George Harrison: The provocateur Beatle?


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One facet of George Harrison’s personality that came into sharper relief for me during a preview screening of Martin Scorsese’s 3½-hour documentary “George Harrison: Living in the Material World” was his role, both in the Beatles and outside the group, as a provocateur as ready with a witty barb as “smart Beatle” John, who usually gets the credit as the rabble rouser in the Fab Four.

Their longtime producer, George Martin, who signed them to EMI’s Parlophone label after dozens of other companies famously turned the group down, shares an anecdote about being in the studio with them very early on.


He recalls that Beatles manager Brian Epstein felt somewhat like he’d hit the bottom of the barrel with Parlophone, which Martin had been cultivating as a home for comedy acts.

During one of the first recording sessions with the scrappy young musicians, he invited them to come into the control booth after they’d run through several songs to hear what they’d gotten on tape. Martin recalls telling them to listen, and “if there’s anything you don’t like, let us know.” It was George, not John, who broke the ice in what was a nerve-wracking session by telling Martin, “Well, I don’t like your tie, for starters.”

Martin says Epstein and the other three Beatles were horrified, but Martin said it immediately endeared him to Harrison.

Olivia Harrison wasn’t around at the time -- they didn’t meet until well after the Beatles disbanded in 1970 -- but she says she’s not surprised at the incident.

“You’d think he would want to behave, but maybe the situation was stiff and maybe everyone was nervous,” she told me. “He was very good at diffusing situations like that.

Despite Harrison’s early reputation as “the quiet Beatle,” Olivia said, “George was bold, and he was very provocative. I don’t know how many times I jabbed him in the ribs at some function when he’d make one of his comments. I’d tell him, ‘Don’t go there, don’t start,’ but he liked to have fun with people. He always could break the ice.”


Later in the film, after Beatlemania had erupted, the band members were asked during a news conference, “Are you millionaires yet? Where does all the money go?”

Lennon responds: “A lot of it goes to her majesty.”

Harrison one-ups him, adding, “She’s a millionaire!”

Paul McCartney, in a relatively recent interview, credits Harrison’s crucial musical contributions to the group with a story about recording “And I Love Her.” He said, and then sings, “I had the part ‘I give her all my love, that’s all I do,’ but George came up with the [he sings the signature four-note acoustic guitar hook]. That’s the song, and he came up with that right there at the recording session.”

HBO premieres the documentary Oct. 5 and 6 at 9 p.m. The Grammy Museum’s exhibition on Harrison’s Beatles and solo careers opens Oct. 11 at the downtown L.A. facility.


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-- Randy Lewis