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George Harrison Takes The Front Seat
A Replay In Honor of Harrison's 80th Birthday
Today would have been George Harrison’s 80th birthday. That once sounded old. Now it seems quite young. He and Bob Dylan could still be making music, writing songs, doing pop-up shows as Nelson and Lucky Wilbury, their respective nicknames in the Traveling Wilburys. In the early months of Critical Conditions, I did a long essay about Harrison’s All Things Must Pass: 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition (Apple/Capitol/UMe), and All Things Must Pass Away: Harrison, Clapton, and Other Assorted Love Songs, by Kenneth Womack and Jason Kruppa (Chicago Review Press). There were only a few hundred subscribers at the time. Now there are more than 1,000. Thanks to all of you who have stayed and joined the ride. This is an edited version of the Substack published Sept. 28, 2021.
A few weeks ago [in summer 2021] I recorded a "Fab 4 Free For All" podcast with my Long Island homeboys Mitch Axelrod, Rob Leonard, and Tony Traguardo. I had met them in fall 2018, at the "The Beatles' The White Album: An International Symposium" marking the 50th anniversary of its release, at Monmouth University in New Jersey. Kenneth Womack hosted shindig.
Womack, Professor of Popular Music and English at Monmouth, is the author of a two-volume biography of George Martin, among many other writings. Jason Kruppa, his co-author on the new book, All Things Must Pass Away: Harrison, Clapton, and Other Assorted Love Songs, was introduced to me by Tim Riley, who just added his Riley Rock Report to Substack. Tim is also the author of many books including Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary, and most recently, with musicologist Walter Everett, What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music and Their Time (Oxford University Press, 2019). Kruppa lives in New Orleans, where he is a photographer, recording engineer, producer, writer and a whole lot more.
It was the first time I had been at any kind of academic conference. My St. John's University colleagues, Tom Kitts, Lawrence Pitilli and I, all gave presentations. Kitts likes to write academic biographies, including books on Ray Davies and John Fogerty. Pitilli is the author of Doo-Wop Acapella: A Story of Street Corners, Echoes, and Three-Part Harmonies. Thanks to Pitilli's presentation about the Beatles and doo-wop, I finally learned what the term "intertextuality" means.
Another highlight of the conference was Axelrod, Leonard, and Traguardo's session, which challenged a packed room of Beatle-philes to do what many of them had once suggested: Cut the 2-LP White album to a single disc. There was no consensus, in essence proving their point that the White Album had to be a double album. A few agreed that they could live without "Sexy Sadie," others "Rocky Raccoon," but I wouldn't call it a demand.
At Monmouth that Saturday, November 10, 2018, we took my car from our hotel to the conference. Kitts was in the passenger seat and Pitilli sat in the back for the five minute ride. I joked that Larry was "the hannon," and was astounded that he knew what I was talking about.
"Did you say 'hannon'"?
"Yes. You know the term?"
"Of course! I haven't heard it since high school."
Kitts, who grew up in Staten Island, looked at us with bewilderment. And I was amazed too, because "hannon" was an obscure concept in pre-Beatles teen car culture, limited to a few New York-area micro-climates. We used it in Franklin Square, L.I., but Brooklyn's Pitilli also understood. The "hannon" was the unfortunate guy who sat in the backseat alone when three friends--no more, no less--went out cruising on a weekend night.
My paper was about how the White Album was more necessary for the development of a professional class of pop music critics than even earlier, heady achievements like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. The songs seemed to be by individual Beatles. There was clear delineation between John Lennon songs and Paul McCartney songs, the lighter tunes sung by Ringo, and nearly as an afterthought, George Harrison's songs.
In the Beatles, George Harrison was the hannon.
And he did not like being the hannon. No one does. The guys in front are laughing, talking to each other, controlling the radio dial, flirting with the girls in other cars at stop lights with cute patter. The hannon sat over the hump in the middle of the back seat, struggling to take part in the conversation. I suspect the 1960s "mooning" phenomenon, in which a guy stuck his bare ass out the car window, was initiated as a dare from the front seat to the hannon.
No matter how tight you and your buddies were, the hannon was the third wheel. Even if the three of you were close, and treated each other as equals in every other situation, hannon law stated that you were also allowed to be teased, made to feel just a little bit "less than" the two friends in the front seat. You were just not sitting up front: The hannon.
When it came to songwriting, John and Paul, of course, took turns driving the car; they were always in the front seats. Ringo didn't ride in the songwriter car, but George did, and he was always alone in the backseat.
The Womack and Kruppa book details how Harrison didn't win his colleagues real respect until "Something," which became one of the the signature songs from Abbey Road in 1969. But he was still the hannon.
That was the reason Harrison's 1970 post-Beatles debut was a three-record set, two LPs of studio songs and a third of jamming. John and Paul had rejected many of George's songs for the Beatles, sometimes rudely, and George was not holding back anymore. In the booklet to the boxed set, Harrison is quoted: "When I started doing the album All Things Must Pass, I was just trying to do a record and I had so many songs that I just recorded one after the other."
The book, All Things Must Pass Away: Harrison, Clapton, and Other Assorted Love Songs, by Womack and Kruppa (2021, Chicago Review Press) and the six-CD Capitol 50th anniversary boxed set seem like companion pieces. Because "one after the other" did not mean recording a song a day, over and done. Both the book and the boxed set reveal the painstaking effort Harrison put into making this record. You can hear many of the multiple takes, dozens and dozens of takes, that Harrison and a large contingent of musicians continually refined (including Ringo Starr on drums, but not the only drummer) until he got the sound he wanted.
The new ATMP comes in a nearly overwhelming variety of configurations, for every budget, from the basic to two-CD and climbing the CD, vinyl, and digital ladders until the Uber edition, $1,000 vinyl package for the most discerning and rich Harrisonian.
The six CDs in the Capitol box are: Disc one and two, 2020 stereo remixes by Paul Hicks, overseen by Dhani Harrison, George’s son, who was also executive producer and design and creative director. Disc three is the "Day One Demos," disc four the "Day Two Demos," which are valuable additions to the Beatles' and solo Beatle catalog: You get Harrison singing and playing these songs unadorned, showcasing the compositions in a most appealing skeletal form. There's also a new songwriting buddy for George: Bob Dylan. "If Not For You" is a Dylan song, while "I'd Have You Anytime" is a Harrison/Dylan collaboration. If you're leaving the Beatles' hannon role, riding up front with Bob Dylan is a stylish way to do it.
The spareness is an alternative to the original ATMP album, produced by the erratic Phil Spector, obsessed with detail but still able to work before booze, drugs, and his volatile personality led to his 2009 conviction for murdering actress Lara Clarkson at his his home in 2003. He died at 81 on January 19, 2021, while serving a 19-years-to-life sentence at San Quentin.
Spector and Harrison and engineers Phil McDonald and John Leckie all seemed to work well together, with Harrison in charge, according to Womack and Kruppa. Though many people played on ATMP, the core band towards the end of the lengthy period of recording Harrison's album were Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, and Eric Clapton. As the booklet with the Capitol release says, the jam "Out of the Blue," was recorded July 2 and 3  with "the freshly-named Derek & The Dominos."
Womack described the unusual dual biography format of two albums, two bandleaders, two authors for the book. "The more I read about it, the more logical it seemed to consider a book concept where both ATMP and Layla received a shared treatment, given their historical proximity, the GH-EC friendship, and Pattie Boyd," Womack said. Clapton was in love with Harrison's wife Pattie Boyd, and was blunt about it to all of them during much of the time they spent together. Derek & the Dominos classic rock staple “Layla,” written by Clapton and Jim Gordon, was about Clapton’s obsessive love for Boyd.
Clapton was trying to make Harrison the hannon again.
That he "stole" her from Harrison is not quite accurate, according to Womack and Kruppa. Harrison and Boyd were already distant, as Harrison pursued perfection in the recording studio and was becoming more devoted to Eastern philosophy and Krishna-conscious. Boyd did not share these interests. Neither did Boyd share Clapton's enjoyment of heroin. Boyd’s relationship with Clapton, according to the authors, was stunted from the start by the resentment she felt that he had demanded she choose between him and her husband.
While Harrison was seeking higher states of consciousness with Hare Krishna people, Indian classical music with Ravi Shankar, and meditation, Clapton comes off like a typical addict: self-centered, entitled, unconscious of the hurricane he's creating by placing his own needs over everything else.
"Clapton lacks perspective and doesn't seem very curious about the world," Kruppa says. "He doesn't ever appear to have been able to see much outside of himself and beyond his immediate needs in the moment, at least when it comes to situations where the emotional stakes are high."
Disc five of the Capitol box is Session Outtakes and Jams, and it starts off with a bang. "Isn't It a Pity" (take 14) begins with Harrison singing, "Isn't it so shitty/Isn't it a pain/As we do so many takes/Over and over again." George really sounds tired on a too-slow take 27 of the same song. For superfans, it's really amusing. Disc six is a Blu-ray audio, Dolby Atmos recording, and all those other aspect ratios that may give audiophiles a kick.
"What did surprise us was how much of a producer in his own right George had become between 1968 and early 1970 -- he was beyond proficient in the studio and he knew very well how to work with musicians. The second Billy Preston album [That's the Way God Planned It] and the Radha Krishna Temple album [both Apple Records, and also spelled Krsna] are remarkable, not just for their quality but how different they are from each other," Kruppa said.
But George still had chosen to work with Phil Spector, and if Spector's ethos in the studio had to be defined in two words, it would be, "more reverb!" Every reissue of ATMP over the years has been a remaster; there had been no remix from the multi-tracks before now, and one focus was the amount of reverb in the mixes, if I understand Kruppa correctly.
"Dhani Harrison and Paul [Hicks] also brought George's voice forward and removed a lot of the reverb on his vocals in this new mix, which to my ears is the most immediately noticeable change.”
The Harrison song "Apple Scruffs" is a tribute to the female fans who hung outside Apple headquarters in London, where George put in considerable hours dealing with the Beatles' label's other artists: There is a strained outtake here of "Sour Milk Sea," the best-known song by Apple recording artist Jackie Lomax. But the Scruffs weren't groupies and tried not to intrude on business: The book describes them more as concerned helpers, sort of like RAF nurses. Harrison liked them, and he brought the Scruffs who had been outside the Abbey Road studio inside for tea one chilly day and let them stay for the session. If he were to offer them a ride home, however, I think they would sit in the back.
George Harrison's hannon days were over.
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