40 years of the Quiet Beatle’s eponymous opus
After a pair of heady experimental works before the breakup, George Harrison’s post-Fab solo career kicked off in fine form, with the triple album punch of All Things Must Pass (still his finest post-Beatles work), and the success of the charity concerts he organized for the people of Bangladesh.
Then things went south. His record sales declined. His 1974 tour was marred by his blown-out voice and audiences who wanted more Harrison and less of his opening act, Ravi Shankar. His marriage ended. And there was the embarrassment of being found guilty in 1976 of “subconscious plagiarism,” when his signature song “My Sweet Lord” was deemed to be too similar to the Chiffons’ hit “He’s So Fine.” Understandably, after the release of Thirty Three & 1/3 that same year, he decided to take a much-needed break.
George Harrison, released in 1979, shows Harrison in a more relaxed state of mind; as Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn wrote in The Beatles Book magazine at the time of the album’s release, “None of the songs are miserable, or have any reference to religion. Instead, happiness is the order of the day.” One reason for the laid back spirits is that Harrison had been spending a lot of time in Hawaii, enjoying the balmy, tropical islands in the company of his new girlfriend, Olivia (whom he’d later marry). He told one friend that in Hawaii “you get the feeling that you’re high all the time,” and that high led to creative inspiration as well. “Soft-Hearted Hana” references the town of Hana on Maui (Harrison later purchased a home on the island), as well as Maui’s volcano Haleakala. The jaunty number opens with the clattering sounds of a bar on a busy night, and fades out with the tempo unexpectedly shifting in and out of time, a sonic indication of the end result of a good night out (Harrison later revealed that the substance inspiring this particular trip was a dose of “magic mushrooms”).
The lyrics for the light-hearted “Love Comes to Everyone” were written in Hawaii; you can easily imagine this number being played at one of Hawaii’s many beachfront bars. Ditto the lovely “Dark Sweet Lady,” written for Olivia, when she requested he compose “a Spanish type of song.” And then there’s “Here Comes the Moon,” written after an evening on the islands when Harrison watched the moon rise at the same time as the sun was setting. It’s of course a nod to his own “Here Comes the Sun” from Abbey Road, and that’s not the only Beatle reference on this album; he also resurrects “Not Guilty,” originally recorded during sessions for The Beatles (aka “The White Album”). The tune was a pricklier number then, but the George Harrison version has softened the edges, even on bitter lines like “Not guilty/for getting in your way/while you’re trying to steal the day.”
And that speaks to the album’s underlying problem. It’s a nice, agreeable record, but not terribly engaging. As Graeme Thomson aptly sums up in his excellent biography George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door, it’s “A pleasant, well-crafted, highly melodic collection of songs about which it was hard to get excited about.” One big exception is the delightful “Blow Away,” Harrison’s breezy answer to getting out from under the burden of your problems. It was the album’s first single, and performed respectably enough in the US, reaching the Top 20; conversely, in his native Britain, it didn’t even reach the Top 50.
This was a sign of things to come. The next single, “Love Comes to Everyone,” sank like a stone. As did the next track released as a single, “Faster.” It’s a song about another of Harrison’s passions, car racing, and is dedicated to Formula One drivers Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda. The mid-tempo number brings to mind a scenic drive through the country on a sunny afternoon more than the rush of exhilaration you get when watching a Formula One car speeding around the track at upwards of 200 miles per hour. But the joy Harrison takes in the sport is clearly evident in the song.
Some of Harrison’s famous friends join him for the ride on the album. That’s Eric Clapton on guitar in “Loves Comes to Everyone,” Steve Winwood appears on keyboards and backing vocals. Meanwhile, the closing number, “If You Believe,” another upbeat number about putting your troubles behind you, was co-written with Gary Wright. By 1979, Britain, and the US, were throbbing to a new kind of beat — disco, punk, new wave — music that Harrison dismissed as “rubbish.” He was determined to go his own way musically, whatever the consequences, telling Rolling Stone, “If I write a tune and people think it’s nice then that’s fine by me; but I hate having to compete and promote the thing.” George Harrison showed what Harrison’s interests were: his wife, their son (the subject of “Soft Touch”), racing cars, and being happy. Making music? That was less of a priority. At least for now.