Filmmaker Martin Scorsese released a well-received documentary last year about the creative life of the quiet Beatle, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World,” an intimate and revealing look at Harrison deep in his work. Fans were sure to notice that the film featured not just a trove of archival film footage and home movies but also some first takes, alternative tracks and other audio material that had never been released.
Much of that music is now available on a new CD, “Early Takes Volume 1: Music From the Martin Scorsese Picture Living in the Material World,” released this week in tandem with the DVD/Blu-ray release of Scorsese's film. The album is available as a stand-alone CD as well as part of a deluxe set that includes the Scorsese film, the CD and an accompanying 96-page book that Harrison’s widow, Olivia, assembled last year.
“We really were doing it for the fans,” Olivia said recently in a joint interview with producer and musician Giles Martin, who oversaw production of the CD and who is the son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin. “They wanted to hear it, they’ve asked for it . . . They’re so close to the songs, and these early takes really get to the essence of the songs. You can almost hear the excitement in George singing these songs, which he’d written maybe a few months earlier, or perhaps the year before. It’s always an exciting time for a musician when you’re writing a new song -- or for any creative person, when you create something that’s new.”
“Early Takes” encompasses songs that figure into Scorsese’s film, which helped Olivia Harrison and Martin sift through the piles of archival material that George Harrison left behind when he died in 2001 of cancer.
There’s his embryonic recording of “My Sweet Lord,” his biggest solo hit and the song that became the first No. 1 single from a Beatle after the group broke up in 1970.
How early is the “Early Takes” version?
“It’s Take No. 1,” Martin said. “It’s not from the Phil Spector sessions” that became his watershed solo album “All Things Must Pass.” “It’s just George laying down the songs. It was the first time he played his songs with a band. It just shows the quality of his voice, the quality of his songwriting.”
Other works-in-progress versions of songs from “All Things Must Pass” are included: “I’d Have You Anytime,” which he wrote with Bob Dylan; “Awaiting on You All”; “Run of the Mill”; the title track; a late-'70s composition, “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me”; and his interpretation of Dylan’s “Mama You’ve Been on My Mind.”
“Early Takes” doesn’t include any of Harrison’s songs that the Beatles recorded. “A lot of Beatles material was touched on in the ‘Anthology,’ ” Martin said, referring to the 1995 TV miniseries that brought Fab Four outtakes and other archival material public for the first time in official form. “I do think it’s important that people are not sold the same thing over and over again.”
In addition to the hard copy of Olivia Harrison's companion coffee-table book that was published last year, the book is available this week in e-book form.
One of the more revealing moments among several bonus features on the Scorsese film is an in-studio conversation among Harrison’s son, Dhani, and both George and Giles Martin.
As they play back the original tapes for “Something” -- Harrison’s song that (along with “Yesterday”) is one of the most widely recorded of all Beatles compositions -- Giles Martin points out that it was the first Harrison song for which his father wrote an orchestral accompaniment.
George Martin had crafted string parts for Lennon and McCartney songs as early as 1965 with “Yesterday,” on through the signature orchestral tornado that creates the climax of “A Day in the Life.” He even scored the music for the animated Beatles feature “Yellow Submarine.”
But it wasn’t until the band’s final recording sessions for 1969’s “Abbey Road” that he extended the favor to some of Harrison’s music, and he has said in other interviews that one regret during his years as the Beatles’ indispensable fifth man was that he didn’t devote more time to nurturing Harrison’s music.
Olivia Harrison decided to label the audio disc “Volume 1” because she anticipates releasing additional tracks in the future. Among those she most prizes on this first release are “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me,” which takes on a benedictory tone in the wake of Harrison’s premature death, and her husband’s rendition of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me.”
“I remember the Everly Brothers had just come to England and that’s when he recorded that song,” she said. “Anything he did when I was around was special for me. I really wanted those tracks on there.”
Photo of George Harrison circa 1970. Credit: The George Harrison Estate.