July 29, 2001
Luxuriating in the Sprawl of That Early 70's Sound
By JODY ROSEN
EORGE HARRISON'S first solo record, the triple-LP "All Things Must Pass," was a grandiose declaration of independence. It arrived on record store shelves in November 1970, seven months after the Beatles' breakup, in a box that looked as if it should contain "Gφtterdδmmerung," and there was Wagnerian bombast in the reverb- swathed songs concocted by Mr. Harrison and his producer, Phil Spector. The album was, among other things, a Beatles post- mortem; its title and stark black-and-white cover photograph of Mr. Harrison long hair, long face, a solitary figure in the garden of a country estate sent a clear message: the Beatles are gone, the 60's are over, the vibes are bad.
But "All Things Must Pass" was less an elegy for a fading musical era than the herald of a new one. The vastness of the record's sound and 23-song sprawl announced not only the liberation of the Beatles' third-string songwriter but also the arrival of 70's rock, with its epic aspirations and hood-eyed guitarists soloing endlessly.
Three decades later, Mr. Harrison's good record is getting the Great Record treatment. A crisply remastered double-CD "All Things Must Pass" (Capitol/GN 7243304749) is in stores, complete with five bonus tracks and new liner notes by Mr. Harrison. Along with another of this year's most celebrated reissues Shuggie Otis's 1974 funk song-suite "Inspiration Information" the spruced-up "All Things Must Pass" provides a fresh look at the early- 1970's heyday of the LP, when rock and soul artists, brimming with confidence about pop music's social and aesthetic significance, embraced the album as their art form's supreme expression a place to make grand statements.
We associate that sort of ambition with the 1960's, but the truth is that it was only in the last third of the decade after the 1967 release of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" that musicians began to concentrate on albums. The glory of the 60's was the pop single; from the Beatles to James Brown to Motown's producers and performers, the era's greats concentrated on packing as much excitement and innovation as possible into three- minute songs. But by the turn of the decade, LP's had replaced 45's, even in traditionally singles-focused black pop. The watershed event may have been the rebellion of the Motown stars Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, who bucked their label's rigid regulation to make deeply personal and unorthodox theme albums.
Today, it's easy to be smug about the 70's. The decadence of the album-oriented period is preserved in the objects themselves: in pompous liner notes and packaging, like the cover of Isaac Hayes' 1971 "Black Moses" LP, which unfolded into a 4-foot-by-3-foot crucifix-shaped photo of Mr. Hayes grave, behooded, presumably just back from an audience with God. Disco and punk, the big genres of the decade's second half, were a response to early 70's excess, bringing song-based rigor back to popular music. Rock critics love punk and have distained the early 70's as the time when rock lost the plot.
Yet there is no denying the magnificence of the black music of the period, which included some of the greatest American records ever made. And the self-indulgence of 70's rockers doesn't seem so unforgivable: there is something disarming about their belief in rock as art; they were pretentious, but they weren't cynical. Mr. Harrison and Mr. Otis's reissued albums are a reminder of the charms and pitfalls of an irony-free moment when every other LP strove for world-beating grandeur.
In what might be the unhappiest metaphor in rock 'n' roll history, George Harrison likened the writing and recording of "All Things Must Pass" to a case of diarrhea a release from the frustration he suffered as a Beatle, when he had to make do with just a couple of his compositions appearing on any given record. "All Things Must Pass" has 10 times that many Harrison songs; the real feat, though, isn't the number of tunes but their epic shape. The record roars. Some songs feature two drummers, two bassists, two piano players, several guitarists, a horn section and a full string orchestra. Even at their most grandiloquent, the Beatles never dared construct as colossal a sound as that heard on ballads like "Isn't It a Pity" and "Let It Down."
Today, Mr. Harrison, whose struggles with cancer have made news in recent weeks, is embarrassed about the record's immodesty. "It was difficult to resist re- mixing every track," he admits in the new liner notes. "I would like to liberate some of the songs from the big production that seemed appropriate at the time, but now seem a bit over the top with the reverb in the wall of sound."
We can be grateful that Mr. Harrison restrained himself, for this would have been a crime of historical revisionism akin to air- brushing his flyaway hippie's beard out of the cover photo. The one new recording included here, "My Sweet Lord (2000)," an update of the album's big hit, is an indication of what Mr. Harrison would have done: stripped away the clutter to produce sleek contemporary guitar rock. This seems an especially terrible punishment to inflict on "My Sweet Lord," which grafts the melody from the Chiffons' teeny-bopper classic "He's So Fine" onto a paean to the Hindu godhead a song, like everything on "All Things Must Pass," that scorns decorum in pursuit of extravagant effect.
Mr. Harrison specializes in sad songs that step darkly through minor chord changes, delivered with a doleful catch in the voice. "All Things Must Pass" builds its big sound around a collection of typically modest Harrison tunes: downhearted, folk-rock confessions. The trick works. Inflated to operatic scale, numbers like "Art of Dying," the gruff, gospel-tinged "Hear Me Lord" and "Wah-Wah," a churning rocker in which Mr. Harrison trades lead guitar lines with Eric Clapton, are quite touching. The symphonic squall of these songs seems less about rock star hubris than Mr. Harrison's straining to express outsized emotions sorrow, regret, longing, writ very large.
"All Things Must Pass" has its share of great moments, but sitting through it is a task; 40 minutes into the record by which time you could have listened to all of "Sgt. Pepper" and disappeared out the door for a stroll in the sun it's unpleasant to realize that there are 18 songs left, including a five- and-half minute instrumental entitled "Thanks for the Pepperoni." The problem with "All Things Must Pass" is simply that there is too much of it: too many guitar lines stacked on top of one another, too many musicians playing too many songs too much of the George Harrison that Beatles records meted out in tantalizing doses. Over the course of two hours of music, the ear wearies of Mr. Harrison's quavering voice and the stolid march from minor chord to minor chord.
The freedom to pursue a project like "All Things Must Pass" was a blessing and a curse that the Beatles gave to popular music. The Beatles were the first group granted the privilege of unlimited time in the recording studio and the resources to make whatever music they fancied. Of course, there is a difference between what Beatles could do with a symphony orchestra and 34 hours of studio time create "A Day in the Life" and what a 70's art rock band might do under similar circumstances: record a 16-minute song about wizards.
Black musicians of the period did considerably better. The early 1970's set in motion a wave of studio experimentation in soul music that produced several of the finest LPs of the rock era: Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" (1971), Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions" (1973), Sly and the Family Stone's "There's a Riot Goin' On" (1971) and Curtis Mayfield's "Roots" (1971)
Shuggie Otis's "Inspiration Information" (Luaka Bop 72348-50473-2-9) is a long-overlooked product of this period, quintessentially 70's in its idiosyncrasy and ambition.
Mr. Otis was a 21-year-old guitar prodigy with three previous albums under his belt when "Inspiration Information" was released. His first two were pedestrian blues records; the third LP, "Freedom Flight" (1971) four of whose songs, including the wildly catchy "Strawberry Letter 23," are featured on the current reissue as bonus tracks was more expansive, hinting at the direction he would take on "Inspiration Information."
Three years in the making, "Inspiration Information" is flamboyantly arty, the work of a young musician determined to get it all in. It is also remarkably accomplished. In the tradition of R & B auteurship that stretches from Stevie Wonder to Prince to D'Angelo, Mr. Otis wrote every note and played nearly every instrument on the album. His string and horn arrangements are lush and surprising; his inventive use of drum machines and organ sequencing mark him as a man at least a half decade ahead of his time.
The music on "Inspiration Information" ranges impressively across genres. Songs like "Sparkle City" and the title tune juxtapose tight bass and organ-powered funk verses with passages that grade into jazzy psychedelia. "Rainy Day" is a beautiful instrumental piece, featuring gently strummed guitar chords and lyrical string counterpoint. The album's standout is "Aht Uh Mi Hed," which blends a samba beat, choppy reggae-style rhythm guitar, trilling flutes, strings and a wistful melody into a baroque swirl that sounds like anthem. "Out of my head, it's glowing," Mr. Otis sings, and you have to agree with him: his musical intelligence is luminous.
"Inspiration Information" sounds like the work of a rising star, groping his way toward greatness; it turned out to be a swan song. The record flopped in 1974, and Mr. Otis more or less dropped out of sight, touring sporadically, recording only as a session guitar player. The current reissue has been greeted by a flurry of hype and breathless reviews; suddenly, Mr. Otis's is the fashionable name to drop in certain rarefied musical circles.
THIS isn't altogether surprising. In a pop culture that continues to festishize the "Superfly" early 70's, Shuggie Otis has prime style-icon credentials: a "funky" name, hip lineage (his father is the R & B legend Johnny Otis), and, in photos taken at the time of the record's original release, the sort of majestic, period- perfect Afro that magazine editors in New York and London have decided is the essence of old-school cool. What's more, "Inspiration Information" has reappeared at just the right pop music moment. The drum machines and analog keyboards that were novelties when Mr. Otis used them are now ubiquitous; the blips and woozy textures of instrumentals like "XL-30" and "Pling!" sound familiar to anyone who has had even the slightest exposure to contemporary club music. Today's listeners are even growing accustomed to records with "Inspiration Information"-like sprawl. Technology has democratized the Epic Pop Album; increasingly, laptop musicians are undertaking their own epics, a task that, in the 21st century, requires neither Mr. Otis's multi-instrumental skills nor a George Harrison-size studio budget.
"Inspiration Information" is delightful but, rave reviews to the contrary, it is not a masterpiece, and Shuggie Otis is not Marvin Gaye. Nor is his music, as Luaka Bop would have it, "California Soul." The first part of the term seems right: with their sun-spangled arrangements and whiffs of New Age utopianism, the songs have something in common with the reveries Brian Wilson wrote for the Beach Boys. But Mr. Otis is not much of a singer; his songs lack the urgency of great soul music and don't deliver its catharsis. The landmark 70's soul LP's pioneered new sounds, tackled weighty subjects like war and sex, and drove audiences to the dance floor. "Inspiration Information" is a milder record, which washes soothingly over the listener like a warm breeze on a palmy coastline. While he didn't quite reach the heights of the greatest 70's soul heroes, Mr. Otis pulled- off his own futurist coup: in 1974, he made the best beach record for the summer of 2001.
Jody Rosen, a freelance writer, is writing a book about Irving Berlin's ``White Christmas.''
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company