For various reasons, almost everyone has a favorite Beatle, and it usually says a few things about his or her personality. Regardless of who that favorite Beatle is, though, everyone should be able to appreciate the solo music of George Harrison. My mother, an avid Paul McCartney fan who wasn’t much into Harrison as a Beatle, still had the majority of his albums, a more complete discography than she had of the other three Beatles. This was quite convenient when I discovered that my favorite Beatle also produced some of the most solid post-Beatles work.
Unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Harrison didn’t have much control over which of his songs went onto Beatles albums, and unlike Ringo Starr, he actually wrote quite a few songs, so it’s true that he probably had the largest back catalog of work, but the music he made truly is impressive. In remembrance of George, who passed away 13 years ago today, following a struggle with cancer, here’s a look back at his discography and some essential tracks.
Wonderwall Music (1968) and Electronic Sound (1969)
Wonderwall Music was a soundtrack for the film Wonderwall, composed primarily (although not entirely) of Indian classical music tracks. There is rock and even ragtime dipping in and out of the more traditional Indian music, with appearances by Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, and Peter Tork of the Monkees. If lyrics aren’t important to you, Wonderwall Music is certainly an interesting journey, with some talented performers and composition.
Electronic Sound is entirely skippable. If any album really didn’t deserve the vinyl it was pressed onto, it’s probably this one. Is it a natural step in the understanding of electronic music? Sure! Should it have been saved as a rare recording to be found in a Moog history museum? Probably. Not to drag the Monkees into this again already, but when you look at what Micky Dolenz did with the Moog synthesizer on “Daily Nightly” two years prior, it makes electronic sound seem even more ridiculous. Ravi Shankar told Harrison he didn’t have what it takes to become a great sitar player, but from an outside perspective, I’d say he stood a way better chance of doing that. Still, the album brought with it controversy. Synthesist Bernie Krause claimed that Side Two (the more listenable side) was actually just a recording of him showing Harrison how to use the instrument.
These albums hold a special place because, while they are technically George Harrison albums, they don’t really fit in with the rest of his solo work. Neither album seems as personal as his later work, and they are simply incredibly incongruent with the rest of his music. Therefore, I’m excluding them as I go down the list of essential tracks from each album.
All Things Must Pass (1970)
What better way to say goodbye to your old band than an album with a title track that they not only turned down (possibly because it would have served the same emotional purpose as “The Long and Winding Road”), but that sums up breakup in a thoughtful, mature way? Nothing on All Things Must Pass feels phoned in. It’s all very thoughtful and well-reasoned. There’s a lot of influence from Bob Dylan, not only because he co-wrote the first track with Harrison, but also because the pair were good friends at the time. The album also includes a cover of Dylan’s “If Not For You.” Against pop conventions of the time, the Harrison/Dylan ballad “I’d Have You Any Time” kicks off the album, followed by the biggest hit and biggest controversy from the album, “My Sweet Lord.” Neither of these tracks are really as essential to me however, as “Wah-Wah.”
“Wah-Wah” is important. “Wah-Wah” has that killer guitar at the beginning, with Eric Clapton on wah-wah pedal. “Wah-Wah” reminds us of what All Things Must Pass really is: a break-up album. Nice try, Robin Thicke’s Paula, but I don’t think you have the raw emotion needed to make a break-up album half as good as the dead skin cells coming off of All Things Must Pass. “Wah-Wah” reminds us that other relationships are every bit as important as romantic ones. After all, Harrison went through some of the most important milestones of his life with his Beatle cohorts. He grew up as a Beatle, and it was a relationship spanning 10+ years. Harrison wrote “Wah-Wah” after he temporarily left the band in 1969, though it wasn’t recorded until later. The song is both complex and simple; it conveys more than the short lyrics seem to say, and musically, it does a lot with very little, filling almost six minutes without seeming redundant, although there isn’t much variation.
Spiritually, the album kind of continues in the vein of “Wah-Wah,” with songs about impending break-up (“Isn’t It a Pity”), and worry about the aftermath on Side Two (“What Is Life” and “If Not For You”). Much like symbolism in classic novels, even if that wasn’t what Harrison intended with those tracks and their placement, that’s certainly something the album achieves.
Although I don’t consider it to be a top track, the country and vaguely hawaiian influences on “Behind That Locked Door” make it notable because I don’t think Harrison really called back to that sound as strongly as on his final album.
“Run of the Mill” is one of the most meaningful songs on the album, hands down. Luckily, Phil Spector (who produced the album), had the good sense to restrain his heavy hand on this particular track, but the rough demo is even better and more heartfelt. It works as a protest song, a relationship song, and a spiritual statement in one. It’s no coincidence that Harrison was proud of the words to “Run of the Mill,” saying, “It was the first song I ever wrote that looked like a poem on paper, whereas most of them don’t seem like much until you put the lyric with the tune.”
The second record begins with the strong “Beware of Darkness,” and another essential track, “Apple Scruffs.”
Now, “Apple Scruffs” isn’t notable because of any particularly great lyrics, or instrumentation (although as a teen, I always thought it had a cool, different sound), but because George Harrison wrote the song for his fans and about his fans. That’s a gesture that seems pretty uncommon, even in the modern culture of social media.
It’s tough to pick and choose tracks from this album, particularly the second record, which I think was the one I listened to most as a teen. “Beware of Darkness” and “Awaiting on You All” are also great songs, “Awaiting on You All” bringing back the loudness of “Let it Down” with the highest energy on the album and the spirituality Harrison is known for. “The Art of Dying” is also great, with a kind of ’70s funk to it. But ultimately, I think the three I picked from this album are the most important. The third record, Apple Jam is more for serious fans. Some of it is fun (“It’s Johnny’s Birthday”), but really, it kind of falls more into the category of Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound. It’s worth hearing, but kind of in a totally different category.
Living in the Material World (1973)
I guess, technically, Concert for Bangladesh could be considered a George Harrison album, but since it’s live, it shall be excluded. Living in the Material World is the little brother of All Things Must Pass. The nearly complete absence of Phil Spector gives Material World a much more personal feel than the theatrical All Things Must Pass. When Harrison sings in “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” that he’s “trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul,” it sounds honest in a way it never could have with Spector’s busy production. That said, Harrison’s sentimentality on this album has no counter, sometimes turning him into a lounge singer. It does have a great sound, but the tracks on it aren’t as standout as the former album.
“Sue Me, Sue You Blues” shows a skepticism Harrison hadn’t visited so closely since “Taxman,” working as a bitter response to the way the Beatles ended up having to end their relationship: in court. Harrison’s slide guitar stylings get a chance to rear their heads on songs like “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” and “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long.”
“Living in the Material World” is one of Harrison’s many introspective songs, discussing his career (see “When We Was Fab”), but it’s never been a favorite, despite the tinkling piano and call and answer sax/guitar. I imagine it would have been a great live song though.
All-in-all, Living In The Material World is a good, but forgettable album. It didn’t have the poppiness of some of his later albums, or the complexity of All Things Must Pass. It’s complex in its own way, it’s calm and quiet, and it has a kind of purity to it. But it doesn’t pop.
The standout track has to be the aforementioned “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).”
Unlike the rest of the album, I think “Give Me Love” is truly a vast improvement over anything on All Things. Not that it’s particularly better, but it sounds much more polished and mature than the Spector-produced tracks. Spector was good at pop, no denying that, but the deep folk, the slide guitar, the Krishna devotionals… they needed Spector far from them.
Dark Horse (1974)
I feel like this was the first Harrison album that was just an album. There was the soundtrack, the experiment, and two huge, thesis-paper albums, and then this guy, who’s just like, “Hey, I’m Dark Horse, check me out sometime.” Another way of looking at it is that this is Harrison’s Rumors. I don’t mean to say it’s the best of his work, but that it’s full of the most personal storms. Harrison embarked on the first tour since the Beatles hit the road for the last time in 1966. He contracted laryngitis. He began to take up drugs and alcohol heavily again. He and his wife Pattie Boyd were cheating on each other and eventually split up, Boyd leaving him for his friend and frequent collaborator, Eric Clapton. Almost all of this is at the forefront on the album.
“Hari’s on Tour (Express)” had been the introduction to live shows through the tour, and it’s a very clearly George Harrison piece, even if it’s a little dated (and it’s always reminded me of the theme song to Saturday Night Live, which first aired a year after the album was released). Harrison sings of his relapsed drug problems in “Simply Shady” and his relationship problems in “So Sad,” notably the only Harrison song known to be about marital problems between Harrison and Boyd. That said, he definitely makes reference to it in his cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” They’re both referenced in his revised lyrics, as well as in the liner notes, where he credits them as performers on the song, despite the fact that they do not appear on it. There again, Ron Wood doesn’t appear on the album either, but is referenced as well, as a bitter comment on the brief fling Wood and Boyd had during Boyd and Harrison’s marriage.
Harrison presents “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” widely considered to be his holiday song. But the standout track on this album has to be the title track.
Despite containing what are quite possibly the roughest vocals of any Harrison appearance, and the worst vocals he contributed since “Three Cool Cats,” “Dark Horse” functions as it’s supposed to. If it had the sweet, melodic vocals of “Give Me Love,” that would go completely against the point of the song. “Dark Horse” also has the most ambitious guitar work on the album (outside of “Hari’s on Tour”). Furthermore, it must have been an important song to Harrison, considering he named his record label after it.
Extra Texture (Read All About It) (1975)
Extra Texture seems to be the forgotten George Harrison album. It’s a pity, because Extra Texture is the aftermath of Dark Horse and the rest of 1974 for Harrison. After the bad reviews and the divorce, Harrison said he was the nearest to a nervous breakdown he ever got and couldn’t even go back to his home at Friar Park. After all, in four years, he went from being a married man in the most popular band in the world, to a jaded, divorced solo artist whose live and recorded attempts had both been rejected. Extra Texture gets back to the basics. The whole album seems like it could have been recorded from a live show with a big backing band. There aren’t many tricks, which means in some ways, the album is less dated than some songs on the former albums. It’s also forced to have a stronger musicality than Dark Horse. Some of his favorite friends and collaborators are back, too, making it a more enjoyable listening experience. There’s still a great deal of sadness in the lyrics, but handled in a more personal and less vindictive way.
The biggest hit Extra Texture hailed was “You,” a song he’d written for Ronnie Spector years earlier. My favorite track, though, has always been “The Answer’s At the End.”
Inspired by some of the many pieces of advice found inscribed on the grounds of Friar Park, “The Answer’s at the End” also finds inspiration in Nina Simone’s cover of his earlier song “Isn’t It a Pity,” to which the general idea also bears some similarities.
Harrison finds his voice again on this album (literally), and creates the first of his “sequel songs” with “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying)” (sequel to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”). He also really, really liked parenthesis on this album. Like seriously, three out of 10 songs have parenthesis in the titles.
Other notable songs on the album include “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” and “His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen),” written for former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band member, “Legs” Larry Smith.
Thirty Three & 1/3 (1976)
Long before Adele was naming her albums after her age at the time, George Harrison was doing elaborate dual-meaning titles about his current age and the record speed. By Thirty Three & 1/3, Harrison had shaken off some of the blues of Dark Horse and was getting into my very favorite era of his songwriting. His alcoholism led to hepatitis during this album, after which point, he quit the excessive drinking. He lost the lawsuit over “My Sweet Lord”/”He’s So Fine,” but instead of writing about how his guitar couldn’t keep from crying over it, he turned it into the satirical “This Song,” with appearances by Monty Python’s Eric Idle.
“Woman Don’t You Cry For Me” experiments with a bottleneck slide guitar and “Dear One” calls back to the spirituality of his earlier albums.
Then, on “Beautiful Girl,” we realize where all of this newfound musical energy is coming from. Harrison had taken up with his future wife, Olivia Arias. “Beautiful Girl” is an awkward situation though, seeing as he began writing it for Pattie Boyd in 1969, but got stuck until he revisited it for this album.
“See Yourself” relates to the incident in which Paul McCartney admitted that he had taken LSD. Harrison seemed to have mixed feelings on the issue, but the song seems to declare the bravery of McCartney telling reporters the truth rather than just lying about it.
George Harrison wrote a lot of introspective songs, but I think “Crackerbox Palace” is the most important, even if it’s mostly about Harrison’s encounter with a man named George Greif who managed comedian Lord Buckley (who lived at Crackerbox Palace). Thanks to a video directed by Eric Idle and featuring another Bonzos member, Neil Innes, and Olivia Arias, as well as live-action gnomes and the pantomime Princess Margaret, it’s also the most fun. It’s poppy and cute, without worrying about going too far or not far enough.
There’s a lot to be said for this album, actually. Sure, it doesn’t have the hype of his first two post-Beatles albums, but it’s filled with good tracks. It’s the only George Harrison album with songs on it that my cynical, hipster brother will listen to. And I’m not saying it isn’t dated, but I put a lot of thought into how these songs work in a modern context, so I feel like I’m speaking from some level of… pretentiousness…
George Harrison (1979)
Oh my goodness! I was afraid we were never going to get to my absolute favorite Harrison album, the fairly dated, but no less glorious self-titled George Harrison. This is part of what could be called “the happy era.” Between the former album and this one, Harrison and Arias married and gave birth to their son, Dhani (well, Arias did anyway). It’s not entirely composed of happy songs, as I’ll relate in a moment, but the music showed signs of contentment. There wasn’t the discrepancy in sound as between Material World and Dark Horse or between Texture and Thirty Three. And even in the more downbeat songs, there are signs of hope shining through.
“Love Comes to Everyone” channels the happy energy of “You Can’t Hurry Love” and the lazy spirit of Hawaii (where it was written).
Harrison finally got a chance to use a song he wrote more than 10 years before, intended for The Beatles’ White Album: “Not Guilty.” He also created another sequel song with “Here Comes the Moon,” a truly enchanting piece. “Soft-Hearted Hana” acts as a more playful “Simply Shady,” detailing a magic mushroom trip.
I truly love all the songs on this album, but in this case, the single choice was correct, because “Blow Away” is a darned strong song. Take it on whatever spiritual level you want to, but it’s a beautiful track about coming out of depression.
Side Two is a series of explanations of Harrison’s life over the three years between albums. It can best be summed up by the lyrics to Vanessa Carlton’s single “Nolita Fairytale,” “Spent the last two years getting to what’s real.” Harrison writes of his love of Formula 1 racing in “Faster,” the beautiful Olivia in “Dark Sweet Lady,” and positive thoughts about romance and religion in the other tracks.
Somewhere in England (1981)
This album was majorly recorded before the death of John Lennon, but not released until after. Harrison (along with Starr and McCartney) added “All Those Years Ago” and a response to being asked to make more commercial songs, “Blood From a Clone” (a year after the Billy Joel song with a similar message). He added some pop polish to it, which, if anything, ended up making it more dated than its sister album, George Harrison (don’t ask me exactly why they’re sister albums, but that’s how I’ve always felt about them).
The most instrumentally poetic track on the album is “Life Itself.” It’s one of those songs that allows you to sing the guitar part without effort.
…”All Those Years Ago” is clearly the winner of “most influential” on this album. Not only is it the biggest hit, but with the changes Harrison made to the song after Lennon was shot, it’s the most meaningful track, the most personal one. It’s crazy to think Harrison could even get any added vocals out after Lennon’s death, considering how specific the lyrics feel.
“Teardrops” was one of the tracks recorded after Warner Music told him they needed more sellable songs and… ick. I enjoy the song on some level, but it’s very dated, very insincere (think Harrison Ford’s-voice-over-in-Blade-Runner insincere), and the lyrics are completely incongruent with the melody. Another added track, “That Which I Have Lost” really works for me, though.
“Save the World” was a favorite in my teen years. It really is nice to hear someone caring. Also, in case you can’t get enough of George W. Bush’s pronunciation of “nuculur,” George Harrison offers up “e-tomic.”
Really, I think the biggest mistake on this album was bending to the wishes of Warner Music. Yeah, I’m sure they knew what they were doing for sales at the time, but it really took away the staying power of some tracks.
Gone Troppo (1982)
The Dark Horse of the ’80s, Gone Troppo made some of those same dated mistakes we were talking about with Somewhere in England. It was hard not to in the ’80s. Even the cover art by “Legs” Larry Smith looks like the ’80s threw up on it. But in all seriousness, I think this album gets a bad rap. The soulfulness of “That’s the Way it Goes” was proven by Joe Brown at Concert for George and I personally adore the cover of “I Really Love You.” “Mystical One” is another great Harrison devotional.
Then there’s “Greece,” a track I almost always mistake for an instrumental. The instrumental part of it is spot-on, and even when the lyrics come in, it works. The title track, which means “gone mad,” creates a kind of double-meaning with its island sound. The whole album has a lazy, vacation feel. The more I look at that album cover though, the more I wonder how many people have thought this was a Weird Al album.
But it’s “Unknown Delight” that really begs to be heard. Best song written for a kid, period. “Dream Away” is probably the best song on the album, though.
Troppo fulfilled Harrison’s contract, so that’s part of why he was just in a hurry to get it out. I genuinely don’t think it’s a bad album; it’s tons more fun than Extra Texture, and I’d much rather listen to Gone Troppo than Dark Horse.
Cloud Nine (1987)
After a five-year break, Harrison returned with an album people actually liked. This was partly thanks to his cover of Rudy Clark’s “Got My Mind Set On You.” Harrison and Jeff Lynne (of E.L.O.) co-produced the album, a change which is audible. Lynne definitely leaves Harrison’s style intact, but gives the album the flare of an auteur producer the likes of which Harrison albums hadn’t seen since All Things Must Pass.
Unlike every other Harrison album, Cloud Nine begins with the title track. The five-year break seems to have paid off, as we hear the rich melodies and gorgeous slide guitar Harrison has always been capable of. Even his voice sounds incredible on Cloud Nine.
I’d always kind of skimmed over this album, considering it “too commercial,” but really Somewhere in England is more at the height of forced-commercialism, whereas even if this one is commercial, it’s a polished and refined commercial work instead of the roughness exhibited on England.
Something about the production Lynne adds to songs like “Fish on the Sand” makes them seem more poetic, but Harrison’s lyrics certainly seem improved as well. All of the Harrison/Lynne collaboration hits a peak on “This is Love.”
The synth strings, the slide guitar, etc., frame this Harrison- and Lynne-penned piece. Oh, and the original B-side planned for this? “Handle With Care” (later released by Travelling Wilburys). Yes, “When We Was Fab” is probably more well-known as a single from this era, and Harrison himself probably thought “Devil’s Radio” was more important (in an interview with Dhani Harrison, he explains that George’s favorite track was always the seventh), but I feel that “This is Love” is just the George Harrison song. Also it’s just a feel-good track.
Before the record is over, let’s not forget the great tune “Someplace Else” from the terrible film Shanghai Surprise, the poppy, simile-laden “Wreck of the Hesperus,” and the transcontinental sounds of “Breath Away From Heaven.”
During his lifetime, George Harrison released no further albums, apart from a greatest hits and the Live in Japan album with Eric Clapton. He had been working on Brainwashed, including writing the words to opening track “Any Road” while filming the video for “This is Love,” and planning with Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison what he would do for the remainder of the album, but he never finished his work. It’s unfortunate, because Brainwashed may very well have been his finest work. Yes, you can hear the throat cancer having an effect on the vocals. Yes, You can hear the age in his voice. Yes, it’s colored by our knowledge of what will ultimately become of the singer before the instruments are all even added, but it’s clear that he is also aware of his fate.
It’s tough to pick key tracks from this album because it’s like a person’s last words. But “Any Road” definitely has to be one of the most important ones. On the surface, it is a reference to Alice in Wonderland and Harrison’s last single, but it also features the slide guitar, the ukulele, and the kind of soul-exploration Harrison was known for.
“Pisces Fish” is another statement, as is “The Rising Sun” (another of my favorites). There are a great deal of Hawaiian influences showing through on the album, not least with the tear-jerking instrumental “Marwa Blues.”
Remember what I said a minute ago about track seven? (I knew I should have told you to remember it!) “Stuck Inside a Cloud” seems to focus on Harrison’s struggles, and Harrison’s son Dhani decided this was the song that deserved to be the seventh track. So it’s important.
The rest of the album is simply gorgeous, too. If you only listen to one full album from his discography, I think this should be it.
So, that’s my take on George Harrison’s discography. Let me know your favorites and opinions in the comments!