George Harrison Gets Back
While Harrison shied away from the limelight through much of his post-Beatles life, he has hardly been inactive. In 1971, at the request of his friend the sitarist Ravi Shankar, Harrison organized the benefit concert for Bangladesh — a forerunner of the Band Aid and Live Aid events — that brought together many of the rock superstars of the time for the cause of famine relief. He toured America in 1974, albeit somewhat haphazardly and to mixed reviews, with a full band of his own and a virtual orchestra of Indian musicians. He wrote an autobiography, I Me Mine, and launched the movie company HandMade Films, which has become a highly respected force in the British film industry through its production of the Monty Python movies and such top-quality projects as Mona Lisa and the comedy Withnail and I. “It just seems to have taken on its own life now,” Harrison says of HandMade, which he began with his business manager, Denis O’Brien, as a way to save Monty Python’s Life of Brian for his Monty Python friends after the original backers pulled out. “It’s quite a good little company inasmuch as we’ve made films that nobody else would do, that people have either turned down or been afraid to make.” He also started his own record label, Dark Horse, in 1974, produced and played on records by other artists and maintained a consistent flow of solo albums and singles, cracking the Top Forty eleven times.
But with the failure of his last solo LP, 1982’s halfhearted Gone Troppo — which drew part of its inspiration from his fondness for tropical climes — Harrison seemed to grow disillusioned with the music industry. “I just think he wasn’t interested, personally,” says keyboardist Gary Wright, who is Harrison’s longtime friend and who co-wrote the poppy “That’s What It Takes” for Cloud Nine. “Sometimes when you make a record and it’s not successful, you just don’t want to go through that process for a while. You want to have your wounds heal.” At Friar Park, Harrison reflected on his self-imposed retreat from the music business and said, “I got a bit tired of it, to tell you the truth. It’s one thing making a record, but if nobody plays it on the radio, what’s the point of spending months in the studio?”
In addition, Harrison was less than wildly enthusiastic about the direction of popular music in the Eighties. “On the album before Troppo, which was Somewhere in England,” Harrison said in the Warner Bros. office, “I wrote this song called ‘Blood from a Clone’: “They say they like it/But now in the market/It may not go well/Because it’s too laid-back/It needs some oom-pah-pah/Nothing like Frank Zappa/And not New Wave/They don’t play that crap/Try beating your head on a brick wall/Hard like a stone/Don’t have time for the music/They want the blood from a clone.’ That kind of thing got me a bit pissed off. It was good to get that off my chest, but by the time I’d not made a record for a few years, I was relaxed and cool about everything.”
While cooling, Harrison continued to write songs and record at his twenty-four-track home studio and occasionally jammed with guitarist friends who live nearby, including Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Bad Company axeman Mick Ralphs and Alvin Lee, formerly of Ten Years After. When in 1985 he began to feel that he might want to make a new album, he started thinking about possible producers. Though Harrison had never met him, Jeff Lynne — the leader of the Seventies symphonic-pop band Electric Light Orchestra — immediately came to mind. That Lynne’s work with ELO always revealed a strong Beatles influence couldn’t have escaped Harrison’s notice, but Harrison emphasizes other factors.
“He’s a guitarist, he’s a songwriter, he’s had his success,” Harrison says of Lynne. “Just from the records, I thought he would be good, if we got on together. It was really a question of finding somebody to get in touch with him and then meeting with him, without saying, ‘Well, look, right down the line from now I’m going to try to make a record, and you’re it‘ — and frighten the fellow away. But that was in the back of my mind.”
Lynne, of course, was smart enough not to take the ex-Beatle’s invitation — passed along through guitarist and producer Dave Edmunds, a mutual friend — at all lightly. “I was in Los Angeles, actually, at the time,” Lynne says. “Dave Edmunds said to me, just matter-of-fact, ‘Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you, George Harrison would like you to produce some stuff with him.’ You know, ‘by the way.’ If I could’ve picked one guy I wanted to work with, it would have been George. I was stunned, really.”
Following that initial contact, Lynne came by Friar Park for a casual dinner, and the two men hit it off. Harrison followed up with a phone call and suggested they start making some music together. “I waited,” Harrison said, “then I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to make the move.’ He may be shy, or if he isn’t and he just didn’t want to know, then I’d give him the chance to tell me to piss off!” They got together a few more times “for a laugh and a drink,” and then in mid-1986, while Harrison was working on the soundtrack to Shanghai Surprise — HandMade Films’ one magnificent flop and a film Harrison dismisses as the company’s “joker in the pack” — Lynne helped out on one track, an instrumental piece called “Zig Zag.” They continued to meet, played new songs for one another, and without a formal agreement being reached, it soon became clear that a new musical team had been formed.
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