He was known as The Quiet Beatle, but after the Fab Four split, George Harrison certainly opened up. He was so overflowing with songs that he made his first post-Beatles affair a triple album. Following that landmark release (All Things Must Pass), Harrison’s solo output was spotty at times, which was perhaps a reflection of his ambivalence about the record industry and his own desire for privacy. Yet his last two albums, even though they were separated by 15 years, included some of his finest work. You know the hits; now get to know some of the finest songs recorded by George Harrison that may have slipped beneath the radar.
1. “Run of the Mill” (1970)
There is a clearly a post-breakup hangover looming within this song from All Things Must Pass, but Harrison was discussing the breakup of a band and not a romance. The lyrics get accusatory at times, but the music, with a funky time signature and somber horns provided by Bobby Keys and Jim Price, a duo that adorned so many classic Rolling Stones tracks, takes the sting out of it and launches it into more melancholy territory. It’s one of the first songs on which Harrison addressed his Beatle past, and one of the best.
2. “Be Here Now” (1973)
Living in the Material World suffered at the time of its release in comparison to the magnificence of All Things Must Pass, but it holds up extremely well today. This lovely acoustic track, which later lent its title to an Oasis album, is one of the highlights. The song, with its spare guitar, eerie sitar drone, and Nicky Hopkins’ ethereal piano, calls to mind the Rolling Stones evocative Sticky Fingers track “Moonlight Mile,” and the yearning melody is simply beautiful.
3. “Simply Shady” (1974)
Dark Horse was an album that certainly dropped off in terms of quality from its predecessors, and its title gave music critics everywhere a layup as they punned off George’s hoarse vocals. But this song is a winner, as country-sounding as you’ll ever hear Harrison get. He recounts a particularly rough experience with his patented mix of mystic musing and searing honesty. Harrison’s personal life was spiraling a bit out of control at this time; this song doesn’t shy away from the “shady” behavior or its consequences.
4. “This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying)” (1975)
Harrison was stung by bad reviews and used his bully pulpit to respond on this Extra Texture (Read All About It) track. Of course he’s referencing his classic Beatles song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” as his instrument of choice once again becomes personified to suffer the slings and arrows of the press. Whether or not you think Harrison had rabbit ears in his dealings with the fourth estate, it’s hard to deny that he sounds focused and energized on the track, which makes it stand out from much of his mid-70’s work.
5. “Faster” (1979)
Harrison was a man of many interests, which is part of the reason his sometimes long hiatuses from the music business never bothered him. His love of Formula One racing inspired this sprightly character sketch from his self-titled 1979 album. The string arrangement plays well off Harrison’s acoustic strumming, and the lyrics are malleable enough to resemble not just an auto racer but also any iconoclast who captures the public’s imagination and becomes personally isolated because of it.
6. “Tears Of The World” (1980)
Harrison recorded this song for Somewhere in England, but it was rejected by Warner Bros. (He had some fun at the record executives’ expense with the withering “Blood from a Clone” from that album.) The song wasn’t released until a reissue of 1976’s Thirty Three & 1/3 in 2004. Lucky for us we finally got to hear it, as it combines some slinky horns and sharp guitar with some of Harrison’s most incisive lyrics, detailing not just the bad actions of politicians and businessmen but also the people who sit back and do nothing about it.
7. “Writing’s on the Wall” (1981)
Somewhere in England is an album mostly remembered for Harrison’s loving tribute to John Lennon: “All Those Years Ago.” But mortality was also on his mind on this track written before Lennon’s death. Like many artists in this era, Harrison became a little too infatuated with the synthesizer around this time, but it’s deployed tastefully on this one. The lyrics are very matter-of-fact about life’s fleeting nature, but the melody occasionally takes an anguished turn to let us know that even someone with a realistic perspective on death can feel the pain engendered by it.
8. “Fish on the Sand” (1987)
When he began collaborating with Jeff Lynne, it seemed to ignite in Harrison an inclination to rock out a bit again, if only in a Beatles-y way. This excellent rip-snorter from Cloud Nine is an excellent example of Harrison ramping up the tempo. The title refers to how the narrator feels without his love by his side. There’s nothing too deep going on here, but Harrison’s wordplay is on point and he glides through the song like an artist slipping back into familiar territory and enjoying every second of it.
9. “Cheer Down” (1989)
Harrison recorded this song for the soundtrack of Lethal Weapon II and took the title from something his wife Olivia would tell him from time to time. It has that special Traveling Wilburys feeling, which is understandable considering Jeff Lynne’s gleaming production and Tom Petty’s contribution of some of the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. (“If your dog should be dead / I’m gonna love you instead” is just one example of what to expect.) It’s great fun, buoyantly tuneful, and simply sounds fantastic, with Harrison in excellent voice.
10. “Brainwashed” (2002)
The title track to Harrison’s final album, it’s also the last song on his last record, as Brainwashed arrived a year after his death in 2001. In that respect, it’s a fitting final statement. There’s a healthy heaping of Harrison’s humor (Grandma working for the mob!), along with an instrumental break that allows for some of the old mysticism to shine through. And the whole thing closes with a Hindu prayer chanted in unison by Harrison and son Dhani. The expert melding of Western and Eastern sounds, accompanied by equal parts clear-eyed cynicism and open-hearted love, is pure Harrison.
Photo: George Harrison courtesy Keystone/Getty Images