In those haylcyon days when Beatles did not have destinies, only personalities, and every Beatle fan had a favorite Beatle, John once satirized his mates as “wide-eyed Paul, cozy Ringo, and skeleton George.” George, overshadowed as he was by two enormous egos, and lacking Ringo’s openess, was the hardest to know. I remember him as shy, aloof, “Don’t Bother Me” George, whose luck it was to come down with a sore throat on the group’s first tour of the States, barely croaking out his best wishes and John’s witticisms over Murray the K’s airwaves; young, vulnerable George the craftsman, bent over his Gretch in concert, making sure that every lick was as good as it was on record; the perfectionist who would later dismiss the majority of Beatle music as “rubbish”; briefly Haight — Ashbury George, with eyeglasses, like Lolita’s, in the shape of valentines; humble George, Ravi Shankar’s student; holy George.
Up until now, George has been perhaps the premier studio musician among rock band guitarists. From the electronic whine which began “I Feel Fine” to the break in “Hard Day’s Night” to the crazed, sitar — influenced burst on “Taxman,” George exhibited an avant — garde imagination and a technical flawlessness, as well as the ability to stay within the bounds of a song, which has remained unparalleled.
Not surprisingly, his ambitions have remained unfulfilled by this role and what presumably has been welling up in him since at least Let It Be, perhaps since Meet The Beatles, comes pouring out on All Things Must Pass. It is both an intensely personal statement and a grandiose gesture, a triumph over artistic modesty, even frustration. In this extravaganza of piety and sacrifice and joy, whose sheer magnitude and ambition may dub it the War and Peace of rock and roll, the music itself is no longer the only message.
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The lyrics are central. They are displayed prominently on the album sleeves and appear to have been written before the music. Often there are more syllables than notes, and lines have to be hurried in order to get it all in. Often too, there are unresolved sentence fragments (“Eyes that shining full of inner light”), funny word uses (“Another day for you to realize me”), and conscious attempts at literary effects (“beware of soft shoe shufflers/dancing down the sidewalks”). His words sometimes try too hard; he’s taking himself or the subject too seriously, or, if the subject is impossible to take too seriously, he doesn’t always possess the means to convey that impression convincingly.
The production is of classic Spectorian proportions, Wagnerian, Brucknerian, the music of mountain tops and vast horizons. The sound is often so glossy and dramatic it is difficult not to be seduced by it, and one tries vainly to discover just what George’s music would be without it–a futile and probably destructive exercise anyway. Everybody’s favorite sidemen — Whitlock, Gordon, Radle, and Clapton — along with Klaus Voorman and Alan White, fragments of the Plastic Ono Band — play almost indistinguishably from the staples of earlier Spector production: Larry Knetchel, Joe Osborne, and Hal Blaine, on many of the tracks.
At its best, Spector’s production is the sound of one instrument, the mind of its producer. Individual instruments, even vocals, perhaps because George is not a strong singer, don’t count for much in this music. There is a monolithic sound which peculiarly reinforces the message of many of the songs. George’s religiousity, his quest for egolessness, are fitting in a sound in which individual elements are subordinated to the whole. If Paul’s studio is his home, George’s is his cathedral.
In this context the two-sided jam lies outside the context of the rest of the record. It would have been interesting to hear how George improvises. Here, he’s playing with Clapton and Dave Mason and a lot of other people. Eric takes over on lead much of the time but really it is often impossible to tell who’s playing what. Most of it is the usual 4/4 three-chord bashings about, competent and often boring.
The songs themselves are a very mixed lot. There are the bopping early-Sixties tunes; songs either authored, co — authored or influenced by Dylan; Beatle music; and the new, dirge — like Harrisonian holy music.
“What Is Life” is an ambiguous number on which he is not really asking what life is, in the big sense, just “What is life/without your love?” The music is sweetness and light, pure Shirelles, until he throws us the curve, “But if it’s not love that you need then I’ll/Try my best to make everything succeed.” Or “My Sweet Lord,” an obvious re-write of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” Here “doo-lang” is replaced by “Hare Krishna” — a sign of the times. “Awaiting On You All” is a Lesley Gore rave-up in which George manages to rhyme “visas” with “Jesus.”
The Dylan stuff is uneven. Harrison and Dylan co-authored “I’d Have You Anytime,” the album’s opening cut, but the two together don’t come up with much. There is also “If Not For You” and an inexplicable bit of C&W schlock, “Behind That Locked Door” (it has a lovely, lilting background vocal, though). One of the most wonderful cuts on the album, however, is the Dylan-inspired “Apple Scruffs.” Done with harmonica and acoustic guitar, it sounds as if it was recorded while Spector was out for coffee. The song itself is George’s affectionate appreciation of his famous fans, and the first, song of the Seventies to recapture those dewy-eyed Sixties.
The two vintage Beatle songs are “Run of the Mill,” a song of poignance and McCartneyesque lyricism and “Wah Wah,” a grand cacaphony of sound in which horns sound like guitars and vice versa.
Finally, defining the musical core of the album are George’s brooding essays on living, loving, and dying. “Ballad of Sir Franky Crisp (Let It Roll),” with lots of “Ye’s” to remind us it’s a ballad, is both watery and oceanic. “All Things Must Pass” with its washed — out horns and cadence beat, is eloquently hopeful and resigned:
Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day
Seems my love is up, and has
left you with no warning
But it’s not always going to be this grey
All things must pass, all things
must pass away.
“Beware of Darkness” may be the album’s best song. Musically enigmatic and strangely incomplete, it is both a warning and an affirmation:
Beware of sadness
It can hit you; it can hurt you–
Make you sore and what is
more, that is
not what you are here for.
There is a song of reincarnation, “The Art of Dying,” whose melody is borrowed from “Paint It Black,” and the lament “Isn’t it a Pity” whose beginning is the broken thirds of John’s “I am the Walrus” and whose end is the decadent, exultant last half of Paul’s “Hey Jude.”
Throughout All Things Must Pass, George acts as moral witness and proselytizer for a way of life. When he sings lines like “You’ve been polluted so long,” or “not too many people can see we’re all the same,” these lines, like those of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and “Piggies,” carry an air of sanctimoniousness and moral superiority which is offensive. Remarkably, he vindicates these lapses. Obeying the form of Sgt. Pepper, there is a reprise of “Isn’t it a Pity,” which prefaces the big statement, “Hear Me Lord.” Here George stops preaching, and, speaking only to a God, delivers a simple, but majestic plea:
Help me Lord please
To rise a little higher
Help me Lord please
To burn out this desire.
Beyond particular evaluations, this is an album of striking honesty and force, greater than the sum of its parts. Stylistically, it will have influence — the “big” sound, may be upon us — but beyond that it suggests the supportive structures, the philosophy and rituals, which up to now have been lacking in so much of contemporary music. George’s criticisms are explicit: “now I don’t need no wah-wah / and I know how sweet life can be. / So I’ll keep myself free of wah-wah.” Or, in “Awaiting on You All”; “You don’t need a love-in … to see/the mess you’re in.”
As Leon Russell noted in a recent interview “But in India [the music is] a religion, and the restrictions are known by everybody and they know what their participation is and it’s just like a way of life.” George is fully aware of this phenomenon. All Things Must Pass is his effort to dedicate his music to it.