During the 1960s, The Beatles were the flag-bearers for putting unreleased, non-album material on the B-sides of their singles. Well, I think most acts of the time did likewise but, from what I can gather, flip-sides were mainly full of filler, knocked-off tunes which were there to make up the numbers and didn’t last long in the memory. While there were a couple of those in the Fabs’ singles canon (for all their charms, ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’ and ‘The Inner Light’ deserve their B-side status in my book), most of them were more than decent, with some – such as ‘Revolution’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – vastly superior to most bands’ A-sides. True, the band did occasionally recycle album tracks as B-sides but, for the most part, they believed in giving fans real value for money – and had the creativity and productivity to be able to deliver it. After the split, the ever-prolific Paul continued this ethos, turning out a treasure trove of ‘bonus’ material from his earliest 45rpms through the 12-inch/CD single era of the 1980s and ‘90s and into digital/deluxe edition landscape of today. Ringo has released a smattering of otherwise unavailable B-sides over the years, while John (with one exception) relied on Yoko tunes or album material to fill out his single releases. Similarly, George rapidly gave up the ghost from the mid-1970s onwards, invariably coupling a pair of album tracks for his 45s and so offering little incentive for fans to buy songs they already owned. But in the early part of his solo career, he put out a trio of fresh B-sides which are curious anomalies in his catalogue, and well worth a listen.
It’s often said that songs were pouring out of George by the time The Beatles broke up, evidenced by the mammoth triple album which appeared at the end of 1970, All Things Must Pass. But I’m not so sure. Discounting the improvised noodlings which make up the third, ‘Apple Jam’ disc, there were just 18 tracks across the two other LPs (compare that with the 30 numbers crammed onto The Beatles two years earlier), one of which was a cover and another – ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ – was featured in two different versions. So there were 16 songs, which he’d effectively been stockpiling since 1966. True, there were some other tunes kicking around these sessions, but they were either never properly finished or emerged later in his career (‘Beautiful Girl’, for example). It was almost two-and-a-half years before he released another album (an eternity in those days), and after 1973 the flow of fresh material slowed considerably. His next three albums – Dark Horse, Extra Texture and Thirty-Three & 1/3 – contained just 22 new songs between them. In the last 19 years of his life, he released just one album and even 2002’s posthumous Brainwashed featured four or five songs which dated back many years. The point I’m making is that, while a steady composer, George was never as prolific as Paul or John, and so I guess that bonus material was always likely to be at a premium.
Nonetheless, despite the great outpouring on his first post-Beatles release, he still had enough juice in the tank for two completely new single tracks in 1971. ‘Bangla Desh’, written to order as pop’s first charity single, was the A-side and designed to raise awareness of the millions of refugees suffering in the war-torn, famine-hit country (as well as trail the all-star fundraising concert which George led in New York shortly afterwards). Considering the subject matter, it’s better than it has any right to be. Despite one or two contrived rhymes (“mess” and “distress”, for example), the music carries the day, from its plaintive piano intro through to the fruity saxophone and shuffling beat of the main section of the tune, aided by an impassioned vocal. It did the job it was created for, hitting the top ten in the UK and #23 in the US charts, and still holds up as a listening experience today, many years after the fact.
Flip the record over, however, and the focus shifts from an international tragedy to an intensely personal one. ‘Deep Blue’ was written in 1970 as George watched his mother Louise dying from a brain tumour, crystalising his feelings of sorrow and helplessness as all his wealth and status as a Beatle proved impotent in the face of her decline and suffering. He later described it as “an awful experience”, and the lyric also manages to weave in a bit of spiritual reflection as he tries to come to terms with his loss. He recorded the song in the run-up to the Bangla Desh concert and, intended or not, it provided a private echo to the very public disaster he was striving to alleviate.
Musically, however, I find it less convincing. In contrast to the lavish, extravagant production which adorned All Things Must Pass, this is a bare-bones effort – a dry piece of acoustic blues, punctuated with bursts of (admittedly very effective) bottleneck guitar, the sort of thing Ry Cooder might have come up with. When I first heard it, though, it reminded me more of contemporary Beatles antecedents: it was the kind of stripped down, lo-fi arrangement Paul employed widely on the McCartney album, mixed with a jaunty, country-style tune you might have found on Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues. And it’s that upbeat melody which jars in the context of the lyric, for me, and – along with its repetitive nature – makes it a rather slight offering. I have warmed to it since I first picked up the single in the late 1980s, but I’ve never concurred with critics and fans who view it as some sort of lost classic. I think its obscurity contributed heavily to that, as it didn’t appear on an official album release for 35 years, eventually surfacing on the 2006 CD reissue of Living in the Material World.
That same release also gave us the CD debut of another Harrison B-side which had been left to stew on crackling vinyl for more than three decades. ‘Miss O’Dell’ appeared on the flipside of George’s 1973 US #1 hit ‘Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)’ and was inspired by Chris O’Dell, an Apple company factotum who became a good friend of Harrison and his then-wife Pattie. It was apparently written in 1971 while George was waiting for her to visit his rented home in Malibu (not the first time he had whiled away time in this manner, replicating the creation of ‘Blue Jay Way’ before the arrival of Beatles insider Derek Taylor in Los Angeles four years earlier. Is California really that dull?). And while this song also touches upon the developing crisis on the Indian sub-continent that year, it does so in a much more playful fashion. In fact, the whole lyric beautifully captures his eye-rolling exasperation with not only international aid efforts but also aspects of the 1970s music scene, California and his old nemesis, fame itself (“That pushed-and-shoving ringing on my bell /Is not for me tonight / Why don’t you call me, Miss O’Dell?”).
The tune, eventually recorded during the Living in the Material World sessions, has a clear Bob Dylan feel to it, with acoustic guitars and harmonic very much to the fore. And it has a lovely flow, with some really nice chord changes and plenty of sly humour – note the way he sings “The record player’s broken on the floor” with a hint of his native Scouse, for example. As an in-joke, he even closes the record by reciting what turned out to be Macca’s old Liverpool phone number (some fans and authors read all sorts of things into this about the state of his relationship with Paul at the time, but I suspect it was just triggered by some random memory or other which just popped into his head on the day). Indeed, he must’ve been having lots of fun during the session, as he kept breaking down in fits of laughter during one of the takes – and, interestingly, that’s the one chose to put out on the record. A ‘straight’ version eventually emerged on the DVD accompanying the Material World reissue in 2006, but it seems strange to hear it without the infectious giggles. Either way, it is an utterly charming number and comfortably my favourite of George’s 1970s B-sides. It probably wouldn’t have fitted in with the ultra-serious material which made up Living in the Material World; though, on the other hand, it might have added some much-needed levity and deflected criticisms decrying the album’s perceived sombre, rather preachy tone.
The final standalone Harrison B-side of the 1970s was produced during the sessions for 1974’s Dark Horse, and came out on the back of the album’s lead single (‘Dark Horse’ in the US, ‘Ding Dong, Ding Dong’ in the UK). ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’, on the face of it, seems to emobody his growing disenchantment with the music industry, as evidenced by its title and the spoken word lines which it opens with: “Okay, here we go…/ We’ve got a B-side to make / We haven’t got much time now, so we’d better get right on with it.” George himself later recalled it was a one-take, don’t-give-a-shit sort of recording, reflected in its low-key nature and rough vocal performance (he was afflicted by laryngitis around this time).
And yet it’s actually a rather intriguing composition, which possibly represents his chaotic state of mind during this period, when his marriage to Pattie had broken down, a critical backlash against his work was underway and he was turning increasingly to drink and drugs for solace (his relationship with Olivia was just around the corner). Again, the scratchy acoustic guitars and jew’s harp betray a Dylan influence, and there are more wry references to his northern English heritage in the lyrics (notably on the lines “Now get back up them stairs” and “It’s likely to upset your Dad”). But it’s permeated by a world-weary mood which lends the tune real depth, and it’s lit up by a wonderful, heartfelt middle section where George lays bare the feelings he’s struggling to control about the lover he’s singing to. It’s almost as if he wrote a fine song in spite of himself; and while it’s a shame he didn’t take more care with it, perhaps the ramshackle approach is just what the tune needed. In my book, it’s better than a few of the tracks which made the cut for Dark Horse, and would certainly have made a better finale than the dreary, overblown ‘It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)’ – I always stick it on the end of my playlist for the album, at any rate. As it was, incredibly, ‘I Don’t Care Anymore’ didn’t get a CD release until the Apple Years 1968-75 box set in 2014, a full 40 years later.
And that, sadly, was pretty much that when it came to Harrison non-album B-sides. His remaining singles of the 1970s and early ‘80s were coupled with LP tracks (hell, such was his disillusionment with the record industry at this time, I sometimes think we were lucky to get A-sides, never mind anything else). His big comeback single in 1987, ‘Got My Mind Set On You’, did come with a standalone B-side, ‘Lay His Head’ (recorded seven years earlier for the rejected version of his Somewhere in England album), while follow-up hit ‘When We Was Fab’ offered the otherwise-unavailable instrumental ‘Zig Zag’ – a throwaway if ever there was one. And the record company request for a fresh B-side for his next single, ‘This Is Love’, was what ultimately led to the impromptu formation of the Traveling Wilburys, of course. The resulting track, ‘Handle With Care’, instead became their debut single, and no more rare George Harrison B-sides were ever forthcoming. It’s a shame, because while he was never one for churning out lots of spare material, there were more than enough songs on the cutting room floor he could have chosen from. I’m always bemused that the 1970 outtake ‘I Live For You’ didn’t appear until the 2001 All Things Must Pass reissue, for example. And the three other songs cut from the original version of Somewhere in England would, like ‘Lay His Head’, have made cracking B-sides. As it is, we’re still waiting for some of these tracks, and others, to see the light of day on a commercially available CD. The strange choices of the Harrison camp continue to ring down through the decades.