Disappointing Albums, Music

51 disappointing albums: ‘Dark Horse’ by George Harrison

| |

Each week TONY THOMPSON discusses a ‘disappointing album’: why it’s disappointing, what that means in the context of the band or musician’s career, and what that says about changing critical tastes.

One thing must be made clear,” he says, this is not a series about terrible albums. They might be disappointing, but they are records that you need to hear.

*

1974 was a strange moment in rock and roll. Some years have a real resonance in popular music: 1966, 1970, 1977 for example. You can immediately think of a whole bunch of records that appeared in those years and why they are significant. 1974 is trickier.

Diamond Dogs, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Veedon Fleece. Great albums of course but not ‘game changers’ perhaps. It’s almost as though the sixties had finally ended and everyone was trying to figure out what it all meant and what was left. No album better reveals this confusion better than George Harrison’s Dark Horse.

It is usually close to the top of any ‘Worst of’ Beatles solo albums list, and is in no danger of becoming a cult classic. When I bought a secondhand copy with one corner clipped off – never a good sign – in about 1980, the fellow behind the counter tried to talk me out of it.

“That’s a terrible album,” he said, “Get something else.” I bought it anyway. It certainly didn’t change my life but I have listened to it occasionally over the years. I used to sneak songs from it onto my college radio show and say, “That was The Beatles with Maya Love” to see if anyone was listening. Is it a terrible album? I don’t think George was capable of ‘terrible’. This is disappointing, particularly compared to the two classics that came before it, but it is not without some rewards for the brave and the few.

It’s a raw record. Listening to it in full again, I thought of Leonard Cohen’s Death of a Ladies Man. The title song Dark Horse is an appealing bit of country funk with Jim Horn’s flute lines adding much to the texture. George sounds like he’s just woken up with a bad hangover but he is fully committed to the song. Like some of the tracks on the Cohen album, it sounds more like a rehearsal than a final take but this is part of the charm. Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night comes to mind too, though Dark Horse is nowhere near as lacerating. The demo that appears on one of the CD reissues is brilliant. His voice sounds better and it is obvious that with some work on the production, this might have been another of his great songs.

I feel as though I’m glimpsing something of the process here. Even on the urbane funk tune Far East Man, George is experimenting with a new sound, something akin to what he might have been hearing on the radio. Of course, this is the song with the most complicated backstory in the history of rock and roll. He wrote it with Ronnie Wood while he was carrying on an affair with Wood’s wife Krissy. Ron was having an affair with George’s wife Patti who was about to leave the former Beatle for Eric Clapton. Ringo Star’s wife Maureen was having an affair with George too. It was the 1970s and the keys were definitely in the ashtray. Did I mention that the song is probably about Ravi Shankar? Whatever the story behind it, the soul setting suits George. Like Dark Horse, if this had been finished and mixed properly, it might have lifted the whole record.

It is he (Jai Sri Krishna) is another notable track on the album. Clearly, George was too busy with other musician’s wives to continue his religious journey. He had drifted back into the rock and roll party lifestyle that he had tried to avoid in the early 1970s. Call it George’s lost weekend. His old friend John was being thrown out of the Troubador with a kotex on his head at almost the same time. John went back to Yoko, George went to India and came up with this unique mix of Indian chants, funky beats, and optimistic lyrics.

Why is it disappointing?

It’s badly recorded and the mix is muddy. It’s simply underdone. There is a much better album here but it was six-months more of hard work that never happened. Perhaps it was a consequence of being a Beatle or perhaps it was the mess of his personal life. I feel like he just couldn’t be bothered. On All Things Must Pass he sounds like he was playing for his life. Only a few years later and he has lost interest. Bye Bye Love with new lyrics about Patti and ‘Old Clap’ is pretty much the low point of his career. Ding Dong Ding Dong was never going to rival My Sweet Lord either.

Why should you hear it?

Other than those two duds, the songs are pretty good here. Simply Shady dates back to his first visit to India in 1968. The lyrics seem to be about alcoholism though the reference to Sexy Sadie in the last verse raises a whole bunch of questions. So Sad is another potential classic that sadly sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a swimming pool.

It’s not a bad album, just, you guessed it, disappointing. My feeling is that this is a grower, as they say, and rewards persistence. Start with the Dark Horse demo and work up to Far East Man. You’ll get there.

For the rest of this series, click here.

2 responses to “51 disappointing albums: ‘Dark Horse’ by George Harrison

  1. Hi Tony,
    Nice review!
    I think you nailed it. It’s definitely not All things must pass but not terrible either. Some songs sound a bit underdone and need a better mix. A sprinkle of Spector/Lynne mightn’t have hurt. It seems his songwriting wasn’t far off but his production values may have been awry. The Dark Horse demo is a beauty.

  2. Another fine front cover wasted. Do I detect in it a nod to the Sergeant Peppers cover? It certainly references George’s sardonic sense of humour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *