Looking back at the emancipation of George Harrison
Of all the Beatles, George Harrison was the least bothered by the group’s dissolution.
Since immersing himself in Eastern philosophies and music, the fame and success the Beatles had achieved held increasingly little allure for him. And he felt creatively stifled in the band as well, steamrolled by the Lennon/McCartney songwriting juggernaut, allocated just one or two tracks on the group’s albums (though on the double album set The Beatles, he’d managed to get three). So when the opportunity arose to make his first proper solo album (following the release of the Wonderwall Music soundtrack album, and the self-explanatory Electronic Sound), his pent-up creative energies flowed freely. “I’ve always looked at All Things Must Pass like somebody who has had constipation for years and then finally they get diarrhea,” he wryly observed.
Relief, indeed. All Things Must Pass was one of rock’s first triple albums (the Woodstock film soundtrack beat Harrison by three months). It boasted a cast of once and future stars: Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Ginger Baker, Gary Wright, Peter Frampton, the members of Badfinger, and Phil Collins (on congas). It wasn’t only excessive in length, there was also the overwhelming power of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production to contend with, something that Harrison himself later felt was “a bit over the top” (“It was difficult to resist re-mixing every track,” he wrote in the liner notes of the album’s 30th anniversary reissue). And the third record in the set, which consists solely of jams might have been overkill. But this was George Harrison’s show, and he was pulling out all the stops.
The album is best known of course for its monster hit “My Sweet Lord,” which topped charts worldwide and went on to sell over 10 million copies. Harrison had wanted to write a modern gospel song, and was careful to make his plea for salvation non-denominational. Its majestic production and soothing cadence made it irresistible, whatever your faith, or, indeed, whether you even had a faith. But the song’s success was marred by the subsequent suit for copyright infringement, its melody deemed too close to that of the Chiffons’ hit “He’s So Fine.” In one of his last interviews, fellow Beatle John Lennon contended that Harrison could’ve simply changed a few notes to avoid a suit, “but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.” God didn’t, and in 1976, Harrison was found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism.” Nor was it the only track on the album to face legal troubles. Soon after the album’s release, songwriters Bill Martin and Phil Coulter pointed out that the jokey track “It’s Johnny Birthday” (a birthday ode to Lennon) used the melody of their own song “Congratulations” (a 1968 hit for Cliff Richard). The composing credit was immediately changed, quickly settling the matter.
Tensions, legal and otherwise, permeated the mighty “Wah-Wah,” written after Harrison had walked out on the Beatles during the filming of Let It Be. The pounding rhythms nicely emulate the headaches brought on by arguing with his Fellow Fabs; it’s a depiction of the Beatles’ split that ranks up there with McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Another bit of autobiography appears in “Apple Scruffs,” a sweet portrayal of the devoted fans that hung out on the steps of the Beatles’ Apple Corp. HQ, the harmonica giving the number a homey touch.
Not every song has the grandiose sound of “My Sweet Lord,” “Wah-Wah,” or “What Is Life.” Harrison gives All Things Must Pass a languid start with the gentle “I’d Have You Anytime,” co-written with Bob Dylan. Elsewhere, his cover of Dylan’s “If Not For You” is in a similar vein. And if tracks like “Awaiting on You All” are somewhat chastising, as Harrison chides the listener for being spiritually “polluted,” he’s in a more forgiving mood in such numbers as “Isn’t It a Pity,” which sadly observes humanity’s selfishness. And “Beware of Darkness” is a stirring plea about not getting bogged down by negative thoughts.
VIDEO: The “What Is Life” scene from Goodfellas
Perhaps the album’s improvisational tracks were needed to provide the necessary balance to all that seriousness. In its original vinyl incarnation, the tracks were on the set’s third record were labeled “Apple Jam,” setting it apart from the main album. It’s a fun listen, like hanging out in the studio as the musicians are warming up, prior to getting down to business. “Thanks for the Pepperoni” kicks off with some nice rock ‘n’ roll riffing, while “Out of the Blue” is an extended vamp with Bobby Keys’ sax in the forefront.
The title track is surely one of rock’s best numbers about mortality, with its bittersweet musical pull. The Grim Reaper’s also the topic under discussion in “Art of Dying,” the jangling edginess of the band sounding like chattering nerves. The closing number, “Hear Me Lord,” is a calmer variation on the theme of “My Sweet Lord,” with Harrison, the humble supplicant, earnestly seeking salvation.
All four former Beatles released albums in 1970, and Harrison’s was deemed the most impressive, and by far the most commercially success (the first album by a Fab to top the charts, US sales of over six million). One reason for all the acclaim was undoubtedly because his talents had been underestimated for so long; he titled a later album “Dark Horse,” and went on to use the same name for his record label. All Things Must Pass saw Harrison coming into his own as a confident, compelling, singer, songwriter, and musician, capable of holding his own throughout an entire album (and then some).
It’s still his best record, Harrison rising from Beatle bondage to announce to the world: Free at last!