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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

George Harrison: Wonderwall Music

GEORGE HARRISON: WONDERWALL MUSIC (1968)

1) Microbes; 2) Red Lady Too; 3) Tabla And Pakavaj; 4) In The Park; 5) Drilling A Home; 6) Guru Vandana; 7) Greasy Legs; 8) Ski-ing; 9) Gat Kirwani; 10) Dream Scene; 11) Party Seacombe; 12) Love Scene; 13) Crying; 14) Cowboy Music; 15) Fantasy Sequins; 16) On The Bed; 17) Glass Box; 18) Wonderwall To Be Here; 19) Singing Om.

General verdict: Surprisingly diverse, generally atypical of the artist; some beautiful moments, too.

Out of all Beatles solo projects prior to 1970, this one, I would say, is the only one to still retain some artistic value/relevance — although even that is not saying much. Despite all the personal problems that John, Paul, and George (not to mention Ringo) were having with each other in the year of the White Album, the idea that any one of them could break the collective trust by going properly solo still seemed sacrilegious as hell. But a minor side project such as an instrumental soundtrack — why not? In fact, McCartney had already come very close to something like that as early as in late 1966, writing music for The Family Way; since the score was arranged by George Martin and played by «The George Martin Orchestra», the final product could only qualify as a proper Paul McCartney solo album under certain constraints, but it did break the mold somehow, and, most likely, encouraged Harrison to work on his own project.

For those not in the know, Wonderwall was a fairly generic psychedelic movie by Joe Massot, whose only other claim to fame is his unfinished work on Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains The Same. Watching the movie in full is a good occupation for Sixties-and-pot-obsessed film buffs; everybody else should probably be aware, though, that it does have quite a few stunning shots of young and fair Jane Birkin in flashy psychedelic garb, and seeing as how there are certain facial resemblances between the young and fair Jane Birkin and the young and fair Pattie Boyd, this might have been a serious factor in George's agreeing to write the music for the movie. Another factor, of course, and a far more significant one, is that the opportunity gave him a pretext for indulging in his passion for Indian music, something that was hitherto only tolerated on Beatles records in strictly medicinal amounts.

The good news is that, as a result of this, Wonderwall Music is a soundtrack that is largely independent of the movie — some of the tracks loyally take their cues from whatever is hap­pening (or, rather, non-happening, as befits the Taoist vibes of psychedelic art) in the movie, but you never really need to know that. Instead, the final product is a not half-bad psychedelic kalei­doscope: mostly short musical snippets revealing a very restless mind, constantly on the move and searching for inspiration from any sources at hand — in fact, the album is hands down the most musically diverse album from George, ever; leaving aside the unfortunate circumstance that his genius never really depended upon diversity, it is fun to hear him engage in musical styles that would be unthinkable on All Things Must Pass.

Sure enough, about half of the tracks are of Indian origin, with George actually being assisted by professional Indian masters of the art; notably, George himself is not credited with playing any Indian instruments, humbly restricting his input to guitars and keyboards. This should make tracks like ʽGat Kirwaniʼ and ʽGuru Vandanaʼ of actual interest to authentic Indian music lovers, even if not a single one of those has the epic scope of a raga — a condition that, conversely, might make them more palatable for those who do not even have the patience to travel along with ʽWithin You Without Youʼ. (Also, on a personal note, I must say that the high-pitched, cat-in-a-rut sounds of the shehnai oboe drive me up the wall even more effectively than Yoko Ono — which makes the album opener, ʽMicrobesʼ, a true killjoy). But some of the Indian tracks are notably more experimental: ʽIn The Parkʼ, for instance, features the talents of Shivkumar Sharma on santoor, the Indian dulcimer, as he plays something that — to my ears at least — sounds more like a mix of music hall with ragtime than like traditional Indian music. At the very least, this is not the kind of sound that you typically associate with Indian styles.

At the same time, you also get... melancholic psychedelic waltzing on ʽRed Lady Tooʼ; honky-tonk humor on ʽDrilling A Homeʼ (remember that George would be a big Monty Python fan, and his sense of humor, particularly musical, is often underrated under the weight of all that spiritua­lity); warm electronic ambience on ʽGreasy Legsʼ; a surprisingly hard-rocking bluesy interlude on ʽSki-ingʼ, with an umistakable Eric Clapton himself supplying the crunchy fuzz and the overdubbed «woman tone»; the fairly Beatlesque psychedelic stomp of ʽParty Seacombeʼ, with an unmistakable Ringo on drums and very much reminiscent of ʽFlyingʼ from Magical Mystery Tour; the incidental country-and-western bit on ʽCowboy Musicʼ (which, honestly, seems more influenced by The Who's "we'll soon soon soon be home" bit rather than genuine American music); and, finally, ʽWonderwall To Be Hereʼ — a short, but deeply moving piece that sounds influenced by romantic French movie score muzak, but at the same time manages to melodically presage both King Crimson's ʽEpitaphʼ (due to the monumental Mellotron in the background) and Andrew Lloyd Webber's ʽGethsemaneʼ (due to the overall melodic pathos).

All of this stuff is largely in snippet form, to be sure, but it does make you wonder about George's overall potential as a composer and about whether it had not been somewhat derailed by his preoccupation with preachiness and morality — as magnificent as some of his solo albums would be in the near future, he'd let himself become easily pigeonholed, whereas Wonderwall Music, on the other hand, shows absolutely no signs of pigeonholing; some of its «lightweight» musical exercises show that, perhaps, back in 1968 George Harrison could have been able to put out a proper White Album all by himself. A few tweaks would still be necessary to elevate the record to the status of a «minor masterpiece»: eliminate a couple of the more redundant Indian pieces, get rid of the too-abstract-for-its-own-good lengthy ʽDream Sceneʼ (unless it is accompanied with a video of Jane Birkin in compromising positions), replace the all-too-predictable finale of ʽSinging Omʼ with a Bonzo Dog Band cover... but what's done is done, and perhaps it is better for Wonderwall Music to remain as this charming curiosity, one that actually unlocks a bit of a fresh perspective on George Harrison for those who like to look beyond the surface.

On a technical note, the latest CD reissue of the album adds a few bonus tracks, including an alternate version of ʽThe Inner Lightʼ and the only vocal track that was recorded for the album, ʽIn The First Placeʼ, written and performed by The Remo Four, who also helped George with the rest of the recordings — a nice, slow, dreamy psychedelic groove that fits in very well with all of George's own contributions. 

4 comments:

  1. I think the general verdict works best at the end of the review like you did for Marvin Gaye.

    If you like the Remo Four, they would go on to make their own music, although I know them best when its leader, Tony Ashton, partnered with their drummer and the Creation's bass player Gardner to form Ashton, Gardner & Dyke, a decent BS&T-like band.

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  2. Agree there Mr. X. Also the colors don't read perfectly for either Gaye or Harrison on the white background.

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  3. Nobody's noticed that Marvin Gaye and George Harrison FINALLY break the alphabetization?

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    1. Yeah this is pretty huge

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