The late ’60s played out like a bildungsroman for George Harrison. If there was a flash point in his development as a songwriter, it happened in 1968. It’s the year Harrison starts in Mumbai and ends up in Woodstock; it starts with “The Inner Light” and ends with “All Things Must Pass.”
By the end of ‘68, the thin dark horse with high cheekbones transformed from “the quiet Beatle” to a full-blooded rising sun.
After The Beatles’ tumultuous final tour in 1966, Harrison nearly left the group. He was barely coaxed back by the silver tongue of then-manager Brian Epstein.
A year later, Epstein was dead and Harrison was stifled. He’d only written about two-dozen songs for the Beatles, and only nine where he was the sole songwriter. His contribution through eight albums was primarily in the form of lead guitar, and turning his bandmates on to sitar and classical Indian music elements. But these pale in comparison to the twin tailwinds of Lennon and McCartney, or even producer George Martin, who all seemed indifferent to Harrison’s songwriting ambitions.
But Harrison wasn’t trying to compete, he was just trying to be seen.
In January 1968, Harrison was in the studio finishing his first solo album, Wonderwall Music. What was set to be a film soundtrack with a £600 budget, ballooned into a 57-minute, £15,000 behemoth. The songs are immersed in his love of sitar, drone, and eastern spirituality, previously shown on Beatles songs “Love You To” and “Within You Without You.” The album’s not bad, but it’s not great. It’s a step in any direction for Harrison, who was likely sloughing off pent-up creativity.
But from those sessions came “The Inner Light,” the first solely Harrison-written song to be released as a Beatles single. The song appeared as the b-side to “Lady Madonna” in March, and served as a bridge between releases while the Beatles were in India.
Nicholas Schaffner, author of the 1978 book Beatles Forever, wrote of the song, “‘The Inner Light’ proved to be the best—and last—of George's attempts to incorporate Indian music into the context of the Beatles, though the lyrics were pinched almost verbatim from a Chinese poem from The Tao Te Ching.”
Crossing the Threshold
In February, Harrison recruited the Beatles to attend a transcendental meditation course at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India. There have been entire books written about the Beatles trip to India, but to encapsulate the trip’s importance, with regard to Harrison: it allowed George to steer the car for a moment and, inevitably, it was a catalyst for the White Album.
Away from the noise of adulation, London, and drugs, the band’s creativity flowed. During this time and soon thereafter, Harrison wrote “Sour Milk Sea,” “Long, Long, Long,” “Not Guilty,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Lennon-McCartney wrote dozens of songs in Rishikesh, the bulk of the coming classic. There’s something to be said about that contrast. As much as he was held back, Harrison’s writing style was decidedly granular.
In George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door, author Graeme Thompson writes: “Giles Martin, son of George Martin, and nowadays carrying on his father’s work as custodian of The Beatles’ recorded legacy, as well as helping oversee Harrison’s audio archive, recalls that ‘my dad always said that when George was writing a song it was like he was embroidering a tapestry with a very fine needle.’ It was a procedure not always to everybody's tastes.”
In May, the band began recording the “Esher Demos” that would become the White Album, at Harrison’s house Kinfauns. There was an enchanted coordination going on. A triptych of serendipity. Harrison was breaking out of his station while reacquainting himself with his maiden instrument, in the same moment the band’s experimentation began matching their maturity and wit.
Harrison not only brought in Eric Clapton, he contributed some of the best songs to the White Album. His songs include “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Piggies,” “Long Long Long,” and “Savoy Truffle.” This massive record is built on the intensity of Lennon’s and McCartney’s increasingly disparate songwriting styles, and without Harrison’s brilliance scattered through each side, the entire project might have imploded under its own weight.
Harrison was also falling back in love with the guitar. Thompson touches on the subject, “One of the many changes that took place in the final year of The Beatles was the re-emergence and evolution of Harrison as a guitar player; on the White Album he and Lennon frequently combined to provide a twin lead-guitar attack on the rockers, notably ‘Yer Blues,’ ‘Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey,’ and ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun.’”
The Road Back
As the White Album recording sessions ended, Harrison was no doubt exhausted. The Beatles were cracking. But 1968 stops for no man. With new confidence, he looked for a change of scenery.
In November 1968, he headed to Woodstock, New York, to visit The Band and Bob Dylan. His interest was spurred on by the easy-going, dirty realism of The Band’s recently released record Music From Big Pink. There’s a rawness to the recording that feels like the exact opposite of the current Beatles experience: claustrophobic.
Escaping that intensity was a godsend for Harrison. He spent Thanksgiving with the Dylans. He began writing “All Things Must Pass,” “Let It Down,” and co-wrote “I’d Have You Anytime” with Dylan. 1968 was coming to a close and Harrison was accelerating.
Roger McGuinn tells a great story in Thompson’s book. He’s at Kinfauns for Harrison’s 24th birthday and the air is charged, there’s a collective feeling. McGuinn looks over at the gangly Beatle and asks him what’s going on. “I’m transcending,” Harrison says. And, though it was tangled up in his mysticism, he was right. He was transcending the group he helped create.
The sum of that transcendence is in the songs. Beginning in 1968 and through 1969, Harrison wrote a hefty bag of classics, including all those aforementioned, along with “Something,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “I Me Mine,” “Wah Wah,” “Awaiting You All,” “What Is Life,” and “My Sweet Lord.” Many appear on Harrison’s first solo album, All Things Must Pass, released in 1970. It is still considered by many critics and fans to be the best solo album from any Beatle.
Written by E. Ryan Ellis
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