It would have been George Harrison’s 66th birthday today, had he beaten the cancer that claimed him in 2001. And since he’s one of my heroes, I thought I’d pay my respects by compiling a ’10 musical moments’ in the career of the quiet Beatle.
The thing about George Harrison is that a lot of his greatest moments are really subtle – the opening chime of ‘A Hard Day’s Night” as well as the cascading outro to that song is a great example of his creativity as an instrumentalist. How about the ferocious slide guitar in Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”, the subtle texture of the sitar on “Norwegian Wood”, or the gently weeping guitar solo in his own “Something”. Yet, there are so many others
And without further ado, here are my favourite 10 in order of date, certainly not of importance. As you know, I don’t believe in ‘top ten’ lists. Just plain ’10’ will do.
Roll Over Beethoven (1963) – the Beatles
The Fabs worshiped Chuck Berry, his material being a rich storehouse of inspiration for all of the Beatles. Yet, George bashes this one to the wall with a note perfect take on Berry’s classical-masters evoking tale of the power of rock ‘n’roll as the next big thing. As meat-and-potatoes as the Berry sound is assumed to be, it is certainly more complex, being a boogie-woogie piano line as played on the guitar Harrison makes it sound effortless.
I’m Happy Just To Dance With You (1964) – The Beatles
In the first half of the Beatles career, Harrison was thought of as a guitarist and vocalist, yet not a writer. It would take him a while, in the eyes of the others and in the eyes of Beatles producer George Martin, to get the swing of it. So, Lennon and McCartney wrote this one for George as featured on A Hard Day’s Night. I think he takes it and makes it into a storming pop performance, perfectly suited to his voice which at the time was more vulnerable and less sure than that of McCartney or Lennon. As such, it’s one of Harrison’s best performances as a vocalist in that early Beatles period, before he would go on to write his own material which equaled that of his bandmates.
Harrison had written songs before this one. Yet, “If I Needed Someone” is one of the earliest ones which showed his skills as a craftsmen to the same level as anyone writing pop songs at the time, including Lennon and McCartney. Listen to the jangle of the guitars which seem to ring out forever. And listen to the interplay of major chords with minor. Harrison was learning his craft, perhaps. But this one proves that he made several evolutionary leaps as a songwriter, and that he was just getting started.
Taxman – The Beatles (1966)
If one thought that the only acidic wit in the Beatles was Lennon (who in fairness purportedly contributed the line about declaring the pennies on the eyes of those who’ve died…), than this song proves that Harrison too had something in his lyrical arsenal to contribute. This song has been labeled with the term ‘conservative rock’ by some, seeing as it’s a tune about not getting enough return as sung by a millionaire rock star.
But, I think it’s more about a feeling of having lost control over one’s life, which is certainly an arguement to be made in the case of the Beatles. This lack of control was especially pertinent in 1966, when the band were playing a dreary world tour, expected to show up at fancy parties hosted by people who knew nothing about their music, and who were being asked to play for crowds who couldn’t hear them play music that they themselves couldn’t hear. The petulance of this song, in my mind, is more a reflection of that than it is about materialism. And George was soon to be famously outspoken about the dangers of clinging to ‘the material world’.
Within You, Without You – the Beatles (1967)
The Sgt. Pepper album is noted for being ground-breaking for many reasons. And one of the more unsung reasons is centred around this song – “Within You, Without You” – which marries western instruments with tablas and sitars, which were the province of Indian classical music. George had stayed in India in 1966, taking sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar who was and is one of the most prominent Indian classical musicians in the world.
In being asked about the influence Indian music had on his own compositional approach, George simply said that when he first heard Indian music, it sounded familiar to him, as if he’d always known it. As far as this song goes, it’s as melodic as anything the band ever did, along with being very haunting, and lushly arranged. It proved that redefining rock music was not simply about making it more expansive, but also about showing that it goes well beyond R&B and country roots in the West.
All Things Must Pass – The Beatles (1968)
This song was recorded solo 41 years ago today, on Harrison’s 24th birthday. It would of course be reborn two years later in a full-band form on George’s magnum opus three-record set baring this song as a title track. But, this is my favourite version of the song as taken from the Beatle’s Anthology Volume Three set, released in 1994. I can’t believe a 24-year old man wrote this song, wise beyond his years, and maybe past trying to figure out the fickle nature of fame as a Beatle.
Just gorgeous. And somehow not included on ‘The White Album’.
George Harrison was the first Beatle to take acid at a dinner party in 1966, and the first to stop taking it upon a disillusioned trip to Haight-Ashbury in 1967 . But, it was Harrison who really nailed the psychedelic sound better than any of the others. This was recorded for the arguably acid-driven images of the Yellow Submarine film, and one of the most striking additions to it as it dovetails so perfectly with those images.
Here Comes the Sun – The Beatles (1969)
If someone pressed a gun to my head and demanded I choose my favourite Beatles song, I’d say this one. Actually, no one would really need to threaten me. I believe this is the answer to that question. Written in Eric Clapton’s garden while playing hooky from the business of running Apple Corps and being in the Beatles, which was turning sour for George by then, this is a song of release, of optimism, of ultimate liberation. It’s the sound of someone finally getting to where they want to go.
The song contrasts the organic acoustic guitar with the multi-voiced Moog synthesizer, the latter of which was extremely difficult to program by all accounts. But the lushness of this track never fails to inspire me, so the effort where I stand was well worth it.
What Is Life – George Harrison (1970)
This song is almost like George is returning to his roots as a beat combo guitar player again, after a career of establishing himself as a psychedelic and world music figure in the Beatles. And it’s true that Harrison had produced Badfinger, an early power pop band known to harken back to the early Beatles pop phase. Their “No Matter What” is a clear homage to their producer’s former band. Yet, Harrison’s power pop doesn’t sound like anyone other than himself, with a plaintive vocal that sounds like the real thing. Listen to the tough guitar on this track, too. Even Phil Spectre’s layered horn section can’t take away from the heart of this tune – a real gem of a pop song written by one of the masters at the top of his game and out from under the weight of his past.
Blow Away – George Harrison (1979)
I’m kind of cheating here, maybe. I’ve written about this song “Blow Away” before. It’s my favourite of his solo songs, full of optimism like “Here Comes the Sun”, and also infused with a bit of melancholy too.
George wrote a number of great tracks after this, of course. And there are many I’ve not been able to include here. By the early 80s, he was a sparse recording star, with a number of other pursuits that took him away from music, which he’d decided he’d only do part time. There were more active years than others, including his comeback album Cloud 9, and the precursor to that album in The Traveling Wilburys, a ‘super-group’ he’d formed with some famous friends. And of course, there was his final album Brainwashed, recorded over several years, even when faced with a case of terminal cancer which would claim his life in 2001.
What Harrison leaves behind is a legacy that goes beyond his contributions as a musician. He was a film producer too, ensuring that Monty Python’s The Life of Brian would get made, when backers blanched at the potential controversy of the film’s subject matter. He was a record label owner, a gardener, a racing enthusiast, a husband, a dad, and a respected professional among his peers.
Happy birthday, George.