Album Reviews

George Harrison: Dark Horse (Apple Records)

dark horse

I have a theory about George Harrison. Whenever he followed his creative muse, he created wonderful, sublime masterpieces, but whenever he tried to play “the game” of the music industry, the results were inferior. The reason All Things Must Pass contained so many impressive songs was because Harrison developed them over time, not rushing their creation, working on them in detail, a master craftsman taking time on his work. Living In The Material World followed, but only after the Concert for Bangladesh era, which gave him time to hone his material. Dark Horse followed quickly, and suffers as a result. It’s not Harrison’s worst album–that distinction still belongs to 1982’s Gone Troppo, made quickly after the surprise success of 1982’s Somewhere In England. So poorly received was Gone Troppo, it kicked off what many thought to be his retirement.

Given that he only had one or two songs on each Beatles album, it’s understandable that his songwriting would be more meticulous—he wasn’t facing the pressures that John Lennon and Paul McCartney faced. Case in point: the nearly one hundred takes of “Not Guilty” during the White Album sessions, which even after all that work, remained unreleased because he didn’t think he got it right. Consider, also, the “spontaneous” Get Back sessions. His songs, “For You Blue” and “I Me Mine,” are lesser numbers, throwaways, especially considering the rejected songs that appeared on All Thing Must Pass—and his two finest Beatles songs, written during that same year, “Here Comes The Sun” and “Something.”

Dark Horse, released in 1974, was created during a time of great transition. Harrison had split with his wife (who had left him for best friend Eric Clapton), Apple Records was a dark pit of legal battles and acrimony, and Harrison had reportedly delved into addiction to drugs and drink.  He also had positive things under his belt: two successful solo albums, a well-received benefit concert, and a budding interest in both auto racing and in filmmaking. It is easy to understand, then, why Harrison would throw himself into a busy, workaholic schedule, which included not only the creation and composition of this album, it also included setting up a record label that took its name from the album, and recording and producing his acts. To add to this, he agreed to a full American tour in the winter.

Despite its glowing, colorful front cover, the photo on the back better captures Harrison’s mood: dark, dour, gloomy, grumpy. The album kicks off with “Hari’s On Tour (Express),” an instrumental jam that is about two minutes too long, written with the intention of being the opening song of his forthcoming American tour. Its length belies the fact it’s a repetitive, not-bad two minute song that superfluously repeats itself for two and a half minutes. The four songs that follow—three originals, and a cover of The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”—suffer from the same plodding nature as “Hari’s On Tour.” They’re narrative numbers about his personal life that feel rushed, unedited, and painfully so, while the slowed-down blues version of “Bye Bye Love” probably should have remained unreleased.

For side one’s heavy-handed, forgettable fare, side two kicks off with a one-two punch of two of Harrison’s best solo numbers. “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” is a holiday number for New Year’s Eve, with a catchy chorus of “Ring out the old/Ring in the new/Ring out the false/Ring out the true.” Complete with a choir and sleigh bells, it’s a lighthearted affair that clears the stuffiness of side one. It’s followed by the title track, which could best be described as Harrison’s personal anthem, especially as his success as a songwriter had always been overshadowed, and his first solo efforts seemingly came from nowhere. “Far East Man” is a mellow rocker that once again addresses Eastern issues, but it’s not too didactic. The concluding number, “It Is ‘He’ (Jai Sri Krishna),” is a religious mantra, and is one of Harrison’s most explicitly religious numbers.

Perhaps the most telling number on this reissue is the inclusion of B-side “I Don’t Care Anymore.” It’s a light-hearted number; it addresses the fact that it’s a b-side, and includes some fine guitar picking and Jew harp. In spite of the loose feel, it’s a biting number, a painful resignation to apathy about the stressful world around him. For all of the Peyton Place-style exploration of his personal life on Dark Horse, this little throwaway number proves much more revealing and honest about Harrison’s true feelings.
For Dark Horse, he agreed to an American tour, which embarked during the winter of 1974. Fan opinions differ, but the tour, while successful financially, was a disaster otherwise. Harrison was in poor health, having developed throat problem, which you can hear if you compare the demo version of “Dark Horse” offered here with the final version. For the demo, Harrison sounds great; the released version, his voice is husky and almost strained. The tour didn’t help; his voice grew worse and worse, yet Harrison pressed on. His bad voice coupled with rearrangements of some of his more beloved numbers left many disappointed. Bootlegs of the shows are painful to experience, because Harrison was definitely not at his best. Aside from a handful of dates with Eric Clapton in Japan in 1991, Harrison would never tour again.

In spite of all of the stress and turmoil of his life, better  things were on the horizon, due in large part to the mysterious woman who eyes appear on the label for side two…

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1 reply »

  1. Good observations and summary. I do think that “So Sad” is a lovely painful song even if it could have been worked into better shape.

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