Contemporary reviews thought it a “disastrous album”, the religious imagery heavy, the musicianship poor, the song-craft egotistical and the vocals harsh. The fans conceded to the critics, with the album barely troubling the UK charts. Instead, George Harrison’s Dark Horse found a home on the US charts, a country whose music had influenced Harrison and whose stages he now intended to perform on. He likely wished he hadn’t.
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It was the first tour undertaken by a Beatle since 1966, by the guitarist most detached from the Fabs legacy who now found himself an allegorical saint. What few sixties tracks he played, as he did with ‘In My Life’ and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, were subject to lyrical alterations and bewildering jazz-fused riffs. Co-fronting the tour with Ravi Shankar, Harrison found the activities expected of a performing Beatle tiring. Harrison’s interests did not lie in the past. “I don’t think the Beatles were that good,” he retorted at a press conference. “I think they’re fine, you know. Paul is a fine bass player, but he can be a bit overpowering sometimes.”
That “fine bass player” had just unveiled a soaring pop album and was set to release its fiery follow up on Capitol. Recording and writing the Venus and Mars album, McCartney was the frequent visitor of John Lennon, the reformed radical whose Walls and Bridges had harnessed the Beatles memory at points. And then there was Ringo whose rockabilly covers ‘You’re Sixteen’ and ‘Only You (And You Alone)’ had channeled the backbone of doo-wop pop that had captured teenage hearts all over the world in 1964. That left Harrison, the member most committed to distancing himself from the pop music of yesteryear. It was an admirable stance that left him at the mercy of stymied attendees. His mind was on planes higher than the everyday performance. Dark Horse echoed the chaotic panic in his personal life in all its most raw, most confessional forms. It’s a ferocious work, full of twisted dramas and stories untold.
It was the sound of a man drowning in his religion, struggling through tiring laryngitis, coasting his way through cocaine and waving goodbye to the dying vestige of a marriage. In its purest form, the album explored the spiritual and the sexual, secular in its production and spirit. The ragged ‘Far East Man’, the heedful ‘It Is ‘He’ (Jai Sri Krishna)’, the naked ‘Simply Shady’ and the gorgeous ‘So Sad’ opens listeners into Harrison’s innermost thoughts, dreams, desires and failings, laced with embittered irony. Sanskrit entered his lyrics, jazz in his music, Tom Scott’s sterling saxophone work pushing through the album, welcomed on the bubbling ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’. On a dense record, Dark Horse opens with the zestful ‘Hari’s on Tour (Express)’, a chirpy instrumental that demonstrated Harrison’s mastery of the slide guitar, boasted his flippancy for title at a time when his interviews painted him humorless and grumpy.
In its uncompromising way, there is a beauty to the album, stark in atmosphere, cobbled in voice, Dark Horse has an aroma all of its own and sits as singularly in Harrison’s canon as Plastic Ono Band did in Lennon’s. It’s a powerful statement that rises above the poor reviews of its era and shows the man, not the Beatle, who played the American theatres of ’74.