The quiet Beatle spent his solo years writing some pretty impressive “Harrisongs”.
There’s a lot of received wisdom floating around when it comes to the demise of The Beatles and their varying solo careers.
When it comes to George, the story goes like this. Fed up of playing understudy in The Beatles, he spent the band’s final year’s stockpiling incredible tunes that couldn’t get a look in on Lennon and McCartney dominated albums and singles. He then released an amazing triple album, All Things Must Pass, and briefly became the most successful former fab.
He used his cultural currency to organize the first major charity concert, The Concert For Bangladesh, roping in some rock star mates. After that it was diminishing returns with George letting his solo career trail off to concentrate on producing movies, driving fast cars and shagging Ringo Starr’s wife. Most people know he had big eighties hit with Got My Mind Set On You and not much else.
Most George Harrison compilations include Beatle recordings or live versions of Beatle songs. Not something you can say of John Lennon or Paul McCartney. It underlines the perception that George’s solo output was a little lacking but his back catalogue is actually a treasure trove of overlooked gems.
10. What Is Life?
This list sets out to prove George’s credentials beyond his towering solo debut but we had to include something from All Things Must Pass.
For his first album out of The Beatle’s shadow George teamed up with the controversial producer of Let It Be, Phil Spector.
Spector brought his trademark Wall of Sound production style to the project, adding full, rich backings to George’s songs.
You can hear the full effect on this beautiful track built on Harrison’s cracking central riff. The track is also emblematic of a recurring Harrison technique.
Having found religion in the Sixties George would regularly write of his love of God but often with an ambiguity that allowed the songs to play as more straightforward love songs.
“Tell me what is my life, without your love?” He asks the lord in the chorus. He could just as easily be asking Patti Boyd, his wife and the subject of his classic love song Something.
9. Be Here Now
It took three years for George to follow up 1970’s All Things Must Pass. When it did arrive, Living In The Material World was notable for its more intimate productions. It also featured a set of lyrics many found off-putting in their overt and unapologetic religious zeal.
Be Here Now, a song about living in the moment featuring sitars, skirts overt mention of religion but certainly feels hymnal in tone. There’s also a worshipful quality to the vocal. The song could be channeling Eastern philosophies. It could equally be asking Beatle fans to let go of the past and enjoy what he’s doing now.
Like his earlier effort Long, Long, Long from The White Album, Be Here Now is not a song that jumps out of the stereo. Instead you have to go to it. Put on some headphones, let the music wash over you. There are rewards waiting those who allow themselves to become absorbed in its gentle melody.
8. Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)
Opening with a gently strummed acoustic, soon joined by melodic slide guitar, Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth) eschews the ambiguity of What Is Life as George offers up one of his most beautiful tunes to the Lord.
The track builds slowly with the rhythm section kicking in after the first bridge. Like My Sweet Lord before it, Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) fuses western gospel music with the Hindu devotional song style bhajan.
Against this gorgeous musical backdrop George asks that god “help me cope with this heavy load/trying to touch and reach you with heart and soul.” The whole thing is enough to make the listener get religion themselves, until the track clatters to an abrupt halt after three and a half minutes.
Plus it knocked the insipid My Love by Paul McCartney and Wings off the top of the US singles charts. Maybe god intervened for the greater good.
7. Crackerbox Palace
The video for Crackerbox Palace features Neil Innes and was directed by Eric Idle. Both had starred in Beatles spoof The Rutles in which George made a brief cameo appearance.
The comedians were a good fit for this song. It was inspired by a visit to the Los Angeles home of American character comedian Lord Buckley and also features a Blazing Saddles reference.
The music for Crackerbox Palace is jaunty but disguises a darker message about conformity in the lyric. The song’s protagonist is repeatedly assured “You bring such joy to Crackerbox Palace/no matter where you roam know our love is true”. However for one chorus the lyric changes:
“while you’re a part of Crackerbox Palace/do what the rest all do/or face the fact that Crackerbox Palace/May have no other choice but to deport you.”
The whole thing is topped off with Harrison’s trademark slide guitar work on lead and solo.
6. Blow Away
Blow Away is a simple, upbeat guitar pop song released in 1979 at the height of punk and disco but influenced by neither. In fact it sounds like it could have come out any time in the preceding 20 years.
Out of place in the charts on release, its timeless quality has only added to the songs enduring popularity. It was voted number two on a 2010 AOL poll of George’s ten best songs, behind only My Sweet Lord.
Inspired by a leaky roof at his Friar Park home, it’s another ambiguity special from George. He reminds himself that to overcome the world’s frustrations, “All I have to do is to love you.” Once again, this could be an ode to the powers of romantic love or it could be something more spiritual and devotional.
George was doing nothing new here but as ever he knew how to do the old things very well indeed.
5. All Those Years Ago
Meeting as teens and working together in The Beatles for over a decade, John Lennon and George Harrison didn’t always see eye to eye. John was hurt to discover that in George’s autobiography, I, Me, Mine Lennon’s Name appears on just three occasions.
He would have no doubt been touched however by this tribute, written in the aftermath of Lennon’s assassination by Mark Chapman.
All Those Years Ago also features Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, marking the first recording featuring all three of them in over a decade.
The song carefully balances anger and regret with an up-tempo backing track that makes the song feel celebratory of a life rather than mournful over its end.
Chapman isn’t mentioned by name, simply as, “One who offended all” but Harrison paints Chapman as part of a wider scene filled with those who opposed or misunderstood Lennon. “They treated you like a dog,” he claims, “you were the one they backed up to the wall.”
Ultimately the song ends on a more positive note. “You had control of our smiles and our tears/All Those Years Ago. “
4. That’s The Way It Goes
In The Sixties George wrote Taxman, an angry song decrying all the income tax he had to pay on his pop star earnings. By 1982 he was writing in resigned tones about men who worry about stocks and shares. How silly to worry about money, he seems to say, from the comfort of the home studio on his Friar Park estate.
Another track where George resists contemporary musical influences there is however a Hawaiian influence to his slide guitar playing here and on the rest of his Gone Troppo album. The use of a gamak also gives the track a more familiar Indian tone.
In 2002 a memorial concert, the Concert For George was held featuring Ravi Shankar, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and others. Most of the songs played at the event were covers of George’s better-known Sixties and Seventies efforts. That’s the Way It Goes was one of only a couple of Eighties numbers to be featured.
3. When We Was Fab
Not publically prone to sentiment or nostalgia, George Harrison was the most reluctant participant in The Beatle’s 90’s reunion-of-sorts for the Anthology series.
It’s not surprising. He often seemed ambivalent to the fame the group had brought him. Also he found himself condescended to and stifled by Lennon and McCartney and was afforded more respect by musicians like Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.
Surprising then, that his 1987 comeback album Cloud Nine featured When We Was Fab. A nostalgic song that evokes The Beatles musically and lyrically.
Perhaps it was the influence of collaborator and known Beatlephile Jeff Lynne who co-wrote and co-produced the track.
The use of sitar, cello and backwards effects recall The Beatles’ psychedelic period. Ringo Starr also features on drums for some added Beatle authenticity. The result is one of George’s most beloved solo offerings.
The Beatles references spill over into the single’s music video, co-starring Ringo and featuring a left handed bassist in a walrus suit as a nod to Paul McCartney. The Beatles’ road manager Neil Aspinall wanders into shot holding a John Lennon album to complete the line-up.
2. Cheer Down
This track co-written by Tom Petty was a song George Harrison initially offered his long-time friend Eric Clapton for the latter’s Journeyman album.
Instead Clapton used Harrison’s own recording of the song for the soundtrack to Lethal Weapon 2. The combination of action movie and George “The Quiet One” Harrison might seem like an odd fit. Nonetheless the song plays over the 1989 film’s end credits.
Cheer Down is a catchy, mid-tempo tune coloured with more of George’s trademark slide guitar playing. The playful lyric was inspired by his wife Olivia. She would tell George to “Cheer Down” if he was getting carried away about something.
With this song following 1987’s successful comeback album Cloud Nine, fans at the time probably hoped there was more to come. Sadly George didn’t capitalize on the momentum. Instead, Cheer Down became the last single George released in his lifetime.
1. Any Road
Released posthumously in 2002, Brainwashed was George Harrison’s first studio album in 15 years, over a decade in the making.
Rollicking, country-tinged opener Any Road with its upbeat mood and lush backing vocals could sit comfortably alongside his work with super group The Travelling Wilburys. Not least because George actually sounds like he’s enjoying himself.
The lyric was inspired by a sign George saw in Hawaii while out walking with his son Dhani. Critics have also drawn comparisons to Alice’s conversation with The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.
Any Road is the album’s oldest song. Harrison actually began writing the song in 1988 over a decade before its release and he performed the track in 1997 for VH1, his last filmed performance. It was also his last ever single.