In 1970 George Harrison had an incredible backlog of material at that time. After a short spell of insecurity about the songs that would make up All Things Must Pass, he was primed and ready to blossom into a prolific artist in his own right. Far beyond writing, George continued to improve as a guitarist, innovator, influencer, seeker, husband and father.
In January 1970 he purchased the 62-acre Friar Park mansion near Henley-on-Thames, where I just happened to be born 22 years later. His wife Olivia Harrison came and took my mom’s dance class at that time and they became friends. My parents told me stories about passing joints around the table with George and Olivia at friends’ houses and hanging around musicians like Mary Hopkin, Dave Edmunds, Mick Ralphs and Barrie Barlow. They said George was a sweet, funny and humble guy despite his Beatles superstardom. It follows that post-Beatles, George had found some form of peace and tranquility out in the Oxford countryside. Not only that, but he found the drive to record arguably the best solo work of any of The Beatles, certainly my overall favourite. It’s only just gone 50 years since the last official Beatles session at Abbey Road Studios, putting finishing touches on I Me Mine for Let it Be. A Harrison original and a fitting end to a period of George’s life he wished to break away from, to focus on the more universal “I”, and to become the gardener he was always meant to be.
First and foremost, George Harrison was a guitarist. He was a rock and roll, rhythm and blues junkie, with influences ranging from Fats Domino and Carl Perkins to Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. Starting out in music it was all about the guitar, he didn’t fancy himself a singer or songwriter; though in the end he managed to keep up with Lennon and McCartney at both. From early on in The Quarrymen, 15-year-old George’s guitar playing began to be recognised. On In Spite of All the Danger he was given equal writing credit with Paul after writing and playing the guitar-solo. George was not a flashy guitarist by any means, but I still consider him one the best of all time. What he had was an amazing tonality, melodic sense and rhythm. He wrote lines that may seem simple, or tastefully restrained, in order to elevate whatever the music happened to be.
He was incredibly methodical when it came to recording. Many an Abbey Road engineer were left pulling out their hair as he would do take after take, until he felt like it was perfect. That’s just the way he worked. George was arguably the biggest gear-head of all the Beatles; he liked to collect and would change his main guitar for each Beatles LP. A small part of this collection included a Gretsch Duo-Jet, Selmer Futurama, Rickenbacker 360 Deluxe, Gibson SG and Les Paul, and a particular Sonic Blue Fender Stratocaster, the latter being an important part of the development of his legendary slide technique and touch. He first recorded slide guitar on Strawberry Fields and it has since become an integral part of what’s recognised as the George Harrison sound. He will always be remembered first as the Beatles’ lead guitarist, but he was also responsible for driving the group’s creativity forward by introducing the others to new music and ideas. George’s interests and influences changed, as they do, from rock and roll to classical Indian and Bulgarian choir – from the guitar to ukulele, sitar and the Moog synthesiser.
The Moog is a particularly interesting story. George had an early model (3-series) shipped over from California to his Esher home, and then subsequently to Room 43 in Abbey Road Studios during the sessions for Abbey Road. The synth was unlike anything they had ever seen: “It was a foreboding black object the size of a bookcase, littered with dozens of knobs, switches, and patch cords.” (Geoff Emerick from Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of The Beatles by Kenneth Womack) George added the first bit of Moog to Because, and following that success it was added to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Here Comes the Sun. Quite the introduction for this relatively obscure instrument!
More commonly known is George’s introduction of classical Indian music to the Beatles as well as the Western mainstream. In part thanks to The Byrds, and part thanks to those Bahamian dignitaries who gave the Beatles Indian scriptures as gifts, Harrison became an avid fan of not only the music but also the spiritual practice. He played a big part, intentionally or otherwise, in the popularisation of Eastern culture and wisdom in the 1960s. His fascination with Indian music along with his and Lennon’s experiences with transcendental meditation, led to that spiritual component which The Beatles are now famous for. Further, becoming the sitar apprentice of Hindustani classical musician Ravi Shankar changed a lot for Harrison. It led him to the inspired idea for The Concert for Bangladesh, the very first charity concert, in aid of refugees of the Bangladesh Liberation War. His time with Ravi Shankar also helped take his songwriting to the next level. “…it really did help me as far as writing strange melodies and also rhythmically it was the best assistance I could have had.” (George Harrison from I Me Mine)
I believe songwriting for George was a deeply personal and emotional experience. It would explain why it took him so long to gain confidence and hone his skills, not to mention the dominating creative output of Lennon/McCartney during the first ten years of his career. The first of his songs to grace Abbey Road Studios was Don’t Bother Me in 1963. It could be said that, at first, John and Paul began to give George his quota of one song per album just as they gave Ringo his task of singing one song per album. I still think Don’t Bother Me is a really good song, but it’s fair to say George’s writing came a long way from that point to I Need You and Taxman and then again to While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun and Something. It became clear that George was fast approaching the quality of writing his Beatle counterparts had been reaping the benefits of. Famously Frank Sinatra called Something, “…the greatest love song of the past 50 years”, though he was under the impression that Lennon and McCartney had written it! Lyrically George began to stand out as well. I find his lyrics often beautifully express his own reckoning of quite grand, universal concepts. “Of the songwriting Beatles, Harrison was the one with the most coherent belief system and the one most likely to think his lyrics through. This makes his lyrics perhaps more dogged than Lennon and McCartney’s, but at least the listeners of the future have more chance of working out what he was driving at.” (Ian MacDonald from Revolution in the Head)
I am not sure anyone knew quite how musically ready George was for the end of The Beatles. On 25 February 1969, his 26th birthday, he went into Abbey Road Studios to lay down the demo for All Things Must Pass, a song that would go on to shape and title his number one triple-album of 1970. The 18 songs (plus at least 20 more unreleased) that made up All Things Must Pass were recorded between Apple Studios, Trident and Abbey Road Studios. The majority of live backing tracks as well as all of the mixing was done at Abbey Road. This album was so important in defining the new independent George Harrison, perfectly combining all his rock and soul influences with the more avant-garde. Along with musical symmetry, things in George’s personal life at the time seemed to be mirroring his sentiments, the recording sessions coinciding with his mother’s fight with cancer. Some songs had been tucked away for a long time after being turned down for Beatles records. For example, Isn’t It A Pity was, according to Mark Lewisohn, put forward for Revolver in 1966. There is a distinct Americana influence on the album, likely stemming from his time with Bob Dylan and The Band in Woodstock. “I started playing chords, like major sevenths, diminisheds and augmented and the song appeared as I played the opening chord and then moved the chord shape up the guitar neck. The first thing I thought of was: Let me in here, I know I’ve been here, let me in to you heart. I was saying to Bob ‘Come on, write some words’. He wrote the bridge: All I have is yours, all you see is mine. And I’m glad to hold you in my arms, I’d have you anytime.” (George Harrison from I Me Mine) Another favourite of mine, as I interact with so many Beatles fans on a daily basis, is Apple Scruffs, a love song dedicated to the core fans who camp outside Abbey Road Studios and the Apple offices. I wonder if he would have guessed that today there’s more people than ever coming to Abbey Road to pay homage.
My, and so many other’s love for George Harrison’s music is rooted in the wisdom and positivity he embedded. He found a way to become his own person, despite the pressures of world-fame and constant association with The Beatles. He put down his roots in the garden at Friar Park in 1970 and began his new role as gardener, husband and father. “One of the most extraordinary things he did in the last years of his life was plant 400 to 500 maples in his garden. He was one of the great gardeners of the world. I think his true spirit was there. He had 37 acres to play with! He created an incredibly beautiful place with a Russian dacha and huge arches made out of the roots of trees. In the last couple of years, he started putting in these gigantic lumps of stone. It was truly a magical place. You thought life was worth living when you were there.” (Terry Gilliam, People Weekly December 17, 2001) From 1958 to 2001 George Harrison made some stunning music with his many friends. Through The Beatles, solo performances and albums, his Dark Horse label, and his countless collaborations from The Travelling Wilburys to Monty Python. I’m envious of my parents who got to spend time with him, I would love nothing more than to go back in time and bring my ukulele over to Friar Park for a jam. In George’s autobiography I Me Mine, Derek Taylor concludes, “I have had to find one word to say what the man is. ‘Brave’ comes near, but it has too close a relationship with suffering and I have therefore concluded that, pirate as he is, he deserves the word ‘bold’ for he is, in truth, quite the boldest man I have ever met.”