Monday, March 9, 2009

Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About George Harrison's CD Re-issue Program (and much, much more)

Part One : The Story So Far

In honor of George's recent birthday, I thought we'd take a look back at the solo material of Spike Wilbury, including how it's been handled, and what the future might bring. While the reissue campaign has been managed with class and dignity, there have also been many missed opportunities. In this two-part blog entry, I will explore the history of Hari's CD discography, what has been accomplished, what could have been done instead, and my thoughts on future releases.

Since 2001, George Harrison's CD catalogue has gradually been upgraded. All of George's major releases, which had been originally released on either the Apple or Dark Horse labels, are now being reissued under the Capitol umbrella. It was long overdue. George's albums originally released on his own Dark Horse label - from 1976's "Thirty Three and a Third" through 1992's "Live In Japan" -- were originally distributed by Warner Bros. records, and have been deleted since that deal expired. The earlier Apple (Capitol) albums, while still available, had not been improved in any significant way since their original CD releases in the 1980's.

All that changed at the beginning of this decade, while George was still with us. During some of his last interviews, he spoke not only of a new album he was working on ("Portrait Of A Leg-End", which was posthumously released as "Brainwashed"), and a box set of out-takes ("Portrait Of A Boot-Leg", which remains unreleased), but of work on re-issues of his solo catalogue. The 30th anniversary re-issue of his most successful solo effort, 1970's "All Things Must Pass", was a great way to start off the campaign, and a big improvement over the original, poorly handled, initial CD version of this masterpiece.

When "All Things Must Pass" was first issued on compact disc, it was sequenced by someone who, to be polite, did not have much imagination. In most cases, it would make sense to divide a triple album into two halves between sides three and four (like with The Clash's "Sandinista!", the original "Woodstock" album, and George's "Concert For Bangla Desh"). However, with this particular set, it's not "really" a triple album - the first 18 tracks, the two records with the orange-colored apples, are the heart of the collection. The short third album, a bonus disc called "Apple Jam", featured mostly instrumental improvisations featuring Eric Clapton's new group, Derek and the Dominoes, who were the house band for this collection, as well as some more of George's famous friends. The end result was a classic missed opportunity. While CDs were not able to hold more than about 75 minutes of content at the time, it would have made more sense to have disc one include sides one and two, and disc two sides three and four, plus the "Apple Jam". When the original “ATMP” CD was released, the first three LP sides - tracks one to 14 -were on the first CD. That meant just side four, with only the last four conventional songs, was on the second disc, followed by "Apple Jam", which gave the whole package a lop-sided feel. This made some sense when the album was divided this way on the reel-to-reel version, since the tape had the identical order as the actual vinyl set and kept the program flowing in the same aesthetic running order. However, with the new compact disc technology, the good folks at Capitol (and most other labels) were slow to recognize the advantages of the new format. To add insult to injury, this original CD release, as well as John and Yoko's "Some Time In New York City" (another two-disc set, again co-produced by Phil Spector, also with a black-and-white cover) was recalled because the initial pressings sounded horrible.

When the re-issue of "All Things Must Pass" was finally released in 2001, it was again heralded as a masterpiece, and Harrison was once again in the spotlight. It was especially touching, considering the rough decade that George suffered through - recovering from cancer, as well being stabbed by an intruder in December, 1999.

There were many improvements this time around, besides the obviously superior sound. The logical track order - with the discs divided after side two instead of side three - was implemented this time, but, with the improvements in the technology, there could have an even better choice. Since the 80 minute format was an option for this re-issue, a more satisfactory presentation would have been if the 18 studio tracks - sides one through four - were included as a single listening experience. (In fact, I keep my own, homemade CDR version in my car at all times). Then the "Apple Jam" (finally restored to it's original running order) and the five additional bonus tracks could be relegated to the second CD, as they are, by design, additional and separate content, and thus should be presented as it’s own entity. If they HAD done this, there would have been another obvious discovery - there was about 40 minutes left that could have been used to fill the discs up with even MORE great material. Besides George's reworking of his hit single "My Sweet Lord" (performed with melody changes that had nothing "Bright" about them), there were four tracks from 1970 that nicely compliment the original album (even if George somewhat unnecessarily did additional overdubbing.) Collectors, however, have at least three hours of treasured unreleased material that could have been used as a basis for additional content to be included. George was being, using his own phrase, a bit "chincy".

Then there's the artwork. George had a humorous idea to update the graphics by color-izing the cover, and showed the increased industrialization and pollution that had occurred over the previous three decades. However, the original triple vinyl set, packaged like a classical opera, was so iconic, that the original black and white cover, along with the colorful album sleeves (which included the lyrics), and those orange “apples” on the label, should have been preserved somewhere within the new package.(The same should have been done with the re-issues of John Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine").

In 2004, George was inducted, posthumously, into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame as a solo artist. We were unexpectedly rewarded with a box set of George's Dark Horse catalogue. It included five studio albums, and one double live CD. While it was nicely packaged, with a lot more attention paid to this reissue series -- bonus tracks, improved graphics, and, of course, great sound-- it did seem like a bit of a rush job, another missed opportunity to reward fans who were (in many cases) re-purchasing these albums for the second or third time. A DVD was also included.

The first four albums included only an extra track each, and one wasn't even from the appropriate sessions. Fortunately, 1981's “Somewhere In England” was repackaged with George’s original rejected artwork, but it did not include the four songs rejected by Warner Brothers in 1980. It would also have been nice to have the artwork from the first release along with the alternative photographs included in the booklet.

1987's hit album "Cloud Nine" featured two bonus tracks, but excluded the silly (but still desirable) "extended" version of "When We Was Fab". The 1991 tour document "Live In Japan" was released as a dual-disc, where those with a SACD player could enjoy the music with improved sound, but neither version included any bonus material. This release also repeated a minor annoyance from the original running order. During the actual concert performances, after "Piggies", Eric Clapton would play a four song segment, then George would start his second set with "Got My Mind Set On You". However, the new version of "Live In Japan" repeats the mistake of ending disc one with "Got My Mind", and starting the second disc with the song "Cloud Nine". While this would have made sense in the days of vinyl, the capacity of CDs can easily accommodate the integrity of the original concert performance. The three unique tracks only available on the out-of-print collection “Best Of Dark Horse 1976-1989” - “Poor Little Girl”, “Cockamamie Business”, and the single “Cheer Down” - could have been included here.

The accompanying DVD also had some treats: interviews, videos, previously unseen live performances from the 1991 tour of Japan, and his three songs from “Shanghai Surprise”, the Madonna/Sean Penn bomb of a movie financed by Harrison’s production company, Handmade Films. Again, one wondered - why not more footage ? I can understand not getting the rights to all of the clips used in “All Those Years Ago”, Harrison’s tribute song to John Lennon. But what about “Blow Away” ? Unless they couldn’t get the permission to use that giant rubber ducky . . . Plus there was obviously more footage from the tour of Japan, as well as interviews, and who-knows-what-else ? Again, another missed opportunity.

More recently, we’ve been lucky to have a few more refurbished Harrison albums to enjoy --1973’s “Living In The Material World”, plus the star (Starr ?) studded “Concert For Bangla Desh”, and “The Traveling Wilburys Collection”. I’ve always been a big fan of “Material World” - it’s like a more stripped down version of “All Things Must Pass”. There is a warm, comforting, spiritual feel to this album. It may not have been fashionable, but it was a continuation of Harrison’s work which was praised on “All Things Must Pass”. The regular CD included two great b-sides from that era (but not the single version of “Bangla Desh”). The deluxe version included a DVD with two wonderful unreleased audio tracks: a demo of “Sue Me, Sue You Blues”, and a non-laughing take of “Miss O’Dell”. It’s unfortunate these tracks were not made more easily available by adding then to the CD. The DVD also included footage of the hit single “Give Me Love”, from the 1991 tour of Japan, and a short documentary about the album. Again, cool stuff. But why so chincy ? The list price of the “deluxe” version makes one think they are getting a lot more that they end up receiving. Material World indeed. At least the packaging included a booklet, and the artwork replicated the original album cover and labels.

“The Concert For Bangla Desh” was finally re-released as a DVD (again with the option of a “deluxe” version) and on compact disc. These versions both include the one song Bob Dylan (with Harrison, Starr, and Leon Russell), performed only at the afternoon show (“Love Minus Zero”), while the DVD added a rehearsal of Dylan’s “If Not For You”, as well as additional footage. Still, the only place to get “Mr. Tambourine Man” was still the audio compact disc. Since there were two shows, it would have been nice to experience some of the alternate versions, but, all-in-all, it was a nice, classy package, appropriate for the mother of all benefit concerts.

“The Traveling Wilburys Collection” was re-released as a box set in June of 2007. The deluxe edition, especially, was a nice package, with two remastered CD’s, bonus tracks, a DVD, a book, photographs, “announcement” postcards, a sticker, and an individually numbered certificate of authenticity. However, there were still questionable decisions made. The four bonus tracks included were all from the “Volume 3” era, but were split evenly between the two CD's. There were also some alternate mixes and edits, as well as one unreleased alternate take, that were saved for the vinyl release. These could have easily fit as bonus tracks on the collection. (I’ve somehow managed to survive without owning these rarities) Collectors have also had alternate versions of many of these songs for years that could have been included. Curiously, there was also a different edit for the video of “Inside Out”, which was included on the DVD. Another video was not included here --the title track from the out-of-print benefit album “Nobody's Child: Romanian Angel Appeal “, which only featured footage of Romanian orphans. It was also interesting to note that the publishing credits changed for “Volume 1”, where the communal songwriting agreement on the original release was replaced by publishing credited to the principle songwriter. For more specific information about the Wilburys releases, please go here:

Well, this summarizes George’s mainstream catalogue so far. These re-issues have both looked and sounded great, but could have been improved with a bit more content and attention to detail. Both “Wonderwall Music” and “Electronic Sounds” were also released on CD at one time, with identical track listings to the original albums (although I believe the US release of “Electronic Sounds” mistakenly had each long instrumental on the incorrect side with the original vinyl release.) In an upcoming blog, I plan to address the rest of George Harrison’s catalogue, and what could be done to make it a truly superior project.