Let it Roll: The Songs of George Harrison

  Let it Roll: The Songs of George Harrison
  George Harrison

  3 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

My sweet Lord, the quiet Beatle gets his due with "Let it Roll," the first George Harrison collection that spans his entire solo career from 1970's "All Things Must Pass" to 2002's "Brainwashed."

For those of you keeping score, this is at least the third Harrison greatest hits collection. Half of the tracks on 1976's "The Best of George Harrison" were songs from George's Beatle years (most notably, "Something," "For You Blue," "Think for Yourself," and "Taxman."). 1989's "The Best of Dark Horse (1976-89)" highlighted Harrison's solo output for his own label, including substandard curios such as "Gone Troppo," "Life Itself," and "Wake Up My Love."  "Let it Roll" attempts to blend the best of both worlds - George's Beatle past and his substantial solo career - and for the most part, it succeeds.

"Let it Roll" includes a 28-page booklet with unseen and rare photos and liner notes by Warren Zanes. Last time I checked, Warren was writing children's music. Maybe that was his brother, Dan. I got an advanced copy without the art work and liner notes so I can't comment on whether Warren's observations are worthwhile, but I can only hope he's a fan.

Hari Hari Krishna... (Or George's Best Bits)

Capitol Records solved the problem of getting some of Harrison's best Beatle tracks together with his solo work by including three live (and coincidently Beatle-less) performances from "The Concert for Bangladesh": "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Something," and "Here Comes the Sun." With Eric Clapton cranking out the solos (just as he did in 1968 on the original studio version), "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is an extravaganza that approaches axe nirvana.  The mini-guitar duel between Clapton and Harrison is a nice musical conversation between old friends. "Something" could have been better. One problem is even after you've heard an I-Pod's worth of cover versions of the song, you still can't top the original - it doesn't get any better than Ringo's lead in drum roll, George's honey-dipped solo, or George Martin's intuitive strings. The second and larger problem stems from George - he messes up the lyrics to own song! He makes an admirable ad-libbed recovery, but since its live there's no reset button to correct his muffs, so "Something's" sentiment is temporarily derailed. The live version of "Here Comes the Sun," recorded with Badfinger's suicide twins Pete Ham and Mike Evans (they both hung themselves eight years apart), is a little rushed, but it brightens when the back up singers join George to produce sunny harmonies - "Sun, sun, sun, here we come."
You really can't have a Harrison career retrospective without tapping into a few tunes from his first solo shot, "All Things Must Pass." Stifled creatively during his years in The Beatles, George averaged one or two tracks per album. When the group shattered amidst petty arguments and lawsuits, George unveiled a three record set produced by the legendary Phil Spector, filling the tracks with contributions from two dozen members of rock royalty, including Gary Wright (Spooky Tooth), Gary Brooker (Procol Harum), and the entire personnel from Badfinger and Derek and the Dominoes. If there's was one glaring problem with Phil "I didn't know the gun was loaded" Specter's production for "All Things Must Pass" it's that his "Wall of Sound" technique was so cluttered and high end that it was more like a wall of dung. Through the magic of Giles (son of Beatle producer George) Martin, the mush has been mastered, or should I say remastered, so the quartet of selections from "All Things Must Pass" now pass muster.

Originally conceived way back in 1966, rejected repeatedly by John Lennon thereafter and test run during The Beatles aborted "Get Back" sessions (which morphed into "Let it Be," phew), "Isn't it a Pity" is a musical monolith worthy of it's 7:08 length. George tweaks Paul McCartney's "Hey Jude" with a na-na-na-na fade out - yeah, isn't it a pity he and Macca didn't get along. (Time out for trivia: Eric Clapton and Billy Preston did a heartbreaking rendition of "Isn't it a Pity" for the "Concert for George" tribute that's also worth tracking down. It's one of the few times you'll hear Clapton sing with genuine conviction - and as for Mr. Preston, who's since followed George into rock and roll heaven - he's equally affected by the loss of his friend and sings like a preacher possessed by his choice of holy spirit.)

Like "Isn't It a Pity," "All Things Must Pass" is hypnotic, with dirge-like horns and guitar fills that soar like an angel testing his wings. Maybe George didn't know it when he wrote it, but the song has become a commentary on his life and how unprepared we were when he was abruptly taken away from us: "All things must pass, all things must pass away. All things must pass, none of life's strings can last. So I must be on way and face another day."

With bee-stung guitar licks, elegant horns and a platoon of percussionists, "What is Life" is both inspiring and catchy - what a combination!  The airy, lilting "Blow Away" from 1979's "George Harrison" album finds George rhapsodizing about the simpler things in life: "All I got to do is love you, all I got to be is to, be happy. All it's got to take is some warmth to make it blow away, blow away, blow away."

When I heard Jeff Lynne would be working with George on his 1987 comeback album "Cloud Nine," I was skeptical of how the record would sound. "This is Love," a tightly structured ballad with a bump, allayed my fears. Yes, thanks to the bubbly synths and layered harmonies, "This is Love" does indeed sound like George is a guest on an ELO outtake, but Lynne's "strange magic" works.

A cut from "Brainwashed," "Marwa Blues," is a floating, navel gazing instrumental that will remind you George was the transcendental Beatle. It received a Grammy in 2004 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance and certainly deserved it.

"When We Was Fab" pokes fun at George's Beatle years by using the group's stock in
trade - backward guitars, sitars, and muffled "hidden" messages. Ghostly background vocals, cheeky lyrics and ominous strings parody The Beatles' "I Am the Walrus." The track's Beatlemania feel is further authenticated by the appearance of Ringo Starr on drums. Ringo can still empower a song without overpowering it.

"Got My Mind Set on You" has the distinction of being the last number one solo single (so far) released by any ex-Beatle in the U.S. Ironically, George didn't write it. "Got My Mind Set On You" was written by Rudy Clark, author of "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss" (more on that later), and Good Lovin' (a smash hit for The Young Rascals). It was originally recorded by an R&B artist named Jimmy Ray, who was better known for his height (five feet) than his hits. George's version is a head-tilting, happy-go-lucky romp that one hardly associates with Hare Krishna Harrison. Having an MTV video in heavy rotation featuring dancing stuffed animals and a stand in for George doing back flips didn't hurt the song's popularity either.

The Not So Essential Harrison (Or Why Didn't They Pluck These Turkeys?)

"Let it Roll" isn't a particularly strong or memorable track. Dedicated to the original owner of Harrison's mansion in England, "Let it Roll (The Ballad of Frankie Crisp)" meanders along politely, highlighted by George's airy licks and an acoustic backing, but it's so tranquil that it's transparent and rolls by with the lyrical weight of a cotton ball on the wind. I had to check through my Harrison collection in order to track down which album this one's on. (Much to my surprise, it's "All Things Must Pass.") I might have chosen the more meaningful "What is Life" or "All Things Must Pass" to serve as the CD's title track.

Sorry, kids. I didn't sniff the same cloud of soul-searching incense as George when it came to "My Sweet Lord." I've always found it to be a mawkish, overly long laundry list of Eastern buzz words and swami malarkey. Forget that George got sued for supposedly stealing the melody to The Chiffons "He's So Fine." I always though it sounded more like Betty Everett's "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's In His Kiss)," Besides, why would in the world would a man who was once in the most successful group of all time steal a lick?  Regardless, "My Sweet Lord" is a Moonie initiation anthem, chanting cheese, and it hasn't aged well. Jai guru deva indeed.

You would think since George idolized John Lennon (despite Johnny treating him like a second-rate songwriter throughout The Beatles' existence), his tribute to the slain Beatle would be a moving, reflective attack on the tear ducts. But "All Those Years Ago" bounces along nimbly like a Sesame Street sing along. It's nice that George chose to remember the more positive side of Lennon, but happy and light just isn't his forte. Johnny is not amused, George.  

"Any Road," the lead track off of "Brainwashed," is one of those cutesy ukulele toss offs inspired by George's regrettable side project The Traveling Willburys, which should have been will-buried from the first out of tune strike of Tom Petty's guitar. It has a vaudevillian arrangement made for a 30's soundtrack. Another cut from "Brainwashed," "V2 Vatican Blues," which employs the same vo-de-o-doe style, would have been a more fun.

"Cheer Down," George's contribution to the "Lethal Weapon II" soundtrack should have been put down like a toothless three-legged cur. Co-produced by Jeff Lynne and co-authored by Tom Petty, this is a less than ordinary track - exactly how I thought George's collaboration Lynne and Petty would sound. Another orphan is a rendition of Dylan's "I Don't Want to Do It." George is in gruff voice and the out-of-date synth patterns make "I Don't Want to Do It" purely a curiosity. Once you've heard it, you won't want to do it again.

Some glaring omissions have appeared on other Harrison compendiums, including the hoarse "Dark Horse," and the rallying cry "Bangladesh."  I'm a little disappointed that there's nothing from my favorite Harrison disc "33 1/3" on "Let it Roll," and it would have been a boost to hear the jovial "Love Comes To Everyone" from the "George Harrison" album, but I'm pleased with the choices from "Cloud Nine" ("This is Love," "When We Was Fab," and "I Got My Mind Set On You"). When the day comes that they produce George according to Mike I'd pick "Deep Blue," (the B-side of "Bangladesh"), "Pure Smokey," (from "33 1/3"), and "Dark Sweet Lady" (from "George Harrison"), and drop the not so essentials. But until then, I'm happy to "Let it Roll."



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