This aspect of popular music from years past that has fascinated me more and more in recent years – when an artist or band has confounded their fan base with a relatively major change in artistic direction and whose career survived if not thrived because of it – crosses into rock territory today. One well-known example of the latter is when a folk singer plugged in an electric guitar at a folk festival in 1965 and nearly instigated WWIII in the process. Other times, as with the case of John Coltrane, it has involved the intermingling of spirituality or religion with what is “supposed” to be secular music. This is a more delicate situation for artists.
By the time Bob Dylan, the folkie gone electric, had a vision of Christ in his Tucson hotel room in late 1978, mainstream rock audiences had already been exposed to songs of praise mixed in with their Eagles and Allman Bros. on the radio. Norman Greenbaum had a major hit with the fuzz box guitar-drenched Spirit in the Sky in 1969, and George Harrison had struck gold with My Sweet Lord in 1970 or ’71, depending on which side of the pond you were on. While there is always negative criticism on both ends of the spectrum (some evangelically inclined folks complained that Harrison deceptively added the Hari Krishna Mantra to the end of his song to indoctrinate unwitting youths into some foreign religion), these are benign light rock songs with great hooks – a winning formula.
But while a song here and there is one thing, dedicating entire albums and concert tours to the subject is another. Harrison had begun to antagonize some of his fans by the time of his Living in the Material World album in 1973, which features ten spiritually related songs and one lament about the never-ending saga that was the Beatles divorce. Then came his 1974 North American tour during which he refused to play any of his Beatles-era songs or otherwise made a mockery of them, and frequently berated his audiences for their evil ways. Add to this a nasty case of laryngitis and Ravi Shankar’s Indian musicians opening the shows and it was a recipe for disaster.
By most written accounts from the time it was a bit of a debacle, though some of that criticism has softened over the years. Other than a brief tour of Japan in late ’91 in which he performed clinical renditions of his hits with Eric Clapton and his band backing him, he never toured again. And the albums he would release after ’74 were more balanced in their spiritual and secular content. Forty-four years on, there is at least a small ground swell of fans calling for the Harrison estate to release a set of the better sounding performances from the ’74 tour. I know this because I’m one of them. They weren’t all that bad, and anyway it’s now part of the lore. If only George were still around to chant “Krishna!” at us while struggling through Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth) with a wrecked throat in hockey arenas around the country!
Oh dear, I’ve done it again. What was supposed to be another part of a brief introduction (which turned into a full post yesterday) has turned into another complete post. I guess I’ll change the title again.