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Bye, George

On the Beatle guitarist and his contributions.


by James Leroy Wilson
December 5, 2001

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Bye, George_James Leroy Wilson-On the Beatle guitarist and his contributions. On the day we heard the news of George Harrison's death, I brought my Beatles CD's to work. When I came back from lunch, my co-workers were listening to the middle of Rubber Soul. When "In My Life" came on, the magnitude of the Beatles' achievement struck me in a new way, and I remarked, "You know, if any other person or artist had done this song, this would have been their biggest hit." Meaning, thrity-five years later they would be performing a concert and the audience.would be waiting for this song. It would be a signature song. In the Beatles' case, however, "In My Life" takes its place among a few dozen exceptional songs the Beatles wrote and recorded.

Before the letters start pouring in: I am well aware that "In My Life" was not written by George Harrison, credited instead to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. On Rubber Soul alone, there are two other highlights: "Norwegian Wood" and the Grammy-winning "Michelle," which are but a few of the numerous well-loved Beatle songs that fail to even show up on their 27-song CD of number one hits. We have to give credit where it is due, and the only songwriting rival in the modern consciousness is Rodgers & Hammerstien, who in hindsight could be called the Beatles of Broadway. More obscure tunes like "I Call Your Name" outclass almost anyting else recorded in rock at the time.

In many ways the guitarist Harrison, drummer Ringo Starr, and producer George Martin were mere helpers in bringing the sound in the heads of Lennon and McCartney onto vinyl. Harrison was allowed to contribute about 21 songs over a 7-year recording career that spawned 13 original albums and the equivalent of two additional albums' worth of singles. (Harrison sang lead vocal on several more Lennon-McCartney and cover tunes.) His frustrating lack of exposure as a songwriter was one of the many tensions that led to the break-up of the band. This also exlains what is by contemporary standards a prolific solo career in the first dozen years following the Beatles' break-up: eight original albums (including a 3-record set). plus the all-star, Grammy-winning Concert for Bangladesh. After reclaiming popularity following a five-year hiatus with the 1987 album Cloud 9 and its brilliant #1 cover performance "Got My Mind Set On You," two albums with the superstar group The Travelling Wilburys, and a 1991 tour of Japan with Eric Clapton, Harrison effectively retired, dabbling in music rather than spending much time recording and performing.

Giving McCartney and Lennon their due as songwriters is not the same as suggesting that Harrison, Starr, or Martin were dispensible. The Beatles were in essence a rock & roll band, and the two minimal requirements for one to go places is to a have one really good guitarist and a competent drummer. Harrison was that really good guitarist. He was irreplaceable, and his mastery of the 12-string and sitar, not to mention his harmony vocals, changed the sound of rock forever.

He was also the spiritual center of the band, the one who introduced his bandmates, and with them pop culture, to eastern philosophy and religion (for better and for worse). His song on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "Within You, Without You" told us what all the other songs on that album were really about. He's the Beatle with whom other musicians became good friends. He's the one that sought spiritual grounding for the whole "peace and love" thing that the hippie culture embraced.

And he, more than the others, personified the bridge between 50's rock & roll and the modern rock band with the "guitar hero." Striving at first to imitate his heroes like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, he branched out, learned, and innovated to match the requirements of the song. To make name for themselves, later guitarists virtually dominated or co-led the bands they were in, and dazzled us with fancy fretwork and solos. Harrison, being a Beatle, didn't have to make a name for himself and could concentrate and using his talents to help make a great record, not to make a record that would showcase his instrumentalist talents..

In a tribute to George Harrison, I'd be remiss for not mentioning his other contributions and achievements, so I will list some here in no particular order:

"What is Life" from solo album All Things Must Pass.
Bankrolling the Monty Python film Life of Brian and also Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits.
Producing the best Badfinger hit "Day After Day."
"Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" on the solo album Living in the Material World.
"His" (cough) dancing in the video for "Got My Mind Set On You." The man always had a sense of humor.
Music video pioneer with such oddities as "Crackerbox Palace."
Backing up message of love and peace with action by organizing and leading the first the all-star benefit concert (for Bangladesh).
Forming the Travelling Wilburys, whose Volume I, at least, is a great album.
Co-writing (with Clapton) "Badge" for the Cream album Goodbye.

Also, before I forget:
"It's All Too Much" from Yellow Submarine.
"Don't Bother Me" from With the Beatles.
"I Want To Tell You" from Revolver.
"If I Needed Someone" from Rubber Soul.
"Savoy Truffle" and, especially "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" from The Beatles (white album)
"Something" and "Here Comes the Sun" from Abbey Road.

It is probably well-known by now that Frank Sinatra regarded "Something" as the greatest love song of the last half of the 20th century. It is to a songwriter's credit to write one standard. Harrison, with "Something," "Here Comes the Sun," and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" gave us at least three.

The man's death is worth all the press. I can't get enough of it.

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