When George Harrison released his epic “triple album” on November 27, 1970, Beatle fans worldwide realized the gig was up, that no band was big enough to hold this man and his vision back. Fifty years later, All Things Must Pass sounds better than ever…and George’s masterpiece offers an invaluable and timeless message: “It’s not always going to be this way…” Musician John Kruth takes us through all of the songs written by the “Quiet Beatle” prior to All Things Must Pass.
When I was a kid the British Invasion was in full swing. I used to walk to school every day with a transistor radio to my ear, listening to DJ’s like Murray the K (who billed himself as “The Fifth Beatle”) and Cousin Brucie Morrow (on W-A-Beatle-C) spinning hits by the Fabs, Stones, Kinks, Zombies and Dave Clark Five.
I never would have imagined that the man who belonged to that husky, jovial voice would wind up being my neighbor forty years later. So, I decided the next time I walked the pug, to stop him and bug him for a brief memory. And, just like kismet, Cousin Brucie came strolling up a Greenwich Village sidewalk.
Here’s what he had to say: “George was a thoughtful, kind and seemingly introspective guy who paid attention to each and every person that approached him. While the other Liverpudilians were busy playing, carrying on and otherwise wising off (which was okay, after all they were the Beatles), George usually watched the other three and devoted himself to the business at hand. I never believed for one moment that he was the ‘quiet Beatle.’ That was the mark of his rather shy genius. His quietness was a big part of his charm. He had a great talent for watching and absorbing the scene. Growing up in Liverpool was an essential part of George’s ability to report and record life as he saw it. His poetry will transcend time. Listeners fifty years from now will feel the images and understand what it was like to live and survive in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When music and lyric can accomplish this magic, it truly is a gift. George Harrison had this gift. His magic will live forever.”
Thanks Brucie. So, let’s take another look at George’s gift… After standing in the shadows of the most brilliant songwriting team of the 1960’s and only allowed to contribute in measured increments, George Harrison, Lennon and McCartney’s junior partner, had amassed an astounding portfolio of songs by the time the Beatles split in early 1970. (I just want to point out something to consider, that I’ve never read in print before… While George was only permitted one, or maybe two songs per album, the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver, contained three Harrison compositions. In recent years Revolver has come to be considered their masterpiece, not 1967’s legendary Sgt. Pepper’s. What does this tell us about the power of Harrison’s songs?) In fact, Harrison had written “loads of tunes” as he claimed in a 1987 interview. “It was like being constipated for years,” he joked.
Listening to his contribution to The Beatles (best known as the White Album) and Abbey Road, in particular, it was clear George had matured as a composer with songs like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.”
His poetry will transcend time. Listeners fifty years from now will feel the images and understand what it was like to live and survive in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When music and lyric can accomplish this magic, it truly is a gift. George Harrison had this gift. His magic will live forever.”
Harrison’s first recorded effort, “Don’t Bother Me” from Meet the Beatles, was a catchy ditty clearly stating the Fab Four’s party platform – that love is all that matters and everything else, even rock stardom, could take a backseat. His subtle but unmistakable influence as a musician and human being began to shine through in a myriad of ways. Inspiring Roger McGuinn of the Byrds with the angelic chime of his 12-string Rickenbacker in A Hard Day’s Night, George had unwittingly helped invent folk-rock. McGuinn soon made the sound his band’s trademark, employing it for their chart-topping renditions of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Pete Seeger’s prayer for peace, “Turn, Turn Turn.”
The soundtrack to the Beatles’ second film, Help!, featured two Harrison tracks -the warm caress of “I Need You” along with the catchy valentine “You Like Me Too Much.”
With 1965’s Rubber Soul, Harrison offered “Think For Yourself,” a put-down song that equaled the sting of a Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan lyric. Paul’s fuzz bass brought an extra edge to George’s nasty sentiment, “Although you’re mind’s opaque, try thinking more, if not for your own sake.”
Rubber Soul was also an important benchmark for Harrison, who debuted on the sitar with Lennon’s gorgeous waltz, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” He may have been a neophyte at best on the instrument, but George opened a new world of music for those of us who didn’t know the difference between a sitar and a koto at the time. The Rolling Stones’ multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones would soon follow George’s lead, propelling their menacing “Paint It Black” to the top of the charts with an irresistible sitar hook. In the UK, new eclectic folk-rock ensembles like Traffic and the Incredible String Band also reached for the sitar, to add an exotic twang to their songs. In the U.S., the Coral Sitar/Guitar quickly became all the Raj and was immediately employed by Alex Chilton’s Boxtops’ for their hit single “The Letter.” A new genre, “World Beat” was soon born and Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan found themselves driving hippies into a collective frenzy at rock festivals around the globe.
By 1966, Lennon and McCartney would have to acknowledge Harrison’s blossoming creativity. Both British and American editions of Revolver showcased three new Harrison songs. There was the wry humor and funky groove of “Taxman,” the exuberant earnestness of “I Want To Tell You” and the rocking raga “Love You To,” which not only featured George’s sinewy sitar, but an entire band of Indian musicians. None of the other Beatles appeared on the track.
The album’s closing number, Lennon’s plunge into psychedelia, “Tomorrow Never Knows” reduced the pop song to a swirling, mystical one-chord mantra. For his lone contribution to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, George employed an ad-hoc band of Indian musicians to weave the haunting, hypnotic “Within You Without You.” Although derided at the time as “too weird, long and boring,” today the track still encourages spiritual growth with its insightful lyrics.
The murky haze of Magical Mystery Tour’s “Blue Jay Way” would eventually give way to the brilliance of “The Inner Light,” (George’s B-side to McCartney’s “Lady Madonna”). With the White Album, Harrison’s songwriting revealed a depth of expression that producer George Martin had once doubted. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” which featured Eric Clapton’s electric six-string embroidery, stands as milestone among the four numbers Harrison cut for their classic double album.
With Abbey Road, George offered a pair of extraordinary tunes, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.” The underdog often gets the last laugh. While depicted bringing up the rear on the album’s cover, Harrison (aka the “Dark Horse,” as he was known) had clearly won the race. And if there was any doubt in anyone’s mind, All Things Must Pass was just around the corner.
At first glance the album seemed like a rather grave affair. The three-LP-box set sat on your lap, gray and heavy as a tombstone with Harrison’s name and album title carved in granite-like letters, into the pale English sky behind him. All Things Must Pass indeed. Yes, the Beatles had broken up and this was George’s puckish way of telling all of us to get over it and move on with our lives. McCartney had evoked the image of Mother Mary and laid it all to rest while gently cooing “Let It Be” while Lennon, on his first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, spelled it out bluntly, loud and clear: “the dream is over,” he sang, over a simple, repetitive gospel piano vamp. His voice, raw as a scab, chanted a mantra of people and things that he no longer believed in, including Zimmerman (Bob Dylan) God and the Beatles.
While depicted bringing up the rear on the album’s cover, Harrison (aka the “Dark Horse,” as he was known) had clearly won the race. And if there was any doubt in anyone’s mind, All Things Must Pass was just around the corner.
Harrison had begun to sit in with Southern roots rockers Delaney and Bonnie, who were currently on tour with George’s old pal Eric Clapton and Traffic’s Dave Mason. It was at this time that George began perfecting his slide guitar technique, which gave “My Sweet Lord” and many other songs on All Things Must Pass their signature sound. Another interesting aspect of the album was Harrison’s collaboration with Bob Dylan which had begun in November 1968. George and Bob (who would later join forces in the Traveling Wilburys) met at Dylan’s house in Woodstock, N.Y., over the Thanksgiving holiday and collaborated on a handful of songs which included the album’s opening number, “I’d Have You Anytime.” Harrison would also cover Dylan’s “If Not for You” on the disc, cutting his own distinct version, which rivaled Bob’s treatment on his album New Morning. George also claimed his lilting country waltz, “Behind That Locked Door” was written in an attempt to break through the psychic armor that Dylan perpetually guarded himself with.
Along with the presence of Phil Spector, whose “Wall of Sound,” over-the-top production nearly drowned out Harrison’s delicate vocals, and Clapton, who secretly played guitar on nearly every track on the album, Bob Dylan’s musical and lyrical presence brought some serious cachet to Harrison’s solo flight.
Important as all these details were to George’s life and music at the time, they were somewhat incidental to his newfound devotion to Lord Krishna. Harrison had not only become obsessed with the music of India in the past, employing the sitar on nearly a dozen Beatle tracks, but he also became immersed in the subcontinent’s spirituality, converting to vegetarianism, while practicing yoga and transcendental meditation. Disillusioned after the Beatles’ pilgrimage to Rishikesh in 1968 to visit the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, George would discover an album of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prapuhpada (the spiritual leader of ISKCON – International Society of Krishna Consciousness). According to an interview with Harrison 1982, he and John Lennon had “spent days, sailing through the Greek Islands chanting ‘Hare Krishna.’ Like six hours we sang, because we couldn’t stop once we got going.”
Lennon’s flirtation with Krishna was intense but brief. Invited by John and Yoko, Swami Prapuhpada took up residence at the Lennon estate in Tittenhurst for a short time in 1969, where he held classes and gave interviews to the press. A handful of devotees could also be heard singing along with John and Yoko on “Give Peace A Chance,” in their hotel room in Montreal. But Lennon would soon move on to exploring Primal Scream therapy with Dr. Arthur Janov.
After the lunatic rush of Beatlemania, experimenting with LSD and TM, Harrison would find his bliss at the lotus feet of Lord Krishna. Although George did not shave his head or don saffron robes, he became what he described as “a plain-clothes devotee,” donating enormous sums of money to buy “The Manor,” a temple for Krishna devotees outside of London. Harrison also began writing a smattering of songs, filled with love and devotion to the blue, flute-playing cow-herder that millions of Hindus acknowledge as the human incarnation of God. Along with studying the Bhagavad Gita and practicing japa-yoga (chanting Lord Krishna’s name on a rosary of 108 wooden beads) Harrison, in the summer of 1969 produced a recording of “The Hare Krishna Mantra,” which to everyone’s surprise instantly shot to the Top Ten position on the music charts and landed a group of shaved-head, saffron-robed singing devotees from the Radha Krishna Temple a spot on the popular BBC TV show Top of the Pops.
All Things Must Pass was an unlikely record to hit Number One. Until “Something,” Harrison’s songs had been (if he was lucky) designated as B-sides to Lennon and McCartney’s constant stream of hits. The album was something of a behemoth, a three LP set, scoffed at by many as over-indulgent. Packaged in a cardboard box usually reserved for opera and classical collections, you also received a poster of George along with an album of a jam session that only hardcore fans spun beyond one or two listens. Even with a special low price it seemed like an awful lot to ask from fans for a first solo outing. Besides, it was released at the same time as Lennon’s scorching Plastic Ono Band. But “My Sweet Lord,” George’s Number One hit song, easily floated the whole affair.
While on tour with the Bramletts, Harrison had asked Delaney to show him how to write a gospel song. Grabbing a pair of guitars, they sat down and began strumming, getting into a groove with the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day.” Joined by Bonnie and Rita Coolidge, George’s praise song began taking shape with a repetitive minor chord vamp, reminiscent of the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine,” while everyone sang “Oh my lord, My sweet lord, Hallelujah,” with plenty of soul. But with George’s love of Krishna, “Hallelujah” quickly morphed into “Hare Krishna.” Gorgeous as the song was, Harrison’s valentine to his sweet lord would eventually land him in court with a plagiarism suit which cost him in the neighborhood of $600,000 for allegedly pilfering the first three notes of Ronnie Mack’s “He’s So Fine.” Although Delaney claimed that Harrison’s song was “completely different,” he later confessed feeling guilty over having not pointed out the song’s obvious source to his friend.
In the past, George had been known to freely “borrow” a few musical ideas whenever and from whoever he wished. “Something” (originally written as an ode to Lord Krishna but then credited to his alluring wife, Patti, to quell any suspicion over George’s sexual preference) was originally inspired by James Taylor’s “Something In The Way She Moves.” Harrison apparently nicked the entire opening line of the song from J.T., which ultimately was a small price to pay in return for the Beatles launching Taylor’s career with an album beautifully produced by Peter Asher and released on their newfound Apple label.
All Things Must Pass was an unlikely record to hit Number One. Until “Something,” Harrison’s songs had been (if he was lucky) designated as B-sides to Lennon and McCartney’s constant stream of hits
Then there was the Electronic Sound debacle. As a follow-up to the deliciously mystical soundtrack to Wonderwall, which George recorded the year before in London and Bombay, his second solo outing in 1969 (instantly deemed as a throw-away as it was released on the Beatles’ Zapple label along with Lennon and Ono’s Life With The Lions – Unfinished Music #2) was an unimpressive series of Moog synthesizer programs allegedly lifted from electronic music pioneer Bernie Krause. In his memoir, Into a Wild Sanctuary, Krause later recounted the entire fiasco, claiming Harrison assured him of credit and payment, both of which he never received. “Trust me, I’m a Beatle,” George reportedly told him. Disillusioned, Krause demanded his name be stricken from the album cover credits and soon left the pop music world for good, preferring to record the natural sounds of whales, gorillas and polar bears.
“My Sweet Lord” was not the only song on All Things Must Pass that brimmed with George’s spiritual message. Many of the album’s tunes, including the title track, “The Art of Dying,” “Hear Me Lord,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and “Beware of Darkness” remain powerful musical statements on the dismal failure of our material world. With “Awaiting on You All,” Harrison admonishes everyone to start “chanting the name of the lord and you’ll be free.” It was no surprise when he was attacked by the press and friends for such staunch sentiments. Around Apple, the Beatles’ record company office, people secretly referred to him as “His Lectureship,” as many found his lyrics and conversation a bit self-righteous and judgmental for their liking.
“I’m sick of all these young people boogying around, wasting their lives,” he complained in an interview. “Let’s face it. If you’re going to have to stand up and be counted, I’d rather be one of the devotees of God, than one of the straight, so-called sane or normal people.”
While cutting All Things Must Pass, George was faced with a variety of unseen challenges, not the least of which was the eccentric behavior his producer, Phil Spector, whose steady consumption of brandy rendered him virtually useless at times in the studio. Harrison later claimed he “ended up doing about eighty percent of the work” himself.
While in the thick of recording, George’s mother, Louise, died in Liverpool, postponing the recording dates. And not all the musicians were thrilled with the presence of the Krishna devotees living on the grounds of Friar Park, Harrison’s palatial estate. Keyboard player Bobby Whitlock later confessed he thought they were a bunch of “fairies” and had to restrain himself from punching them all out. But most problematic of all these situations was that Eric Clapton had fallen in love with Patti Harrison. Although George seemed to take it all in stride (hell, he’d just been through the break-up of the most popular band in history), Clapton was tortured over the ordeal. Clapton would soon dive headfirst into the depths of heroin addiction and fly off to Miami to record his masterpiece of misery for his best friend’s wife, (who he’d later marry, with George’s best wishes). Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs with Derek and the Dominoes would feature Duane Allman on slide guitar – the instrument that gave All Things must Pass its distinct sound.
But through his own determination (and the grace of Lord Krishna) George managed to pull his epic album together. A year later, in 1971, he’d do it again with a fantastic benefit concert at Madison Square Garden for Pakistani refugees, starring Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar, Billy Preston and Ringo Starr that would be released as a feature film, and another three LP box set entitled The Concert for Bangladesh.
In January, 2001, Harrison would once more have the last laugh, when he re-released All Things Must Pass after stripping away the superfluous layers of Phil Spector’s sonic icing, revealing once more, for any doubters in the crowd, what a brilliant and beautiful album it is.