Review: George Harrison – ‘Early Takes Volume 1’

earlytakesIt’s strange. No matter how many times his name comes up, no matter how many words get crammed into Beatles essays trying to sum his work up, it seems impossible to over-rate George Harrison.

As a songwriter, as a singer, as a guitarist – even as a film producer, making the likes of Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Withnail & I possible – he remains a beacon of compassion and innovation.

The accomplishments of his Beatle days go without saying. This release deals with his early solo career, from the dam-burst of creativity that was ‘All Things Must Pass to the unapologetically spiritual ‘Living In The Material World’ and the breezy, bluesy ‘Thirty Three & 1/3’. Harrison fans will recognise the bare, close-miked sound of these demos from similar bonus tracks on the 30th Anniversary edition of ‘All Things Must Pass’.

So intimate are these recordings, you feel you can almost hear the smile on Harrison’s face as he demos ‘Run of the Mill’, his acoustic guitar ringing clear and bright. ‘I’d Have You Anytime’ originally opened ‘All Things Must Pass’; the compilers actually seem to have found a simpler, more relaxed take of this gentle love song co-written with Bob Dylan. Guitar licks seem to melt off Harrison’s fretboard, showcasing the warmth of tone and sensitivity of touch that was his musical trademark.

Next up is Harrison’s delightful take on Dylan’s own ‘Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind’, one of his many legendary non-album tracks. The beauty of Dylan’s songs have always been their versatility; anyone can sing a Dylan song, and just about everyone does. Harrison delivers his version in an intimate, husky whisper, articulating those raw, bare-faced lyrics to the point where you can all but snatch the words out of thin air.

Friends and heroes before him had recorded ‘Let It Be Me’; likely as not Harrison heard it first from the likes of Chet Atkins or The Everly Brothers. This acoustic demo escapes the lush, string-laden pretensions of their arrangements, adding only a slide guitar and some overdub harmonies to round out the sound. It’s not a bad little country ditty, but compared to Harrison’s rapidly progressing talent for songwriting, it features more or less as a footnote.

The same can be said for ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Awaiting On You All’, both featured here in very sketchy form. Unlike the rest of the content on ‘Early Takes…’, they simply don’t benefit from such stark arrangements. The simple and obvious truth of this album is that some songs benefit from this unplugged-style treatment, whilst others simply fail to sound anything other than what they are – unfinished.

It’s compositions like ‘Woman Don’t You Cry’ and ‘Behind That Locked Door’ that prove their versatility, played tender and understated in keeping with Harrison’s vocal style. We’re used to vocalists thinking they should be powerhouse warblers; The Voice and The X Factor are packed to the rafters with teary contestants trying to cram as many notes into a bar as possible. Harrison was clearly never interested in so-called virtuosos. He sings like he plays guitar; all tone and timbre, never rushing himself or going for the flashy lick. Not a single note is wasted, and the songs are all the richer for it.

Perhaps the triumph of this album is being allowed to feel that little bit closer to Harrison the man. We know the ‘Quiet Beatle’ persona all too well, sidelined by Lennon and McCartney, or hidden behind that massive beard. Hearing such a marvellously unfettered version of ‘All Things Must Pass’ opens up a whole other side to Harrison’s music, giving it the space to breathe it was always longing for.

The touching catharsis, so plain to hear in ‘The Light That Has Lighted The World’, is the very sum of these songs, written in a bad place when he was trying to escape the trappings of Beatledom. Throughout these songs, you can almost chart his growth as a voice, as a musician, as a person. This isn’t a perfect album, but that’s sort of missing the point. ‘Early Takes…’ is a biography of a truly gifted artist; brief, honest and striking in its approach.

You can hardly expect anything less from an album about George Harrison.

(Simon Moore)

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