“I didn’t think it was that stupid,” mutters a puzzled George Harrison during a halt in a video shoot, as a battery of eight Warner Bros. Records employees hastens to reassure him. The mood in the sky-lighted, wood-paneled room at Warner Bros. headquarters in beautiful Burbank, California, is a heady mix of exhilaration and tension. Harrison has just delivered Cloud Nine, his first album in five years, to the label. The record is Harrison’s finest since his first solo outing after the Beatles’ breakup — the three-album set All Things Must Pass, in 1970. With good reason, Warner Bros, holds big commercial hopes for it.
Aside from those considerations of art and potential sales, the mere presence of the mysterious ex-Beatle at his record company’s offices has propelled the place into a dizzying spin. For the two days that Harrison has been on the scene meeting the press and talking business with the label’s bigwigs, the staff has been buzzing. Admirers peek around doorways to catch glimpses of him, and a steady stream of devotees has presented him with albums and other memorabilia to autograph. “In the past week there’s been more Beatles records around here than Warner Bros, records,” one staffer says jokingly.
But if Harrison’s legendary stature has sparked the mood of exhilaration, it’s also charged the undercurrent of tension. The video interview being filmed is not for MTV — it’s a promotional clip for the annual Warner/Elektra/Atlantic (WEA) sales convention in Miami. Featuring segments with a host of premier Warner Bros. acts, the video is intended to “get the troops up, raise the level of morale, motivate the salespeople for the fourth quarter,” according to Adam Somers, the vice-president of creative services at Warner Bros., who is coordinating the filming.
To achieve those all-important ends — the holiday season is crucial to the bottom line throughout the record industry — Warner Bros. has recruited fast-talking NBC West Coast sportscaster Fred Roggin and conceived a quasi-comical baseball theme to link the artists’ skits. In the year of the lively ball and corked bats, that theme is, What is Warner Bros. Records putting into its vinyl to give the company so many big “hits”? Get it? Perhaps you do, but Harrison — being British and all — doesn’t. Still, because of the priority the label is placing on CloudNine, Harrison’s spot is to be the “culmination” of the tape, according to Somers.
When told of the planned shooting the previous evening, the generally cooperative Harrison “wasn’t too receptive” to the idea, says one Warner employee. As the room was being prepared and equipment set up the following morning, several staffers met with Harrison — “sans anyone else,” as they requested with a glance at a nearby reporter — “to explain to him what this is about.” That explanatory session presumably involved some prepping on the cultural significance of baseball in America and the no-bullshit significance of happy salespeople to successful record releases — of which Harrison hasn’t had too many lately. Neither bloody nor bowed, Harrison nonetheless emerged from the meeting reconciled to his fate.
“Well, George, thanks for joining us,” says a stand-in for Roggin, reading from the script. “The question in everyone’s mind at the WEA meeting in Miami is, How’s that arm doin’?”
Harrison, sporting a long-sleeved, black and white striped polo shirt, black jeans and pointy black suede shoes, is seated on a comfortable leather couch, fingering his beard. “Oh, the arm’s fine, Fred. Thanks for asking,” he responds gamely. “A bit of rhythm guitar, you know. I’ve been working it hard, too, what with this latest series of games with Houston.”
Harrison clearly has no idea about the meaning of what the cue cards are asking him to say — “I suppose this could be called acting,” he says to a visitor at one point — but the colloquially surrealistic dialogue goes on, with many retakes.
“The title of your new album is Cloud Nine. Is this some veiled reference to a major-league hit this year?”
“I think it will be a pennant year for us, Fred.”
“You want to talk a little bit about your album, tell us what’s involved with it?”
“Well, we made it in Haiti,” says Harrison, opting for the improvisational put-on. “It’s got little voodoo things inside it that make it go quicker.”
“With a lifetime record like yours, George, it’s hard to imagine how you could top yourself. Tell us, is there something in the vinyl or in the label? If you answer this question, you could clear up a lot of controversy for us.”
“Well, Fred, once in a great while in every player’s career, the chance of a lifetime comes along,” says Harrison in an uncomprehending monotone. “It’s like when Paul Molitor stepped up to the plate to smack the ball just one more time. It’s hard to explain, Fred. I guess you have to be out in the field to understand. This much I do know.”