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The jungle music & posh skittle of George Harrison (Part I)
the jungle music & posh skittle of
By Dan Forte
The ex-Beatle talks guitar for the first time
George Harrison always had a reputation as the "quiet Beatle." but after five years without a new album, people were beginning to wonder if he would ever record again. Had he given up writing and singing songs and playing guitar in favor of his filmmaking busi-ness and hobbies such as gardening and racing Formula One cars? It was hard to imagine that an ex-Beatle had indeed retired from making music.
Harrison holds a late-'50s Model 360, one of the
Rickenbackers the Beatles helped popularize.
Then there were indications to the contrary. A couple of movies produced by his Handmade Films company, Water and Shanghai Surprise, featured Harrison scores. Last year he strapped on his Gretsch to join one of his early inspirations, Carl Perkins, for the cable TV special Blue Suede Shoes—A Rockabilly Session, and it was clear that he was playing better than ever. Onstage with Perkins, Dave Edmunds, and Eric Clapton, George walked away with the show, singing and playing "Glad All Over," "Your True Love," and the Perkins tune he showcased on Beatles For Sale, "Every-body's Trying To Be My Baby," and playing Scotty Moore's classic solo from Elvis Presley's "That's All Right, Mama" note-perfect In case anyone had forgotten, the show was a vivid reminder of what a tasteful guitarist George Harrison was and still is.
Earlier this year he (as well as Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, and Taj Mahal) sat in with one of his sidemen from the Concert For Bangla Desh days, Jesse Ed Davis, for an after-hours jam at Los An-geles' Palomino club, and he appeared on two cuts from Duane Eddy's star-studded new LP.
While most of his post-Beatles LPs weren't greeted with much hoopla—his soon-forgotten 1982 effort, Gone Troppo, is already out of print—the announcement that he was in the studio with ELO's Jeff Lynne behind the console was met with a bit more anticipation. The results of their collaboration, the just-released Cloud Nine, not only don't disappoint, but they exceed almost everything in Harrison's solo catalog. From the moody title track that opens the set to the rocking "Got My Mind Set On You" to the lilting "Breath Away From Heaven," this is a melodic, hook-filled pop record that brings back some '60s recording values without sounding dated in the least It sits comfortably alongside the Beatles or the Bangles. The only cut that employs some out-and-out nostalgia, "When We Was Fab," does so with a sense of humor—opening with an "I Am The Walrus" drum fill and fading in a swirl of cellos, backwards guitar, droning sitar, "Strawberry Fields" piano, and various other Fab Four tricks. Throughout the album George swaps guitar parts (mostly on slide) with Clapton (on straight guitar), combining to make one of rock's most formidable and historic guitar couplings.
With all that's been written about the Beatles and their indelible stamp on music, fashion, and pop culture, they are individually still criminally underrated as musicians. Not only did they inspire a generation to plug in guitars and harmonize, but they also influenced how guitar players played, how bassists played, how drummers drummed, and how singers sang. And while each later took turns reinforcing the obvious—that something magical and greater-than-the-sum happened when they played as a band—their separate instrumental contributions can't be overemphasized.
The Beatles on TV, circa 1964. Paul is playing his early Hofner bass
(note neck-and-middle pickup configuration), John his
Gibson J-160E, and George a Gretsch Country Gentleman.
Paul McCartney was the most melodic and innovative rock bassist of the early '60s—as much a trailblazer in pop music as Motown's James Jamerson was in R&B. (Listen to "Nowhere Man" or "Paperback Writer," as just two examples.) An added plus: He played some of the group's most off-the-wall guitar solos, including "Taxman" and "Another Girl." Ringo Starr was a model of solid and creative drumming—one of the first (and unfortunately last) rock and roll drummers to play songs rather than beats (as evidenced on "She Loves You," "Help," "Every Little Thing," and countless other tracks). John Lennon was everything a rhythm guitarist should be—tuneful, driving, and swinging. And the few times he stepped out of that role (as on "You Can't Do That"), he proved himself a respectable lead player, as well.
But easily the most overlooked was George Harrison. Continuing (and distilling) the tradition of his melodic rockabilly idols Carl Perkins, Scotty Moore, and James Burton, the youngest Beetle was just coming into his own when Clapton and Beck ushered in the age of the Guitar Hero. George's forte was not extended improvised jamming; he was (and is), however, a supreme melodicist, a sensitive ballad player, a strong rhythm man, a fine acoustic guitarist, and one of electric slide's most distinctive stylists. And to this day, no one's been able to match his range of crystal-line tones and textures.
"I like to play rhythm guitar and then think about what the solo's going to be."
The Beatles' music didn't lend itself to guitar heroics, and vice versa. The antithesis of the guitarist as gunslinger, Harrison was a ports player and a chameleon. From the very beginning, his ego-less role (and tone) changed, depending on what the song called for. His sparse, thin solos on "Boys" and "I Saw Her Standing There" weren't going to make Chuck Berry lose any sleep, but they were simple and to-the-point, and novices were soon memorizing them just as older players had cut their teeth on "Johnny B. Goode." George was overshadowed by the songwriting and singing of Lennon and McCartney, but—as with every other element in the Beatles' sound—it is impossible to imagine "All My Loving" without his tasty little chord solo, or the jangly "Nowhere Man" solo without that harmonic at the end. Just try playing a different 12-string break to "A Hard Day's Night," and you'll see that Harrison's compact, worked-out guitar solos were as essential to the group's sound and success as Ringo's unique drumming or their multi-part vocal harmonies.
In retrospect, one of the most amazing things about the Beatles' records was how crudely they were done, even by the standards of the period. As George points out, the technology available to the band in England always lagged behind America by a few years. Still, with the exception of producer George Martin's occasional piano playing and only one instance when a studio drummer spelled Ringo, the band invariably wove their multi-patterned sound tapestry as a unit. They sang horn-section parts and organ pads and often traded instruments. And if the song called for a Chet Atkins-ish country break (as on "I'm A Loser")—or a twangy, Duane Eddy-tinged bass line ("It Won't Be Long") or even some pseudo-bossa nova on gut-string ("Till There Was You")—the group looked no farther than their own lead guitarist, and George never failed to deliver. George may downplay his 6-string abilities, pointing out that he's not the kind of player "who could just pop in on anybody's session and come up with the goods," but he did exactly that during his decade with the Beatles. He was everything anyone could hope for in a studio player and then some.
The band was also constantly experimenting and long before the age of synthesizers, let alone sampling and MIDI guitars, came up with some hip effects. There's the feedback at the beginning of "I Feel Fine," the out-of-phase bends on "You're Gonna Lose That Girl," the backwards guitar on "I'm Only Sleeping," the volume swells on "Wait," "I Need You," and "Yes It Is," and of course the sitar on "Norwegian Wood."
George Harrison was born on February 25, 1943, in Liverpool, England, the port out of which his father, a merchant seaman, was based. In his 1980 book of reminiscences, I Me Mine [Simon & Schuster, out of print), he recalls "standing on a little leather stool, singing 'One Meat Ball,"' as a baby. At 13 George bought his first acoustic guitar. He hated school—and even today talks of it with disdain—but at least one fortuitous event took place there: He met Paul McCartney. The two began playing Lonnie Donegan skiffle tunes together, and after Paul joined John Lennon's band, the Quarrymen, in 1958, he introduced him to George. "If you can play as good as Eddie Clayton, you're in," John said, in reference to another local bandmember, and George responded with the instrumental "Raunchy," securing a spot in the Quarrymen. By November of '59 the group had disbanded, but John, George, and Paul soon reformed as Johnny & The Moondogs. After changing their name to the Silver Beatles, the band was hired to tour Scotland behind a singer named Johnny Gentle, for which George changed his name to Carl Harrison, in honor of one of his American rock idols, Carl Perkins.
The subsequent history of the Beatles has been reported innumerable times. Here is the brief version:
With drummer Pete Best and bassist Stu Sutcliff (Paul then played guitar), the group began playing Liverpool's Cavern Club in 1960, the same year they made their first trip to Hamburg, Germany, where they played eight or more hours per night Six months later they made their recording debut, backing singer Tony Sheridan. During the next year, Paul became full-time bassist, Brian Epstein became the group's manager, and the Beatles were auditioned and turned down by Decca Records (in favor of Brian Poole & The Tremeloes). After a few more months in Hamburg, the quartet auditioned for producer George Martin, at whose urging Best was replaced by Ringo Starr.
Their first single, "Love Me Do" backed with "P.S. I Love You," was recorded in September '62, followed by the release of "Please Please Me" a few months later. By the end of 1963 the Beatles had released their first two albums and given a Royal Command Performance, and their reputation was just beginning to spread to America. At the end of March '64 they had simultaneously secured Billboard's singles chart's top five: "Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist & Shout," "She Loves You," Want To Hold Your Hand," and 'Please Please Me," respectively, along with seven more titles in the Hot 100. By the end of 1966 the Beatles had released seven albums in England, starred in the feature-length movies A Hard Day's Night and Help!, and played their last live show (San Francisco's Candle-stick Park, August 29, 1966). George had also begun studying with sitar master Ravi Shankar in India.
George playing his Epiphone Casino for the taping
of the "All You Need Is Love" telecast, 1967.
Producer George Martin is behind him.
The 1967 concept-album masterpiece Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and British TV film Magical Mystery Tour took the experimental nature of Revolver several steps further. The following year saw the formation of Apple Corps and Harrison's first solo project, the film score to Wonderwall, which he produced in Bombay with a cast of Indian musicians and himself (playing guitar wider the name Eddie Clayton). For The Beatles, the double "White Album" released in November '68, George enlisted Eric Clapton to play the solo on his composition "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The following January the Beatles began work on the filming and recording of Let It Be, although it was not released until May 1970. During the interim, George released his experiments with synthesist Bernie Krause as Electronic Sound, and the band recorded Abbey Road. George also shared guitar chores with Clapton on Delaney & Bonnie's U.K tour. By the end of 1970 the only place the Beatles got together was in court their musical working relationship was ended.
While he may have toiled in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney for most of his life as a Beetle, Harrison quickly dispelled any notion that he was dependent on them with 1970's All Things Must Pass. The triumphant, three-record boxed set was co-produced by Phil Spector and himself, featured Ringo, Clapton, and Let It Be keyboardist Billy Preston, among others, and yielded the hit "My Sweet Lord," as well as classics such as "Isn't It A Pity," "What Is Life?," and "Awaiting On You All"—the iatter given a full-blown wall-of-sound Spector treatment It also included two sides of extended instrumental improvisations dubbed "Apple Jam." It was around this time that the guitarist began to develop his voice on slide.
On July 31 and August 1, 1971, Harrison brought together Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, and others for the Concert For Bangla Desh at New York's Madison Square Garden, the first rock concert staged to benefit famine victims (14 years before Live Aid would rekindle the idea).
"It was my guitar that was gently weeping—Eric just happened to be playing it."
Living In The Material World, from 1973, contained the hit "Give Me Love." In the fall of '74 Harrison formed a band encompassing fusion saxophonist Tom Scott's L.A. Express, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, and an orchestra of Indian musicians to tour America. Between then and his two-night appearance at the Prince's Trust concert in London a couple of months ago, the only official onstage appearance Harrison made was in 1977, when he joined Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live to play acoustic versions of Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel songs. The program received the highest ratings in the show's history.
"Crackerbox Palace" and "This Song" helped 1977's 33 1/3 achieve gold-album status. While he released three more solo efforts before his five-year layoff, his energies turned more towards filmmaking—producing, among others, Monty Python's Life Of Brian and Time Bandits. In the 1981 single "All Those Years Ago," from Somewhere In England—which brought the ex-Beatles and George Martin together, following John Lennon's death—George sang, "You said it all, though not many had ears/You had control of our smiles and our tears/All those years ago."
One of the best aspects of Cloud Nine is that it has a genuine band feeling; the personnel consists primarily of a few longtime friends. In addition to Clapton, Harrison again called on Ringo and Jim Kellner (the same drumming tandem that played the Concert For Bangle Desh), as well as percussionist Ray Cooper, saxophonist Jim Horn, and keyboardists Gary Wright and Elton John. Producer Jeff Lynne provides bass, keyboards, and (with George) backing vocals.
The following interview took place at Warner Bros. Records' offices in Burbank, California, the day after Harrison had delivered the tapes of the new LP. Though he apologized for being a bit "nackered" from jet lag and a tight schedule of meetings, he was extremely open, articulate, and witty, occasionally lapsing into Monty Python impersonations. Although time didn't permit detailed accounts of each and every guitar he'd ever played, it's clear that he has vivid memories of virtually every instrument that has passed through his hands. (See George's own photos of some his more historic guitars, page 86, as well as Fab Gear! Guitars Of The Beatles, page 98.) Throughout the conversation he was typically self-effacing about his guitar playing, and when John Fogerty dropped in briefly to say hello, George exclaimed, "Now, here's a proper guitarist!" It is that sort of selfless attitude that makes George Harrison such a special guitar player.
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