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Audio Rewind: 15 Years Without George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle

Audio Rewind: 15 Years Without George Harrison, the Quiet Beatle

Ask a random person on the street to list The Beatles and you’ll likely hear George Harrison named third, right after some combination of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Lennon and McCartney were the principal songwriters and the most charismatic personalities in the band, after all, but to the Beatles enduring, near-sacred appeal, Harrison’s presence was more integral than either of them.

Beginning in 1965, every Beatles album had at least two of Harrison’s compositions—often poignant meditations that embodied the man himself—and he guided the band as their spiritual leader, captaining them to deeper realms. Through explorations of spirituality and eastern philosophy, Harrison shepherded the Fab Four through an unprecedented musical transition: from British pop to a sound impressed by the global musics and the quiet profundities that Harrison effused. He died 15 years ago this week, but the silvery spirit of George Harrison still lingers, and hopefully it will always.

In 1958, when Harrison was 15, he auditioned to play guitar for a Liverpool skiffle group called The Quarrymen. He’d met a guy named Paul McCartney on the school bus and they bonded over their shared love for music. Fast forward a couple years and the childhood friends, now joined by Lennon and Ringo Starr, were in the midst of Beatlemania. Harrison always seemed peripheral to the sensation, though. A quiet—albeit potent—force on the fringe.

Gradually Harrison’s energy and character did bleed through. In 1965, his allure to the folk rock of The Byrds and Bob Dylan helped shift The Beatles’ sound. Rubber Soul, Harrison’s favorite Beatles record, is something of an arrival to that place. (For comparison, the pop-inflected album, Help!, preceded Rubber Soul by mere months.) One of the record’s seminal moments comes on “Norwegian Wood (The Bird Has Flown)” when Harrison plays sitar. The Byrds’ David Crosby had introduced Harrison to Indian instrumentation and it would become a definitive moment in both the Beatle’s life and in spiritual/psychedelic music at large. Harrison eventually studied with famed sitarist Ravi Shankar, associated himself with the Hare Krishna movement, and became increasingly involved with Hindu mythology and mysticism.

Amidst this deepening spirituality, Harrison’s tastes began to diverge from the rest of the band. Tangible evidence of that transition came in 1966, when he chose to include Eastern gurus and religious leaders on the iconic cover of Sgt. Pepper. Moreover, no other Beatle contributed to Harrison’s only song on the record, “Within You Without You.” The song is sitar-heavy and mystical, and it helped solidify both the band’s new psychedelic identity and Harrison’s status as a songwriter.

In 1969, tensions came to a head over the Lennon/McCartney songwriting domination. Harrison quit the band for 12 days in January that year, and praise the gods that he decided to return. His contributions to ’69’s Abbey Road are amongst his finest. The ebullient anthem “Here Comes the Sun.” And the inimitably moving “Something”—a track Frank Sinatra covered and called “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.”

After The Beatles did split for good, Harrison seemed to experience an immediate paroxysm of creative freedom, expounding on his luminous compositions in The Beatles’ final record. He released the excellent triple album, All Things Must Pass, in 1970, and it remains his finest solo record.

In 1971 he used music to flex his humanitarian side. Alongside Shankar, Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh, two benefit shows intended to raise both money and international awareness for refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Today the concert is regarded as an integral precursor to large-scale relief efforts like Live Aid, and it remains as essential to Harrison’s legacy as any of his musical touchstones.

It was fitting, then, that the world held a Concert for George after he died of cancer in 2001. On November 29, 2002, dozens of artists gathered at London’s Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the fallen Beatle. The Monty Python troupe was there. Tom Hanks performed “The Lumberjack Song” with The Fred Tomlinson Singers. Members of the Shankar family played sitar. And a battery of other prominent musicians showed up to play in Harrison’s honor, too. McCartney and Ringo, of course. And Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra)—both of whom played with Harrison, Dylan, and Roy Orbison in the short-lived supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys. From there the list goes on. The night’s music was directed by Lynne and Eric Clapton, who was a close friend of Harrison’s (he also married Harrison’s ex-wife, Pattie Boyd, who inspired both “Something” and Clapton’s indelible rock ballad, “Layla”).

Perhaps the most memorable moment of that night was Clapton’s stirring rendition of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a song for which Clapton played lead in the original White Album recording. It seems a fitting goodbye to a spiritual presence who felt so much through his music. And he’s inspired many of us to continue to weep through our guitars, gently but with salient tenor.

Image: David Hume Kennerly via Wikimedia Commons

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