George Harrison’s solo work appraised… and my view on box sets

Now look, I’ve been a fan and collector of this man’s work for years and have played my numerous copies of these albums in various formats literally to the point where some of them don’t work anymore and am always curious to hear whatever ‘unreleased’ material that may be made available… however, as with most of the previously unheard stuff by other artists out there, curiosity is usually all it amounts to.

The one exception to this I think is Dylan, since the issues of his excellent “Bootleg Series” have proved, over the years, that his unreleased material really can be – at times – as good as the released stuff.

I have never felt particularly tempted by the increasingly high-priced box sets that have appeared on the market, consisting largely of outtakes or works-in-progress and as such do not feel as though I’m ‘missing out’ particularly.

That said, don’t let me stop you – it’s a free country and you can spend your money how you wish.

If this stuff wasn’t good enough to release the first time around, why fork out a small fortune to hear it now?

On the other hand, as a fan, it is always fascinating to hear this stuff and so ultimately it comes down to personal opinion.

There has been much made of the recent $999 version box set of All Things Must Pass which is hitting the market and the fact that the price tag is extremely high.

In short, it’s going to take “money… a whole lot of spending money”, to buy this box set.

This is a perfectly valid point of view as most people will not be able to afford it.

Equally true though is the fact that no one is requiring you to purchase it and there are less expensive versions available anyway.

I can see both sides of the argument, but have no desire to get bogged down in it.

We are talking about ‘popular’ music with an increasingly astronomical price tag… but these days much of this material is considered to be art and that comes at a price, some would say.

Either way, it costs what it costs and that’s that.

If I can afford it, I’ll buy it.

If I can’t, I won’t.

Nothing else I can do about it.

On to the music…

Here’s my list of Harrison albums, studio, live and compilations, in my own personal ascending order:

18 Early Takes: Volume 1 (2012) – compilation

An interesting selection of largely ATMP songs, with a couple of covers thrown in, this is basically a companion volume to the Scorsese picture George Harrison: Living in the Material World and definitely one for the completists, though not one I return to much.

17 Electronic Sound (1969) – studio album

This is probably the most divisive in the entire catalogue but I just could not bring myself to put it bottom because… well… sorry if you disagree… but, I actually quite like this record. Dismissed by many as a piece of self-indulgent nonsense that shouldn’t have made it on to vinyl – and latterly derided by the man himself (“Avant-garde clue” and all that), I find that I must defend the record on the following basis.

While I accept that the content of the ‘album’ is not really what one would describe as ‘music’, I have to point out that the clue is really in the title ‘Electronic Sound’, I mean, could he have made it more obvious?

Two sides of an LP consisting of formless noodling around on a Moog synthesiser may not be everyone’s cup of tea it’s true, however, there is a place for the unconventional.

Soundscapes and mood music by other artists (Can, for example) which were broadly contemporary or came after this are heralded as breakthrough masterpieces, while this Zapple oddity is more-often-than-not ‘canned’ (ahem) for being a waste of time.

Unfair in my view.

I encourage all nay-sayers to at least reconsider.

16 Let It Roll: Songs By George Harrison (2009) – compilation

Here we have a decent compilation containing some masterpiece songs from across several decades, so why not higher on the list?

I guess if one were seeking a pretty comprehensive overview of the man’s solo work, this would be the one to go for and the reason I placed it here is largely because by the time this came out, we’d already had two other ‘official’ compilations (containing some different material, granted) and it was beginning to feel like we were entering compilation repetition mode (as with Dylan, though not to such a great extent).

Nevertheless, who can argue with a compilation that features the mighty My Sweet Lord and Isn’t It A Pity?

15 Wonderwall Music (1968) – soundtrack

Largely remarkable for being the first full-blown ‘solo’ album by a member of The Beatles, while The Beatles were still a thing… and the first album on Apple.

Musically it’s quite interesting too – often held up as an example of World Music today – with Harrison apparently contributing guitar and keyboard bits here and there.

The term Wonderwall, originally a direct reference to the film’s title, has since taken on other connotations as we all know, but this was and remains a fairly ‘under-the-radar’ release for George, no doubt overshadowed at the time by The White Album, Hey Jude, Those Were The Days etc… and Lennon’s antics, both on and off the turntable.

The 2014 re-issue on CD features a bonus track – a gorgeous instrumental of the Harrison penned The Inner Light, which is worth the price of the disc alone.

14 Extra Texture (Read All About It) (1975) – studio album

Here we enter that foggy mid-to-late 70s era Harrison phase, which I confess has never done much for me.

This album, as inoffensive as it is, suffers from what you might call a lack of inspiration.

It trots along fine, but never really ignites or goes anywhere.

The album’s opener, the raucous You, is probably the best thing going for it – that… and the novelty sleeve the LP came in originally.

I hardly ever play this one… maybe I should give it another go.

13 33 and 1/3 (1976) – studio album

To me this is like Extra Texture, volume 2.

That is to say, it doesn’t grab me.

Crackerbox Palace is okay as a kind of goofy sounding number with a serious message, but beyond that, it’s not one I go back to very often.

Great title though and decent LP cover (a definite improvement on the previous one).

12 Dark Horse (1974) – studio album

Much-maligned follow-up to Living In The Material World and point at which Harrison’s career is often said to have taken on a downward trajectory (at least for the next few albums).

However – yes, you guessed it – I beg to differ.

I find the concept behind the title song and album cover art to be amusing and I quite like this as an overall listen.

Critics slammed it for being ‘disjointed’ and cited the artist’s voice as being in tatters – the ill-fated shows in the US which accompanied it were quickly referred to as ‘the Dark Hoarse tour’.

Yes, Harrison was dealing with some problems at the time… yes, it’s not George at his best, but… there’s still some likeable stuff here and I find that I do revisit this album now and again.

Not as bad as some would have you believe.

11 Gone Troppo (1982) – studio album

And again… not as bad as some would have you believe.

I think that by the time this album came out, Harrison’s style was totally out of synch with what was currently considered ‘pop’.

He knows that and he really doesn’t seem to care.

In fact, after struggling to get his previous album over the line, it’s a miracle he even bothered with this one.

That’s not to say it’s a mess though.

We all know that what’s popular is not necessarily a reflection of what’s worthy… sometimes it is and that’s to be savoured.

Here we have a fairly decent selection of tunes, including the catchy title track and That’s The Way It Goes, one of his best from the early 80s.

After this album, Harrison seemed to vanish from the music scene… thankfully he still had more than one ace up his sleeve, but we’d all have to wait for them.

10 Brainwashed (2002) – posthumous studio album

When this collection arrived, it did not disappoint.

Brainwashed is a strong entry in Harrison’s catalogue, though not as good as his best.

Strangely, it’s the instrumental track Marwa Blues which stands out the most for me in this selection.

The album features some uke work too, an area of Harrison’s talent which we sadly never got to hear enough of – maybe he thought it was too niche, or too personal… who knows?

It’s a pity, though.

Everyone knows he was a great songwriter and an inventive and influential guitarist – we have plenty of recorded evidence to back that up.

I’d have liked to have heard more of him on other instruments.

9 The Best Of George Harrison (1976) – compilation

Yes this album is a compilation and yes the artist himself had nothing to do with its release.

BUT…

The track-listing alone is enough to elevate it high up the list.

I believe it to be the only ‘solo’ Beatles compilation to actually feature original tracks performed by The Beatles (paradoxically).

As such, any album which contains the original versions of Something, Taxman and Here Comes The Sun can immediately expect to enjoy high praise.

Overall, the selections are ‘safe’ record company ones, avoiding anything which might be deemed ‘uncommercial’.

At the end of the day though, he did write all these songs and they are all great.

A bit of a cop-out I know, but the music cannot be argued with.

8 Live In Japan (1992) – live album

This one seems to divide fans and I’ve never been able to work out why.

Personally, I like it.

I mean, it’s Harrison live, for a start – a relative rarity – accompanied by Eric Clapton and helped out by Andy Fairweather Low as well.

What’s not to like?

Okay, the arrangements are pretty safe and ‘poppy’, but they are by-and-large faithful to the originals (no Dylan style complete reworkings or improvisations here – except on the extended While My Guitar Gently Weeps and that’s mainly Clapton’s doing).

Critics bemoan George’s overall energy, claiming that the performances lack something, but I really don’t hear that.

It sounds like he’s enjoying it, for the most part at least.

The versions of Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) and Cheer Down here are highlights.

A solid live album as they go.

7 Living In The Material World (1973) – studio album

We’re getting into seriously strong George territory with this record, the much-anticipated follow-up to the epic All Things Must Pass.

Amazingly, Harrison pretty much delivers with this album and the opening track is worth the price of admission.

With this LP, the ex-Beatle proves that his previous work was no fluke by showcasing another strong set of songs and he really is on a roll in the early 1970s.

A quality album, enough said.

6 Concert For Bangladesh (1971/2) – live album

Okay – this is a live album and it’s not ALL George Harrison.

There are turns by other artists and that’s what raises this up the list.

One performance in particular – that of Bob Dylan – cements this as essential for any collector of meaningful vinyl from this period.

For George’s part, he gives us a couple of his Beatles classics, Something and Here Comes The Sun, while turning in good renditions of some of his more recent solo material.

The Dylan set is something else.

His version of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, while in a completely different key and time signature AND catching the rest of the band off-guard at the start, is almost as good as the original.

Yes folks, this is one of those live moments where the real Bob turns up and shows us why he’s the guv’nor.

I’ll probably write at greater length about this concert in another post, but for now, I’ll simply say that as live triple albums go, this is up there with the best.

5 Best Of Dark Horse, 1976 – 1989 (1989) – compilation

The highest compilation on the list and the reason for that is simple.

This is just a really tastefully selected bunch of tunes.

Some are more well-known than others, but I see no point in picking it apart track by track here – easier to just recommend it and for you to take a listen.

4 Somewhere In England (1981) – studio album

Alright, I know I’m in a minority here but I LIKE IT, okay?

Obviously, it appeared not too long after the senseless murder of John Lennon and for this reason it is perhaps a more interesting listen than it should be.

While it is true that the majority of the songs here are what you might call ‘Harrison-by-numbers’, it does contain All Those Years Ago, the jaunty but touching tribute to Lennon, featuring McCartney AND Starr in the mix and the UK B-Side of that single, the sublime Writing’s On The Wall, one of my favourite Harrison compositions.

These high points are enough, along with the album’s clever artwork, to catapult this one up the list, but I understand that it’s probably not a popular choice.

Harrison’s own disengagement from the music business by this time, aggravated by the death of Lennon and further stoked by his own desire to pursue other activities outside of music, are often cited as being audible in the tone of the album but actually, I think that adds to this record’s character.

George’s heart may not be in it, but it still makes for a decent entry.

I do return to this one quite frequently.

3 George Harrison (1979) – studio album

There is very little to criticise here.

This is a fine album – one of the best from any solo Beatle and one of the best full-stop.

Hard to believe it comes in at number three on my list, but that just shows how good these records are getting and it is small margins between them really.

This one, an undoubted return to form after a mid-70s slump, finds George in a mellow and relaxed mood and this results in some wonderful, dreamy tunes with an eminently listenable quality.

Side one of the original LP is particularly strong, boasting a top-class opener in Love Comes To Everyone and the wonderful Here Comes The Moon, another latter-day favourite of mine.

He dusts down an old Beatles demo, Not Guilty, gives it some renaissance 1979 Harrison magic and throws it into the setlist in a seamless way.

A chilled-out joy.

2 All Things Must Pass (1970) – studio album

Most would probably put this top and with good reason.

This is a storming experience from beginning to end.

The songs are from the top drawer of the Harrison catalogue.

To put it mildly, he’s on fire here.

The only reason I put this in second position is that, although often referred to as a triple album (which it is), the third disc is just ‘jams’.

The rest of it though is pretty peerless stuff.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when McCartney and Lennon heard this for the first time.

I’m sure they’d have us believe that they were happy for him and happy with their own stuff, which may well be true, but… they must’ve had to at least acknowledge that this was the real deal.

The album is of course known for the big songs My Sweet Lord, Isn’t It A Pity, What Is Life etc… but it also contains the beautiful Beware Of Darkness, Let It Roll, Run Of The Mill, Hear Me Lord and more.

All genuine, solid gold winners.

George Harrison had arrived and he brought one of rock’s true masterpieces with him.

Astonishingly good.

And at number 1 – Cloud Nine (1987) – studio album

Many will take issue with this number one choice I’m sure, feeling that perhaps it should go to 1979’s George Harrison or 1970’s monster All Things Must Pass and I can see that, but…

To me this is Harrison’s best because it doesn’t overstay its welcome and it remains accessible, whilst toning-down some of his other, arguably more ‘preachy’ work.

True, it contains the major hit single Got My Mind Set On You, but this song, to me at least, is the one which sits least comfortably on the record.

He didn’t write it and it pops up at the end almost because it’s expected to be there to shift the album off record store shelves.

I prefer the rest of it.

I may be way off the mark but I can almost imagine Jeff Lynne (who produced and co-wrote some of it) and Eric Clapton, nudging a reluctant George repeatedly until he finally relented and said “Oh alright then, I’ll do some music… I’ve got a few tunes.”

And thank goodness.

I love this album.

I’ve played it more times than I can ever remember and know every little nuance and detail.

It is, indeed, one of my personal favourite albums ever.

While it doesn’t possess the sneering arrogance of a mid-60s Dylan opus, or the timelessness of The Beatles at their best, it nonetheless remains a FUN piece of work.

That counts for a lot.

It also features signs that Harrison himself had begun to reflect more positively on The Beatles (When We Was Fab) and on growing older (Wreck Of The Hesperus), while losing none of his jaded attitude towards the press and media intrusion (Devil’s Radio) and still retained the ability to write solid love-themed songs (This Is Love).

Lynne’s production is very 80s in a good way and that’s okay.

I don’t mind it here because the songs are good enough to transcend the production and work as great tunes.

For years this was the last we’d heard of George apart from his work with the Wilburys (not included on this list), and the live/compilation albums that followed and I really thought “Well, if that does turn out to be the last thing we get from him… so be it. Not the worst way to bow out.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little essay on George Harrison’s albums and please remember that, as ever, it’s just my opinion and you are very welcome to disagree.

Note that, there have been some box sets along the way too (not included here)… you can decide if you like them!

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