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Tuesday, March 6, 2018

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass


GEORGE HARRISON: ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970)

1) I'd Have You Anytime; 2) My Sweet Lord; 3) Wah-Wah; 4) Isn't It A Pity (version 1); 5) What Is Life; 6) If Not For You; 7) Behind That Locked Door; 8) Let It Down; 9) Run Of The Mill; 10) Beware Of Darkness; 11) Apple Scruffs; 12) Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll); 13) Awaiting On You All; 14) All Things Must Pass; 15) I Dig Love; 16) Art Of Dying; 17) Isn't It A Pity (version 2); 18) Hear Me Lord; 19) Out Of The Blue; 20) It's Johnny's Birthday; 21) Plug Me In; 22) I Remember Jeep; 23) Thanks For The Pepperoni.

General verdict: One of those few records that have a real chance to make a believer out of an atheist - at least for an hour and a half.

If we leave John's and George's early experimental solo albums out of consideration; if we also put Ringo's two first solo albums in the «experimental» category (since both were clearly just genre exercises, produced more out of boredom than anything else); and, finally, if we discount McCartney as, technically, a rushed job hurried to the market for extra-musical purposes — then a fair case might be made that each of the four Beatles' proper solo debuts, all the way from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band to Ram and up to Ringo, would also be the highest point in each of their solo careers: an explosion of individual personality, hampered and restricted by the band format, one that would never get the chance to materialize had the Beatles not broken up. Even if all of their solo careers past those high points turned out to be complete crap (which, thankfully, they did not), it is still a good thing that The Beatles broke up precisely when they did break up: at the height of rock music's creativity, in an atmosphere of general artistic uplift that heavily promoted self-expression in the healthiest way possible. Now imagine if Paul McCartney's debut solo album came out in, say, 1986...

...anyway, we all know very well that nobody truly profited as much from the break-up as good old George — the one man who had to work real hard to get at least three of his songs on a Beatles album, let alone four. As history (and probability theory) tells you, George Harrison was not born with song­writing genius, like Paul McCartney and (slightly more arguably) John Lennon: rather, he spent the first half of the Beatle years sucking it in, breathing the same air as John and Paul, gradually understanding things about quality control and stuff. Meanwhile, the second half of his Beatle years was spent in trying to carve himself out a separate identity — everything from his Indian experiments to philosophical lyrics to growing the longest beard of all four of them to writing a shitload of songs that his bandmates constantly rejected because (a) quotas, (b) too dense and heavy, (c) QUOTAS! QUOTAS!

All Things Must Pass, recorded from May to October 1970, certainly sounds much different from what those songs might have looked like in the hands of George Martin — not to mention from the original demos, which are widely available in bootleg forms (the classic Beware Of ABKCO! is a must-hear for any respectable Beatles fan). One of the main reasons for this is Phil Spector, who co-produced the sessions along with George — in a way, one might construe the 1970-71 years as a short period of a subtle bond between George, John, and Phil (who was also involved in both the work on Let It Be and on John's Imagine) whose partial purpose was to tickle the feathers of Paul. But not just that. The alliance with Phil gave both, and George in par­ticular, a chance to temporarily switch from the typically «chamber» format of George Martin to a much more «symphonic» style — boosting their egos, some might say, but actually dissolving their egos in some sort of grand, cosmic sweep that exalts and humbles the singer-songwriter at the same time. For George, this was precisely what he needed at that period in his life.

There are people out there who actually prefer the slow, sad, deeply introspective acoustic demo of ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ to the finalized version on The Beatles — likewise, there are those who actually prefer the demos of Beware Of ABKCO! to the grand and glitzy musical behemoths on All Things Must Pass. There can certainly be room for both in anybody's life, but any statement about how the final versions suffer from a loss of depth, feeling, sincerity, etc., should be immediately relegated to the wastebasket as an irrelevant result of a crudely simplistic algorithm (i.e. «lonely acoustic guitar = GOOD; multi-layered production = BAD»). The truth is that both George and Phil were on the same wave, and that goes for the amazing playing team assembled in the studio as well — from Eric Clapton and his new friends, The Dominoes, to Billy Preston on the keys, Bobby Keys on saxes, Pete Drake on pedal steel, Badfinger on acoustic guitars, and George's long-time collaborator John Barham, responsible for the orchestrations.

All these people were there for one purpose only — amplify the message, and amplify it they did. With the exception of straightforward anger (an emotion not wholly unfamiliar to George, but one that he decided to shelve for the time being), All Things Must Pass is a collection of songs that covers pretty much the entire spectrum of human emotions, but also makes sure that these emotions are an intrinsic part of the cosmos at large — that joy or sadness are not generated in a vacuum, but are all separate manifestations of divine presence in the experiencers. Thus, if Harrison here is the main subject of these emotions, his numerous friends act as universal retrans­lators — something that makes perfect sense even in the context of a «localized» love song like ʽLet It Downʼ, because, according to the ideology of All Things Must Pass, all our actions and feelings still cause cosmic-scale repercussions. (Do try to remember that the next time your girlfriend's hair hangs all around you).

Yet the grand production of the album — all the booming drums, the multi-tracked guitars, the armies of brass, the backing vocals seemingly coming from under the ground, etc. — would mean nothing without the songwriting. And the preachy tone of the album, with its constant lyrical references to The Divine Presence and constant moral guidance imperatives, would be insuf­ferable if it did not have the musical backbone to give it proper substance. Why, indeed, should we be wanting to take life lessons from a self-taught Liverpudlian pop musician without a degree in philosophy or theology? Who is that guy that he thinks he's got the right to tell us to beware of falling swingers, or that "no one around you will carry the blame for you"?

To answer that question, let us start out with something seemingly very simple: ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ. Here is a song with really minimal, and fairly trivial, lyrics, more of a repetitive mantra than a proper song, in fact, not to mention all the controversy around it being lifted from The Chiffons' ʽHe's So Fineʼ (a matter utterly irrelevant to the case at hand, although I firmly belong to the camp that believes in subconscious borrowing rather than intentional stealing). If all this song had were its main acoustic riff and the endlessly repeated "my sweet Lord, oh my Lord", it would be just an annoying cheerleading oddity. But the song is not really about monotonous praising — it is about searching, and with relatively small hopes of finding. What makes it a piece of genius is not the chorus, but the "I really want to see you" verse (bridge?), reflected in the poignant guitar riff that opens and mid-bookmarks the song — and the subtle, but steady increase of tension as more and more layers are added up (drums, keyboards, backing vocals on the chorus, backing vocals on the bridge). The climax comes at 3:10 into the song — the last occurrence of "now, I really want to see you!..", by which moment all the players have entered the field and all that tension and pleading in George's voice have resulted in one final desperate explosion. And note how we are prepared for that explosion by George himself — his preceding set of four "oh, my sweet Lord"'s is already the sound of somebody well on the edge, tired of and fed up with the constant waiting, like he's hopping on the surface of a hot frying-pan or something.

Those of us who aren't all that big on Cosmic Conscience might certainly snicker at all the references to Krishna and Maheshwara: the very fact that George was a firm believer in religious syncretism, respecting all forms of spirituality as long as they did not involve human sacrifice, makes his specific invocations of Indian, Judeo-Christian, or any other deities look a little silly in perspective. But the genius of ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ, the way I personally perceive it, is precisely in that this is a song that one minute makes me snicker, and the next minute sends a sharp pang of desperation down my chest. At times, I have even stuck with an interpretation of the song that was probably never even remotely present in George's original conception — namely, that the mantraic chorus represents the formal (plodding, boring, formulaic, by-the-book) aspect of the religion, while the "I really want to see you / know you" parts represent the protagonist's occasio­nal doomed attempts to grasp the truth beyond the formula — always thwarted by the communal mantra in the end, meaning that the fade-out coda by itself is tragic (the seeker of truth drowned out by the meaninglessly repeated mantra). But even if that was never in the works, the fact that you can really easily see the song this way if you put to mind to it suggests some particularly subtle form of genius, one that the songwriter in person might not have identified in himself.

And this, mind you, is just one song. There are 18 of them here (17 if you count the two versions of ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ as one), and every single one is at least impressive / memorable / emotionally involving; at most, some of these easily rank alongside the greatest material that The Beatles released in their prime, and, therefore, represent the absolute pinnacle of «spiritually-oriented» pop music of the 20th century. If I had more time, I could probably make a novel out of this review — there is so much to be said about each of these compositions. As it is, I will have to restrict myself to just a few succinct observations about what it is, in my opinion, that turns each and every one of these songs into musical magic.

ʽI'd Have You Anytimeʼ: one of the sweetest electric guitar parts ever recorded — nobody can do these mini-serenades without the slightest whiff of cheap sentimentality better than George. Well on the level of ʽSomethingʼ, if you ask me.

ʽWah-Wahʼ: production so dense here that you can barely make out the vocals, but it is actually fun to witness George trying to outshout all the miriads of instruments. The main miracle, however, is how they can still make a frenzied and ecstatic guitar solo stand out in the middle of all the ruckus. The wah-wah riff is the equivalent of the world going round.

ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ: which one is your favorite version? There is definitely something to be said about the more quiet, understated second one, with lots of subtle touches from Clapton and a less obstructed lead vocal part, but if we recognize the album's monumentality at all, then there is no better example of that monumentality than the major seven-minute Phil-approved version. The highest lick that George plays at the top of the solo is the highest point of the album — the single sharpest knife-prick to the heart. And yet, at the same time, George's sense of humor is also evident as he subtly and seamlessly integrates the ʽHey Judeʼ chant into the coda, a gesture that can be decoded in half a dozen different ways at least.

ʽWhat Is Lifeʼ: clearly, life is a roller coaster, because that is what the song's lead riff continuous­ly sounds life. I like it how George leaves us a way out by making the lyrics equally applicable to God and/or to one's partner. Single most powerful statement of joy on the entire album (not that there's too many of them).

ʽIf Not For Youʼ: I like Dylan's version on New Morning very much, but it is only in George's version that you can actually hear the guitars and keyboards asserting that the winter indeed does hold spring and that the robin doth sing. Also, George understands the power of a tight, catchy, evocative guitar riff much better than Bob ever did.

ʽBehind That Locked Doorʼ: the song's ultra-slow waltz tempo makes the album stutter a bit in its pacing (and the fact that plenty of country artists rushed to cover it does not exactly constitute an endorsement), but Pete Drake's steel guitar part is pure magic here.

ʽLet It Downʼ: I have always been fascinated by the contrast between the seemingly peaceful (but also somewhat enigmatic) lyrics and the absolute thunderstorm nature of the chorus. Is this a song about drowning in love? George's variation on the Liebestod thing?... maybe it's just about rough sex? and no, none of these questions should ever be answered.

ʽRun Of The Millʼ: one of the two Apple-related songs on the album, it features some of the most Jesus-like lyrics and ends with a stellar Jim Price / Bobby Keys brass solo — carrying a certain finality with it that makes the song a perfect conclusion for the first disc.

ʽBeware Of Darknessʼ: hey, it's ʽBeware Of Darknessʼ, what can I say? It's cute how George snucks in that "beware of Maya!" line right before the guitar solo. It's as if he had something to say about darkness and sadness all right, but he's too helpless in the face of Maya, so he lets the guitar do all the talking instead.

ʽApple Scruffsʼ: the only «Dylanesque» thing about it is the prominent harmonica, otherwise it is just another perfect pop song with another perfect slide guitar solo — watch for the sly hushing-down of both the guitar and harmonica at the end, only to turn around and give you a double kick in the teeth at the last note.

ʽBallad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)ʼ: never been a big fan of this one originally, but once you learn and keep in mind that the song deals with the forgotten past of Friar Park and its former aristocratic owners, its position so close to ʽAll Things Must Passʼ becomes more understandable, and its whisper-laden atmosphere becomes more sinister and ghostly.

ʽAwaiting On You Allʼ: if it weren't for the insane catchiness, I'd probably drop this one — way too happy and straightforward an anthem. But such an amazingly well-crafted rhythm track! and the way it gets bounced to and fro between the different players, echoed on and on, is a genuine production marvel. The dig at the Pope is kinda gratuitous, though — he might own 51% of General Motors for all we know, but how much does George Harrison own?..

ʽAll Things Must Passʼ: an atmosphere of solemnity that is simultaneously happy and sad and is also neither of these two at the same time is pretty hard to achieve, but I'd say the brass riff of the song does exactly that. I can see why the Beatles never approved the song in its original incarna­tion, but the horns give it personality. (Amazingly, Spector was against the horns in this case).

ʽI Dig Loveʼ: many people regard this as filler, but not me, not me. This is the weird dark horse of the record. The falling-and-rising chord pattern, derided by some, is just so oddly minimalistic and mystical, and the strange «tribal» drumming from Ringo and Jim Gordon is completely dif­ferent from anything else here. It probably represents George's urge to include something thoroughly unpredictable, «Pythonesque», and I respect it.

ʽArt Of Dyingʼ: love the original demo, but it did not have the lightning speed playing of Clapton that is so all over this song. If you listen really close, Eric is doing some totally jaw-dropping speedruns here, humbly shoved into the background — and beautifully contrasting with George's slow, solemn, mournful enunciation.

ʽHear Me Lordʼ: never been the biggest fan of this one, maybe because of getting a little burned out towards the end and not feeling like yet another endlessly repetitive groove right after the second version of ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ, but Gary Wright's piano work in tandem with more of Eric's soulful licks is still beyond all praise. And hey, why not end the record with a straightahead humble prayer? It sort of makes sense — so many songs here feature George the preacher and George the teacher, one final round of George the sinner would definitely not be out of place.

Amusingly, many people reject the highest honors for All Things Must Pass because of its third disc, the infamous ʽApple Jamʼ sessions. That complaint is one that I have never really under­stood — if you don't like it, don't listen to it. Even in the original package, the ʽApple Jamʼ disc was visually and physically «segregated» from the rest, clearly offered as a bonus for those who could stomach something a little different. And those jams, when seen as jams and nothing else, are actually not half-bad — after all, this is essentially Derek & The Dominos with special guest George Harrison sitting in, so why complain? If you happen to like Derek & The Dominos, there's plenty of first-rate guitar work going on there; moreover, ʽI Remember Jeepʼ and ʽThanks For The Pepperoniʼ are based on bona fide Chuck Berry grooves and are perfectly danceable. The 11-minute ʽOut Of The Blueʼ can get tedious, for sure, but not if you just treat it as background muzak generated on the spot by professionals.

Anyway, ʽApple Jamʼ does fulfill a certain symbolic function: its presence here helps to some­what deflate the seriousness and solemnity of the proceedings — much like an appearance by Monty Python thirty years later would deflate the solemnity and sadness of the memorial Concert For George. Or, if you prefer another approach, it can be viewed as a special thank you to all the people that played on the main album — with the Apple Jam tracks, the host gets off the podium and humbly blends in with the crowds. Most importantly, one should never think of All Things Must Pass as a triple LP — it is as double as they come, with an extra bonus disc thrown in for good measure, to be evaluated and enjoyed on its own terms or to be discarded and forgotten, whichever you prefer.

Whether or not All Things Must Pass is the best solo album ever put out by a Beatle is certainly debatable — what is not debatable is that it is the best solo album ever put out by a Beatle that tackles all, or most, of life's important questions and proves that the idea of taking the Beatles (or, at least, some Beatles) Seriously — with a capital S — was never as thoroughly ridiculous as could be implied by snobs, academics, philosophers, or classical buffs. Of course, I am not talking about the words — George isn't saying much here that hasn't already been logged in volumes of received wisdom — but I am talking about the way that the words are connected to the music. «Spirituality» is a notion that is quite easily prone to being abused in the pop sphere; All Things Must Pass is one of the few pop records that dares to focus 100% on spirituality and end up being a total winner. So thank you, John and Paul, I guess, for showing the way to your junior partner — who ended up showing you how such things really should be done.

9 comments:

  1. Best review of the year so far. Precious few critics can convey the experience of truly loving an album; in fact, the only comparable talent I can think of offhand is Ebert. If this turns out to be 2018's Blonde on Blonde review, let's hope that you're spared a Get a Grip or Glory. (Or not, since it's always fun when you hate, hate, hate an album!)

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  2. I don't think "George and Phil were on the same wave", and I don't think this record sounded the way George would really have liked. I heard him say somewhere that he "grew to like" the sound. And so have I. This is not advocating for a bare, accoustic sound. But it is saying that the "wall of sound" of multitracked drums and overcrowded tracks does not do the songs full justice, actually to the detriment of the basic technical quality of the sound. ATMP's production doesn't really aim to be bright, and hence it's not fully brilliant. George knew it (but he needed a serious producer to make his opus, and hence needed Spector), and that's why he corrected the sound for "Living in the Material World" (that sounds much better that the triple box). ATMP would have been better if produced in an "Abbey Road" vein. Isn't it a pity?

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    1. I respectfully disagree. While there are occasional moments when it feels like George is drowned out by the production ('Wah-Wah', most notably), the album's ambitions fully deserve this kind of monumental elaboration. It probably wouldn't have worked out at all with lesser musicians, but the collective talent assembled for George here is amazing. (And I'm very glad they almost ended up recreating the same celebratory vibe on Concert For George thirty years later).

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    2. It's not the idea of "monumental production for a monumental collection of songs" that I'm not ok with. It's how it was executed in this very example. It sometimes sounds like it was recorded in 1962. Sometimes you can't hear the (very fine) bass work, sometimes the drums seem too "far" for drum breaks to be effective, sometimes the vocal harmonies can't be appreciated, sometimes it's just the sensation that the sound leaves no breathing space. And I don't know what it's down to. Maybe sub-optimal miking, maybe inadequate planning of "bouncing down" the tracks, maybe excessive compression. I think Spector had no less than 8 tracks. So go figure. Don't get me wrong, I adore the record (and George), and 10 or so of the tracks are great as they are. I've been a proud owner of the triple vinyl for many decades, and really looked forward to the CD remix back in the day. To no avail. I still wish many parts of the record sounded a bit clearer and "closer and fresher".

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  3. Where is spirituality you'll find heresy and blasphemy. One and a half hour? Not even one and a half splitsecond.
    This album is cheesy at best, but mostly boring.

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    1. Explain why or point me to the nearest CD copies of the first three Venom albums.

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  4. Great review, thanks. Captures indeed the "spirit" of the album, indeed George's best solo effort - by far.

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  5. This review did not disappoint. I'm happy to see you dig into one of your (and my) favorites. As always, I walk away with insight I didn't possess before.

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  6. To me the best ever completion of any Beatles including Beatles' albums....!

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