George Harrison remains the Beatles’ great unresolved mystery — the guy who might have actually done more had he been in any another band after 1965. Or not. His solo records are a frustrating mix of the sublime, the blatant and the unremarkable. Sometimes within a three-song sweep. Sometimes within the same song.
Thus, the unresolved part. George seemed as at odds as any world-famous person ever was with that very fame. He often only made records — in particular, in the days after his association with the outsized, and more than occasionally overbearing, talents of John and Paul — when he was made to, and it showed. No surprise, then, that it’s difficult to achieve a vista after 1970. All Things Must Pass could be a bloated, if admirable, mess. The mid-1970s were, at best, hit and miss. The 1980s were worse. Even inside George’s subsequent commercial renaissance with producer/sessions man/doppelganger Jeff Lynne — from the 1987 comeback Cloud Nine, the Traveling Wilburys and some soundtrack work, and then finally through Harrison’s untimely passing before the release of 2002′s Brainwashed — there were some obvious clunkers.
That’s where we come in. Something Else! Reviews, in our birthday gift to you, has gone through the stacks to provide the must-have tunes. Call it The Only George Harrison Solo Stuff You’ll Ever Need. The songs are sequenced in the order we’d burn them for a take-home 80-minute CD:
RISING SUN (2002, Brainwashed)
We’ve raved about this one before.
HANDLE WITH CARE (1988, Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1)
The inspiration for two Wilburys records that followed, this was originally a b-side knockoff — and it retains a rare and still contagious spontaneity. The title, for instance, came from a cautionary sticker Harrison saw on a nearby instrument packing case.
LET IT DOWN (1970, All Things Must Pass)
Asked what he thought of his monumental, turn-of-the-1970s three-disc debut during a remastering session 30 years later, Harrison simply said: “Too much echo.” That’s why we prefer the long-bootlegged demo of this song, which first appeared in an early 1990s underground disc called Beware of ABKCO — and then as a bonus track on that redone edition of “ATMP.” The stripped-down version of “Let It Down” best illustrates how so much of Harrison’s pent-up songcraft instantly resonated, even as first drafts.
DON’T LET ME WAIT TOO LONG (1973, Living in the Material World)
The original working title of this album was The Magic Is Here Again, and this is perhaps the only song from the long-awaited studio follow up to All Things Must Pass that approaches that kind of hyperbole. A masterpiece of coiled anticipation.
MY SWEET LORD (1970, All Things Must Pass)
An American publishing company won a $600,000 judgment after claiming that this sounded too much like the early 1960s hit “He’s So Fine.” The judge ruled that Harrison “subconsciously plagiarized” the song; George argued — and this is the good part — that he got the idea not from the Chiffons but from the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day.” Does George still get to count this as his first No. 1?
ALL THOSE YEARS AGO (1981, Somewhere in England)
John Lennon‘s murder sparked a remarkable reunion — Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Beatles producer and engineer Geoff Emerick, even Denny Laine and Linda McCartney from Wings. A song so incandescent that it almost (but not quite) makes up for the dreck found elsewhere on this album; see (or don’t) the opener, “Blood from a Clone.”
SO SAD (1974, Dark Horse)
Though part of a generally more uplifting effort, this track was an outtake from Material World, and it’s got the same elegiac tone. Considering that his wife had just ran off with his best friend, you’d think they’d all sound like this. Instead, you have Patti Boyd and Eric Clapton singing back up on the Everlys’ “Bye Bye Love.” No kidding.
WHAT IS LIFE (1970, All Things Must Pass)
A popular track on Harrison’s six-time platinum selling solo debut (tops for any former Beatle), this towering rocker actually seemed to warrant producer Phil Spector‘s Tsunami of Sound approach. (A little of this goes a long way, though.) Background vocals are credited to the George O’Hara-Smith singers — keyboardist Bobby Whitlock and Clapton, who would go on to form Derek and the Dominoes.
THAT’S WHAT IT TAKES (1987, Cloud Nine)
Co-written with keyboardist Gary Wright (of “Dreamweaver” fame; thanks “Wayne’s World!”), and featuring an understated turn on slide, this is the completely realized mid-1970s hit George never quite managed. Better late than never. Eventually showed up as the b-side to “Cheer Down,” found elsewhere on our list.
GIVE ME LOVE (1973, Living in the Material World)
A career-defining post-Beatles cut, it features Harrison’s now-signature sound but is also one of his least preachy bits of sacred music — and, perhaps it’s no surprise, would become his second U.S. No. 1 hit. Though blessedly recorded without Spector, it still can’t completely save George during a period marred by too many too-pious tunes.
BEWARE OF DARKNESS (1970, All Things Must Pass)
Harrison’s first, best album’s best song — one where he perfectly matches a lyrical meditation on overcoming life’s harder moments (refusing to give into “the pain that often lingers”) with the sound, mysticism and fury of one of the early 1970s greatest amalgamations of sidemen. Originally opened side three of this post-Fab creative outburst.
VATICAN BLUES (2002, Brainwashed)
Though Harrison, then suffering from throat cancer, sounds a bit reedy at times, he pulls off a couple of final rapscallion barbs — including this throw-back rocker.
YOU (1975, Extra Texture)
Recorded for singer Ronnie Spector during the sessions that produced All Things Must Pass five years before (and using the same cast-of-thousands backing band), Harrison simply dubbed his own vocal over hers — and then released it, to moderate success. Funny thing, it’s still the best song on this album.
I’D HAVE YOU ANYTIME (1970, All Things Must Pass)
Every bit as moving as Abbey Road triumphs like “Something,” with a Beatle-ish guitar signature and a lyrical assist by Bob Dylan. I always thought “I’d Have You Anytime” was a gutsy opening song for such an enormous undertaking.
CHEER DOWN (1989, Lethal Weapon 2 soundtrack)
Co-written by Wilbury buddy Tom Petty, this was once one of the more hard-to-find gems from a period of offhanded delights. Produced in a surprisingly contemporary style, tongue is firmly placed in cheek throughout. (“When your teeth drop out, you’ll get by even without taking a bite. …”) Later widely issued as a single upon the release of Best of Dark Horse.
YOUR LOVE IS FOREVER (1979, George Harrison)
One of Harrison’s most enduring ballads, it could have gotten lost in an adult-contemporary-ish album that is occasionally too airy and slickly mid-tempo — and one that, somehow, includes yet another needless update of a Beatles cut, “Here Comes the Moon.” Don’t let that distract from this comfy triumph, which includes some of Harrison’s loveliest slide work.
CRACKERBOX PALACE (1976, Thirty-Three and a Third)
The album’s title — a take off on the RPMs for old vinyl and George’s age on the proposed release date — held great whimsical promise. Only the record wasn’t released until his 33 2/3 birthday. It was downhill from there, save for this Top 20 hit — and “This Song,” a takeoff on that Chiffons mess. “Crackerbox Palace,” by the way, was about the estate of friend Lord Buckley, a British comedian — giving an expectedly different spin (for George, anyway) on the line: “Know that the Lord is well.”
UNKNOWN DELIGHT (1983, Gone Troppo)
An album that included the principal tune from the hit film “Time Bandits,” which George produced, along with a catchy, if slight single in “Wake Up My Love,” Gone Troppo is nevertheless sunk by ham-fisted production touches, including some then-trendy synths. Still, “Unknown Delight,” this lovingly crafted song for his son Dhani, remains a terrific reason to delve into what turned out to be one of George’s most uptempo, if instantly dated, releases.
IF NOT FOR YOU (1970, All Things Must Pass)
Included on Dylan’s New Morning album, this is another intimate, atmospheric moment that nicely counterbalances the excesses found elsewhere here. Alan White, who played drums during these sessions, said Lennon provided some uncredited guitar work. Later ruined by Olivia Newton-John.
WRECK OF THE HESPERUS (1987, Cloud Nine)
A sharp and snarky rocker, it’s everything the hit single “Got My Mind Set On You” from this record aspired to, but never quite achieved. The title is a colloquial term by the Brits in reference to a disheveled appearance, and opens the door for a series middle-aged hopes and fears: “I’m not the wreck of the Hesperus, feel more like the Wall of China; getting old as Methuselah. … ” Love the Big Bill Broonzy reference, too.
BE HERE NOW (1973, Living in the Material World)
This is the quiet, then soaringly meditative song George was trying to make with the Beatles on the White Album’s interminable “Long, Long, Long.” Featuring a drone played on the tanpura, the title comes from one of George’s favorite books by Baba Ram Dass.
STUCK INSIDE A CLOUD (2002, Brainwashed)
Harrison’s plaintive tone makes for a devastatingly fragile moment — “never slept so little, never smoked so much; lost my concentration, I could even lose my touch” — on this final release, with some appropriately sensitive production by .
WHEN WE WAS FAB (1987, Cloud Nine)
Harrison finally came to terms with the Fabs’ psychedelic successes in a tune of bittersweet reverie, even then. Ringo Starr kicks things off, then keeps time on an ageless track that eventually reveals itself as both tribute and send up.
ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970, All Things Must Pass)
A must have. Even so, we’d opt for Harrison’s original demo for what became the title track to his solo debut. Auditioned as the Beatles worked on , this version wasn’t issued until the mid-1990s on the third Anthology album. Purpled with emotion, somehow darker than the studio version — and that’s saying something.
BLOW AWAY (1979, George Harrison)
A sublime, soul-lifting track about clearing skies and opening hearts. This song has aged as well as any 1970s-era solo Beatle hit. Maybe better. After all, we’re talking about tunes like Paul McCartney‘s “Listen To What the Man Said” and Ringo’s “The No No Song.”