Monday, 19 June 2017
George Harrison "Cloud Nine" (1987)
George Harrison "Cloud Nine" (1987)
Cloud Nine/That's What It Takes/Fish On The Sand/Just For Today/This Is Love/When We Was Fab//Devil's Radio/Someplace Else/Wreck Of The Hesperus/Breath Away From Heaven/Got My Mind Set On You
'I can rock as good as Gibraltar!'
We've said it before on this website and are running out of time to say it again but...wasn't the 1980s weird? This was the decade where introverts became loud and noisy and extroverts became obnoxious. You'd think that George Harrison, ex-Beatle, full-time gardener, life-long cynic, would have been the first person to see through the decade. But no, there he is on the front of the album cover in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, an unconvincing photoshopped cloud disappearing behind him and an airbrushed look about his skin-tones. When I first saw this as a Beatle-obsessed five-year-old (already cynical and holier - or is that Holliesier given my other favourites of the time? I was a very weird five-year-old by the way - than thou about modern pop) I thought it was a joke, a parody from George's generation to the one above mine about what music should be, could be and would be. But if anything the contents inside get worse. George's music has been airbrushed, his vocals digitally treated and his lyrics sweetened while the ex-Beatle least likely to have ever agreed to a reunion without a gun to his head records using the most Beatley production any of the fab four had used on their solo albums so far (although, this being a Jeff Lynne production, the result is only a third Beatles and a third-Rutle and w third-Womble). I was bitterly disappointed - and more so when both album and first single made number one in the UK. Now my schoolfriends on the playground thought my music tastes were, shock horror, on a par with their love of Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. George, you were the musician I trusted more than anyone else to tell the truth and never sell out (yep, I really did think this, I really was a weird five-year-old), how could you do this to me?
Well, here's how. Beatles don't speak about money much - they're like The Royal Family and civil servants in that regard - but we know now that George was, if not exactly poor, then closer to the breadline than he was to being a millionaire. His solo career had stuttered to a quiet halt since the release of 'Gone Troppo' in 1982. George had made that record because he felt he ought to rather than because he wanted to and when it died a death (thanks partly to George doing no publicity for it whatsoever) he shrugged his shoulders and let music take a back-seat. Sadly the compositions on this album suggest that George never really changed his attitude towards making this album and only did so because of the latest of an endless sea of legal troubles that had dogged him since the early 1970s. This time it wasn't The Beatles of The Chiffons' legal team getting antsy though and George had brought the court-case himself against his Handmade Films co-founder Denis O'Brien for running off with the company's profits, embezzlement and fraud that had left his wallet several billion pounds lighter. With a massive mansion to keep up, several good friends and relatives on the pay-roll and a now-eight-year-old Dhani to look after, George had to do something. The lesser of many evils (reuniting The Beatles, appearing on MTV, maybe forming his own F1 team 'Harrison Haas'?!) was to make another record. But making another 'Gone Troppo' clearly wasn't going to get George very far. What he needed was a hit record that appealed to casual music-goers, not just a few faithful Beatle fans. What he needed was Jeff Lynne.
Lynne's band The Electric Light Orchestra had for a long time been hailed as the 'true' heirs of the Beatle-sound, although to my ears this argument was never as convincing as that made for Badfinger (who had the sound and the moody ideas), CSNY (who had the attitude and the talent) or Oasis (who had a similar record collection, Northern swagger and close-enough haircuts). ELO had, you see, made some vaguely abstract concept albums on vaguely the same lines as 'The White Album' (only most of their album covers seemed to be red for some reason) and after years of being a Beatle fan and years of being told he sounded like The Beatles, once his 'day job' ended and he got more into production work, he was naturally eager to work with a real live Beatle. George, a bit uncertain of strangers in his life (and especially raving Beatle looneys at that) took to Jeff straight away, enjoying his music and saw immediately what Lynne could do for his fading fortunes; despite first coming to fame in the 1960s, as far back as the end days of The Move and being best known for his songs from the 1970s, Jeff had a real grasp of the 1980s sound and would be much nicer to work with than some young upstart teenage kid with a baseball cap on. The pair found they shared the same musical tastes (though Jeff's love of 1950s is never apparent in his productions, bar The Traveling Wilburys occasionally) and the same humour, although they were still very different characters, Jeff all logic and George all spirit (They also had what sounds like an unintentionally hilarious 'cultural exchange' week where Jeff took George to the cricket where he was bored to tears and moaned for a whole ride home how bored he was before taking Jeff to a formula one grand prix where he said exactly the same!) George even starts looking like Jeff, growing out his hair into a 'Lynne' frazzle and adding stubble to his cheeks as can be seen by contrasting the 'making of' gatefold sleeve pictures with the 'all finished' front cover.
George got what he wanted thanks to Jeff - a successful hit record that raked in badly needed millions and out-sold anything Paul and Ringo were doing in this period (though Macca's similar 'Press To Play' wins on every level, especially courage). It appealed to current pop-goers who had never heard of George (with the single 'I Got My Mind Set On You' greeted as if it was by a 'new unknown' for a while until parents pointed out the name and their Beatle LPs to their teenage offspring; Harrison getting the last laugh as it was a cover of a song that dated back to his own teenage days in the 1950s!) and Beatle fans who wanted something 'normal' and 'Beatley' to buy (Jeff really knew his Beatle stuff, especially the drum sound and harmony arrangements). 'Cloud Nine' even appealed to casual music fans who'd heard of the 'super-group' at the core of this record (George, Ringo, Jeff, Eric Clapton and Elton John, all but the drummer pictured in the gatefold sleeve in a pose that looks in retrospect like a first try-out for the first 'Traveling Wilburys' album later in the year). This album was hailed by many a critic as the album of the year, many casual Beatle-fans really adored it and for a glorious year there George was regularly being called 'the nation's favourite Beatle' rather than 'grumpiest Beatles' as per usual (this is also a measure of how low Paul McCartney's stock had fallen for the first time since the 1970s; his own 'comeback' album 'Flowers In The Dirt' is very much modelled on this one, winning on points - again mainly for bravery).
What Jeff never ever understood - and what true Harrison maniacs like me can't stand about this LP - is that he never for a minute understood solo George. There is not a single reference to God on this album for instance - though there is a song about the devil, sort of. Wahoo, you might be thinking (especially if you're come to this album direct from 'Living In The Material World' where that's the only subject matter the whole album). But that leaves George nothing else to write about. His songs used to be, if not always the very best then certainly the deepest of solo Beatle-dom, concerning our passage through the human world, the sea of distractions that keep us from our path of life and how to prepare for what comes 'next'. Though George's albums often had silly moments in them, they are by and large substantial, serious creations. 'Cloud Nine' by contrast feels trivial, the flimsiest Harrison album since the I've-just-bought-a-moog-and-do-you-kno-w-how-much-they-cost?-I'm-making-an-album-to-p-ay-for-it 'Electronic Sounds' in 1969. What does George have to write about now he no longer has life, death and the universe to play with? Happy songs about feeling on top of the world, grumpy songs about modern music not being what it used to be, silly banal songs designed for the radio not for the soul. A 'normal' Harrison production might have rescued it, but Jeff Lynne's frivolous production, full of twinkly synths, brass horns and cute mass harmonies makes this sound like a 'Beatles-lite' production, with all the 'fat' taken out (no calories maybe and it won't take that long to digest, but it's hardly going to make your head and heart feel better the way, say, 'All Things Must Pass' always does even though it tries a similar trick of taking 'humble' songs and making them feel 'big'). This time round, though, 'Cloud Nine' isn't a cloud but just a lot of hot air, the one George Harrison album that has little or nothing to say. After five years of being away gardening, you'd have thought George would have had a little something to say, even if he'd kept it for a B-side or something. The result is the least interesting Harrison solo album, even if it was by far his best-selling (at least since 1970, arguably more so judged by merely instant sales rather than re-issues).
There are exceptions to this rule that show how well this idea could have worked and what George perhaps wanted Jeff to do a little more of across this album. Hit single 'Got My Mind Set On You' is catchy as hell, even if it says nothing (whereas 'Devil's Radio', funnily enough, hasn't got a chance in hell of being a hit single however much Jeff tries to dress up George's grumpiest song in years). 'When We Was Fab' is fabulous, Jeff taking every Beatle cliché he can think of and offering up a genuine sense of awe, mystique and wonder that contrast nicely against George's manically acerbic lyrics about what a horrid time he had in the 1960s when everyone else was off having fun. 'This Is Love' - the relative flop third single - may actually be the best, with a lyric written from the heart about Olivia (and maybe God?) simplified to the part where everything is simple, an 'All You Need Is Love' for the 1980s that's similarly warm and glorious. And then there's the one moment where George sings from his heart and not his bank balance on the mournful ballad 'Just For Today', his more immediate response to his financial difficulties: just when things were looking up and he felt he had his life under control something comes to make him question everything, making him desperate to live through this time of agony and get to the happy stuff. It's a moving moment because, singing in a lower register and without the bouncing freak show of Lynne's other productions, it reminds you just how good George is at this sort of thing.
A whole album like those four songs and I wouldn't be complaining a bit. But the rest is ugly, bordering on offensive. 'Breath Away From Heaven' unwisely returns to the Chinese stereotyping of the recent 'Shanghai Surprise' film flop, a debacle that cost Madonna and Sean Penn their marriage and George very nearly his livelihood. The fact that most of the album sound like outtakes from his written-on-the-spot soundtrack (made at the last minute when another musician fell through and George realised he needed a big name to sell it so might as well use his) suggests that this record too was written in a hurry. Maybe, too, there's an alternative agenda here, George crying for 'Help!' behind the pop facade. What, really, does 'Cloud Nine' mean? George has clearly been told to sound 'cheerful' and there's a booming drum-track anyone who survived the 1980s will recognise from every hit single released in a three year period back then. But George sings deep, scarily, sombre, anywhere but on cloud nine. We never find out what 'it 'takes' in the album's second song where he admits to us he doesn't want to pay such a high price. 'Fish On The Sand' admits to being totally helpless and out of his comfort zone. 'Devil's Radio' complains that all modern music is patronising and filled with messages of hate - and then does exactly that by putting down everything in the charts even though it's that sort of music that offer George his lifeline here. 'Wreck Of The Hesperus' is a bunch of weak jokes about middle-age in a song that strains at the leash to portray George as young and vibrant when he feels a million years old. 'Someplace Else' longs to be a million miles away from 'here' with a past loved one that George used to be with (God? His old production team?) You get the message...this is a Beatle playing at being a 1980s rockstar for fun and the joke feels a little bit on 'us' for swallowing it and making it such a big hit. Clever? or mean?
One other irony of this record is that it's the one that features George on the front cover clutching his guitar like a lucky talisman, while the back cover gets a much weirder picture of a guitar neck sticking up through a 'lumberjack' shirt., the bottom half removed and replaced with a table. This is, you see, George's least guitar-driven album - certainly since the keyboard heavy 'Extra Texture' and even that had a few solos in it. On 'Cloud Nine' only the songs 'Someplace Else' and the solo in 'When We Was Fab' feature that recognisable guitar sound as the most important thing in the mix - elsewhere Lynne clobbers it over the head with extraneous noise like drums, saxophones, Eric Clapton and synths. My guess is that George got told somewhere down the line that in order to 'sell' this album he had to remind people of his 'signature sound' (hence the cover) but under no account was he allowed to play it on the record for anything other than 'colour'. Hence, perhaps, the 'joke' on the back where the guitar has literally become 'part of the furniture'. In more practical terms George asked a guitar expert to preserve his original teenage guitar for posterity and was so proud of the work he decided to use it on the cover instead (the back cover, too, may be a shot George too while visiting the 'workshop' where his guitar was being put back together), but hey I like my theory more!
The revelation - and what nearly makes the album work anyway - is George's vocals across the album. Even if I'm right and this album's collection of songs started off as sarcastic 'Blood From A Clone' diatribes about having to go through with the process of making an ironically 'material' album for a 'material' world when George's heart and head is already in the 'spiritual', he sounds like he's enjoying himself here. Heck, George sounds as if he's attending a party - and as The Beatle least likely to attend a real-life party, that's a surprise. Most past Harrison albums sound solemn and as if George has the weight of the world on his shoulders (all except the beautiful 'George Harrison' album from 1979 where he sounds in love and at one with the universe). This album sounds like fun. There's a twinkle in George's voice that puts it at one with Jeff's ho-ho-ing production rather than the grimness of many of the lyrics. The three singles, especially, wouldn't sound half as good had George sung them in his more 'normal' tones and even the acid tongue in 'When We Was Fab' is also laced through with affection. George is sending up his legacy something rotten here and seems to be wanting to prove that he can sound every bit as young, vibrant and 'hip' as any newcomer - he just chooses not to because he's above all that. The runaway success of the album somehow masked his original intentions that's all and the fact that George got distracted into making the similarly good-time 'Wilbury' records with Jeff Lynne and friends immediately after this delayed the 'serious' sequel he had been attempting to deliver since 1990 (the record that became the basis for 'Brainwashed' fifteen years later).
The end result, then, is a record that's divided Beatle fans right down the middle ever since its release. To 'us' fans who understand how deep, sincere and magical George could be when he wanted to be it's a travesty, a joke, a waste of talent and a bitter disappointment whereby George feels like a guest on his own album, his ideas somewhere down below the booming drums somewhere down the album's pecking order (seriously the name in bigger print on the back is Jeff's, as if George is already distancing himself from it, expecting a critical disaster as his price for a few extra sales). To the 'non-we' it's what every Beatles solo album should have sounded like: fun, funky, trendy and catchy. This is, in short, the Harrison album you're most likely to love if you've come here straight from the '1' or the 'red' and 'blue' Beatles compilation albums, rather than the 'Rubber Soul' and 'Revolver' fans of this world (who mainly go for 'All Things Must Pass'). Personally I think my inner five year old is still beating strongly as I still look on aghast as this album gets celebrated in a way that quirkier, more original and certainly deeper and more moving albums like 'George Harrison' and 'Gone Troppo' get short shrift compared to this album of dance tunes. My older thirty-four-year-old self, adrift a bit more in the material world myself, understands and sympathises with it a bit more - that still doesn't mean it's 'right'. 'Cloud Nine' still leaves me feeling in a very very low place indeed.
It speaks volumes that the first instrument you hear on the first track, title track 'Cloud Nine', is actually Clapton's and even then the guitar part is drowned out by a thick and heavy drum part (which is almost certainly Ringo's). This deeply odd song ticks all the right production boxes (happy lyrics, saxophone production, heavy beat accentuated) and yet still sounds deeply odd and probably the single most non-commercial track on the album, as if George is hinting at us that he's only going along with this 'rockstar pose' for reasons he doesn't want to reveal yet. Musically this is just a cooked-up sped-up blues and even though everything is quicker, sillier, louder and more frivolous than your average blues song George's vocal is still right there in doom and gloom. George sings at the bottom of his register and sounds deeply depressed even though what he's singing should be joyous, about a loved one agreeing to date him and join in his idea of 'ecstasy' ('Join my dream! Tell me yes! Bail out should there be a mess!') It's as if George was told that if he wants to write a 'hit' album he needs to write about love - not religious or married love but teenage crush kind of love - and in no way should he be writing blues songs (so, being George, he simply 'adapted' a blues song instead, having his cake and eating it). The result is an odd song that tries to be happy and ecstatic from the title on down, but never quite allows itself to 'let loose' and throughout seems to have on eye on things ending in disaster even while he's offering up love and romance in a way we haven't heard from George since The Beatles' 'Help!' album. The song ends too with the distinctly unromantic line 'if you want to quit that's fine!' ringing in our ears. This song is though a welcome chance to hear George and Eric trading lines for the only time in their careers (with the possible sole exception of 'Ski-Ing' from the 'Wonderwall' soundtrack, which some say is just Clappers overdubbed anyway).
'That's What It Takes' sounds like a more genuine attempt at writing a catchy hit song, although yet again the mood is oddly downbeat considering the plethora of production, the sunshiney melody and the strummed acoustic guitar chord changes. This song sounds at first like much more of a natural 'love' song, but even more than the last song it's the antithesis of the 'normal' love song. George's narrator, faced with a choice between falling in love or running away, has to dig deep, sounding deeply uncertain about what he's taking on and sighing over all the major life changes that are about to happen whether loves work out or not. By the time of the chorus he's more sure of himself, offering up the idea that 'if that's what it takes then I've got to be strong', but even then he adds again 'if that's what it takes' for good measure. This isn't the sound of a man head over heels in love (the song even starts off in an awkward minor key) but one whose in love and clearly doesn't want to be. Could it be, given that George was by this time celebrating his tenth wedding anniversary to Olivia, that this song isn't about 'love' at all but George's nervousness at suddenly sounding 'commercial'. is the relationship, which he both craves and fears, actually the partnership with Jeff? This is the first real chance to hear Lynne's fingerprints on the album and they're everywhere - Wilbury style backing harmonies, strummed guitars, bleating saxophones and goodness-knows-what played on the synth, which sounds like a cross between a doorbell and the clanging bell of doom. Unfortunately what we don't have is a 'song' to go with the production, as George gets all poetical and vague in the opening verse ('And now you found the eyes to see each little drop at the dawn of every day...') and never quite gets round to writing a second one (delaying it with repeated middle eights, instrumental passages and 'oohs'). Not so much of a song, more a sentiment with production effects.
Meanwhile, on the next song, George isn't so much a man, more a 'fish on the sand'. Lyrically this may be George's strongest set of words on the album, recalling the lost humble narrator sounding huge style of 'All Things Must Pass' exaggerated to the point where he sounds sure and loud. George, however, goes perhaps a stage too far in relating his latest existential spiritual crisis in terms of a love affair and seems to 'borrow' many of his words from other 'hit' writers be they Smokey Robinson ('You really got a hold on me') or even himself (copious references to 'Teardrops', but without the doo-dah-doohs for good measure). The music, too, is downright ugly, a sea of pinged guitars that no longer sound much like guitars, repeating the same stabbing lines over and over. This kind of thing works for bands who excel at repetition (The Rolling Stones could have a good stab at this song one day) but George is a subtle writer, not an aggressive one and he just sounds silly trying to offer his version of a 'Mick Jagger' lead vocal, barked rather than sung. He's clearly realising how daft he sounds by the time of the last repeat when he's trying hard to stem the tide of giggles. Perhaps not coincidentally, he also sounds lost - just as lost as the lovestruck narrator who again sounds oddly teenage, unable to function properly without his lover by his side. George might perhaps have done better to drop the idea and switch it for the 'stop playing games with me!' verse, which sounds much more suitable to the ringing relentless guitars and George's desperate cries to go back to something a bit 'safer' and 'simpler'. I'm not convinced by the endless metaphors about George's lover being a 'fish' either (only Neil Young can pull off that sort of thing, believe it or not), 'swimming in your teardrops', although he might be throwing some Christian symbolism in to go in place of where his usual Hare Krishna and Hindu references would be (or, perhaps, referring to his astrological sign of Pisces as per the follow-up).
After three pretty lacklustre opening moments 'Cloud Nine' suddenly gets going. The gorgeous 'Just For Today' is, for the only time on the record, the 'real' George and no amount of Jeff Lynne production novelties (and there are a lot thrown at this song) are going to get in his way. Harrison is heartbroken, his trust betrayed by someone he trusted and he longs to go back to a time in his life when he was happy - when, indeed, it appeared he had so much going for him he could never be unhappy again. He longs to go back and make the most of his past happiness, even if its 'just for today', instead of dealing with 'all life's problems'. In many ways it's George's equivalent to Paul's 'Yesterday' and if anything even more beautiful and poignant as Harrison kicks himself for not realising sooner what he knows now (the piano lick meanwhile recalls John's 'Imagine' and indeed George is using his imagination as an 'escape' here too). It's clearly about his 'Handmade Film's court case (oddly Denis O' Brien, his co-founder who'd just been in court for embezzlement, is in the 'special thanks' list on the back sleeve - which is either George being nice and forgiving his latest adversary in a very public manner or a 'clue' to his fans as to why this album turned out the way it did, as without Denis' financial pressure you sense 'Cloud Nine' would never have turned out the way it did). The lyrics to this song don't say much and merely repeat the same verse in slightly different ways, but somehow that doesn't matter: this is a revelation so overwhelming that George can't move on and see past it, 'stuck' as he tries to count his blessings as always but still comes up short. It's the melody though that makes this song, all warmth and heart and big gloopy tears where much of this album is sterile and artificial. George's double-tracked guitar solo is also really lovely, as if he's so 'sad and lonely' that the only comfort he can find comes from himself, while his vocal is - for the only time on this album - sung from the heart rather than with a manic grin. Lynne tries to ruin the effect of a simple straightforward song with some off-putting Beach Boys style harmonies, 10cc style synthesised 'aaahs' and more big clobbering drums, but even they just make George sound out of place and isolated, even in the middle of a sound as busy as anything else on the album, just slower.
The solution arrives like a bolt out of the blue with the most convincingly commercial album track 'This Is Love'. While the majority of this album has George either kicking and screaming or pastiching current commercial pop songs circa 1987, this one sounds as if he's found a way to meet halfway between what he wants to say and what his public want to say. Told to write a catchy 'love song', he does just that, writing about how great love is and how much it changed his life for the better and that love is as much a part of the cycle of life as heartbreak. In many ways it's a sequel to 'Blow Away', itself a sequel to 'Here Comes The Sun', in which all it takes is a change of the 'weather' as provided by 'God' to make him feel happy and at peace once again. The decision to put this track after the last song sounds deliberate, George kicking himself for ever getting miserable and ignoring his own advice from 'Beware Of Darkness' that sadness is manmade and 'not what we are here for - instead love 'helps me to remember what we all came here for'. Along the way George remembers how he first felt falling in love with Olivia (we forget it now but there was some aversion to George marrying his secretary and for a time many assumed he'd gone a bit potty leaving a blonde model wife for an olive-skinned unknown), the 'us against the world' feeling they got from 'knowing' that their love was sacred and meant to be in a way that no outsider, thinking rationally, ever could. A celebration of how 'little things can change you forever', this is George remembering to count his blessings anyway and he makes the most of Lynne's production energy here too, offering up a neat recycling of all sorts of proven pop formulas from Jeff's squeaky synths, to a Motown style 'la-la-la-la-love' chorus and even a snatch of Culture Club's 1983 hit 'Karma Chameleon' ('come-a come-a come-a come-a...') George also turns in his 'fanciest' guitar solo in the song and it's a delight, his slide guitar for once used to express joy rather than sadness when set against another 'rattled' aggressive arpeggio burst. This is love and it's an obvious hit - so why was this only the third single from the album, released after the LP had already been a success (and everyone who was going to already owned it?)
'When We Was Fab' makes it a third clever song in a row as George finally gives in to pressure to record a 'beatley' style tune and uses it instead to both affectionately mock and grumpily scowl at how tough those times really were. Everyone else around George talked about The Beatle days as if they were the highlight of their life, but they weren't even the highlight of his own. To put us right he scowls that the 1960s was a time when 'income tax' was high, 'the fuzz' (ie the police) thought they could 'claim you' and in ther song's funniest line that instead of a constant hug from adoring admirers he found himself being 'fleeced' by 'caresses' of people out for something more than he was prepared to give them. He then chunters about the way the Beatle days have been viewed since, pored over with a microscope so that every 'wart' is 'magnified' and basically says that everyone more interested in the Beatle days than the Beatle themselves should get a 'life'. But that's only half of George's nature: there's an affection there too and - aptly for the one Beatle to actually write about Beatlefans affectionately in 'Apple Scruffs' - he slots in lots of lines he knows will please his fans, from the 'gear...fab' chorus shout, the presence of Ringo on drums and the fadeout that 'borrows' from everything from Dylan ('It's all over now baby blue') to Smokey Robinson (again, that 'you really got a hold on me') and himself ('Still the life flows on and on' recalling 'Within You Without You'). The joke too is that staunch Beatle fan Jeff Lynne hasn't noticed the words and treats the production as if George really was affectionately talking about the past as if it was glorious. We get a whole bunch of tricks here on easily his best production, from the 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' style piano riff to the 'I Am The Walrus' style strings to the gorgeous Indian raga playout finale that instantly takes you back twenty years. In 1987 the twentieth anniversary of 'Sgt Peppers' was everywhere with even George (still needing the money) joining in - this track sounds like an attempt to correct the balance, showing us that what the world enjoyed in memory as a halcyon time wasn't quite so fun for the people caught up in it and that those times were 'long ago' and George no longer feels quite so 'fab'. There is, though, enough of a twinkle behind the words and enough of a genuine joy behind the production for George and Jeff to get away with this song, especially thanks to a very clever music video (by 10cc's Kevin Godley, who must have admired the familiar-sounding synth 'aaahs' nicked from his band's own 'I'm Not In Love') that both wickedly sends up and successfully conjures up memories of a bygone Beatle era. George has his cake - and scoffs it too.
Alas side two isn't just a step down from the end of side one but a sudden fall through a trap-door. After turning on his own music, George next turns on 1987's with 'Devil's Radio', a damning and grumpy song about how awful then-contemporary music is, made up of gossip and attacks on people ('like vultures swooping down below'). Not withstanding the fact that this is all true and 1987's music scene was amongst the worst and certainly the emptiest (see, my playground chums, George agreed with me - we must be right!), it's a strange song that uses the sounds of 1987 to appeal to music listeners of 1987 in order to sell lots of copies to music buyers of 1987 that is also being a slap in the face to 1987 music buyers that's actually quite rude. George can be as rude as he liked about other styles of music if he uses his own to 'argue' why he can offer something they can't - or he can enthuse about other styles of music if he uses them too. But using a snarling sarcastic song about how modern music sucks, while using that modern music backdrop against a lyric that complains that all modern music does is be rude to people, is a slap in the face too far. There's no redeeming feature about this song, which doesn't even have much to say other than 'gee, this is awful' and though George teases us with a mention of the 'devil' there's nothing here about 'God' and why thoughtful, kind music might be better for mankind's spiritual progression. The fact that Jeff and Eric (who plays all the guitar) sound so at home here says more for how much they'd both gone over to the 'dark side' in this era than it does about the song itself, with its snarled gibberish, big booming drums and mass-layered George n Jeff backing vocals. 'It shapes you into something cold, like an eskimo igloo' sings George at his most antiseptic'. Yeah, you got that right, I'm feeling pretty chilly about this song myself. Oh and why is 1987 music 'white and black like industrial waste?', surely one of George's strangest lines in his career and perhaps summing up just how little time he spent thinking about this song.
'Someplace Else' is the album's second and final ballad which after the sincerity of 'Just For Today' just sounds dull and dreary. One of the slowest songs in the Harrison songbook, it's a shame that this melody got [paired with this set of words, which are a rare love song to Olivia about how much inspiration she gave him when he needed it and recalls Paul's similar tribute to Linda on 'Maybe I'm Amazed' (George, wanting a certified 'hit' album, may have assumed that it was one of Macca's highest sellers given that everyone else assumes so too, but actually he kept it private as an album track only his wife and true Beatlenuts were ever meant to hear - you wouldn't think Paul would be the Beatle with the most scruples about his private life, would you?) While the lyric has some occasional gems in there, reflecting on the last time George felt so depressed and sorry for himself, back in 1975 when Patti and much of his audience had disappeared ('I don't know how you found me, but you did - it stopped me heading 'someplace else' and George's shy chat-up lines as he tried to find the courage to speak to Olivia as more than just her 'boss'). There's also the classic line where George sums up a difficult spell in his life when everything was falling apart but he didn't want the world to know that just yet that he's pleased she's still beside him now that things are getting 'untidy'. The way George emphasis that word makes it clear that this is the 'polite' way of putting things! Unfortunately the melody is slow and the production soggy, robbing what should have been a magical song about the transforming powers of love and devotion into a song that sounds like the most tedious relationship ever. Note too how none of the lines in this song actually rhyme with each other (well, 'tidy' and 'me' is as close as it gets), as if George wrote it as a poem first and only later set it to music, which would explain a lot.
So far both album cover (where George looks really good for forty-four) and the songs could just about have fooled younger listeners into thinking that George was a hip new artist that had just been discovered, rather than an aging Beatle. 'Wreck Of The Hesperus' is another album joke aimed at just those sorts of people, as George jokes about being middle-aged, 'getting as old as my mother' and 'feeling like Big Bill Broonzy' (a blues singer who died around aged sixty-five in 1958, when fan George was fifteen - the favoured demographic in 1987 - and he must have seemed, like, well old). George isn't played out just yet though - the title is that he doesn't feel like the 'wreck of the Hesperus' (an ancient wooden schooner from Biblical times in the poem by Longfellow) but more like 'the great wall of China', built to last the years in an active, useful state. Along the way George re-acts to awards like the Oscars and Tonys as if they're 'real' people, meets a 'snake climbing ladders' and calls himself a 'plucked spring chicken'! Unfortunately what could have been a fine middle eight or a rip-roaring B-side sounds rather dull when drawn out to a full song and it's clearly another one written to short measure to cover up for other things on Harrison's mind (just check out the odd line 'I'm not the power of attorney', which makes no sense in context of the song but every sense given the weary year George has just spent in court).
'Breath Away From Heaven' may have been the best thing about the wretched 'Shanghai Surprise' movie (another bottomless pit that took much of Handmade Films' money), but it's still easily the worst thing here. George sings over some vaguely oriental sounding chords, played by Jeff as if he's in a Chinese Restaurant while George sings about a goodtime Geisha girl as if he's a randy Mick Jagger. It's clear she's broken-hearted and will only contemplate love again if its deep and real - it's equally clear that the narrator simply lusts after her and isn't going to offer her the life she dreams of and is simply taking advantage of her. It's all terribly 'wrong' somehow, both the patronising backing and the closest George ever came to writing sexist lyrics - fitting for the film it may have been, but without the context this is just inexcusably low for a writer who usually reached so high. George's narrator, much like Sean Penn in the film, is simply taking advantage of a local girl's vulnerability, describing her as 'a wounded tiger on a willowy path' and praising her not for her character but purely for her looks. As for Jeff's cacophony of Oriental keyboards, it always made 'Shanghai Surprise' feel a lot more like one of those 1950s B-movies with evil Chinamen played by Americans with dodgy accents rather than the film revolution that took place somewhere around the mid-1970s and 'allowed' actors from ethnic backgrounds to play themselves, by and large. Out of time and out of luck, this song sounds particularly out of place on an album that's otherwise always trying to think 'modern', even if George is simultaneously a bit of a grump over how good that sound actually is. Imagine if someone else had made this song about girls from India, a place he loved - George would have been the first to cry 'foul'.
The album then ends with the first single which had already proven to be a hit. Many casual Beatle fans are amazed when I tell them that George didn't actually write 'Got My Mind Set On You' - and even more amazed when they learn that it's actually a song that dates back to the 'Love Me Do' days, back in 1962 (long before the demographic for this album were born!) Not that big a hit on first release (though written by Rudy Clark, author of 1960s classics 'It's In Her Kiss' and Good Lovin', as covered by AAA bands The Hollies and The Grateful Dead respectively, it was given away to singer James Ray, whose version just missed the charts), you can see why not many fans then now or always ever knew of it. George himself only knew the track because it was his elder sister Louise's favourite song - she'd travelled out to America circa 1960 and the pair were reunited during the Beatles' first tour where she played it to George and gave him a spare copy. The younger brother loved it too and a quarter century later played it to fellow 1950s nut Jeff Lynne, who loved it too. A cover version seemed obvious, especially as it was the kind of repetitive, nonsensical catchy fluffy song George needed to be singing if he wanted a 'hit' and the pair had far more faith in an 'oldie' cover (even a flop oldie cover) than in George's own attempts at this. Weird Al Yanokovic later spoofed the song with his cover 'It's Only Got Six Words!', a measure of just how repetitive this chorus us, but the track makes more sense if you realise it's an R and B cover where repetition is the name of the game. George and Jeff really smarten the song up too, adding an 'Elvis' flavour to the middle-eight not there in the original ('This time I know it's for real...'), lots of sax and a snazzy drum part that dominates the song (the only two things really in common with 1950s and 1980s productions). The new arrangement is also 'looser' limbed, making more of the song's groove compared to the awkward stop-start beats of the original while the sections flow together more easily. Together with George's best vocal on the album, bright and bold and clearly enjoying himself, this single was always going to hit big and big it did, becoming only George's second - and final - number one single in the UK. It was exactly what Harrison needed to do for his bank and marketing prospects, but still feels a little flimsy as an album closer, even for an album as lightweight as 'Cloud Nine'.
The result is at once George's most immediate and heaviest-going LP. While Harrison was never one for consistency (except for 'All Things Must pass' perhaps) and his albums are all an uneven ride at times, this one especially has just gaping chasms between what does work and what doesn't that it's hard to accept they are part of the same album at all. The very in-yer-face 1980s production and the amount of slow songs where nothing much is happening except the booming drums makes you wonder, thirty years after the fact, how this album sold any copies at all the first time round - and yet to this day this record is held up as an example of how good 1980s albums can be when delivered in the right way and that it's one of George's best (I sense both those comments are probably made by people who only know the three singles and didn't bother to hear the rest). The result is an album that did what it had to do (i.e. sell millions of copies) but didn't go the extra mile for what George usually wants to do (offer fans some comfort, some hope and some advice). Short on ideas, big on synths and the catchiest, emptiest moment in the Harrison discography, 'Cloud Nine' has divided fans ever since release and to my ears sounds like a wasted opportunity, even if it is still arguably the best album Jeff Lynne ever made. Sadly George will be 'stuck inside a cloud' for far too long, with the lesser half of the abandoned sequel that became 'Brainwashed' (likely dropped when George realised he didn't need the money quite so desperately anymore) and most of the Traveling Wilburys pair of records suffering from a similar case of 'brain drain'. Personally I'd rather have paid George not to make this record and let him 'Go Troppo' again (both a holiday or a second album like that one, I'm not fussed) rather than hear him be given the identikit 1980s treatment, but that in itself is a measure of how great George usually is and how much we generally expect from him. There are, you see, worse 1980s albums around than this one - but somehow, being a George Harrison album and being quite so 1980s this one sounds spectacularly, woefully, painfully wrong at times.