April 27 – Drum God? Who Are We To Argue With Modern Drummer?

We’ve previously talked of perhaps the greatest session drummer of all-time, Hal Blaine of the informal “Wrecking Crew” in L.A. He played on thousands of hits in the ’60s and ’70s and was one of the most respected men in the biz. If anyone could have been said to take over the “studio king” crown from Blaine, it would be today’s birthday boy, Jim Keltner. Keltner turns 81 today…but don’t bet against him doing a little jam behind the kit nonetheless! How else would a drummer who was friends with three out of four Beatles and has worked with everyone from the Rolling Stones to Diana Kraal celebrate?

Jim was born in Tulsa but like so many other mid-century musicians, moved to California as soon as he had a chance. Unlike some, his passion as a youth was jazz music, but by the time he started being paid to play, jazz wasn’t that big anymore. Rock and pop were the way to go, so there went Keltner. His first session was in 1965 for Gary Lewis & the Playboys. Soon after that he joined a psychedelic rock band, the MC Squared. Although they got to play on the short-lived Playboy After Dark TV show, their career didn’t amount to very much. So, wisely it would seem, he turned his attention to being a session drummer for better-established artists.

Luckily for him, he was friends with fellow Oklahoman Leon Russell. Russell opened a few doors for Jim… but a friend like that will only get you in for a coffee. It was clearly Jim’s talent that kept him there and opening more.

He got on Joe Cocker’s 1970 tour, and that along with his friendship with Russell drew George Harrison’s attention. Harrison brought him in for the Concert for Bangladesh, in which he split drum duties with another pretty good one – Ringo Starr! He did well enough that Harrison would call on him again and again, including on the Living in the Material World album and even playing the judge in a video he made for “This Song” and later when Harrison became a Traveling Wilbury. Keltner played on a number of their songs under the pseudonym Buster Sidebury.

Apparently Ringo took note too, because he used Keltner on his self-titled album (the biggest of his career) and hired him for the All Starr Band at times. And not to be left out, John Lennon also used Keltner on records including Walls & Bridges and his #1 hit song “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”

All that attention from Beatles couldn’t help but increase his profile and it seemed like he showed up on the Who’s Who of California musicians and Cali-made records in the ’70s. Carly Simon, Bob Dylan (including “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, a song for which he remembers “the first time I actually cried while playing”), Barbra Streisand, Canadian folkies Valdy and Bruce Cockburn, the Buckingham Nicks album that got those two into Fleetwood Mac, Bill Withers, five Joe Cocker ones, Steely Dan (he added some percussion via garbage can lid to “Josie”) even Tom Petty & the Hearbreakers Damn the Torpedoes. That continued into the ’80s, with him working on albums by the likes of Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Crowded House, Marshall Crenshaw, Roy Orbison, the aforementioned Wilburys, the Beach Boys big “comeback” and more. The ’90s meant working with Melissa Etheridge, Indigo Girls, Neil Young and touring with him and later a re-formed CSNY. In 2016, he helped aging Charlie Watts along some on the Rolling Stones Blue & Lonesome. To this day he’s kept himself busy, in 2020 (at age 78) he did the percussion for a Japanese manga movie!

Despite his low-profile, he’s been noticed by people in the know. Even Forbes magazine mentioned him, calling him “one of the best studio drummers in the world.” Rolling Stone had him at #38 on their list of greatest drummers of all-time, noting he’d been on literally “thousands of records”, making it seem easy with his “easy-going feel and jazz schooled subtlety” to which he replied “there’s so many different ways to play the drums, just like guitar.” Modern Drummer also have him on their list of the best, calling him one of the “greats” – “inarguably a true studio drum god” working with “simple but magical performances” and occasionally using “kitchen utensils”. Their summary of him is a perfect way to finish here – “”a rare music legend who is as vital today as when he first made his mark.”


March 22 – Bonus Bit : That Song Was ‘Something’!

Max over at Power Pop Blog was running a special forum for the past two weeks called “Beatles Week” (which obviously grew beyond the confines of seven days!) with people writing about a favorite Beatles song. Kindly he invited me to take part, and this was what I came up with. If you’re a Fab Four Fan, and it seems a large number of you are, I’d recommend taking a look at the other columns he ran on the topic.

When asked to write about a The Beatles song, I didn’t take long to make my pick. There’s just something about “Something” that moves me like no other…Beatles track. Yet getting to that point has been a long road. Maybe a long and winding one, even.

A little back history about myself. I was born in the ’60s but by the time I was cognizant of it really, let alone had my own little transistor radio to listen to it, The Beatles were done. Wings or solo Ringo, John or George were more relevant to me at the time. But my mom and older brother liked the Beatles and in fact, one of my early memories was hearing Sgt .Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band on our big old console in the living room, liking the music and loving the colorful cover. As a kid, I liked the simple pop hooks of Ringo and Paul, post-Beatles, songs like “You’re Sixteen” , “Helen Wheels” and “My Love.” I knew a lot of Beatles songs, either from AM radio or my family playing them on the stereo, and liked quite a lot of it but it was hard for me to grasp how influential or flat out great they had been.

As I hit my teens, was buying my own records and listening to FM radio, my appreciation of them grew. I had a used copy of Revolver, though I can’t remember why I specifically bought that one. A good album, absolutely, but never my favorite of theirs. I probably found it cheap in a used store or flea market. Around that time, I was growing to favor John. “Norwegian Wood “ and “Dear Prudence” were high on my list of Beatles songs and by the time I was getting to like his solo work as much as say, Paul’s 1980 rolled around and well, I think we all know what the end of that story was. As was the case with most people, my estimation of him rose rapidly and I listened to his work more, began to love songs like “Mind Games” and “#9 Dream” that I’d missed, or nearly so when they had first come out. I loved his work for peace and outspokenness and was oblivious to the shortcomings in his character. All the while though, George was just on the periphery of my musical awareness. Sure, “My Sweet Lord” was nice, and I was one of the minority who in ’79 bought and loved the “Blow Away” single, but he was really the “quiet Beatle” to me. Nearly invisible. Really, the thing I might have been most impressed with at that point was his work funding Monty Python films, since like most boys hitting puberty, I laughed my head off at things like the “Lumberjack Song” and killer rabbits.

That changed a little in ’88 when he had his comeback album, Cloud Nine. By that time too, the Beatles were finally putting out CDs of their old catalog and I’d decided, hey, they had a lot of good tunes, I should be getting some in my collection. I bought several of the ’60s works on CD and really that’s where my true appreciation for them began. That and noticing a good portion of the bands I thought were really good at the time – say Crowded House, Aztec Camera, Squeeze for instance – were almost universally described as “Beatle-esque.”

Anyhow, then and still to this day, Sgt. Pepper... has been my favorite Beatles work, but it is a close contest. Not surprisingly then, for years if anyone asked me for my favorite Beatles song, it was “A Day in the Life”. A song like no other, with its time changes, Paul and John changing off vocals, that almighty, seemingly endless piano chord to end it, the bizarre lyrics that actually made some sense when you read of their inspirations. It still is a great song and high on my list.

But just as the Beatles changed and matured during their career, so too have I. And as the band matured, George started to take his place at the front. He brought a new sense of spirituality, and experimentalism to them, opened them up to what we’d now call “World Music”, the sounds of the Far East. Being able to incorporate that into a pop-rock setting was revolutionary and quite a challenge I’m sure. But it worked! And as I matured, I grew more and more appreciative of George’s songwriting as well as his quiet sense of peacefulness. “Something” is the epitome of that to me. And to his ex-bandmates it would seem.

Early on, George was a guitarist and nothing much more to them. Maybe his first hint of potential greatness was on Rubber Soul when he wrote and sang “If I needed someone.” A pretty good song, and presumably John and Paul agreed since they let him put three onto the next record, Revolver, including “Taxman”, one of their many “hits” that never hit the charts because it wasn’t out as a single. A decent little snarky rock tune but probably not on anyone’s list of “best ever.” The first real taste of his brilliance was still a couple of years away, and their self-titled double album. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was to me the standout on the album and really showed his talent as a songwriter…not to mention nearly got Eric Clapton in the band. Let It Be was recorded next (but released last) and though he did “For You Blue” on it, as we saw in Get Back, he was distant from the band by then and briefly quit. It was becoming clear he’d outgrown the limitations he felt were imposed on him by the two main men who clearly wanted most of the spotlight.

Which leads us to Abbey Road. Their swansong, even if it did arrive in stores months before Let it Be. I gather by then they knew it was time to call it a day but leave fans with one more worth remembering. And they did just that. In particular George. He contributed – I’ll say it – the two best songs on it, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.”

Here Comes the Sun” is a pretty incredible, happy-sounding song in which he introduced a synthesizer to the band and wrote a tune in seemingly impossible time signatures (changing rapidly from 4/4 to 11/8 to 7/8 and so on). It ranks high on my Beatles list too, but the crowning achievement was “Something.”

Pattie Boyd must have been “something” too. We know he wrote the song for her, his wife, and a couple of years later, his buddy Eric Clapton wrote “Layla” for her. In time he won her away from Harrison, and somehow they all remained friends. George was more tolerant than I would have been, I can tell you that. Maybe all the time with the Indian gurus really made him a better person.

Anyway, to me, “Something” is just about a perfect pop song. It’s beautifully written and immaculately played, and the lyrics are outstanding. If you’ve never been so in love, in the beginning, that the lines don’t make sense, well, I hope you’ll experience that head over heels feeling, combined with just a touch of anxiety over fear of losing it (“you’re asking me will my love grow/I don’t know/ I DON’T KNOW”). George demonstrates his love for Pattie and his slide guitar prowess all the while Ringo drums along exquisitely. The more I listen to Starr, the more I appreciate his talent. He plays for the song, not to take over the song. Then there are the under-stated strings, completing the song nicely. I think George Martin’s introducing strings to middle-era Beatles songs was one of the more under-rated things about them; how many rock & roll bands before 1965 would have thought to bring in violins and cellos? Now, it’s commonplace. There’s not really a point wrong with “Something” and it does it all in barely three minutes. Each time I listen to it, I seem to pick up on some tiny new detail I’d missed before that makes me appreciate it more.

Of course, my opinion was backed by many others. Frank Sinatra began singing it in his shows right away and called it “the greatest love song of the past 50 years”… and he knew a thing of two about love songs! (Unfortunately, he mistakenly told his audiences Lennon & McCartney wrote it.) Later Elton John would say it was “one of the best love songs ever –ever – written…it’s the song I’ve been chasing for the last 35 years!” And Ringo piped in that it and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” were “two of the finest love songs ever written” and put Harrison on a par with John and Paul. Critics tended to agree. The NME in Britain called it a “real quality hunk of pop” while Rolling Stone applauded its “excellent drum work, dead catchy guitar line, perfectly subdued stings and an unusually nice melody.” Add in great vocals and there’s not much missing there.

Happily, it was eaten up by the fans. It came out with “Come Together” as a single, but in most lands was considered the A-side. It hit #1 in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and of course the U.S. where it became their 18th #1 song…which happened to surpass the number Elvis Presley had. However, it was the first #1 song credited to George…not suprising because somehow, it was the first Beatles single he wrote or sang! And that’s saying “something” – when a guy can create songs this good and somehow be seen by the band as a third-stringer… wow. No wonder we’re still talking about them a half century later.

February 23 – George Tried To ‘Blow Away’ Problems Of The ’70s

In the early days of the ’70s, in the first year or so after the breakup of The Beatles, people may have guessed that George Harrison (or even Ringo Starr) was going to be the solo superstar from the Fab Four. His All Things Must Pass was not only great, it was a triple album. That’s a lot of talent. But by the tail-end of the decade, the tide had shifted. John had fashioned out a nice career, Ringo was largely an afterthought and it was Paul, with his band Wings, who stayed in the public eye and rolled out hit after hit. And George? George? “Oh yeah, that guy. Isn’t he making movies or something?” Harrison had largely fallen from the radar.

He set out to change that this day in 1979 with the release of his self-titled album, the sixth studio one of his post-Beatles career. Although he’d put out records now and then throughout the decade (his previous one, 33 and a Third came out in late-’76) but few garnered had garnered attention after Living in the Material World in ’73. In the years between, he’d been involved in a lengthy court case over the song “My Sweet Lord”, become a bit disillusioned by the music industry, briefly fallen back into heavy substance abuse, split up with Pattie Boyd and then started a film company, Handmade, largely to help his friends in Monty Python put out the Life of Brian. However, during 1978 things began to change for the better. Life of Brian got made and came out to generally great reviews and George fell in love again, got married to Olivia and became a father. They took a lengthy holiday in Hawaii and there he wrote much of what would become George Harrison.

The ten-song, 40-minute release wasn’t nearly as ambitious as his opuses All Things Must Pass and Living in the Material World, but was a nice, well-made record with a sound that fit the times – at least those in North America, perhaps because of the production. While George recorded it in Britain and used a lot of British talent to help out, he had Russ Titelman to produce it with him. Titelman was an American who’d won accolades chiefly working with James Taylor and Randy Newman earlier in the decade. Among the talent George called on to lend a hand on the record were Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Gary Wright and drummer Andy Newmark. Harrison himself played guitars, mandolins, dobro and even reprised his trusty sitar from the “White Album” era. Speaking of which, one song, “Not Guilty” had first been done with the Beatles for that album but hadn’t made the cut. Another song, “Here Comes the Moon” was created as an obvious sequel to his Beatles hit “Here Comes the Sun.”

The other songs were new, and largely upbeat. “Faster” was written about F1 racing, then a passion of his and his new bride. Said George then “everything has been happening nicely for me. My life is getting better all the time and I’m happy and I think it’s reflected in the music.”

Most critics were happy enough with happy George. Billboard back then labeled it the “spotlight album” – the best of the weeks new arrivals. The NME compared it to the better work of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. Rolling Stone called it his best since All Things Must Pass, a “refreshingly light-hearted” listen reminding us Harrison “was always a better tunesmith than priest.” Even years later, Uncut would rate it 4-stars, labeling it “a minor treat, a fulsome rocker replete with sunshine melodies and gorgeous slide guitars.” Only allmusic disagree, with them rating it just 2.5-stars, lowest of his solo career at that point. While they liked the hit “Blow Away”, they found it too “polished, L.A.-made” in sound and very “ordinary album from an extraordinary talent.” As to the public, the NME probably hit the nail on the head when a few years after they noted that while bands like the Doobie Brothers ruled U.S. airwaves in ’79, the new wave sound was king in the UK and “interest in Beatle product was probably at an all-time low.”

So it was that the record did alright in North America but flopped in his homeland. “Blow Away” hit #16 in the U.S., #7 in Canada where it was his biggest hit since 1971, but topped out at #51 in the UK. “Love Comes to Everyone” didn’t make the sales chart but did get decent airplay on North American radio, helping the album hit #14 in both the States and Canada, and go gold in the U.S. In Britain it got to just #39 and quickly disappeared from the charts. Happy George dabbled in music again on and off through the ’80s until returning in a big way with the Traveling Wilburys and the solo comeback Cloud Nine.

December 11 – Turntable Talk, Round 9 : A Dark Horse Christmas Pick?

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! As this is the ninth instalment, regular readers know what it is. Every month, I have several interesting guest writers sound off on one topic related to the music that we look at here daily. Earlier this year we’ve looked at some topics that sparked lively debates, including if the Beatles were still relevant and people’s takes on how videos changed music. This time around though, in recognition of the calendar we have a simpler topic : Songs of the Season. We’ve just asked the guests to talk about a Christmas/holiday song that they love and why it has meaning to them.

With us today is Lisa, from Tao Talk, a diverse and lively site where she shares poetry, thoughts on the world around us, movie reviews and more. We know she’s very fond of the Beatles and Pearl Jam…will one of those come up as her Christmas music pick?

The first time in memory that I heard “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” was when I bought the 2014 George Harrison: The Apple Years 1968-75 box set. Not only were there the first six of Geo’s solo albums but one DVD that had over 30 minutes of this and that, including two videos of this song. I hadn’t thought about it for awhile until I was searching youtube for a holiday song a couple of years ago and ran across it. When Dave asked us to write about a favorite holiday song, it immediately came to mind. I will warn you that it is an insidious earworm, so beware.

Other than where I first heard it, I didn’t know a lot about the tune. Thankfully wikipedia has a wealth of information on the song. I will include just the first three paragraphs, but there is a lot more to know about it, so click the wikipedia link to take you there.

“Ding Dong, Ding Dong” … was written as a New Year’s Eve singalong and released in December 1974 on Geo’s album Dark Horse. It was the album’s lead single in Britain and some other European countries, and the second single, after “Dark Horse“, in North America. A large-scale production, the song incorporates aspects of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound technique, particularly his Christmas recordings from 1963. In addition, some Harrison biographers view “Ding Dong” as an attempt to emulate the success of two glam rock anthems from the 1973–74 holiday season: “Merry Xmas Everybody” by Slade, and Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday“. The song became only a minor hit in Britain and the United States, although it was a top-twenty hit elsewhere in the world.

Harrison took the lyrics to “Ding Dong” from engravings he found at his nineteenth-century home, Friar Park, in Oxfordshire – a legacy of its eccentric founder, Frank Crisp. The song’s “Ring out the old, ring in the new” refrain has invited interpretation as Harrison distancing himself from his past as a member of the Beatles, and as the singer farewelling his first marriage, to Pattie Boyd. As on much of the Dark Horse album, Harrison’s vocals on the recording were hampered by a throat condition, due partly to his having overextended himself on business projects such as his recently launched record label, Dark Horse Records. Recorded at his Friar Park studio, the track includes musical contributions from Tom Scott, Ringo Starr, Alvin Lee, Ron Wood and Jim Keltner.

On release, the song met with an unfavorable response from many music critics, while others considered its musical and lyrical simplicity to be a positive factor for a contemporary pop hit. For the first time with one of his singles, Harrison made a promotional video for “Ding Dong“, which features scenes of him miming to the track at Friar Park while dressed in a variety of Beatle-themed costumes. The song still receives occasional airplay over the holiday season.

I also want to talk about a phenomenal cover of the song by The Analogues that I ran across while looking for the original. Not only did The Analogues cover this tune, they’ve covered many Beatles songs with such precision that your ears will be both shocked and delighted simultaneously.

More about The Analogues from my old pal, wiki:

The Analogues are a Dutch tribute act to the Beatles. Founded in 2014, the Analogues’ ambition has been to perform live the Beatles’ music from their later studio years, using analogue and period-accurate instrumentation. The Analogues distinguished themselves by performing songs and whole albums live, which the Beatles never played live. While the band does not attempt to look like the Beatles, they have been noted for accurately recreating and reproducing their music and sound.

From 2015 to 2016, the Analogues went on their first tour both in the Netherlands and abroad, performing the Magical Mystery Tour album. In 2017, the band toured with a complete performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, including a performance at the 17,000-capacity Amsterdam Ziggo Dome on 1 June 2017 to celebrate the album’s 50-year existence. In June 2017, Dutch public-service broadcaster NTR aired a one-hour documentary on the band’s painstaking process of analyzing the Beatles’ compositions and experimental use of studio equipment, as well as acquiring the proper analogue instruments, in preparation of live rendition of the Sgt. Pepper‘s album. Before an album can be performed, the multi-layered arrangements are fully written out by the band. From 2018 to 2019, the Analogues toured the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the UK, playing The Beatles, also known as The White Album.

To sound as close to the original recordings as possible, the Analogues have amassed a collection of musical instruments, such as a black-and-white Rickenbacker guitar similar to John Lennon’s, a light blue Fender Stratocaster similar to George Harrison’s, and a Höfner 500/1 bass. Exotic musical instruments from India are also used in their performances, including a dilruba, a swarmandal, a tanpura, a tabla and a sitar. Further special instruments include a one-metre-long harmonica for “The Fool on the Hill” and a clavioline for “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”.

The band’s primary analyst is bass guitarist and producer Bart van Poppel. After a thorough analysis of an album’s arrangements and consulting Beatles Gear, they find the necessary equipment such as a 1965 Lowrey Heritage Deluxe organ, or one of only thirty known existing mellotrons in a particular series, used in the intro of Strawberry Fields Forever.

I have enjoyed putting this post together. I hope you enjoy the song as much as I do. Thanks, Dave, for asking me to be a part of this round of Turntable Talk. Happy Holidays to All!

November 23 – George’s First Single Was So Fine, But…

My Lord”… talk about mixed blessings. George Harrison took a giant leap forward and made a massive mistake all at the same time 52 years ago. “My Sweet Lord” was released as a single this day in 1970. It was his first single, from the great triple-album All Things Must Pass, which although his third was his first solo release since the breakup of the Beatles.

Of course, calling it a “solo” is a bit misleading, and probably wouldn’t have been his own description of the record. He had a bevy of friends along working on the record with him. On this song alone, besides George and his singing plus slide guitar, all four members of Badfinger played (three on guitar, one on drums), as did Eric Clapton and Peter Frampton on guitars, Gary Wright and Billy Preston both played keyboards. And that’s only a partial list. It was co-produced by Phil Spector, and even though he was famous for his “Wall of Sound” production, he found it a bit overwhelming. “It took about 12 hours to overdub the guitar solos,” he said, “perfectionism isn’t the word. He was beyond that.” But as demanding as he was, keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, who worked on some other songs on the album, remembers “all the time that I ever knew him, (George) was a wonderful man” and added that various Hare Krishnas would pop into the studio in their white robes at times and hand out cookies.

Of course, the result was well-worth it, a record that seemed worthy of Harrison’s message. He said it was a call to unite religions and have people be thankful no matter how they might worship. “All of us – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jews, Buddhists – can address our gods in the same way, using the same phrase,” he explained. He’d gotten the idea that he wanted to write a spiritual song, and came up with “My Sweet Lord” while in Denmark with Clapton and Preston the year before. He hadn’t even intended to record it, initially, so he let Billy Preston release a version before All Things Must Pass came out. In the end he got a spiritual tune with a pop feel… too much of a pop feel, as it turned out.

Now when his album was ready for release, he wanted no singles. He figured people should experience it all as one work, and perhaps didn’t even want to show favoritism to one of his songs over another. Of course Apple Records saw it differently and needed something to get on radio for Christmas time to spur on sales. Harrison relented somewhat, and “My Sweet Lord” was released in North America, with “Isn’t It a Pity?” on the other side. Although the former was the real hit, he considered it a two-sided single, just as so many of the Beatles 7” records had been. He got his way initially in Britain, with the company waiting until 1971 to release the single there.

Reaction was great. Billboard declared it “a powerhouse two-sided winner.” The UK’s NME said it “establishes George as a talent equivalent to either Lennon or McCartney” , a bit of a radical idea at that time. Later Elton John would declare it the last great song of its era and say the first time he heard it, “you know when a record starts on the radio and it’s great and you think ‘Oh, What is This?’”… that’s what “My Sweet Lord” was to him. “The only other record I ever felt that way about was ‘Brown Sugar’”.

Many people felt that way too. The song quickly hit #1 in North America, and then the next year became the biggest-selling single of the year in Britain. It topped German charts for 10-straight weeks. It won the Ivor Novello Award for most played record of the year. In time, it sold beyond 10 million copies, making it in all likelihood the biggest-selling single ever by a Beatle after that band’s days were done.

So all was great, right? Well, not quite so fast. Just as the reviews loved the song, several of them, notably Rolling Stone and the NME also pointed out that it bore more than a passing similarity in tune to the 1963 Chiffons hit, “He’s So Fine.” One wonders how Spector didn’t notice it and tell George something, or for that mater as Harrison himself would later ask “why didn’t I realize?”

Not surprisingly, he, and Apple Records, were sued. Now the writer of the Chiffons hit, Ronnie Mack, had died young of cancer around the time that song became a hit. So a record publisher, Bright Tunes filed suit against Harrison only weeks after “My Sweet Lord” hit the charts. What followed was…messy to say the least. And complicated and lengthy. It involved different courts and ex-Beatles manager Allen Klein at first representing Harrison, then being replaced… an entire book could be written about the proceedings, which dragged on into 1976. George actually thought if he used any tune for a base, it was the old hymn “Oh Happy Day.”

In the end, Harrison lost. The judge, Richard Owen, himself a composer, said “did he deliberately use the music of ‘He’s So Fine’? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that ‘My Sweet Lord’ is the very same song as ‘He’s So Fine’ with different words…this is under the law an infringement of copyright.” Harrison had to pay approximately $1.6 million, which was 3/4 of the North American royalties from the single and some of the album’s sales too. However, the case dragged on more and after appeals, that amount was reduced to approximately $587 000, with other courts finding Judge Owen’s finding overly harsh and also finding that Klein was negligent in his defense of Harrison.

The whole thing left the ex-Beatle understandably upset and “paranoid”. He said “99% of the popular music that is heard is reminiscent of something or other”. He had trouble writing any material for several years as a result. And one would think he worked as a cautionary tale for other artists in the future. Or at least those not called Radiohead or Vanilla Ice.

November 19 – George Got Back Upto Speed In ’76

They say when life gives you a bunch of lemons, make lemonade. Well, life had indeed dealt George Harrison a few sour fruits in the mid-’70s, but he spun them into something tasty with Thirty Three & 1/3 , his fifth post- Beatles album. It came out this day in 1976.

Harrison had been working on the record for most of the year and was still smarting some from the failure of his marriage to Patti Boyd a couple of years earlier. As well he suffered hepatitis, and last but certainly not least, was diverted quite a bit of the time by an ongoing lawsuit against him for plagiarism. He eventually lost that one, with publishers Bright Music succeeding in saying he’d copied the music of “He’s So Fine” for his “My Sweet Lord.” As a result of those things one would imagine, one might be a bit bitter, and for a time Harrison did indeed get rather negative and start over-indulging in drinks and drugs. But there were patches of blue in his sky at the same time. He’d got a new girlfriend, whom he’d later marry, Olivia Arias. He had fun hanging out with the Monty Python comedy troupe, was becoming a serious fan of car racing and was being nudged back towards spirituality and meditation by Olivia. Thankfully, it was the new, upbeat version of George which came through on Thirty Three & 1/3. “”I think generally the album’s nice because it’s happy” he told interviewers at the time.

The result was a ten song effort which indeed sounded reasonably upbeat. He got help from a good group of his musical friends including Billy Preston, Gary Wright and even future star producer David Foster on keyboards. There were nine originals plus a cover of the old Cole Porter song “True Love”.
He wrote “Beautiful Girl” for Olivia, while the four singles off it generally were agreed by critics to be the stars of the record – “This Song”, “Crackerbox Palace”, “It’s What You Value” and the Porter song. “This Song” especially stood out, for two big reasons. First, the jaunty little tune poked fun at his lawsuit and the whole process of being in court for such things (“this song ain’t black or white and as far as I know, don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright” he sings) Secondly, long before the MTV age, he made a comic video for it, directed by Eric Idle of Monty Python. It parodied the court case, being shot in an actual California court, and had Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones among the people making cameos in it. He debuted the video on Saturday Night Live a day after the album dropped, and did “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound” with Paul Simon on the same show.

Reviews at the time were quite decent. Billboard called it “a sunny, upbeat album of love songs and cheery jokes that is his happiest and most commercial package” to that point. The Village Voice felt it was his “best album since All Things Must Pass, and on a par with say (Bob Dylan’s current album at the time) Blood on the Tracks.” Rolling Stone though disagreed. Although they liked “Crackerbox Palace” and “This Song” well-enough they felt the rest of the record had “the feeling and sincerity of cellophane.”

The public’s reaction depended on where they were. In Britain, as one commentator put it “punk rock rendered Harrison obsolete.” And indeed, the album didn’t do much there, missing the top 30 and having none of the four singles make the chart. North America was either a bit behind the times or a bit more open-minded, and both “Crackerbox Palace” and “This Song” hit the top 30 singles charts and the album went to #11 in the states, where it sold to gold levels, and #10 in Canada.

Most retrospective reviews give it decent scores, like Mojo which graded it 3-stars calling it “confident if not classic.” Uncut gave it half a star more but summed it up nicely: “a pivotal album…the document of a man in the art of discovering exactly where he belonged.” And that’s some pretty good lemonade.

November 14 – The End Of Solo Career Was Beginning Of Wilburys

It was almost a last hurrah for the Beatles. George Harrison‘s “Got My Mind Set On You” made the U.S. Top 40 this day in 1987. It would go on to be his third #1 hit in the U.S. (after “My Sweet Lord” and “Give Me Love” in the ’70s) , and eventually the last chart-topper for any solo Beatle.

The song was written by Rudy Clark and originally recorded by James Ray in 1962; Harrison recorded it for his Cloud Nine album, which was co-produced by Jeff Lynne of ELO, whom he would form the Traveling Wilburys with the following year. There was even more of a tie-in between the two than that; Harrison was wanting a new b-side for another single off Cloud Nine, so he got Lynne in on the song,  in turn they got Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan in on it too. “Handle with Care” was the song, originally designed to be a one-off Harrison song but they all agreed it sounded so good and they liked working together well-enough to carry on as a band. Thus the Traveling Wilburys were born. 

Although he often was the over-looked Beatle, he had a very impressive solo career, starting with Wonderwall Music in 1968 (an instrumental album which was the first solo work for any of the Fab Four) and peaking with All Things Must Pass. That 1970 album was a 105-minute, triple album which drew upon his friends Eric Clapton, Gary Wright, Peter Frampton, the members of Badfinger and others and was called “the War and Peace of Rock and Roll” by Rolling Stone. while Britain’s The Guardian called it the “best, mellowest and most sophisticated” of any solo record by one of the Fab Four. Cloud Nine may not have matched that but drew decent reviews and went platinum in the States. It ended up being the last solo album George would release in his lifetime.

October 18 – Picture When Ringo’s Star(r) Was On The Rise

Picture this : at one time it seemed like Ringo Starr might have had a decent shot at having as good a, if not better than, post-Beatles career than the other three. In both 1971 and ’72 he’d had a sizable hit single (“It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back off Boogaloo”) and on this day in 1973 he bolstered his resume with a single that Billboard magazine raved about, declaring it “has to be a #1 single this month. Right?” that single was “Photograph”, the first single off his third album, simply called Ringo. The single was released in Britain and Europe 49 years ago today, a week or two after it had come out in the U.S.

If Ringo was seen as not having the voice of Paul or the writing chops of any of the other three, he could still hold his own against many of his pop contemporaries in those areas and was a very good, under-rated drummer. But perhaps his greatest skill is in being a nice guy everyone seems to like. That was reflected in the fact that each of the other three Beatles helped out on this album, albeit not all together. “Photograph” was written by George and Ringo together, and in fact they’d recorded a demo of it while George was recording an album two years earlier. Ringo decided to revisit it and record a new version, with none other than Harrison coming back to play the 12-string guitar on it and sing backing vocals. Among the other talents who played on the song were saxophonist Bobby Keys and Nicky Hopkins on piano. They recorded it in L.A., opting for a full sound reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, something not coincidentally helped along by using some studio engineers who oft worked with Spector. Ringo – well ahead of his time – later made a video (or “promotional film” as he would call it then) for the song back in England, at Tittenhurst Park, the famous estate that he’d just bought from John Lennon.

The song managed to sound fairly upbeat despite having forlorn lyrics about the guy who couldn’t forget a love from the past who was gone, leaving him with only a photograph. And it sounded good, something that would have sounded right at home on a number of Beatles albums. Record Mirror upon its release also predicted it would be a “giant smash,” admiring how it sounded big but “nothing’s overdone so as to take away from the song.”

Photograph” hit #1 in New Zealand and Australia (where it would be his only #1) and Canada, where it was his second, and proving Billboard right, also in the U.S., where it got him a gold record. His native land was a bit of an exception though, with it only getting to #8 in the UK.

May 25 – George Prayed For Peace, Apple For #1 Hits

They weren’t quite John, Paul and Ringo… but drummer Jim Keltner, pianist Nicky Hopkins, organ & synth player Gary Wright as well as bassist Klaus Voortman made for a pretty stellar backing band to George Harrison…as Britain was reminded on this day in 1973.

That was when they got to hear the lead track off his third post-Beatles album (that is after All Things Must Pass and the live Concert for Bangladesh), Living in the Material World. That was the great “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)”, which those of us on this side of the Atlantic got to get the single a couple of weeks before, although oddly it was just a tiny bit different than the original. Capitol, who put it out in North America, decided to speed it up just a tiny bit to make it sound a little perkier than the album cut or British single issued by Apple.

Around that time, Harrison was deeply involved in the Eastern spiritualism movement and believed in a universality of God and faith, which he clearly tried to demonstrate on the single. “I want to be God-conscious. That’s my only real ambition, everything else is secondary,” he said. He also added “sometimes you open up your mouth and you don’t know what you are going to say, and whatever comes out is a starting point. If that happens and you get lucky, it can usually be turned into a song. This song is a prayer and a personal statement between me and the Lord and whoever likes it.”

A lot of people did like it. It’s hard not to like his mix of outward (“give me peace on earth”) and inward (“My Lord, please take hold out my hand that I might understand”) looking prayers or wishes, coupled with a melody Pop Matters call “effervescent”. The incredible slide guitar playing of his, two tracks overdubbed, doesn’t hurt at all either! Little wonder Eric Clapton ranks it as one of his two favorite Harrison songs.

An indication of the control record companies have, or at least had, was that since Apple still controlled pretty much all things Beatle in the UK at least, they chose the exact release dates and picked a time for George after the record was ready, but sufficiently long enough to not possibly cannibalize sales of Paul McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway, and early enough as to not deter mass sales of the two Beatles “greatest hits” albums (the “red” and “blue” ones) to come out that summer.

That strategy worked, as the song went to #1 in the U.S. – his second, after “My Sweet Lord” . Curiously, it knocked McCartney and Wings “My Love” out of the #1 spot, making a Beatle deposing another Beatle at the top. Then to top that off, Billy Preston, Beatles’ friend and late in their career, keyboard player, knocked Harrison off the top with his “Will it Go Round in Circles?”. At the end of June that year, the three songs held down the three top spots on the charts.

Elsewhere, for some reason the reception wasn’t as warm, though it was a big hit in most Western places. It peaked at #10 in his homeland, and #9 in both Canada and Australia.

May 15 – Fab Three Remembered John

Tragedy can put things in perspective. Not exactly a consolation, but a fact and an explanation for a great song that came out this day in 1981. George Harrison gave us his first single off the Somewhere in England album, “All Those Years Ago” , not only a tribute to John Lennon, but the closest thing we’d get to a Beatles reunion.

Harrison had remained friends with Ringo Starr, and was in 1980, both working, slowly, on his own album, and helping Ringo put together his Stop & Smell the Roses album. Harrison added some guitar work to the record and wrote a song for it, “Wrack My Brain.” He also wrote a version of “All Those Years Ago”, and they did the preliminaries, with Ringo doing the drumming of course. However, Starr didn’t really love the song, and turned it down.

Meanwhile, through rather good fortune that seemed anything but to Harrison originally, Warner Bros. – who distributed his own Dark Horse Records – refused to put out the version of Somewhere in England he turned in late in ’80. They noticed that George had only had one minor hit (the under-rated “Blow Away”) in years and thought the album he finished was rather bland and totally lacking commercial appeal. They even rejected the cover photo.

Harrison was upset, but grudgingly agreed to go back, rework a track or two and add a couple of new songs. Then, of course, John Lennon was murdered. Harrison remembered the old song he’d written for Ringo, and quickly rewrote the lyrics as a love song to John, with lyrics like “we’re living in a bad dream” and “you point to the truth when you say ‘All You Need Is Love’.” He kept the recording of Ringo doing the drums – session superstar Herbie Flowers did the bass by the way – and then, in an act of generosity, called up Paul McCartney. McCartney, along with his Wings bandmates (at that point just his wife Linda and Denny Laine) came by and recorded backing vocals, making it the first time the three had been together on a record since they finished Let It Be some 11 years earlier. Harrison finished it off with a touching video, a slideshow of pictures highlighting John.

It was a good song, and a timely one, and it helped put George back on the musical map, briefly at least. In his UK, it only got to #13 surprisingly, but elsewhere it was very well-received. In Canada it got to #3, in Ireland, #4; it also made the top 10 in Australia and several European lands. In the all-important U.S. market, it was a chart-topper on Adult Contemporary stations (an indication of the aging of the Beatles fans perhaps) and got to #2 on the singles chart, only kept from the top by Kim Carnes mega-selling “Bette Davis Eyes.”

It didn’t help the album out that much though; Somewhere in England peaked in the teens (#11-19) almost worldwide and quickly disappeared, it became George’s first post-Beatles album to not get a gold record (or better) in the U.S. Harrison would be almost invisible in the music world until his big comeback in 1987, Cloud Nine, which had another look back at the Beatles, “When We Were Fab.”