Graded on a Curve: George Harrison,
Dark Horse

George Harrison was always the neglected Beatle, the Beatle who through no fault of his own simply lacked the charisma of his band mates. He had talent galore but there was something invisible about him, something faintly drab and colorless, that caused him to pale next to his more flamboyant fellows. Hence the title of his 1974 release Dark Horse. He was the least of the defunct quartet and he knew it.

And yet he was achieving commercial success, until Dark Horse came along. The critics eviscerated it and the public didn’t buy it, and they had good reasons; it is, especially by the high standard he established with 1970’s ambitious All Things Must Pass, so much tepid musical dishwater. You know you’re in trouble when an album’s only energetic cut is called “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” and boasts lyrics every bit as dumb as its title.

Much has been written about the soap opera that was Harrison’s life at the time. Eric Clapton made off with his bird, and he’d returned to using drugs, and the various other romantic entanglements he found himself in were positively byzantine. In short he was going through his own version of John Lennon’s Lost Weekend, and to make matters worse he insisted upon dragging Ravi Shankar across the United States at about the same time Dark Horse was released and giving the sitarist a large share of the limelight, which irked just about everybody who paid good money to see the first Beatle to tour North America since 1966.

But none of those things explain why Dark House so adamantly and defiantly sucks. Yet another one of those “cast of thousands” LPs so popular in the seventies, the LP wastes the gifts of too many stellar musicians to mention. And several of those musicians—to wit Tom Scott’s of the L.A. Express—actually increase the LP’s suckage factor, as demonstrated by the lamentable slickness of opener “Hari’s on Tour (Express),” an instrumental that, thanks to Scott and horns, barely skirts the edges of smooth jazz. It’s jaunty but too slick by miles, and about as exciting as watching a dead goldfish. “Simply Shady” is rather drab when you realize it’s Harrison’s way of baring his soul about his return to drink and drugs. It’s not a terrible tune; the melody is serviceable and Roger Kellaway’s piano and organ liven things up a bit, and Harrison condescends to play some decent guitar, but the self-hatred implicit in George’s lyrics is a royal bummer, at least until he gets to the part where he sings, “You may think of sexy Sadie/Let her in through your front door/And your life won’t be so easy anymore.” Is he singing about some generic sexpot, or the Manson Family’s Sadie Mae Glutz, who most certainly wouldn’t make your life any easier, or longer for that matter? Inquiring minds want to know!

“So Sad” is a weep fest, with Harrison on guitar boring up the place with his woebegone vocals before the band comes in, and doesn’t do much. Only the slightly perkier chorus saves this one from being unlistenable, and why do I find myself wishing, as I do through the entire album, that George would crank up his guitar and deliver the goods the way he does on the fantastic “Wah-Wah” off All Things Must Pass? The closest you get on Dark Horse is the vacuous as its title implies “Ding Dong, Ding Dong,” which features bells, annoying horns, what sounds like a child choir, trite lyrics, and a kind of guitar mush produced by Harrison, Ron Wood, and Alvin Lee playing in tandem. That Harrison released this embarrassment as a single speaks volumes about the LP.

As for “Bye Bye, Love,” an adaptation of the Everly Brothers song, Harrison sounds frankly deranged, or at least not like himself, which given the weakness of his voice oughtn’t be a bad thing. He’s effectively botched the melody of the song, although to his credit his drumming and bass playing—this one was close to a one-man job—are excellent. To make matters worse it’s followed by “Maya Love,” which sounds remarkably like “Bye, Bye, Love” and would be a total hardship on the ears if it weren’t for the great Billy Preston’s stellar electric piano work, Harrison’s sturdy guitar playing, and the crack rhythm section of Willie Weeks on bass and Andy Newmark on drums. Why he put two such similar tunes back to back is a mystery, especially when neither one of them is particularly good, much less excellent.

“Dark Horse” is, despite Harrison’s remarkably raspy vocals—he should have called the damn thing “Dark Hoarse”—the LP’s only undisputed winner, thanks to a beguiling melody and great atmospherics, some nice flute by Scott, Chuck Findley, and Jim Horn, and Harrison’s admission that he’s been a cool jerk. “Far East Man” is a surprising foray into soul territory, co-written by Ron Wood. Scott’s saxophone doesn’t ruin this one, improves it in fact, and if I doubt I’ll ever listen to it again I’m willing to concede that its finer touches, like Billy Preston’s organ and Harrison’s stronger than usual vocals, make it more than listenable. If I just didn’t hear “I can’t let him down/He’s a policeman” instead of “He’s a Far East man,” I might even be able to make my peace with the tune.

Album closer “It Is ‘He’ (Jai Sri Krishna)” is a flute fiesta, and gives George a chance to do some melodic chanting. Its only strong points are the verses, Harrison’s plucky guitar playing, and his facility with the stringed percussion instrument the gubgubbi. Preston shows up late in the game to toss in some nice organ, but unless your tastes run to esoteric religion, this one is a bit too sacred by miles. He attributes supernatural powers to Jai Sri Krishna, and I found such things irksome. Keep your holy men to yourself, is the way I see it.

Dark Horse is a weak album, the kind of puny specimen that couldn’t do a single push-up if its life depended on it, and its lack of captivating songs—with the exception, again, of “Dark Horse”—makes it one of the duller LPs ever released by an ex-Beatle. I listen to “Ding Dong, Ding Dong” and I wonder, what was the man thinking? I recommend you stick to All Things Must Pass. It’s a masterpiece, of sorts, or at least the highlight of Harrison’s career, and worth listening to for “Wah Wah” alone. The man had it in him to write great songs; unfortunately, you’ll only find one of them on Dark Horse. But don’t take my word for it; check it out for yourself. Buy the album and listen to it. You may decide that my opinion is so much dark horseshit.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D

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  • Samantha

    I do believe “Sexy Sadie” is the name John Lennon used to refer to the Maharishi

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