History: After taking the time off to work with his film production company, George was ready to make music again in 1987. He asked his friend Jeff Lynne to help him with production. Jeff also performs on the album, adding both instrumentation and backing vocals. Ringo, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Jim Keltner and Gary Wright also make contributions. This was a return to success for George, particularly with the single “Got My Mind Set on You” which reached number one.
My own personal history and initial prediction: As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while now as its one of the few albums I really do have a fair bit of history with. “Got My Mind Set on You” is of course the stand out here. I had been raised on the Beatles thanks to my dad, but this was the first song I genuinely loved on my own. I remember watching the music video and being enraptured by all the crazy things going on in the set behind him, thinking that squirrel in particular was hilarious, and yet also finding myself so clever when I realized he wasn’t really the one who got up and did the dance in middle. I was 6, okay? I only discovered the alternate video starring Alexis Denisof once Youtube came around. I also had no idea that the song was a cover up until a few years ago. My love was largely restricted to just that song until my freshman year of high school when a friend knew I was obsessed with the Beatles (because this was post Anthology) and offered to loan me a cassette version of Cloud Nine. It was not a permanent loan, and I guess I didn’t copy it for whatever reason, but I did listen to it quite a few times before returning it. I remember loving “When We Was Fab” in particular for obvious reasons, and I feel like I can kind of remember “That’s What It Takes” at this point, but I’m definitely looking forward to having this refresh my memories even further.
Review: So the one thing I didn’t really know about this album before is that it’s almost half a new album for George and half a soundtrack for one of his HandMade Film productions, Shanghai Surprise. This is worth knowing primarily because while a lot of the album has a very distinctive George + Jeff Lynne sound, there are also songs heavily inspired by Chinese traditional music peppered throughout, and it can be a little confusing on first listen. It does at least help to keep things feeling too similar all throughout though, because the two of them largely stick to the same formula for most of the songs.
This isn’t really a complaint though, because in my opinion they do it well. If you are primarily a Beatle listener who hasn’t dug much into the solo catalog, then the easiest way to describe it to you is that this has a very similar sound to the two Beatles Anthology tracks. George includes a lot of great slide guitar solos, there are great harmony backing vocals, and everything has a bit of warmth and brightness to it. There was a degree to which by the time I got to “Someplace Else” I was longing for something a little different, but for most of the album I was fully on board and loving it. Pretty much all of side one really holds up as great tunes, and of course you’ve got “Got My Mind Set On You” at the very end of the album to make you want to keep going through to the finish line. Some of the songs lean more toward the blues and others are more like ballads, but it’s also some of George’s most contemplative lyrics over all, dealing with gossip, depression, love, aging, and more. Some were most likely written specifically to fit the mood and themes of the film, but they’re still well done.
While obviously I still really love “Got My Mind Set on You,” it’s tied for highlight of the album with “When We Was Fab.” I just absolutely love that it manages to have all these little medleys in it that sound so reminiscent of the latter half of the Beatles catalog . While I wouldn’t exactly call it hopeful, I like that it at least sounds a bit less tragic than “All Those Years Ago” and is a much more fun send up to his time as a Beatle. The video is also fantastic, with Ringo once again gleefully hamming it up for one of his friends. Though it also really puts a point on the fact that Paul and George were obviously not getting along too well when you have someone else put on a walrus costume and play a bass.
While I’ll admit there may be a degree of nostalgia at play, this is the first album in a while that I actually want to purchase. This is George at his later best, for certain. An absolute must listen if you’re just skimming and looking for the classics.
Singles released around that time:
“Shangai Surprise” – The theme song for the film with lyrics that at least somewhat set up the plot for the film. Google tells me it’s Vicki Brown sharing vocals with him on the song though I’m not sure how accurate that is. You would think they would have jumped on the chance for Madonna to sing it. The song is okay, it definitely feels like a movie theme from the late 80s. The movie itself is awful. It was free to watch on Tubi so I watched it out of curiosity and it’s like if you took all the fun and music out of the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom so you were just left with two people with little on screen chemistry making a mess of things around China.
“Zig Zag” – This song features in a nightclub scene where George has a very small cameo. It’s got a fun big band sound to it that fits the 1930s setting.
Next Time: George and Jeff get a few of their other famous friends together to form The Traveling Wilburys and release their first album, Vol 1.