Exclusive: George Harrison's New Album
Brainwashed, the new and sadly last album from Beatle George Harrison, is a smash hit. I heard it last night at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, and it's a bona fide success. A bittersweet one, too, considering that Harrison has now been gone for almost an entire year. The album is set to be released on Tuesday, but so far it hasn't been leaked to the Internet the way so many new albums have, e.g. Whitney Houston and Justin Timberlake's latest.
The reason is Harrison's producer, Jeff Lynne, and mixing engineer, Ryan Ulyate, have literally treated Brainwashed like a top-secret government document. The whole thing has existed solely on Ulyate's hard drive, and he carries it with him wherever he goes. "When they need something, we don't burn a CD. I literally come in, plug in my hard drive, and we work from that. It's so secure that we've disconnected the Ethernet from the computers so there's no way someone can hack in from the Internet and get it."
Ulyate came to last night's listening party at Capitol, but not because he was invited by the label. His wife, Judith, called in to a radio station contest and won tickets to the private party. Funny story, no? "I didn't even tell Jeff Lynne about the listening party because I was afraid he hadn't been invited too," Ulyate said.
By coincidence, the Beatles' legendary mixing producer, Geoff Emerick, happened to be in an adjacent studio at Capitol working with a new group from Arcadia, California called The Syrups. Emerick worked with George Martin on almost all of the Beatles records (from Revolver on), as well as most of Paul McCartney's solo recordings and Elvis Costello's best albums — Imperial Bedroom and All This Useless Beauty. With some persuasion, he was coaxed out of his studio to come listen to parts of Brainwashed while it played on the audio system in the main room. Like everyone, he was taken with the lush first single, "Stuck Inside a Cloud," which would have been a guaranteed hit a decade ago. (We can't promise anything anymore giving the condition of radio.)
"People don't realize, it but George had a great sense of humor," Emerick recalled. "He was also such a gifted musician. On "Taxman," from the Revolver album, I can remember him writing the guitar parts backwards to get the effect. He could do anything. At first, John and Paul didn't realize how well he could write songs. But then they saw what he could do."
Harrison was also generous. Bruce Gary, the drummer from the Knack ("My Sharona"), recalled how, when he helped George record the soundtrack for the ill- fated Madonna/Sean Penn movie Shanghai Surprise, Harrison made sure he was paid immediately after the session. "On one session I didn't even do much, but George handed me a check for $3,000 when it was over. A check right there. No one does that. But that's the way he was. He was great."
The Brainwashed CD was preceded at the listening session by a seven-minute video that Harrison recorded in 2001 with his college-age son Dhani and producer Jeff Lynne. It showed him looking relatively robust and healthy, enjoying his estate and describing how the songs for the album were recorded. Despite the fact that most of the people in the room at Capitol were busy chowing down on free food and drink, the whole thing was poignant. On the tape, Harrison calls himself "old school." He says, "There's nothing magic about this. It's acoustic guitars played by musicians into a microphone that leads to a tape recorder."
No mention is made of Harrison's illness on the video. Instead, we see George sitting on the pointy chairs in his garden that graced the cover of "All Things Must Pass." He and Dhani —who is a young replica of his dad with enormous poise and grace — discuss how much ukulele is used on the album and Harrison's love of composer Hoagy Carmichael.
Discussing how he writes songs, Harrison says, "I try to write about what my experiences are." He also comments about current music: "No one seems to listen to anything these days. We all have cloth ears." Talking about his life now, Harrison observes: "Sometimes I feel like I'm on the wrong planet. I often wonder, What am I doing here?"
Jeff Lynne, who created the Electric Light Orchestra and worked with Harrison on the Traveling Wilburys, sums up Harrison: "I think he'd like to be remembered as a great musician and gardener."
The Syrups, a new group from Arcadia, California, are so good that they've brought producer Geoff Emerick out of retirement.
Emerick, who recorded most of the Beatles' work and Paul McCartney's best solo work (Band on the Run, Tug of War, Flowers in the Dirt, Flaming Pie), has not worked on a new album since McCartney's 1999 rock and roll album Run Devil Run.
The transplanted Brit heard The Syrups and instantly fell in love with them. "No other group has had this energy since the Beatles," he told me. And Emerick has heard everything, believe me.
To make the Syrups story even tantalizing, they are signed to the brand new Beck Records of Hollywood, which has a distribution deal with Universal, but will launch with the Syrups album. The owner is a former Hollywood attorney who decided to start a record company when he heard the group. Ironically, before all this attention, the Syrups were so out of pocket that when they recorded demos at Capitol Studios the studio manager was demanding cash up front before they came to work. All that has changed now.
In the studio, Emerick is having the Syrups do a lot of the same things he did with the Beatles. They're recording live, and playing instruments backwards and forwards the old fashioned way. They're not using Pro Tools or any of the other computerized systems that have made albums sound so cold in the last few years.
"Paul [McCartney] called me the other day and asked me to help him fix a DVD recording he's putting together. He's been using Pro Tools and he realized that's why the thing didn't sound right. He said, 'Can you come make this sound like a record?'"
Will the Syrups be a hit? Will Harrison be a hit? Who knows? The other day I came across a wonderful album released by Graham Parker in 2001 and sent straight to the discount bin. No one ever knew it came out, but it ranks not only with Parker's best work but also with the best of that year, without a doubt.