First thought, best thought? Well, on the evidence of George Harrison’s Early Takes, Volume 1, there might be something to be said for this old maxim. There is a freshness, immediacy and intimacy in the ten tracks that comprise this companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the life of the late Beatle that is lacking in most of his post-fabs releases. For me, George Harrison’s uneven solo output tends to be overproduced and somewhat bland. In fact, I don’t really count myself as a die-hard Harrison fan. I usually find his slightly nasally singing voice, and thick Liverpudlian accent hard to take for more than a couple of songs, yet this latest CD has been on high rotation since I bought it on impulse a few weeks back. The songs are beautifully written: melodic gems with thoughtful, soulful lyrics about life, death, eternity, and, of course, love. And you don’t need to be a devotee of shaved heads and poppadums to enjoy them.
Most tracks are either demos, or early versions of some of Harrison’s best material — for the most part, they are sparse, and lack the production sheen of their better known counterparts, yet the lack of complex instrumentation, arrangements and studio gimmickry work in their favor. This is not to say these early takes are amateurish, hissy boom box recordings. Harrison installed a state of the art recording facility in his mansion, so unlike his band mate, John Lennon, Harrison’s demos are hi-fidelity sketches, which reveal far more about the man’s music than Scorsese’s rather tedious biography. We actually hear Harrison play guitar in a wide range of styles, and get a palpable sense of his love of making music.
There are snippets of Harrison’s trademark slide guitar, but the acoustic guitar is his weapon of choice on this album. He wields the instrument with considerable flair and confidence, revealing a mastery of several techniques, from Dylan-like strums to complex country runs, that are not obviously evident on his fully produced releases.
The album is consistently good, but I particularly enjoyed hearing Harrison accompanied by Ringo Starr and Klaus Voormann on ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Awaiting On You All’ (well, I’m assuming Starr thumps the skins and Voormann plucks the bass since the CD doesn’t come with many credits, or liner notes). These two tracks evoke the sound of Lennon’s spartan debut, and demonstrate just how effective a simple, sympathetic rhythm section can be (take note, Phil Spector).
It’s no secret that Harrison and Bob Dylan were good friends, and Dylan is represented by two songs. ‘I’d Have You Anytime’ (a Dylan/Harrison composition) sounds lush without being cloying, and Harrison does justice to Dylan’s ‘Mama You’ve Been On My Mind’ by delivering a sober, yet delicate vocal that sits above a very accomplished acoustic guitar, which is occasionally complemented by subtle washes of keyboards.
Other highlights include the slightly spooky Everley Brothers song ‘Let It Be Me’ (they didn’t write, but believe me, it’s theirs). Harrison harmonizes with himself and reminds us of just how important his vocal contribution was to the Beatles in boy band mode. ‘All Things Must Pass’ (which sounds like it also has Starr and Voormann playing supporting roles) is the best Beatles song the band never officially recorded. In fact, bootlegs exist of the group making a few lame, half-assed attempts to work something up, and you can hear how great Lennon and McCartney’s harmonies could have been. Early Takes, showcases this outstanding song in it’s best light: Harrison’s vocal is assured and soulful.
Some might complain that the album is a rip-off since it clocks in at a mere 30 minutes. I actually found the modest running time to be a strength. It’s all killer and no filler. Anyway, there have been some great albums that hover around the 30-minute mark (like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Simon And Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska). Surely, quality always trumps quantity, no? Hopefully, there are other equally compelling tracks in the Harrison archive that his custodians will unearth for volume 2. Good Shit!