The following is an updating of an essay from my book Not Fade Away, © 1984
George Harrison released about one hundred twenty-five songs in his lifetime, of which some twenty-five are now or seem destined to become classics:
If I Needed Someone
Think for Yourself
The Inner Light
It's All Too Much
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
For You Blue
Here Comes the Sun
My Sweet Lord
Beware of Darkness
Isn't It a Pity
All Things Must Pass
Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)
Who Can See It
It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)
Can't Stop Thinking About You
Learning How to Love You
If You Believe
Your Love Is Forever
All Those Years Ago
Baby Don't Run Away
Handle With Care
When We Was Fab
This list might seem at first to be too meager to represent the life's work of a major writer. But one ought to remember that of the more than eight hundred songs by the indisputably great Jerome Kern, only some fifty became standards. (In his biography of Kern, David Ewen compiled a list of that composer's great songs and came up with fifty-nine, including "Leave It to Jane," "Nodding Roses," and several others that are hardly ever played today.) It is necessary to point this out because until his death revived interest in his post-Beatles career, Harrison's stock was very low. He was generally regarded as an anachronism and a dreary one at that.
This is in total contrast to how he was perceived in the wake of the Beatles' split when, after a long period as an apprentice songwriter, he suddenly emerged as a tunesmith of the first magnitude. Between 1963 and 1967 the Beatles had recorded just eleven of his songs (if one includes "Flying," an instrumental credited to the whole band) and none of these was outstanding enough to merit release as a single.
But in the next two years, 1968 and 1969, they recorded twelve, among them "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Savoy Truffle" (two of the most stunning pieces on the White Album), "The Inner Light" (the beautiful if neglected B-side of "Lady Madonna"), "Here Comes the Sun" (the most transcendent song in the entire Beatles catalogue) and the standard ballad "Something" (which was released as the A-side of a single). In 1969 Harrison was in his take-off period as a songwriter. It was a time in his life analogous to Cole Porter's glory years of the mid-1930s. Somehow, everything had fallen into place for him - he had finally equaled Lennon and McCartney as a composer.
After the breakup in 1970 he did not falter as they did but instead emerged with a new and fully developed style. His work - lyrics, melodies, singing and guitar playing - had been revamped in an effort to express his devotion to Eastern religion and mysticism. The anomaly here was that, while his post-Beatle music did not sound like what he had written in the 1960s, he was nevertheless the one commanding figure from the 1960s who seemed to have retained the spirit of that decade. He was the only ex-Beatle with a consistent and positive sense of himself. He had what McCartney in particular (soon to be followed by Lennon and Dylan) lacked - an attitude.
All of this - the new musical style and the philosophic cer- tainty - was expressed in All Things Must Pass, a triple album released in the fall of 1970. Writers for Time magazine, inspired by the sheer size of the work, dubbed it "Wagnerian." They and other observers were beginning to look on Harrison as the Beatles' last, greatest surprise. He would carry the grandeur of the group into the future - a prospect that became more certain a year later when, in an act of Olympian generosity and clout, he assembled an extraordinary lineup of musicians (including the reclusive Bob Dylan) to play in the Concert for Bangladesh, an event which exceeded all musical (if not financial) expectations. Lennon and McCartney were both tottering but Harrison was on top.
But it was not until mid-1973 that Harrison was heard from again. In June of that year, a full two and a half years after All Things Must Pass, he released his next batch of new songs, an album entitled Living in the Material World. In those days, that was an unusually long and daring stretch for a pop songwriter to be without a product but in Harrison's case the public, instead of forgetting him, was filled with great expectations - so much anticipation that the new work could hardly be anything but a disappointment. It was not that it was a step down from the previous album. It was that, in the euphoric desire for a Beatles' succession, the real nature of All Things Must Pass had been overlooked. Its sheer bulk and its grandiose themes had fooled the public into believing that Harrison was something other than what he really was, a painstaking, unprolific writer, one who was not given to bold conceptions and who was not at home with the eclectic, smorgasbord approach to pop that had been characteristic of Lennon and McCartney. All Things Must Pass had fooled them because it had given the impression of expansiveness while it had really been a retrenchment. On closer inspection, it was not all that Wagnerian. Its size was relatively conventional. One of its three records consisted of some 28 minutes of uninspired between-take jamming by Harrison and his studio musicians, while the other two contained just about half as many original tunes as had the Beatles' White Album, itself a two-record set. All Things Must Pass did have sixteen new originals (including "I'd Have You Anytime," for which he provided music to a Dylan lyric), but this was really only two songs more than the English editions of such single Beatle albums as Rubber Soul and Revolver.
Nor was this work as infallible as a genuine Beatie album. The "Wagner" behind it all was producer Phil Spector, who had recently worked on the Beatles' final issue, Let It Be, and on Lennon's first solo efforts. In many of the album's cuts Spector's production sounds as if the recording was made in a well. Favoring opaque backings, he took pleasure in distorting and even concealing the nature and identity of various instruments. There were some brilliant uses of this technique - the effective background chorus on "My Sweet Lord," for instance, was no chorus at all but a layering upon layering of George Harrison's voice. Yet, on the whole, Spector's production did a real disservice to Harrison, who was in the middle of his great years as a songwriter and who was creating masterpieces with impressive regularity.
"Wagnerian" size and sound notwithstanding, All Things Must Pass was a stylistic contraction for Harrison. He was no longer trying his hand at such various pop forms as the blues ("For You Blue") or folk ("Here Comes the Sun") or straight rock ("Savoy Truffle") or psychedelia ("It's All Too Much"). He had chosen a very narrow musical scope for his themes and those themes were themselves a very circumscribed set of concerns. Beginning with All Things Must Pass, nearly all his lyrics would express his religious beliefs and, like most prayers, they tended toward repetitiveness. As for his music, he did what the Beatles had never been willing to do: he cut the tether between himself and the pulse of rock and roll. Starting with All Things Must Pass and continuing with Living in the Material World, his up-tempo music would sometimes have the kind of liveliness that can be found in folk music, but never again would it have a rock beat. On most tracks it would be his strummed acoustic guitar that would establish the rhythm; he would play electric guitar sparingly and then only as a color instrument and not as the central rhythmic impetus. So it was that his first solo works gave the overall impression of slowness, an impression compounded by Harrison's voice which intoned his serious and often melancholy lyrics in a lugubrious manner.
The cumulative effect was unappealing. Just as McCartney's Ram had left one with the taste of cotton candy, Harrison's first albums, despite their many fine musical moments, left one with the feeling of plodding mournfulness - a most un-Beatle-ish quality. From here on, this would be the public's sense of him: slow, preachy, willing to have some occasional fun but only on his own self-indulgent, obscure and not very amusing terms (in such songs as "His Name Is Legs" and "Save the World"). This was an image that was solidified by the many references in his lyrics to weeping. It seemed a little odd that a man who was so rich, famous and spiritually content should spend so much of his time in tears.
To many critics and fans he had fallen out of his eyrie. But what they failed to perceive was that, in spite of this self-limiting retrenchment, he was still producing great songs and doing so at a pace that was not unlike the one he had maintained in the 1960s.
All Things Must Pass had contained a half dozen memorable tunes. The reputation of one, "My Sweet Lord," has become tarnished since a court ruled that Harrison had unconsciously plagiarized it from "He's So Fine," an early 1960s hit by the Chiffons (it is true that there are overwhelming similarities between the two songs, though the middle of "My Sweet Lord," which amounts to a short development section, is superior musically) but there were two other masterpieces ready to rush in and take the place of their fallen comrade. One, "Beware of Darkness," was a brooding quasi-aria written while Harrison was still with the Beatles. It is intriguing to imagine how they might have played it, for its eerie and despairing aura would have profited from the kind of precise and haunting production given "Come Together." The other was the title tune, "All Things Must Pass," which was also written when Harrison was still a Beatle (a recording of the Beatles rehearsing it can be found on Anthology [number?]. Because of its simplicity, Spector's arrangement probably does not differ all that much from what the group would have done with it.
Another fine song, "Isn't It a Pity," is pivotal in Harrison's development because it both displays and overcomes two tendencies which marred his later work. First, it was obviously written not as a melody but as a set of chord changes and though the tune rides these changes gracefully and even soars off on its own, later Harrison melodies would not be so lucky. Second, "Isn't It a Pity" was the first of Harrison's songs to show an infatuation with and dependence on diminished chords. The diminished seventh, once such a rarity in rock, is used effectively here (it first appears on the last word in the phrase "forgetting to give back") but by the late 1970s, Harrison would be using it to bail himself out whenever he was faced with writer's block.
Other good songs in All Things Must Pass include "Apple Scruffs," Harrison's tribute to Dylan (in 1970 the two of them were spending time and writing together) which, with its tuneful verse and refrain and its simple guitar/harmonica instrumentation (a backup chorus is used sparingly), bears a resemblance not only to Dylan's early style but to his return to that style in the mid-1970s, especially on songs such as "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go." "Apple Scruffs" is also. a tribute to all of the faithful Beatlemaniacs who waited on the steps of Apple Corps day and night with the hope of seeing one of the four. "The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)," named after the first owner of Harrison's palatial home, is another fine melody, although it suffers more than some others from the production style of the album.
Living in the Material World, half the size of All Things Must Pass, contained nearly as many exceptional pieces. One was "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)," a companion piece to and every bit as good as "My Sweet Lord." A second, "Who Can See It," is that very rare commodity in pop music - a melody that manages to achieve grandeur without bombast. Another, "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long," is an enjoyable piece of up-tempo folk, similar to "Apple Scruffs." The title song, "Living in the Material World," by contrasting Western music in its refrain with Eastern music in its remarkable bridge, encapsulates the theme of the entire project (materialism and spirtuality). There is also an ambitious waltz entitled "Try Some, Buy Some." It was originally written for Phil Spector's wife Ronnie and was produced by Spector in an attempt to outdo his great opus of the '60s, "River Deep, Mountain High." Spector almost succeeded, though Harrison had some difficulty hitting all the notes, as the backing was recorded in Mrs. Spector's key.
Late in 1973, for Ringo Starr's successful Ringo album, Harrison wrote the music to an excellent pop song, "Photograph" (Ringo wrote the words), which became a huge hit. And in 1974 the much scorned album Dark Horse contained another trio of superior songs: the title tune - with its abrupt and surprising key change at the refrain, "Far East Man" - a lovely, if not fully realized melody, and "It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)" - whose natural jauntiness equals that of Dylan's great "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere." On 1975's Extra Texture there was a solitary masterpiece, "Can't Stop Thinking About You," whose sincere and heartfelt lyrics (secular this time) were more than matched by a touching melody. Thirty-Three and a Third appeared at the end of 1976 and it had three more great songs: "Beautiful Girl" is of a kind and just as good as "Can't Stop Thinking About You;" "Learning How to Love You" is one of Harrison's loveliest and most characteristic melodies (it is a haunting tune, slow to unfold, and he gave it the best guitar solo of his post-Beatle years), and the catchy hit "Crackerbox Palace." Three years passed before the 1979 release of George Harrison, but this one was probably his best solo work [what about Cloud Nine?]. Not the least of its assets was its modest and tasteful studio production. It did not quite have the chamber music clarity of the Beatles but Harrison had molted out of the Spector studio style in favor of directness and simplicity. By the mid-'70s his instrumental lineup almost always consisted of acoustic guitar, electric slide guitar, a rhythm section and electric keyboards (with the addition here and there of unexpected but apropos instruments - a marimba, a harp, a glockenspiel). Because this sound became more predictable with every new album, casual listeners were easily fooled into thinking that the songs them- selves were predictable - even interchangeable. But that was not the case. Harrison at his best was able to achieve considerable variety within this restrained and unambitious orchestration. On George Harrison there were some very fine songs, including "Dark Sweet Lady," "Here Comes the Moon," "Blow Away," "Soft Touch" and two indisputable masterpieces: "If You Believe" (a joyous call
to positive thinking) and "Your Love Is Forever" (another one of his earnest and gorgeous melodies - this one, like "Learning How to Love You," with an unforgettable guitar solo).
His melodic gift was as strong as that of any songwriter of his generation and it had to be galling to him when his best songs received so little acclaim or attention. Perhaps the poor impression left by such washouts as "Save the World," which appeared on the 1981 album Somewhere in England, absorbed the luster of the best of their companions. That album, one of Harrison's least distinguished efforts, nevertheless contained a couple of excellent numbers: his Lennon tribute, "All Those Years Ago," in which he, for the one and only time since the demise of the Beatles, played rock guitar (if only for a few seconds) and "Life Itself," an effective and affecting melody, something like "Far East Man."
Gone Troppo, released at the end of 1982, was a return to the self-assured and graceful style of George Harrison. It is chock-full of good, singable songs: "That's the Way It Goes," "Gone Troppo" (literally, "gone nuts"), "Mystical One," "Unknown Delight," "Dream Away" (the theme of the Harrison-produced film Time Bandits and a relative of his 1976 hit "Crackerbox Palace") and one more masterpiece, "Baby Don't Run Away." [Review Cloud Nine, Traveling Willburys]
It is true that Harrison's work had its drawbacks. His lyrics could be preachy or whiny. They were often poorly wrought (he was especially careless about rhyming - "Bangla Desh" was paired with "looks like a mess" - and, at other times showed all the awkwardness of a high school poet: "While waiting on the Light/How patience learned to grow/Endeavor could relieve me/Left alone with my heart/I know that I can love you"). His singing was rarely more than adequate and whole albums of it are hard to take. As a Beatle, following the examples of Lennon and McCartney, he changed his vocal attack to suit the needs of each particular tune. His singing style on "Roll Over Beethoven" was quite different from the voice he used on "Blue Jay Way," for instance. But on his solo albums he was content to use one vocal style, just as, excluding a few rare if brilliant acoustic solos, he abandoned every style of lead guitar playing except for an increasingly vestigial brand of slide guitar. Unpolished lyrics and monotonous tendencies as a singer and guitarist detracted from his real abilities as a songwriter.
He gave up on eclecticism and the element of surprise that went with it. But in return he got stylistic unity and, with it, the kind of home base that eluded Dylan, Lennon and McCartney in the 1970s. It was a trade-off. The advantage of stylistic unity is the same as the advantage of religious belief: one is sure of one's place in the universe, in this case the musical universe. But there is a disadvantage too. Adventurousness and the desire to break through barriers is apt to dwindle. Harrison could have found a way around that impasse - after all, many composers from the highbrow side of the fence and a few from the pop fold have been able to explore new territory while retaining their own identifiable styles - but he chose not to follow through on the paths that beckoned to him. Kern's point of departure was his interest in unusual and witty modulation. Rodgers' was in expressing the predicaments of fictional characters. McCartney's has been in joining unrelated tunes to make extended songs and medleys. Harrison might have followed up on his interest in Indian music. He had shown distinct if fitful progress in this respect when he went from the all-Eastern sounds of "Within You Without You" and "The Inner Light" to the East/West mixture of "Living in the Material World" and "It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)." But he was reluctant to follow through. His inclination toward retrenchment got the better of him. He not only failed to touch base with his roots in rock and roll, he also failed to keep in touch with the experimental mood of the late 1960s. He became a complacent, steady-state composer.
Nevertheless, his talent remained intact. Unlike so many '60s writers, he did not lose the ability to write good and sometimes great music. It is a peculiar thing but fate never seemed to want to pick its favorite among the three songwriting ex-Beatles. At their best, they were always at just about the same level. "At their best" was how one would describe them when they were a unit, each an editor and a presence in the other's work. Now the great songs of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison are scattered - not only across separate albums, but across the detritus of their own individual failures. Still, they are there.