George Harrison: fabbest of the four?
Martin Scorsese’s new documentary about George Harrison makes a case for him as the equal – or even the superior – of Lennon and McCartney, says Mick Brown.
There is a droll moment – one of many – in Martin Scorsese’s new documentary about George Harrison, Living in the Material World, when his son Dhani reads one of Harrison’s diary entries from 1969, a time when the Beatles were rehearsing for the album that would become Let It Be, mired in rancour, resentment and a sense of terminal fatigue. “January 10. Got up. Went to Twickenham. Rehearsed until lunchtime. Left the Beatles. Went home.” In fact, it would be another year before the final disintegration of the group. But Harrison always displayed a remarkably phlegmatic attitude to the business of being a Beatle, and all the attendant drama and heartache that came with it.
By any reckoning, Living in the Material World is an epic. At three-and-a-half hours in duration, even the devoted Harrison fan might quail. Scorsese, of course, has never baulked at a thorough examination of his musical heroes, as his previous two-part film on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, demonstrated. But it’s reasonable to ask whether Harrison really merits the same treatment.
I had my doubts. But this deeply absorbing journey through Harrison’s sadly abbreviated life – he died in 2001 at the age of 58 – does not seem a minute too long. Rather, Scorsese’s film is another wave in the tide of revisionism, which, in recent years, has seen Harrison promoted from “junior partner” in the Beatles to being widely regarded as not only the equal of John Lennon and Paul McCartney as a songwriter and singer – and in some cases, their superior – but also the most intriguing character in the group. In his own phrase, the dark horse.
The first third of this film provides a wonderful retelling of the Beatles story, but made anew here with evocative archive footage.
McCartney describes the Beatles as “four corners of a square – without any of those corners, you collapse”. But what the film shows is how confining for each individual that square eventually became. For Harrison, the frustration was largely to do with the feeling that his songs were being overlooked by the established songwriting “firm” of Lennon and McCartney.
“Paul was very pushy in that respect,” Harrison told me when I interviewed him in 1979. “You’d have to do 59 of Paul’s songs before he’d even listen to one of yours.” McCartney, he said, was particularly dismissive of what he called “those Indian-type tunes” and refused to play on them. “Within You Without You [from Sgt Pepper’s] was just me and some Indian musicians in the studio by ourselves.” But it was those “Indian-type tunes”, and the interest in Indian spirituality that they signified, which was to ultimately shape the course of Harrison’s life – a fact which Scorsese’s film dwells on at considerable length.
The pivot on which Harrison’s career hinged was All Things Must Pass, his first solo album, released in 1970. A meditation on the essential ephemerality of all things, the title song could be taken as a statement about the Beatles – at a time when heartbroken fans were in need of some consoling wisdom about the band’s dissolution – but also about the larger philosophical concerns that were coming to preoccupy Harrison.
“He was spiritual and you knew it, and it made you spiritual being around him,” says Phil Spector, who co-produced All Things Must Pass, and who, poignantly, was interviewed by Scorsese shortly before his first trial for murder. “It made you like those Krishnas, who could sometimes be the biggest pain in the necks, running around in their robes with their shaved heads and their white powder all over their face, scaring you half to death, coming out of a dark studio glowing.”
Song for song, All Things Must Pass remains, to my mind, the best solo album by a Beatle, and not only because Harrison had such a wealth of stockpiled material to draw on. (“It was endless,” Spector says, “he had literally hundreds of songs and each one was better than the rest.”) What is interesting is what the album tells us about Harrison himself. It is fascinating to compare it with Lennon’s first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, made in the same year. While that was an unrelenting, cathartic, primal scream of pain – about his unhappy childhood, God, the Beatles – a man flailing to find a meaning in his life, All Things Must Pass suggested that Harrison had found it. Virtually all of the songs are reflections of his spiritual philosophy, and – most explicitly in My Sweet Lord – celebrations of his belief in what he called “Krishna consciousness”.
Harrison had qualms about even releasing My Sweet Lord as a single because of its religious theme – “I thought a lot of people are going to really hate me, because people fear the unknown. I was sticking my neck on the chopping block.” It was Spector who persuaded him to release it, recognising it as the massive hit it became. (It’s hard to imagine My Sweet Lord being a hit today, still less the Hare Krishna Mantra, which Harrison produced, and which was a hit in 1969 and, even more implausibly, led to an appearance by members of the Radha Krsna Temple on Top of the Pops.)
Spector is the other reason why All Things Must Pass was such a triumphant success. Seldom was the producer’s “wall of sound” applied to such good effect, its dense textures bringing a wonderfully magisterial quality to the songs and the performances.
Things did not always go smoothly between Spector and Harrison. Harrison recalls in the film that when he heard the layers of echo that Spector had slathered over Wah-Wah “I hated it. But I grew to like it.” Spector’s drinking became an increasing problem during the sessions, and Harrison would later complain that the producer paid insufficient attention to the project. For his part, Spector grew irritated at what he regarded as Harrison’s fastidious perfectionism. (A year before his death, Harrison issued a remixed version of the album, explaining that some of the songs needed “liberating” from a production that “seemed appropriate at the time but now seems a bit over the top”.)
Harrison made eight more albums (a ninth was released posthumously), but none were the equal, nor had the impact, of his debut. Scorsese evidently agrees – the subsequent albums are largely ignored in the film.
While his proselytising became less overt, Harrison returned to the same themes over and over again in all his work – self-examination, spirituality, his place in the world. Following a major tour in 1974 with Ravi Shankar, which was roundly attacked by the critics, he performed only rarely. It seems significant that his last public appearance in Britain (not mentioned in the film) was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1992 on behalf of the Natural Law Party.
Despite the opprobrium heaped on the Maharishi over the years, Harrison never lost his loyalty to him. Nor did he ever lose his sense of exasperation over the fact that people never quite understood his spiritual search – a fact that Harrison put down to “ignorance”. “They say ignorance is bliss,” he told me when I interviewed him, “but bliss is not ignorance – it’s the opposite of that, which is knowledge. And there’s a lot of people who have fear. Basically I feel fortunate to have realised what the goal is in life. There’s no point in dying having gone through your life without knowing who you are or what the purpose of life is.”
Harrison’s impressive wife, Olivia, who co-produced the film, talks of him in later years as coming to regard his life as a preparation for death. Eric Idle tells how after Harrison was stabbed in his home by an intruder in 1999, he was being carried out by two medics who had only just started work. Harrison looked up from his stretcher and asked, “So what do you think of the job so far?”
Tom Petty tells another story. When Roy Orbison, who had sung with Harrison, Petty and Bob Dylan in the Traveling Wilburys, died in 1988, Harrison spoke to Petty on the phone. A still bemused Petty recounts that the first thing Harrison said was “'Aren’t you glad it’s not you?’ And then he said, 'He’ll be OK. He’s still around.’
“And that’s all he had to say about it.”
Living in the Material World will be shown by the BBC later this year.