George Harrison: Let It Roll: Songs of George Harrison

By: Ron Hart

Over the last ten years, Capitol/EMI has been notorious for treating its reissue campaign of George Harrison's post-Beatles catalog like some kind of under-appreciated stepchild whose parents force ugly new clothes and disgusting new food onto. First was the 30th Anniversary reissue of the Quiet One's masterpiece, All Things Must Pass, from early 2001, considered by many to be the single greatest work by a Beatle outside of the band itself. In addition to the ghastly "colorization" of the original album artwork that would even make the people who tarnished It's A Wonderful Life cringe, whoever engineered the remaster somehow buried the vocals and guitars even deeper in the mix than original producer Phil Spector had already done initially with his Wall of Sound recording style. Then, there was the label's 2005 hatchet job on Harrison's sublime 1971 double-live album chronicling his acclaimed Concert for Bangladesh. While the remastering job of the actual live cuts themselves was great, they cut out the majority of the breaks between songs, destroying the natural flow of the concert that made you feel as though you were right inside Madison Square Garden when listening to the original LP. And worst of all, Capitol finally got its way with the album artwork. After losing its original battle with Harrison over the cover concept - that stunning, iconic image of a malnourished refugee child sitting cross-legged in front of an empty bowl of food, which the suits thought was too depressing and would hurt album sales and then wound up becoming a bestseller and winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1973—the label went with the cover they had wanted all along, an image of Harrison from the accompanying concert film, for the reissue (and doing so after Harrison's tragic demise due to cancer in November 2001, thus adding a whole new layer of sleaze to the whole predicament). Meanwhile, the label's 2006 reissue of 1973's Living In The Material World as well as the box set covering the albums released on the guitarist's own Dark Horse imprint were modest campaigns that somewhat offered a reprieve for fans otherwise annoyed by the label handling of the Quiet One's catalog thus far, in that it vastly improved upon the original issues in both sound quality and packaging (although some beefier bonus material would have been nice).

Now comes Let it Roll: Songs by George Harrison, a single-disc retrospective released by the EMI group on June 16 touting itself as the first-ever collection spanning the length of George's career. Compiled largely by George's widow Olivia Harrison and engineered by legendary Beatles producer George Martin’s son Giles Martin, who did such an outstanding job in 2007 mashing up classic Fabs tracks for the soundtrack to Cirque de Soleil’s Beatles-themed production Love at the Mirage in Las Vegas, the 19-track collection focuses primarily on Harrison’s biggest successes as a singles artist, something he was much stronger at as opposed to his former mates John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who exhibited supremacy creating both killer hit songs and outstanding full-length albums to back them up. Harrison, meanwhile, produced albums that basically consisted of one or two really great songs backed by a majority of filler material that was neither here nor there. True, Harrison did produce some gems in his solo career beyond All Things Must Pass, notably 1973's Living In The Material World (which, to its credit, EMI did a masterful job reissuing back in 2006) and his 1987 comeback album, Cloud Nine. Not to mention 2002's posthumous swan song Brainwashed and his pair of experimental solo albums he released while still with The Beatles, 1968's Moog-tastic Electronic Sound and 1969's Indian-flavored drone-fest Wonderwall Music, both of which remain woefully out of print at press time. However, it has always been long known to most Beatles fans that, with all due respect, his albums never held up to that of Macca or Lennon in terms of critical and creative viscosity.

While there have been George Harrison compilations in the past, none have chronicled the entirety of his solo output. And though Let It Roll is not exactly a completist's ideal set, as this collection could have easily been beefed up to anthology status given there are much stronger points in Harrison's solo catalog than, say, Ringo Starr, it certainly does an excellent job in gathering the guitarist's sonic crème de la crème. Sequenced not by chronology but almost seemingly by vibe, the 19 tracks that ultimately made the cut here interweave as though they have existed side by side on the same long player for all these years. For instance, the segue between Brainwashed's "Rising Son" and Cloud Nine's phenomenal tribute to his old bandmates, "When We Was Fab," flows one into the other so perfectly. The same can be said for the blending of "Blow Away" off Harrison's eponymous 1979 effort into the thankfully-included "Cheer Down" from the Lethal Weapon 2 soundtrack, not to mention "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)" going into Let It Roll's title track, "The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp," originally featured on All Things Must Pass. And while stubbornly elitist Beatles fans (like this writer) might wonder why the likes of "Old Brown Shoe" and "Blue Jay Way" were excluded from the fray here, the inclusion of his big three from his Fab Four output - "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Something" and "Here Comes The Sun" - is imperative to any collection with GH's name on it, and the fact that the versions came from the Bangladesh concert album seems more appropriate for this project. Another great inclusion on this set is Harrison's rarely-spoken-of cover of Bob Dylan's "I Don't Want to Do It," which was originally featured on the soundtrack to 1985's comedic bomb Porky's Revenge (which should give you a good clue as to why it was little heard).

Sure, one can rail against the powers that be who oversaw the creation and production of Let It Roll and their failure to include such glaring absences as "You" off his 1975 EMI swan song Extra Texture and "Crackerbox Palace" from 1976's diamond-in-the-rough Thirty Three & 1/3 - his first release on Dark Horse. It's understood there are only 80 minutes on a CD, but these omissions - not to mention the exclusions of such rarities as Harrison's working version of Ringo Starr's "It Don't Come Easy" or "Bangla Desh," the 1971 charity single that spearheaded the famed concert and has only appeared on album once via 1976's The Best of George Harrison collection - could have made this very good single-disc set into an excellent double-disc compendium.

Nonetheless, any Beatles fan, be they casual or hardcore, would benefit from adding Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison to their CD shelves, as it is gorgeously packaged in a tastefully designed digipak with a 28-page booklet loaded with great information and amazing photos, making it one of the finer justices given to any kind of Beatle-related reissue in recent years (don't even get me started on the John Lennon stuff). A quality George Harrison best-of has been a long, long time coming, and one can only be grateful that EMI has finally done right by this amazing man and his cherished legacy.

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[Published on: 7/9/09]

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