It’s been just over four decades since George Harrison released one of his least-known and poorest-selling albums, Gone Troppo. As his last contracted album with distributor Warner Brothers, it received mixed reviews from the critics upon its release in November of 1982, after which George began what would become a five-year hiatus away from recording. This all results in Gone Troppo treated as a mere blip on the radar covering his legendary recording career.
Gone Troppo is also the happiest, most relaxed, and even giddiest (for George) album he ever recorded. Really!
For context, let’s take a look at what was going on with George and his former Beatles bandmates during that period…
Of course, John Lennon’s death on December 8, 1980 sent shock waves around the world. George quickly re-wrote the lyrics of a song he had planned for Ringo to record, and presented it as “All Those Years Ago,” as his tribute to John. It was included on his 1981 album Somewhere in England.
Paul and Ringo kept busy throughout 1981, with Paul beginning work on songs that would eventually comprise Tug of War, arguably his finest solo album after disbanding Wings. Ringo completed an album titled Can’t Fight Lightning, but due to a disagreement with his label, Portrait Records, and the distributor, CBS, he left the label and later released the material as Stop and Smell the Roses, with RCA. He also starred in the slapstick comedy feature film Caveman, with his future wife Barbara Bach.
In June, George released Somewhere in England, which reached #13 on the UK charts, and #11 in the U.S.
By this time, he had also stepped up his involvement with his film production company, Handmade Films — which he co-founded in 1979 to finance Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ensuring the film would become a reality. In ‘81, he began helping promote the company’s new release, Terry Gilliam’s comedy-fantasy classic Time Bandits.
His interviews during this period focused more on the film than on his own upcoming music, as he began to express his disenchantment with the music industry, and feeling no interest in touring to promote his work, citing bad memories of his last tour, in 1974. He also began taking more vacation time with wife Olivia and young son Dhani at their homes in Hawaii, Australia, and of course, his famous Friar Park estate on Henley-on-Thames, where his hobby of gardening became a near-obsession.
In July of ’81, Time Bandits premiered in London (it wouldn’t premiere in most U.S. cities until November). A few months later, Ringo released Stop and Smell the Roses, but despite his heavy promotional efforts, it did not sell well, nor did the critics find much to get excited about — despite George and Paul contributing songs and, at different times, taking part in the studio recordings.
Moving on to April of 1982, Paul released Tug of War, promoting it heavily with videos, interviews, and TV appearances.
Just a week later, George began recording songs at his Friar Park studios for what would become Gone Troppo. He invited several longtime musician friends to join him, including keyboardists Billy Preston and Gary Brooker, drummer Jim Keltner, and percussionist Ray Cooper. George, Phil McDonald, and Cooper were to be credited as producers.
Rolling Stone magazine published a few words from McDonald about the ongoing sessions in late July: “We’re taking a bit of a rest now, because George is quite heavily into gardening, and he gets tired of recording.” He added, “George is a perfectionist; he doesn’t want to rush things, and he wants to get them nigh on perfect. I think you really have to be a George Harrison fan to appreciate his music. He does ’em the way he likes ‘em.”
The sessions would continue through August, and the finished album, comprised of only ten tracks, as opposed to the more common 12 or 14 (in those days), was released on October 27 in the U.S., and November 8 in the U.K.
So, what’s this about it being George’s happiest, most upbeat album?
Indeed it is, beginning with the opening track (and the first single released) “Wake Up My Love,” which gets things jumping with an eye-opening synthesizer burst, quickly followed by George’s familiar guitar sound as it repeats a catchy, up-tempo riff. He offers perhaps his most energetic and intense vocals to date, as he pleads to his lover: “I want your love/wake up my love/and let it in.” (Some have interpreted his shouts of desperation here to be of a purely carnal nature, but that’s what interpretation is all about). It is indeed a rousing opening to the album.
We next hear “That’s The Way It Goes,” his take on how money and power can corrupt those living shallow lives based on wealth and acquiring as much as possible. It’s an easygoing beat, considering the potentially heavy themes he touches upon.
The third track is a remake of the 1961 doo-wop “I Really Love You,” by the Stereos. While it feels more than a little out of place among the Harrison originals, it’s an innocuous enough ditty, and was one of George’s favorites back when he and his fellow Beatles were still struggling for a bit of real success.
“Greece” follows — an instrumental piece (except for a few barely discernable lines he warbles for the chorus), it’s light and airy, showcasing his superb acoustic and slide guitar work throughout, and just plain fun to listen to.
The album’s goofy title song comes next (“gone troppo” being an expression meaning “gone crazy”), and no doubt reflects the time George and family had been spending in the sunny climes of swaying palm trees and sandy beaches. He adopts a pseudo-Caribbean accent amid steel drums and marimbas to create a laid-back, party atmosphere.
Next, the ‘happy’ quotient is raised still further with “Mystical One,” in which George sings to his Creator, almost as a serenade, proclaiming “They say I’m not what I used to be/All the same/I’m happier than a willow tree…” Unlike his most famous song dedicated to his faith, “My Sweet Lord,” and the many rather somber, heavier songs on the theme that permeated his mid-’70s albums, “Mystical One” is fairly bursting with joy, with mandolins and slide guitar cheerfully accompanying the beautiful, life-affirming lyrics. You could almost hear George smiling as he sings.
The mood quiets down a bit for “Unknown Delight,” presumably written for his wife Olivia, and featuring a guitar break that mimics his solo on “Something,” from Abbey Road. It’s a mellow song of appreciation for his family, and tastefully done.
“Baby Don’t Run Away” is another slower-paced tune, and perhaps the most mediocre of the album — not bad by any means, but not especially noteworthy, either.
We’re next treated to the jubilant “Dream Away,” which George wrote for the closing credits of Time Bandits, complimenting the surreal nature of the film. Terry Gilliam apparently interpreted some of the lyrics to be George’s notes about a few aspects he wasn’t pleased with — but nevertheless he did not interfere with Gilliams’ vision during production. The song is enhanced by wonderful backing vocals by Billy Preston, Syreeta and Sarah Ricor.
The final cut, “Circles,” has a longer history than the others on the album. George began working on it in 1968, while in India with the Beatles and the Maharishi. The song nearly made it onto the White Album, and was later considered for inclusion in 1979’s George Harrison, before finally finding a home on Gone Troppo. The lyrics touch on the theme of reincarnation, but in a somewhat gloomy, even cynical manner, as the dreary tune closes out an otherwise exuberant album.
As for the cover and inner sleeve artwork, credited to George’s friend “Legs” Larry Smith (former drummer of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band), it’s a bit of a busy mess, inexplicably using a photo of George from circa 1970, and including detailed instructions on how to prepare cement in a cement mixer (no doubt George’s love of Pythonesque humor had a hand in this idea).
But the most confounding thing of all was George’s refusal to promote the album. He did not film any videos for it — a shocking move in 1982, when making videos was considered almost compulsory in the music business, with the popularity of MTV sweeping the globe. He also did not give interviews or make TV or radio appearances to discuss the album. Without the world — including many Beatles fans — aware of its very existence, Gone Troppo languished in music store bins, reaching only #108 on the charts in the U.S., and not charting at all in the U.K.
The critics were largely unimpressed. Rolling Stone called it “Harrison’s version of a Jimmy Buffet album” and “so offhand and breezy as to be utterly insubstantial.”
With that and other dismissive reviews of the album (despite McDonald’s comments stressing George’s perfectionism), and with George maintaining such a low profile upon its release, this begs the question: Why did he even bother to spend months writing and recording an album that he had no intention of promoting? Aside from his contractual obligation, the answer may lie in his attitude about the music business at the time, during which his interest in gardening and maintaining his privacy, without returning to the media circus, were enough to keep him out of the limelight. Or, we can consider that his pleasure in creating music far exceeded his desire to hit the promotional circuit once the work was completed. By this time, he was referring to himself as an “ex-celeb” and “ex-pop star.” Still, it’s disturbing knowing he blatantly ignored the album, almost akin to watching a parent coldly disregarding a child who only asks for a bit of love and attention (in contrast, George would later make a considerable effort promoting his 1987 album, Cloud Nine).
Regardless of his own attitude at the time, it’s not too late for the rest of us to re-discover and enjoy Gone Troppo, especially as the warmer months approach. It’s that kind of album. And, while it may not be considered a “significant” George Harrison album, it’s still among his most joyous creations. And, with George, there were many.
Until next time…
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My other articles related to the Beatles:
“Was ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ Really a Failure?” Was the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” Really a Failure? | by Garry Berman | Medium
“The Beatlemania Years on New York Radio” https://medium.com/@garryberman/the-beatlemania-years-as-heard-on-new-york-radio-69f98aec8474
“The Man Who Filmed the Beatles” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-man-who-filmed-the-beatles-d674eed00bd6
“Remembering When the Beatles Appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show” https://garryberman.medium.com/when-the-beatles-appeared-on-the-ed-sullivan-show-b45b30c00a46
“For the Last Time: ‘Let It Be Was NOT the Beatles’ Break-up Album” https://garryberman.medium.com/for-the-last-time-let-it-be-was-not-the-beatles-break-up-album-10ec71cc387c
“The Night John Lennon Died” https://garryberman.medium.com/the-night-john-lennon-died-55b215bf0c8d
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including We’re Going to See the Beatles!) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.