“All Things Must Pass” Turns 50

Having just got the news of Phil Spector’s death, and realizing that 2021 will mark the 20th year since George Harrison’s passing, and that we JUST passed the 50th anniversary of the release of the masterpiece the pair made together, it seems right and fit to pay homage to All Things Must Pass. I’m SO in the headspace to make this my album of the next few weeks and months. My sons have recently been to India; I am embarking on a year-long project to re-read all the Transcendentalists. And…I write this at a time of great change, when a redemptive new Presidential administration is poised to arrive and cleanse all the bad mojo out of the land (we hope and fervently pray). The arrival of bad change in 2016 would have been far too painful a time to have listened to this record. Now, it will be like pouring oil on trouble waters.

Released in late November, 1970, Harrison’s masterwork remains to my mind, and to anyone I’ve ever talked to, the greatest of all post-Beatle albums by any former Beatle. It is largely attributed to the fact that Harrison had a great backlog of songs in the hopper, due to the situation of his more assertive (and until that point, more accomplished) bandmates John Lennon and Paul McCartney never allowing him enough space on their records. But by this stage Harrison had well outgrown being relegated to the backseat. So this accounts for why the greatest post-Beatles record dates to only six months after the band’s break-up. It must be galling to McCartney, who has been making solo records for a half century now, never to have surpassed this achievement. It’s certainly not that he can’t, but that he hasn’t figured out how. In 1970, Harrison needed and wanted to prove he was as great as his bandmates. McCartney, having written the world’s most popular song in 1965 (“Yesterday”, for you children who might not immediately get the reference), and dreamed up and assembled the world’s most acclaimed pop record (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band) seemed to have lost all ambition as a solo artist. He seemed fearful of risking big things, and when he did, he misstepped. (For example, his 1991 Liverpool Oratorio seems worthy of him for once — but one still wishes he had sung it himself and adapted it for pop, which he has some mastery of. If he had, he’d have accomplished something like what All Things Must Pass does.)

All Things Must Pass is a sweeping, soaring, cosmic pop record, with spiritual themes derived from Harrison’s years of immersion in Hindu religion and philosophy, mixed with some more romantic and whimsical tunes speaking to his time as a Beatle. It’s also rock’s first three disk LP, though I confess I only ever play the first two disks, the third one consisting of live, improvised rock jams with titles like “I Remember Jeep” and “Thanks for the Pepperoni” which strike a far different note from the rest of the album. Anyone who’s ever heard Wonderwall Music (1967), Harrison’s first solo LP, will have heard both of those strains (the spiritual music plus the improv rock jams) in embryo. But as for the two more polished disks, they are the perfect melding of Harrison’s sensibilities and Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound technique, with so much going on, chanting background singers, tambourines, horns, bright guitars chiming like bells, it’s like being vaulted up a mountain to heaven.

The album’s best known song is the hypnotic single “My Sweet Lord”, doubly famous for its catchy, never-ending, Hare-Krisna chorus, and the fact that Harrison was sued for plagiarism by whoever owned the rights to the Chiffons “He’s So Fine”. I’ve always found it ridiculous that he lost the suit. The tune is too elemental and simple for that (and he always claimed that he was inspired by the gospel tune “Oh, Happy Day”, which I find it much more plausible). The second biggest tune is one of my most favorite songs of the past 6 billion years, the exhilarating “What Is Life?”, a top ten hit in the U.S. I was five years old when this song was on the radio. I’ll never hear it without flying into a happy-sad tailspin of nostalgia.

After the two singles, there are a couple of tent pole songs that had emerged from the Beatles Get Back/Let it Be sessions that are worth talking about; both seem very much inspired by what was going on at the time. One is “All Things Must Pass”, which he made the title track of the LP. The subject matter of the tune reminds me a lot of McCartney’s song “Let it Be”, and the Beatles came awfully close to getting a workable version of their own in the can, with very cool, country/gospel style harmonies. (I hope some of that will make its way into Peter Jackson’s upcoming movie). As it is, Harrison’s demo got an official Beatles release in 1995, though I find it unlistenable compared to the version on Harrison’s solo LP. At any rate, this song, with its theme of accepting change, even sad change, and its note of hopefulness, was particularly welcome to the ears of Beatles fans after their favorite band had broken up. Similarly personal was the tune “Isn’t a Pity?” which Harrison considered so important he included two different versions of it on the record. Originally written in 1966, but rejected by the Beatles, the song is a bit of a dirge but it has grown on me a great deal, with the wisdom of its words, and again, the long repeated fade-out, which recalls Beatles’ fare like “Hey Jude”.

The epic orgone storm system “Let It Down” also dates from the Beatle years, as does the funny “Wah-Wah” which was inspired by the fights with his bandmates. “Apple Scruffs” was a gift to the Beatles’ groupies. “The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” was a tribute to the original owner of Harrison’s Gothic estate (where the photo on the album cover was taken). Naturally, neither Lennon nor McCartney play on the record, but Ringo Starr is very present. And there were other guest stars. Harrison co-wrote one of the album’s tracks with Bob Dylan, “I’d Have You Any Time”, the album’s opener, and also recorded Dylans “If Not For You”, which had earlier appeared on Dylan’s album New Morning. The pair would continue their close relationship the following year with The Concert for Bangladesh. Eric Clapton also played on the album, as did Delaney and Bonnie, and Gary Wright, who would go on to have some major hits a few years later.

Of the remaining tracks, two of the spiritual ones are among my favorites, the exuberant “Awaiting On You All”, and the earnest “Hear Me Lord”, which is the album’s closing track (if you don’t include the jams.) “Run of the Mill” and “Beware of Darkness” are more turgid excursions but they do add to the record’s portentious atmosphere. “I Dig Love” is maybe the one throw-away from the two main disks. You might say it could easily have gone on the third jam disk, but for the fact that the main record could use some lightness, and the sexual theme of the tune connects it to “Let it Down”. And after all, Indian culture did give us the Kama Sutra.

Interestingly, the one thing missing from this epic pop document was a full plunge into Indian derived music as Harrison had done a few times with the Beatles (“Love You To”, “Within You, Without You”, “The Inner Light”). But that would have been gilding the lily.

Anyway, here we go again this week, as we have done so often in recent years, plunging headlong into a terrifying unknown. Play this record as a little reminder to be as positive as you can, beware of darkness, and anyway, the existential die has been cast.