Classic Music Review: All Things Must Pass by George Harrison

george-harrison-all-things-must-pass

George couldn’t have said it better. “I didn’t have many tunes on Beatles records, so doing an album like All Things Must Pass was like going to the bathroom and letting it out.”

That’s pretty much what it sounds like to me.

All Things Must Pass has been acclaimed far and wide as the best of the Beatles’s solo efforts, and I don’t necessarily disagree with that assessment. Using the theme from George’s analogy, though, that’s like being top turd on the shit pile. If push came to shove, I suppose I’d say Flaming Pie was my favorite solo effort, but really, this is all trivial pursuit. Once The Beatles broke up, the quality assurance department found itself outsourced as well, and a great deal of effluvium was released into the musical environment by all four ex-Beatles on the marketing power of the Fab Four connection.

My first reaction on reacquainting myself with this album was, “My goodness, there’s a lot of reverb!” A quick bit of research reminded me of the source: Phil Spector, co-producer. The album has an astonishing lack of sonic diversity; every song has the same color as the previous song, a color scheme I’ll call “Grand Muddy.” Reverb is a tricky thing, and when you apply it to everything, the colors run together, which is what Phil Spector’s wanted to achieve with the “Wall of Sound” technique. It might have been nice when all your music was coming out of a tinny transistor radio, but in stereo, it just plain sucks.

I noticed that as the album progressed I felt this growing irritation as I reacted to the sound. Trying to identify the feeling, my mind scanned my memory banks and found a suitable Star Trek episode. Remember the one with the spores? Jim and team beam down to the planet where all the colonists are in perfect bliss because they’ve been inhaling these spores that free you of stress and all inhibitions (at least the ones that could be shown on 60’s television). Eventually, everyone on the Enterprise gets spored and they abandon ship to go live on the paradise planet where everyone and everything is so very, very mel-low. The spores get Jim, too, but this is Captain Kirk! He wills them out of his system and then picks a fight with Spock to clear his First Officer’s lungs of the foul poison that temporarily made him insanely happy. Jim then cooks up an idea to get the rest of the crew back: he wants Spock to hook up a subsonic transmitter that will broadcast over their communicators and turn them into irritable bitches and pricks:

SPOCK: They’ll not hear this, of course. It’ll be more a sensation of feeling it.

KIRK: As though somebody had put itching powder on their skin.

SPOCK: Precisely.

That’s it! Listening to All Things Must Pass is like I have itching powder on my tender skin! This music can cure spores!

The sounds of sameness (hello, darkness, my old friend) are intensified by George’s obsession with the slide guitar, which he uses on almost every song. Even worse, while some critics who never listened to Ry Cooder or Sonny Landreth fawn over George’s technique, he’s really not a very good slide player, just like he wasn’t much of a lead guitarist. After all, in the long history of The Beatles, the best lead solo appears on “Taxman,” played by none other than . . . Paul McCartney.

Once you take your machete to the sonic swamp and consider the songs on their own merit . . . meh. “If Not for You” is a nice song . . . oh, wait. That was Bob Dylan, wasn’t it? “My Sweet Lord” was a big hit . . . oh, he plagiarized that one (he denied it, saying he actually stole it from a Christian hymn, not from The Ronettes). Oh, well, the celestial background singers ruin it anyway, masking a fairly spirited (sorry!) vocal from George. There are several other tracks devoted to George’s spiritual journey; some are less preachy than others, none are particularly compelling and some are flat out annoying, though I rather like the music on “Beware of Darkness.” Well, we still have twenty-something songs to go!

Five of them are on the third disc, “Apple Jam,” an embarrassing memorial to all who participated. That leaves fifteen . . . no, he gives us two versions of  “Isn’t It a Pity” even though the original version was already over seven minutes of repetitive boredom and guilt-inducing lyrics. What else ya got? “Wah Wah” has a bit of spirit, and didn’t George use that to open The Concert for Bangladesh once he stopped force-feeding Ravi Shankar to the crowd? Yeah, I guess that one’s okay. Despite the overproduction, “What Is Life” is a nice tune, free of those dreary diminished chords that George adored. I think the title track has the strongest melody as well as George’s best vocal, and that John and Paul were rather nasty for not letting him include it on Let It Be/Get Back. My favorite song on the album is “Apple Scruffs,” in part because it sounds more real than the others and in part because the harmonic crescendo at the end of the third verse is the most original thing on any of the three discs. On the other hand, he gives us “I Dig Love,” where in Lennonesque fashion he turns the words around for the second verse to “I love dig.” Brilliant, fucking brilliant. The one he co-wrote with Dylan, “I’d Have You Anytime” sounds awfully gloomy for a love song, but I guess it’s okay.

Very long album, very short review. I hate to be mean to George because I fell for the myth that John and Paul were forever treating him like the kid brother, but I have to call ’em like I hear ’em—just like George Martin did when he told Harrison that “Only a Northern Song” wasn’t good enough for Sgt Pepper (duh)Is All Things Must Pass better than Lennon’s or McCartney’s first efforts? Absolutely. Does that make it a good album? Nope.

Frankly, the best thing George ever did was to serve as Executive Producer of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, my favorite comedy of all time and the best spiritual journey George ever made.

Hey, let’s watch some of that instead!

9 responses

  1. I agree with you. All Things Must Pass is a strong contender for all-time most overrated album. Maybe it’s got something to do with the lavish presentation (three records with beautiful, red Apple labels in a box with a poster and dust jackets with lyrics)… As it has been very often (and rightly) pointed out, this is in reality a 2-record set, since the third record is just pleasant but uninspired noodling (not even jamming)… And it involves so many good musicians, even God himself (would I miss a joke on the Clapton-Is-God slogan?); we can’t judge a record by its artist, indeed… We might say Donovan was more honest when releasing his own (and earlier) box set, A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, only two records filled with songs. (Just as an aside, the Apple Jam record was a bonus, but here down in old Brazil we had to pay for there full recods, either domestic or imported copies – that is, the record company imposed that condition and the public gladly accepted it. Oh well, it served as consolation for the grief caused by the end of the Beatles…)

    I think Phil Spector may be the all-time most overrated producer as well. A master of power play and chutzpah, more like… but he managed to impress talented by gullible kids like Harrison and Lennon (who worked with him) and Brian Wilson (who, as the saying goes, wanted to be as good as him without realising he was already better). He may know his way around a soundboard, but he’s best when working with docile artists and simple (although mostly very good) pop songs, but usually his limitations show when he gets very talented artists… (Hey, doesn’t it sound weird to talk about Spector as a producer in the present tense?)

    One thing we can’t take from Harrison, though, is him having been a good sport, with a sense of humour (no wonder he worked with Monty Python) and ability to poke fun at himself. The song “He’s So Fine” (first recorded by the un-Spector girl group Chiffons, not the Ronettes, by the way – OK, even I make mistakes, heh heh) was published by a company called Bright Tunes, and upon losing the plagiarism suit he made a song about it called “This Song”: “this song ain’t black or white/and as far as I know/don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright/this song as nothing bright [get it?] about it…” Ah, the background singers are “just” George himself overdubbing his voice a zillion times.

    And every songwriter, well-known or not (including yours truly), has his or her favourite chord sequences… Have you realised that on ATMP George has abandoned for a while his pet 1-3b-5 chord progression in favour of a lot of songs with 1-5-4?

    I think All Things Must Pass would have made a superb single album, with ten or even twelve songs. To my mind his next album, Living In The Material World, is just that, a distillation of Harrison’s favourite themes (love, God, Krishna, a bit of humour) in only eleven songs, much more concise and with better melodies – and sound quality too.

    To sum it up: quality and quantity are not the same. And let’s all sing: I dig love, I love dig, I love love, I dig dig…

    PS: You said: “The best thing George ever did was to serve as Executive Producer of Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. Well, I think there’s a contender: he’s the interviewer in the Rutles mockumentary!

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    1. I did notice a few variations like the I-V-IV, but let’s face it: George wasn’t that musically gifted or imaginative. Having said that, I haven’t listened to Living in the Material World . . . there’s only so much spirituality I can take!

      I’ve racked my brain, but I can’t think of any non-compilation double studio album that was very good. Any thoughts on that?

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      1. Well, I think that’s a matter of opinion and personal taste… I know you don’t like Exile On Main St. and the Beatles “White Album”, two albums I’ve been listening to since respectively 1972 and 1971 and still can’t get enough of… I know you don’t like Quadrophenia either… Anyway, here are ten non-comp studio doubles (in their original vinyl configuration, of course, for some fit on a single CD) that I find better than these three or at least worth a try – and not all of them are rock:

        * Blonde On Blonde, Bob Dylan
        * Freak Out!, The Mothers Of Invention
        * Electric Ladyland, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
        * Preservation Act 2, The Kinks
        * Something/Anything?, Todd Rundgren
        * Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
        * Songs In The Key Of Life, Stevie Wonder
        * Bitches Brew, Miles Davis
        * The Cole Porter Song Book, Ella Fitzgerald
        * Opera Do Malandro, Chico Buarque and others

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        1. Just a few other doubles I like:

          * 666, Aohrodite’s Child
          * Warehouse: Songs And Stories, Husker Du
          * Screamadelica, Primal Scream
          * Dez Anos Depois, Nara Leão

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        2. Funny. My dad played me “Something/Anything” and it sounds terribly dated and repetitive. Elton John is a closed door for me, and the Stevie Wonder double is too “happy.” Dylan is still a taste I’m trying to acquire with mixed success. Never could handle Frank Zappa. Miles, maybe, though I think “In a Silent Way” was the better fusion record. Ella . . . hmn. Have not heard Opera do Malandro. I’ll have to re-connect with “Electric Ladyland,” as I haven’t been in much of a Hendrix mood lately. I’ve always considered Preservation a three-album whole. I have a vague recollection of Husker Dü, and haven’t heard the others—but thanks for the leads!

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  2. > in the long history of The Beatles, the best lead solo appears on “Taxman,” played by none other than . . . Paul McCartney.<

    And two of my favourite Beatle guitar solos, the ones on "You Can't Do That" and "Get Back", are played by Lennon…

    To be fair, the "Liverpool mystic" (as Roy Carr said) has contributed many good guitar solos to the Beatle canon (including some acoustic ones like "Till There Was You). But, all in all, I subscribe to the theories of the Beatles being generally better as songwriters and the least important Beatle being George, not Ringo… Sure, George managed to lead the Beatles into that transcendental phase, them going to India and all, but it was Ringo who brought them down to Earth, "the food was too spicy". Ringo is a simple person, but "simple" is no synonym for "simpleton"; and just a look and listen to the Beatles' early history reveal Ringo as much more crucial to their style than George (it's enough to listen to the band when they had Pete Best, not as distinctive as a drummer and much more introvert a person than their string-playing colleagues, and he didn't even sing).

    But even I felt embarassed by the tactless handling of EMI/Capitol's Beatle solo catalogue when the time came for the first Harrison compilation album. To recap: the latest Beatles contract, as renegotiated by – knock on wood – Allen Klein, expired in 1975, when the record company got the right to reissue their, ahem, product as a group and solo as it saw fit (except for McCartney, who renewed his contract with the company). So appeared the first Lennon, Harrison and Starr compilation albums. The Lennon one (Shaved Fish) and the Starr one (Blast From Your Past) are fine (although they could have been better, with more or more complete tracks), and they at least have imaginative (just enough) titles, whereas poor Harrison's disc give him no less than quadruple shame. Bear with me: the album was bluntly titled The Best Of George Harrison; none of his beloved Indian-flavoured music was included; the album has only one side of solo recordings, the other of Beatle recordings of his compositions; and the Beatle solo was Side One! Now that's what I call "adding insult to injury". This for a man who released the first solo triple rock album and was widely tauted as the most underrated Beatle… And how about some more salt rubbed into the wound? OK: the record was purposedly released within days of George's new album, Thirty-Three & 1/3 (an album I recommend you to try, by the way). At least this compilation album didn't include "Ding Dong", the worst Beatle Christmas song ever… But Roy Carr (to quote him again) was almost-subtly sarcastic: "Will there be a Volume 2?"

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  3. […] George Harrsion, All Things Must Pass […]

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  4. […] All Things Must Pass […]

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  5. I think George was a great artist (I agree All Things Must Pass was overrated and should have been reduced to a single great album), and a great contributor to the Beatles oeuvre – he was their lead guitarist and had a great sense of humor. The problem with him was that he had the 2 greatest musical artists of the 20th century on his team. Hate to say – but while he is a super-talented musician compared to almost all other human beings – he falls short of Lennon and McCartney. Yeah, those 2 were that good. Even George says so in interviews from the 1960’s. If he hadn’t written Something and Here Comes the Sun on their last album together (Abbey Road), nobody would even try to put him up there with Lennon/McCartney. Those 2 songs were brilliant granted but they came on their last album together and the amount of brilliant songs each of the other 2 had were staggering. All in all, the Beatles were the Beatles because they had such a strong ensemble. 2 geniuses, a very talented George and an excellent drummer in Ringo (the glue of the group). No other rock band comes close so I guess we should just appreciate what they were!

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