George Harrison’s exotic soundtrack to Joe Massot’s swinging 60s cinematic head trip Wonderwall was the first solo Beatle project (that is if you don’t count Paul McCartney’s 1966 soundtrack to The Family Way, which was credited to The George Martin Orchestra). 1968’s Wonderwall Music is all over the musical map—delightfully so—with songs ranging from classical Indian ragas to jaunty nostalgic-sounding numbers to proto-metal guitar freakouts. It’s a minor classic, I wish more people knew about it. I’ve long been an enthusiastic evangelist for this album, sticking tracks on mixed CDs and tapes for quite some time. Even avowed Beatlemaniacs tend to have missed out on Wonderwall Music. It’s a real overlooked gem.
George Harrison recording with Indian classical musicians in Bombay, 1968. Harrison Family Trust
Harrison’s principle collaborator for the Wonderwall soundtrack was orchestral arranger John Barham who transcribed Harrison’s “western” melodies into a musical annotation that the Indian musicians in Bombay could work with. Barham was a student—and collaborator—of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar who had introduced him to the quiet Beatle. Barham—who would soon go on to compose the soundtrack to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s psychedelic western El Topo and contribute to Harrison’s All Things Must Pass—played piano, harmonium and flugelhorn, and acted the role of orchestral arranger on certain tracks.
With Barham, Ringo Starr (under the pseudonym “Richie Snare”) and Eric Clapton (here credited as “Eddie Clayton) along with some session musicians, and a Liverpool band called the Remo Four, Harrison recorded the “English” portion of Wonderwall Music in December 1967. The Indian classical musicians were recorded the following month in Bombay. Peter Tork from the Monkees played an uncredited banjo part that was used for a cue in the movie, if not on the record. It was released on November 1, 1968, just a few weeks before the White Album and was the very first release on Apple Records. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to call it the first “world music” project of a major rock musician. If it’s not the very first, it is certainly among the very first of its kind (and Harrison spent a considerable sum out of his own pocket to underwrite the expense of recording in Bombay). But Wonderwall Music‘s far too quirky to be considered strictly a world music album. Some of it sounds like the New Vaudeville Band after they’ve drunk lots and lots of coffee. Some of it sounds, not surprisingly, like psychedelic instrumental Beatle outtakes.
There are a lot of great tracks on Wonderwall Music, but the one I want to highlight first is “Ski-ing” a two-minute long sonic SCREAMER wherein Eric Clapton and Harrison come up with the blueprint for the Buttlhole Surfers’ guitar sound back when Paul Leary was just a tyke.
Continues after the jump…