This past week, people all over the world were stunned to learn of the death of George Harrison. As someone who, like many others, spent his childhood listening almost exclusively to the Beatles, I was greatly saddened to hear the news of his death.
George will of course be remembered most for his work in the Beatles. Through that group’s existence, George grew tremendously as a musician. He was initially left in a more auxiliary role, playing some good guitar solos and singing background, but he mainly let John Lennon and Paul McCartney run the show. When he did step up to the microphone, it was usually for a cover, like “Roll Over Beethoven” or “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.” The Lennon-McCartney songwriting team did not completely ignore George, writing “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You” for him on the Hard Day’s Night album in 1964.
“Don’t Bother Me,” from the Beatles’ second album With the Beatles (1963) was the first Harrison song to make it onto a Beatles record. Although he later derided the tune, it did lay the groundwork for recurring themes of independence, alienation, and bitterness found in George’s early songs. By Rubber Soul (1965), George’s songwriting (like that of his band-mates) had matured greatly. Two Harrison originals made it on the album, including “If I Needed Someone,” perhaps his best early composition, featuring the memorable line “Carve your number on my wall, and maybe you will get a call from me? If I needed someone!”
George, known as the “Quiet Beatle,” displayed a great deal of moodiness in his songs, probably resulting from his dissatisfaction with touring before crowds that were more interested in screaming than listening to the group’s music. It was George who first pushed the group to stop touring and focus instead on their musical development in the studio.
The first post-touring album, Revolver (1966), saw George taking a much more dominant role. His classic “Taxman” led off the album, and two more of his songs, “I Want to Tell You” and “Love You To,” were also included. The latter was one of his first songs to show his growing interest in Indian music, an interest whose beginning was marked by the use of the sitar on “Norwegian Wood” from Rubber Soul. Musically, George was beginning to influence the group, not only in terms of expanding their instrumentation, but also in adding more nuanced guitar textures to their recordings.
As a songwriter, George was still hampered by the dominance of Lennon-McCartney, and he only got one song on each of the next two albums, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (both 1967). A few more of his compositions from this period later appeared on the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine. To my ear, these songs are less satisfying; George was experimenting with new sounds, but his songs were less focused than the Lennon-McCartney songs of this period.
As George began to write more songs, he finally began appearing on Beatles singles. “The Inner Light” and “Old Brown Shoe” are two overlooked Harrison tracks (and can be found on Past Masters vol. 2), while “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” from Abbey Road (1969) are rightly regarded as two of the best Beatles songs from this period.
By 1968, George’s songwriting had developed much more fully. He was also growing more prolific, contributing four songs to The Beatles (1968). These “White Album” tracks included the cynical “Piggies,” the quiet “Long Long Long,” and two rockers, “Savoy Truffle” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” both influenced by his friendship with Eric Clapton. The former is a dark look at Clapton’s obsession with sweets, and the latter contains a classic Clapton guitar solo. The Harrison-Clapton collaboration would continue into the 1970’s, with Harrison playing on the Cream song “Badge” and Clapton playing on much of George’s All Things Must Pass album. Its third record, a collection of blues-based rock called “Apple Jam,” is essentially a document of the formation of Eric Clapton’s group, Derek and the Dominoes.
All Things Must Pass (1970) was George’s first post-Beatles album to focus on songs (he previously released two albums experimenting with Indian and electronic music). Produced by Phil Spector, this sweeping triple-record album showed just how much Lennon and McCartney had overshadowed Harrison.
Nearly every track on the album is great. It is thematically unified and musically diverse, and gets my vote as the best solo album by an ex-Beatle. The bitterness of his earlier work had mellowed out by this point, and songs like “Isn’t it a Pity” and “All Things Must Pass” could serve well as epitaphs for the deceased singer, much as the song “Imagine” does for John Lennon.
“My Sweet Lord” was the single from the album, a song that unfortunately caused much trouble for George, bearing as it does a striking melodic similarity to “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffon’s. He was successfully sued for “unconscious plagiarism.” After All Things Must Pass, George released a long string of solo albums. He successfully lured Bob Dylan out his semi-retirement for the 1971 benefit Concert for Bangladesh. 1987’s Cloud Nine was quite popular, and included the hit “Got My Mind Set on You”.
After this, George formed the greatest supergroup of all time, The Travelling Wilburys, with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison.
George Harrison, while in the Beatles and afterwards, never sought out the spotlight. The “Quiet Beatle” was always most comfortable playing with others. He was a talented and dedicated musician and an underrated songwriter, and he will be missed.