Everyone seems to have a favourite Beatle. Those with a sense of mischief tend to look up to John, those with a sense of humour, Ringo. Paul was always the nice Beatle – inevitably not always true, but the one who was raised not to speak like the other kids on the estate. George Harrison also has a sizeable constituency. Well deserved as it is, I could never quite work out why that was.
Part of the reason, however uncharitable it may seem, is that George was so much on the margins. The young one, the quiet one, the late developer, so easily and complacently crowded out by the great Lennon-McCartney partnership. Apparently suffering in silence, he earned none of the blame for breaking up The Beatles, even though he walked out of the Let it Be recordings and proved the most implacable when it came to Yoko Ono.
I recently read that Harrison was the ‘indie’ Beatle. At the time that smelt like pity. John may never have said that George wasn’t even the best guitarist or song-writer in The Beatles, but it was an impression clearly conveyed, not least in that famous last hurrah on the roof of Apple HQ. George stands side-on, like a session-musician, looking distinctly bored in his dandyish fir coat, strumming rhythm as John plays lead guitar.
By 1969, Lennon and McCartney were not so much collaborating as explicitly competing, with Abbey Road and Let it Be swirling blends of contrasting styles that had grown out of A Day in the Life. Harrison’s song-writing was also peaking, and yet he struggled to make a just impact, so when The Beatles divorced and Harrison exploded with a triple album not-so-subtly titled All Things Must Pass, it was hardly surprising that new and old generations should extend their sympathy and appreciation.
This is a disservice to Harrison, but the title of ‘indie’ still fits. In more than that simple sense, Harrison was a worthy underdog. Two elements of Harrison’s song-writing make his music arguably the most beguiling of the three great songwriters. The first is his sensitivity to the world around him. The second, his boundless optimism.
It would be unfair to focus too heavily on Harrison’s early Beatles songs, written as he was coming to maturity, which makes it convenient that there are easy parallels in the post-Beatles period. What I’m going to say might be controversial.
Take Imagine, supposedly Lennon’s greatest achievement. It’s supposed to be a profound, humanist prayer, but I find it slightly cloying in its denial of the spiritual. Give me That’s the Way it Goes with it’s ‘fire that burns the lies away’ and My Sweet Lord. I understand that it’s a personal choice, but to me, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is a raw outpouring of a man’s feelings about the world around him – disappointed, but sure that Love is only sleeping. Not fundamentalist, but open. Compared to that, All You Need is Love is exactly what John meant it to be – a slogan.
Harrison could back his words up without at the same time stroking his ego. Lennon had a bed-in and the Plastic Ono Band. Harrison had the Concert for Bangladesh – the inspiration for Live Aid, and Monty Python.
Harrison’s variety was his great strength. It’s not easy to buttonhole him. When you think in terms of his spirituality, Taxman rejoinders. But just when you think he might be cynical, you pull out Here Comes the Sun, or Handle Me With Care. Then you think of his sensitivity and you can’t ignore Wah Wah. For You Blue is a simple, but bouncy love song, undoubtedly indebted to his love of Carl Perkins. Then there is his greatest song, Something. It’s simple, it’s got that rush and it’s probably The Beatles best song.
John was too susceptible to anger, Paul to sadness. Ringo had humour, but then when The Beatles were introduced to their producer, George Martin, who tried to make them comfortable by offering to hear any of their concerns, George was the quickest with ‘I don’t like your tie for a start.’ Ultimately, George’s charm was that he was a synthesis of The Beatles, combining the best from each. He could write the bouncy love songs that made the group a hit in the first place. He could replicate John’s cheek or his cynicism and Paul’s emotion. And that really was Something.