Day care center and night schools: the best of George Harrison

The luckiest sideman and the best second-tier talent in rock history, George Harrison recorded a number of crap albums, a fact that should surprise no one. My mom owned 1975’s Extra Texture (Read All About It) — if there’s a joke in the title, call my agent — and 1976’s Thirty Three & 1/3, for reasons she can’t remember. But when I discovered the Beatles in high school I gave them more time than I did a couple of the girls I dated and — woof. Without listening to any Crosby-Nash albums, I can aver that these sides are the worst song sequences by a second tier talent and lucky sideman in boomer pop.

Here are the hard truths: (a) Harrison had an unusually rich melodic range, almost as complete as McCartney and Lennon’s (b) he couldn’t sing those songs (c) he had Al Green’s passion for a god but had no talent, vocally or temperamentally, for transcendence (his passion for Monty Python revealed he was an ironist) (d) he was too beholden to the studio hack establishment when at least bete noire Paul McCartney would often play those instruments himself (e) he was often bored by his career and his own material. The paradox rests in Harrison’s devotion to that same studio hack community. Unlike McCartney or Lennon, his ego rarely quashed anyone else’s, which made him an ideal producer; if you count his work with Ringo (“It Don’t Come Easy,” which he wrote too but gave away in a typical gesture of generosity) and Badfinger (“Day After Day”), he was a terrific producer, the only one among the Beatles I can imagine carving a sideline because he did care about the success of colleagues. It’s as impossible to imagine McCartney or Lennon cooperating in the Traveling Wilburys as it is to imagine Ringo as lead singer of Roxy Music. Jeff Lynne got the credit because he worked subsequently with Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, but Harrison’s studio savvy with the arrangement of horns and backing vocals and offhand wit (“Handle With Care” was mostly his song) bear a more robust aural stamp.

Yet I love the idea of George Harrison. Fleetwood Mac boasted three songwriters of equal rank; no one but the dullest devotee of punk rock values would claim Lindsey Buckingham was “better” than Christine McVie or Stevie Nicks (an argument I heard often in the early 2000s when Tusk was the shit). Harrison was not, let’s be clear, at the Lennon-McCartney level. But my memory of watching Anthology was appreciating George squeezing lemon over McCartney’s kumbaya and Ringo’s go-along; I can imagine his anti-nostalgia even getting on John Lennon’s nerves should Lennon have lived (in the clip I hyperlinked, the only person who’s never heard of the Beatles will be forgiven for thinking George wasn’t the band leader). Preoccupied with his own mental if not spiritual health, Harrison never took himself as seriously as his fans.

This fact and his handful of good to great songs speak for themselves when his voice couldn’t. Take my #2, as buoyant and graceful as anything by McCartney’s and better — more thoroughly — written than what McCartney released in 1979. And I can’t imagine his two genius colleagues writing “Someplace Else” or “Cheer Down,” co-produced by Lynne, proof that Harrison thrived with colleagues. And when I assume he can’t sing I remember that I prefer his “If Not For You” to good buddy Dylan’s.

1. What Is Life
2. Blow Away
3. If Not For You
4. Cloud Nine
5. Woman Don’t You Cry For Me
6. Awaiting On You All
7. Fish on the Sand
8. Poor Little Girl
9. Someplace Else
10. Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long
11. Run of the Mill
12. This Song
13. Apple Scruffs
14. All Things Must Pass
15. Cheer Down
16. If That’s What It Takes
17. That’s The Way It Goes
18. Crackerbox Palace
19. Handle With Care
20. Dark Horse

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