Ten Essential George Harrison Songs5 min read
Everything written about George Harrison’s contribution to The Beatles has been notarised and analysed to death (super guitar play, spiritual searcher, sardonic and grumpy interviewee, underappreciated songwriting genius etc). But where John Lennon and Paul McCartney gave their very best to The Beatles (neither had the tenacity to continue writing at the level of brilliance they brought to the fab four), Harrison found himself in the position where he could prove himself as a songwriter in his own right. Releasing eight albums over the course of his career, Harrison wrote a collection of beautiful songs that certainly rivalled (often bettered) the best of the solo Lennon-McCartney material. Here are ten of his finest:
My Sweet Lord (All Things Must Pass, 1970): Perhaps the greatest song ever written about God, ‘My Sweet Lord’ gave Harrison the first no.1 hit any Beatle enjoyed in their solo careers. A shiny, shimery acoustic jewel (Harrison, Eric Clapton and members of Badfinger all give their hand at playing acoustics), vocally supported by “the George O’Hara-Smith Singers” (surprise, surprise, Harrison himself overdubbed) and a gentile guitar solo Noel Gallagher later pinched for ‘Supersonic’, this proved Harrison’s most famous and enduring work, somewhat tainted by a court case where Harrison was found to subconsciously borrow from The Chiffon’s ‘He’s So Fine’ ( this was in part instigated by Allen Klein, the Beatles erstwhile manager!). Nevertheless, as religious ballads go, nobody has bettered this song for sincerity or musical beauty.
What Is Life (All Things Must Pass, 1970): Beautifully produced by Phil Spector (perhaps the last single he produced with his Wall of Sound effect still at its zenith), this swaying, blaring pop song found itself nicely in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’ (1990) (Scorsese later directed a worthwhile documentary about Harrison, entitled ‘Living In The Material World’). A Motown fused classic, the song was a smash in the U.S., though bizarrely it was relegated to the flipside of ‘My Sweet Lord’ in the U.K! Amplified by Harrison’s arresting opening riff, this is the best song from Harrison’s debut.
Isn’t It A Pity Version One (All Things Must Pass, 1970): One of the songs The Beatles foolishly rejected, this was Harrison’s ‘Hey Jude’ pantheon, a plaintive look at life sung over a shimmering display of piano chords, orchestrated guitar lines and gorgeous gospel blaring, ‘Pity’ would be forever championed by Eric Clapton as one of Harrison’s best. Clapton himself played the song at ‘The Concert For George’ in 2002- there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!
Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)(Living In The Material World, 1973): This is Harrison’s best solo song and rivals ‘Something’ as the best song he ever wrote. Ably supported by Ringo Starr on drums, this is a lovely piece of pop delight, Harrison at his pinnacle as lyricist. There is a humility and vulnerability here from Harrison, a delicate slide guitar line (almost Hawain in its sound) made this Harrison’s second U.S. no.1.
This Guitar (Can’t Keep From Crying) (Extra Texture,1975): A sequel of sorts to Harrison’s White Album masterpiece, and it wasn’t Harrison’s instrument alone that cried. If ever a picture could be painted of Harrison in 1976, this was it, a period of uncertainty for him following an unsatisfactory 1974 tour of America and the breakdown of his marriage to Patti Boyd. Here he sets his mind out, decrying the veneral sneer of critics (“can even climb Rolling Stone walls”) to the state of his isolated mind (“found myself out on a limb”). Saturated in Dylan’s influence, ‘Guitar’ is an intoxicating deep cut.
Crackerbox Palace (Thirty Three and a Third, 1976): Harrison, a lifelong Monty Python fan and vocal supporter of comedy, delivered this laconic piece of irreverence, complete with bon mots a la “while growing up,trying to/ not knowing where to start”. With a music video directed by real life chum Eric Idle (Python cohorts John Cleese and Neil Innes feature), Harrison’s tirades in schoolboy uniform and bon viveur in his mansion, Friar Park, is a slice of Goon aspired brilliance.
Dream Away (Time Bandits Soundtrack, 1981): Recorded only hours after John Lennon’s death, this is a song driven by emotion and drive, all sung in the jovial fairy tale frviolity of Terry Gilliam’s first masterpiece ‘Time Bandits’ (1981). Opening with a nonsenical babylon of babble, ending with superlative slide playing, this is one of the wackiest pieces of bubble gum pop of the eighties, armed with lyrics of “dark in mythology” and “travelling through history”.
This is Love (Cloud Nine, 1988): Armed with Jeff Lynne as co-writer, George Harrison’s return to the mainstream after a half decade sabbatical brings a Beatlesque quality to the proceedings, albeit with lyrics only Harrison could write. “Since our problems have been our own creation/They also can be overcome” he sings, more chant than adage “When we use the power provided free to everyone.” Perhaps Harrison’s most Beatlite song (either this, or the tongue in cheek ‘When We Was Fab’), its been a radio-mainstay since the late eighties.
Cheer Down (Lethal Weapon 2, 1989): Although Harrison’s rockers were few and far between, this ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ closer showed stadium rocking came as naturally to him as Godly chants did. Collaborating with Tom Petty, its title came from Harrison’s wife Olivia, an adage she would utter if excitement ever got the better of him. Further Travelling Wilbury Jeff Lynne offers inspired be-bop harmonies, and Harrison’s guitar picking recalls his early Beatle days.
Any Road (Brainwashed, 2002): Written in 1988 and first performed on VH1 during an interview between Harrison and mentor Ravi Shankar, ‘Any Road’ was released posthumously in 2002. Completed by Jeff Lynne and Dhani Harrison, ‘Brainwashed’ proved a poignant listen, none more so than ‘Any Road’, a song that seemed to finish the message began by ‘My Sweet Lord’ in 1970. Fittingly, it would be nominated for Best Male Pop Performance at the 2004 Grammy’s. Written for the ukulele, ‘Road’ proved a busker’s dream, a chord filled journey that promised “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”.