The 1930s have been called a “low dishonest decade,” and it’s arguable that musically the same could be applied to a lot of the music that came out in the 1980s. The arrival of the ubiquitous synthesizer en masse, the rise and rise of digital, and the whole MTV phenomenon did much to derail some musicians, both old and young. But nothing was going to derail George Harrison with the coming of the decade… he had a new record to deliver.
He began recording the album that would become Somewhere in England in March 1980 and work continued in his home studio at Friar Park at a leisurely pace for the next seven months. According to George’s son, Dhani, it was because his father was somewhat preoccupied. “He’d garden at night time, until midnight.” In Olivia Harrison’s book, Living In The Material World, she says, “He’d be out there squinting because he could see, at midnight, the moonlight and the shadows, and that was his way of not seeing the weeds or imperfections that would plague him during the day, so he could imagine what it would look like after it was done. He missed nearly every dinner because he was in the garden. He would be out there from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.”
When George initially delivered his album to Warners in September 1980 they deemed it too laid back. Clearly, they were caught up in the prevailing mood of the new decade…post-punk-itus.
George agreed to drop four of the tracks that he’d delivered and set to work on some new songs. These were completed in February 1981, with all that happened in the world of the ex Beatles it is surprising, in some senses, that it was completed at all.
It was in December 1980 that John Lennon was murdered and the terrible event spurred George to return to his composition, “All Those Years Ago.” He and Ringo had recorded the song in November with a view to its inclusion on Starr’s album, Stop And Smell The Roses that was scheduled for release in 1981.
Instead, George felt compelled to write a new, nostalgic, lyric as a tribute to John, and the song was re-cut with George singing lead, Ringo on drums, Paul and Linda McCartney on backing vocals, and appearances by friends such as Ray Cooper, Denny Laine, Al Kooper, and Herbie Flowers. Released in May 1981, ahead of Somewhere In England that came out in June, “All Those Years Ago” spent three weeks at No.2 in America.
George was later obliged by the record company to change the original album cover, featuring an image of him overlaid on an aerial shot of the UK, to one of him standing in front of “Holland Park Avenue Study.” The original cover was reinstated in the 2004 reissue that was part of the “Dark Horse Years” box set.
One of George’s favorite tracks on this record is the opening song, the wry “Blood From A Clone.” With his trademark dark humor, he observed the fact that some of his music was apparently no longer right for the times. “They say you like it, but knowing the market, it may not go well, it’s too laid back,” he sang. “You need some oom-pah-pah, nothing like Frank Zappa, and not New Wave, they don’t play that crap…try beating your head on a brick wall, hard like a stone…don’t have time for the music, they want blood from a clone.”
He later explained to Creem magazine: “That was all this stuff they were telling me: ‘Well, we like it, but we don’t really hear a single.’ And then other people were saying, ‘Now, look, radio stations are having all these polls done in the street to find out what constitutes a hit single and they’ve decided a hit single is a song of love gained or lost directed at 14-to-20-year-olds.’ And I said, ‘Shit, what chance does that give me?’
So… I wrote that song just to shed some of the frustrations. ‘There is no sense to it, pure pounds and pence to it…They’re so intense, too, makes me amazed.’”
Among the standout songs on the album is the evocative lyrical, and philosophical, “Writing’s On The Wall,” that was the B-side of “All Those Years Ago.” George also covered two songs written by Hoagy Carmichael, “Baltimore Oriole” and “Hong Kong Blues,” the latter covered in the 1960s by Spanky & Our Gang. Both songs, despite being written in the 1940s, sound like they might be Harrison originals. For many, “Life Itself” is THE best track on the album, and it’s easy to hear why; it is classic George – spiritual and evocative at the same time.
Somewhere In England made its UK debut at No. 13 on the chart of June 13, 1981, and spent a second week in the top 20 before descending. The LP made the American chart on 20 June, climbing to No. 11 in a 13-week run. 18 months later, George returned with Gone Troppo, after which he wouldn’t be back with an album under his own name until the Cloud Nine triumph of 1987.