by Ed Masley - Aug. 29, 2008
The Arizona Republic
It was 50 years ago this very weekend -- Friday, Aug. 29, to be exact
-- that a no-account skiffle group from Liverpool, the Quarry Men,
took what, in retrospect, would be one giant step toward world
domination with the acquisition of a baby-faced guitarist Paul
McCartney had met on the bus home from Liverpool Institute.
As John Lennon would later recall his decision to welcome George
Harrison into the fold, "We asked George to join because he knew more
chords, a lot more than we knew. We got a lot from him."
To say the Beatles got a lot from George would be, if anything, an
understatement. Often overshadowed by the untouchable songwriting
prowess of Lennon-McCartney, George's contributions to the Beatles
legacy were actually quite huge, from his guitar work to the original
songs he was able to carve out a space for in the Beatles' catalog.
Here's a look at some of George's most enduring contributions to the
1962 - At the Beatles' audition for Parlophone Records, producer
George Martin asks the band, "Is there anything that you're not happy
about?" As George Harrison later recalls in The Beatles Anthology,
"We shuffled about silently, then I said, 'Well . . . I don't like
your tie!" The rest is only history because, as fate would have it,
Martin shares the youngest Beatle's sense of humor.
1963 - Having taken ill in a hotel room, George makes the most of a
bad situation, penning his first Beatles song, Don't Bother Me.
Appearing on the Beatles second album, With the Beatles, it's much
darker and surlier - some would say more Lennonesque - than anything
Lennon-McCartney had written at that point. George's girl has left
him and he's gone all emo (years ahead of schedule), warning
visitors, "Don't come around, leave me alone, don't bother me." Years
later, George himself dismisses his first effort as a "fairly crappy
song," but what does he know? Don't Bother Me is also featured in the
Beatles' film debut, A Hard Day's Night, in 1964.
1964 - George gets off the opening shot of the coming folk-rock
revolution with that freaky 12-string Rickenbacker chord that ushers
in A Hard Day's Night. Rolling Stone magazine later declares it "the
most famous chord in all of rock and roll," while Guitarist Magazine
chimes in with the following bit of rock-crit poesy: "A hijacked
church bell announcing the party of the year." Even Joey Ramone
recalls that first chord as a "wake-up call," which doesn't
necessarily mean we have to credit George with having sown the seeds
of punk that day, but someone somewhere more than likely has.
1965 - George adds a sitar to Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),
the first Western musician to play the traditional Indian instrument
on a pop song. Although he'll later study sitar with the legendary
Ravi Shankar, at this point, he's pretty much feeling his way around
an instrument he'd picked up on the cheap after being intrigued by
the sound it made while filming Help! As he'll later recall in The
Beatles Anthology, "I hadn't really figured out what to do with it.
But when we were working on Norweigan Wood, it just needed something.
It was quite spontaneous. . . . I just picked it up and found the
notes . . . and it just seemed to hit the spot." That same year,
George contributes two amazing songs to Rubber Soul - the folk-rock
classic If I Needed Someone and Think For Yourself, a tough-love
self-help anthem fueled by fuzz-bass, psychedelic harmonies and
self-righteous contempt for someone "telling all those lies about the
good things that we can have if we close our eyes."
1966 - In a clear sign that George has come into his own as a writer,
he opens Revolver with a jagged blast of stinging social commentary,
Taxman. Bizarrely, the blistering backwards guitar lead turns out to
be Paul. But the lyrics couldn't be more George: "Now my advice for
those who die/Declare the pennies on your eyes," goes one memorable
dig at The Man. Revolver also finds George coming into his own on the
sitar with a song he's written on the instrument, the mesmerizing
Love You To, while reinventing rubber soul with a distinctly Eastern
feel on the surprisingly McCartneyesque I Want To Tell You.
1967 - After the strides he'd made at infiltrating his own band on
the Revolver sessions, it has to be a bit disheartening for George to
place only one song on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the
year's most celebrated album. But at least he gets a long one -
Within You Without You, which charts George's further foray into the
world of Indian classic music, written on harmonium this time instead
of sitar. He's the only Beatle featured on the track, joined by
Indian session players. That same year brings George's Blue Jay Way,
a spooky psychedelic classic written on a Hammond organ, to the
Beatles' only underrated album, the soundtrack to Magical Mystery
Tour. He sings about a fog upon LA and sounds as though he's lost in
one. But that just makes it feel more psychedelic.
1968 - After being held in check on Paul McCartney's special project,
Sgt. Pepper, George is free to flex his writing muscles on the band's
self-titled double album, which everyone soon takes to calling The
White Album. While My Guitar Gently Weeps is the one people gravitate
to, even more so today. But George gets four songs, one per album
side, and clearly makes the most of it, abandoning the Eastern flavor
of his recent output in the process. Piggies is a darkly comic slice
of social commentary from the Taxman school, a baroque-flavored gem
that spoofs the upper crust in lines like, "In their sties with all
their backing, they don't care what goes on around. In their eyes,
there's something lacking. What they need's a damn good whacking."
That last line was written by his mum, but still, it's funny. So is
Savoy Truffle, his tribute to sweets and the damage they do to your
teeth ("You'll have them all pulled out after the Savory truffle").
Long Long Long isn't nearly as funny, a haunting meditation on his
reconnection with a great lost love, which may or may not be the
sweet lord he would sing about on My Sweet Lord.
1969 - George contributes two songs to the soundtrack for the
animated feature Yellow Submarine. On It's Only a Northern Song, he
paints a bitter psychedelic portrait of the way his songs are treated
in the Beatles universe ("It doesn't really matter what chords I
play, what words I say or time of day it is"). The punch line is the
seemingly disoriented orchestration. But It's All Too Much is the
revelation. Recorded before Sgt. Pepper and held back from Magical
Mystery Tour, its utter brilliance only underscores the exact point
It's Only a Northern Song was striving to address. Who lets a song
like that sit on a shelf for two turbulent years until the
psychedelic majesty, ushered in on a wave of Hendrixian feedback,
that would have seemed so cutting edge in 1967 feels like what it is
- an outtake? Fortunately, George's contributions to the Beatles'
other, more important 1969 release, Abbey Road, are shown the respect
they deserve. The heartfelt ballad Something marks the first time any
George song had been chosen as an A-side for a Beatles single (even
if it is a "double A-side," backed with Come Together). Either way,
it soars to No. 3 here in the States and tops the U.K. charts while
Lennon hails it as his favorite song on Abbey Road. And while it
isn't chosen as a single, the gorgeous, acoustic guitar-driven Here
Comes the Sun would emerge as a radio staple.
1970 - There's one classic moment in the documentary Let It Be where
George responds to Paul's "suggestions" about how to play his guitar
with a withering, "I'll play whatever you want me to play, or I won't
play at all if you don't want me to play. Whatever it is that'll
please you, I'll do it." George contributes two song to the
soundtrack - I Me Mine, an impassioned attack on the ego that would
have been easy to read as a swipe at McCartney, and the
lighter-hearted For You Blue, a playful blues romp best remembered
for him egging Lennon on during a lap steel guitar solo with "Elmore
James got nothing on this baby."