The last word
Music - Stephanie Merritt is surprised to find the "Quiet Beatle" making lots of noise
When George Harrison died of cancer on 29 November 2001, most of the obituaries, perhaps understandably, concentrated on the early part of his career. They paid tribute to the "Quiet Beatle" responsible for such hits as "Here Comes the Sun", "Something" and "Taxman" (as well as the odd nifty guitar solo), but kept outside the chalk circle of genius drawn around John and Paul. Reading them, you might be forgiven for thinking that Harrison's post-Beatles achievement consisted entirely of his two number ones - the teeth-grindingly irritating "My Sweet Lord" in 1970 and "Got My Mind Set on You" in 1987.
In fact, anticipating the end of his 14-year contract with EMI/Parlophone, Harrison had set up his own label, the aptly named Dark Horse Records, in 1974, and in 1976 he was free to record his first properly independent album, Thirty-Three & 1/3. (As well as the LP pun, this was Harrison's age when the record was released and that of Christ when he died - a symbolism not lost on Harrison.) Under the aegis of Warner Brothers, Dark Horse released records by various other artists, including Ravi Shankar, in addition to four further solo Harrison albums. With a circularity that might have pleased Harrison, Parlophone has now reacquired the rights to these and is releasing remastered versions - both individually and as a sumptuous box set complete with a DVD of interviews, videos and live footage.
Harrison once told Rolling Stone magazine, apropos his musical style: "My trousers don't get wider and tighter every six months." Listening to the five albums chronologically (the sixth is a double Super Audio CD of his 1991 Japanese tour with Eric Clapton that contains little new material), you sense that while Harrison continued to expand and experiment artistically throughout his career, he made few concessions to musical trends. Curiously, the three earliest albums feel the freshest, perhaps because they are closest temporally (and stylistically) to the Beatles. Thirty Three & 1/3 (1976), George Harrison (1979) and Somewhere in England (1981) all combine the kind of jangly guitars and sunny harmonies reminiscent of the Beatles circa Revolver with sitar-influenced slide guitar solos and subtly exotic instrumental arrangements that include harp, marimba and lyricon. Clapton makes various guest appearances on the albums, Steve Winwood also performs, and the single "All Those Years Ago", Harrison's open and unsentimental tribute to John Lennon, features percussion by Ringo and backing vocals by Paul and Linda.
These three albums and the DVD footage are the treasures of this expensive but utterly worthwhile collection. The 1982 album Gone Troppo could, for my money, have been left in obscurity, and Cloud Nine (1987), produced with Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra, feels recent enough not to have been forgotten, but not old enough to have achieved retro cachet. Taken together, these albums build a picture of Harrison's development as an artist without, as the sleeve notes tell us, "premeditation for commercial success". In fact, all these albums (except Gone Troppo) made it into Billboard's Top 20, with Cloud Nine entering the Top 10.
While the albums remind us that Harrison was a lot more diverse vocally than people often give him credit for, the 75 minutes of DVD footage correct any impression of him as a humourless, do-gooding lentil-muncher. In the videos for both "This Song" (his sarky riposte to the $600,000 lawsuit brought against him for "unconscious plagiarism" on "My Sweet Lord") and "Crackerbox Palace", he comes across as positively Pythonesque.
In the little illustrated book included with the box set is a quote from Gandhi that Harrison was fond of citing: "Create and preserve the image of your choice." The albums he made for his own label may well be the closest we get to the image Harrison wanted to create, and hearing him describe his music in his own words seems particularly valuable in his absence.
Stephanie Merritt is deputy literary editor of the Observer