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George Harrison, RIP
By W. James Antle III
George Harrison has been described as the "quiet Beatle" both in life and shortly following his death, but perhaps it is more accurate to describe him as the most underrated Beatle.
Fans of Paul McCartney adore his string-laden ballads that helped bring rock music out of the "dooh-wah-diddy" simplicity that dominated the genre during the 1950s and make music lovers beyond their teenybopper years take it seriously. John Lennon was celebrated for bringing a more counter-cultural feel to the Beatles' sound along with his trademark biting wit. Veteran Beatles' producer George Martin admits that he did not pay enough attention to Harrison's work because the Lennon-McCartney team was consistently producing hits.
Indeed, Harrison was originally only an occasional performer in the Beatles' predecessor group, the Quarrymen. Lennon feared that Harrison, then only 14, was too young and innocent in his appearance for the group to be successful with girls if he were the guitarist. But Harrison's musicianship, influenced by the guitar work of legends like Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and Chet Atkins, soon spoke for itself and he was welcomed into the band as the lead guitarist.
After the Quarrymen became the Beatles in 1960, they began to tour Hamburg and were discovered by Liverpool record storeowner Brian Epstein. Harrison would describe joining the Beatles as the first big break of his musical career; his second big break, he quipped, was leaving.
Harrison's guitar work lacked the fireworks of Jimi Hendrix or the technical precision of Eric Clapton (who would marry Harrison's first wife Patty Boyd in 1974, with the amiable ex-Beatle in attendance). But he did have a unique sound that influenced a vast array of musicians of that era, most notably Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Nor has sufficient attention been paid to his contributions to the Beatles, ranging from his guitar solos on Lennon-McCartney tunes to the several classics he penned for the Fab Four on his own, such as "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Here Comes the Sun," and "Something." And if his unorthodox politics and support for the British Natural Law Party might irritate some conservatives, Harrison wrote the greatest expression of anti-tax sentiment in modern popular music, "Tax Man."
It was Harrison who studied the sitar under Ravi Shankar and actually introduced the instrument to rock music by playing it in the classic "Norwegian Wood" on one of the Beatles' best albums, Rubber Soul. His enchantment with mysticism led the Beatles to visit India and was consistent with the experimentation going on within the group (both chemical and musical) that helped them evolve from the sounds of Sgt. Pepper to The White Album.
His creativity stifled by the Lennon-McCartney monopoly on songwriting, Harrison would release his first solo albums, Wonderwall Music (1968) and Electronic Sound (1969) before the Beatles even broke up. But his greatest solo accomplishment came with his first post-Beatles album, All Things Must Pass. The 1970 two-LP record contained much of the work he had tried unsuccessfully to include on Beatles' albums and was like "having musical constipation and going to the bathroom and letting it all out." "My Sweet Lord" was a Top 10 hit in the United States and the United Kingdom (although in 1976 it would be ruled that he unintentionally based the song on the Chiffons' hit "He's So Fine") and the album sold 3 million copies.
Harrison followed up with his Concert for Bangladesh, which raised over $10 million and presaged the celebrity rock star fundraisers that would become a staple of the pop industry in the 1980s and afterward. Unlike future efforts, the money from this fundraiser was ultimately held up by the financial meltdown of the Beatles' old label, Apple Records. Bob Geldoff of the Boomtown Rats, who would spearhead efforts like "Do They Know It's Christmas" in the '80s recalled getting a great deal of advice from Harrison on how to avoid such debacles in his own rock philanthropy. Harrison would also end up producing records and funding the classic Monty Python film The Life of Brian.
Living in the Material World (with the wonderfully breezy "Give Me Love") and Dark Horse were two more first-rate solo albums, after which Harrison began releasing increasingly quirky records such as Extra Texture: Read All About It and Thirty-three And a Third. It was not until he teamed up with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne in the Traveling Wilburys during the '80s and that he had his #1 hit "Got My Mind Set" from the 1987 album Cloud Nine that he again enjoyed the level of his earlier critical and commercial success. Harrison's last years were characterized by personal misfortunes, including an attempt on his life by a psychotic knife-wielding intruder and his bouts with throat and lung cancer.
Ultimately, Harrison's death is the end of an era. Even after John Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan in 1980, some Beatles fans held out hope that Paul, George and Ringo might hold a reunion, perhaps with John's son Julian Lennon standing in. And they did come together to finish a couple tracks John had begun recording for the Beatles when they released the Anthology albums in the mid-1990s. But Harrison's death signals to mourning fans all over the world that their hopes will not be realized.
Many recording artists have experienced dazzling commercial success since the Beatles disbanded in 1970. It is now routine for artists promoted by major labels and Top 40 radio stations to release multi-platinum debut albums. Yet few artists have contributed as much to rock as a musical form and none since have had the universal cultural impact of the Beatles. Perhaps as Harrison's death and his legendary solo album attest, all things must pass. But still we have the music, timeless and alive forever.
W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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