It's 11 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday in Burbank, California. A young employee of Warner Bros. Records' publicity department comes racing down the hall pushing everyone and everything out of his way. Eventually, he reaches the doorway of one of the offices and blurts out: "George has arrived; he doesn't have anything black to wear for the photo session, and, also, he'd like some tea!" Within seconds, the entire fourth floor of the company is buzzing. Bodies fly into action; one in search of dark T-shirts, another for some freshly brewed tea with sugar. And in the midst of this chaos, in a plush conference room only a few yards away, George Harrison sits unfazed, smoking a Marlboro.
At 44, George Harrison is a man who has seen and experienced more than most of us would in several lifetimes. After a humble, working class upbringing in Liverpool during the '40s and '50s, eight years of spectacular Beatle insanity, and an inconsistent solo career, Harrison, at middle age, is finally a happy man. He no longer fights with his celebrated past, and, for the first time in a long time, he is looking optimistically towards the future.
With an active 9-year-old son and homes in both Hawaii and England, Harrison finds his greatest solace in a simple family life. He has been happily married for nearly ten years to Olivia, his second wife. Even the intense paranoia he suffered after the murder of John Lennon has begun to fade. At last, here comes the sun.
After the much publicized and ugly BREAKup of The Beatles in 1970, Harrison gathered both critical and commercial success with the release of All Things Must Pass, a monumental three-record collection of songs. A few more hits followed, but by the mid '70s, his career began to wane, as the quality of his solo records became uneven.
In 1979, Harrison opened Handmade Films, a small production company based in London. He began underwriting a select number of films, including Monty Python's The Life of Brian, which has grossed nearly $115 million to date. Today, the company is thriving, despite having produced the biggest bomb of 1986, Madonna's Shanghai Surprise.
Harrison announced his retirement from the music industry in 1982 after the indifferent response to his last album, Gone Troppo, but he gradually began to reappear on other people's records and at a few concerts with coaxing from the likes of Dave Edmunds and ELO's Jeff Lynne.
This year, with the help of Lynne, he has written and released Cloud Nine, arguably his strongest album since All Things Must Pass. Featuring an all-star cast that includes Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Ray Cooper, Jim Horn, Dave Edmunds and Lynne, the record seems likely to re-establish Harrison on the contemporary music charts. As important, though, Harrison is genuinely excited about making music once again.
After your last album, Gone Troppo, you announced that you were retiring from the music business to concentrate on film production. What made you come back?
Well, I didn't really retire; I just said that. I was a bit tired of the way the business was, and also, the way I was feeling about it. It seemed that five or six years ago everybody was going crazy. No one seemed to know what was gone on. The disc jockeys and program planners and even the record companies weren't sure. Everyone was into this void as to what music was supposed to be. You no longer seemed to be able to just do what you did. It was as if you were being asked to fashion yourself to suit the tastes of program planners or sponsors of radio programs. They were telling me things like: "A hit record is a song about love lost or gained between 14- and 20-year-olds." And I just said, "Christ! Do I gotta be like that? I can't do that!"
So, I thought, sod it! I've got a film company as well and I was doing all these films and I've also got a boy growing up and I like to enjoy my life. So, I thought I'd just back out of it gracefully for a while and just see. So, now it's been five years since Troppo and it's gone very quick. I haven't really stopped doing anything. I continually write songs and a couple of times a year I go in my studio. I make up tunes, bung them on the 24-track and make very fast demos, mix them on cassette. I have loads of songs.
At the Prince's Trust concert, George is joined by Elton John and Eric Clapton.
How did Jeff Lynne end up co-producing the album and co-writing some of the songs?
When I came around to feeling it would be nice to do this album, I was thinking about it a couple of years ago-I didn't want the total responsibility of having to write all the songs, be the artist, be the producer, mix it all, etc. So, I thought I could really enjoy doing this album if I could get some help from somebody. But who can help me? In the past I had really only worked with George Martin in the old Beatle days and I worked briefly with Phil Spector, which ended up being more trouble than it was worth. I also did one album with Russ Titelman, from Warner Bros. and that was very nice and he was very helpful, but there was always this question of trying to find someone who could put input in, get the best out of me, and at the same time, not swamp me with his own ego. I was afraid to get some producer who would make my album full of gated, reverbed snare drums and DX7s, because I'm sick of that. I'm just not into that at all. It had to be someone who would take the best of the past and whatever 1 could do and put it in "the now."
So, I had a brainwave and I thought of Jeff Lynne. There's not a lot of people that I know, and I didn't even know Jeff at the time, either. So I asked a mutual friend, Dave Edmunds, that if he ever spoke to Jeff Lynne would he mention to him that I was interested in meeting him. A few months later he rang me and told me Jeff was going to be around, so I called him and we just started hanging out and meeting occasionally. Last year I was busy in the studio doing the soundtrack to this catastrophe called Shanghai Surprise, and during that time Jeff was coming around. Anyway, we spent a lot of time hanging around before it came to the point of making this album.
It's a long time working in the studio and I didn't want to have him commit himself to something that he might not be sure about doing. It just happened gradually. We got in the studio last January and it's just been a total pleasure working with him. I think it was absolutely the best decision that I ever made about having a partner in the studio.
What made Jeff different than the other producers you've worked with?
Well, for me, Jeff is a great songwriter and a great musician, but not a highly technical musician. He's more like me, a jungle musician; he plays by feel. He's got a good ear and uses good discrimination in his choice of sounds and instruments. At the same time, his favorite music is basically all the old stuff, all the old chords from all the old pop music. I've always thought that since the early '70s that Electric Light Orchestra-which was really Jeff; he wrote, produced and sang everything-had taken off from where The Beatles were at with "I Am The Walrus" and those sort of things, particularly the cellos. He made all this ELO music which was sort of like a continuation, in away, of all the stuff that we'd done. We have similar likes and dislikes, and we're both guitar players, as well.
ELO was slammed by some critics as being a Beatles rip-off. Isn't it ironic that some of the music on your album, especially the strings and the backing vocals, might now be construed as sounding more like ELO than The Beatles?
Yeah, it could be. But we don't have that much strings on this album. There's one track that has a little string violin line in it, and we have cellos, basically on "When We Was Fab," which we wrote together.
I started writing that song thinking that I wanted to write a tune like those in the late '60s, like a "Fab" song. And I immediately thought of Ringo, because he had to be the drummer and it was to go, "One, two...chakha, cha, chakha cha," [Harrison imitates Ringo's beginning drum fill from "I Am The Walrus"] and then Jeff and I wrote that tune and it lay there amongst the other tracks. And as we worked on the rest of the album that one was always like the joker in the pack. After we'd done quite a bit of work on the other songs, we kept digging that one out and adding something to it.
But the main thing that we did that could sound like ELO that I hear, is that Jeff and I did big backing voices. The sound of Jeff's voice mixed with mine works really well because it doesn't really sound like him or me. I've done that in the past, such as on All Things Must Pass, which was all me doing backing voices. But I think the quality of the sound now [has made a big difference]. Plus, we have more tracks to work with, because in 1970 when I did that, I was doing the backups on a 16 track, so we were more limited.
There are a couple of very much Jeff influenced things, such as the little Oberheim wobbly bit. And there's no question about it, Jeff was in ELO and Jeff is very much part and parcel of this album. I think it's a good mix, though it's not overpowering. You wouldn't think that it's me singing for the ELO. It's still very much my album. Then again there are songs that we wrote together and there are songs that I asked him to write specifically for me.
You rock pretty hard on this record, especially on "Wreck Of The Hesperus" and "Devil's Radio." In fact, on "Wreck Of The Hesperus" you sing, "I'm still kicking." Were you afraid that people were thinking you were too old to rock and roll?
Nah, it's a joke-I mean, I like the tune; it's a good dance rock and roll tune, but I don't know, sometimes I just write strange lyrics. I can't help it.
What is "The Wreck of the Hesperus?"
"The Wreck of the Hesperus" was actually a poem; a very old Victorian poem about this shipwreck. It's pretty obscure in America, but in England my mother and various people would always say, "Well, you look like the bloody wreck of the Hesperus!" and it's just one of those things that sticks in the back of your head. It was only a couple of years ago that I found out that it was actually a poem about a shipwreck. It's just saying, "No, I'm not the Wreck of the Hesperus." We are getting older; I'm getting old and it says, "Gettin' old as Methuselah." It's a joke lyric.
We've seen you popping up at a lot of concerts lately, including the Prince's Trust Concert with Ringo. Are you getting ready to tour? There have been a lot of rumors.
Let's put it this way: I'm not opposed to doing concerts occasionally. The problem is, you can't do concerts occasionally. By the time you get a band together, rehearse it, get all the lighting and road crew and all that, it's like going on an expedition up the Himalayas. You've got to make sure you've got all your oxygen tents and stuff, you know? And then you just have to do a whole load of shows and I don't fancy spending a year or six months of my life in little motels in Philadelphia and places. It can be great fun and there are moments on stage that are brilliant and I really enjoy them and the fun of being in a band and all that. And then, it's such hard work that I really do think it's a young man's job.
Is there any sampling on this record? Fairlight, Emulator, etc.?
There is one little bit of Emulator, which is the koto on "Breath Away From Heaven," which is a song I wrote originally for Shanghai Surprise. And I believe "Got My Mind Set On You" had a little bit of a piano sound that was sampled. But we avoided all that stuff like the plague. I wanted to make it with real drummers, real guitars, real pianos, and the only synthesizer as such is an old Oberheim that Jeff played.
Your first solo records like All Things Must Pass and the other stuff you did around the time you worked with Phil Spector were very successful. How do they sound to you now?
I still like most of the songs, but the mixes on All Things Must Pass sound to me like chaos. It's just swimming in echo.
But that was always Phil Spector's style.
Yeah, it was. I think if I wanted to change those things, what I'd do is put up the 24-track and probably end up singing them better and I'd probably end up mixing them a bit more ballsy and less echoy.
Why didn't you remix it for the CD if you were so unhappy?
Well, I'm not that unhappy about it. It still has its charm. But, anyway, that's out on EMI/Capitol and as far as that goes, it's sort of out of our hands. They just put it out however they feel.
Some of the records you made later were critical and commercial flops. Do you regret making these albums?
No, not at all. You see, I did All Things Must Pass straight out of The Beatles and I did it with so many tunes because I had such a backlog. We had everything. We had two drummers, six acoustic guitar players, I mean it was Phil. We had all these acoustics and drummers and people with tambourines and shakers, and horn players and huge backing voices and strings and the whole bit. It was like the full biscuit. And after that, I made a point of doing Living In The Material World more like a small group. You know, just Ringo and Jim Horn on various tracks, and just keyboards and guitars basically. I just kept it small.
It was hard to outdo All Things Must Pass because that album offered so much material you had been storing for years in The Beatles.
Yeah, and also, I had the people ready and looking to buy my album. It was like a novelty. It was a big thing. All Things Must Pass was right after The Beatles and that mania was still existing. I rode upon the wave of that largely.
Then a couple of years went by and people became blase. It's just not the same being a solo artist as it is being a Beatle. This is why this album, for me, is more than just getting help with the production. With Jeff, it was like being in a group again. It was like having a band, even though it was just the two of us doing it, basically. You've got someone to bounce off. If you need to get an opinion, you've got it.
It's that group feeling, on the production side, like it used to be in The Beatles, because no matter what anyone thinks, the four of us and George Martin were always contributing ideas and putting things in. As time goes by people start forgetting just exactly how much input each one did put in. A lot of it was big group effort and it's hard to follow that and go solo-be the writer, the producer and the performer. It all became a bit too heavy on me. I did that tour [in 1974] and wiped myself out and then they slagged me off in the newspapers.
Then I did an album that was full of depressing songs because I was stuck in California and it was the first record that I had done in a foreign studio and I had to take all my equipment home every night. You know, I work at home now and I have a board and it's all plugged in and I don't have to do all that. Then I made an album with Russ Titelman, which was sort of nice and it had a few things on it, but, by that point, the business was changing and they didn't even play them on the radio. That resulted in me thinking, "There's no point in me spending half my life in the studio writing all these tunes and recording them." Unless I went out and tap danced all across America on every TV station, bragging as you have to do. Quite honestly, I was tired of all that. I'd done it. And so my record sales suffered a lot.
But things change in your life. I'm really happy now and I can do these interviews because I'm interested in it. I'm happy and I'm not depressed anymore. It's cool and this record is good. I'd like people to hear it and I'll do my bit to get it known.
When did The Beatles first realize how to utilize the studio as an instrument in itself?
It slowly built up to it. We used to think, "If we could just get in the studio and make a record, that's it!" We got in there and made "Love Me Do," which sold enough records to get it to #17 in England, which was enough for EMI to ask us back. We went back in and did "Please Please Me," which was a #1 hit-not in America at that time but all over Europe and Britain. Then we did the album in one day and by the time we had had that #1 hit, we came back to the studio and they were all smiling. [He affects a stuffy British accent] "Oh, hello boys. Welcome back!" Then we got another hit, and another hit, and another hit. And then, we started to get a little bit of power. We had a powerbase and we could start grabbing onto the faders. I mean, they only had four, and we all had one each! [Laughs] We had full treble and bass on everything. That's all they had, really. The American records [were always better]. When we got to 4-track machines, they were into 8- and going to 16-track in America.
We were always thinking, "Well, how do we do that double-tracked-sounding voice like Bobby Vee without wasting tracks? We've only got four." Back then, there was a guy who's now the head of Abbey Road Studios named Ken Townshend. He was a maintenance guy there, so we spoke to him and he was the one who invented taking the signal off the sync head and putting it through another machine, or through his little VSO varispeed, and that's how we got that ADT, automatic double track. If you did a few movements with it, then it automatically became phasing and flanging. Every time we went back to the studio we would say, "Hey, let's have that thing back that you made." And Ken would say, "Oh, I've chucked that away, but I've got another one." And it would be totally different and would make it more swishy or more flangy.
So this stuff built up to the point where we decided to pack in touring because the mania had just been too much. Then, we went in the studio and because, I suppose, of certain substances that had been going around our heads during that period, we began hearing other things we never heard before. We had more ideas, just crazy ideas and that's why those records did that. We just went in the studio and that was our escape.
How much credit do you give George Martin for the success of The Beatles?
Well, if it wasn't for George Martin, we would never have gotten into the studio because we were already turned down at EMI. George has the credit for at least giving us the chance. As it worked more and more, he was like the headmaster and we were like the pupils. But we got more and more credibility by our own ideas working, in conjunction with George Martin. But then, he was more open. I must say that for him. He was always open to our suggestions. He thought we were crazy, and I think he still does but, at the same time, the ideas worked.
How do you feel today about the years of Beatlemania, 1963 through 1966?
It was crazy. It was fun at first. Everyone likes to be popular, I think. It was a big thrill being young kids and being loved, or chased, by so many people. But, it became much more than any of us had ever dreamed of. It got to the point where it was just ridiculous. We just didn't get a moment's peace for all those years! It just got to the point where it was making us crazy, so we had to draw the line somewhere. That's when we decided to stop touring. That was the first wave of getting ourselves out of the potential danger zone. All the limos that were getting crushed, and planes that were catching on fire. You know, it was all kinds of madness. And then, there were all the riots everywhere we went. They were like race riots; Manila, Japan and Montreal. It was all this stuff and it became a very nerve-wracking experience just going from A to B. So, we stopped that and went in the studio.
Has time and, perhaps, John's death, healed the wounds that The Beatles suffered during the BREAKup years, with all the lawsuits and bad mouthing?
Yeah. We're all friends. Ringo and I have always been friends, except for half an hour once, and I think we always will be. Paul and I had a couple of years where we didn't talk much to each other, but Paul has also, I think, become much more grown up about it. It may be a funny thing to say, but after his movie Give My Regards To Broad Street was such a big flop, I think it was a good thing for him. It sort of humbled him a bit and opened him up a bit more. So, we're good friends and we see each other when we can. I haven't seen him this year because I've been in the recording studio.
What do you think of The Beatles CDs?
So far I haven't heard one that I enjoyed more than I liked the original vinyl.
Is there anything you want to set the record straight on? Any rumors you'd like to put to rest?
There are always rumors and there are always silly things happening. I just go about my life in a very uncomplicated way. On the outside, all these things seem very complicated, but I've just learned you have to get a balance between getting overexcited and being totally bored.
Bruce Pilato is a Rochester, NY-based freelance music journalist, husband and father. He is also a serious video collector who has amassed a library of hundreds of titles.