarly frayed sessions for ‘Gone Troppo’.
Overall, then, ‘Somewhere In England’ is no masterpiece and it’s undoubtedly a backwards step from the casual brilliance of ‘George Harrison’ a couple of years before, but it’s far from a terrible album and – especially with its original four songs intact – is often a moving and revealing album if you get past the surface noise of contemporary musicians playing somewhat lifelessly. Occasionally the album sparks to life and understands what it’s meant to be doing – e.g. on ‘Life Itself’ or ‘Sat Singing’ – and a couple of the ‘replacement’ songs get lucky too, ‘Blood From A Clone’ and ‘Teardrops’ adding a catchy, bouncy feeling to an album that’s often in desperate need of it. The other songs might not add up to much, especially the pair of Hoagy Carmichael covers, but none of them are that bad either – even ‘All Those Years Ago’ has a great song in there somewhere trying to get out. For the most part, though, this album is as directionless, confused, upset and weary as its creator was whilst making it, George’s rainiest album with only occasional dashes of sunshine. The good news is this album is something of a blip on George’s solo radar and the next album., the similarly under-estimated (though if anything less deep) album ‘Gone Troppo’ promises sunshine and holidays...Overall rating – 5/10