When I worked at Record and Tape, we had a poster in the back room of the Beatles, with handwritten labels above each member. Ringo’s said “Stupid Head.” John’s said ”Dumb Head.” What Paul’s said is too vulgar for this publication. But George’s said “Eh, he’s ok.”
Over the years, I don’t really recall hearing anyone say anything bad about George Harrison. Meanwhile, I’ve heard people say a lot about the other three members of the Beatles. Even before knowing much about Harrison’s music, I could tell something was different about him. He didn’t seem as pretentious as Paul. He didn’t seem as hot-headed as John. He didn’t seem as drunk as Ringo.
A few years ago, when I came across a clip of George Harrison on The Dick Cavett Show, he proved what I suppose I had always known about him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone who was as purely human as he was. As he made quips to Dick Cavett, you could tell he was uncomfortable with the prospect of being interviewed in front of millions of viewers, as anyone might be in a similar situation.
He wasn’t there to show off or brag about what he had done recently. When pressed about what he had said to John Lennon at a recent movie premiere, Harrison replied “I said ‘Hi, hello.’” There was no profound conversation or intense encounter. To me, in a way, that was almost better than anything he (or anyone for that matter) could have made up.
I think there’s a misconception about professional musicians that they’re these larger than life figures who are always out at parties or events, or always on tour. George Harrison, by no means, was larger than life, but just because he wasn’t larger than life doesn’t mean he didn’t have a large life.
Born in Liverpool, England in 1943, George Harrison started playing music with Paul McCartney and John Lennon in his early teens. In the Beatles, Harrison couldn’t fully express himself. Stuck playing lead guitar and singing background vocals to the overwhelming majority of songs that were written by Lennon and McCartney, Harrison was only able to get a couple of songs on each record.
As turmoil grew within the band, Harrison quit on multiple occasions, with the most iconic departure occurring on January 10, 1969. After McCartney and Lennon continuously shot down song after song of Harrison’s, he had had enough. He went home that day and wrote the song “Wah-Wah,” which would later appear on his second solo album. Of course, Harrison came back to finish the rest of the Beatles’ recordings, but within a year, the band broke up for good.
In 1970, about a month after the Beatles broke up, Harrison went to work on his magnum opus. The triple-LP All Things Must Pass, which featured some of the greatest musical talent of the time, including Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Pete Drake and too many others to count, was released in November of that year.
It’s hard to find the right words to describe that album. I don’t have another piece of music in my collection that even remotely compares to the raw emotion that Harrison digs into on the record. It has made me laugh. It has made me cry. Tracks like “What Is Life” and “Art of Dying” make you want to roll the windows down and turn the volume up. Tracks like “My Sweet Lord” and “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp” are delicate and timeless.
Easily, All Things Must Pass is my favorite record of all time. Even as I try to put some variety into what I listen to, I put that album on the turntable at least a couple times a month.
All of Harrison’s other eleven solo albums are fantastic pieces of music too. Isn’t it a pity that he was so constrained in the Beatles? Who’s to say what some of those records would’ve looked like had Lennon and McCartney given Harrison more freedom to express himself. Later in his career, he also appeared alongside Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison in The Traveling Wilburys.
Harrison’s ventures weren’t limited to just music either. He was a founder of HandMade Films in 1979, which helped produce the films Life of Brian (1979) and Time Bandits (1981). When Monty Python lost their funding for Life of Brian due to uproar from the Catholic Church over the film’s content, Harrison took out a second mortgage on his home to fund the film’s completion. The only condition was that he got to be in the movie.
On Thursday, George Harrison would’ve turned 78. There were tributes on Facebook from former bandmate Paul McCartney and millions of fans everywhere. I personally threw on his 1974 LP Dark Horse to mark the occasion.
Although Harrison passed away 20 years ago this November from cancer, his legacy continues. His son, Dhani Harrison, recently revived his father’s old record label Dark Horse. Next month, the label is releasing a compilation of Greatest Hits from The Clash frontman Joe Strummer.
I always get a little upset when there’s an artist I couldn’t appreciate until after their death. Of course, being only three when he died, it’s not through any fault of my own. I do take comfort, though, in knowing that Harrison did finally get the recognition he deserved after the Beatles broke up, and that he was able to have such a successful career while also maintaining such a deep sense of humility.
Tony Sheaffer is editor-in-chief for The Sting and writes Friday Groove, a weekly music column.