In a Rolling Stone interview at the end of 2000, George Harrison described his music this way: “Guitars, basic drums and analog tapes — that’s the way I like it. It doesn’t go with trends. My trousers don’t get wider and tighter every six months. My music just stays what it is, and that’s it.”
Beyond that modest self-assessment lies a body of work long ripe for rediscovery. His image as the brooding, reticent Beatle belied an industriousness that flourished even while he was in the group, struggling to get more than a song or two on each Beatles LP. In November 1968, he issued the first solo album by a Beatle, Wonderwall Music, an ambitious film soundtrack combining Western rock and sessions recorded with traditional Indian musicians. Harrison used the Beatles’ boutique label, Apple, to pursue songwriting and production adventures with a wide variety of artists, from his friend and teacher Ravi Shankar and old Liverpool mate Jackie Lomax to American soul singer Doris Troy and girl-group icon Ronnie Spector. Harrison’s generosity as a sessionman, aiding friends and peers on their records, was reflected in the variety of witty pseudonyms he used in many of those appearances: L’Angelo Misterioso, Hari Georgeson, George O’Hara, P. Roducer. He was a reluctant promoter of his own albums, touring North America only once, in 1974, and giving few interviews. Nevertheless, Harrison continued to record with an attention to purity — the bedrock skill and spirit of 1950s rock & roll — that never wavered.
The following is a greatest-hits survey of Harrison’s musical life as a Beatle, solo artist and collaborator, touching on a dozen vital moments in his growth and accomplishments as one of rock & roll’s finest, most influential songwriters and guitarists. “I don’t really get proud of things I do,” Harrison told Rolling Stone. “It’s not a word I use.” He’d earned the right.
“Cry for a Shadow”
Written by George Harrison-John Lennon
Produced by Bert Kaempfert
Recorded June 22nd and 23rd, 1961, Friedrich-Ebert-Halle, Hamburg, Germany
First released by Tony Sheridan on the Mister Twist EP in France in April 1962
Composed mainly by George Harrison and cut almost as an afterthought at the Beatles’ first professional recording session, this rough instrumental diamond was the guitarist’s official bow as a songwriter. More importantly, “Cry for a Shadow” was the first original Beatles song to be recorded in a studio and the first to appear on record — six months before the British release of “Love Me Do” in October 1962. In a handwritten bio sheet from the period, Paul McCartney declared that he and John Lennon, between them, had written “around seventy songs.” But it was eighteen-year-old Harrison who got top billing the first time around.
Harrison, Lennon, McCartney and original drummer Pete Best were in their second extended residency in Hamburg, Germany, when, in May of ’61, the German producer and MOR bandleader Bert Kaempfert caught the Beatles at the Top Ten Club, where they were sharing the bill with British singer Tony Sheridan. Kaempfert quickly put Sheridan and the Beatles in the studio together, cutting seven songs. “They represented something new to us,” the session’s engineer, Karl Hinze, said in 1996. “It was loud, loud, loud.”
Kaempfert had little faith in Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting abilities. In October 1961, he paired rowdy covers of “My Bonnie” and “The Saints” on a single credited to Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers. Ironically, Kaempfert picked the raw “Cry for a Shadow” as the only Beatles original worth recording. Originally titled “Beatle Bop” and written by Harrison as a spoof of the British instrumental group the Shadows, the melody was basically one note, chopped up into staccato and bent into piercing whines. Driven by Lennon’s pulverizing rhythm guitar (hence the co-writing credit) and punctuated by McCartney’s hell-raising yells, the song captured the aggressive precision of Harrison’s playing in crude bloom, halfway between his first loves — the stinging pith of rockabilly gods Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore — and the incisive twang of his later solos on “I Saw Her Standing There” and “A Hard Day’s Night.”
“It was obvious to me that they were enormously talented,” Kaempfert said of the savage young Beatles in 1964. “But nobody — including the boys themselves — knew how to use that talent or where it would lead them.” Yet Kaempfert was wise enough to bring that Harrison guitar right up front — where it belonged.
“Don’t Bother Me”
Written by George Harrison
Produced by George Martin
Recorded September 11th and 12th, 1963, EMI Studios, London
Released by the Beatles on With the Beatles in Britain on November 22nd, 1963, and on Meet the Beatles in America on January 20th, 1964
The first George Harrison song to appear on a Beatles album, “Don’t Bother Me” was written in mid-August 1963 while the guitarist was holed up, sick, in a hotel in Bournemouth, England, during a week-long series of Beatles shows there. Harrison was ostensibly writing about romantic desertion and the paralysis of loss, but the haunting modal melody and direct language — “So go away/Leave me alone/Don’t bother me” — spoke volumes about Harrison’s mounting distrust of stardom and desperate need for privacy amid the madness of his Beatle life. At the same time that the world was falling at his feet, Harrison was already writing and singing of his unease with success and with the band that had made it possible.
“I used to have a hang-up about telling John, Paul and Ringo I had a song for an album,” Harrison admitted in 1969, “because I felt mentally, at that time, as if I was trying to compete. And in a way, the standard of the songs had to be good, because [John and Paul’s] were very good. I don’t want the Beatles to be recording rubbish for my sake . . . just because I wrote it.”
But with its despondent words charged by a hectic Latin-rock cadence and dramatic stop-start effect in front of the chorus, “Don’t Bother Me” was more sophisticated than Harrison, as a first-time composer and lyricist, got credit for at the time. In fact, the Beatles took two days and seventeen takes to get it right, practically a lifetime in the song-a-minute sessions of the time. The other Beatles all played additional percussion — tambourine, claves, bongos — and Harrison sealed the bleak power of the song with a short, snarling guitar solo.
As a Beatle and late-blooming songwriter, Harrison would never fully share in the respect and spotlight accorded John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But he never doubted himself as a contender. “Sometimes it’s a matter of whoever pushes hardest gets the most tunes on the album — it’s down to personalities,” Harrison said in that ’69 interview. “I believe that if I’m going to sing songs on record, they might as well be on my own.”
“A Hard Day’s Night”
Written by John Lennon-Paul McCartney
Produced by George Martin
Recorded April 16th, 1964, EMI Studios, London
Released by the Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night in America on June 26th, 1964, and in Britain on July 20th, 1964
It’s not often that you get to hear the Beatles screw up in the studio, but outtakes of this immaculate raver, the title song of the Beatles’ first feature film, are a fascinating study in George Harrison’s devotion to perfection. John Lennon had just finished writing the song the day before this session, and the group recorded it in a breakneck three hours. In Take One, included on the 1995 Beatles release Anthology 1, one can hear Harrison searching for structure in his solo break, hesitantly pecking at a shred of a riff on his twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar. Another take, which first surfaced on a CD bootleg in the 1980s, features Harrison literally fumbling over his strings, losing his timing and missing notes.
But by the time the Beatles wrapped up the session, and the song, at ten o’clock that night, Harrison had become the decisive instrumental voice in one of the Beatles’ biggest hits and defining records. That’s his Rickenbacker spraying harmonics all over Lennon’s opening chord, and that’s Harrison picking the clean ringing arpeggio in the fade-out. And in the middle, he sculpted one of his most memorable solos — a sterling upward run of notes played twice and capped each time with a striking circular flourish, with the church-bell chime of Harrison’s guitar echoed on piano by George Martin.
“George, in the studio, would spend a lot of time working out solos — nothing was done really fast,” says Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, who worked on this session. “Everything was a little bit harder for him — nothing quite came easily.” But Harrison’s studiousness was a vital component in the Beatles’ working methods, an important balancing factor between Lennon’s impetuosity and Paul McCartney’s melodic ease. “Seeing him striving in the studio with his guitar,” Emerick says of Harrison, “it was clear that in his mind he was trying to further himself as a musician.”
“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”
Written by Carl Perkins
Recorded November 25, 1964, Playhouse Theater, London
Released by the Beatles on Live at the BBC in 1994
On May 31st, 1964, at a Beatles post-show party in London, George Harrison walked up to one of the invited guests, visiting rockabilly-guitar god Carl Perkins and, after a quick introduction, asked Perkins point-blank: What key was “Honey Don’t” in? Perkins replied that he’d written the song in the key of E. Harrison turned to John Lennon and cracked, “I told you we weren’t doing it right.”
In their formative and early-fame years, the Beatles covered more songs by Perkins than by any other single artist. Among the eleven songs written and/or recorded by Perkins in the Beatles’ stage, studio and BBC radio songbook were “Honey Don’t,” “Matchbox,” “Sure to Fall (In Love With You),” “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” a tongue-in-cheek gallop about babe magnetism from Perkins’ 1958 Sun Records LP, Dance Album of Carl Perkins. And there was no bigger Perkins fan among the Beatles than Harrison. As a teenage rocker, he briefly used the stage name of Carl Harrison, and Harrison’s deceptively elementary guitar style — the tight trebly cluck of his rhythm work and the focused golden sting of his leads — was clearly inspired by Perkins’ rich country-sunshine minimalism.
“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby” had been a Harrison vocal showcase in the Beatles’ live shows as far back as 1961, and the group recorded it several times for the BBC between 1963 and 1965. At Abbey Road on October 18th, 1964, the Beatles nailed the song in one take for official release on the British LP Beatles for Sale (the track appeared in the U.S. on Beatles ’65). But this November 1964 BBC version is Harrison’s Perkins fixation at its finest: His boyish voice is embedded in Sun-like echo, he picks his licks with roadhouse fire (note the fierce downhill break at the end of his first solo), and the rest of the Beatles swing behind him like hillbilly cats.
The song, with Perkins’ playful references to rock-star ego and armies of sex-mad fillies, packed extra irony for Harrison by late 1964. When Harrison sings the opening lines — “Well they took some honey from a tree/Dressed it up and they called it me” — it’s a sly, mocking commentary on the weight and absurdity of his sudden, suffocating fame. In an interview with BBC host Brian Matthew that prefaced one 1964 broadcast of the song, Harrison dryly noted that “I didn’t write it, even though it is conceited.” The cheerful innocence of Beatlemania was already fading.
“If I Needed Someone”
Written by George Harrison
Produced by George Martin
Recorded October 16th and 18th, 1965, EMI Studios, London
Released by the Beatles on Rubber Soul in Britain on December 3rd, 1965, and on “Yesterday” . . . And Today in America on June 20th, 1966
This twangy jewel was the result of a remarkable exchange of influences between the Beatles and one of their favorite new bands, the Byrds. Founding Byrds Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby were making demos in Los Angeles as an acoustic-folk group in 1964 when McGuinn saw Harrison playing a cherry-red, electric twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar in A Hard Day’s Night. “I took my acoustic [twelve-string] and five-string banjo down to the music store,” McGuinn recalls, “and traded them in for an electric twelve-string.” McGuinn’s Rickenbacker became the trademark sound of the Byrds and the signature instrument of the folk-rock revolution.
The Beatles returned the admiration. John Lennon and Paul McCartney attended one of the Byrds’ first British shows in early 1965, and that August, on a day off from the Beatles’ ’65 U.S. tour, McCartney and Harrison attended a Byrds recording session in L.A. “We were recording ‘She Don’t Care About Time,’ ” says McGuinn. “I remember George was really into the Bach thing in the middle that I did” — a stirring Rickenbacker quote from “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” “George said, ‘That’s great. I love that.’ He thought it was great the way I fit it into the song.”
Two months later, Harrison paid McGuinn the ultimate compliment when the Beatles recorded “If I Needed Someone,” a striking blend of cool dismissal (“Carve your number on my wall and maybe you’ll get a call from me”) and crystalline riffing adapted from McGuinn’s lead lick in “The Bells of Rhymney,” on the Byrds’ debut album, Mr. Tambourine Man. In his autobiography, I.Me.Mine, Harrison characterized the song as a set of variations on a D chord: “If you move your finger about, you get various little melodies.” But to McGuinn, he gave due thanks.
“George was very open about it,” says McGuinn, who was then going by his original given name, Jim. “He sent [the record] to us in advance and said, ‘This is for Jim’ — because of that lick.”
Written by George Harrison
Produced by George Martin
Recorded April 20th-22nd, 1966, EMI Studios, London
Released by the Beatles on Revolver in Britain on August 5th, 1966, and in America on August 8th, 1966
Paul McCartney played the searing guitar solo, and John Lennon contributed to the lyrics, without credit. But in its pithy cynicism and stark rhythmic kick, “Taxman” was strictly George Harrison’s triumph, a contagious blast of garage rock, and the other Beatles knew it. Harrison’s crisp slap at highway robbery by Her Majesty’s Government landed the prized position on Revolver: Side One, Track One.
” ‘Taxman’ was when I first realized that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes,” Harrison later wrote in I.Me.Mine. “Why should this be so? Are we being punished for something we had forgotten to do?” In his opening lyric salvo — “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me” — Harrison accused the British crown of hypocrisy on top of thievery, for giving praise and MBE’s with one hand while hijacking the lion’s share of the Beatles’ income with the other. “The government’s taking over ninety percent of all our money,” Ringo Starr once complained. “We’re left with one-ninth [of a] pound.” The Beatles were not taking sides either: “Taxman” included Lennon and McCartney name-checking, in mocking falsetto harmony, both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, the respective heads of the Labour and Conservative parties.
Politics aside, “Taxman” represents a crucial link between the guitar-driven clang of the Beatles’ 1963-65 sound and the emerging splendor of the group’s experiments in psychedelia. Musically, the song is skeleton funk, Harrison’s choppy fuzz-toned guitar chords moving against an R&B dance beat; the structure suggests that he’d been paying close attention to British hits of that season, like James Brown’s “I Got You” and “Somebody Help Me” by the Spencer Davis Group. (Latter-day mods the Jam later adapted the riff and rhythm of “Taxman” for their 1980 British hit, “Start!”) At the same time, the ragalike flavor of Harrison’s vocal melody and the extra hours he and engineer Geoff Emerick spent on guitar tone, not just on “Taxman” but on the whole of Revolver, foreshadow Harrison’s intense plunge into Indian music, and the sitar, on later songs such as “Within You Without You” and “The Inner Light.”
“We were very nitpicky about the way things sounded,” says Emerick of his work with Harrison. “And he probably got a bit frustrated. He’d done the guitar things and wanted to go in another direction. ‘Within You Without You’ was the direction he wanted to take. The other three were taken aback by it, but George was very serious about it.”
Harrison never entirely abandoned “Taxman” — it was in the set list when he toured Japan with Eric Clapton in 1991. “It’s a song that goes regardless if it’s the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties [or] Nineties,” he cracked at the time. “There’s always a taxman.”
“Within You Without You”
Written by George Harrison
Produced by George Martin
Recorded on March 15th and 22nd and April 3rd, 1967, EMI Studios, London
Released by the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in Britain on June 1st, 1967, and in America on June 2nd, 1967
George Harrison’s musical life changed forever at a party in Los Angeles in August 1965. The Beatles were in town to play at the Hollywood Bowl. The Byrds had come up to the Beatles’ rented house in the Hollywood Hills to hang out and get high. “We were on the floor exchanging guitar licks,” recalls the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. At one point, McGuinn’s band mate David Crosby showed Harrison “some Ravi Shankar stuff that he’d just been into, because Dick Bock at World Pacific [the studio where the Byrds made their first demos in 1964] had been producing Ravi Shankar.”
Harrison had already been introduced to the sitar earlier in ’65, during the filming of the Beatles’ second movie, Help! “We were waiting to shoot the scene in the restaurant when the guy gets thrown in the soup,” he explained in an interview, “and there were a few Indian musicians playing in the background. I remember picking up the sitar and trying to hold it, and thinking, ‘This is a funny sound.’ ” That sound became his passion, a love intensified by Crosby’s enthusiasm and which reached its finest flower on record with this 1967 contribution to Sgt. Pepper.
By December 1965, Harrison had introduced the sitar to Beatles fans, playing it on the Rubber Soul recording of John Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” In June 1966, Harrison met Shankar, India’s reigning master of the instrument, for the first time; that fall, at Shankar’s invitation, Harrison went to India for six weeks to study under the virtuoso. “I had George practice all the correct positions of sitting and some of the basic exercises,” Shankar wrote in his 1969 autobiography, My Music, My Life. “This was the most one could do in six weeks, considering that a disciple usually spends years learning these basics.” But Harrison quickly transcended his elementary abilities on the sitar, integrating the instrument’s rapturous drone and the melodic and rhythmic complexities of raga into Western song with ingenious, respectful grace.
Harrison wrote “Within You Without You” in early 1967 — not in India, but in England, after dinner at the home of Klaus Voorman, a close friend of the Beatles since the Hamburg, Germany, days. “Klaus had a harmonium in his house, which I hadn’t played before,” Harrison remembered. “I was doodling on it, playing to amuse myself when ‘Within You’ started to come. The tune came first; then I got the first sentence [‘We were talking — about the space between us all’].” He finished the song that night when he got home.
Harrison recorded the basic track on March 15th with Indian musicians recruited from the Eastern Music Circle in London, playing tabla, dilruba (a sitarlike instrument), swarmandal (an Indian style of zither) and tamboura; Harrison and Beatles assistant Neil Aspinall played tamboura as well. (No other Beatle appeared on the final track.) At a marathon session of nearly twelve hours on April 3rd, Harrison overdubbed his own sitar, some acoustic guitar and a haunting lead vocal; an eleven-piece string section accented the Indian instrumentation, using a score written by George Martin. The result was at once beautiful and severe, a magnetic sermon about materialism and communal responsibility in the middle of a record devoted to gentle Technicolor anarchy. Harrison’s growing estrangement from the other Beatles can also be heard with piquant clarity: “We were talking — about the love that’s gone so cold and the people/Who gain the world and lose their soul/They don’t know — they can’t see — are you one of them?”
Although “Within You Without You” was largely dismissed as an alien novelty when Sgt. Pepper was released in the Summer of Love, Harrison’s devotion to the sound and soul of India long outlived the Beatles’ flirtations with psychedelia, later blooming all over his solo masterwork, All Things Must Pass. But Harrison was also enlightened enough to poke a little fun at himself. During mix-downs on April 4th, he dropped in a few seconds of crowd laughter at the end of “Within You Without You,” taken from a sound-effects tape in the Abbey Road library (“Volume 6: Applause and Laughter”).
“I think he just wanted to relieve the tedium a bit,” Martin suggested later. “George was slightly embarrassed and defensive about his work. I was always conscious of that; perhaps I didn’t devote as much attention to George as I had [to Lennon and Paul McCartney]. I actually think ‘Within You Without You’ would have benefitted a bit by being shorter, but it was a very interesting song. I find it more interesting now than I did then.”
Written by Eric Clapton and George Harrison
Produced by Felix Pappalardi
Recorded October 1968
Released by Cream on Goodbye in March 1969
If he asks me to do anything,” Eric Clapton said of George Harrison in a 1974 Rolling Stone interview, “he’s got the best that I can give, whenever I can give it.” That sentiment went both ways and was the foundation of a musical and personal friendship that lasted nearly forty years — a brotherly affection that even withstood the drama of Clapton’s love for Harrison’s first wife, Pattie Boyd, documented by Clapton with gripping candor on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, his 1970 album with Derek and the Dominos.
Clapton and Harrison first met in December 1964, when Clapton’s band the Yardbirds landed an opening-act spot on the Beatles’ Christmas-season shows at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. “The Yardbirds were on the bottom of the bill,” Clapton remembered, “but all of the acts in between were sort of music-hall English rock & roll groups. And the Yardbirds were an R&B band, or even a blues band, so there was a bit of ‘What’s this all about?’ George was checking me out, and I was checking him out to see if he was a real guitar player. And I realized he was.”
Harrison, in turn, would repeatedly draw on Clapton’s instrumental prowess for his own music: Clapton played the grand, aching lead guitar on Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” on “The White Album”; contributed a feast of guitar to Harrison’s solo debut, All Things Must Pass; and appeared with Harrison at the Bangladesh charity shows in New York in 1971. When Harrison returned to the road for a series of Japanese concerts in 1991, he called on Clapton to join him. “It’s just an attraction we have,” Harrison said during that tour, “an attraction in our lives. And it’s also the way he bends the notes.”
A staple of Clapton’s live shows to this day, “Badge” was the pair’s first official co-writing adventure, created for Clapton’s last album with Cream, Goodbye. Harrison — listed in the original credits as L’Angelo Misterioso for contractual reasons — also played rhythm guitar on the track, and his melodic sensibility shines throughout. Although Clapton would go through two more bands — Blind Faith and the Dominos — before starting a solo career in earnest, “Badge” shows the pop influence Harrison had on Clapton as the latter began to shed his blues-purist skin.
The song is a lyrically enigmatic reflection on a love gone awry, a dark, trancelike rocker split in the middle by a marvelous bridge announced by a regal Clapton riff played through a Leslie speaker. Indeed, it was that bridge that inadvertently gave “Badge” its name. “I wrote most of the words, Eric had the bridge and he had the first couple of chord changes,” Harrison said. “I was writing the words down, and when we came to the middle bit, I wrote ‘Bridge.’ And from where he was sitting, opposite me, he looked and said, ‘What’s that — “Badge”?’ So he called it ‘Badge’ because it made him laugh.”
Written by George Harrison
Produced by George Martin
Recorded February 25th, April 16th, May 2nd and 5th, July 11th and 16th, and August 15th, 1969, EMI Studios, London
Released by the Beatles on Abbey Road in Britain on September 26th, 1969, and in America on October 1st, 1969
On February 25th, 1969, his twenty-sixth birthday, George Harrison recorded three demos at EMI Studios in London, singing and playing guitar and piano, assisted only by engineer Ken Scott. Harrison did two takes each of “Old Brown Shoe,” soon to be cut by the Beatles for a B side, and “All Things Must Pass,” the title song of his 1970 solo album. He also took a single pass at a winsome ballad that he had written on piano the previous year during a break in the White Album sessions: “Something.”
Harrison and the other Beatles would labor on the song for the next six months, repeatedly coming back to it during the making of Abbey Road, editing, arranging and rerecording it to perfection. John Lennon would later confess that “Something” was the best song on Abbey Road. Released as a single in October 1969, coupled with Lennon’s “Come Together,” “Something” went to Number Three on Billboard‘s Top 100 and spawned a major industry in cover versions, coming in second in the Beatles cover sweepstakes behind Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” Harrison claimed that when he wrote “Something,” “in my mind, I heard Ray Charles singing it.” In fact, Charles would sing it on his 1971 album, Volcanic Action of My Soul. And Frank Sinatra, a man with little taste or patience for rock, recorded “Something” in the 1970s, describing it as “the greatest love song of the past fifty years.”
“Something” marked Harrison’s commercial and artistic coming-of-age as a pop songwriter, earning him the respect he had long been denied by Lennon and McCartney — and, to some degree, by producer George Martin. “It took my breath away,” Martin later said of “Something,” “mainly because I never thought that George could do it. George wrote pretty good songs by this time. He wrote some pretty rotten ones in the beginning, but he gradually developed. It was tough for him because he didn’t have any springboard against which he could work, like the other two did. And so he was a loner. I first recognized that he really had a great talent when he did [Abbey Road‘s] ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ But when he brought in ‘Something,’ it was something else. . . . It was a tremendous work — and so simple.”
The song was actually two moods in one: the pillowy yearning of the verses and chorus, and the golden thunder of the bridge, the latter driven by Ringo Starr’s military flourish on a high-hat cymbal, underscoring the impassioned worry in Harrison’s double-tracked singing and McCartney’s distinctive backing vocal. In his book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian McDonald suggests that the opening lyric — “Something in the way she moves” — was “absent-mindedly taken” from James Taylor’s song of the same name, which appeared on his 1968 Apple Records debut, James Taylor. Harrison had attended the London sessions for Taylor’s record and sang backup vocals on another song, “Carolina in My Mind.”
But the decisive time and care that went into crafting “Something” was, in the end, all Harrison’s. On August 15th, the final day of recording for the song, Harrison shared the conductor’s podium with Martin during the string overdubs and recut his elegant guitar solo, a sparkling combination of dirty blues-like slide and soaring romanticism. “He actually did it live with the orchestra,” engineer Geoff Emerick says of that guitar break. “It was almost the same solo [as before] — note for note. The only reason I feel he wanted to redo it was emotion.”
“He was always nervous about his songs,” Martin said of Harrison, “because he knew that he wasn’t the number one [writer] in the group. He always had to try harder than the others.” But with “Something,” the guitarist proved himself to his peers, and the world. “I chastised myself a little bit, that I didn’t pay more attention to him in the earlier days,” Martin admitted. “But then, see, when I was dealing with a couple of characters like Lennon and McCartney, who could blame me for concentrating on them? These were probably the two greatest songwriters we’ve ever had, and they were the ones bringing in the goods. “George made it eventually,” Martin added proudly. “He did it despite all the encouragement I should probably have given him.”
“If Not for You”
Written by Bob Dylan
Produced by Bob Johnston
Recorded May 1st, 1970, Columbia Studios, New York
Released by Bob Dylan on The Bootleg Series, Volumes 1-3 (Rare and Unreleased) 1961-1991 in 1991
My shared experience writing a song with other songwriters is not that great,” Bob Dylan said in a 1991 interview in Song Talk. “Of course, unless you find the right person to write with as a partner . . .” He paused to laugh. “You’re awfully lucky if you do.”
Dylan didn’t need anybody’s help writing this rustic love song, released on his 1970 album, New Morning, in a version recorded a month after this session. But “If Not for You” was a cornerstone of Dylan’s long creative association with George Harrison, a mutual fondness that bloomed on record and in concert through four decades. Harrison cut the song as well for his 1970 album, All Things Must Pass, and the pair recorded it together at a legendary session that was “a monster,” according to a source quoted in a Rolling Stone news story at the time. The evidence, finally issued twenty-one years later, did not live up to the hyperbole, but there is no mistaking the warm air of camaraderie blowing through this modest, endearing performance.
Harrison was in the audience with John Lennon when Dylan performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London in May 1965, an experience that would greatly influence the sound and language of the Beatles’ next studio album, Rubber Soul. Dylan and the Beatles kept crossing paths over the next two years (Lennon actually appears in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of Dylan’s ’66 electric tour, Eat the Document), but it was with Harrison that Dylan established a lasting bond. There was little preparation for this day of recording at Columbia Records’ Studio B in New York: Harrison met Dylan the day before at Dylan’s apartment for an informal jam. On the afternoon of May 1st, the two shambled through nearly two dozen songs, a potpourri of numbers running the gamut from Dylan’s own “Gates of Eden” and “Song to Woody” to the Ronettes’ “Da Doo Ron Ron” and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.”
The evening session was more serious: With a small combo including Charlie Daniels on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums, Dylan and Harrison worked on three songs that Dylan would re-record in June on his own for New Morning — “Time Passes Slowly,” “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy” — and another Dylan original, the eccentric “Working on a Guru.” Dylan had previously attempted “If Not for You” in March at a recording date in Nashville. But at the May 1st get-together, Harrison contributed a gorgeous, pedal-steel-like guitar lick that Dylan wisely kept in the arrangement when he recut the song in June.
The excitement generated by the idea of a Dylan-Harrison collaboration was greater than the results that day. Rolling Stone, confusing the afternoon hootenanny with the evening work, claimed “about five of the numbers are reportedly of high enough quality to merit inclusion on a future Dylan album.” Britain’s New Musical Express went even further, proclaiming “Dylan and Harrison Wax LP together!” In fact, nothing from that day was released at the time.
But Dylan and Harrison continued sharing songs and stages. All Things Must Pass featured a composition actually co-written by Dylan and Harrison, “I’d Have You Anytime,” based on a Dylan lyric that he gave to Harrison to set to music. In 1971, Dylan — who had stopped touring after his 1966 motorcycle accident — broke his sabbatical from performance to appear at Harrison’s Bangladesh charity spectacular; Harrison, in turn, made a rare concert appearance in 1992 at Dylan’s thirtieth-anniversary tribute concert in New York. And they did end up making not one, but two, whole albums together, in 1988 and 1990 with Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, as part of the Traveling Wilburys.
“My Sweet Lord”
Written by George Harrison
Produced by George Harrison and Phil Spector
Recorded between May and August 1970
Released by George Harrison on All Things Must Pass in America on November 27th, 1970, and in Britain on November 30th, 1970
An eight-line prayer that became the first and biggest hit single of George Harrison’s solo career, “My Sweet Lord” was big and bright enough in its melodic grandeur and surging profession of faith that it moved even John Lennon, a determined skeptic on the subject of religion, to reconsider his position on the divine. “I’m starting to think there must be a God,” Lennon remarked admiringly of the record.
Harrison’s commitment to Indian spirituality, particularly the Hare Krishna movement, was heartfelt and lifelong. He provided extensive financial assistance to the London temple founded by Swami Prabhupada and produced records by his followers for the Beatles’ Apple label. In a 1984 interview, Harrison said that one of the greatest thrills of his life was seeing members of the Radha Krishna Temple performing their 1969 Harrison-produced hit, “Hare Krsna Mantra,” on the British TV show Top of the Pops. “That was more fun really than trying to make a pop hit record,” Harrison said of the single. “It was the feeling of utilizing your skills to do some spiritual service for Krishna.”
Harrison’s triple-LP solo debut, All Things Must Pass, was service on a larger scale, a sumptuous autobiographical hymn to his rebirth through Krishna and the devotional obligations of that renewal. Many of the fifteen Harrison originals on the set were composed in 1969, as he struggled against the patronizing restrictions of writing within and for the Beatles. “My Sweet Lord,” however, came to Harrison while he was on the road that December as a guest guitarist with Delaney and Bonnie. Inspired by the surprise 1969 gospel hit “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Harrison started writing “My Sweet Lord” during a tour stop in Copenhagen, singing “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna” as he alternated between major and minor chords on a guitar. After the song’s release as a single in November 1970, Harrison became embroiled in a dispiriting court case in which he was accused of pilfering three notes from the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord.” But in its call-and-response structure and uplifting intent, “My Sweet Lord” was the honest child of black American sacred song, a psalm to Krishna that Harrison and his co-producer, Phil Spector, enriched with commercial sugar and ecumenical swing.
“If I were doing it now, it would not be so produced,” Harrison said of All Things Must Pass in a Rolling Stone interview when the set was reissued as a deluxe CD box in 2001. “But it was the first [solo] record, and I had Phil Spector helping me working on it. And anybody who’s familiar with Phil’s work — it was like Cinemascope sound. I think if I was doing it today, I would have less production. I did that on my next album, Living in the Material World. I dropped the big production and did it more like a small group.” Indeed, Harrison returned to “My Sweet Lord” for that reissue, creating a bonus track — “My Sweet Lord (2000)” — in which he stripped Spector’s Wall of Sound back to the original instrumental bed and recorded new percussion, guitars and vocals that emphasized the gospel origins of the song and underscored the humble certitude in Harrison’s entreaty: “My sweet Lord — I really want to know you/I really want to go with you/I really want to show you Lord that it/Won’t take long my Lord.”
Harrison lost the “My Sweet Lord” case, brought against him by the estate of Ronnie Mack, the writer of “He’s So Fine,” and Bright Tunes, the song’s publishers. After three days of testimony in February 1976, federal judge Richard Owen ruled that Harrison had committed “unconscious plagiarism.” Harrison eventually paid damages of nearly $600,000. He also had his revenge. For his 1976 album, Thirty-three and 1/3, Harrison recorded a satirical gem simply called “This Song,” in which he insisted that the melody was lawsuit-free: “This tune has nothing Bright about it/This tune ain’t good or bad and come ever what may/My expert tells me it’s OK.”
Released as a single, “This Song” (featuring a spoken cameo by Eric Idle of the Monty Python comedy troupe) made it into Billboard‘s Top Thirty. As an executive at Harrison’s record company, Warner Bros., put it, “Harrison picked a mighty tough way to get a hit record.”
“All Those Years Ago”
Written by George Harrison
Produced by George Harrison and Ray Cooper
Recorded in January 1981
Released by George Harrison on Somewhere in England in June 1981
In 1980, George Harrison submitted a new solo album, Somewhere in England, to executives at Warner Bros. Records, the company that distributed his Dark Horse label. The suits handed it back, complaining that it was too downbeat. Then, on December 8th, Harrison’s former band mate, John Lennon, was murdered in front of his home at the Dakota in New York. Devastated by Lennon’s death, Harrison turned to a song that he had recently composed for Ringo Starr to record. Rewritten and partly rerecorded, “All Those Years Ago” became the emotional and melodic highlight of the amended Somewhere album and a kind of memorial gathering for Lennon: The finished track featured all three surviving Beatles.
The emotional exhaustion and financial acrimony that resulted in the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 have long obscured the fact that, throughout the next decade, they often appeared on one another’s records, mostly helping Starr on his solo efforts. Harrison and Lennon, in particular, maintained a productive working relationship. Harrison played lead guitar on Lennon’s 1970 agit-pop hit “Instant Karma” and provided the torrid slide work on Lennon’s Imagine, heightening the argumentative energy of “Gimme Some Truth” and Lennon’s attack on Paul McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?”
But “All Those Years Ago” was an exceptionally nostalgic song for Harrison, a man who rarely expressed fond memories of the Beatles, at least in public. Keeping the breezy instrumental track that Starr had taped in July 1980 for his own aborted solo album, Can’t Fight Lightning, Harrison wrote new words in which he insisted his mixed feelings about the Beatles as a group never interfered with his admiration for Lennon’s honesty and artistry: “Living with good and bad/I always looked up to you/Now we’re left cold and sad/By someone/The devil’s best friend/Someone who offended all.” In a gesture of peace and common grief, Harrison invited Paul and Linda McCartney to sing background harmonies on the track atop Starr’s original drums — a poignant reminder that, with Lennon gone, there could never be a true Beatles reunion. (The trio recorded again in the 1990s, over old Lennon demos, to create “new” Beatles music — without the magic — for the Anthology 1 and 2 sets.)
“All Those Years Ago” became Harrison’s biggest single in eight years, reaching Number Two on Billboard‘s Top 100 chart. And he would revisit the weight and wonder of Beatlemania on his 1987 hit album, Cloud Nine, in the impressive Sgt. Pepper pastiche “When We Was Fab”: “The microscope that magnified the tears/Studied warts and all/Still the life flowed on and on.” In August 1966, as the Beatles returned to England after playing their last full concert together at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Harrison famously snapped, “That’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore.” But in the tender remembering of these songs, Harrison showed that, in his heart and art, he never left.
“The Beatles are a gas,” Harrison declared in a 1974 British radio interview, emphasizing the present tense. And from that first recording session in Hamburg, Germany, until his final solo years, George Harrison sang his songs and played his guitar with nothing less than the passion and imagination of a Beatle. With quiet soul and diligent craft, he made living history.