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.
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.