‘Wonderwall Music’ 50 Years On

❉ A tapestry of sound that signalled that the world could revolve musically.

All Things Must Pass is George Harrison’s masterpiece. Of course it is. It’s a philosophical milieu of soul, blues, folk and pop influences. If not the best solo Beatle album, its inarguably the most thoughtful, a hew of Eastern/Western symmetry together in one package. But I don’t think Harrison could have written it without the process of a little heard soundtrack he made a mere two years earlier to a rightfully forgotten film. Rightfully forgotten film, fab soundtrack.

Don’t believe the film’s dirge? Sure, why would you, I wasn’t a part of it. But Jane Birkin was (she played Penny Lane- yip!) and she described it as “aged badly, I wasn’t very interesting! I was disappointed, but there are rather wonderful decors. And George was lovely.”

Harrison’s biographer Graeme Thomson describes the film as “less Blow-Up than Come Down”- I’m with him there. But it gave Harrison his first venture outside of the four piece (John Lennon had published two books by 1965 and Paul McCartney participated in The Family Way (1966) soundtrack), an invitation he received from the film’s director Joe Massot (who later directed the execrable The Song Remains The Same and the strangely watchable George Lazenby flick Universal Soldier), a friendship they’d formed while filming Help! (1965). Massot allowed Harrison musical carte blanche, a courtesy Harrison grabbed with both hands.

By 1966, Harrison was tired of The Beatles. Personally, I can’t blame him. He’d become sick of touring (in fairness, so had Lennon), telling a reporter after their final full length concert (Candlestick Park, San Francisco , August 29th 1966)  “That’s it.  I’m not a Beatle anymore.” He meant it about touring, but there was a hidden subtext to the remark. Despite amassing a strong collection of songs by 1966 (all three of his Revolver compositions stand head to head with the Lennon-McCartney songs), even he knew he’d never be anything more than the Beatle guitarist to the public. And with McCartney playing many of the guitar parts on Another Girl, Ticket to Ride and Paperback Writer, where was his standing in the band?

Even worse, McCartney had developed an annoying habit of dictating his guitar solos to him, which anyone who has watched Let It Be (1970) will recount the unpleasant moment where Harrison snapped that he’d play anything that would please McCartney to a very upset looking Ringo Starr. (That said, the pair shared a number of moments of musical and studio compatability together. Harrison was a lyrical counsel on Eleanor Rigby and Harrison gravitated so strongly to Drive My Car that he wrote the Otis Redding bass riff. Similarly, when Harrison struggled for ideas to complete the recording of Taxman, McCartney proposed an Indian sounding guitar solo that impressed Harrison so much he insisted McCartney play it on the record).

Just as The Beatles took three months away from each other to focus on themselves or solo projects, Harrison and wife Patti Boyd took a six week trip to India in September 1966 to better himself on the sitar under the tutelage of Ravi Shankar. As Boyd and Harrison immersed themselves further in the teachings of yoga,, the couple returned with the realms undiscovered in London to London.   Life in the Beatles couldn’t compete.

Nothing could have proven Harrison’s greater disinterest in The Beatles than Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), an album largely the work of the Lennon/McCartney/Martin combo (Ringo said he learned how to play chess during the album). Sparsely playing guitar (the lead breaks on Good Morning, Good Morning and the title track are McCartney’s doing), he provided one song alone on the album, the celestial yet magnificent Within You Without You , a track that heralded less to the showbandship the rest of the album emulated, but to the sounds of raga and Harrison’s growing interest in Indian music.

It wasn’t his first raga song, that honour went to Love You Too (Revolver), but that was a song that held a rock rhythm tempo, a track just as easily played on fuzz guitars as sitars. Not so Within You. This was a lavish production, Harrison the sole Beatle to feature over a musical tapestry of dilrubas, tablas, swarmandals and sitars. On an album of song cycles and vibrations only dogs could hear, it stuck out like a sore thumb; on its own terms, it was the only song that hasn’t dated with time.

The excellent psychedelic Magical Mystery Tour record further showed Harrison’s disinterest with the Fabs. The record featured only one bum note and that was Harrison’s Blue Jay Way, a song that sounded even more boring than the boredom heard in the lyrics. Harrison knew Peppers and Magical were McCartney projects (with Lennon’s interest in LSD reaching an apex, McCartney was taking charge as the band’s musical director), so Wonderwall gave him his chance to bring the music he loved (namely, the music of India) to the Western public.

 

Recordings began at Abbey Road Studios on November 22nd 1967, Harrison armed with seasoned professionals Big Jim Sullivan (one of London’s hottest bassists), harmonica legend Tommy Reilly and fellow Liverpudlian band Remo Four. Harrison, ever modestly, omitted his name from the performing musicians, leading to the oft believed speculation that Harrison didn’t play on the record. This was rectified by a 2014 re-issue which reinstated Harrison’s name in the musician’s credits. While Harrison may not have played on all of the record (particularly not on some of the Indian infused moments), he served as musical director and producer throughout the entire project, a role he took very seriously indeed.

Talking to Graeme Thomson, Remo Four drummer Roy Dke claimed “George had timed it all with a stopwatch: ‘We need one minute and 35 seconds with a country and western feel.’ Or, ‘We need a rock thing for exactly two minutes.’ Nothing was really written. We’d talk over ideas he wanted, play something, and he’d say, ‘That’s good, keep that. I like the piano there.’ It was very experimental. The idea was to set an atmosphere.” There is a nice infusion here, Drilling a Home a jaunty Vaudeville tune plays nicely along the stringent sonics of Red Lady Too, classical pianos plying pitifully at the ear. If it weren’t 1967/1968 (bearing in mind Pink Floyd are still playing Syd Barrett tunes and Genesis are still at Charterhouse), I’d call this a prog album. As it stands, it’s a compelling soundtrack, so that’s good enough by me.

Harrison’s taste for the psychedelic is also prevalent here (Lennon and Harrison bonded over a shared first LSD experience in 1965, something that sealed a side to their friendship eternally; while recording the psych rocker She Said She Said, drug references very much intact, McCartney stormed out of the recording of a song distinctly more Lennon/Harrison than Lennon/McCartney).

Dream Scene, a hew of backward guitars, Bollywood siren calls, Grandfather-clock chimes and disoriented audience reactions, filter through the air-waves with the subtlety of a Bob Dylan harmonica solo (there’s also a Dylanesque harmonica solo heard here). It’s an unsettling listen, bathing in a wave of freak-out excellence that Lennon and Ono failed to master on their risible Revolution 9.

In early January 1968, Harrison spent a week recording at the EMI/HMV studio in Mumbai. With the album’s budget escalating to 15,00 dollars, as opposed to a proposed 600 dollars, Harrison personally paid for the rising costs. It proved musically fruitful. Armed with musicians of the highest calibre were Sharad Kumar and Hanuman Jadev, on shenai , sitarists Shambhu Das and Indranil Bhattacharya and Chandrashekhar Naringrekar played surbahar, handpicked by Shambhu Das, whose other duties included running Ravi Shankar’s Kinnara School of Music in Bombay.

Tabla and Pakajav and Guru Vandana, though short recordings, played with the mastery and reverence of true transcendentalists. Love Scene brought the romantic sounds only a sitar can play with delicate tablas and sweet sways of hopefulness. In The Park with sharp moments of eerie chords and cadences, proved the sound of a sitar could stimulate as seismically as a Bernard Hermann score.

While in India, Harrison also recorded the backing of the song he would complete with Lennon and McCartney in London: The Inner Light.  Released internationally as the B-side to Beatle Barrelhouse Stomper Lady Madonna (incidentally, Harrison’s first Beatle B-side. It only took them six years to allow him a B-side!), The Inner Light impressed McCartney so much he told reporters that it was “a beautiful melody”.

The only other Beatle on the soundtrack is Ringo Starr, whose reliable swing can be heard on psych centrepiece Party Seacombe. While Magical Mystery Tour might have been Paul McCartney’s baby and home to John Lennon’s Carollian opus I Am The Walrus, Seacombe is ample evidence that the “economy class Beatles” (Harrison’s words, not ours) could deliver that scaped psych sound with or without George Martin or the other two. And the feeling behind the drums is simply incredible here!

Harrison mainstay Eric Clapton guests on Ski-Ing, the Cream guitarist searing over the droned backdrop, electric in performance, exciting in delivery, a more worthwhile collaboration than their better remembered (though perhaps too heavily arranged) While My Guitar Weeps. No other guitar player would have as strong a relationship with Harrison as Clapton did, performing with Harrison on classics My Sweet Lord, What Is Life and Cloud 9 in years to come, before touring Japan together in 1992, incidentally Harrison’s last tour.

Britpop players Kula Shaker were awarded the rare privelege of sampling Ski-Ing for Gokula once Harrison was sufficiently impressed with Crispan Mills’ knowledge of Sanskrit and Krsna (Harrison was co-credited on the song). The soundtrack’s title was borrowed by Oasis, a band Harrison disliked, declaring their singer “silly” and their songs forgettable (Liam Gallagher called him a nipple in response, this was twenty years before Liam made a daily “tit” of himself on Twitter), for an anodyne tune devoid of either lyrical or musical intelligence, that (oddly) became the band’s biggest U.S. hit- little wonder Harrison wasn’t amused by the band!

Bearing in mind Quincy Jones’s recent remarks about McCartney and Starr, it is interesting to note that Jones was said to call Wonderwall Music “the greatest soundtrack he had heard”. Jones himself has bettered the score with the cerebral strings of solemnity on The Colour Purple. But it goes to show how powerful Harrison’s work was in the wake of 1968, he could bring sounds only hinted at with Norwegian Wood or Paint It, Black.

This tapestry of sound signalled that the world could revolve musically, a pathway Harrison would take further with The Concert for Bangladesh (1971). By the seventies, Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin brought Eastern cadences to their melodies, by the eighties Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel were heralding pop songs with world music influences. Many of them did it better than Harrison. But Harrison did it first, and that’s something that All Things Must Pass can’t even boast about. Wonderwall Music can.


❉ Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life. 

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2 Comments

  1. Nonsense sir, your writings are also splendid, we have different means of writing, that is all 😉

    Your kind words are appreciated. Thank you.

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