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Friday, September 21, 2018

George Harrison: Dark Horse


1) Hari's On Tour (Express); 2) Simply Shady; 3) So Sad; 4) Bye Bye Love; 5) Maya Love; 6) Ding Dong Ding Dong; 7) Dark Horse; 8) Far East Man; 9) It Is ʽHeʼ (Jai Sri Krishna).

General verdict: As long as you can come to terms with a man singing against the doctor's orders, this will forever remain the truly underrated "dark horse" in George's catalog.

All four Beatles went through moments of dark personal crisis in the Seventies — ironically, while Paul was arguably the first, shattered and hurt by the breakup of the band at the same time that John and George were triumphant in their newly-found freedoms, by 1974 the tables had turned: Paul was busy re-conquering the world with his new band on the run, whereas John and George were suffering from various degrees of disillusionment, watching their family life crackle and crumble, and drinking themselves under the table. Consequently, Dark Horse was released at what might arguably have been the lowest point in George's adult life — his marriage was breaking up, his litigations seemed unending, and he was seeking refuge in a very material world of alcohol, drugs, and seedy parties.

All of that is reflected, one way or another, in his third studio album — to such an extent that history had no choice but to put a solid curse on it, one that I will be unable to lift even despite having liked the record for all my life. Chief reason for this is George's voice: shot to hell by a combination of self-inflicted and natural damage, it sounds brutally robbed of at least half of the required frequencies — more like a hobo in the last stages of TB than a distinguished, if not exceptional, singer from one of Britain's finest vocal bands, particularly on the title track (which was recorded shortly before the start of George's infamous North American tour, where his vocal problems translated into complete disaster).

I will, however, dare not to urge you to «look past the obvious problems with the voice», but rather to try and make you embrace the voice. Even when I first heard Dark Horse completely outside of any context, knowing absolutely nothing about Patti Boyd or about the drinks and the drugs, it was crystal clear that something really painful was going on — that this was not an album by a nice person deeply upset about the world's troubles, as was All Things Must Pass, but rather an album by a deeply unhappy, thoroughly depressed person about troubles that were his own and nobody else's at the moment. A song like ʽSo Sadʼ might not, technically, be more of a «downer» than ʽWhile My Guitar Gently Weepsʼ, but in the latter, Harrison sheds a tear for the whole world, while here he is trying to express his personal pain — and in some ways, it cuts much sharper when you allow yourself to relate to it. The key breakthrough happens in the "and he feels... so alone... with no love... of his own" bridge — it is impossible not to feel the tension in his voice and palpitation in his heart, an almost suicidal outburst after the relatively quiet and brooding acoustic verse. And that coarse, hoarse, feverish voice is the perfect conductor. (It also does not hurt that Nicky Hopkins is credited as the piano player on this track).

Although the complete list of credits for Dark Horse mentions over twenty people, many of them are limited to just one or two tracks — the final results were culled from a variety of sessions — and on the whole, the album has a fairly minimalist feel compared to 1970–73: no soaring strings, no bombastic walls of sound, no armies of nameless felt-but-not-heard guitarists, typically just your basic rock band setup with some keyboards, saxes, and woodwinds. The setup is risky, since it exposes George's weakened voice like never before; but if you are going to make a deeply personal record about your deeply personal pain, why conceal it behind an ocean of soundwaves anyway? Besides, this offers a good opportunity to show off a few tasty instrumental bits that would have never caught one's ear otherwise.

A good example is the much-maligned cover of ʽBye Bye Loveʼ, far from a masterpiece, but still much better than most critics are willing to admit. Some are actually offended by George's added lyrics that turn the song into a personal artistic vendetta against Eric and Pattie ("I hope she's happy, old Clapper too") — let us just hope these people never find themselves in the position of watching your wife leave you for your best friend. Personally, I find it more interesting how George completely re-wrote the song in a minor key, actually providing real substance to the words "bye bye love, bye bye happiness" — and he also plays a mean bass guitar on the track, with the bass supplying most of the melodic content and most of the grim atmosphere. Think of it as an impulsive, regrettable, petty act of instantaneous revenge if you wish, but there is no denying that a lot of work and a good pinch of musical inspiration actually went into it, the same way that John's ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ is completely redeemed by its musical content.

On the whole, George's songwriting instincts here are fairly intact, despite all the troubles: as usual, each song is catchy in its own way, even the opening instrumental ʽHari's On Tourʼ, led in by an unforgettable twin slide-sax riff delivered by George in unison with Tom Scott (the backing band is the jazz-rock outfit L. A. Express, known mostly for backing Joni Mitchell in the mid-Seventies). A seriously underrated long-time favorite of mine is ʽMaya Loveʼ, a lyrical throw­away with a special kind of instrumental coolness — the best parts are actually in between verses, where Andy Newark on drums and Billy Preston on piano compete in who can hit harder and harsher, while George's slide guitar quietly and attentively lies in waiting. ʽFar East Manʼ, a collaboration with Ronnie Wood, is a touching plea for mercy and sympathy, with Tom Scott's saxophone playing once again a true highlight.

Only a couple of tunes display a kind of sluggishness that makes them look sillier than the rest. ʽDing Dong Ding Dongʼ, a set of slogans set to a fairly repetitive melody, is uncomfortably optimistic; perhaps it might have worked better in an authentically All Things Must Pass-ish setting, with an even more bombastic arrangement and with George in better vocal form. That said, it is nothing compared with the awkwardness of ʽIt Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)ʼ, essentially just a generic mantra, completely devoid of personality — a long, long way away from the depth of ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ, and certainly not aided by the use of the wobble board, which just makes it seem as if George were simultaneously busy cooking up some stew in a large cauldron. Unless we agree to treat it as an intentionally comical finale to an otherwise seriously tragical record, it is quite an anti-climactic way to go, compared to ʽHear Me Lordʼ or ʽThat Is Allʼ.

Still, there are some people out there who like it, too, and, in fact, the funny thing about Dark Horse is that most of its detractors tend to agree that it is a shit record with one or two really good songs on it, yet nobody ever manages to agree on which particular one or two songs are really good — a classic case of «underrated» in my book. It is definitely a problematic album, yes, but it has a raw, aching sincerity to it that would become much harder to find on subsequent records: it might, in fact, be the last close-to-great album George made before his Cloud 9 come­back in 1987. As a matter of fact, it charted surprisingly high in the US, though just as surprising­ly low in the UK; but it is true that he did shoot himself in the foot both critically and commer­cially here, and that, perhaps, it was totally unintentional — it is simply that his 1974 lifestyle prevented him from foreseeing that a release like that would be disastrous at the time.

Whatever the circumstances might have been back then, though, nowadays, in an era when indie singers sometimes sound as if they were born with laryngitis, Dark Horse should be given its due as a deep, honest, and musically interesting account of personal misery — not as intense or angry as John's Walls And Bridges, of course, but then George himself was never as intense or angry as John (or, at least, not typically so). And I cannot lay enough stress on the «musically interesting» bit: whatever sincere emotion there is in these songs, it is carried almost exclusively by the melodic phrasing of the slide guitars, saxes, and pianos — a feature that would become too smoothed out in the man's subsequent output, but is still going strong on Dark Horse.


  1. Excellent review full of tasty information in order to understand the whole picture. I just want to add that before All Things Must Pass George had taken with him a lot of great written songs that were not included in any Beatles album. But now it seems that the vault was almost empty.

  2. Hi George, I've been reading you for ages, I recently found your blog, used to read from the old website. With this review you made me want to buy this one and so I did.

    That being said, stop with the Beatles, Floyd, oldies canon and move to more obscure stuff. Please. We need you. Your reviews are great. Thank you.

  3. Jasper Emiliano, Jr.September 21, 2018 at 6:54 PM

    Agreed 100%. I think this is the last Harrison album where he really takes *risks*...where he is inspired to do something interesting rather than just coast. And I share you enthusiasm for "Bye Bye Love," although it helps that I did not know the original when I first heard it. After this, George would settle into . . . not a rut, exactly, but a space where he felt content to color inside of the lines instead of press those boundaries on occasion.