1/15/71: John Lee Hooker & Canned Heat – Hooker ‘n Heat
The past thirty or so years have brought us so many collaboration albums, they’ve almost become passé. Some have been quite commercially successful, while others seem rather unnecessary. The first collaboration album I recall owning is John Lee Hooker’s 1989 album The Healer, which includes the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Carlos Santana, Charlie Musselwhite, and surviving members of Canned Heat, among others. I don’t remember what made me buy it – I’d probably heard the outstanding title track with Santana – but I certainly wasn’t familiar with Hooker’s music (I plead being a teenager at the time). Subsequently I heard some of his classic recordings and was able to understand why The Healer made sense. But that wasn’t Hooker’s first collaboration. Twenty years prior, he teamed up with the classic Canned Heat lineup for one of the great joint efforts in the blues.
Hooker ‘n Heat, released 50 years ago today, was the final Canned Heat recording to feature harmonica player, guitarist, and songwriter Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, who died the previous September between the album’s recording in May 1970 and its unveiling. His photo hangs on the wall behind the band on the album jacket. Canned Heat vocalist Bob Hite is credited as a producer and is present with the band on the cover, though he did not sing on the album. All the songs but one were written or co-written by Hooker, who is also the only featured vocalist.
To me, Hooker ‘n Heat is a perfect combination of styles. It doesn’t sound forced, which is due in part to the length of the album. There’s plenty of room for all involved. The first six tracks feature Hooker and his guitar unaccompanied, and it’s vintage John Lee Hooker. The main difference to my ears is the sound itself. It’s much more powerful than his early recordings, which alone doesn’t necessarily make it better than his music from the late 1940’s up to the 1960’s, just different. It sounds like I’m in an empty barroom with him in 1970. This of course makes sense because that’s also how Canned Heat’s studio albums sound – live. The studio chatter between tracks adds to the intimate, in-the-moment feel.
Tracks seven through twelve are Hooker accompanied by Alan Wilson on various instruments. It’s fitting that this was Wilson’s final album considering his reverence for the original bluesmen. Along with American contemporaries such as Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, Wilson incorporated their influence into the music of the Woodstock Era just as Brian Jones, John Mayall and a well-documented number of other Brits did a few years earlier during the height of the British Invasion. The final five songs include all of Canned Heat (sans Hite), and the results are as loose as might be expected. Hooker ‘n Heat helped introduce JLH to a new audience as well as to begin to benefit financially from some of the great music he’d written but not been given songwriting credit for as a result of bad deals early on.
If it’s been a while or you’re unfamiliar with this album, grab a beverage of choice some Friday evening after work and crank it up.
The loss of Janis Joplin in October 1970, which occurred between the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, would eventually signal part of the symbolic end of 1960’s idealism. And sadly, from a musical standpoint, fans discovered she was possibly just getting started when her final studio album, Pearl, was posthumously released on this day 50 years ago.
As a Gen Xer, I discovered her music the same ways most of my peers did. Me and Bobby McGee was probably one of the first songs of hers I heard, as it’s one of her more “radio friendly” tunes. But what got my attention as a sixteen-year-old were tracks like Piece of My Heart and Down on Me with their crashing drums, grungy guitars, and unbridled soul emanating from those vocals. Then I became enamored with the film clips of her performances at Monterey Pop and Woodstock – especially the former – and that was all I needed to confirm I was a fan. Unfortunately for me, I kind of stopped there. Her hits and the bits of her on film were plenty until I realized a few years later that there was more, as in, arguably her best.
Pearl is a strong album for a number of reasons, including a new, much tighter backing band known as the Full Tilt Boogie Band, whom she had performed with on stage a number of times before recording sessions began. It was widely known in the music world at the time that Big Brother & the Holding Co., as well as her next group, the Kozmic Blues Band, were holding her back in the studio. With the new group, and especially with Paul Rothchild as producer, a more polished (in a good way) sound was achieved. The best known songs, which are also the singles issued from the album (Me & Bobby McGee, Cry Baby, Get It While You Can, & Mercedes Benz) come alive even more in the context of this album, beginning with the first track, Move Over. Again, the new band and producer were just as crucial as the star on this one.
What would’ve been, we’ll never know. What could’ve been? Maybe this album would’ve helped her overcome some of the self-doubt/esteem issues that plagued her as she neared her 30’s. Maybe Janis would’ve settled into a better place in life where she was comfortable in her own skin. Perhaps she would’ve let go of some of that pain with its roots back in Port Arthur. Supposedly her overdose came as a result of not realizing what she took that night was much more powerful than what she normally would’ve, and that she wasn’t even using as regularly at that point. Maybe her life would’ve changed due to the more mature musical direction she was just beginning to embark upon. Maybe too much damage had been done to her long-term health by then.
Musically, she left us with a smile. The a cappella Mercedes Benz, recorded during her final session just three days before her death, is a funny commentary on consumerism. Nothing in it or the rest of this fantastic album suggests the end was closing in. But the otherwise upbeat Buried Alive in the Blues, left as an instrumental because she died before the vocal was recorded, became an odd reminder that that’s exactly what was happening.
Happy 1971, friends! This is the fourth year for my blog, chronologically speaking, but since I mostly skipped the year 1969 it’s basically my third. If I were a baseball player, I’d be a streaky hitter and semi-reliable fielder. When it comes to my blogging I’m either all in or struggling to turn on my computer. I don’t know why I’m so consistently inconsistent, but writing helps keep my brain synapses firing and I mostly enjoy the process. I continue to love music from the now mostly bygone era of 50 years ago, and I’m still hearing some recordings from that era (and earlier) for the first time, so I’ll continue to babble about them in these pages.
By 1971, most of the dayglow optimism of America’s youth as found in popular music had been scraped off and painted over in various shades of gray. Songwriters were creating more introspective music reflective of that come down. Vietnam still raged on, and America’s racial and economic divide showed no sign of improving despite earlier socio-political efforts to that end (I found that filed in a folder labeled “The more things change…”). Hard drugs were taking a toll everywhere, from everyday young folk to soldiers returning from Southeast Asia, and of course on the music scene. As Joni Mitchell would lament in June of that year, “Acid, booze, and ass, needles, guns, and grass, lots of laughs…”
Some of the most popular music of the still new decade – often forgettable in any era – was vapid bubblegum dreck for people who didn’t want to know “what’s going on” in the first place.* As depressing as all this may sound, 1971 is the heart of my favorite ten year span of music. And beginning with album releases at the end of the second month of that year I can finally say I was alive when they came out. Let’s set the stage, shall we?
Bands that said sayonara in 1971: Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Country Joe & the Fish, Derek & the Dominos, Fotheringay, Free, The Mamas & the Papas, The Monkees, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, and Sounds Inc.
New acts in 1971: Big Star, Billy Joel, The Charlie Daniels Band, The Eagles, Foghat, Jo Jo Gunne, Loggins & Messina, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Manassas, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, The Motels, New York Dolls, Paul McCartney & Wings, Roxy Music, Sister Sledge, Split Enz, and Vinegar Joe (Robert Palmer).
There’s really nothing earth shattering about the first collection of bands listed above. Booker T. & the M.G.’s ended up re-forming, Derek & the Dominos & Fotheringay were basically one-off groups anyway, albeit with very well-known leaders who continued on, and a couple members of Free would form one of the biggest acts of the 70’s with an updated Free sound. The new acts contained part of the origins of glam, punk, disco, and new wave (and a former Beatle who dabbled in some of those genres at various points in the ensuing years), not to mention one of the most influential groups of all time when it came to future bands, yet who remain one of the most underappreciated groups ever to enter a recording studio when it comes to the masses.
So, here’s to 2021 being a better year than 2020. I hope you continue to stop by for a reminder of what was good in music 50 years ago as we once again ring in the new year of 1971. Cheers!
Greetings, and welcome back to the end of 1970! This list is not an attempt to claim which albums are the “best” in terms of any number of criteria. My ranking is nothing more than an attempt to share my favorites in loosely accurate order based mostly upon the ones I’ve played and enjoyed the most over the years, and it ain’t an easy exercise. Releases by the Flying Burrito Brothers, James Taylor, The Doors, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, and Jethro Tull did not make my top 30. Also edged out were really good albums by the likes of Syd Barrett, MC5, The Stooges, Band of Gypsies, King Crimson, Free, Clapton, Paul Kantner, Todd Rundgren, and others. I did extend the list by five from the first time I did a year end ranking, but we’ve now entered the most bountiful years of music as far as my favorites go and it’s hard to narrow my list.
If interested in what I have to say about my top 30 and more, I invite you to look back through my posts from this year. The date I published them is in parentheses. I’ve covered most of them, but a few albums slipped by due to time constraints or just plain laziness. That said, thank you all for coming along for the ride with me. I hope you keep checking in as we move forward-yet-backward into 1971. Happy New Year!
30. Brewer & Shipley – Tarkio (12/30)
29. The Allman Brothers Band – Idlewild South (9/23)
For males of a certain age range which includes me, a great conundrum and common question has been this: Ginger or Mary Ann? This midwestern boy’s honest answer has always been Mary Ann, whose character on the 1960’s sitcom Gilligan’s Island was played by Dawn Wells. Wells has passed away due to Covid-19. In moments of self-deprecation in my adult life I’ve often said that if I’d read a book for every fifth time I’d seen the same episodes of that goofy show I’d be a very well read individual. Like many others, I spent many an after school half-hour watching reruns of the castaways and their bumbling ways. When I was in college I had a chance encounter with Ms. Wells when she dined with her friend Marcia Wallace (The Bob Newhart Show, Match Game, the voice of Mrs. Krabappel on The Simpsons, among others) in the restaurant where I was employed at the time (she liked her onion rings). Rest in peace, Dawn, and thanks for the silly memories.
Today I’m closing out the releases for December 1970. Check back tomorrow for my highly scientific subjective 1970 year-end album ranking.
December 1970: The Move – Looking On
Looking On was the third of four studio albums by The Move. It was the first one to include Jeff Lynne. Lynne and Roy Wood already had their vision for a new band, so in a way this was The Move in name only. Once contractual obligations were fulfilled after their next album, they became the Electric Light Orchestra.
December 1970: Ry Cooder – Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder released his solo debut album in December of 1970. Cooder’s talents, styles, and influence are so varied I can’t begin to write about him intelligently. As with other accomplished musicians I know little about, after seeing his name associated with movie soundtracks, the Rolling Stones, Malian multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Toure and others, I began with a compilation.
December 1970: Eric Burdon and War – The Black-Man’s Burdon
This double album was the final release by the band to feature Eric Burdon before he left and they continued on as War. Its two suites are based on cover songs: Paint it Black and Nights in White Satin.
December 1970: Sir Lord Baltimore – Kingdom Come
The trio Sir Lord Baltimore released their debut in December. I’d honestly never heard of them until putting together my rough outline for this year. There are some interesting factoids about this album and band, who are considered highly influential on later metal bands. For one, a review for this album in Creem is unofficially where the term “heavy metal” was coined. Also, all of Kindom Come’s songs were written and arranged by Mike Appel, who would become Springsteen’s first manager. If you like Zeppelin, Sabbath, the Stooges, Hendrix, etc., give this album a listen if you aren’t already familiar with it.
December 1970: Gordon Lightfoot – Single: If You Could Read My Mind
And on a completely different wavelength from Sir Lord Baltimore, Gordon Lightfoot released the single If You Could Read My Mind this month fifty years ago. It’s one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriter tunes. It reached number one in Canada and was his first song to chart in the U.S., where it reached number five.
1970: Richie Havens – Stonehenge
The final two albums in this post have release dates simply stating “1970,” but they’re more than significant enough in my book to mention here before we move into 1971. Stonehenge isn’t Havens’ strongest album, but I like a few of its tracks including Minstrel from Gaul, Prayer, and the Bee Gees cover I Started a Joke.
1970: Brewer & Shipley – Tarkio
Tarkio was the third album by Missourians Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley. It was the most commercially successful release for the folk/country rock duo, containing the somewhat throwaway song that became a minor hit, One Toke Over the Line. (This song was hilariously covered as a “gospel” tune by Lawrence Welk duo Gail and Dale who apparently had no clue what the song was really about.) Other tasty nuggets include Tarkio Road, Song from Platte River, Don’t Want to Die in Georgia, Rubyin the Morning, OhMommy (on which Jerry Garcia contributed steel guitar), and – screw it, the whole album’s good. Brewer and Shipley were friends with mid-late 1960’s L.A. music luminaries such as The Association and Buffalo Springfield, but chose to move back to the Show Me State. They continue to perform today individually and as a duo, mostly across the Midwest. Brewer & Shipley goes good with: CSN, Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Gene Clark, Flying Burrito Bros., Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and you get the picture.
The turn of the 1970’s brought an interesting variety of music styles which would all find a home on early free-form FM radio – a format for which I was born a tad too late to be able to enjoy in its heyday (although it’s been resurrected with the advent of internet radio). This two part month-end wrap up for December 1970 is evidence of that variety, and includes some artists who were on the cusp of big things.
12/4/70: Wishbone Ash – Wishbone Ash
Blues/prog group Wishbone Ash released their first album on the 4th after being recommended to MCA by Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. They’re still around, with founder Andy Powell as the singular original member.
12/7/70: Creedence Clearwater Revival – Pendulum
CCR released their second album of 1970 on the 7th. It was their only album with all original material. It was also the final release Tom Fogerty would appear on. It produced the single Have You Ever Seen the Rain b/w Hey Tonight. A good album, but the tank was just about empty.
12/10/70: Ginger Baker’s Air Force – Ginger Baker’s Air Force 2
Unlike its predecessor, this jazz fusion album was recorded in a studio as opposed to live and featured two different track lists. Some of the same musicians appeared here as on 1, including Denny Laine, Graham Bond, and Ric Grech.
12/11/70: King Crimson – Lizard
Robert Fripp’s prog/jazz fusion band King Crimson – with its revolving door of band members – released their third album on the 11th to mixed reviews. Some early critics didn’t really know what to make of this music at the time. This band has certainly grown on me over the years.
12/18/70: T. Rex – T. Rex
With this album, Marc Bolan simplified his band’s name from Tyrannosaurus Rex to T. Rex and shifted its sound from the previous folky albums to the more mainstream rock sound that made him famous.
December 1970: The Wailers – Soul Rebels
Soul Rebels was Marley and Co.’s second album, and their first to be released outside Jamaica. It was produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry.
December 1970: Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band – Lick My Decals off, Baby
Don Van Vliet’s highly experimental band released its fifth album – and follow up to Trout Mask Replica – in December 1970. It was highly regarded, even by Robert Cristgau, and was the band’s highest performing album in the U.K. charts.
December 1970: Vashti Bunyan – Just Another Diamond Day
At this stage, I find the story behind this album and artist more interesting than the album itself, which has garnered universal praise as a lost classic from the folk/psych folk arena. Vashti Bunyan had recorded a handful of songs in 1965 before disappearing. She literally wandered across the Scottish countryside by horse and wagon, penning new songs which eventually made up this album. Displeased with the recording process, it would be her last album for 35 years when Just Another Diamond Day was rediscovered and lavished with praise. I think Bunyan has a beautiful voice, but like her contemporary Jacqui McShee from Pentangle I find it a little too much on the dainty/shrill side for my taste.
John Lennon ushered in his post-Beatles career 50 years ago today with the stark, bare-bones, powerful, and sometimes harrowing Plastic Ono Band. Production was credited to John, Yoko, and Phil Spector, though the album bears little resemblance to Spector’s multi-layered behemoth by George Harrison which appeared a few weeks earlier. While all of Lennon’s albums are to some degree self/Yoko/Beatles-referential, his solo debut was a scab ripping primal scream therapy session played out on vinyl, and it became a classic.
It’s interesting to me how the ex-Beatles waded into their respective post-Fabs lives. Paul secluded himself at his Scotland farm and wrote and recorded the loose McCartney album earlier in the year as an exercise – with Linda’s help – to pull himself out of his Beatles hangover. George spent months in the studio with Phil Spector and a cast of musicians so numerous he wasn’t even aware of all of them for a few decades. The results included songs of lament over lost friendships as well as further declarations of his spiritual aspirations. Ringo’s musical breakthrough was still a few years away. Then came John’s rather minimalist Plastic Ono Band.
There were many indications in the music world at the turn of the 1970’s that the Flower Power era was over, and John put his own stamp on it with this album. His wounds were deep and went all the way back to childhood. He was barely thirty years old but had lived ten lives by 1970. He had entered an alternative, “primal” therapy developed by Arthur Janov which used screaming more so than analysis as part of one’s healing. Two of the heaviest songs feature this element: the opening track, Mother, and side two’s God. The latter is a paring down of all the things he no longer wants, needs, or believes in, from religion to political cults of personality to Elvis, Dylan, and lastly, the Beatles. He only believed in Yoko and himself by that point, and the world would just have to deal with it.
The rest of the album is no less dramatic in its simplicity with John, Ringo, and Klaus Voormann playing the majority of the instruments. Love is a welcomed respite in the middle of the onslaught, but it’s an emotionally draining affair overall from start to finish. Coincidentally, I’m writing this the day after the 40th anniversary of Lennon’s passing. I played Plastic Ono Band before leaving for work yesterday morning and I’m still feeling it. It’s just as powerful as ever.
Despite the circumstances of John Lennon’s death, this really isn’t intended to be a morose post. I can only imagine the multitudes who today are revisiting that moment in time and reflecting upon their own lives, especially Baby Boomers. Lennon’s music adds joy to my life, and when all is said and done, the music is what’s left and I’m grateful for what he gave us. I’ve shared bits and pieces on this topic in previous posts, but today seems like a good time to empty the memory bank.
Monday, December 8, 1980: I was a nine year old in Mrs. Echelmeier’s fourth grade class. Like most of the other boys in school, I was a football fan, primarily the NFL up to that point in my life. We’d spend every Monday recess during the season talking about the games from the day before and trying to reenact some of the standout plays on the playground. Back then, Monday Night Football was the weekly marquee event. It usually showcased the better teams and got fans through until the next weekend of sports. On Monday nights my usual bedtime was extended to halftime of the MNF game. That particular week’s matchup pitted the New England Patriots – back then a team not often featured on national broadcasts – against the Miami Dolphins. I had no particular interest in the game other than the joy of watching it, which I did. But halftime arrived, and I was off to bed. I couldn’t have imagined the announcement that would come near the end of the game.
Tuesday, December 9: I shuffled down the hallway to the kitchen for breakfast, which was probably a bowl of Malt-O-Meal hot cereal or Cheerios with cinnamon toast. We had a 12-inch black and white TV on the counter next to the refrigerator with the CBS Morning News on per our morning routine. But this day something was different. Half awake, I looked at the screen and saw grainy footage of the Beatles descending the stairs of a Japan Airlines jet wearing kimonos. The Beatles! Even at that age I loved the band, but seeing actual film of them was a rarity for me. Other footage followed. Mom was silent. Then I heard the news being reported.
That day at school I heard John’s name spoken in the hallway by my classmates, and it made me uncomfortable. As with the Iranian hostage crisis and the assassination attempt on President Reagan – both of which also happened that school year – big news like that was going to be talked about whether kids really understood what it was about or not. I walked by the teacher’s lounge, cigarette smoke billowing out of it, and wondered if they were talking about it or if they cared. I also wondered who I could talk to about it. My brothers were away at college, and I remember feeling very alone all day. I didn’t cry because I was more stunned than anything. The Beatles were as much a part of my life as Cardinals baseball and, well, just being a kid.
It was probably a borderline odd obsession for someone my age who wasn’t even born until ten months after they ceased to exist as a band. I say borderline because I doubt I was that unique in my status as a young, second generation fan. But in my small town I’m fairly certain I was. If professional athletes were larger than life, then John, Paul, George, and Ringo were mythical gods. And now one of them was gone forever. I didn’t try to make sense of it then because I couldn’t. It had only been ten years since the Beatles split, but it seemed like a hundred to me. John had been in relative seclusion for half that time, so I didn’t really think about him in current terms until Double Fantasy appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Scratched hand-me-down Beatles LP’s and 45’s had made their way from the basement to my bedroom upstairs. Paul’s post-Fabs band was even on the fritz by then. But looking at it as an adult, ten years is a flash. I probably have fast food ketchup packets in my fridge that are older. Lord knows some of my clothes are.
A week or so later my brothers were home for Christmas break, and to this day I associate Lennon’s Shaved Fish compilation album with those weeks. It never left the basement turntable. I soon got my first lesson in mass-media exploitation of a sensational story. I was in a local drug store with my brother Paul when I noticed a large amount of magazines with cover photos of John and/or the Beatles on its shelves. Wow! Neato! I chose one and bought it, but on the way home he explained that the main reason John and the Beatles were on all those magazine covers was to drive sales. I sort of understood, but his face remained on magazine covers all the following year while his new music was everywhere on the radio. We subscribed to Newsweek, and he was soon looking at us from the living room coffee table. I still have that issue, as well as the Rolling Stone issue with John and Yoko on the cover. That cover photo, along with this post’s featured image, were taken the day John died.
By the time I reached high school I had gone through various music phases, including Top 40 and even some rap, but the Beatles and their contemporaries were still my favorites. My senior year I grew my hair (alas, a mullet), and wore round granny sunglasses and one of my dad’s old olive drab army field shirts. My “favorite Beatle” status had shifted from Paul to John somewhere along the line. I guess I connected more with the angst, anger, and social awareness in some of Lennon’s songs by then (not that I didn’t still appreciate a good silly love song…). My few close friends either liked him too or otherwise tolerated me being a Beatles fanboy.
Also by then, the usually cold and gray week or so around December 8 had become an annual period of reflection on John Lennon for me that recurs all these years later. It’s not the only time I listen to his music, but I do go through most of his catalog at this time. December of ’88 brought a sea change to my home life which was compounded by my brother’s impending three year stint with the Peace Corps. He came home for a visit shortly before leaving for Senegal, and he and I watched the then-new Imagine documentary at the local cinema where I also worked part time. Years later I learned that he spent the night of 12/8/80 in his freshman dorm room in southwest Missouri adjusting the late night AM dial on his stereo from left to right and back, listening to live reports on WABC radio in New York and other locations eastward, most of which were also playing nothing but Beatles and Lennon songs. It occurred to him to drop a blank cassette in the player and hit record. He transferred it to CD for me, and it’s an eerie but fascinating homemade document of that sad and shocking night.
Now here we are, 40 years since John’s passing. The ebb and flow of life continues. I became a father, and my kids are now mostly grown. I visited Vietnam and brought home a small strip of sandbag which I found sticking out of the ground at Khe Sahn (not exactly a rare find in Vietnam, even today). It’s had a Lennon button which reads “Imagine Peace” stuck through it for nearly 20 years. My first born was given a personalized “Welcome to the world!” autograph from Ringo before he ceased giving his signature to fans. His younger brother has developed an interest in this music like his old man. Over the past 25 years I’ve taken the Liverpool tour, which includes Lennon’s childhood home and Strawberry Field. I’ve visited the Central Park memorial of the same name and stood at the gate of the Dakota where John took his last steps. I also accepted many years ago that he was a flawed individual like most of us. And as silly as it might be for a middle-aged person in 2020 to have thoughts about it one way or another, George has gradually become the ex-Beatle I admire the most. But of course it’s all relative.
In recent years I’ve taken the happier route of acknowledging Lennon’s birthday in October as much as the dark day of his demise, but today brings a strange milestone: John Lennon has now been gone the same number of years that he lived. I get it, it’s just a number like 39 or 41. Maybe it’s the history student in me who likes to mentally organize the past, including my own, in terms of dates and years. That theme is the foundation of this blog, after all. But it’s a significant milestone to me nonetheless. Perhaps my rapidly approaching 50th birthday has something to do with it. Maybe in this less than enjoyable year I’m trying to hold on to good memories of the comforts of home and family from childhood, and this anniversary marks an unforgettable occasion that impacted me in the middle of it all.
Note: The following is a slightly edited re-post from a few months back when I was participating in a desert island album draft.
Where to start with George’s 1970 triple album opus, and how to explain concisely why this album means so much to me in a manner that doesn’t make me sound full of myself? If you’re reading this you’re probably a music fan and can, at least to some extent, relate. Despite the fact that I have no clue what it’s like to be musically gifted, internationally famous (never mind an ex-Beatle), a millionaire, etc., if there’s one artist who I think I can relate to as a person, it’s George. I wear my heart on my sleeve like he did, and if I were ever to experience any degree of fame, I’d probably react to it similarly to him. That is to say, “Hari Krishna, now please get off my lawn while I enjoy this piece of cake.” Maybe it’s because I’m a fellow Pisces, I don’t know. And if there’s one album of his which displays his full range of emotions relating to personal relationships and spiritual longing, and is presented in beautifully crafted songs with fantastic musicianship from start to finish, it’s All Things Must Pass, released 50 years ago today.
Due to the limits he faced regarding his songs making it onto Beatles albums, Harrison had been stockpiling them since roughly 1966. After starting 1968 by staying in India longer than the other Beatles, in the fall of that year George spent time with Dylan and The Band at Woodstock, which was perhaps the final nail in the Beatles’ coffin as far as George was concerned. Their influence is all over this solo debut album, which was an artistic and emotional purging for Harrison. There are songs of human love for friends, including the Dylan co-written I’d Have You Anytime, and George’s attempt at coaxing Bob out of his self-imposed exile on Behind That LockedDoor. Apple Scruffs is his humorous love song to his loyal fans who waited daily outside the recording studio, and What is Life is one of a number of George’s uniquely ambiguous love songs over the course of his solo years which leaves it up to the listener to decide if it’s about human or Godly love.
There are songs of lament over friendships on the wane. Wah-Wah was written when George walked out of the Get Back sessions. It’s a double entendre which refers to the guitar effect as well as the headache John and Paul had caused him. Run of the Mill, too, was written out of his sadness over the Beatles’ slow dissolution. Isn’t it a Pity, to me, is the most powerful track on this emotional roller coaster of an album. There are two slightly different versions on the album, and he could’ve added a third one as far as I’m concerned – a rendition for each of the three LPs.
And there are the songs which focus on George’s spiritual journey. The smash hit, of course, was My Sweet Lord, which includes a Vedic chant for which Harrison took heat from Christian fundamentalists for supposedly trying to subliminally indoctrinate America’s youth into heathen Eastern religion. As with his organizing the Concert for Bangladesh a year later, it took nerve (and Phil Spector’s insistence) for him to put this song out as a single, but it paid off. The Art of Dying had its genesis around 1966 when Lennon’s Tomorrow Never Knows was the Tibetan Book of the Dead-influenced song to make the cut on Revolver. To the uninitiated, it can be a dark or disturbing song. It is not. As with The Art of Dying, Awaiting on You All is Harrison encouraging us to wake up to what’s real and eschew that which isn’t. And lastly, after all the madness, fame, and fortune of his Beatles experience left him emotionally and spiritually frayed, there’s George’s bare bones plea in Hear Me Lord. For such a private man, it doesn’t get any more open and sincere than this.
But wait, there’s more! The third album in this set, known as Apple Jam, includes four extended instrumentals and a 49 second Monty Pythonesque ditty with an appearance by good ol’ Mal Evans. The indulgent jams include Dave Mason, Ginger Baker, Gary Wright, Billy Preston, and Derek & the Dominos. I’ve actually read opinions by fans who are put off by inclusion of these tracks, as if they are interspersed throughout the first two records and they’re forced to listen to them. I think of it as the unbuckling of the belt after a big meal. Sometimes I listen to it, sometimes I don’t. Either way, I unapologetically like it.
I could go on about other tracks, the plagiarism lawsuit, other session players, the cover, etc. Wiki’s got that covered if you’d like to read more. I would, however, like to comment briefly on Phil Spector’s production. As with Let it Be, this is the version we grew up with, and I love it just like it is. Perhaps when the deluxe 50th anniversary edition comes out, whenever that might be, it will include alternate versions and demos with toned down production. Some of it is available on bootlegs and YouTube.