If you thought he was spiritual on All Things Must Pass, you won’t even recognize George Harrison here.
This was Harrison’s fifth album, but only second proper studio album, it was released in 1973. His All Things Must Pass album was released in 1970, but he spent a good part of the time between these two albums doing something called The Concert for Bangladesh. Before Live Aid, Farm Aid and all the other humanitarian events, Harrison sought to raise money for a country most Americans had never heard of. Harrison invented the rock fundraiser, and it wasn’t an easy project. Beset by problems, there were two concerts, an album and a film, and unfortunately, most of the funds were held up for nearly a decade by various tax agencies! In addition, Capitol Records who represented Harrison, and Columbia Records who represented Dylan, fought over the rights of Dylan’s appearance, further holding up the release of the recording and royalties. An effort to aid disaster victims, the money never arrived to help them, but at least $45 million eventually reached relief efforts.
Somewhere starting in 1971, Harrison began recording new songs for what would become Living in the Material World.
If you were expecting a big, boisterous, rocking album like All Things Must Pass, this was not it. These songs were very religious and deeply personal, no loud electric guitars here. Harrison played all of the guitars, mainly strumming acoustic guitars and playing slide. In his band for this album, he used longtime friend Klaus Voorman on bass, Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr on drums, Gary Wright and Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, and Jim Horn on horns. Harrison produced all but one song himself. This was a more subdued effort than All Things Must Pass.
Fans were waiting for this album, it would top the Billboard chart.
“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” – 3:36 Harrison’s second number one song, and the end of his big hits for a long time. Much in the spirit of “My Sweet Lord” with chanting and acoustic guitars.
“Sue Me, Sue You Blues” – 4:48 Written about the legal issues surrounding the Beatles, as they went on and on. Harrison uses a lot of slide guitar on this and other songs on the album. An acoustic blues song with a lot of slide and acoustic piano.
Well, you serve me and I’ll serve you
Swing your partners, all get screwed
Bring your lawyer and I’ll bring mine
Get together, and we could have a bad time
“The Light That Has Lighted the World” – 3:31 A slow song, it spoke about being viewed by some people as having changed. The song features a really nice accompaniment by pianist Nicky Hopkins who worked on the entire album. Very soulful, a beautiful melody. Harrison lets loose with a slide solo, but he seems to prefers piano solos.
“Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” – 2:57 One of the more pop inspired songs on the album, almost released as a single, it is upbeat, although a bit serious in the lyrics. Harrison’s lyrics on this album, even lighter ones, were still full of emotion and very introspective. One of my favorite tracks on the album.
“Who Can See It” – 3:52 A very heavy ballad, more introspective, with a large string and choir arrangement. Similar to what Phil Spector might have added. Many of these songs would be welcome on Harrison’s Extra Texture album of two years in the future.
“Living in the Material World” – 5:31 Harrison liked to write of his own personal experience. It is obvious that he had been walking a tightrope between the world of rock stardom and materialism, and his spiritual world of sacrifice. One of the few upbeat songs, that mixes Western and Eastern musical instruments. A little more electric guitar than you will find on other tracks. Great horn solo.
Met them all here in the material world
John and Paul here in the material world
Though we started out quite poor
We got Richie on a tour
“The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)” – 4:34 A song very directly about Harrison’s spiritual views. I can’t say that I really listen to his preaching, instead it is the music that I found interesting. Very good slide guitar and horn arrangement. Spector’s influence is apparent on this song.
“Be Here Now” – 4:09 Deeply reflective song and another soulful vocal performance. A soft and slow musical selection. Harrison uses keyboards very achingly beautiful on this album. The guitar work is quite lovely. This song reminds me of “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album.
“Try Some, Buy Some” – 4:08 Written during the All Things Must Pass period for Ronni Spector, who as planning a comeback album. Instead, Harrison used it for this album. Not really a pop song, the lyrics are more for someone like Harrison who was experiencing a religious event in his life. With some different lyrics, this might have been a more mainstream appealing song. The arrangement and instrumentation are quite nice.
“The Day the World Gets ‘Round” – 2:53 Written during the Concerts for Bangladesh period, how it became necessary for to raise money for disaster, given the wealth of the world. Nice orchestral arrangement. Harrison might have missed his calling, he could have written show tunes. Hoagie Carmichael was a favorite of his.
“That Is All” – 3:43 Another deeply personal song about his belief system. One of Harrison’s strongest vocal performances on the album. Harrison could have the most deeply effective voices of all the Beatles when he really sang from the heart. A big arrangement behind him. He really likes the Leslie speaker with the echoing effect
2006 remaster – Bonus tracks
“Deep Blue” – 3:47 The B-side for the “Bangla Desh” single, it features Harrison on a folk-blues song, written during the time his mother was gravely ill. Out of print for many years. Harrison had learned the dobro and spent time touring with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, where roots music featuring slide guitar and dobro were quite welcome. A stripped-down arrangement, I would have liked to see him apply this to a few other songs on this album; not a bad song at all.
“Miss O’Dell” – 2:33 Another B-side, it was written about Chris O’Dell, a Harrison assistant during the Apple years. This is a bouncy rock song with harmonica and cowbell, about waiting for Miss O’Dell to show up for an appointment. Actually, one of Harrison’s better songs, it is Dylanesque and quite funny, he breaks up in laughter. Rather unpretentious and quite fun.
To understand Harrison’s music, you have to understand Harrison the man, the former Beatle, the spiritual man, the serious musician. Pop songs? He’s already done it. Guitar freak? Already done it. Three chords with verse and chorus? Already written them. During his Beatle years, you heard bits and pieces of songs you are now hearing. Harrison was relegated to the B sides and often his songs were given little attention. The lone exception was on Abbey Road where he provided the two best songs on the record.
Strangely, Rolling Stone praised the album. I was quite shocked at the review:
Harrison’s plaintive vocals and gently weeping guitar contribute immeasurably to this impression. Living in the Material World is a profoundly seductive record. Harrison’s rapt dedication infuses his musicality so completely that the album stands alone as an article of faith, miraculous in its radiance.
Living in the Material World was not Harrison’s finest album, it was competently arranged and produced, and gave you a deeper sense of Harrison’s spirituality. It is better than average, but a bit of a letdown after All Things Must Pass. What you got from Harrison was a snapshot of his state of mind each time he recorded. He never sat down and wrote for his audience, he was writing from his experience and spiritual perspective. The man was on a spiritual journey and he was inviting his audience along.
If you sit down and listen to Living in the Material World, free from any prior opinions, and take it simply as it is, you will be impressed by several things. Harrison’s evolution as a songwriter, creating complex chords and time signatures, shows his technical advancement. The vocal performances are heartfelt and stretch his vocal range. As a guitar player, Harrison is not very interested in being Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend or Jeff Beck. About 1970, Harrison shifted his style towards the slide guitar and never really looked back. Until his later work with Jeff Lynne, Harrison rarely used a second guitar player on his recordings. Jesse Ed Davis was the exception, and he handled the traditional lead parts.
If radio play and album sales were indicators, George Harrison was beginning to wear off for many fans. His next album, Dark Horse, would further complicate his relationship with mainstream fans as well as his poorly received U.S. solo tour (his only U.S. solo tour). After that, Extra Texture would take a big step back from what fans expected, deeply soulful and moody. Thirty-Three & 1/3, in the midst of several legal battles, would ironically re-establish Harrison as somewhat of a pop star, and give fans a more upbeat and commercial album.
After 1975, McCartney was the predominant ex-Beatle on the charts. Lennon retired. Starr and Harrison began to fade commercially. Fickle fans moved on, but I never abandoned Harrison, even though there were times I had a difficult time connecting with his music and his philosophy. Harrison didn’t need fame, but while Beatle money was tied up in litigation, he was a working musician, so selling records was still somewhat necessary. The Beatles were better at setting the musical style rather than adapting to it. The story of the solo Beatles and their relationship to the current style would make an interesting future blog.