Breath Away From Heaven: George Harrison at 80

Honoring the career of the not-so-quiet Beatle

George Harrison Wonderwall Music poster (Image: Apple Records)

There’s a certain irony in George Harrison being tagged “The Quiet Beatle” when, in fact, he had plenty to say.

It was also premature, given that he was rather quiet publicly for a number of years, walking away from the cycle of regular recording.

It was hard to begrudge the man, who would have turned 80 today. He’d put in his time, starting with those years in the fishbowl as a Beatle. To put it into perspective, take the live U.S. audience for this year’s Super Bowl and add another 15 million viewers. That’s the equivalent percentage of the audience that was watching February 9, 1964, when The Beatles made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Less than two months later, The Beatles had the top four singles on the U.S charts, a feat accomplished in an era where fans had to spend their money on a single, rather than just click “play” on a streaming service. They’d amass 45 Top 40 hits in the country by the time they’d broken up less than six years after that first Sullivan appearance.

Of course, these were nearly all Lennon/McCartney affairs, as Harrison’s first (and only) lead Beatles single was “Something” off Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together.

Harrison was starting to grow as a writer. “If I Needed Someone” was a lovely slice of Byrdsian jangle off Rubber Soul. The tight “Taxman” was a well-chosen opener for Revolver.

But it was a competitive space. Lennon and McCartney had staked out their space as the band’s primary writers, turf they weren’t readily willing to cede. It wasn’t just ego, as they were both in the middle of hugely creative runs.

There were certainly larger factors in The Beatles’ breakup, notably the management void after Brian’s Epstein’s death and disagreements on how to fill it. But Harrison was starting to accumulate a backlog of material and it would have been a battle to get more of it onto a Beatles album that would have been Let It Be’s follow-up.

And so it was that Harrison spent around five months recording his first solo album that was non-experimental and contained lyrics. He had a vast array of musicians with him in the studio – members of Derek & The Dominos (who formed during the sessions) and Badfinger, Gary Wright, Peter Frampton, Alan White, Billy Preston, Gary Brooker, Klaus Voorman, Dave Mason, Bobby Keys, Jim Price and Ringo Starr, just to name a few.



With nobody else to fight for album space with, the creativity burst out on All Things Must Pass, a beautiful triple album.

Over 50 years later, it still holds up as the best solo album from one of the Fab 4, even with the skippable 29 minutes of Apple Jam material that closes it. 

Harrison later talked about not being a fan of producer Phil Spector’s use of reverb, but the 2021 version removes so much of it that the push-and-pull tension is gone, an album that’s stripped of its majesty. Your mileage may vary.

The wealth of bonus material in the form of demos is a plus, improving the sound of prior bootlegs.

Regardless of the version you prefer, though, Harrison had put out a lot of quality material at once, a move that retrospectively cost him a bit.

There are even songs that didn’t turn up later — like “Cosmic Empire” that would have benefited future output.

Had the material been spread out, the talk could have been about a run of classic Harrison albums, rather than one that dwarfed the others. 

There’s no doubt that 1973’s Living in the Material World and 1974’s Dark Horse could have benefited from All Things Must Pass-era material, especially the latter. 

Frankly, recording Dark Horse when Harrison did was a mistake, a precise moment when he should have stepped off the wheel and taken a break. He was battling laryngitis and it showed, as it’s hard not to wince hearing him struggle on the otherwise lovely title track. A break also might have helped him come up with better material, as not even a throat that didn’t sound on the brink of collapse would have helped on a chunk of the album.

Harrison didn’t listen to what his voice was telling him. He went out to support the album on a joint tour at the end of 1974 with Ravi Shankar, the first solo tour by a former Beatle in the United States.

Reviews were mixed. The sets were more adventurous than what some people no doubt wanted (or at least had too much of Harrison ceding the spotlight to others). And there’s no denying that Harrison’s vocal cords needed rest instead of performing live for 44 shows over 48 days.

In any case, the experience soured Harrison on the idea of touring again. The only other time he’d hit the road would be in 1991– only 12 dates in Japan with Eric Clapton as his sideman (doing four of his songs mid-set).



That set a pattern for Harrison, who had avoided the pitfalls of mismanaged finances (or of being a recording artist in his prime in the 2020s). He didn’t need to tour.

He could enjoy other interests, which he did. He could just stay at home and garden (something he found quite relaxing). There was an interest in cars and Formula 1 racing (not to the level of Paul Newman getting behind the wheel).

Spirituality was a huge part of his life, going back to his time in the Beatles It colored his humanitarian efforts (including the Concert for Bangladesh). Upon his death from cancer in 2001, his funeral was a private Hindu ceremony with his ashes scattered in the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India.

And in terms of popular culture, there was his biggest non-musical artistic endeavor — movies. 

It wasn’t planned. Monty Python’s satire The Life of Brian was set to start filming when financiers pulled out a week before. Desperate, the Pythons approached Harrison, who was a friend and fan, even appearing on Eric Idle’s post-Python series dressed as a pirate. He mortgaged his home for the money.

Idle, Harrison’s best friend among the Pythons, later quipped that the money was “the most anybody’s ever paid for a cinema ticket in history.”

The film, regarded as a classic, made back over five times its budget. Handmade Films, the company put together by Harrison and business partner Denis O’Brien, was on a roll.

The company released acclaimed films like dramas The Long Good Friday (a great gangster flick) and Mona Lisa, the black comedy Withnail & I and the adventure classic Time Bandits.

But it turned out to be unsustainable, as flops piled up, not just Shanghai Surprise. The costs led to the company stopping production in 1991, with Harrison later successfully suing O’Brien to recoup some of the losses he incurred.

Harrison was understandably wary of the spotlight. There was a 1967 visit to San Francisco that he had to cut short because there were already too many people there trying to see what the Haight-Ashbury scene was about, creating a darker energy. It was the last time he took acid.

John Lennon’s murder by an obsessed fan in December 1980 made him warier. Sadly, he almost became the second Beatle to be murdered when a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia attacked him and his wife Olivia in their home, stabbing Harrison multiple times.

Even fearing for his life, Harrison’s sense of humor popped up. Idle, in Martin Scorcese’s documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, said, ““When they picked him up, they put him on this stretcher. They’re carrying him downstairs, and there were two people who had just started to work that weekend. He’s being carried out stabbed with eight stab wounds and he looks over and says, ‘So what do you think of the job so far?’ Which is a great kind of — very George.”

Harrison wasn’t touring, but he remained active in the studio. 1975’s Extra Texture (Read All About It), his last Apple album, was a step up and 1976’s Thirty-Three & 1/3, his first for Warner Brothers, was even better.

He remarried and started a family in 1978, which provided him more incentive to only engage musically on his terms.

The albums grew less consistent, with Harrison growing dissatisfied with label interference and the industry as a whole. By the time of 1982’s Gone Troppo, he seemed not so much tired of the business, but just tired.

A long break followed. He did occasional music for soundtracks and charities, but otherwise lived a quiet life out of the spotlight.

But that itch to create returned in 1986. Towards the end of that year, he approached Jeff Lynne, who had no imminent plans with ELO’s breakup. Lynne agreed to produce, a fortuitous decision.

Working with Lynne and a number of old friends and collaborators — Clapton, Elton John, Wright, Starr and Jim Keltner, the result was 1987’s Cloud Nine, his best album since All Things Must Pass.



Harrison got along with Lynne well enough that they were already talking about a follow-up album before the Cloud Nine sessions were finished. The idea was to form a group with Lynne. Harrison suggested Dylan, who at that point, was in a creative fallow period. Lynne wanted Roy Orbison, who he loved and wanted to work with. 

Tom Petty came into the picture when he opened for Dylan in 1987, hitting it off with Harrison and Lynne after meeting them.

Even still, it didn’t come together as the result of a grand scheme. Harrison was in Los Angeles to oversee one of Handmade’s productions when the label told him they needed a B-side for Cloud Nine single “This Is Love”.

Harrison was having dinner with Lynne and Orbison. He asked Lynne to help him with the song and Orbison to come along to the session.

It wasn’t easy to book a studio on short notice, but they found one in Malibu, in a garage owned by none other than Dylan. All set, right?

Well, Harrison didn’t have his guitar and needed to go retrieve it from Petty’s house. Petty was there, so of course, he was also invited along.

The session resulted in a B-side, until Warner Brothers heard it and told Harrison the song was way too good for that. Another Cloud Nine track, “Breath Away From Heaven”, was used instead.

That intended B-side didn’t stay on the shelf, instead spurring the formation of the Traveling Wilburys. And when the album, recorded in ten days, was released, “Handle With Care” was the lead single and their biggest hit.

The looseness of the project was a joy for all involved, leading to fruitful collaborations with Lynne for Petty (Full Moon Fever) and Orbison (Mystery Girl). Harrison was having a good enough time that he hoped to keep the Wilburys going.

That wasn’t to be. Orbison, the man who surprised the others with his humor (an ability to recite Python sketches, complete with voices) and wowed them with his still great voice, died of a heart attack two months after Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 was released.


VIDEO: Traveling Wilburys “Handle With Care”

The surviving members put out Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 3 in October, 1990. It had its charms, but was less loose and had an Orbison-sized hole.

Aside from a live album culled from the Japan shows, Harrison went back to relative radio silence. Some of his time was occupied in the Beatles Anthology project, which included two Lynne-produced songs in which the surviving members added their vocals to a couple of unreleased Lennon demos.

That isn’t to say Harrison had completely abandoned the idea of making another album. He’d been accumulating songs for a while, going back to the filming of the music video for “This is Love”, which is where “Any Road” came about.

But there were other things happening– the Wilburys, Anthology, more work with Ravi Shankar and the lawsuit against O’Brien. The most serious was another matter entirely.

Harrison had survived a battle with throat cancer in 1997. But at some point after recovering from the knife attack, the cancer returned, this time attacking his lungs and brain.

He worked as long as he possibly could on the album, recording his last sessions in Switzerland while undergoing treatment. The point arrived where he knew that, even with the best treatments available, that the cancer was too far advanced.

He left detailed instructions for Lynne and Dhani on how he wanted the album finished — guitar and other instrumental parts, production notes. Basically, it was everything they’d need in one handy guide.

Taking time to grieve after Harrison’s death, on Nov. 29, 2001, the two returned to the studio and followed George’s notes to put the finishing touches on a mostly completed album. Released in late 2002, Brainwashed was a worthy follow-up to Cloud Nine and a fitting coda to his career.

Harrison has almost been gone from the physical world for the same amount of time as the period of the first Ed Sullivan appearance to Cloud Nine. There’s no shortage of biographical material — numerous works on the Beatle years, Harrison’s own 1980 memoir I, Me, Mine (which was relatively scant on the Beatles era) and Scorcese’s documentary, which is well worth the watch.

But there are also the songs. Harrison didn’t just develop into a writer, he was also a terrific guitar player (particularly with the slide sounds). And he had a voice to suit his material perfectly.

There are so many favorites to be found.

“Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby Now”, where George shows his love for Carl Perkins.

“Love You To”, the best of his Indian excursions.

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, achingly vulnerable in demo form.

“It’s All Too Much”, full of percussive psychedelic cacophony, yet tuneful.

“Something” a gorgeous ballad strong enough that even notorious rock music hater Frank Sinatra dug it.

“Wah-Wah”, a loud reminder that Lennon wasn’t the only Beatle unhappy with McCartney in 1970.

“Isn’t It a Pity?”, Harrison’s “Hey Jude”, only full of plaintive emotion.

“If Not For You”, the terrific Dylan cover in arrangement that Olivia Newton-John pretty much xeroxed for her first (and deserved) hit.

“Art of Dying”, in which his spiritual side rocks out and he ponders mortality while still in his 20s.

“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)”, in which Harrison gives one of his most affecting vocal performances.

“You”, which should have been the comeback vehicle for Ronnie Spector it was intended to be if Phil Spector hadn’t been an abuser who was effectively keeping her prisoner in her own home at that point.

“Crackerbox Palace”, an underrated single that would have fit extremely well on a Beatles reunion album in an alternate universe.

“This Song”, a witty take on the “My Sweet Lord” lawsuit, although to be fair, the writers of “He’s So Fine” had a point.

“Blow Away”, an utter charmer of a tune that was the equal of his ex-bandmates’ love songs.

“Devil’s Radio”, the rollicking song about gossip and tabloid talk that could just as easily apply to social media now.


VIDEO: George Harrison “When We Was Fab”

“When We Was Fab”, where he engages in well-earned and well-performed nostalgic appreciation.

“Handle With Care”, not just an example of Harrison’s revived songwriting, but a terrific showcase of why the Wilburys worked. Plus, Orbison comes in and steals the song.

“Marwa Blues”, a delicate reminder of just how missed Harrison is as a guitar player.

And those are just some of mine. You probably have worthy lists of your own.

Quiet? Hardly. Content to speak volumes on his own terms? No doubt about it.


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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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