George Harrison Would Be 80 Today

Today would have been George Harrison’s 80th birthday, and I’ve realized that out of my 50 or so Beatle related posts, Harrison is the one who has gotten the least attention here. At some long ago juncture I decided that my go-to Harrison post would be my review of Scorsese’s 2012 bio-pic (since the film itself is so authoritative). But a decade down the line I now realize that the post is easily as much about Scorsese as it is Harrison, and it doesn’t do the Quiet Beatle the same justice we’ve extended to his three bandmates. Granted I have done a big tribute to All Things Must Pass, easily the best solo album by any of the former Beatles. But that’s merely the peak achievement of a career lasting over 40 years.

There was an unfortunate tendency back in the day to regard Harrison as third in the Beatle pecking order on account of the fact that he wrote and sang fewer songs, and in the early years those songs tended to be album filler, not the major singles. During the initial publicity blitz, some perhaps even thought of him as fourth in status, as Ringo’s unique appearance, personality, instrument, and stage name all made him easy to pick out among the quartet. But when it came to the group’s overall sound and image, Harrison was actually integral. As to the latter, for a silly example, think of the Beatle-inspired Vulture characters in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967). That dour, gloomy-seeming, almost creepy element — they’re making George the touchstone for that, right? I mean, you could just as easily depict the Beatles as giggling and leaping about like schoolboys on holiday. But that slow, deliberate, serious, almost funereal North Country speech — the one they’re focusing on seems to be George. (Ironically, the Disney writers were behind the curve, using the early Beatles images for their parody. At the time the film was released, the Beatles, George especially, were deep in their Indian phase, which one might think somewhat germane in a movie set in India.) Think also of Harrison’s personality as presented in Hard Day’s Night, unsmiling, unnerving, given to freaking the show biz professionals around him out with a kind of perverse stand-offishness. One thinks of his legendary quip upon meeting their producer George Martin, “For a start, I don’t like your tie”. It was a beatnik, almost Goth thing.

But that aspect of Harrison’s personality played a role in the music as well. If (to vastly oversimplify), McCartney was about melody, and Lennon about excitement, Harrison seemed central in supplying the weird and exotic elements to the Beatles sound. Perhaps he had to be; what can a musician add when he hasn’t written the tune or the lyrics? If he is a peer of the other two he can add ingredients to make the songs still more interesting, to make the harmonies, as he sang in “Only a Northern Song” a “little dark and out of key”. He liked to do interesting things with dissonances, unusual chords, and chromatic scales. His very first song, “Don’t Bother Me” has an almost punk/new wave energy. That weird chord that opens the song “A Hard Day’s Night” is the kind of thing he contributed, though naturally such things were always a collaborative effort.

Yet it was all in the broader service and context of pop. After all, Harrison’s the one who performs the popular covers of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Carl Perkins’ “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”, and sings the lead on Lennon and McCartney’s “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance With You”. And he’s always present on those beautiful three part harmonies one so badly misses after the break-up.

My hot takes on most of Harrison’s Beatles era songs can be found woven into my posts on Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, and Abbey Road. I wrote an entire thing on “It’s All Too Much” from Yellow Submarine here. I haven’t done a dedicated post on Magical Mystery Tour because I find it more a collection of songs than an album, but I will say that the droning, dirge-like “Blue Jay Way” is one of my least favorite Harrisongs. This post has sections on oddments like “Not Guilty” and “Sour Milk Sea”.

Peter Jackson’s Get Back movie was very illuminating on the George front. We see that he brought in several ambitious songs, and they were worked on, but pushed to the side out of expediency — they had this artificial deadline to meet. So those songs wound up on Abbey Road and All Things Must Pass. And there’s this really jaw dropping moment where we see McCartney reject Harrison’s organic contribution to the evolving song “Get Back”, this kind of wonderful, tasty, stabbing, punctuating chord after each repeat of the song’s title phrase. McCartney dismisses it as a cliche, but it sounds so “sixties”, undoubtedly the result of Harrison’s jamming with the likes of Clapton. Harrison had to have been like “what the fuck am I doing here?” after moments like that. But after briefly quitting, he returned with new energy and turned around some newer, simpler tunes on a dime. “Old Brown Shoe” has always been one of my favorite songs since I was a teenager. I’m not Mr. Rock Musicianship, but I really love how this song is played and can conjure every moment of the tune in my head. Similarly, though it’s only a fragment, I think the grandiose “I Me Mine” is brilliant, and would have fit into All Things Must Pass perfectly. I find “For You Blue” pleasant enough, but I keep seeing these lists were people rank it as one of the best Harrison songs, and honestly, I mean, it’s fine, but if you’ve listened to the Get Back sessions, surely you know that Lennon tossed off and improvised about ten 12-bar three chord throwaways like this during that process. They could easily have turned any of them (“Suzy Parker” is one) into a polished number and recorded it properly, and we’d love it, but no one would consider it, like, an “accomplishment”.

It’s cool getting to SEE the Get Back sessions, for it allows the restoration of a component you don’t hear on the album. Harrison first took up the sitar in 1965; he remained deep into Indian culture always, but it’s less in evidence on the Beatles’ final three LPs (through there seems to be some Indian instrumentation on Lennon’s “Across the Universe”). During those years, apart from the gorgeous B side “The Inner Light”, that aspect of Harrison’s life was pursued almost as a side project, on his first solo LP Wonderwall Music (1968), and by the various Indian artists he recorded, produced and presented through Apple through the mid ’70s. But in the Get Back film, over to the side, almost comically, he always shows up with a band of Hare Krishnas in tow like some kind of spiritual entrourage. In light of that, you begin to wonder, why was Yoko considered such a problem.

I love Harrison’s look of 1969 through the early ’70s. Sometimes he seems like a wizard, or a sage. Sometimes he looks like Walt Whitman, and sometimes like a ’49er (maybe a result of hanging out with The Band). From the late ’60s through the early ’70s, he arguably surpasses his bandmates as the Beatle with the most critical and popular cache. I think of “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” as the best songs on Abbey Road. Then came the greatest of all post-Beatle, ex-Beatle LPs All Things Must Pass (1970), followed by the legendary all-star Concert for Bangladesh (1971). He produced Ringo’s hits “It Don’t Come Easy” (1970), “Back off Boogaloo” (1972) and “Photograph” (1973), and played on Bob Dylan’s New Morning (1970), Lennon’s Imagine (1971), and the amazing Badfinger single “Day After Day” (1971). Then in 1973 his next LP Living in the Material World, which is shockingly almost as good as All Things Must Pass, which totally solidified his reputation as an artist permanently to be reckoned with, i.e., he hadn’t exhausted all that he had inside him with All Things Must Pass. (1973 proved to be the best post-Beatle year for albums, with each ex-member basically turning out a classic. Many consider Ringo and Band on the Run to be the best LPs of Starr and McCartney; Living in the Material World is Harrison’s second best. Mind Games was middling work for Lennon but an enormous improvement over Some Time in New York City).

Then, just as it had happened for Lennon and McCartney a couple of years earlier, the honeymoon was over for Harrison. It turns out that while he hadn’t run out of great songs after All Things Must Pass, he HAD run out of them after Living in the Material World. Not completely, of course! I love just about every single one of his post-Beatles singles and many of the tracks off the albums. But as with so many artists of his generation, like his former band-bands, and Dylan, and many others, cranking out albums at the rate of one year, though contractually obligated, proved creatively unwarranted. And so, critics took him out to the woodshed following Dark Horse (1974) and Extra Texture (Read All About It) (1975).

But it must be said that even Harrison’s lesser LPs always have individual redeeming tracks. He was much more reliable a gamble than the other 3 ex-Beatles; no LP in the Harrison canon is remotely as bad as the worst in Lennon’s, McCartney’s or Starr’s. He merely proves himself to be…human. And a couple of Harrison’s LPs from the period 1974 to 1982, such as Thirty Three and 1/3 (1976) and George Harrison (1979) are good all the way through! One identifies a lack of inspiration in sequel songs like “This Guitar Can’t Keep From Crying” and “Here Comes the Moon”, and a Lennon-esque amount of self-involvement in songs like the “Sue Me, Sue You, Blues” (no one cares about your business problems, man). His best solo singles though have that elusive combination of catchiness and strangeness (and sometimes the sense of humor) that one thinks of as Beatlesque. A lot of Harrison’s solo music of the ’70s is heavily influenced by pop/soul, and he loves to use saxophones. A favorite of mine, the Absurdist “This Song” (1976) sounds a lot like the Saturday Night Live band to me, which is wild because it premiered on that show.

That said, Harrison’s music of the mid to late ’70s tended to be a little subdued — he didn’t seem to be reaching for home-run, #1 singles. Most hovered around the #20 spot in the charts, which means that much of the public has forgotten them. I love “Ding Dong” (1974), which has the novelty of being a New Year’s Eve song. It’s not brilliant, but it fills a niche, not world’s away from Lennon and McCartney’s respective Christmas songs, but with better justification for existing (since there’s hardly a pre-existing glut of NYE songs). I’ve also always loved the surreal, Pythonesque “Crackerbox Palace” (1976); it would have gone great on a Beatle record, had they made one at that late date.

But the ’80s of course started out on a sour note. Lennon’s assassination gave a boost to Somewhere in England (1981) on account of the single “All Those Years Ago” but the record was otherwise forgettable. Gone Troppo (1982) was far and away his worst solo LP and I felt so burned after buying it I threw it in the garbage. I had been prompted to purchase it on the strength of the excellent song “Dream Away”, which was used as the closing credits for the movie Time Bandits, which had also been produced by Harrison’s Handmade Films. For the next five years Harrison retired from making music and concentrated on the movie business. Little is ever made of this, but think about it. Lennon retired from films for five years also and yet that is remembered as this epic occurrence, this mythic passage. In Harrison’s case, mainstream audiences barely noticed. That said, Harrison wasn’t exactly slacking. His film production was attached to several high profile films, including Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1978), The Long Good Friday (1980), Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1981), Mona Lisa (1986), Shanghai Surprise (1986), Withnail and I (1987), Five Corners (1988), How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), Powow Highway (1989), and Nuns on the Run (1990).

Harrison’s comeback came through his creative partnership with ELO’s Jeff Lynne, starting with the smash LP Cloud Nine (1987) and its hit singles; followed by his involvement with the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys (1988-91). Then came The Beatles Anthology and his brief, historic reunion with his two surviving bandmates (1994-97).

In 1999, came the near-fatal attack at the hands of a deranged fan, another way in which Harrison’s biography parallels Lennon’s, although Harrison managed to survive his, though not for long. In 1997 he’d been diagnosed with cancer, but successfully fought it to remission. It returned to his weakened body in 2001. He finally succumbed towards the end of the year, just a few weeks after the September 11 attack. Boy those were some sad times. Harrison’s final record Brainwashed was released posthumously in 2002. It includes the single “Any Road”, now regarded as a kind of final statement, though he’d begun writing it during the Cloud Nine period. I was also very gratified at the time of this album’s release by Harrison’s enthusiasm for the ukulele, evident on several tracks. Go, vaudeville!

Harrison as only 58 when he passed, which may not sound young to you, but I happen to be staring down the barrel of that benchmark this year, and, mama, I don’t like it! And Harrison’s been gone for 20 years. But his legacy is too rich to bemoan the loss of what he might have accomplished in the 21st century. You can just go deeper and deeper into his music, writings, and utterances. Since someone dear to me died just a couple of days ago I intend to do just that.

Oh, and one last thing. You can see one of Harrison’s side projects live on stage tomorrow. Apple Recording artist Brute Force (a “discovery” of George’s) is playing at TV Eye in Queens tomorrow. More about him and the concert are here.