Behind that locked door – why does George’s rare material remain in the vaults?

On recently re-reading the book The Beatles After The Break-up, 1970-2000, I raised an eyebrow when I read its report of an interview George gave to Billboard magazine in June 1999. In it, he revealed he was compiling a box set of solo demos, outtakes and unreleased recordings, and was also planning to reissue all his albums with possible unheard bonus tracks. While the albums were all (eventually) remastered and made available again, there has been narey a mention of the promised box set since George’s demise in 2001. So my eyebrow ascended even higher when I read the press release in March – almost 24 years on – that George’s catalogue was “coming home” to his Dark Horse Records label. Would this move herald the long-awaited treasure trove of rare and unreleased Harrison recordings we were promised back then? Well, not on the face of it; instead, we’re going to get Spatial Audio versions of his albums (whoopee!) and, in the words of Dhani Harrison, “all the custom limited vinyl we can get away with”. In other words, their immediate priority is to re-sell us the stuff we’ve already got. Sigh.

A classic ‘All Things Must Pass’ era shot of George, used on many a bootleg

Of all the solo Beatles back catalogues, the handling of George’s must be the most frustrating, and certainly the most parsimonious when it comes to dishing out hard-to-find goodies. Ringo has done precious little to exploit or simply curate his tangled body of work (which is spread across several different record labels), true, but there’s probably not much demand for it outside the hardcore Beatles fanbase, so that’s probably understandable. Yoko and the Lennon estate, on the other hand, have given us a steady stream of John archive releases over the past four decades, not to mention the long-running Lost Lennon Tapes radio series which aired a sizeable chunk of his private tape collection and has provided a boon for bootleggers ever since. You might say the worthwhile rarities have been stretched a little thinly over too many different official releases (some of which are no longer available), but you can’t accuse Yoko of hoarding John’s work away from a world still eager to hear it. Paul’s re-marketing of his back catalogue through his McCartney Archive Collection series of remastered albums and box sets has been often disappointing in its stingy, scattershot approach to offering up bonus material (and, indeed, the whole project now seems to be in limbo with no new releases in three years), but at least we’ve had some good stuff – painfully slow and incomplete as the output has been. But George? It really has been crumbs from the master’s table and, for me, that’s unfathomable.

Going back to the start of the century, George was as good as his word by putting out an upgraded version of his magnum opus, All Things Must Pass, to mark its 30th anniversary in 2000. Resisting the urge to remix or ‘de-Spectorise’ the hefty production of the original album, he nonetheless beefed up its sound and also gave us a handful of unreleased tracks. True, there weren’t loads of them, but we did get the lovely ‘I Live For You’ from the original sessions and a fun, if inessential, modern-day reworking of ‘My Sweet Lord’. It was stuff George was comfortable with people hearing, and boded well for later albums in his canon. His untimely death the following year inevitably put the whole process on hold, and the focus understandably shifted to completing and released the album he’d been working on in his final days, Brainwashed, which emerged in 2002. A couple of year later, however, we saw the welcome return of all his Dark Horse label albums spanning 1976-1992 to print, all newly remastered and with bonus tracks…except that the paucity and selection of that extra material proved a huge let-down. A meagre six tracks were stretched out across five studio discs, half of them being randomly chosen (and fairly forgettable) demos.

The original cover of ‘Somewhere in England’ – recycled for the 2004 re-release, but without the original songs

Most baffling of all, while 1981’s Somewhere in England album was issued with its original sleeve artwork (vetoed at the time by Warner Bros record execs), of the four tracks famously culled from its original line-up, only one (‘Tears of the World) appeared on any of the new CDs – tucked away on Thirty-Three and 1/3….an album recorded years earlier. The excellent ‘Flying Hour’, one of George’s finest solo moments in my book, was thrown out as a digital-only download. You know, because it couldn’t possibly have been slotted into the 35 spare minutes on the Somewhere in England CD. It was as if George’s original intentions for the record had been thwarted a second time, and the whole approach to these releases showed a shocking lack of care and interest in his catalogue.

At least we were still getting product from the Harrison estate, though. In 2006 we had the remaster of 1973’s Living in the Material World – again, barring a couple of B-sides from the era, nothing in the way of unheard bonus material, but better than nothing. And in 2007 there was the hugely successful repackaging of the two Traveling Wilburys albums. Not a core part of George’s canon, perhaps (and records I’ve personally never really warmed to), but ones which definitely deserved an audio polish and a return to the marketplace. The very questionable Harrison ‘best of’ collection Let It Roll followed a couple of years later, but it was the announcement of an accompanying release to Martin Scorcese’s 2012 documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World which really got the juices flowing. Surely, with the accompanying publicity around the film, this was the perfect time to finally put out that career-spanning rarities box set George had promised us? Alas, Early Takes Vol.1, when it emerged, was one to file under “crushing disappointment”. Clocking in at barely 30 minutes, it comprised a grab-bag of acoustic demos seemingly chosen at random – largely plundering the All Things Must Pass era (again), but also including a pair of totally unconnected cover versions recorded sometime in the 1980s, ‘Mama You’ve Been On My Mind’ by Bob Dylan and the Everly Brothers’ ‘Let It Be Me’, the only ‘new’ songs in the set. Released with little fanfare, almost as an after-thought to the documentary, the album unsurprisingly made little impression on the charts, peaking at #66 in the UK (though it fared better in the US, hitting #20 before quickly disappearing). I’m not really surprised, as I’m sure I’m not the only frustrated fan who passed on it. Giles Martin, who produced the record, said there was still a large amount of George’s recorded archive left to explore (no kidding!), but in the 11 years since – with not even a hint of a follow-up – the album’s Vol.1 subtitle has looked more and more like a troll of George’s fanbase by the Harrison estate.

The disappointing ‘Early Takes’ album from 2012. It didn’t even have a solo-era photo on the cover

In 2014, we finally saw the appearance of George’s two remaining post-Beatle albums in remastered form, Dark Horse and Extra Texture. But, once again, the bonus content was pitiful, with just three tracks spread across the two discs – a B-side and a demo on the former, and a latter-day reworking of ‘This Guitar’ on the latter. And that was pretty much that for a staggering seven years, until we were treated to a hefty box set commemorating the 50th anniversary of All Things Must Pass in 2021. Surely, I hear you say, you must have been pleased with a remixed version of the album and a further three discs containing 47 demos, outtakes and unreleased tracks? This must show the Harrison estate has turned over a new leaf and is now ready to crack over the vaults and let us enjoy a wealth of unheard Harrisongs, right? Well, yes and no. After the drought we’d endured for the previous two decades, this set offered up a veritable flood of unreleased material and was of course to be welcomed. But I also think it obscured a couple of uncomfortable truths. First, ATMP seems to be the only George album that his family and record company view as having any lasting merit – this represented the fourth time it had been re-released on CD (twice as many times as his other works) and it dominates the way they market his entire body of work, whether on compilation albums or authorised tribute concerts. Second, even if that wasn’t the case, it is undoubtedly true that – being by far the most critically acclaimed, commercially successful and well regarded of all his releases – it is the only Harrison album which could justify a super-expensive archive set like this. With the possible exception of Living in the Material World and Cloud Nine, I just don’t see there’s a market for exhuming the rest of his back catalogue in this way. John’s and Paul’s solo work, which was more consistently successful, can sustain deluxe deep-dive sets (though even those series probably have tight profit margins and seem to have stalled in recent times), but I’d struggle to believe bulk of George’s albums would be commercially viable for such a venture. The fact that we’ve now reached the 50th anniversary of Material World without even a hint of a lavish anniversary release probably tells its own story.

So, what is the best way forward to tastefully plunder and showcase the unheard or hard-to-find riches of the Harrison archive? Well, funnily enough, why not return to the idea George himself mooted back in 1999 and put together a box set containing the cream of his unreleased and rare material? There’s surely plenty to choose from. The compilers could start by pulling together all the odds and ends released in one form or another during George’s lifetime which are currently available only as scratchy, lo-fi versions on out-of-print discs, bootlegs or YouTube, and giving them a badly-needed remaster. For example, ‘Mo’, the song cut in the late ‘70s as a tribute to Warner Bros Chairman and close friend Mo Austin; all four songs cut from the original version of Somewhere in England and later released on CDs making up the limited edition, super-expensive Songs by George Harrison book packages in the late 1980s; ‘Hottest Gong in Town’, a leftover from the 1986 Shanghai Surprise soundtrack; ‘Poor Little Girl’ and ‘Cockamamie Business’ from the long-since defunct 1989 Best of Dark Horse compilation; ‘Ride Rajbun’ from the 1992 animated TV series The Bunbury Tales, and Harrison’s final recording ‘Horse to the Water’, his contribution to Jools Holland’s 2001 album Small World, Big Band. These were all approved for release by George during his lifetime, yet remain glaring omissions from his officially available CD catalogue. What are they waiting for?

Artwork for ‘Pirate Songs’, one of the many George bootleg releases

There is also some low-hanging fruit to be picked from his (admittedly limited) concert output. Even if you discount his 1974 North American tour material (which warrants a stand-alone release all of its own – a subject for another time, perhaps), that still leaves a couple of tracks briefly played at the start of his 1991 Japan concert dates but left off the resulting Live in Japan album (‘Love Comes to Everyone’ and ‘Fish on the Sand’), plus the two songs he performed at the 1992 Bob Dylan 30th anniversary tribute show in New York, ‘If Not For You’ and ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’. You could even throw on the versions of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ he played at the 1987 Prince’s Trust show in London. Then there are unreleased studio recordings. There many not be many finished ones, but we do know there is the oft-bootlegged Dylan cover version ‘Abandoned Love’, plus a song called ‘Valentine’ recorded in the 1990s and name-checked in that 1999 Billboard interview. And, as Early Takes illustrated, we do know he cut a copious quantity of home demos over the course of his lifetime – Olivia has spoken of finding cassettes hidden in drawers at their Friar Park home containing songs she never knew existed. Some of these tunes may not be completed, true, but surely there are at least a few songs (original or otherwise) worthy of release? There must also be a horde of demos for the songs which eventually made it onto his albums, not just the handful begrudgingly dished out as bonus tracks thus far, not to mention early takes, alternative versions and remixes.

Whichever way you slice it, there’s surely enough material here for something similar to 1998’s excellent John Lennon Anthology set – four discs which cherry-picked the best of John’s private archive. The Harrison estate could follow the same (broadly) chronological approach that collection did, or compilers could break it down into specific themes. Perhaps something like this:

Disc 1 – Rare and unreleased live/studio recordings, 1978-2001 

  • Mo
  • Lay His Head
  • Sat Singing
  • Flying Hour (original mix)
  • Tears of the World (original mix)
  • Abandoned Love
  • Hottest Gong in Town
  • While My Guitar Gently Weeps (live, 1987)
  • Here Comes The Sun (live, 1987)
  • Poor Little Girl
  • Cockamamie Business
  • Love Comes to Everyone (live, 19991)
  • Fish On The Sand (live, 1991)
  • If Not For You (live, 1992)
  • Absolutely Sweet Marie (live, 1992)
  • Ride Rajbun
  • Valentine
  • Horse to The Water

Disc 2 – Demos, early takes, alternative versions and remixes, 1970-1979

Disc 3 – Demos, early takes, alternative versions and remixes, 1980-2001

Disc 4 – Home demos – unheard Harrisongs and cover versions, 1970-2001

Another illegal attempt to plug the gaping holes in the official Harrison catalogue

Of course, I’m erring on the conservative side with this – it could run to six discs, or even two box sets – but there are simply too many unknowns to be really ambitious. We don’t know how much releasable stuff is in the vaults, or whether George left any specific instructions about what could or could not be put out (considering how the recent ATMP box really opened the floodgates, though, I’d imagine he must’ve been quite relaxed about it). And the custodians of his back catalogue, Olivia and Dhani, have largely been reluctant to let us hear much of it thus far. But I would argue that, if they really want to do justice to his output already in the public domain and also spotlight his unreleased gems (and swell the family coffers into the bargain), now is the time to do it. The market for these kind of deluxe packages is dwindling, and the neglect of the past two decades means George’s post-1970 solo work has already largely faded from the public consciousness. If the Harrisons think the music lovers of tomorrow will be salivating over the prospect of hearing home demos of Gone Troppo material, for example, I would suggest they are gravely mistaken. If nothing else, why not test the water and put something like this out, and allow those of us who have waited 20 years the chance to enjoy it before our hearing gives out? After all, it was something George himself had in mind, and I’m sure he would trust his family to make the right choices about its content. Waiting around and planning some kind of long-term legacy release plan makes zero sense. As George himself wrote, in one of the songs which is crying out for a CD release, “The past it is gone/The future may not be at all/The present improve the flying hour.”


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