Ten years ago today, George Harrison lost his battle with lung cancer at the age of 58, ending one of the most influential musical lives ever led.
Harrison gained a reputation for himself as “the quiet Beatle”, often preferring to leave the spotlight to his more vocal band mates. During this time, however, he was the songwriting master behind some of the most highly regarded songs of the band’s career including ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and the cheeky stab at the tax department who were, at the time, taxing the band 95% because they found themselves in the top earners in the country, ‘Taxman’.
“When you think about it, the four egos, it’s amazing they did anything because they’re all very strong people,” producer George Martin said in a BBC Radio Documentary on Harrison.
“He got a bit fed up because his own music wasn’t recognised, by me as well, I’m guilty. I took the two geniuses and ignored the third,” he regretfully admitted.
Harrison didn’t start out writing such hugely influential numbers though. In 1958, when the band was known as The Quarrymen, he wrote the band’s very first original song with Paul McCartney (who would later split all of his songwriting royalties with John Lennon). The song ‘In Spite Of All The Danger’ was a Buddy Holly-inspired tune with Lennon on lead vocals.
George’s solo career started before the demise of The Beatles, with his first album ‘Wonderwall Music’, recorded partially in Bombay. It was the soundtrack to a 1968 film ‘Wonderwall’, directed by Harrison himself.
In 1969 he released the experimental album ‘Electronic Sound’, which was entirely composed on the Moog synthesiser, but it was in 1970 after the split of the Beatles when he began to use his solo career as a vehicle for his pop songs releasing the first triple album ever released by a solo artist: ‘All Things Must Pass’ which features some of his most iconic solo songs, including ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘My Sweet Lord’.
During The Beatles Harrison had twenty two of his songs recorded by the band, which made the seventeen songs included on ‘All Things Must Pass’ seem quite overwhelming for fans of the quiet one.
After the madness that was The Beatles split in 1970, Harrison was the first of the four to step out of the rubble and hit the stage again, organising the Concert for Bangladesh at the suggestion of his friend Ravi Shankar. The concert was to raise money and awareness of the violent Bangladesh Liberation War in which West Pakistan launched an attack on what was then East Pakistan after the Bengali people began to demand independence. The Concert for Bangladesh was one of the first all-star shows where musicians from different bands performed together creating supergroups.
The concert was held twice – once at midday and once later that night – on August 1, 1971 and featured performances from George, his former band mate Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Ravi Shankar and more.
In 1973, on the album ‘Living In The Material World’, Harrison took a stab at the litigious breakup of the Beatles in the song ‘Sue Me, Sue You Blues’ where he sang about the ludicrous situation they all found themselves in. “I’m tired of playing the sue me, sue you blues,” he concludes the song with.
That year also saw him collaborate with Ringo Starr, cowriting two songs for his album ‘Ringo’. The lesser known ‘Sunshine Life For Me (Sail Away Raymond)’ invokes a bluegrass influence, while ‘Photograph’ – which was a single – sounded more like a “traditional” Beatles song.
His next explosion was with a cover of Rudy Clark’s ‘I Got My Mind Set On You’ on his 1987 album ‘Cloud Nine’, but it was a year later when he united with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty to become The Traveling Wilburys.
Their debut album ‘Vol. 1’ (1988) wowed audiences who until and since then had never even fathomed a band loaded with such talent.
His final album ‘Brainwashed’ was released posthumously in 2002. It was produced by his son Dhani and E.L.O.’s Jeff Lynne. The final song he had ever recorded was ‘Horse To Water’ and appeared on Jools Holland’s album ‘Small World Big Band’ in 2001. It was recorded two weeks before his death.
Following Harrison’s death thousands of fans turned out across the world to publicly grieve. In London, where I had lived at the time, fans had descended on the famous Abbey Road studios.
The most spectacular tribute came on November 29, 2002 – nine years ago today. Spearheaded by Eric Clapton, George’s friends converged on London’s Royal Albert Hall to commemorate the first anniversary of his death.
During this night, musicians as diverse as Joe Brown – who took The Beatles on their first tour of the U.K. – Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Jeff Lynne, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar’s Orchestra, Jools Holland and Sam Brown, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voorman and many more.
In 2011 ‘Living In The Material World’, a documentary on Harrison’s life was released into cinemas. It was directed by Martin Scorsese and has once again succeeded in putting George Harrison in the front of everyone’s minds.
On hearing of his death, Paul McCartney described him as “a very strong loving man [who] didn’t suffer fools gladly, as anyone who knew him will know. He’s a great man, I think he’ll be remembered as a great man in his own right.”
“I love him. He’s like a baby brother to me,” he added.
Ten years later, George Harrison is remembered for exactly that.
R.I.P. George Harrison, 1943 – 2001.