After declaring the end of the Beatles, Paul McCartney retired to a studio-equipped farm in Scotland and released two modest, true solo efforts as if to deflect all the expectations: the charmingly ramshackle McCartney followed by Ram, a proto-indie folk/pop record, a cloistered and insular “selfie” that was dismissed as fluff in its own time and is now widely regarded as his best post-Beatles effort and a five-star desert island necessity. On it, Paul flexed his multi-instrumental prowess and studio savvy (he alone among the Beatles positively lived in the studio) in the service of rustic and sweet throwaway tunes of the kind that must float out of his head when he sleeps. Elliot Smith never would have happened without Ram. Even now, 40 years later, Ram has all the freshness of a genuine rebirth.
In his more combative and demonstrative way, John Lennon also followed through on the return-to-basics statement that Let It Be was supposed to make with Plastic Ono Band, exploring both musical primitivism and Janov’s primal scream on what is one of the most harrowing and cathartic rock records ever made, if you buy into its authenticity. Imagine, released a short time later, appears in some ways as the moneyed commercial corrective to Plastic Ono Band. It is also quite great, making John the only Beatle with two serious contenders in the “best post-Beatles solo album” race.
Humble George won that race, however. The Phil Spector-produced All Things Must Pass is the one, if you simply throw the jam-heavy Disc Three in the garbage – or better yet, slide it into your dusty Derek and the Dominos cover with the stems and seeds in the centerfold. History has long understood ATMP as the repository of great songs that had never found purchase on Beatles albums, given George’s scanty allotment as third writer and given how dismissive the Beatles steering committee (John/Paul/George Martin) was of his writing talent.
But ATMP is no pastiche of fragments and accumulated bits. The backlog theory doesn’t account for the astonishing one-moment-in-time coherence of Harrison’s sprawling masterpiece. There is nothing back-to-basics, ramshackle or primitive about it; it is a conceptual mega-work, brilliantly realized.
It is also an unlikely rock classic for two reasons. First, while some of the album rocks in that Phil Spector wall-of-sound way (“Wah-Wah,” for example), its best moments are dreamy, gorgeous but radio-averse art song. The title track and “Isn’t It a Pity” would be the most famous examples of this mode, “Beware of Darkness” the most odd and beautiful.
It is often joked of George that he could be counted on for two great songs per Beatles album, and on his solo albums as well. ATMP in fact yielded two hits: the lawsuit pop of “My Sweet Lord” and the Spector-driven grandeur of “What Is Life”; but, from the album-opening “I’d Have You Anytime” on, the real genius of ATMP consists in its abundance of delicate, intricate and unsentimental ballads – a kind of song for which Harrison’s frail little voice was well-suited.
Second, ATMP is not just a spiritual record; it is devotional, rock reimagined as chant and prayer drowned in plate reverb and Hinduism. Unlike, say Bono, Harrison didn’t play with ambiguity regarding his spirituality. He doesn’t leave you wondering whether he is singing about God or a girl. It’s God. But because George had long been branded as the “spiritual” Beatle with the eastward lean and the sympathetic strings, ATMP’s naked religion wasn’t the commercial impediment that it would usually be.
On Saturday, January 18, Connor Kennedy inaugurates his monthly “Cover-to-Cover” residency at the Bearsville Theater by taking a swing at Harrison’s majestic solo debut (if you don’t count Wonderwall). It’s an ambitious way to kick off this series of whole-album tributes, but one suspects that the fellow is up to it. He’ll have his fine band in tow, along with special guests to account for ATMP’s many production flourishes and grandeurs.
An uncredited Eric Clapton contributed some of his most lyrical playing ever to ATMP, and the able axeman Kennedy will surely kill that stuff. The real question is how much shedding he’ll be putting into George’s distinctive slide guitar playing, which was essentially premiered on ATMP. Harrison may be the only significant slide guitarist in rock history whose melodic approach was not blues-based. Further, much of it was harmonized and multi-tracked. How will Kennedy approach that iconic, definitive sound?
As is well-known to locals, Kennedy’s singing voice is a force of nature, fit for scaling the peaks of a Van Morrison or a Joe Cocker more than for Harrison’s insubstantial, vanishing tenor. And that is yet another pleasant mystery attending this show: How will the huge-voiced Kennedy adapt to the tiny-voiced Beatle? Inquiring minds want to know.
Connor Kennedy Presents Cover-to-Cover George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Saturday, January 18, 9 p.m., $20 suggested donation, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, http://www.bearsvilletheater.com.