Behind the Album: ‘Brainwashed,’ a Definitive Artistic Statement by George Harrison—and His Last

Music fans around the world mourned the loss of George Harrison upon his death in November 2001 at 58 years old. A year later, they received a wonderful farewell gift in the form of Brainwashed, his final studio album.

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Not only was it his last album, but Brainwashed turned out to be one of his best. How did it all come together? And who helped carry the project forward in Harrison’s absence? It’s an amazing story befitting an amazing album.

A Comeback Interrupted

When he released his surprising comeback album Cloud Nine in 1987, it looked like George Harrison had re-energized his solo career in such a way that we could expect more material coming from him in a hurry. But the follow-up album never quite materialized.

Harrison still wasn’t all that keen on the promotional and touring duties that were expected of a rock artist. He also got caught up in other events. There were two albums with his buddies in the Traveling Wilburys, as well as the time spent helping fellow Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr complete the Anthology project.

That’s not to say that he stopped thinking about releasing his own music. In fact, as the ’90s wore on, he started to assemble songs that seemed like they could work on a solo album. When he overcame a throat cancer scare in 1997, it seemed he would have the time to work on this record. Fate intervened, however, and made Brainwashed, by necessity, a team effort.

George and Family and Friends

Harrison started recording his last album in earnest in 1999, but in December of that year, he was stabbed at his home by a would-be assassin. Although Harrison recovered from his wounds, they weakened him when cancer returned. As he hustled to record the songs that would form Brainwashed, he received a terminal diagnosis.

All along, Harrison had been working with the core trio of his son Dhani with longtime collaborators and friends Jeff Lynne and Jim Keltner. Knowing that he likely wouldn’t be around to see the album to its conclusion, he gave instructions to the men about how he wanted things to sound. Harrison passed away on November 29, 2001.

Dhani Harrison, Lynne, and Keltner went to work finishing the record. It helped that George had made it pretty deep into the recording process, which meant Brainwashed didn’t sound patched together or incomplete in any way. In fact, it represented a moving final statement, at times hilarious and heartbreaking.

How Does Brainwashed Hold Up Today?

Right from the charging acoustic guitars that open up first track “Any Road,” Brainwashed carries the same kind of energy that distinguished its predecessor (albeit by 15 years) Cloud Nine. Harrison is in excellent voice throughout, and, as that opening song makes clear, the cosmic wisdom of his songwriting hadn’t diminished in any way.

Considering the circumstances surrounding the album, you might expect it to be filled with dirges. But Brainwashed features plenty of good humor and easygoing vibes, thanks to songs like “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)” and a ukulele-filled cover of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” Certain songs, like “Looking for My Life” and “Stuck Inside a Cloud,” seem to address Harrison’s tenuous situation, but they do so in a questing rather than wallowing vein.

The gorgeous instrumental “Marwa Blues” leaves us with one more taste of Harrison’s gently weeping guitar. But instead of going out with a sigh, his final salvo is the title track, where he harangues all those who’ve been distracted into pursuing the things that aren’t really important.

George Harrison went out with all the fascinating contradictions of his personality on full display in Brainwashed. This is no mere farewell album. It’s a definitive artistic statement that just happened to be his last.

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Photo by Sion Touhig / Getty Images

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