- 29 Nov 19
18 years ago today, George Harrison passed away after a battle with lung cancer, aged 58. To mark his anniversary, we're revisiting Jackie Hayden's tribute to the legendary Beatle, originally published in Hot Press in 2001.
As a member of The Beatles, George Harrison had the best of it as well as the worst of it. As long as he was content to bend his Carl Perkins riffs and his cute Scouse harmonies to the wishes of the more assertive Lennon and McCartney, everybody tried to be his baby. But when he wanted to be a real grown-up songwriter it was a different matter, and he struggled initially to force a token track or two onto Beatles albums. Finally he was vindicated when he supplied arguably the two stand-out tracks, ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’, to the career-ending Abbey Road.
But along the way his contribution to the Fab Four was considerable, despite the competition, his deft guitar work and vocal efforts an integral part of that indescribable Beatles sound that was so much more than the sum of its parts. On the infamous Decca demo tapes his mates trusted him with the lead vocals on no less than four of the tracks.
Harrison’s Beatles-era songwriting catalogue can also boast the Hollies hit ‘If I Needed Someone’ and tracks of the calibre of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Long Long Long’, I Need You’, ‘Don’t Bother Me’, ‘I Me Mine’ and sundry others of comparable vintage.
Frank Sinatra, no lover of either The Beatles or rock music, admitted that ‘Something’ was the greatest love song ever written.
While only a curmudgeon would gainsay the charm and splendour of such inventive Beatles classics as ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ Harrison risked ridicule with his exotic sounding eastern-influenced compositions like ‘The Inner Light’ and ‘Within You Without You’, tracks whose up-front Eastern mysticism had an enormous influence on countless contemporary bands.
But few would have argued that during their heyday George was either The Beatles’ best musician or best songwriter. On balance he wasn’t even that band’s chirpiest personality. But he eschewed Lennon’s acerbic, often cruel wit, was rarely as obviously twee as McCartney and did not share Ringo’s petulance or crankiness. Instead he was probably the Beatle you would have most tolerated living upstairs.
And when the divorce came he was the first Beatle to establish a seriously successful solo career, possibly never bettering his debut solo triple-album All Things Must Pass and sloughing off a string of hit singles from ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, ‘Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)’ to his post-Lennon tribute ‘When We Was Fab’ and ‘Got My Mind Set On You.’
But having proved his credentials with that stunning debut he seemed to lapse into a casual indifference about his music making, as if no longer needing the reassurance of repeated success. His assumption of a fake persona in the Traveling Wilburys perhaps neatly echoed his impossible desire for some kind of anonymity.
Instead he turned his mind to other activities and loftier matters, including film-making with his company HandMade Films and his growing interest in the Hindu religion and the music and culture of India which had first emerged as far back as the Rubber Soul album when the sitar used on ‘Norwegian Wood’ gave that track much of its other-world charm.
His efforts with the pioneering Concert For Bangladesh, with its all-star live jamboree and accompanying album, struck the template for such later events as Live Aid. While Lennon grabbed headlines with his fervent political activism and gimmicks for peace, Harrison was busy trying to feed the hungry.
And despite Lennon’s penchant for humour, it was George who befriended the Monty Python team and championed the hilarious Beatles-send up outfit The Ruttles featuring Eric Idle. Without Harrison putting his money where his funnybone was, and thereby rescuing what seemed like a doomed project, there would probably have been no The Life Of Brian, the classic piss-take on the Bible story. While Lennon had controversially argued that The Beatles were bigger than Christianity, George seemed to reckon the best approach was to treat it as a joke.
Despite McCartney’s greater musical versatility, it was George who could claim Eric Clapton as his guitar buddy. Despite Lennon’s commitment to introducing meaningful lyrics into pop and rock songs, George was the only Beatle to share songwriting credits with the maestro Bob Dylan. And whereas Lennon and McCartney’s early work was heavily influenced by the vocal style of Roy Orbison, it was George who actually got to play in a band with the Big O himself.
Over the years he generously supported the Hari Krishna movement, producing records and donating real money and the use of one of his houses, and aided and abetted Britain’s Natural Law party (perhaps further proof of his superior sense of humour?).
His death at such a comparatively early age is a sad loss to anyone with even the most casual understanding of what The Beatles did for us.
They say you should never meet your heroes in case your illusions and memories are shattered, but when I met George Harrison, who as a Beatle had definitely been one of my heroes, my respect and my memories all remained resolutely intact.
The occasion was a CBS Records conference in London in 1972, which I attended as Marketing Manager of the Irish office of the company.
George was in attendance because CBS were distributing the Concert For Bangladesh fund-raising triple-album for which he had been the driving force, persuading Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar and others to give their services. I was introduced to George and on learning I was from Ireland he mentioned that his ancestors were Irish and then went on to ask about our promotional plans for the album and asked if I thought it would sell well in Ireland.
I was struck by how relaxed and contented he seemed to be, and that memory has stayed with me over the years. Like millions of others I have George to thank as a member of The Beatles for giving us some of the most exhilarating and exuberant music I’ve ever heard, but also for his influence in opening our minds to the music of India, the magic of the sitar and the philosophies of the East, helping us to understand there were ways of dealing with life other than under the oppressive Christian religions we had been force-fed.
“And life flows on within you and without you.”