In The Beatles Anthology, George Harrison recalled, “There used to be a situation where we’d go in (as we did when we were kids), pick up our guitars, all learn the tune and chords and start talking about arrangements. But there came a time … when Paul [McCartney] had fixed an idea in his brain as to how to record one of his songs … It was taken to the most ridiculous situations, where I’d open my guitar case and go to get my guitar out and he’d say, ‘No, no, we’re not doing that yet.’ … It got so there was very little to do, other than sit around and hear him going, ‘Fixing a hole …’ with Ringo [Starr] keeping the time.”
John Lennon would allow Harrison to weave guitar hooks into his compositions, but McCartney would sometimes remove Harrison’s guitar solos on songs like “Another Girl,” “Penny Lane,” and “Hello, Goodbye.” Throughout the Seventies, guitarists for Wings would quit after realizing they would have almost zero input on what they played or did not play. Which is fine; McCartney’s a musical genius and should be able to hire who he wants to do what he wants. But Harrison didn’t need or want to be a faceless session man getting paid on the clock.
Harrison was also losing Lennon, the big brother/mentor with whom he had gone through every phase from rockabilly to acid – to Yoko Ono. Lennon recounted to Rolling Stone magazine, “And George, shit, insulted her right to her face in the Apple office at the beginning; just being ‘straight forward’ you know, that game of ‘Well, I’m going to be upfront because this is what we’ve heard and Dylan and a few people said she’s got a lousy name in New York, and you gave off bad vibes.’ That’s what George said to her and we both sat through it, and I didn’t hit him. I don’t know why.”
A terrible argument erupted between Lennon and Harrison on January 10, 1969, during the sessions for the Let It Be album/movie. “See you round the clubs,” Harrison said as he stalked out.
Back at his home in Esher, Harrison began writing “Wah Wah.” The group and the public had made him a star, but Eastern mysticism had shown him he could enjoy sweet inner peace if he just got all the Beatle drama out of his life. While he would briefly return to the group, next year “Wah Wah” would be on his first solo album, All Things Must Pass.
Also on that album was “Run of the Mill,” a portrait of Harrison’s final year in the group. Maybe Lennon and McCartney didn’t perceive Harrison’s growth because they saw him all the time. Maybe by taking him for granted, they actually spurred on his musical maturation. Perhaps the others didn’t want to acknowledge that he was improving, because they didn’t want to give up space on the albums.
In “Run of the Mill,” he sings that each day is a chance for them to realize how he’s grown – or disregard him again, and he doesn’t have much hope that his position will improve. As disrespect, Ono, and heroin drive their wedges through the group, Harrison is stunned that he’s lost the others’ friendship, but he can see it in their eyes. He debates whether to speak up and fight for his place in the band, or just leave the group with their blessing.
Such personal musings would be irrelevant to anyone but the biggest Beatle fans if Harrison hadn’t so artfully written the words to be open-ended and applicable to anyone. The haunting soundscape is lonely like the White Album’s “Long Long Long,” but with the grandeur of mournful horns, strings, trumpet, sax, and organ. A touching work of maturity by a little brother who saw more clearly than the others, realizing that he loved them but it was time to move on.
As for “Wah Wah,” the live performance of the song on The Concert for Bangladesh has the edge on the studio version. On All Things Must Pass, Spector’s monolithic wall of noise stays at the same level throughout the song without any dynamic shifts, as opposed to starting more subtly and building to a crescendo, and thus seems overlong. The live version is a notch slower, and the cleaner mix allows breathing room to hear the space between the instruments. And more importantly, there’s the euphoria of the performance itself.
The rumor had been that the Beatles would reunite for the Bangladesh benefit. There was such a traffic jam outside of Madison Square Garden that the police insisted the box office open twelve hours early, at which point it sold out almost immediately. But Ono was not invited to perform, so she fought with Lennon and he bailed. McCartney said he’d only play if they dissolved the Beatles’ legal partnership, and Harrison refused.
The Bangladesh band included Starr on drums alongside future [Traveling] Wilbury Jim Keltner, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann, and the group Badfinger. They only had a day’s rehearsal, but when they launched into the commanding riffs of “Wah Wah,” Starr kicked in with one of his patented fills, the gospel chorus started clapping, a serious-looking Harrison leaned into the groove, and 20,000 people roared in delight upon seeing a Beatle for the first time since 1966. Harrison’s stoicism belied his nervousness at being the front man for the first time. But by the time the horn section started grooving in step, Harrison did his sideways kick shuffle from the Beatlemania days in time, and his exhilaration at being out from under the domineering shadow of his band mates was palpable. Turning around to look at the huge ensemble pulsating all around him, he grinned, singing how good life could be with no more drama.
When he grew serious to concentrate on the opening of “Here Comes the Sun,” everyone cheered and you could see the unaffected surprise in his smile, just as you could see his lack of ego when he stepped back to support the other headliners of the day: Starr (who forgot the words to “It Don’t Come Easy” but kept going), Clapton, Preston, Russell.
And then Bob Dylan came out after having been in seclusion since 1966, blowing everyone’s mind with “It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall,” which could have been written for the crisis in Bangladesh, his voice strong and reedy. After Altamont, the concert was perhaps the last stand of the Woodstock dream.
In the rehearsal the night before, Dylan wavered on whether he’d actually show. Harrison protested that it was he (Harrison) who hadn’t played solo before! In the end, their bond was real, as the Traveling Wilburys twenty years later would demonstrate, and Dylan delivered for his friend. As the two stood together singing “Just Like a Woman” with Leon Russell, no one cared where Lennon and McCartney were.
As Harrison wrapped the show up with “Something” and a ringing “Bangladesh,” it might have been his finest moment, definitively transcending the Wah Wah that once held him back.
From the book Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers by Andrew Grant Jackson. Copyright 2012 by Andrew Grant Jackson. Published by Scarecrow Press, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.