A Conversation With George Harrison

The 'Fab Four' is done for, and George couldn't be happier doing his own thing

April 19, 1979
george harrison 1979
George Harrison
Eamonn McCabe/Redferns

Up for the day from his home in Oxfordshire, some thirty miles from London, George Harrison had spent the morning in the recording studio with Paul McCartney. It was not, he hastened to explain, a meeting that presaged any sort of Beatles reunion. ('Fab Four' is the term Harrison prefers, used with an affectionate irony, as if to reduce the implications of the name to a manageable level.) Indeed, it is a sign of the times that even the most stubborn Beatles fans no longer hold it as an article of faith to entertain that particular idea. The old antagonisms attending the breakup of the Beatles in 1970, and the protracted legal wrangles that went on for years afterward, have long been mended, but a musical realignment is as unlikely as Richard Nixon regaining the presidency.

Of all the former Beatles, it is Harrison whose interests have proved to be the most far ranging over the past ten years, from organizing the Concert for Bangla Desh to aiding and abetting Monty Python's Flying Circus. His own musical career has encompassed eight solo albums and just one tour – of America in 1974. Since the release of his last album, '33-1/3,' more than two years ago, Harrison has endeavored to maintain as low a public profile as possible. He married Olivia Arias, his girlfriend of some four years standing, in September 1978, and they have a baby son, Dhani. When he's not at his English country home (the author of "Taxman" brazens out England's punitive taxation rate for the sake of "the countryside and the seasons"), Harrison is often traveling on the international Grand Prix circuit, where he indulges a passion for watching car racing he has held since his childhood days in Liverpool.

Harrison has long been reluctant to give interviews, acquiescing on this occasion only in the interests of discussing his new album, 'George Harrison.' But despite his professed disinterest in dialogue with the media, he proved to be a genial and good-humored subject – happy to discuss his music, his personal and professional tribulations of the past few years, the Beatles and more. The interview took place one afternoon in late February, over French cigarettes and cups of tea, in the London office of Warner/Elektra/Asylum Records. We broke off our conversation at one point to watch the early evening TV news broadcast of an interview Harrison had taped earlier that day. In the clip, Harrison was shown pulling up outside the TV studio in his black Porsche and clambering out for an abbreviated discussion about the new album and his reactions to the 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' film, which had opened in London that week. The news item concluded not with a musical extract from the 'George Harrison' album but with vintage newsreel footage of the Beatles receiving their Member of the Order of the British Empire awards in June 1965, to the accompaniment of "Help!" Harrison heaved a deep sigh of resignation. All things must pass, perhaps, but after almost ten years George Harrison has come to learn that some things take longer to pass than others . . .

When did you actually start work on 'George Harrison'?
I started working on it midway through April 1978 and finished it at the beginning of October. It's been a bit late coming out because the artwork wasn't ready; then it was a bit late to get it in for Christmas. And then everybody and their aunties had one coming out at Christmas, so we decided to take our time over getting everything ready.

Has it been long in the gestation stage?
Well, all of 1977 I didn't write a song, I didn't do anything; I was not working at all really, so I decided I'd better start doing something. I'd just turned off from the music business altogether. I am a bit out of touch with the other music. There're certain artists that I always like to listen to, but I don't listen a great deal to the radio. I just got out of it – I was "skiving," as the English say. Everybody else doesn't notice, because if your past records still get played on the radio, people don't notice that you're not really there. But I just got sick of all that . . .

Sick of all what?
Just sick of the whole thing. If you look at the trade papers, everybody's changing companies, and this artist has gone to that label and that artist to this one, and everybody's doing this and that. [Sighing] Having been in this business now for so long – it was 1961 when we first made a record, I think, so it's eighteen years now – the novelty's worn off. Really, it comes down to ego. You have to have a big ego in order to keep plodding on being in the public eye. If you want to be popular and famous, you can do it; it's dead easy if you have that ego desire. But most of my ego desires as far as being famous and successful were fulfilled a long time ago.

I still enjoy writing a tune and enjoy in a way making a record. But I hate that whole thing of when you put it out, you become a part of the overall framework of the business. And I was a bit bored with that. If I write a tune and people think it's nice then that's fine by me; but I hate having to compete and promote the thing. I really don't like promotion. In the Sixties we overdosed on that, and then I consciously went out of my way at the end of the Sixties, early Seventies, to try and be a bit more obscure. What you find is that you have a hit and suddenly everybody's knocking on your door and bugging you again. I enjoy being low profile and having a peaceful sort of life.

So anyway, to answer your original question, it got to be the end of 1977 and I thought, "God, I'd better do something."

Were you getting bored with yourself, bored with your inactivity?
I was getting embarrassed because I was going to all these motor races, and everybody was talking to me like George, the ex-Beatle, the musician, asking me if I was making a record and whether I was going to write some songs about racing, and yet musical thoughts were just a million miles away from my mind.

And then what really touched me was meeting Niki Lauda. I have a great respect for him. After that crash he went through in 1976, I felt really bad for him and I was very happy when he didn't die. You have to read about his life, his books and things, to realize what he was put through – people trying to photograph him with his face all scarred, trying to break into his hospital room, all that very unpleasant reporting stuff. I could really relate to that. Anyway, I talked to him once after he had won the world championship again, in 1977 at Watkins Glen, and he was talking about all the bullshit in his business – the politics and the hassles – and he was saying how he just likes to go home and relax and play some nice music. And I thought, "Shit, I'm going to go and write some tunes, because these people are all relating to me as a musician, and yet I'm here just skiving; maybe I can write a song that Niki on his day off may enjoy." So that was it.

The other side of it, too, is that my friends at Warner Bros., who I have a deal with, they never ask, "Why aren't you doing anything?" They always treat me very civil, but at the same time I was thinking, "Well, it's been awhile . . . " They may start to think, "What are we doin' with this fella?"

So was the album prompted more by other people's expectations of you, a sense of obligation on your part, rather than an inherent desire to make music again?
Well, partly perhaps. But once you do write a tune, I don't know why, but there is that desire to have it made into a proper record. If I were to die, I'd rather people find a good finished master of my songs than a crummy old demo on a cassette. Maybe originally it was other people's expectations that prompted me, but once I got writing tunes I got my motor ticking over again and it's fun – you get in the studio, you get going and you can enjoy it all over again.

The other thing is that I decided to get somebody to help me produce this record. So I went to Warners in Burbank and spoke to the three staff producers there – Ted Templeman, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman. And I played them some demos of the tunes I'd written and said, "Come on, you guys, give me a clue. Tell me what songs you've liked in the past, what songs you didn't like; give me a few ideas of what you think." And they didn't know what to say. Templeman said he had liked "Deep Blue," the B side of the "Bangla Desh" single, which is a bit obscure – so I went home and wrote a song with a similar sort of chord structure to that, "Soft-Hearted Hana." But in the end I decided I'd work with Russ Titelman. He did the first Little Feat album and, with Lenny Waronker, he's coproduced Randy Newman, James Taylor and Ry Cooder – he's Ry Cooder's brother-in-law, in fact. And he's a nice, easy person to get along with, which is more important than the person's musical taste, because you spend five months together – you've got to like each other a bit. He helped me decide what sort of tunes to use, encouraged me to actually finish certain songs, and helped actually lay the tracks down. It's hard for an artist to be in the booth and in the studio.

Did you feel that, in that period when you weren't writing and recording, you might have lost a feel for the public ear?
Yeah, I had that feeling because they'd told me stories about Randy Newman, about how he can't write songs and feels as though he's dried up, then suddenly he's written an album that's successful and now he's writing ten songs a day. So it's just your own problem. When they mentioned that to me, I did think, "Hey, maybe I could dry up."

How much has your inactivity, and your disenchantment with the music business, had to do with the various lawsuits you've had to fight over the past years? For instance, the plagiarism lawsuit over "My Sweet Lord" and "He's So Fine."
Well, that has been going on for years. It's like a running joke now. The guy who actually wrote "He's So Fine" had died years before, Ronnie Mack. Bright Tunes Music, his publisher, was suing me. So we went through the court case, and in the end the judge said, yes, it is similar, but you're not guilty of stealing the tune. We do think there's been a copyright infringement, though, so get your lawyers together and work out some sort of compensation. But Bright Tunes wouldn't settle for that; they kept trying to bring the case back into court. They even tried to bring it back into court when I did "This Song."

It's difficult to just start writing again after you've been through that. Even now when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else. But most of the lawsuits are gone. Now we're gearing up for the next batch.

There are more to come?
There's not much more we [the Beatles] can be sued for, but we can sue a lot of other people. Being split and diversified over the years has made it difficult to consolidate certain Beatles interests. For example, all those naughty Broadway shows and stupid movies that have been made about the Beatles, using Beatles names and ideas, are all illegal. But because we've been arguing among ourselves all these years, people have had a free-for-all. Now we've gotten to the point where everybody's agreed and we've allocated a company to go out and sue them all. It's terrible, really. People think we're giving all these producers and people permission to do it and that we're making money out of it, but we don't make a nickel. So it's time that should be stopped.

Maybe we should go and do The Robert Stigwood Story or something [laughing], although I suppose the Sgt. Pepper film is all right because they've paid the copyright on the songs and made up their own story line.

Have you seen the film?
No. The reports on it were so bad that I didn't want to see it. But maybe it's good. I don't know.

Do you see it as an insult to the memory?
No. I just feel sorry for Robert Stigwood, the Bee Gees and Pete Frampton for doing it, because they had established themselves in their own right as decent artists and suddenly . . . it's like the classic thing of greed. The more you make the more you want to make, until you become so greedy that ultimately you put a foot wrong. And even though Sgt. Pepper is no doubt a financial success, I think it's damaged their images, their careers, and they didn't need to do that. It's just like the Beatles trying to do the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones can do it better.

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