Artist: George Harrison
Title: Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)
Description: album track, All Things Must Pass
Release date: 1970
First heard: 1999
I have the parlous state of modern music during the dog days of the 20th century to thank for one of the richest periods of musical archeology of my adult life. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me, as I found much to get animated about in the early 21st century, but circa 1999-2000 I found myself increasingly underwhelmed by the new. Neither of these two bands is to blame, but it was the era of Travis and Coldplay, The Man Who and Parachutes. Both albums have merit both musical and technical, but neither exactly set my world on fire. They were fine. Put it this way, OK Computer and Fat Of The Land suddenly felt as if they were a lo-o-o-ong time ago.
I recall going on holiday to Ireland in ’99 and forgetting to take any CDs for the hire car; we went into a record shop in Galway and could only find Play by Moby that looked like it might provide any sonic pleasure around Ireland’s west coast, plus, we took a flyer on the Toploader album on the strength of catchy hit Dancing In The Moonlight (I think we played it through once). I don’t even mind Play – it is, to use Douglas Adams’ withering phrase, “mostly harmless”, and, for driving, it had a good beat – but the fact that it was essentially advert music sums up the period’s wretchedness.
To compensate, we turned to filling gaps in our CD collection and the end of the century turned into an orgy of classic old music, mostly – let’s be honest – from the 70s, and often with a view to completing the incomplete works of … Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, Wings, John Lennon (you’re sensing a picture emerging) and George Harrison. I’d been aware of All Things Must Pass, and My Sweet Lord was ubiquitous on the radio when I was a child, but my scholarly knowledge of George’s solo work was thin up until When We Was Fab. When it arrived in the post, I didn’t know what to expect, but the sheer thickness of the CD box made it seem important. You could stand a potted plant on it, but wouldn’t.
I so wish I’d been old enough to have purchased the triple-album box set in 1970, by which I would have learned to divide it up into six sides. On CD it’s two discs, with the Apple Jam sessions joined to the end of side four. But hey, that’s the compact disc age for you; sides no longer count. Either way, my favourite track (and my favourite track for all time, I suspect) comes 12 tracks in, borne on the most beautiful, plangent, layered guitar line from steelman Pete Drake and counted in by Alan White’s brushes – abject proof, were it needed, of producer Phil Spector’s delicacy.
I had no idea then, at the end of the Millennium, when this album captured my soul and refused to come out of the CD drawer, who Sir Frankie Crisp was, but I’m with the programme now: Frank Crisp was the eccentric microscopist and horticulturalist who had Harrison’s neo-Gothic homestead Friar Park in Henley-on-Thames built, where Spector first heard his “backlog” of amazing spare songs, and which used to be a nunnery. Recorded at Abbey Road, Trident and Apple, it is through Ballad Of that the eccentric, 33-acre, Hare Krishna-renovated spirit of Friar Park is burned into the grooves, the lyric an affectionate tribute to Crisp and, in the words of one biographer, “a tour round the house and grounds”, and in particular its folly-like detailing (“Fools, illusions everywhere/Joan and Molly sweep the stairs” – love the unreconstructed Liverpudlian way he pronounces “sturs“). There aren’t many “ditties” (George’s word) about rich men who had houses built and designed their gardens, grottos and follies, full stop, but I doubt there’s one that channels its subject like this one. Each time I hear it, to borrow Liz Lemon’s phrase, “I want to go to there.”
Like most of the solo Beatle albums, it features a musicianly cast of thousands, including other Beatles and satellites, herewith: Ringo, Eric Clapton, Klaus Voorman, Billy Preston, Mal Evans, Ginger Baker, Ray Cooper. It’s a solo record, and yet it’s full of people, reflecting George’s perhaps over-hospitable generosity. (I understand Patti got pretty fed up with all the Hare Krishnas doing the garden!) Ballad Of Sir Frankie Crisp is just the loveliest moment among tons: Apple Scruffs, the Dylan tune If Not For You (which I rate higher than the Dylan recording: “if not for you, the winter would have no spring/I couldn’t hear the robin sing”), Wah-Wah, Isn’t It A Pity, the epic title track …
Around this time, I bought the drily exhaustive hardback tome The Beatles: After The Break-Up and became obsessive about the Fabs’ movements after 1970. I remain convinced to this day, during moments of personal madness, that individually they made better music than collectively. It’s certainly true of George. Now that’s a really big “discuss …”