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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

George Harrison: Electronic Sound

GEORGE HARRISON: ELECTRONIC SOUND (1969)

1) Under The Mersey Wall; 2) No Time Or Space.

General verdict: Where the boundary between testing equipment and making art moogically disappears.

Well, one thing is for certain: nobody in his right mind will dare call George Harrison «The Quiet Beatle» upon listening to this album. Only the second and already the last record to be produced on Apple's eccentricity-oriented side label, Zapple, Electronic Sound is a bold, challenging, pioneering exploration of the universe's sonic capacities that not only puts to shame everything The Beatles, collectively or individually, had come up with to that date, but should also hold its own against such pioneers of electronic music as Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and the entire Krautrock scene.

Actually, the major difference that makes all the difference is that George Harrison himself — the quiet Beatle curse strikes whether we like it or not — never called it «art», or wrote any self-important manifestos on the subject, or made it the aural part of a Yoko Ono installation, or, in fact, did anything about it except slap an example of his own childlike painting on the front sleeve. Other than that, I actually struggle to understand why, for instance, some of the earliest Kraftwerk albums should be (as they typically do) branded as «avantgarde art», whereas Elec­tronic Sound is usually hushed up as, at best, irrelevant, and at worst, embarrassing.

Ultimately, it is a matter of knowledge. We know that George Harrison was deeply intrigued and fascinated by new sounds, and that he went out and bought a brand new Moog synth from Moog himself. We know that one of the pieces was edited from a demonstration of the Moog that Bernie Krause gave to George in California. We know that the other one was recorded entirely by George himself at his own home in Surrey (poor, poor Surrey inhabitants of 1968 and 1969 that had to endure both George and Yoko-John). We know that George never, ever did anything even remotely reminiscent of this again — but we also know that he did use the Moog in the sessions for Abbey Road, professionally and melodically, having tested it beforehand in a variety of ways. In light of all this knowledge, we have the right to say that Electronic Sound is not an artistic statement, but simply forty minutes of knob-twiddling in order to get accustomed to this brand new Leviathan of Sound.

If we did not know any of that, what could be our reaction? Well, a lot of this obviously sounds very psychedelic. Some bits could be described as «ambient», some as «industrial», some as «proto-glitch», some as «noise» (in the Art sense of the word), and some could even be sneaked onto an Aphex Twin album and you'd hardly notice. Most could be sneaked onto a Hawkwind album and you'd definitely not notice. If your knowledge of old and modern electronic music is sufficiently advanced, you'd never once feel bothered here — after all, George had the tact not to invite Yoko Ono into the studio for company, and outside of that, a tortured Moog still sounds much better than, say, a tortured violin. But, as it happens, we are told that this is not art: this is merely a technical demonstration of the possibility of the Moog to sound like everything from the Northern wind to a malfunctioning nuclear reactor to an inebriated space alien passing out in your bathroom. And, as any technical demonstration of anything technically produced in 1969, the album has long since passed its date of expiration.

Also, just to confirm that I have, in fact, listened to this album in its entirety, I must state that its second side (ʽNo Time Or Spaceʼ) sounds more adventurous and generally «far-out-there» than the first one, ʽUnder The Mersey Wallʼ. The latter is mostly hushing, hissing, and bleeping; the former occasionally evolves into a full-blown space battle, and the sound, overall, is fuller and more three-dimensional. I guess, after all, that Krause's demonstration was not nearly as instruc­tive for his pupil as it could have been — there was probably no danger of George Harrison evolving into Vangelis or Klaus Schulze at any given point in time. On the other hand, could Vangelis or Klaus Schulze have come up with that insanely catchy, yet also transcendental-soun­ding little Moog countermelody on ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ? Even if you think "yes", I'd rather you not say it out loud — out of simple courtesy.

2 comments:

  1. John Cage was not a pioneer of electronic music...

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    1. Well, (a) "Imaginary Landscape, No. 1" is always referenced in all histories of electronic music and (b) you're nitpicking, really.

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