HARRISON'S FINEST SOLOby Rip Rense
(First published in Beatlefan, September, 2001. Updated 2009.)
My pick for strongest body of work by an ex-Beatle: George Harrison.
I've never understood how Harrison has been so short-changed, critically. His songs range from witty to graceful to barbed. They swing, they croon, they rock 'n' roll, they poke fun, they contemplate. The melodies are often lovely, even gorgeous ("Dark Sweet Lady," "Learning How to Love You.") The words are sometimes playful ("Blood From a Clone," "Soft-Hearted Hana") sometimes haiku-simple ("Love Comes To Everyone"), and touch on the profound ("Writing's On the Wall," "That's The Way it Goes.")
There is a laudable range of musical style: crisp blues/R&B ("Woman Don't You Cry For Me," "Deep Blue"), gentle ballads ("Sat Singing," "Your Love is Forever"), out-and-out rock ("Living in the Material World," "What is Life"), anthems ("Give Me Love," "If You Believe.") Harrison writes with delightful whimsy ("Gone Troppo," "When We Was Fab") acid-tongued commentary ("Save the World," "Devil's Radio"), and wry jest ("This Song," "Crackerbox Palace.") There are spffy instrumentals, too, such as "Hari's On Tour (Express)," "Greece," and the old-time jazzy "Zig-Zag" (Wonderwall's Indian music might be considered here, as well.)
There is really hardly a dispensible Harrison song in the whole catalogue, with the exception of his poorest album---the underdeveloped 1975 rush-job "Extra Texture," recorded when he was both ill and at low tide, emotionally.
Yes, it's somewhat flippant to compare his work with the other two songwriting ex-Beatles (come on, Ringo almost always has a lot of help---from Harrison, on his biggest solo hits.) Flippant, perhaps, but inevitable.
Lennon's work was often brilliant, although troubled and spotty after "Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine." His return to recording showed renewed promise, and in some cases, an almost startling new musical sophistication ("Watching the Wheels," and some of his unrealized demo tapes)---partly the result of his increasingly piano-based songwriting. "Beautiful Boy" is as delicate a song as he ever wrote.
The fact that he was so horribly denied the chance to write more music after 1980, however, renders unfair any serious comparison of his solo work with the others.
McCartney's post-Fab music is infamous for its inconsistency. He's nothing if not prolific, but there is a huge amount of trival chaff among the melodic wheat. For every grand "Mull of Kyntyre" and "Calico Skies," there are a half-dozen forgettable things like "Stranglehold" or "Winedark Open Sea." There is a whole sub-genre of McCartney music that might as well be labelled "huff-and-puff," featuring such overwrought emptiness as "Once Upon a Long Ago," "However Absurd," and "C'mon People"---and another sub-genre that can kindly be labelled "nonsense," featuring such embarrassments as "Morse Moose and the Grey Goose" and "To You." The man survived on reputation and sheer exuberance through the '70s---the sunny lyricism of "Ram" remains irresistable, and "Band on the Run" has some of his peak career moments---but by his own admission, Paul did a lot of musical "searching" in the '80s, usually with dreary results. Here is a songwriter who would have benefitted from aiming for quality, not quantity; who with greater focus might have come close to matching his Beatles-era work. Who would have done well to take the advice offered by Harrison in his February, 2001 on-line chat, when asked for songwriting tips:
"Try and write some melodies. And some words that mean something."
Still, it must be noted that McCartney in the last 20 years has turned
out some very fine work, from the infectious mostly-oldies album, "Run Devil
Run" to the largely colorful and engaging "Memory Almost Full." In fact,
there are very fine songs to be found on every album he has recorded since
1990's "Off the Ground" (except for the absolutely dreadful, slapdash
Harrison's contribution to the Traveling Wilburys can hardly be overlooked. Despite the shared credits, there are some top-rank, mostly-George compositions on the two Wilburys albums, from the truly great "End of the Line" to the gentle "Handle With Care," the acid-tongued "The Devil's Been Busy," and the anthem, "Heading For the Light." Ever unselfish, he's also given away songs that could have almost certainly been hits: "It Don't Come Easy," "Photograph," (Ringo) and "Sour Milk Sea" (Jackie Lomax) being the most obvious.
When Harrison wrote a song, it's almost always because he had something to say. This is most emphatically not true of McCartney, who is an obsessive noodler/inventor, whether he has any statement in mind or not. Harrison's solo songs, as a result of their earnest motivation, seem to carry more weight and meaning than most of McCartney's. George has much more in common with Lennon as a songwriter, in this regard, than McCartney does. Remember that it was Paul himself who rushed to George's defense in the face of criticism over his (correct) remarks denouncing much of today's product-music, saying something like "you don't just dismiss George Harrison."
There is another aspect of Harrison's musicality that sets him apart from the other Beatles, and that is his deceptively powerful soloing. He didn't really quite solidify his expressive style until after the band broke up, the staggeringly affecting solo in "Something" notwithstanding. It was the combination of the slide guitar and the influence of the sitar, he has acknowledged, that created a style unique among guitarists. Through the increased ability to bend and sustain notes discovered in sitar and slide, he seems to have finally found freedom as a player. Harrison's playing brings to mind the old adage about Grateful Dead: "They're not the best at what they do---they're the only ones who do what they do." This is not to minimize, incidentally, his very artful comping; his trademark picking of arpeggiated chords until they become as indelible a part of a Beatles record as Ringo's inimitable timekeeping.
George developed an unmistakable musical personality in his soloing, characterized by arching, patient melodies and a penchant for allowing notes to breathe that is without peer. His attack and timing are absolutely distinctive. Eric Clapton is a virtuoso of the first order, but I'd rather hear the surprise and thoughtfulness of a Harrison solo than the technical finesse of one by Clapton. Even Clapton's more delicate and nuanced playing does not measure up, in terms of soulfulness, to a well-crafted Harrison turn. I remain amazed at the simplicity and poignancy of the solo in "The Light That Has Lighted the World," "Learning How to Love You," or even in Ringo's "King of Broken Hearts." The soaring guitar lines on "My Sweet Lord, 2000" are playing of the heart as well as fingers. The man has, despite having no ambitions in this area, established himself as one of the most expressive guitarists of his time (and Jeff Lynne's favorite, by the way.)
The downside of Harrison's output has been its lack. That simple. Why?
Shortage of inspiration? Not likely, given that a number of never-developed
demos from the "All Things Must Pass" sessions seemed quite promising
("Cosmic Empire," "Nowhere to Go"), and that he wrote and recorded a great
many songs that are yet unreleased. After interviewing Harrison in the
mid-90's, the late Timothy White disclosed that there were an amazing 37 new
Harrison works in various stages of completion. Some of those songs---about
eleven---were finished by Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison for George's
posthumous album, "Brainwashed," which was stunning for its sophistication
and growth. This was George Harrison at the height of his powers in terms of
musicianship, compositional invention, and poetry. In his mid-50's, he
seemed, at long last, to have become comfortable and relaxed with his craft.
"Stuck Inside a Cloud," "Vatican Blues," "Rising Sun," "Pisces Fish," would
easily be worthy of his friend and sometimes mentor, Bob Dylan. Whether the
instrumental, "Marwa Blues" won a Grammy out of sympathy for the late Beatle
is immaterial. It warranted one, as did the album. I rank "Brainwashed"
second to "All Things Must Pass" in terms of ambition, invention, artistic
achievement. And first in terms of production.
© 2002, 2009 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.