Today would have marked the 70th birthday of the late George Harrison, who made up one-fourth of one of the most famous musical quartets in music history, The Beatles.
Shrouded in a kind of misunderstood guise while in The Beatles and somewhat to this day as what his actual role was in the band, the contributions of George Harrison to that Liverpudlian unit and to his solo career, which saw arching highs and aching lows, were monumental and immeasurable. His work was bright and necessary, adding just the right touches and facets to the crown jewels in The Beatles. Harrison’s lead guitar playing and background and sometimes frontman singing gave immense color to the sometimes suffocating for him log jam of the tunes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, songs that also were churned out with a breathless standard and a high one at that, on an endless assembly line of quality, but ones which still seemingly pushed Harrison’s back against the wall when it came to those two men helping and bringing to fruition the true talent that nested inside of him. He became rather vocal about it through the years; he wasn’t comfortable being a somewhat sitting duck, a placid, go with the flow team player as Richard Starkey had been in the group (drummer Ringo Starr), where Starkey knew his deficiencies songwise and vocal wise, and thus, rested on his drum laurels, where he marveled flawlessly and often.
For Harrison, there was always the sense of discontent. Behind the beaming visages that shone through every press conference or poster or album cover of the Fab Four in their early suit-wearing and same haircutted formative years when they first started on the comet to the stratsosphere, there was always a seeming crack beneath the smile of George Harrison, going through the improbably strange position of being in a center of incredible good timing, talent, and fortune, yet still seemingly shunned away as an outcast in a group that had already been polarized from the very start, even if by way of the press or the critics, who had already made sure to bear the legend of Lennon/McCartney as high of a fonted superlative and creative brand as any, akin to a Rodgers/Hart, Rodgers/Hammerstein, or other equally remembered duo songwriting partnerships. Harrison’s songs became relegated to only one on each Beatles records, sometimes two, but for the most part, the early Beatles releases were filled to the 33 and a third brim with cover songs of old rock and roll and R&B classics and standards and Lennon/McCartney originals, and then a pebble in that ocean, which was the lone Harrison original.
There’s been so much written about The Beatles having their splintering division come by way of money issues, or the badly run Apple Records they formed in the mid 1960s which became a burden of mismanagement and too many yes men preaching the wrong ideas and directions, or even the inference of women like Yoko Ono or Linda Eastman (eventually Linda McCartney), but in a way, it seems like the seeds of the breakup were really planted by the sort of hierarchy and pecking order of the Lennon/McCartney clique and Harrison’s complete and almost total exile from any inclusion in it. Both men have gone on record stating that at times, they felt George was an inferior songwriter to the work that they were doing. There’s no question that the work that Lennon/McCartney produced stands as some of the top shelf music of all time, an obvious statement, and anyone denying it would borderline on being an absolute ignorant fool. But to also deny that George Harrison had only a certain place in The Beatles and should not have had the chance or been allowed to transcend that place, is also foolhardy talk in the first degree.
That said, Harrison still provided some great guitar work on many of the Beatles classics. He had a wonderful penchant for utilizing a kind of Carl Perkins/Elmore James picking style of old school rock and roll and rockabilly in The Beatles music, a little bit of Sun Records era and a dash of Buddy Holly. Harrison used his influences and techniques he learned from an early age quite dazzlingly and fluidly. He also had a signature sound in his manifestation of slide guitar, and many instantly recognizable slide lines on Beatles songs are attributed to his fine work on the fretboard.
The man also found himself a student and eventually a teacher of Indian mysticism, of all its full scope, range, and visions its religious teachings had to offer, and the Westernized sort of sitar heavy music that emanated from its landscapes. He brought it slowly into The Beatles repertoire during the mid 1960s, just when the band itself was going through their own individual changes, by way of self-discovery, avant-garde influences, narcotic effects, self-awareness, psychedelic seeds, and other by-products of the era, all of which found its way into the band’s music and helped shape them even further to take them from the already successful level they were on in a sort of teenybopper sensibility and brought them to the forefront of “highbrow” musical critics and fans, in essence, making them accessible to all listeners, irrespective of genres. At first they were kind of leading the pack, but wearing the influences of the rock and roll past on their sleeves; with the release of records like Rubber Soul and Revolver, The Beatles suddenly became not only still leading the pack, but pioneering and trailblazing it as well. For George Harrison, it was a twofold triumph, discovering tenets of Indian culture and religion, by way of mantras, Hare Krishna chanting. With all the fashion and deeper elements that went with all of it, he was able to A) develop his own identity away from The Beatles and B) develop his own identity further WITHIN The Beatles, in fact, penning a track on their much lauded and beloved 1967 masterpiece Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band which sort of alludes to this, “Within You, Without You.” And the earlier seeds of this were already manifesting itself on tracks like Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood” on Rubber Soul, in which Harrison played the sitar not as novelty, but as a serious instrument, which nicely blended its way into the acoustic guitars that dominated the song. It added light, not just quick dashes of color.
Although his personal song contributions were limited in The Beatles, the output of work that did make it on their releases still stand as adventurous and dynamic when the band started to go through their own magnetic changes: “Taxman,” “Love You To,” “I Want To Tell You,” and the aforementioned “Within You, Without You.”
And then, soon afterwards, as the 1960s (and in essence The Beatles themselves) came to a close, Harrison penned three of what would stand as some of not only his finest achievements in The Beatles, but some of the finest achievements in the history of songwriting: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (with Eric Clapton on lead guitar on the outro coda), “Here Comes The Sun,” and one of the most covered songs of all time, and one that was erroneously yet lovingly labeled by Frank Sinatra as “one of the greatest love songs of the 20th Century,” which he thought had been written by Lennon and McCartney, “Something.”
With its aching lead notes and wonderfully subdued, tender vocals by Harrison, “Something” remains one of the highlights of the entire Beatles catalog, and the entire work of Harrison. His solo during the mid section is not flashy, and it certainly doesn’t need to be, it’s got the just right balance of emotion and peak. At this point in time, after all these years, the song remains so memorable, one can almost hum it note for note, rote for rote. With “Something,” no one could any longer say that the work of George Harrison’s songwriting stood in the shadows of Lennon and McCartney. He had finally become an equal in every way and the song (originally released on the band’s 1969 Abbey Road) is a highlight on a heavyweight album in every respect.
The unfortunate thing about all this was that by the time this all happened, The Beatles were pretty much over. Harrison had even left the group at one point during the haphazard musically herky-jerky sessions which eventually was put on the shelf scrap heap and had to be salvaged by genius-madman producer Phil Spector, which first was going to be entitled Get Back before it became known as Let It Be. By the time the album was released in mid-1970, The Beatles had officially broken up as a unit, locking in a musical legacy which not only created a harmony and global unity, but ironically and sadly, created a master gulf between four men who got their start as young Liverpudlians, about ten years prior.
While the world mourned and lamented the end of the group as they knew it, Harrison took it as a sign of grafting metaphorical wings on his back, and he instantly dove into mighty self-liberation, releasing the sprawling three-record set All Things Must Pass, which contained the number one hit smash love letter to his Hare Krishna bents, which still pulsated stronger than ever, “My Sweet Lord” (which was later to be determined in court against Harrison’s favor, as it was ruled that the song was an unconscious plagiarism of the old Chiffons hit single from the Spring of 1963, “He’s So Fine”) and the top ten hit “What Is Life”. Other tracks on All Things Must Pass gave sly winks to Harrison’s old band and the public’s feelings towards the breakup of them, “Isn’t It A Pity” and “Wah Wah.” But lesser known tracks like “Let It Down” were majestic and absolutely beautiful, and for many for sure who listened to All Things Must Pass for the first time in 1970, must have felt that they were discovering brand new layers of the talents of George Harrison, and only then, consciously realized how creatively stifled he must have felt in The Beatles.
He then followed that success with another one, one which resonated even more globally and set the stage for later events like Live Aid and Live 8, The Concert for Bangladesh. Bangladesh, a war-torn country, was in serious need of aid. Through the high profile approaches of Harrison and long-time mentor and friend Ravi Shankar, the two of them started the ball rolling to organize tribute concerts in New York’s Madison Square Garden to raise money to gain financial aid for the stricken areas. Enlisting A list guests such as Eric Clapton, Billy Preston (who had played on Abbey Road and Let It Be with The Beatles), and even a rare live appearance by Bob Dylan and a reunion of sorts having Ringo Starr come and play drums on a few songs, the concert was a massive success, spawning an album set and a feature film as well. Although the money was tied up from legal hassles for years, it has been reported that over $10 million did eventually make its way over to Bangladesh. Harrison now also really stood as a figurehead humanitarian for peace and trying to help the world, messages that were on sundry amounts of Beatles tracks through the years, but Harrison was one of the first of the group to really walk the walk and talk that talk with his fruition and success with Bangladesh in 1971. Although John Lennon had raised public awareness for peace as the 1960s drew to a close and of course wrote a few songs which looked to strengthen the common collective bond (“Give Peace A Chance”), Harrison actually raised money, did it in a startling, fast manner, and didn’t have the heavy weight of making it more about him ultimately than the cause, something that had happened (although sometimes by no fault of Lennon’s) during many of Lennon’s awareness for peace crusades. (As a sidenote, Lennon and McCartney were asked to perform as well at the Bangladesh concerts, but Lennon balked because Harrison did not want to include Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono in the proceedings and McCartney did not want to make the whole affair seem like a Beatles reunion.)
All Things Must Pass and The Concert For Bangladesh stood as the peak of George Harrison’s career. As the 1970s rolled on, he had another U.S. number one hit with “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” embarked on his first ever solo tour of the United States in 1974 (to rather mixed results), and slowly afterwards as the next few years wore on, his hit machine started to slow down, maybe more of a by-product of the decadent 1970s and laxness and a kind of unconscious hangover and burnout from the dizzying success from the tidal wave of the early 1970s. As the decade drew to a close and the 1980s began, things were emotionally marred for all involved with The Beatles when John Lennon was assassinated on December 8, 1980. Although the relationship between Harrison and Lennon had been strained in during the closing moments of Lennon’s life, to the point of Harrison even penning a limited edition autobiography entitled I, Me, Mine (also the name of a song Harrison penned while in The Beatles), in which he almost completely omits any reference to Lennon in the book, the murder still hit Harrison hard, as he had lost his teenage friend, due to a senseless homicide.
While he had been running a successful company in Handmade Films during this time, which wound up producing films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Time Bandits and the cult classic Withnail and I, things picked up for him in a musical sense again in the late-1980s when he had a couple more solo hits, most particularly with a cover of the 1962 James Ray song “Got My Mind Set On You,” which was another U.S. number one single for him. He then formed the supergroup The Traveling Wilbury’s (with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison, the latter of whom tragically died during the group’s run) and they had some hits as well, like “Handle With Care” and “End of the Line,” both reaching Top Five on the charts. He also reunited with the surviving members of The Beatles in 1995 for their Anthology documentary, the first time he, McCartney, and Starr were seen on film since the film version of Let it Be from 1970. In it, you can still see the slight sarcasm and possibly even resentment he still seemed to compartmentalize for McCartney, but it’s a testament to his character that he did appear in the film and give rather intimate portraits regarding himself and his former band.
He survived a vicious knife attack by an intruder in his home in late 1999, another crazed fan looking to become part of the Beatles legend by way of the one who also gained notoriety when he gunned down John Lennon to his death in 1980. A few years later, in 2001, Harrison was tragically stricken with lung cancer. On November 12, the three surviving Beatles met for one last time, and George Harrison succumbed to the disease not long after, on November 29, 2001. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in various parts of India not long after. In the wake of his death, scores of loving tributes surfaced for the man and his talents and his immeasurable contributions, not only to the rock and roll world and music universe, but also to the world and universe. His name remains on various and largely successful charitable organizations to this very day. A tribute concert held at the famed Royal Albert Hall in London on November 29, 2002 (the first anniversary of his death) called Concert For George, in which many of his friends did their own renditions of his classic solo and Beatles songs, was ironically marked by Paul McCartney of all people, who ran a lovingly heartfelt tribute to George’s “Something” by way of playing it on a ukulele, with Ringo on the drums and Eric Clapton on guitar. Harrison’s son, Dhani (who looks strikingly like his father), was also on hand at the tribute. It and the concert capped a perfect farewell for the man who gave so much of himself, seemingly so effortlessly and tirelessly, pushing himself as much as he could internally to do so, in the process.
So today is a celebration day of the life and art and work of George Harrison. There’s such a wide spectrum and musical scope to choose from in what to listen to, the earliest puckish innocent strains of the young lad singing the cover of “Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby” during the earliest years of The Fab Four, right up to “When We Was Fab” in which it was one of the few times he lovingly visited that past with high reverence, on what was to be his final solo album Cloud Nine, back in 1987.
Never forget George Harrison, not just the Beatle, but the man. For someone who the press had coined “The Quiet One” early on in his career with The Beatles when the press assigned each of them with their own individual personality classification, George Harrison spoke in volumes, not just from his amplifier, not just from his creative mind, but from his heart and soul, and the words and the music he left upon the world forever and ever, are anything but quiet. In fact, they ring loud and clear, like angelic trumpets booming through clouds of joy, every chance they get. Happy Birthday, George.