On the 14th anniversary of his death we look back at the ex-Beatle’s magnum opus, a triple-album that spawned his global hit ‘My Sweet Lord’.
“The biggest break in my career was getting into the Beatles… The second biggest break since then is getting out of them.” – George Harrison, 1971
When George Harrison passed away on November 29th 2001 it may not have had the same dramatic impact that the violent death of fellow Beatle John Lennon did some 20-odd years previously, but it was still a profoundly sad moment for the millions of people around the world who so cherished the music of that extraordinary group, one that so indelibly affected society in the 60’s and beyond.
George’s passing, at the age of just 58, meant that half of that fabled group was now gone. And whilst Lennon had shouted the loudest on issues such as revolution, war and peace, and any other issue that happened to interest him at the time, Harrison was arguably the Beatle who had the most to say. He was dubbed ‘the quiet Beatle’ but in all truth he was simply the most introspective, the most thoughtful, philosophical, and spiritual one, the Beatle who in the middle of Sgt Pepper’s psychedelic fantasy had reminded us that “you’re really only very small, and life flows on within you and without you”.
George’s quest for deeper meaning had begun midway through The Beatle’s 8-year reign at the pinnacle of popular culture. He would later note of that period “I remember thinking I just want more. This isn’t it. Fame is not the goal. Money is not the goal”. And whilst the group’s dalliance with the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi had ended in sourness and a certain amount of embarrasment, the spiritual lesson’s George had learnt in that time stayed with him and affected him deeply.
And it is this journey towards enlightenment that runs so richly through All Thing Must Pass. ‘My Sweet Lord’ aside, many of the songs, as George himself would later admit, were either love songs to God or were exploring themes such as transcendence and growth. In ‘What Is Life’ he sings “Tell me, what is my life without your love, and who am I without you by my side”, whilst in ‘Beware Of Darkness’ he tells us “Beware of sadness, it can hit you, it can hurt you, and what is more, that is not what you are here for”. In ‘I Live For You’, one of the most overtly spiritual songs on the album he sings “All this time my thoughts return to you, give my love that is all I can do, wait in line until I feel you inside, yes it’s true, I live for you”. These are not facile pop lyrics or ‘silly love songs’, but rather the sound of a man exploring his inner self, his relationship with a higher being, and someone looking to impart deeper messages to his considerable fanbase.
All Things Must Pass isn’t simply a lyrical exploration, but also a considerable musical one. It’s stylistic sweep is broad and ever-changing, incorporating elements of rock, gospel, country, and Bob Dylan-esque folk. Phil Spector’s hand in the album’s making is ever-present, and whilst his ‘wall-of-sound’ is most obvious in ‘Wah-Wah’s mighty echo-laden rattle, songs like the epic ‘Let It Down’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ and the the title track are large, weighty, and bold in presence. More tender moments come in the beautiful country-tinged ‘Behind That Locked Door’, the slow burn of Bob Dylan co-write ‘I’d Have You Anytime’ and his gorgeous take on Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’.
In Martin Scorsese’s lenghty documentary about Harrison Living In The Material World, Spector talks of being played songs from the album for the first time and enthuses “It was endless! He had literally hundreds of songs and each one was better than the last”, and that’s what’s so impressive about this album, the fact that for 17 songs (forget the 3rd of this triple set, which is a rather less endearing collection of noodling jams) it never lets up. That many of them were turned down for inclusion on the Beatles’ final albums can be seen as their loss and our gain. These songs belong together and stand as testament to George’s gifts as a songwriter. They are the distilled essence of a flawed but beautiful human being, one who was of this world but already beyond it many years before he physically left us.