Beatle George – the influence of a leg end

I grew up in the Beatle Era. The Beatles invaded America when I was four, five years old. One of my earliest memories is of, standing on the lawn of the family home at 6728 Mineral Drive, in what is now San Carlos, California and hearing the sparkling guitars and soaring vocal harmonies of a new Beatles track called “Nowhere Man”. I’ve never been able to forget that moment, because from then on, the Beatles were “my band”.

I wanted to be George Harrison; I wanted a guitar for my ninth birthday, and, I got one. But I didn’t end up learning to play one properly until a bit later, when I was 12, 13 years old, and there were all these amazing new groups and albums like “Led Zeppelin II” or “No Time” by “The Guess Who”, so much amazing music to explore…

But I never ever got over my initial love for the music of the Beatles,and it really was, for me, the sound of the guitars that reeled me in, that caught my ears and my attention…in particular, the sound of George Harrison, who played a really magical role that was called “lead guitar”. The guy who had to be serious, had to play the most difficult parts live.  For several years, I only had albums by The Beatles…I mean, you don’t really need anything else, do you?
I wanted to be that guy, I really did want to be George – and later on, as George grew as a songwriter, turning out amazing tunes like his trio of songs from the “revolver” album:

Taxman

Love You To

I Want To Tell You

…surely, three of the most amazing “pop songs” ever written or recorded, sheer Harrison genius – nobody saw it coming, we all figured, Lennon and McCartney, those are the two guys to watch in this band, those are the writers….well, yes, but really, all four of the Beatles were the writers, and even Ringo wrote some great tunes…but for me, it’s always been all about George, those odd B-sides like the astonishing “Old Brown Shoe” or the seriously beautiful “The Inner Light”…where do songs that unique, that incredible, COME from?

The imagination of one man, Beatle George. The mind that brought us the wit of “Piggies” and the warning of “Savoy Truffle” but then there was his lead guitar playing too, not just on his own songs, but on many of those Lennon andMcCartney songs, too. A new kind of lead guitar, razor sharp fuzz tones, detuned guitars (think of the lead solo in “Fixing A Hole” from Sgt. Pepper) when you heard it, you knew it was George. A simply brilliant guitar tone, and a beautiful, concise style.

As the years progressed, George got into playing slide guitar, and very very quickly, developed a trademark slide guitar “tone” (think of the slide guitars on John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” from the “Imagine” album) some of George’s finest slide work…you should hear the out takes from that session, too, on the Lennon box set…amazing slide guitar. But the special tone George got for his slide parts, which really only reached full maturity by the time of his second solo studio album, “Living In The Material World”, which, by the way, is an amazing collection of truly beautiful songs…you owe it to yourself to hear this record if you haven’t done so, so far…its quietly brilliant.

George was always economical with his guitar playing, he never over played, and it was that economy, which at first, was an enforced economy, it was Beatle-driven, here’s your eight bars George, go for it – so George learned to play well in a very small piece of allotted “solo” time. As time progressed, George did play some nice, longer solos, but that economy was always present, he always reigned himself in and never got boring or predictable.

You never knew what you were going to get with George, and his own songs were a mystery even to the other Beatles, who would bemusedly play on, say, 102 takes of a song like “Not Guilty” without complaint, as George continued the search for that elusive ‘perfect take’, and if it took 102 takes then that’s what it takes.

In some cases, no Beatles version was considered “good enough”, so we simply waited, and eventually we did get to hear the properly recorded version of the song “All Things Must Pass” – on a George Harrison record, not on a Beatles album. The same held true for “Not Guilty” where we had to wait even longer for George’s “perfected” version – again, on a George Harrison album, not on a Beatles album.
If you happened to own or know where to borrow the right Beatle bootlegs, then you might have at least heard the Beatles’ versions of “All Things Must Pass” and “Not Guilty” but most people had to wait until George put out the definitive editions of those songs.

 

I never minded waiting, although I do remember being very impatient to get George’s first solo album, the three LP “All Things Must Pass” and I first heard it in Uganda, in the home of some Peace Corp workers who had the brand new pre-recorded cassette version of the album, so that was very exciting, and then I got to hear it in Amsterdam, too, in a massive record store, complete with 60s erotic posters (“wow” was all I could say) – where I had to motion to the bored Dutch girl to turn the record over again, please…five times, because I didn’t know a single word of Dutch.

I finally purchased my own copy, in the Netherlands, and took it back to the USA with me, where I played it endlessly. The only record that excited me more than ATMP was the forthcoming “Concert For Bangladesh” which was another one I just couldn’t wait for, the idea was fantastic, half the Beatles plus Clapton and even the reclusive Bob Dylan…here were another six sides of amazing music, but amazingly, over time, it is Side One that stands the test of time the best, with Ravi Shankar on sitar, and the amazing Ali Akbar Khan on sarod, Alla Rakah on tabla…their piece of Bangladeshi folk music, “Bangla Dhun” just absolutely blows me away. These performers are at the top of their skill level, and are playing with speed, accuracy, and sheer musical joy….its amazing to see it in the film version, it truly is the best part of the concert!

That performance opened up my fourteen year old eyes to the sheer beauty of Indian melody and music, and I followed the careers of Shankar and Khan until the present day. Each the master of their instrument, I had George Harrison to thank for bringing that music into my life. And years later, that led me to a house concert at Ravi Shankar’s house in Encinitas, California, where I sat on the floor and listened to Ravi’s daughter play with the remarkable Bikram Ghosh on tabla…a remarkable “house concert” that I will never forget.

I was lucky enough too, to see Ravi and Anoushka performing live in more standard music venues, too and their music has always blessed my ears with its beauty.

So the influence of George Harrison changed me as a person, so much, that I went from being a fan of pop and rock, to being one who also loves the sarod, and loves listening to the master of the sarod, Ali Akbar Khan, play the sarod. Sure, it started on TV, watching the famous Ed Sullivan show where the Beatles performed, and seeing how serious George was, playing his lead guitar lines so carefully and so perfectly, and taking his concise eight bar solo so carefully, too…

Then it was the movie “A Hard Day’s Night” watching George playing his intensely cool guitar parts on film, trying to analyse what he was playing, on something like “You’re Going To Lose That Girl” trying to understand what he was doing with his guitar parts and then, that mad solo…amazing stuff. All the while, singing his harmony vocal parts as if they were easy, as if the guitar part was easy, he made it look easy!

And then there was that tender rendition of “And I Love Her” the first great Beatle love song, and that was my first exposure to nylon string classical guitar, and George worked it out and played the lead parts beautifully in that tune…really simple, yes, but really effective and quite beautiful when you are a young George-guitarist-wannabe like I was…I thought that performance was incredible, and really beautiful…and a lot of that is down to how George handles the nylon guitar part.

That inspired me directly, seeing George play on TV and in films, and hearing him on record, too, on vinyl, was a true inspiration for a budding teenage guitarist such as myself. But later,by presenting the music of Ravi Shankar and friends to the Western world, that opened me up to an entire new universe of music. Thousands of years old oral traditions, of the sitar and the ragas, or rags, that Shankar learned from his teacher, that stretched.back in time, an amazing musical heritage and proud tradition…brought to me by Beatle George.

He really was The Quiet Renaissance Man of the Beatles, later, he brought an entire Indian orchestra into the studio to record “Within You Without You” in 1967…and in 1974, at the Los Angeles Forum, I saw a different Indian orchestra perform, led by Ravi Shankar, the opening act for the first of just two solo tours undertaken by George, live in 1974, playing brilliantly but with a hoarse voice…and again, in less stressful times, 1991 in Japan with his old friend Eric Clapton.

I feel so privileged that I got to see George play, and his guitar playing was awesome, including some of that amazing slide (in the first song, no less) and it was a night I’ve never forgotten. In fact, over time, I managed to see three of the four Beatles perform live…so I am very fortunate indeed. Only Lennon eluded me, but three out of four is not bad at all. At that 1974 Forum gig, George even played his specially modified version of Lennon’s “In My Life” and that was really cool.

George Harrison, the guitarist, was a huge inspiration to me as a kid, and I absolutely took up the guitar because of him, and the rest of the Beatles too. When I was a kid growing up, the Beatles were our heroes, and they raised the bar so high, that soon they became the benchmark to judge new groups by: “they’re OK, but they are not as good as the Beatles” – I don’t know how many times I said that about groups, or if a group was good, you’d say they were “almost as good as the Beatles”…it was the benchmark by which all other groups were measured, for years after the Beatles themselves broke up…we still judged new bends against their music….

Sure, in time, as I grew older, there came guitarists with more technical skill than George, but most of those players, probably looked up to the Beatles in the same way I did. OK, George was no Steve Howe or Robert Fripp, but, George did write “Something” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Taxman” and “If I Needed Someone” and “The Inner Light” and “My Sweet Lord” and “Within You Without You” and “Here Comes The Sun” and…

I could go on, but you get it, I’m sure. George didn’t need to play like the proggers, because the proggers built their music on the back of the Beatles and atop the pop music from the end of the 60s, and George’s guitar playing was what it needed to be to realise those songs.

And that includes the whole of “All Things Must Pass” including the remarkable “Apple Jam” where we do get a hint of George’s guitar prowess, holding his own even against Clapton, and sounding amazing across the entire Beatles catalogue, from the very beginning, and on through his 1970 masterpiece, “All Things Must Pass” as well and also on  “Living In The Material World” – and occasionally on his later records.

Some of his best guitar work can be found on his 1971 solo album, “Living In The Material World” – especially “that slide” sound; but it cropped up whenever it was needed…on Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”, on the 74 and 91 tours…not to mention his standard soloing, on “Apple Jam”, on “Something”, where he famously asked to record the solo along with the live strings overdub, to get a more “live” feel for the solo – and of course, that was the take – the keeper. And what a beauty it is, too.

There are so many specific examples of great Harrison guitars, that I could just keep listing them, but instead, you should just listen…and you will hear them. I certainly did.

What I would give to be able to write a song like “The inner Life”. Or “Something”.  Or maybe one that is half as good :-).

Yes, I’d settle for that, thanks.

We miss you, George.

 

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