Streamed live though the aegis of 92nd Street Y.
Before host Louis Rosen launches into the last of this illuminating series, we listen to excerpts from George Harrison’s “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” Both are on Abbey Road, the last album The Beatles recorded late spring 1969 in an effort to make up for previous sessions about which none were happy. (Those were later produced by Phil Spector and released as Let It Be. A documentary directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg exists.) At this point, the group was functioning as individuals.
“George suffered the little brother syndrome. He was three years younger than both John and Ringo, only 14 when Paul convinced John to let him become a band member. (Ringo was preceded by Pete Best.)” When he started writing songs, it was a fight to get something included on what were, in essence, Paul and John albums. By ‘68/’69, he’d musically matured but was given the same allotment.
Tonight’s subject, Harrison’s solo All Things Must Pass, is filled with material already written when he struck out as a solo performer. “You could say it was a coming out. The two songs we just heard were massive hits.”
Once “The Third Beatle,” George entered the studio with freedom to share personal philosophy and distinctive impactive sounds. His album could easily be called “confessional” (as was Lennon’s first solo effort), a term oddly thought to be derogatory when applied to the likes of Joni Mitchell.
“Having seriously studied sitar with Ravi Shankar, George realized he’d never be an expert, but brought the influence back to his guitar playing. Indian music intermittently emerged on Beatles albums starting with Revolver. He gravitated to Hinduism and transcendental meditation, Rosen says.” Friend Bob Dylan traded new chords for collaboration on several songs. “They met on a certain level of sincerity…George wasn’t all that confident…” noted David Bromberg, then playing with Dylan.
Asked to produce, Spector lasted half the album before spinning out on alcohol and drugs. It’s easy to tell the densely arranged songs under his aegis and those, to my mind, more successful ones over which George had control. “Phil Spector is known for a wall of sound,” Rosen comments. “Apple was funded by EMI whose recordings were distributed in America by Capitol. That company was not happy George was taking so much time. There’s a sense of boldness here.” In both material and behavior, one might add. We begin to listen.
“‘My Sweet Lord’ was the first #1 hit by a solo Beatle, all the more unusual as its pop groove and gospel inflection directly address God. In fact, he moves from praising God with Hallelujah to the entire Vedic prayer which in essence tells us it’s all one. Techniques developed playing bottleneck guitar (slide) allowed him to produce sounds similar to those of Indian instruments he loved.”
Harrison was sued for the song’s resemblance to The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” by Ronnie Mack. The court found he’d “subconsciously plagiarized” the tune. After lengthy appeals, the writer paid $587,000, less than an initial verdict, when former manager Allen Klein purchased Bright Tunes Music and negotiated the sale of the song to him.
“Wah-Wah,” exemplifying Spector’ s wall of sound, was written in response to the awful Let It Be sessions:” “…You made me such a big star/Being there at the right time/Cheaper than a dime…” “We get it,” Rosen says shutting down the tune.
“Some songs are the heart and soul of the album. Like ‘My Sweet Lord,’ ‘Isn’t It a Pity?’ explores the nature of human struggle in relationships.” Instrumentation is beautiful. The guitar solo continues past musical narrative. Strings and brass are almost tactile. When Harrison extends a song with repetition, it often becomes Dervish-like hypnotic.
“What is Life?” arrives a foot- tappin’-head bobbin’ love song. One attendee succinctly asks, “Patti (his wife, Patti Boyd) or God?” Rosen thinks it speaks to the Almighty. We then hear a stripped down version of “Beware of Darkness” which sounds like sinewy, nontraditional blues. “He has this interesting mix about him of suspicion and spiritual openness,” the host comments. Lighthearted “Apple Scruffs” was a confection written for the self-named group of Harrison fans who hung outside the recording studio. Rosen’s grin while listening is infectious.
“This next, ‘Awaiting On You All,’ is spiritual with a groovy gospel stomp. Some labels wouldn’t print a verse or two of the lyric.” There’s “You don’t need no Church house/And you don’t need no Temple/You don’t need no rosary beads/Or them books to read…” However, the more obvious omission would be: “And while the Pope owns 51% of General Motors/And the stock exchange is the only/thing he’s qualified to quote us…”
Title song “All Things Must Pass” employs a sparse guitar arrangement that speaks of country roots. “George was friends with Delaney Bramlett (Delaney & Bonnie) who taught him how to manipulate the slide,” Rosen tells us. “We have to remember that in 1970, it wasn’t ordinary for a pop star to be chanting the names of the Lord or speak of reincarnation.” The host half-quips that Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When?” may have been the first song about rebirth.
“With 1971’s The Concert for Bangladesh, George starts the trend for rock musicians to devote themselves to a charity. By the mid eighties, he’d have many more hits, by their end, he turned away from rock and essentially retired. I want to play you one more.” “Any Road” is from Brainstorm, the album posthumously released by Harrison’s son. It’s a catchy country/ western song with a great hook: Ah yeah you pay your fare/And if you don’t know where you’re going/Any road will take you there.”
We watch the musician’s last “live” performance on television during which he sings “Any Road” stumbling a bit as he tries to remember it. Amen.
All unattributed quotes are Louis Rosen.
Peter Jackson’s documentary The Beatles: Get Back is scheduled for release September 2020 by the Disney company, ostensibly in theaters. “Culled from 55 hours of footage shot in early 1969, as the Beatles were recording what would become Let It Be, the film includes never-before-seen footage and audio from those sessions, including behind-the-scenes clips from the band’s legendary 1969 rooftop concert in London…It also aims to elaborate on the original Let It Be movie.”
LOUIS ROSEN COMING UP:
STEVIE WONDER is 70!!: INNERVISIONS
Monday, July 13, 2020, 7:15 – 9 https://www.92y.org/class/stevie-wonder-is-70
GERSHWIN – AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
Thursday, July 16, 2020, 12:30 – 2:15 https://www.92y.org/class/george-gershwin
BLUE: JONI MITCHELL AND ARTISTIC BREAKTHROUGH
Thursday, July 16, 2020, 7:15 – 9 https://www.92y.org/class/joni-mitchell
STEPHEN SONDHEIM: MUSICAL THEATER MEETS CLASSICAL FORM
Thursday, July 23, 2020, 12:30 – 2:15 https://www.92y.org/class/stephen-sondheim
JOHN COLTRANE: ON THE RISE
Thursday, July 23, 2020, 7:15 – 9 https://www.92y.org/class/john-coltrane