Sunday, April 29, 2018

"Got My Mind Set On" Making Wisecracks About George Harrison's (And Jeff Lynne's?) Left-Field Comeback Hit

Here was the sound of me, upon discovering a musical fact, at some point in the mid-'90s, having become extremely aware of the Beatles since the '80s, but not having been the least bit aware of the Beatles while growing up during the '80s:

"Wait, really? 'Got My Mind Set On You' was a George Harrison solo song??"

The day I discovered that ... was almost as strange a day as the day I discovered that "Too Late for Goodbyes" was a Julian Lennon song. The real twist, of course, is that "Got My Mind Set On You" wasn't by George Harrison, exactly, but first things first. Back in 1988, when I heard "Got My Mind Set On You" on the radio about twenty times a day, I just assumed it was some random '80s hit from some random '80s dude. It might have been nice if someone would have explained to me - a parent, a teacher, a friend, anybody - that this was a massive comeback single by a member of the greatest group of all time. But no. No one bothered to explain that to me.

Let's back up a bit. By 1982, England's answer to Ravi Shankar had fallen a long way from the heights of All Things Must Pass. Gone Troppo peaked at a mere #108 in the US, and didn't even chart in the UK. Gone Troppo? How about just ... "Gone"? So he took a break, and in retrospect it could have very easily turned into a long one. Hey, why release another half-assed batch of meandering soft rock that nobody's going to buy when you can produce Terry Gilliam movies, drive race cars, and sip tea with Eric Clapton and Vishnu every afternoon? You know, maybe the days of being a top-tier recording artist were behind him. He didn't like touring. He didn't like having to do promotional interviews where nine out of every ten questions consisted of Beatles probing. No shame in hanging it up.

Meanwhile, a certain former leader of the Electric Light Orchestra with a penchant for Olivia Newton-John soundtracks was experiencing a similarly awkward career transition, although he didn't fall quite as far as George did (to be fair, he hadn't reached quite the same heights as George had either). By 1986's Balance of Power, ELO had ceased to become, shall we say, a "Livin' Thing" and was more or less an orchestra of one. Zen koan: What's the sound of one violin clapping? Guess it was time for Jeff Lynne to conjure some "Strange Magic" of his own and figure out where the hell he was going to take his florescent laser show next.

Then, like a bolt out of the blue, a thought came to him that he simply couldn't get out of his head: why rip off the Beatles when you could ... collaborate with one? If only I had thought of that. In reality, Lynne may have done more for George than George did for him, serving as the unlikely catalyst for a wealth of new songwriting activity and bringing back the much-needed enthusiasm for music-making that had been absent from George for almost the entire decade. I wouldn't say that Cloud Nine is near the level of All Things Must Pass, but ... how can I put this? It's better than any 1987 album by George Harrison had any right to be. Personal favorites of mine include "Fish on the Sand," "Just for Today," and "Devil's Radio," which received their share of radio play, but it's the two big official singles with two big official videos (well, make that three?) that everybody remembers.

Question: Is there anyone here who feels like knocking "When We Was Fab"? Anybody? Speak now or forever hold your obnoxiousness. I dare anyone to knock a video that features:
  • 1:43 Jeff Lynne playing the world's longest violin 
  • 2:00 Some random guy in a walrus suit who George claimed in interviews was Paul McCartney, just to confuse the hell out of people (spoiler: it probably wasn't him) 
  • 2:23 Paul Simon pushing a produce cart 
  • 2:41 Elton John tossing coins in George's busking cup 
  • 2:48 Ringo carrying the world's longest keyboard, with help from ... Ringo? 

Of course, Mr. Starkey contributed more than mere roadie assistance; his tight, tom-tom heavy turn on the kit received an admirably non-mushy treatment from Lynne. One might have thought that the shamelessly Beatle-referencing single would have been the album's runaway smash (as the Lennon tribute "All Those Years Ago" had been from Somewhere In England), but "When We Was Fab" only hit #23 in the US and #25 in the UK. Clearly a younger, less nostalgic generation didn't find it nearly as fab as the other major single from Cloud Nine, which boasted one of the most intricate, verbose choruses in all of '80s pop:
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
I've got my mind set on you
Hmmm. So what he's saying is ... he's got his mind set on her. Interesting. Now, you may be tempted to take George to task for phoning it in on these lyrics, but "Got My Mind Set On You" could very well be, aside from "Tainted Love," the most famous '80s hit that most people have no idea was actually a cover of an obscure '60s soul song. And unlike Gloria Jones, James Ray didn't even get to date that guy from T. Rex a decade later: he died when he was 23. Did you know that George was the first Beatle to visit the US? In 1963 he took a trip to see his sister Louise in Illinois, months before "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was even a glint in Ed Sullivan's eye. Naturally, he raided the local record store and bought obscurities such as the Donays' "Devil in Her Heart" (which the Beatles quickly covered, with George singing lead) as well as an album by James Ray, whose only major hit ended up being "If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody." Let's see what we've got here:

Whoa. Ray's version is a little more ... smoky. He sounds like he's filling in for a gig that Sam Cooke or Ben E. King bailed on. The YouTube comments section is littered with people claiming that this original version is "way better" than George's. Well, it's certainly more obscure. At any rate, once Jeff Lynne got his hands on this sucker, he slicked it up like nobody's business. I kind of wish someone had imposed an "acoustic guitar overdub limit" on Lynne's late '80s work (*cough* Full Moon Fever *cough*), and the whole thing kind of sounds like Otis Redding trapped to death in a tin can, but you have to give it to the two of them: the cover does have a certain ... something (pun intended?).

The fact that George merely covered the song did not, however, stop Weird Al from mocking his version mercilessly with "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long," a deep cut from Even Worse. I'm tempted to point out to Weird Al that "(This Song's Just) Six Words Long" is actually a lot longer than six words, but perhaps ... that's part of the joke?

The truth is, "Got My Mind Set On You" was a song so nice, they made a video for it twice! The first version features a bunch of trendily-dressed teens in a state-of-the-art arcade, although for some reason the skinny blonde gum-chewing girl in a sleeveless crop top and giant earrings is peering into ... what is that thing? A kinescope? A Nickelodeon? And guess who's inside? George Harrysong! Meanwhile, a greaser kid in jeans and a white t-shirt (with the sleeves rolled up?) has, so it would appear, "got his eyes set on" the blonde, although he plays it cool by trying to grab a stuffed animal out of one of those stupid claw machines. Somehow, he apparently becomes the first person to ever grab an item from that machine successfully, but just as he's reeling in the porcelain ballerina for himself, he accidentally drops it ... into the black and white footage of George and Jeff Lynne on stage, where the ballerina promptly springs to life and George tries to pretend he's into the idea of making these stupid MTV videos. Finally, after several kicks to the machine, the ballerina drops from the stage and ends up in the kid's hands.

I guess somebody (possibly George?) took a look at that video and thought, "You know ... I think we can do better." This leads us to the second - and more widely known - clip. At the start of this one, George sits down in the middle of what appears to be a typical study in an ornate English mansion and begins to strum a guitar. A fire is roaring in the fireplace. A caged bird on the right is the only sign of life. Suddenly, at about the 0:32 mark, the surrounding furniture starts to behave a little ... curiously. However, despite activity that would turn most observers' faces deathly pale, George hardly seems to notice and keeps crooning away merrily. And who knew he was such an incredible breakdancer? I have to say, the duo of mounted moose's head and mounted boar's head really nail those backing vocals, and let's also give it up for the gopher's mean pipe playing. "Now this," George probably thought, "is my kind of video."

So George, at the tender age of 45, unexpectedly had a #1 hit, and everyone was happy for him - probably even happier for him than he was for himself. Cloud Nine turned out to be both a comeback and the launching pad for a new adventure with some old pals. See, while recording a Cloud Nine b-side, George and Jeff ended up inviting a few friends over, and those friends happened to be more famous and more talented than my friends (no offense). Basically, the Cloud Nine sessions unexpectedly gave birth to the Traveling Wilburys. However, while that particular collaboration grabbed the headlines, it was not the most momentous one of George's late '80s, post-Cloud Nine career. I mean hey, making records with Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan must have been a real thrill for the guy, but it clearly paled in comparison to another collaboration that would soon follow. No, George's comeback wouldn't be truly complete until he teamed up with one of the greatest musical artists he'd ever worked with, and would ever work with - a legend more legendary than Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan combined:

Belinda Carlisle.

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