George Harrison was “the quiet Beatle”. But it was Harrison who first made his mark after the Beatles disbanded by scoring a No. 1 hit single with “My Sweet Lord,” in 1970 (the success of the single was somewhat marred by a 1976 court ruling that found Harrison guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” of The Chiffons’ charming ditty “He’s So Fine”). Even if his self-deprecating and retiring personality made it hard for him to be heard above his charismatic bandmates, few will deny that Harrison – as a guitarist and as a songwriter – was an important voice for the Beatles.
Harrison was the one Beatle whose upbringing was cushioned by a traditional nuclear family – while his bandmates suffered broken homes and deaths in the family (both John Lennon and Paul McCartney lost their mums early on), Harrison was raised by a large, close-knit clan of modest means in the Wavertree section of Liverpool, not far from John and Paul’s homes. Childhood conferred upon George a sweet-natured disposition that only partially gave way to ire and indifference in his preteen years. Harrison first expressed his hostility to his “chundering” schoolmasters by dressing in outlandish outfits and sleeping in class, but by the age of thirteen, he had discovered a far better way to channel his anger: playing guitar. George took a liking to skiffle music (a genre of folk-derived music played on acoustic guitars, string basses, and washboards), an appreciation he shared with a cherub-faced chum from the Liverpool Institute named Paul McCartney. The two also found they shared an interest in American rock-and-roll music. Paul McCartney had the good fortune to join up with a local band named the Quarrymen that included another schoolmate, John Lennon, and Harrison joined the group under McCartney’s auspices the following year, in 1958. George was sufficiently inspired by the group’s success to drop out of the Liverpool Institute to pursue his rock-and-roll dream more earnestly, working as an electrician’s apprentice to pay his living expenses (he soon quit because he kept blowing things up). Considerably younger than the rest of the boys, George nevertheless overcame his insecurity and proved himself to be an adept and inventive guitarist. He continued to polish and inform his playing by listening to Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and eventually classical guitarist AndrTs Segovia, and in 1962, when the Quarrymen were re-baptized the Beatles, Harrison was mature enough in his style to act as lead guitarist.
On the set of the Beatles’ 1965 movie, Help!, Harrison picked up a peculiar-looking stringed instrument called the sitar for the first time – an “instrumental” introduction that heralded his eventual immersion in and conversion to Hindu philosophy and religion. Both his musical and metaphysical interest sufficiently piqued, Harrison accepted instruction on the sitar from famed Indian musician Ravi Shankar, and subsequently travelled to India to steep himself in Eastern philosophy. The trip and his association with Shankar and religious leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ignited a spiritual awakening in Harrison, and his ideas about life and his sense of his own humility would change forever. This period of enlightenment was also marked by the Beatles’ first experiments with acid; L.S.D. became yet another inspirational tool in their collective exploration of mysticism that erupted in their culturally catalytic album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
By the time Paul McCartney announced that he was leaving the band, in 1970, Harrison had been pursuing other adulterous artistic relationships for nigh on two years, the most notable achievement being his composition and arrangement of the Indian instrumentals for the unreleased film Wonderwall (the resulting soundtrack, Wonderwall Music, provided inspiration for the British band Oasis’s hit, “Wonderwall”). George had always been frustrated in the songwriting department by the prolific Lennon and McCartney (though Harrison did contribute such hits as “Something,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and “Here Comes the Sun,” among others), and the end of the Beatles sparked in him something of a musical rebirth. He moved into record production (he formed Dark Horse Records in 1974) and collaborated with other artists (notably Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton). Harrison teamed with Phil Spector to produce his first post-Beatles solo effort, the appropriately titled All Things Must Pass (1970). The album confirmed Harrison’s vast and theretofore unrealized talents as a lyricist, musician, composer, and producer.
Harrison’s subsequent solo albums, though popularly successful by virtue of his millions of fans, were not always as well-received critically. Undaunted by critical doubt, Harrison dabbled boldly in other projects, both behind the scenes and on center stage: he formed a film production company, HandMade Films, in 1978, producing such memorable films as Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Time Bandits; he appeared in a number of films, most notably in a cameo in Monty Python’s witty ribbing of Beatles mythology, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978); he produced and guest-starred as a guitarist on a slew of other artists’ albums; he penned his autobiography, I Me Mine; he teamed with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and the late Roy Orbison to create the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys. For all his hard work, Harrison was honored as the first recipient of Billboard’s Century Award, in 1992, the publication’s highest distinction for extraordinary creative achievement (he also boasts a total of six Grammy awards and an Oscar that he shares with the other Beatles). In 1996, Harrison collaborated with McCartney and Starr to create the sweeping retrospective (in the forms of a television documentary and three volumes of previously unavailable recordings), The Beatles Anthology.
George Harrison (Feb 25 1943 – Nov 29 2001)
HE DIDN’T like the title ‘the quiet Beatle’. George Harrison relished his privacy but he was every bit as individual and charismatic as his three world-famous pals. He simply loved the quiet life. His famous deadpan nasal tones, whether in conversation or on song, spoke volumes. They always will.
His parents Harold and Louise, his two brothers and sister were proud of the talented lead guitarist and youngest member of the Fab Four. George Harrison was, in his own right, a truly great song-writer who reluctantly stood in the shadows of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. While John and Paul dominated on all Beatle albums with their songs, George featured on only a couple of tracks on each album. His name is on only 23 Beatle songs, yet the magical history story of the greatest band the world will ever know could not have been complete without his considerable input. John, Paul, Ringo and George were four minds working as one.
When asked why he signed up The Beatles, producer George Martin told me it was down to one irreverent quip: “I asked them if there was anything they weren’t happy about. “It was George who looked up and said:’I don’t like your tie for a start’.” Ties were one of George’s pet hates he hilariously called them ‘dead grotty’ in the film A Hard Day’s Night. He also loathed courtroom battles. His compositions Not Guilty and Sue Me Sue You Blues summed up his anger and frustration at boardroom meetings with business men he regarded as ‘suits’. Yet he was tough enough to go to court represent The Beatles in 1998 to stop an early album from their Hamburg days from being re-issued. On the Revolver album George wrote Taxman – a bitter, cynical attack on the draconian Inland Revenue taxes heaped upon the band.
This working class lad had earned every penny. Born on February 25, 1943 at 12 Arnold Grove in Wavertree. Schoolboy George recalled: “I always new something was going to happen.” He worked as an apprentice in Blacklers department store and remained level-headed all his life. And yet anyone who met him warned immediately to his down-to-earth, boyish honesty and razor-sharp wit. Astrid Kirchherr, one of George’s closest friends from Hamburg, said: ” George always wanted to know how YOU were, how YOU were feeling.”
Paul Cooper, who plays Paul McCartney in the tribute band The Bootleg Beatles, met George at the Albert Hall and asked him what he thought of the performance. George looked him in the eyes, smiled and said: “It’s all a bit daft really. Why don’t you do your own songs?” He then added gently: “Remember, Paul, we are just water and molecules here on a visit.”
Philosophy was something he translated so well in his lyrics. Indian mysticism and meditation along with daily chanting became an integral part of George’s life. He also mastered the sitar which gave The Beatles even more musical texture in songs such as Norwegian Wood. George’s natural uncomplicated nature stayed with him till the end of his life. In the ’70s he even called himself Beatle George in interviews. He charmed the media with his Scouse humour.
When touring in America he was asked if he was going to get a haircut. The longest haired of the Moptops said without his cheeky crooked grin: ” I had one yesterday.” He was confident and street-wise right up until the Beatles split and yet he was then only 26. At their countless press conferences he made his own mark. George stressed that “Laughter is a great release.”
Fellow Liverpool Institute pupil Paul was the agreeable public relations expert; John the sneering but affable master of the curt one-liners, and Ringo had a lad-next-door approach. George, meanwhile, listened to each question until coming up with a gem of a spontaneous remark. He didn’t say much but when he did it was always worth listening to.
In The Anthology – their collective Beatle bible – and in his own autobiography I, Me, Mine George’s recollections were filled with colourful observations of growing up in Liverpool, of going to Hamburg, touring with The Beatles, recording, the high and lows of success and his solo life culminating in his idyllic world in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.
When he met up with Paul and Ringo for the Anthology book, TV series, video and single releases, George reflected on what being a Beatle meant to him: “In the big picture it doesn’t really matter if we never made a record or we never sang a song. “That isn’t important. At death you are going to be needing some spiritual guidance and some kind of inner knowledge that extends beyond the boundaries of the physical world. “On that basis I would say that it doesn’t matter if you are the king of a country, or you’re the sultan of Brunei or you’re a fabulous Beatle; it’s what’s inside that counts. Some of the best songs I know are the ones I haven’t written yet and it doesn’t matter if I don’t ever write them because it’s only small potatoes compared with the big picture.”
Then in his 50s, the big picture changed dramatically. George, however, will be remembered for many ground breaking achievements not just as a Beatle.
He was the first musician to organise a band-aid type show. His Concerts for war-torn Bangla Desh in 1971 were a critical success. Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton joined in raising $13m. A lot of money tragically went in taxes and George publicly criticised the dollar-pinching authorities.
He never forgot his home town and made unannounced visits on many occasions, and he was instrumental in the efforts to restore the Palm House at Sefton Park – one of his childhood haunts. He sent a substantial cheque on the strict understanding that there was to be no publicity.
George was also passionate about film. He helped Monty Python with the cash-strapped controversial Life of Brian. And his Handmade Company went on to produce box office hits The Long Good Friday and Time Bandits. He remained close friends with The Pythons especially star Eric Idle and even made a guest appearance on Eric’s Rutland Weekend TV series singing It’s A Pirate’s Life For Me after teasing the audience with a few introductory bars of My Sweet Lord.
He also made guest appearances in the TV spoof The Rutles playing a news reporter. George’s sense of humour was always evident on the Beatle albums and his own solo works.
On The White Album there was Savoy Truffle, warning his friend Eric Clapton about the dangers of having his teeth pulled due to over-indulgence on chocolates; and Piggies, about faceless bureaucrats. There was also his distinctive lead guitar solos.
He wrote the plaintive While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and the sublime Something on Abbey Road – a song that Frank Sinatra rated as one of the finest ever ballads and to this day a Shirley Bassey showstopper.
After the Beatles he released the triple album All Things Must pass which was re-issued 30 years on in 2001. It showed the vast array of material George had stored up while being a Beatle. It produced My Sweet Lord and What Is Life and a tribute to Beatle groupies on Apple Scruffs. Living in The Material World, the follow-up, continued his chart-tipping gift for lyrics and melody with Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) an anthem to match any of John or Paul’s. And, on the title track, he acknowledged The Beatles with the pun-filled title track “though we started out quite poor we got Richie on the tour.”
He formed his own Dark Horse label and enjoyed chart success by producing the band Splinter.
When John died, George penned the atmospheric All Those Years Ago with Paul and Ringo as his moving backing band.
A keen motor racing fan, gardener and a George Formby fan – he even attended Formby fan conventions -, George was content in his own world away from the madness of the Moptops. His wife Pattie left him for Eric Clapton. The very forgiving George even attended the wedding.
He found peace and happiness with his beautiful second wife Olivia Arias who nursed him through ill health in 1974.Their son Dhani now looks remarkably like a young George.
George was also happy recording as a member of the Travelling Wilburys group with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty. Although George’s humour was always evident he would want to be remembered for his own contribution to music.
When the 1987 album Cloud Nine was released he enjoyed success with Is This is Love, the nostalgic, When We Was Fab and I’ve Got My Mind Set On You.
George could make a song out of the most surreal of situations, such as Blue Jay Way where he sang about waiting for his a great friend ,Liverpool-born Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, to arrive at his house in a very foggy Los Angeles. And perfectionist George would readily help out his fellow Beatles on their solo albums. He did, according to John, do some of his best guitar work on the Imagine album and collaborated on the number one song Photograph with Ringo.
He also dabbled in politics by supporting the Natural Law Party enthusiastically. During his last few years he appeared in the Press constantly reassuring his fans not to worry. On his brilliant website www.allthingsmustpass.com, he presented a little figure who popped up on screen to say: “I Feel Fine”. Sadly, we knew George the survivor wasn’t fine at all.
The near fatal knife attack in 1999 at his home and the cancer that would never go away finally took its toll. The Harrison features looked drawn and haggard and yet … in the end … he always had that smile. There was something about that smile … George always kept his feet on the ground. His Liverpool upbringing helped one of the most famous and photographed people in the world come to terms with fame.
In the Beatles Anthology his closing words are the most prophetic. “The moral of the story is that if you accept the high points you’re going to have to go through the lows. “For The Beatles our lives were a very heightened version of that: of how to learn about love and hate, and up and down; and good and bad, and loss and gain. It was a hyper version of what everybody else was going through. “So basically it’s all good. Whatever happened is good as long as we’ve learnt something. It’s only bad if we didn’t learn: ‘Who am I? Where am I going to? Where have I come from?’.” George knew who he was. We, his fans, can only hope that he knew how much we loved him. Because he loved the fans “I’d like to think that the old Beatle fans have grown up and got married and they’ve all got kids and they’re all more responsible. “But they still have a space in their hearts for us …”
Like John, George preached about peace and a better world illustrated so well on the uplifting classic Here Comes the Sun. Today that sun is hidden behind clouds. The skies are black but his memory shines on and it will break through to stay with us forever. His humour , his philosophy and those beautifully crafted songs will lift our gloom and the grief that we all feel not only in Liverpool, his hometown, but across the universe where his incredible life touched millions. The ice will slowly melt as his fans are left to remember him and treasure the simple legacy of love that he has left behind not only through his music but his spirituality. Beatle George wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.