George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music at 50
In the wake of high-profile solo studio debuts* from John Lennon (Plastic Ono Band, released December 1970) and Paul McCartney (McCartney, released in April of that year), the first solo albums from the Beatles’ two other members were overshadowed. But it was guitarist George Harrison, in fact, who initially recorded and released an album of music outside the group.
Released in England on November 1, 1968 (and a month later in the U.S.), Wonderwall Music is the soundtrack to Joe Massot’s Wonderwall, a curious and fanciful psychedelic movie starring Jane Birkin and Jack McGowran. McGowran had starred alongside Lennon in Richard Lester’s 1967 black comedy How I Won the War, and Birkin – who would go on to greater fame as a singer – had a bit part in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up.
At the time of its release, Wonderwall Music – the first album released on the Beatles’ new Apple label – was viewed as something of a curiosity; it didn’t sell in great quantities, and wasn’t the subject of a substantial marketing campaign. Further, the record sleeve’s lack of detailed credits gave the mistaken impression that Harrison’s involvement in the project was minimal, perhaps akin to bandmate McCartney’s role in the soundtrack for 1967’s The Family Way a year earlier.
In fact, Harrison composed all of the album’s 19 tracks, and played various instruments on the recording sessions. Present, too, were Ringo Starr (drums, of course) and guitarist Eric Clapton. Longtime friend Tony Ashton (keyboards), later of Ashton, Turner & Dyke, also took part in the recording sessions held in London. The Indian music-themed tracks were cut in Bombay with a dozen Indian musicians playing sitar, tabla, surbahar, santoor, bansuri, pakhavaj, sarod and shehnai.
With the benefit of hindsight, Wonderwall Music can be viewed alongside the work of jazz flautist Herbie Mann as one of the earliest examples of “world music.” The album juxtaposes – sometimes smoothly, other times less so – eastern and western musical styles, though the two rarely meet.
Despite their western-sounding titles, tracks like “Microbes,” “In the Park,” “Crying” and “Love Scene” almost exclusively feature Indian instruments; to western ears unaccustomed to ragas, these relatively brief instrumentals sound quite similar to the work of Harrison’s mentor Ravi Shankar (or to the less-schooled, like some of the incidental music from the Beatles’ Help! soundtrack).
The more western-leaning tracks are curious; few of them are what most listeners would consider pop, much less rock. “Red Lady Too” is built around a tack piano melody that bears some vague similarity to the sound Procol Harum would explore on its debut album. “Drilling a Home” is English music hall music, very similar to parts of the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and – more curiously – one of the pre-recorded tapes included on Mellotrons of the era.
One of the few Wonderwall Music tracks in which east and west meet is “Greasy Legs,” a composition featuring droning Indian instrumentation alongside harmonium and (possibly) Mellotron. Its sound is reminiscent of the series of home tapes made by members of the Beatles around 1967 (those tapes remain among the increasingly small cache of bootlegged Beatles-related ephemera to not receive legitimate release).
“Ski-ing” is one of Wonderwall Music’s few concessions to rock. Featuring a stinging lead guitar line credited to one Eddie Clayton (Clapton, in the first of many pseudonymous musical encounters with pal George). Harrison joins in on twin lead, and Ringo plays drums. A droning sitar line is part of the arrangement as well. While the playing is impressive, the song lacks anything like a traditional verse-chorus structure; it’s merely a two-bar jam. But it’s a tasty one nonetheless.
“Party Seacombe” features some melodic acoustic guitar from Harrison, with a bare-bones melodic structure and a curiously effected electric guitar. The recording has a wobbly tone, one accented by the trebly tack piano accompaniment.
“Cowboy Music” is just what its title suggests: a thin rewrite of the sort of clichéd clippety-clop melody that appeared as part of the Who’s mini-opera “A Quick One (While He’s Away).” “On the Bed” combines rock and Indian instrumentation; the lead harmonium sounds like a synthesizer, especially when its melody is doubled by a trumpet.
The brief “Wonderwall to Be Here,” on the other hand, sounds like a lost Moody Blues track, with majestic, contemplative and rich piano and Mellotron textures. The original 1968 LP closed with “Singing Om,” Wonderwall Music’s sole vocal track.
When Wonderwall Music was reissued on CD in 2014, three tracks were added as bonuses. The most notable of these – long having circulated among collectors – was “In the First Place,” a vaguely Indian-themed pop song (with tack piano and heavily Leslie speaker-treated vocals) by The Remo Four. Another bonus track, “Almost Shankara” features a studio introduction by Harrison, proving (to those who might have doubted) that he was present for the Bombay sessions. The final bonus cut is an unedited studio work tape of “The Inner Light,” a song to which George would later (in London) add vocals and ultimately release as the b-side to the Beatles’ 1968 single “Lady Madonna,” released in March 1968, months before Wonderwall Music.
As an example of George Harrison’s love of (and immersion into) Indian music, Wonderwall Music is significant. Its place within the timeline of Beatles history makes it important as well. But ultimately the success and value of Wonderwall Music rests on its listening enjoyment.
* Lennon’s four previous albums with Yoko Ono (Two Virgins, Life With the Lions, Wedding Album and Live Peace in Toronto) and McCartney’s 1967 soundtrack for The Family Way notwithstanding.