George Harrison – Wonderwall Music (1968)

History: While Paul made some contributions to the soundtrack of the film The Family Way before this, Wonderwall Music is most often credited as the first Beatles solo release as George Harrison wrote, produced and composed the entirety of this soundtrack. It features a large number of musicians from Indian, orchestral and rock origins, as well as George himself on guitar, keyboards, and piano. Ringo is the only other Beatle present on the album, contributing percussion of course. It is the soundtrack to the psychedelic film Wonderwall, directed by Joe Massot, who specifically requested Harrison compose the score for him, giving him free reign to do as he wished with it.

My own history with the album and initial prediction: So I honestly didn’t think I was going to be starting with George. I’ve seen mention of this album but didn’t realize it was a soundtrack or that it was released while the Beatles were together. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of it before. I’m not a big fan of George’s Indian style songs in the Beatles catalogue, the lack of chord changes and the very monotone way in which he sings on them just never really appealed to me. Since this is a soundtrack to a film, I decided to listen to the soundtrack by itself first, then watch the film to hear it all in context.

What I worked on while listening: The Last Unicorn/Starry Night mashup gem painting. I find these crafts the perfect kind of thing to busy your hands and eyes while allowing your brain to focus on what’s coming through your ears. They’re also just very soothing if you want to slow down and focus on something and forget the stress of your day.

Review: This is an interesting eclectic mix of styles for sure. The main theme is definitely Indian music, followed by some orchestral and piano based touches that you would probably expect from a film score, with a touch of rock here and there. I found two songs I genuinely liked on here, those being “Drilling a Home” and “Wonderwall to be Here.” Beyond the sort of plays on words that make their titles fun (“Fantasy Sequins” is another great example of that), “Drilling a Home” has a great honky tonk feel to it, and “Wonderwall to be Here” is an orchestral piece that has a sad feeling and really appeals to me. Another standout is “Dream Scene” mostly for being just as it describes. It’s truly all over the place, wandering around from Indian to Italian and Scottish sounds along with sound effects and odd moments, really making you feel as if you were in a dream that can’t keep its focus. ”Cowboy Music” also very much lives up to its name, mimicking the tune you’ve heard countless times in westerns and Looney Tunes cartoons set in the old west, with its horseshoe like rhythm and “dum de dum” melody. “Love Scene” however did not sound particularly romantic or sexual, so I guess I’ll have to hear it in the context of the movie in order to see if it truly makes any sense to have that title. “Crying” stands out in the worst way because it is using strings in the most unpleasant discordant way possible, but I assume it will make sense in the movie. Beyond that I think “Ski-ing” is probably the most notable, as the guitar is played by Eric Clapton with a very clear Jimi Hendrix fuzz pedal influence. That said, I can’t say this album really won me over to George’s style of Indian music.  

Apparently the Indian musicians had a lot of fun recording this one, getting to use their instruments in ways they didn’t normally.  For me, it sounds very much in the same vein as “Within You Without You” and “The Inner Light” and just doesn’t excite me at all.  I don’t hate it by any means, it’s just not the kind of thing I would choose to listen to when I have my choice.  If those songs appeal to you, this is definitely an album worth checking out.

The version I listened to was the remastered version which contained three bonus tracks, including one not written by George, “In the First Place.” He did produce it however, and the similarities to “Blue Jay Way” are very evident. I’ve always really enjoyed that song, so I liked this one too. It’s by a band called the Remo Four, who I had never heard of before now. I got a little of a Turtles vibe off the song as well.

I’m a little leery about watching this movie, seeing as how the plot as it’s described is a man spying on his female neighbor. I really hope there is some proper condemning of his behavior and not a reward for it all at the end.

Movie Review: Well, it’s an odd little movie, that’s for sure. It’s actually not quite as off the rails as I expected. It’s more focused than Magical Mystery Tour, but maybe that’s not saying much. It is definitely a psychedelic film that blends the lines between fantasy and reality quite frequently, sometimes in a way that you’re not quite sure whether what you are seeing is real or all in the man’s head.

The man in question is named Collins, and he’s a scientist who studies microbes and rare diseases. He’s thoroughly engrossed in his work and lives his life in such a regimented way that he carries flashcards with him to remember to do everything, step by step. Card 1: Feed mice. Card 2: Pick up umbrella and coat. Card 3: Turn off light. Card 4: Walk to stairwell. It’s actually pretty comical and Jack MacGowran portrays his bumbling ways very well.

He’s so dedicated to his work that he continues it at home and leaves the place a shambles, with papers stacked everywhere and his kitchen in very poor shape. All this is interrupted by the sound of loud music (Indian, of course) coming from his neighbor’s apartment. Somehow a small peephole also forms in the wall and he sees a silhouette of a woman dancing in front of him. Fascinated, he peers through the hole and he sees her nude lounging on her bed. It’s around this point that the psychedelia really kicks in, as the butterflies he had pinned in a box come crashing down to the floor, and slowly start to fly out of the box and fill the room. It’s all of course meant to represent how intoxicated and intrigued he is by her and her world.

He often approaches his peering in on her very similarly to a scientific study approach, often consulting his books and taking notes. But it all becomes unhealthy very quickly. He’s completely avoiding his job and creating more holes in the wall all to get a glimpse at her, the photo shoots she does as a model, her lover, and the wild parties they often throw. He’s also clearly falling in love with her, having dreams and fantasies of dueling her lover to win her hand, or as the lover is shown fooling around with other women, imagining rescuing her and marrying her.

The movie does have more nice touches of humor, such as when his cleaning lady shows up and he’s upset that she’s vacuuming, shouts at her to turn it off, and when she can’t hear he pulls out the plug. He’s holding it in his hand still, and she turns oblivious and says “Thank you, dear” and takes it from him to plug it right in again. Later when he tries to go back to work and can’t concentrate, he fakes illness and his coworker comments “You do look off color” and when we cut back to Collins, the film is momentarily in black and white.

But it’s very hard to get past the fact that this is just an old man creeping in on the private moments of a young woman’s life, including many times when she’s lounging nude or making love. These scenes are pretty tastefully shot, certainly not pornography, but it’s the knowledge that he’s watching it all and eagerly jumping from hole to hole to see it at every angle that makes it gross. Even as her lover comes and visits him and talks bad about her, he doesn’t really stand up for her or otherwise do anything. He never goes to visit her and speak to her when she’s alone, or try to do anything to truly help her. We learn she is pregnant, and when her lover finally leaves, Collins sees this as his chance.. to sneak into her apartment when she’s not home.

When she arrives back, he hides in her wardrobe as she turns the gas on full blast and takes a bunch of pills to commit suicide. Once she is fully passed out, he emerges to caress her hand and cheek. He puts the cap back on the bottle of pills and turns off the gas, but can’t seem to do anything to actually try and save her beyond running out the apartment and down the hallway to scream for help. At this point we see a very odd attempt at CPR performed by a policeman that doesn’t seem to work, and her carried out on a stretcher. We jump to a shot of a newspaper saying “Professor saves young model” followed by all his colleagues congratulating him on saving her. From there he returns to his microscope, and in it he sees her floating among the stars. I’m assuming the ending was meant to be intentionally vague, but to me it seems clear that she did in fact die, and everything after that is his delusion. Or perhaps it seems clear to me because that’s about the only way I would want this to end. The idea of a creepy peeping tom being deemed the hero after all this just doesn’t work for me at all.

That all said, how does George’s soundtrack work in the context of the film? Pretty well actually. I think for me at least there’s definitely a link between psychedelia and Indian music thanks to the fact that the Beatles were interested in both right at the same time, and since most of the Indian music is used for his neighbor and her friends, it fits in with the wild parties and strange photo shoots they are taking part in. It’s also used quite heavily in the dream and fantasy sequences, and I think the nature of the strings in particular do well to evoke that mood. Most of the times when it’s not used at all are for the more comical sequences and often fit the scene. The “Ski-ing” song is used during a photo shoot where a model is in a skiing outfit with snow blowing all around him, and the “Cowboy Music” when her lover is wearing a cowboy hat and sitting on a rocking horse. The latter in particular really helps highlight the humor of the moment. The shrillness of the strings on “Crying” is still very jarring, but it comes in at the point of the movie where I believe she is telling her lover about her pregnancy, and he is flat out rejecting her. Since we never hear their conversations in her apartment, only the music, I do think it’s an effective way to show how extremely upset she is, and it quiets down as she lays dejected on the bed. “Wonderwall to be Here” is used when she has overdosed on the pills, which explains the sad feelings I was getting from the song.  Overall I think it was a really solid effort by George to do a soundtrack. Would he be capable of doing something that wasn’t psychedelic? Maybe not in 1968, but it does make me wonder what compositions later in his life would sound like. Apparently he did at least contribute to the soundtracks of some of the films made under his Handmade Films production company, though I believe this will be the only soundtrack of his I will encounter for this project.

I would also like to give a shoutout to the image of George that Amazon Music has chosen whenever you are playing his solo work. What a wonderful moody look he’s giving the camera.

Next time: I dive in to John and Yoko’s experimental albums, Unfinished Music Vol 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music Vol 2: Life with the Lions, and their Wedding Album. I promise I won’t always be grouping albums together like this, but in this case it felt necessary. You’ll see what I mean next week.

4 thoughts on “George Harrison – Wonderwall Music (1968)

  1. I watched the trailer for the movie, which was VERY strange and left me with no clue of what it was about. Thanks for summarizing it. You made it sound better than the trailer did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah, I looked it up and I see what you mean, they are definitely leaning in to all the psychedelic elements with very little on the plot. They probably figured that and George’s soundtrack are probably the main reason people would want to see it at this point.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice atmosphere. Could definitely see this working as a score. I don’t mind the Indian style, but what irks me more is the circular way he plays with the stereo mix. It swirls around the listener very arbitrarily with no sense of emphasis or craft to how that technique is used. I definitely preferred the scratchy saloon piano melodies.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s