George' s masterwork, for most of us, is the triple-album All Things Must Pass. This account of its making was written for a MOJO special in 2004.
'By the time of his passing in 2001, the totality of Harrison's achievements was more widely recognised. This sprawling, spirited collection is the finest way to remember its maker.'
Its title announces the impermanence of all things - of life, love and mop-topped pop bands. So it's a little ironic that All Things Must Pass will probably stand as George Harrison's most enduring monument. Within its spacious acres are several of the most beautiful songs he would ever compose. His first album since leaving The Beatles, it offered dramatic proof of the Quiet One's creative liberation. In fact, for a few, heady months, it actually seemed as if George Harrison might become the most successful ex-Beatle of them all.
Nobody in November, 1970, could have mistaken the title's significance: the group had formally split six months before and this was Harrison's handful of earth upon the Beatle coffin. As if to cement the association of ideas, the wry cover picture has George in solitary splendour, surrounded by a quartet of gnomes. But there are signs on the record that George already realised there was actually no such thing as 'an ex-Beatle'. However much it pained him, he was doomed to remain a Fab for the rest of his days.
The title track was not new: George had tried to interest The Beatles in it almost two years earlier. But as the album took shape, the lyrics to All Things Must Pass would accrue new layers of relevance. Recording was paused for a while when his mother died; then he learned that his wife Pattie was falling for his best friend Eric Clapton. But even those events were secondary to the song's original, spiritual theme about the essential unimportance of material existence.
Fortuitously this triple long-player arrived in British shops in time for the Christmas market - back in 1970 its five pound price tag put All Things Must Pass firmly in the luxury bracket. In the new year it was boosted by its showcase single, My Sweet Lord, whose Number 1 showing outranked anything achieved to date by Lennon or McCartney.
A beguiling blend of black American gospel and Eastern mantra, this song was George's heartfelt call upon the Lord to become manifest in his life. Lyrically it was a bold step to take, but My Sweet Lord's hypnotic chug would conquer all. Like a few other tracks on All Things Must Pass, it also introduced the swooping slide guitar that became Harrison's most distinctive style. (A rockabilly picker by background, George lacked the improvising fluency that had made guitar-heroes of his blues-based peers. But in the slide guitar he found the ideal vehicle for his melodic gift and, perhaps, an echo of his beloved sitar.)
Though he had made two instrumental albums while he was in The Beatles, All Things Must Pass was George's first collection of songs. Several had been written during his spell in the group, where his contributions were routinely sidelined by the senior partners John and Paul. Not for nothing would Harrison come to dub himself the Dark Horse, for the album was a revelation of hidden talents. By appointing Phil Spector his producer, he underlined his estrangement from McCartney, who had famously opposed the maverick American maestro's involvement in Let It Be. And by rehearsing his solo emergence with stars such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, George asserted his new status as an independent player in the global rock elite.
George was new to leadership at this point, but among the gangs assembling in the London studios were many familiar faces. Ringo Starr and Beatle confederates Klaus Voormann and Billy Preston were key players; so were the much-touted Apple signings Badfinger. Prestigious guests included Gary Brooker and Dave Mason (plus, on congas, a then-unknown Phil Collins). The sound was elegantly bulked out by Eric Clapton and the musicians he and George had met on the Delaney & Bonnie tour - a group who would coalesce in the course of these sessions to become Derek & The Dominos. In line with Spector's modus operandi, the record's expansive sound was obtained by using musicians in massed ranks. At certain points - Wah Wah and Let It Down being examples - the material is probably too slight to carry the colossal weight of Spector's production. Mostly, though, the effect was joyous, as if the songs were bursting with the exuberance of George's first flush of freedom.
From his friendship with Dylan came a charming co-write called I'd Have You Any Time, and the gift of Bob's new composition If Not For You. George's own song, Behind That Locked Door, was itself in the country vein of Nashville Skyline. Among the album's masterworks, Beware Of Darkness was characteristically spiritual, while the Hey Jude coda of Isn't It A Pity was evidence of the dead man's grip of Beatle history on George's imagination. So was the affectionate nod to Fab fans in Apple Scuffs, whilst the inspiration for Wah Wah was a latterday Beatle row. Another number, The Art Of Dying, dated back to 1966.
Happily, Harrison lived long enough to oversee the 30th anniversary CD edition of All Things Must Pass. He added some alternative versions and an unheard track, though this was arguably an album in need of paring down, not filling out: the second version of Isn't It A Pity and the third LP of superstar jam sessions always did seem superfluous. But in this he betrayed the same failing as the solo Lennon and McCartney, neither of whom were the greatest editors of their own material.
Despite the instant success of All Things Must Pass, its reputation suffered in later years. Within three months of its release, My Sweet Lord was legally ruled to be in 'unconscious plagiarism' of The Chiffons' 1963 hit He's So Fine. It was a humiliating setback for the fledgling superstar attempting to emerge from John and Paul's shadow. The patchy quality of George's later albums, and their general lack of outstanding singles, led in Britain at least to a state of benign neglect. By the time of his own passing in 2001, however, the totality of Harrison's achievements was more widely recognised. And this sprawling, spirited collection is the finest way to remember its maker.
See a complete index of Paul Du Noyer's Beatle articles here.
Buy the CD at Amazon.co.uk
Buy the CD at Amazon.com