By Rodolfo Elías
George Harrison would be 80 today. And after 23 years without him we can still feel his presence fresh and strong, as the great composer and accomplished musician in his own right that he was. We also remember him for his soulfulness and special gift for melody, when we listen to songs like “Something”, “My Sweet Lord”, “Give me Love” and warm-hearted tunes like “Crackerbox Palace” and “Love Comes to Everyone”.
It’s impossible not to think about George every time we hear a slide guitar (with his peculiar way of playing slide which, peculiarly enough, wasn’t blues influenced) or the sitarish sounds of raga rock that were so recurring in the guitars of some of the most prominent bands of the sixties. Yet, he always kept a low profile. When George got inducted with the Beatles in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he opened his acceptance speech by saying: “I don’t have to say much, ’cause I’m the quiet Beatle.”
It was George Harrison who, as a 14 year-old lad, was able to leave a cocky young man by the name of John Lennon perplexed, after he heard him play Bill Justis’ “Raunchy” in its entirety. And he was also the one who, following up with that feat, eventually would come up with such solid guitar riffs and licks, as the lead guitar for the greatest rock band of all time. On the flip side, though, as the “quiet Beatle”, George would be the immensely talented artist whose talent was greatly overshadowed by John and Paul’s musical genius. A curse that somehow followed him even after the band’s split; the high price to pay for being surrounded by mastery. He still seemed genuinely grateful, yet sardonic, when he stated: “Well, I can just say that being a Beatle is certainly no hindrance on my career. And John, Paul and Ringo obviously deserve plenty of thanks,” upon accepting the Billboard Century award.
A curious thing is that after the mop heads disbanded and everyone started putting out their solo projects, it was George who produced the first number-one hit. That was “My Sweet Lord”, from the triple album All Things Must Pass; a masterpiece itself. But, even before, in what came to be the Beatles coda, Abbey Road, it is two of George’s songs that stand out as some of the brightest highlights of the album: “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”. Frank Sinatra hailed “Something” as one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, with the funny detail —even George laughed about it— that Ol’ Blue Eyes thoughtlessly attributed it —here we go, again— to Lennon and McCartney. We also have to remember the fact that it was George’s contributions that put albums like Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and the White Album at a completely different level, by providing them with an awesome aura of uniqueness and a touch of exoticism.
It is hard to pinpoint what made George’s music so soulful and moving, but it might have to do with his particular views on love and humankind. There is something about his work that even when he could get a bit preachy —but always insightful— at times, he was never condescending, because it always bore a special kind of human touch. Songs from his Beatles years, like “I Want to tell You”, “If I Needed Someone” and “The Inner Light”, or some of his compositions as a soloist, like the aforementioned “Give Me Love”, “All Things Must Pass” and “When We Was Fab”, are pieces that reveal the artist’s great knowledge of himself in relation to the universe.
There are two songs that I would recommend to anybody still doubting the inventiveness and versatility of the Beatles, both of them written by George: “Within You, Without You” and “Blue Jay Way.” He wrote the former around the time when he was getting immersed in Eastern philosophy as a way of living. And, although debate is still around as to who invented raga rock or who played it first, the truth is that his version of it had more purist overtones than “mainstream” raga rock. Which also added a mystique to the Beatles image as a pop band, for being bold enough to put a song with that kind of demeanor in a commercial album. Of the latter, all I will say is that the chorus and the orchestral arrangements give such an eerie quality to it that made not only for a very original piece, but the feelings produced by it epitomized the attitude and disposition of youth in the sixties, with its psychic causality: music and psychedelics. From Rubber Soul on, George added a distinctive tone to every album, with every contribution.
Another thing that has gone mostly unrecognized about George is his rocker facet and his qualities as a very distinctive and stylish vocalist. He was not only the one who played those mean rockabilly-influenced guitar riffs. But, with his voice (which contained that strong Liverpudlian accent), he was perfectly apt to tag along with such rock ‘n’ roll heroes as Carl Perkins, on songs like “Your True Love” —of which he delivered a badass live rendition at the BBC, in 1963— and “Glad all Over”, which he played as a heartfelt tribute at Carl Perkins’ funeral service. There’s also a live version of it with George alongside Perkins himself, where George delight us with an electrifying guitar solo.
We could say that George inherited the virility of rockabilly from Carl Perkins himself. Despite his rather-vulnerable voice, George can keep up with the toughness of any hardcore rock-and-roller on such roughneckies as “Honey Don’t” or “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”. And we can also hear it in songs of his own making like “Don’t Bother Me” or “Roll Over Beethoven”, which wasn’t a Perkins song, but that shows how the Beatles were able to capture audiences so early in their career for the energy and virility of their sound, when it came to playing that good old rock ‘n’ roll.
George Harrison’s legacy, although greatly overlooked and underrated, stands the test of time; in and outside of the Fab Four. But he was also a real team-player, which is probably what explains better why he was willing to stand behind John and Paul for so long. In the movie Get Back we witness the precious moment when Ringo brings “Octopus’s Garden” to the band, with George’s quick interest and eagerness to lend a hand in the development of the tune. Great part of his legacy are also his excellent collaborations with other artists, in songs that he co-wrote with the likes of Eric Clapton (“Badge”), Ronnie Wood (“Far East Man”) and Jeff Lynne (“Cheer Down” and “When We was Fab”). And Ringo’s “It Don’t Come Easy” and the gem “Photograph” —a great tune, with great arrangements—, which also became Ringo’s first number-one hit. And let’s not forget his collaborations with supergroup Travelling Wilburys, with songs like “Heading for the Light”, “End of the Line” and “Handle with Care”, all of which stuck out dearly in the Wilburys’ repertoire.
George Harrison was a consummated artist. But he was also a man known for his honesty and straightforwardness. With a few exceptions, people who knew him were very fond of him, of his sincerity and his sharp sense of humor that was very English; or, rather, very Liverpudlian. They also praised his compassionate views on humankind and his wisdom. Just watching an interview with him is quite a learning and moving experience; and the modulation of his voice so soothing that makes you feel like everything is going to be all right.
In closing my note, I want to add that with the Concert for Bangladesh, George was the first rock star to do a big-scale charity concert. And most notable was the fact that he did it with the purest of intentions; no greed nor intention of self-promotion, whatsoever. But, unfortunately, it turned out to be a nightmare for him, thanks to bureaucracy and the bunch of greedy impresarios and free-loaders that made themselves present as soon as they smelled the chance of an open game.
And while you’re in this world
The fuzz gonna come and claim you
But you mo better wise
When the buzz gonna come and take you away