In the era of early guitar gods, George Harrison was a minor priest. Watch some live shows and you’ll get an idea – every solo flirts with disaster as he hacks through his rockabilly licks on that big old Gretsch. There is none of the flash, the lyricism, even the technical competence of the great 60s lead guitarists. Fine, fair enough. We aren’t here to question or criticize that perfect balance of musicians in The Beatles. But 1969 found them at the crossroads where every rock band had a lead player with some devil and Robert Johnson in his soul. The Rolling Stones picked up Mick Taylor to glide over their golden run of classic albums and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were on the way. If the Beatles were truly planning to return to the stage regularly in the 70s, it’s hard to imagine George Harrison performing in the lead guitar spot.
And yet 68-71 was George’s most productive period as a songwriter. One might argue that he penned the two biggest “hits” on the final two proper Beatles studio albums (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something”). The songs he brought to the Get Back sessions simply outclassed the others, save for maybe Paul’s “Let It Be.” “All Things Must Pass,” “Isn’t It A Pity,” and “Beware Of Darkness” are stunning songs, each seeming to capture the zeitgeist of the ‘end of the 60s’ with equal parts sorrow and practical optimism. His sprawling solo debut album was critically acclaimed and remains an eerie masterpiece, but many of those songs could have been Beatles songs. They were that good.
George Harrison as a songwriter really wasn’t as good as that brief peak. Martin Scorsese’s 2011 documentary nobly tried to rewrite the record, seeming to slot in George as equal in genius to John and Paul, while framing his interest in the sitar as a great gift to western culture. Watch McCartney’s guarded interview in the film, the way he diplomatically fends off questions about his decidedly less fab little brother. An equal to John and Paul? No offense to Scorsese, the Harrison estate, and the Society for Krishna Consciousness but – not even close. Lennon and McCartney had already gifted the universe with timeless music by their early 20s, while George was penning his first song “Don’t Bother Me.” Can we imagine “Don’t Bother Me” shaking the foundations of culture worldwide? The girls screaming in orgiastic delight to “You Like Me Too Much”? No, we can’t. Follow the next few years and you’ll hear some recycled Byrds riffs and some fine Indian musicianship that added immeasurably to the Beatles albums but were hardly integral.
Perhaps I’ve just developed an aesthetic distaste for George over the years. Of course I’m a fan – I love the guy, I love all things Beatles. But by the 80s and 90s his public persona had become bitter and cranky, tinged with cold wry humor. Watch his interviews in the Anthology series – he comes off as a pampered rock star peering down his nose toward nirvana. He can’t ever seem to remember the facts because of course that’s not important is it? There’s footage of a brief jam session with Paul and Ringo in which he does nothing to mask his discomfort – “Let’s just make it a quick one,” he mutters before a half-hearted take through an oldie. That’s right, act grumpy and impatient during the only filmed reunion with the other surviving Beatles. Real maya of you George.
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The Beatles invented the rock music business. The other progenitors were just minor players – Chuck Berry and Little Richard served as inspiration while Elvis just danced for the rubes. But the Beatles created the model we still see today: new albums and singles, written and performed by the artists, with unique concepts and artwork. And to paraphrase Patrice O’Neal, ‘the innovators always end up getting screwed.’ Child actors, software developers, health food stores – there are graveyards full of early players run over by “the business” before some level of protective measures were put in place.
Manager Brian Epstein came from the lineage of early rock music managers as figureheads, fey impresarios with names like Andrew Loog Oldham and Simon Napier-Bell. Bit players in an Austin Powers club scene. Epstein may have been an early champion and trusted confidante but he was not equipped to navigate through the lawless world of the music business. Live gates were skimmed, merchandise bootlegged, deals cut for pennies per album. Beatlemania as a cultural wave was unstoppable, uncontrollable, and in that sense perhaps Epstein can be forgiven as per the Patrice rule of innovation. But even by the mid 60s when the opportunity arose to renegotiate, he allowed the financial state of the band to continue to erode just as other rock groups were getting hip to the business side. The formation of Apple Records only added to the confusion – as bad as Epstein may have been, the boys were even worse. All of this came to a head in the late 60s. Maybe they weren’t exactly going broke, but compared the revenue they’d generated and the business they’d essentially created, they were in crisis.
We can reasonably divide the musical leadership of the Beatles in half, with John propelling the first years and Paul shepherding them through the second half. Listen to A Hard Day’s Night – this is John Lennon’s album, with Paul adding some key ballads; Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour are Paul’s concepts with John supplying signature classic songs. There’s no point in comparing them – Lennon and McCartney were equal in genius, perfectly complimenting one another. We might say the sum was greater than the parts, but mere mathematics can’t describe the greatness of the Beatles. Just dig it.
So in January 1969 Paul McCartney summoned the group to Twickenham Studios for the next big concept – the Beatles getting back to their roots with some oldies, new tunes, and a return to the stage. A fine idea in theory. But the financial crises were looming while personal issues were becoming more divisive. John was going through a tough winter, after a drug bust, Yoko’s miscarriage, and deepening drug addiction. Everybody had a hard year indeed. He was simply not engaged in the sessions, although he still produced some fine work: “Dig A Pony” is an absurd transanthem before its time (“You can celebrate anything you are”) while “Don’t Let Me Down” is a desperate heartfelt love song, one of the great underappreciated Beatle tunes. But musically this was an erratic time for John Lennon. Had he gotten his way during the White Album sessions we would have been graced with “What’s The New Mary Jane?” as a Beatles single, which would have not only been their worst by a far margin but one of the worst songs released by any major rock band. And his avant garde work, aside from maybe “Revolution #9,” is not all that compelling.
The real problem with the Get Back sessions is that the band just didn’t sound very good. Music is a great equalizing force and had perhaps the Beatles come together in perfect synergy then business and personal matters would have been forgotten. But there are hours and hours of these sessions available and most of it is just downright bad. They try to run through oldies that sound ragged and usually break down halfway, unable even to remember the chords for their own songs. The comparison to Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes is striking – that collection is a truly special set of recordings that captures a unique, charming, soulful sound of musicians acting as one. The Beatles just sound clumsy, like a bad cover band practicing for a gig at a VFW.
The Beatles were not The Band. This is what so frustrated George Harrison during this period. They had long since abandoned the communal jam approach that might have existed in their early days for more refined artistic vision and studio mastery. George’s infamous row with Paul in the Let It Be film refers to an earlier dispute over the recording of “Hey Jude” in which George wanted to add more guitar licks during the verses. He was overruled, quite rightly, by McCartney. And consider that Paul could have probably played all the instruments better by himself, even as he worked to keep the Beatles productive and relevant as a unit. (There’s actually a mistake in “Hey Jude” where someone yells “wrong chord!” deep in the mix.) There was a certain alchemy to Beatles recordings that finally seemed to turn sour at Twickenham. Even if the White Album sounds at times like an off the cuff, half formed masterpiece of inspiration, the studio records and outtakes show how much work and technique were involved. Regardless, everything the Beatles had attempted in the past had worked, no matter how adventurous or seemingly ill-advised. The Get Back project was shaping up to be their first failure, and a public one at that.
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Still those sessions are just a few weeks out of a tumultuous year. The Beatles simply collapsed in 1969 – personally and financially. Apple Records was mismanaged and losing money they didn’t have. The poor business deals of the early years had amounted to poorly fractured empire, with each separate element more twisted and unfairly stacked against them than the next. McCartney was pushing for his brother-in-law John Eastman to take the management reins while Lennon wanted Allen Klein, the tough music business veteran. The others sided with Klein, as the Eastman relationship represented a conflict and there had already developed a certain enmity toward Paul. So began a great legal battle with a lot of harsh words and funny papers.
Allen Klein gets an unfair reputation in Beatles legend. He was a shark but the sort that they desperately needed. He immediately took over Apple, attempting to turn a bohemian hippie operation into something resembling a proper business. He also began to reassess all business matters in preparation of a counter assault against the corporations and independent gangsters who’d gotten rich from Beatlemania. The Beatles owned very little of their own work, and Klein’s plan involved targeting available shares and setting aside funds to regain some semblance of control. Still this sound plan was not entirely good news for the Eastmans, who distrusted Klein and were still angling for control. This amounted to a dysfunctional business relationship, exemplified by a disastrous letter sent by the Eastmans to the Epstein estate warning them of a coming audit. This enraged Brian’s brother Clive, who ordered that his shares be sold off immediately. Bad news for all, except perhaps Klein who used that incident for leverage.
Klein certainly caused his share of acrimony within the group, and his relationship with Lennon eventually soured so that he became the subject of a great diss song (“Steel And Glass”). But consider that we may not have gotten the Abbey Road, Let It Be, and red and blue greatest hits albums without him. As he was negotiating for a new royalty rate, the band needed to provide some quality product and so recorded Abbey Road in the summer of 69. It will be rightly remembered as a grand final statement. It’s a technically flawless album with an air of summation about it, particularly on side two wherein money squabbles give way to traded guitar solos and a final haiku on universal love. But the financial incentive was significant. Similarly Phil Spector was brought in to polish up the Get Back sessions into a proper product. This became another divisive decision, particularly for Paul who abhorred the string arrangement on “The Long And Winding Road.” But all things considered, Spector did a fine job with the material – out of all the bootlegs, compilations, and reissues of the Get Back material, I find the actual Let It Be album to be the best by far. The strings are sappy on “The Long And Winding Road” but I’ve never cared for that song anyway – it probably should have been given away to a lesser pop singer to build a career upon. The greatest hits albums are not my area of expertise – speaking of abhorring something, I believe owning anything other than the full Beatles catalog to be blasphemous. But they sold, and brought some stability and awareness for the Beatles empire in the 70s.
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Let us note that both Abbey Road and Let It Be strictly adhere to the formula of one George Harrison song per side. It’s something of a miracle that the boys were able to produce Abbey Road amid all the turmoil, but perhaps this is a key. We don’t have outtakes of other George songs like the Get Back sessions – we have Paul in control in the studio with John adding some key tracks, George getting his two. This is the formula that worked for the Beatles during the second half of their run. Consider also that George actually quit during the Get Back sessions and the band didn’t skip a beat. John immediately suggested calling Eric Clapton. In the end, George’s great batch of songs around that time didn’t mean as much as the partnership of John and Paul. My favorite Beatles song of that whole period is “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” – the two of them in studio, with goofy harmonies and John’s domestic hippie lyrics (“last night the wife said ‘oh boy when you’re dead, you don’t take nothing with you but your soul’ – think!”)
Can we fairly blame George Harrison for hitting upon the hottest period of his writing just as the group was collapsing? No. But it’s really no different than blaming Yoko Ono, Allen Klein, or the Maharishi. The best scenario would have been for him to release a solo album and let the band move on, but in the next few years they drifted too far apart. John and Paul were trading diss songs (“Too Many People” to “How Do You Sleep?” to “Dear Friend”). And after his solo debut, George’s career began a slow descent. His follow up Living In The Material World is admirable with some strong material but an absolute chore to listen through. After that, there are diminishing returns, including a poorly received solo tour and accompanying album which he decided to record when his voice was hoarse. He eventually stepped away from the music business before a brief comeback in the late 80s with Jeff Lynne’s snare heavy pop sound. But he never seemed comfortable in the role of a pop star, and he maintained a fear of the stage and touring.
Oddly enough, George’s final project came closest to recapturing the magic and wit of his Beatles work. Brainwashed is an excellent album, incorporating the blues, old timey pop, eastern mysticism, and some good old conspiracy and cynicism. I’ve always thought the song “P2 Vatican Blues” would have made a fine modern Beatles song – catchy, irreverent, charmingly subversive, with room for a John Lennon slide guitar solo. Maybe then we can’t really blame George for seeming a bit dour in interviews about the Beatles – the whole business has been cast with the shadow of John’s death. It’s just too sad, too tragic to express. I suspect the boys would have gotten back together at some point in the 80s. Regardless, the world would be a better place right now if John Lennon had gotten to live just a little bit longer.