Dark Horse – The problem wasn’t the vocals

By: Tony Frye

When George Harrison released the Dark Horse album in 1974 he was coming off of a wave of success and was, arguably, the most successful solo Beatle to date. In the three years since he went solo he had released two very popular albums — one of which is often regarded as the greatest solo Beatles album of all time — and practically invented the charity concert which also spawned a successful album. He also produced albums for other artists, guested on records by John Lennon and Ringo Starr, and released four top 40 hits.

But then came Dark Horse; a critical flop, though it did reach #4 in the United States and included two more top 40 hits. Critics were quick to point out Harrison’s damaged voice and the tour to support this album was a disaster by some accounts but a current listening to this album reveals the truth about this album and it definitely wasn’t the vocals that make this a tough listen.

Like every Harrison record, the album is filled with incredible music. In many ways the two hits from this record, Dark Horse and Ding Dong Ding Dong, are the weaker tracks on the record. The music shows George exploring his country and R&B sides (a side that would be in full feature by the time 33 &1/3 was released two years later) and he’s backed up by some of the best musicians of the time. The problem isn’t material or execution as much as it is the final mix.

Many of the albums released on Apple Records have questionable audio quality which is surprising when compared to the quality of The Beatles records. All Things Must Pass was bathed in echo and Living in the Material World has moments that feel as if the band was being recorded by a single mic in the middle of the room but Dark Horse’s sound is abysmal. Snare drums that have no pop, guitars with thin, tinny tones, and horns that overpower much of the mix but, strangely, add little power to the music. Just about the only thing that does sound good on these mixes is the bass guitar and, on occasion, the backing vocals.

If Dark Horse had the fidelity of 33 &1/3 or George Harrison, it’d probably have sealed Harrison as a commercial powerhouse. It’s not a perfect album but it’s far from the career low point that history has claimed it to be.

What’s interesting about this album is that the first six tracks (all of side A and the first track of side B on vinyl) could be considered a suite about the life of a rock and roll star. The story follows a rock star through the excesses of his lifestyle and the eventual end to his marriage. Sounds crazy, right? Follow me for a second.

Hari’s on Tour (Express) – An up-tempo instrumental that represents the touring band. Maybe it’s the show closer, the crowd goes wild, and the band retreats to their hotel for some drinks and partying.

Simply Shady – Tells us all we need to know about that party. “I was blinded by desire/the elephant turned pink,” and the rest is “Simply Shady”.

So Sad – Now we get into the mindset of the burnt out rock star. He’s succumbed to the drink and his emotions get the better of him and “he feels so alone with no love of his own.” This is the rocker at his lowest point.

Bye Bye Love – Now we’re to the point where the main character of this story has accepted that his marriage is over. This also marks the first (and arguably only) low point of the album. The track is a loose cover with new lyrics and some liberties with the arrangement but it plods along for at least two minutes too long.

Maya Love – Now the character is moving on. He’s had his time to wallow in despair, he’s had his angry retort, and now he’s reflecting on deeper, more important topics.

Ding Dong Ding Dong – This is a New Year’s Eve song through and through but if one wants to analyze Dark Horse as a concept album, this track serves as the ultimate conclusion. The character has ruined his marriage due to his excessive living but now it’s time to “ring out the old, ring in the new” and make a fresh clean start at living.

Do I believe that Harrison did any of this intentionally? Absolutely not. At least one song on this record (So Sad) was written for a different album altogether. But the fact that one could perceive of a through line to these songs should have boosted its reception. With the exception of Bye Bye Love, there’s not really a bad song on the album, though the track sequencing may contribute to too many slow songs in a row, and the performances are all around fantastic. But it sounds dreadful.

Harrison doesn’t adorn this album with a lot of strings and over production. In many ways it’s his most stripped back album and despite a ton of guitar orchestration (the interplay between acoustic and electric on So Sad is fantastic) it feels like a standard, stage ready, rock and roll ensemble. With such sparseness, then, there should be plenty of room to enhance the quality of the audio. The challenges that faced All Things Must Pass — baked in reverb and 700 musicians per track — aren’t an issue on Dark Horse and the potential for a revelatory new mix is so apparent that it’s surprising the Harrison Estate has let so many opportunities for an anniversary release come and go.

Dark Horse, along with Extra Texture, are among the most in-need of remixes and remasters of the entire solo Beatles library and if done well, could change the whole perception of Harrison’s mid-70s output. For many casual fans, there is a gap in quality between Material World and 33 &1/3 that could easily be filled with some careful restoration of these two albums.

Harrison’s voice sounds fine. In some instances his raspiness actually sounds cooler than his healthy voice would have sounded but burying his voice in a muddy mix did no favors and continues to overshadow the quality of the material. It is long past time to give this album the modern treatment that it deserves and to right a wrong from all the way back in 1974 by allowing this album to be a worthy follow-up to the brilliant Living in the Material World.

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