“Cloud Nine was the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in years and I’m really pleased with the way it turned out.”
-George Harrison, 1987
Cloud Nine is a minor album in almost every regard, but it represented a change in mindset for George Harrison, the most internal of the Beatles, and for all its flaws it’s never anything less than joyous. It is an emotional triumph, if not a musical one. Nine would be the last album George released in his lifetime (the lively, likable Brainwashed, years-in-refining, was released after his death), and, though the man would live on another fourteen years, it’s a fine final statement. Especially when considered as the preface to the Traveling Wilburys, but that’s another story.
George wasn’t as good. It’s not cruel to say, it’s true. He was, by all accounts, every bit the wonderful, flawed man that one hoped each of the Beatles would become (and did), but he left in his wake only one Classic Album, 1971’s All Things Must Pass. There are fantastic tunes to be found throughout Harrison’s career, but he was never able to wrangle one set into one great record. He was a great guitarist, and improved as he aged. So too ripened his sense of humor–always the best of the Beatles’ (“‘Ta.”)–as well as his sense of self-awareness, which hadn’t always been present as he immersed himself in so many causes and “charities.” Cloud Nine is the most likable album of George’s career; it’s all good vibes and shimmering craft. It’s nothing too special, except when it is.
Beneath the surface, Cloud Nine is less a George Harrison record than a supergroup experiment with George as frontman and chief songwriter. The album’s principal musicians are: Eric Clapton, Elton John, Ringo Starr, Gary Wright (“Dream Weaver”), Jim Keltner (legendary Los Angeles session drummer) and Jeff Lynne, the mastermind of Electric Light Orchestra, a talented Beatle-knockoff with good intentions that nonetheless tanked both “reunion” tunes and most of McCartney’s half-baked Flaming Pie. His coproduction (with Harrison) of Nine, however, works fine. An album with so many big names can go one of two ways, indulgent messiness or slick professionalism, and Cloud Nine errs righteously on the side of the latter. It’s very much an album of the Eighties, but it’s also one of the best any Beatle produced throughout that decade.
“Cloud 9,” the title track, leads off the LP in style. Moody and groovy, it’s good enough that subsequent tracks suffer by comparison. Indeed, side A of Cloud Nine is overall somewhat of a drag; the finer efforts (“Fish On The Sand,” “This Is Love”) are torpedoed by a listless dreaminess that seeds the side’s final song, “When We Was Fab.”
“Fab” is a kind of sequel to Harrison’s earlier “All Those Years Ago,” a much more upbeat tune that contrasts well with its successor. Where “Years Ago” revels in sad, celebratory pop whimsy, “Fab” refashions more surreal elements of the Beatles’ sound, reminiscent of George’s clanking, at times atonal efforts on Revolver. It’s not as emotional as the earlier tribute, nor as touching, but it’s truer to the spirit George brought to the Beatles, wry and dry, nodding back to when “income tax was all we had.”
The second side of Cloud Nine picks up the tempo, and is better for it. “Devil’s Radio” is cranky old George at his irritated best, and “Wreck Of The Hesperus” might be the finest song on the album, all honking horns and Cracker Jack rhythmics. There’s one more ballad wedged into the proceedings, the penultimate “Breath Away From Heaven,” and it tops most of the slow-rollers that preceded it on side A.
Then, Cloud Nine‘s finale, the most recognizable song on the album, a tune that topped the American charts and made it up to #2 in Britain. Cue the absurd animatronics.
That total silliness aside, “Got My Mind Set On You” is a hell of a track. It’s the kind of rendition you’d expect from Ringo, good times and winks, and thus coming from George it’s all the more charming. A cover of an ancient rockabilly tune, it features George’s finest vocal of the album, is catchy beyond comprehension, and is just plain fun. “Fun” is not what tradition would predict from George Harrison, long-time treader in mysticism and self-improvement, a songwriter whose most persistent trait was his seriousness.
Cloud Nine alters that expectation. It’s an album full of smiles, the result of five years on musical hiatus (Harrison spent some time producing movies, including Life Of Brian and Shanghai Surprise), time spent away from the industry for the first time in twenty years, expanding interests, working on family and coping with tragedy. (At the time of John Lennon’s death, he and George’s relationship was the most estranged of the former Beatles’; Lennon had taken real hurt from George’s premature autobiography, I Me Mine, an elaborate vanity project lacking even a single mention of John. In 1984, two years into Harrison’s sabbatical, asked about the other Beatles’ reaction to Lennon’s death, Paul and Linda McCartney told Playboy that “George still can’t talk about it.” Harrison’s sudden fear of attack was later exploited with cruelty by the burglar who stabbed him in 1999.) He was and would be always funny and lovable, but the George of Cloud Nine is the happiest George his fans would ever see.
DUDS and/or DISASTERS
“Breath Away From Heaven” is lovely, one of George’s better (and there are plenty) meanders into romantic mysticism.
Easy breezy. As ever, MP3 or vinyl recommended.
IN THE MEANTIME…
Paul maintained his own hiatus, which would last until 1989’s Flowers In The Dirt.
Ringo had a bit of a rough patch after drumming for George on Cloud Nine, as his and wife Barbara Bach’s alcoholism driving them into rehab, successfully.
ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE
It cannot be linked too much. The fantabulous video for “Got My Mind Set On You.”
COMING UP NEXT
Monday, July 25th: Ringo Starr’s Ringo.