PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Living in the Material World’

Our latest installment in a series of articles looking back at solo Beatles albums of the past features Brad Hundt’s re-evaluation of George Harrison’s 1973 collection “Living in the Material World,” an album once bashed by some as sour and sanctimonious. Viewed now in the context of Harrison’s complete canon, Hundt thinks it showcases many of George’s best virtues …

living album cover

 

A Visit to Harrison’s Spiritual World

As I noted in an article for Beatlefan two years ago to mark the 40th anniversary of George Harrison’s “Living in the Material World,” the first copy of that album I purchased reeked of incense for years after I brought it home, thanks to its having lingered in the bins at a head shop in Toledo, Ohio, where the scented sticks burned at levels one would typically associate with an industrial site.

It never bothered me, though. In fact, it seemed wholly appropriate, given the nature of “Living in the Material World.”

As Harrison’s musical career hit the shoals in the latter half of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, fans and critics tended to see “Living in the Material World” as the point where the decline began. Sure, it contained a No. 1 hit single, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” and the album itself was a chart-topper, but they bemoaned the sour mood that hangs over parts of  it, the occasional bursts of sanctimoniousness, and its heavy infusion of Krishna consciousness.

From “All Things Must Pass” to “Brainwashed,” Harrison explored his spiritual inclinations, but never to the extent that he did on “Living in the Material World.”

A Last Supper-style album photo of Harrison and friends at Friar Park.

A Last Supper-style album photo of Harrison and friends at Friar Park.

Four decades later, and with Harrison’s canon now complete (unless a trove of unreleased material emerges), it’s possible to see “Living in the Material World” in a different light. While not attaining the grandeur of “All Things Must Pass” or possessing the warmth and accessibility of “Cloud Nine,” “Living in the Material World” showcases many of Harrison’s best virtues — tasteful production, top-tier guitar playing and songs that are insistently melodic.

“Living in the Material World” opens with “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” probably the only song ever to go to No. 1 that was about the desire to be free of the cycle of birth and rebirth that figures so heavily in Eastern philosophy. It has a piano part by Nicky Hopkins that echoes Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” and is the first showcase for Harrison’s slide guitar on the disc.

A bit of religious mockery from Harrison.

A bit of religious mockery from Harrison.

The album moves on to “Sue Me, Sue You Blues,” which finds Harrison in a more humorous — and more biting — mode. Originally given to guitarist Jesse Ed Davis for his album “Ululu,” the slide guitar stings as Harrison offers up an ode to the legal problems swirling around Apple Corps and The Beatles, with the lines “court receiver / laughs and thrills  / but in the end, we just pay those lawyers their bills…” It’s one of the album’s most memorable – and best – tracks.

“The Light That Has Lighted the World,” originally offered to fellow Liverpudlian Cilla Black, finds Harrison musing how “some people have said that I’ve changed” and these same people are “so hateful of anyone who is happy or free.”

“Who Can See It,” also on the album’s first side, continues in this vein, using a gospel-style piano and organ introduction for a reflection on how he has been “held up” and “run down” and how he’d been “towing the line” for years. However, Harrison offers defiance in saying that “my life belongs to me…”

What led Harrison to this defensive posture after the triumphs of “All Things Must Pass” and “The Concert for Bangladesh” is something for an in-depth biography to explore.

Sandwiched between those two songs is “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long,” the single-that-never-was from the album. A breezy, simple offering, with touches of Phil Spector-style grandiosity, it demonstrates Harrison’s ongoing affection for soul and rhythm & blues.

The album’s first side closes with the title track, a rocking statement about Harrison’s desire to slip the bounds of earthly yearning and head to “the spiritual sky.” It contains autobiographical elements, including references to the other three Beatles, with Ringo Starr offering a drum fillip after Harrison sings that they “got Richie on a tour.”

More album art from "Living in the Material World."

More album art from “Living in the Material World.”

The second side of “Living in the Material World” opens with “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord),” the album’s nadir and one of the low points of Harrison’s career. It’s a finger-pointing exercise in sanctimony, and Harrison sounds like a fundamentalist minister railing about how we all must get right with the Lord, otherwise if we don’t give, “then (we) won’t get lovin,” along with cliched admonishments that the Lord “helps those that help themselves.” This would have been one better left for the cutting-room floor.

However, the album gets back on track with the lovely “Be Here Now,” an underrated Harrisong that, like The Beatles’ “The Inner Light” five years before, puts Eastern philosophizing to music. This, however, is much simpler than “The Inner Light,” using a minimal setting with an acoustic guitar in the foreground.

The relaxed, reflective mood is broken by Harrison’s rendition of “Try Some, Buy Some,” which was originally recorded by Ronnie Spector and released as a single on the Apple label in 1971, with Harrison and Phil Spector splitting production credits. Harrison must have felt the song deserved wider exposure, so he decided to try his hand with it, placing his own vocals atop the instrumental track that was originally cut. It’s not a bad song, but feels somewhat out of place. Coincidentally — or, perhaps not so coincidentally — it’s followed by “The Day the World Gets Round,” which has a Spectoresque sweep.

The album closes, appropriately enough, with “That Is All,” a plaintive love song that caught the fancy of Andy Williams, who recorded it that year for his album “Solitaire,” which was produced by Richard Perry, a Harrison pal who also produced Starr’s album “Ringo” in 1973.

Soon enough, Harrison fell from favor with critics and segments of the record-buying public. Though some of the albums he released later in the 1970s, like “Thirty Three and a Third” and “George Harrison,” are arguably better, “Living in the Material World” was the last point, until “Cloud Nine” 14 years later, that Harrison seemed unassailable.

— Brad Hundt

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2 Responses to PLAY IT AGAIN: ‘Living in the Material World’

  1. James Percival says:

    I’m really enjoying this album retrospective (and an opportunity to add a little bit myself). I think that they have all been balanced and informative reviews and I find myself agreeing with nearly all of the points. So what can I add?

    Well, if I had to rank George’s solo albums then it would be ATMP, Cloud 9 (two of my all time favourite albums let alone ex Beatles), 33.1/3, Brainwashed, and then probably a tie between Living in the Material World and George Harrison. In other words somewhere in the middle. It probably was a decline from the stellar start to his solo career, and with hindsight (always a wonderful thing) it can be seen as start of the graph downwards leading to Dark Horse, but there are some points in its favour. To begin with whatever the decline in overall song writing I prefer the cleaner production and sound of Living in the Material World, and personally I think ATMP would be an even greater album without the superfluous third record and the wall of sound production. And there are some real ‘growers’ such as Be Here Now, Don’t Let me wait too long (which I recently read a lovely review for) and the title track. I certainly have found myself playing it a lot in recent years and surely that means something.

  2. I listen to this album all of the time. And by all of the time, I mean “all of the time”. How could anybody see this as a beginning to a decline? The songs are wonderful, and it’s sanctimoniousness (is that really a word?) I disagree with completely. Maybe the problem is not the message, but the listener? I mean this quote “the album’s nadir and one of the low points of Harrison’s career. It’s a finger-pointing exercise in sanctimony” when I say maybe the problem is within the listener. I did say maybe. After all, there are higher expectations for humanity other than email and social networks. I’m also wondering why anybody would hear too much “krishna” in this album? Well, maybe you’re listening to a different album than I am? Or, maybe you were listening to it backwards (I thought it was funny.)? The other albums that you mention and put before this one, they are very good albums as well, but this one is a jewel in his crown. In other words, let the critics of the songs in the album do better if they think they can. The world is critical, but if you can’t do the same or better maybe you should keep opinions to yourself. In other words, let one critic of this album do the following: write the songs themselves, all of the music (with each individual instruments part), rehearse those songs, get the band in sync, and at some point (when or if you are ready) record said songs. You can also through in there some production (including overseeing and managing the sound recording, of course). Oh, and add maybe some promotional work for your own “album”. Of course I have to add the obligatory “just saying” to the end of this paragraph. Just saying…

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