Since the breakup of the Beatles, I have tried to pick some of the best solo work from John, Paul and George, as they each had their moments of success working on their own, or with others. This time, it is George’s turn again, with his well-regarded collaboration with Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra, “Cloud Nine”. In the late ‘80s, not only did George join the Traveling Wilburys with Lynne, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, most of those same artists allowed Lynne to co-create and co-produce at least one record for them. While successful, each of these are recognizably Lynne productions, and sound somewhat like ELO records with a different singer. The lush backing vocals and instrumentation are the most notable common themes. Today, I’ll start with the record of the day, before adding on some additional thoughts on George and his famous ex-bandmates.
“Cloud Nine” is a relatively simple and straight-forward pop-rock album. There are no avant-garde or experimental tracks, and thus these are all pretty easy to listen to from beginning to end. The title track opens the record, and I really like the second track a lot, “That’s What It Takes”. It may be my favorite song on the record. In particular, I really like the chorus on this tune. “Fish On the Sand” isn’t quite as catchy, but it is another happy song to enjoy.
For Beatles fans, the most significant song has to be “When We Was Fab”, where George looks back with warmth and perhaps some hesitation on his time in the biggest band in the world. In a really well-constructed manner, the song not only includes Ringo on drums, but the strings in the beginning and the sitar at the end take you back to many of the Beatles songs. Listening closely, you can definitely pick up strains of “Eleanor Rigby”, “I Am the Walrus”, and “Within You Without You” at the end. I will come back to his place in the Beatles before we end, but I’m glad he felt comfortable looking back, as he knew we all did too.
“Devil’s Radio” absolutely sounds like an ELO song, and I’m a bit confused by “Wreck of the Hesperus”. The big hit on this album was actually a cover, which I didn’t know until I read up on this record. “Got My Mind Set On You” was written by Rudy Clark and recorded by James Ray in 1962, but you never would know that as it certainly presents as a modern Harrison-Lynne production. Along with the Wilburys, this was George’s last big moment in the spotlight, and it was very encouraging to see his music do so well with a new generation of listeners.
George clearly struggled during the evolution and growth of the band. They started off as John’s band, evolved quickly into John and Paul’s band, and ended with Paul taking the dominant role in the creation and leadership of the group. George was always left on his own to create and attempt to deliver quality music, which was not always widely supported by John and Paul or the fans of the band. If you haven’t seen the new documentary on the Beatles yet, “Get Back”, you absolutely have to make it must-watch TV. Never have I seen a more revealing and intimate look at any artist, much less the legends that these four were, working to write, create, record and ultimately perform live a set of new songs in a compressed timeframe under constant watch of the cameras. Even within these pressures, you could see the dynamics of the band play out. George became so frustrated at one point that he left the band for several days, and even after returning, commented that he felt completely constrained by the amount of material he was allocated on any Beatles album. It was this lack of support that led to him ultimately releasing a triple album “All Things Must Pass” once he went solo. Even as he tried to present new songs to the others, they were met with some combination of patronization and lukewarm interest.
Who knows how much more productive George could have been if he had received genuine partnership and assistance from John and/or Paul on his songwriting? It is easy to point out that of the all-time legendary Beatles songs, only “Something” truly makes the cut as a classic, although “Here Comes the Sun”, “Taxman” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are close to that high caliber as well. George was initially the last of the three guitarist-singers to join the band, and he was the youngest, and both of these facts initially put him in a subservient role to the others. Over the course of time, we all learned what a true talent George Harrison was, and many fans and critics look at the net summation of his solo work to be of greater interest and significance than either of his peers. I won’t go quite that far, but like the others, he was one of three remarkable talents to join the Quarrymen from a tiny corner of Liverpool, and with or without help from John and Paul, he had a remarkable career during and after the Beatles.
As if it wasn’t tragic enough that we lost John in 1980, George’s death in the fall of 2001 from cancer was another brutal and unnecessary footnote to the story of the Beatles. Although he died way too young, he did leave with immense respect, not only from Paul and Ringo, but an entire generation of musicians since who collaborated with him and performed with him on many projects. Take the time to watch “Get Back”, and through it all, you will see the love these four had for each other, and the resolve the other three had to bring George back to the group as a prerequisite for any future work by the band. It is fascinating and truly heartwarming to watch as a Beatles diehard myself.