Sunday 23 July 2017

The quiet beatle speaks

Music masterclass:
George Harrison
with his first wife
Pattie Boyd
Music masterclass: George Harrison with his first wife Pattie Boyd

They called him the 'Quiet' Beatle, but most fans have always known there was far more to George Harrison than his exterior of sultry silence. Perhaps that's down to tales of his wild behaviour, from his deportation during The Beatles' early days in Hamburg to more recently reported tales of his womanising, which have given the lie to any good-as-gold illusions.

Or perhaps, more likely, it's because people of such intellect, and of such creativity, are never quite as straightforward as George came across.

Either way, a new documentary directed by Martin Scorsese is to tap into one of the most intriguing aspects of the greatest band of all time -- and possibly unravel some of the mystery surrounding the man.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World is due for release next month and features interviews with some of the most important people from the musician's life -- including widow Olivia and son Dhani, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Martin, Yoko Ono and Phil Spector.

Olivia's role as co-producer allowed for a level of access unprecedented among the countless documentaries and books produced since George succumbed to cancer nearly 10 years ago in November 2001 -- and when it comes to tying it all together into a neat narrative, few are better suited to the task than this man at the helm.

Scorsese is no stranger to music. In 1976, impressed by the use of soundtrack on Mean Streets three years earlier, Robbie Roberston recruited the rising star to shoot The Band's farewell gig in San Francisco.

What started off as a simple documentation of the concert grew into a meticulously designed work of art, shot by a camera crew made up of the industry's best cinematographers, and The Last Waltz is now regarded as one of the finest-ever meetings of music and celluloid.

He has also produced an extensive series on the blues for US TV, and directed the lauded Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home (2005) and The Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light (2008).

But Scorsese's involvement is not the main reason why this movie is a must-see. Earlier this week, Olivia Harrison and Paul McCartney threw out a few hints regarding the juicier details of the film -- most notably that, in stark contrast to the calm image that descended upon George as he became ever-more enraptured by Eastern influences, his womanising ways continued right into his second marriage.

Following what she describes as 'hiccups' in their marriage, Olivia concedes: "He did like women and women did like him. If he just said a couple of words to you it would have a profound effect. So it was hard to deal with someone who was so well loved."

McCartney, somewhat more euphemistically, says that George "liked the things that men like. He was red-blooded".

Eric Clapton fell in love with Harrison's first wife, Pattie Boyd. He became involved with her while the pair were still married, but admits that even before that, "there was a lot of swapping and fooling around".

How far George had come from the 17-year-old who described Hamburg as "the naughtiest city in the world" following one the band's first stints there.

Often seen as a kid by the other, older members of the band -- not helped when he was deported from Germany for being underage -- it was for this reason that he often opted to keep his head down and prove himself as an able guitarist, which led to his later 'quiet' image.

In 1963, 'Don't Bother Me' became the first of George's songs to appear on a Beatles album, marking the point where he slowly began to come into his own as an artist. He wasn't an excellent singer, boasting a very ordinary voice when placed against the grittiness of John's or the beautiful clarity of Paul's -- but that mattered little when he was playing guitar like he was.

His influence on the band extended far beyond the studio. When he introduced the band to Eastern influences -- most notably to the transcendental meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi -- he provided a catalyst in the group's ongoing evolution from boyband to spearheads of the cultural revolution.

In 1968, Harrison became the first Beatle to issue a solo album; the Eastern-influenced soundtrack to the feature film Wonderwall was no great success, but it certainly marked out George's intentions, and signalled his growing restlessness within the band.

That didn't stop him, however, from producing material to rival the two bandmates in whose shadow he resided.

The likes of 'Think For Yourself' and 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' (on which Clapton played the lead guitar) showed a songwriter who improved with every number he wrote -- and Abbey Road's 'Something' went on to be the second-most covered Beatles song after 'Yesterday'.

That still didn't make it any less surprising when, following the band's split in 1970, first blood went to Harrison in the quest for solo success. On the singles charts, Harrison's 'My Sweet Lord' spent the first of its two stints at number one (the second came after his death in 2001), and the superb triple-album All Things Must Pass was certified platinum six times over.

With The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, Harrison developed the template for the global-scale celebrity-driven benefit gig -- however, after the success of Living In The Material World two years later, with its lead single 'Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)', Harrison's hippy star began to fade against the backdrop of a more cynical decade.

But Thirty Three & 1/3 and George Harrison (1976 and 1979) were strong releases, the latter featuring a stripped-back version of 'Not Guilty' -- a song that had been written for the White Album but was, along with 'Hey Jude', omitted from the final cut.

A stint with the supergroup Travelling Wilburys, alongside Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison, ensured that Harrison never strayed far from the public eye -- as did his 1987 surprise hit with a cover of Rudy Clark's 'I've Got My Mind Set On You'.

Scorsese's documentary will be a must-watch for anyone transfixed by this man, who managed to preserve an air of mystery even alongside the most stratospheric levels of fame. The Quiet Beatle, it seems, is finally about to speak.

acoughlan@independent.ie

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