Just to explain the concept again, since we’re new and all: This is intended to be a recurring feature. I’m going to challenge myself to look at things I enjoy and explain five reasons why I like them. Not everything I write about in this space will be a record (as in, an LP.) But that’s what we’re looking at tonight, again.
Today’s subject: One in a series of treadmill albums recorded by the former Beatles lead guitarist in the late ’70s and early ’80s before he got disgusted and took a five-year break to go watch the wheels. Released June 1981. Reached Number 11 on the Billboard album charts, driven largely by the success of its elegiac/nostalgic lead single.
And I like it because …
1. You never forget your first (or second, or third). It would have been either my 11th or 12th birthday, when I was starting to explore the wide world of music on my own two legs, when I asked my parents for some solo Beatle albums.
My dad was nonplussed. He didn’t rate solo Beatle material in the same league as the full band’s output, and he wondered why I would want to hear the solo stuff when I could hear the full band.
A fair cop, yes, but no matter. Come the big day, I received John Lennon’s greatest-hits compilation “The John Lennon Collection” on tape, and “Somewhere in England” on LP — possibly the first long-player I ever owned, and definitely one of the first three. There would be many more.
Despite his misgivings, my dad even dubbed the Harrison album onto tape, so I could listen to it on my Walkman while mowing my grandparents’ lawn.
I’ll chuck it one of these days. But I haven’t yet.
2. “Blood From A Clone.” After Warner Brothers Records rejected George’s original version of “Somewhere in England” in the fall of 1980 — too downbeat, they said — he went back and wrote several new songs.
One of them, “Blood From A Clone,” became the revamped album’s first song. And it’s a stinger, with a lyric and a backing track that both bleed with contempt for the music industry.
The music of the verse is offbeat in a funky kind of way, while the rhythmic shifts of the bridge make it damned near undanceable. One suspects that was George’s intent all along.
Meanwhile, lyrics like “There is no sense to it / Pure pounds and pence to it” blast an industry that sells style over substance: “Ain’t no messing ’round with music / Give them the blood from a clone.”
Basically, Warner Brothers asked George to kick their ass for a man, Artie Fufkin-style, and he obliged. And when I think of “Somewhere in England,” this is the song I hear in my head.
3. That one line in that one song. I’ve ranted before in other forums about the hit-or-miss lyrics of “All Those Years Ago.”
There’s all that spiritual claptrap about “forgetting all about God,” for starters. And the line about Mark David Chapman being “someone who offended all” always makes it sound like his biggest sin was farting at a tea party.
(On the whole, I consider the song an OK-to-pretty-good pop single. Some people think it’s too bouncy to be a good elegy. I think a bouncy pop song is not a bad way to pay tribute to a guy who wrote some pretty good pop songs himself.)
But in the middle of this OK-to-pretty-good pop song is a single line that cuts through:
“I always looked up to you.”
This is exactly the sort of thing you never get around to saying until the person you mean to say it to is gone. None of us do. The simultaneous confession of fondness and personal vulnerability is hard to get out from underneath the tongue.
And given the strained relationship between the ex-Beatles (Harrison and Lennon were reportedly on the outs before Lennon was killed), it’s easy to imagine that George never got around to telling John this in person.
For one line, at least, George Harrison — generational icon, spiritual seeker, rock god, guitar hero, Beatle — is a regular person with the same regrets and the same pain in his heart as the rest of us. I find that touching.
4. The Hoagy Carmichael covers. Yup, there’s more than one.
George goes back to his roots (or even his parents’ roots) and tackles the legendary songwriter’s “Baltimore Oriole” and “Hong Kong Blues.” The former is lush with string synthesizer and saxophone, while the latter gets a driving, spiky treatment that is pure 1981.
Honesty compels me to admit that George’s vocal on “Hong Kong Blues,” in particular, is frequently flat; and as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook, he ranks only slightly north of Marcel Marceau.
Still, I give him points for reaching into an unusual and imaginative bag, thirty years before his bandmate Macca would cut his own covers album.
It might also be seen as an act of humility. Rather than present a full album of his own songs (and I’m sure he could have written two more to fill out the record if he’d wanted to), this is George saying, “I like Hoagy Carmichael. He has nothing to do with rock n’ roll. He deserves your attention anyway. Check him out.”
5. Roots. The phrase “Somewhere in England” has a certain open-ended evocative power for me. It suggests that, somewhere in a distant island nation, magical and unique things are happening:
Somewhere in England, a young pop band is auditioning for the manager who will make them stars.
Somewhere in England, a wrinkled, stoop-shouldered craftsman in the employ of Her Majesty’s Secret Service is building a single-shot pistol into the heel of a man’s dress shoe.
Somewhere in England, a bulldog is sitting in a rose garden, eating bangers and mash.
For me, anyway, the title also has a personal resonance with the album’s creator.
I admit I am ill-equipped to gauge the English character. But it just so happens that many of the qualities I tend to associate with the British national character — insularity; a sense of class and place; a dry, playful sense of humor — are also qualities I associate with George Harrison.
(Insularity: George almost never toured, and recorded most of his solo albums in his own home. Sense of class and place: As late as 1995’s Beatles “Anthology” specials, George still had his charmingly thick Scouse accent. Sense of humor: Surely I don’t have to give examples.)
While his fellow Beatles made themselves over as New Yorkers (Lennon) or Los Angelenos (Starr); and while his ’60s rock contemporaries became beasts-of-no-nation tax exiles (Mick and Keef); George Harrison seemed to have his feet planted, literally and metaphorically, somewhere in England.