The unmaking of a Beatle: George Harrison’s widow and son on the legacy of ‘All Things Must Pass’
All things must pass, but George Harrison is forever.
The late singer-songwriter released his three-LP solo album, an explosion of pent-up musical energy after the dissolution of the Beatles, 50 years ago. Well, 51 — but much like the Olympics, Harrison’s estate is calling for a do-over of 2020. And a vast new box set celebrating the album’s anniversary, on sale Friday, only proves that the quietest Beatle arguably had the most to say.
“These are very introspective songs,” said Olivia Harrison, the musician’s widow, on a Zoom call from England. “And joyous, too. And brave, I think. Brave for the honesty of how he was feeling. Because you can’t write these things unless you’re feeling them or you’re understanding them. So they’re very raw.”
Harrison died from lung cancer in 2001, at age 58, shortly after overseeing a 30th anniversary set of “All Things Must Pass.” Bearing earnest spiritualism, indelible melodies and a fascinating fusion of English rock, Indian and American southern styles, the album hits just as hard after a half-century as it did at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Its multicultural unity comes as a pleasant shock in our time of inflamed division, and Harrison’s introspective lyrics and Zen wisdom — “Sunrise doesn’t last all morning, a cloudburst doesn’t last all day” — are a balm in this late stage of a global pandemic.
“It doesn’t feel like this is going to pass, but it will,” said Olivia, 73. “And I think it’s good to be reminded.”
The extra year proved beneficial for Dhani Harrison, George’s son, who guided the project — along with his frequent collaborator Paul Hicks — of remixing and unearthing unheard materials for the “mega” anniversary set. Manufacturing and shipping delays affected the vinyl edition, which includes eight LPs. The younger Harrison, 43, also oversaw the artwork and liner notes, featuring a trove of quotes, photos and scrapbook materials, and even the design of replica figurines of his father and the reclining gnomes from the original album cover.
“I’ve kind of been in charge of all that myself,” Dhani Harrison said by phone from England, where he was stuck during the pandemic, making an album of his own. “I used to work as a designer, so this is one of my passion things. I’ve devoted my year to doing ‘All Things Must Pass’ and building the next five years of what we’re working on with G.H.”
Dhani and Hicks spent two years plumbing and remixing all 18 reels from the summer 1970 sessions at Abbey Road. Thanks to modern technology, the new mixes of classics like “My Sweet Lord” and “Isn’t It a Pity” spotlight formerly buried instruments and elevate Harrison’s voice above the famous “wall of sound” created by the late producer Phil Spector.
Olivia, who represents Harrison in Beatles business at Apple Corps Limited, was wary about that at first, “but actually they were right,” she said, citing her husband’s stated belief — from his introduction to the 30th-anniversary remastering — that these songs “can continue to outlive the style in which they were recorded.”
“There were things that were smothered in there,” she admitted. “He said, ‘I’d like to liberate some of the songs from the big production. That seemed appropriate at the time.’ So I think Paul and Dhani have been very balanced in how they’ve liberated some of them. You still have the power behind it, but I think George is more present — and very intimate. Much more intimate than it was before. You feel a connection with him.”
Dhani’s ears perked up at discoveries such as the synthesizers in “Isn’t It a Pity,” which were previously inaudible “just due to the clarity and the reverb and the digital compression on the remaster from 2001,” he said. “I thought there were tracks that we just had muted, but they were in there. The sonic soup in the middle was fogging it up. And then, suddenly, once you hear it you can’t unhear it. It was like rediscovering it again. It was kind of the same feeling I had when they did the remaster of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s.’”
Some of the alternate songs and outtakes from the sessions have been leaked over the years, but are now available in radically higher quality. There’s a slower version of “Isn’t It a Pity” that Dhani called a “heartbreaker,” and what sounds to him like “an Allman Brothers version of ‘Run of the Mill.’” Early iterations of “Cosmic Empire” and “Down to the River (Rocking Chair Jam),” which wouldn’t appear on official records until many years later, were first captured in 1970. A “party disc” includes Harrison jamming with his musicians and doing punny versions of his serious lyrics.
“A lot of the laughing and the outtakes and the little bits of noise between the tapes, I’d never heard before,” said Dhani. “And that’s just priceless. It gives you shivers when you hear someone talking and it just sounds like they’re in the other room.”
George Harrison, shyly strumming and harmonizing behind the competitive wattage of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, had been tending to a whole garden of his songs from 1966 through ’69. Many were auditioned and workshopped as Beatles songs but didn’t make the cut, and Harrison gave away the rejected “My Sweet Lord” and “All Things Must Pass” to his friend Billy Preston. “Isn’t It a Pity” was written in 1966 and almost made it onto the “Revolver” and “Let It Be” albums, but instead sat in darkness.
When the Beatles split up, the 27-year-old Harrison went to Woodstock, N.Y., and jammed with The Band and Bob Dylan in May 1970. Then he took that energy and his merry band of friends — including Preston, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and the group that would become Derek and the Dominos — into Studio Three at Abbey Road and poured his heart out.
“All Things Must Pass” went to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart after it came out in November 1970, and was nominated for album of the year at the Grammys. It outsold all of his fellow Beatles’ solo albums.
It outshone them all as well. Perhaps because it contains an entire universe, the body and soul of a deep thinker pondering relationships between humans as well as with the divine. Harrison wasn’t just deep, he was open. Who else would have seamlessly stirred the Black gospel tradition with Hare Krishna mantras into the No. 1 charting earworm “My Sweet Lord”?
“And he got sued for it!” Olivia said, laughing — referring to the messy 1976 lawsuit in which a judge ultimately ruled that Harrison “subconsciously” copied “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. “He wasn’t trying to steal anybody’s song,” Olivia said.
Musically, the album has the looseness of a live jam band — a very good jam band — but also the tightness of carefully crafted songwriting by a late bloomer chomping at the bit. Even the other musicians were a kind of extension of Harrison, something that was recently reaffirmed for his wife.
“When I put the needle down on the first record, and I hear that introduction to ‘I’d Have You Anytime,’ I’m in for the whole album,” Olivia said. “I always just thought, ah, Eric [Clapton] — so beautiful, so perfect. Dhani was talking to Eric, and Eric said, ‘You know, your dad told me what to play. He wanted me to bend this note like three times. It was really hard, but he just told me what to play.’ And I thought: Yes, because when I hear those few notes, it’s so simple, it’s so George.”
Olivia, sitting in the “cottage industry” based in Henley-on-Thames where she and Dhani created the new set, showed off the slightly tattered copy of “All Things Must Pass” that she bought in Los Angeles in 1970, four years before she met her husband. She remembered making her friends give it their undivided attention.
“It really had a profound effect on me,” she said, recalling how she used to tell Harrison about her favorite songs on the album. “He would be surprised that I loved ‘Let it Down.’ ‘Really? John didn’t like that song.’ And I thought: Well, I love it.”
Listening to the album 50 years on, Olivia has come to appreciate its strong country vibes even more. The backing band included several players from Tennessee and Texas — singer Bobby Whitlock, trumpeter Jim Price — with Pete Drake playing pedal steel guitar on the Dylan-influenced “Behind That Locked Door.” When Norah Jones asked to cover it at L.A.’s George Fest in 2014, she told Olivia: “Well, because it sounds so country.”
Angel Olsen covered “Beware of Darkness” last fall. Lorde recently said “All Things Must Pass” has the best album cover in history. And Post Malone’s song “Stay” was inspired by Harrison. Clearly, the kids are still listening.
Olivia said she hopes to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “The Concert for Bangladesh,” as well as eventually release other never-before-heard songs by Harrison. Last year, Dhani and his manager David Zonshine resurrected George’s record label, Dark Horse, with a focus on reissuing selections from the label’s catalog (Ravi Shankar was one Dark Horse signing) as well as titles from other artists, including Joe Strummer.
2021 is a bountiful year for Beatles lovers. Peter Jackson’s six-hour documentary “Get Back,” which focuses on the group in 1969 and ’70, will drop on Disney+ in November. “McCartney 3, 2 ,1” is streaming on Hulu, and Harrison’s music was featured in the Apple TV+ docuseries “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything.”
Olivia believes that legacy wasn’t really something her husband thought about. He knew this album “meant things to people,” she said. “He knew it helped people in their lives — people wrote to him, they told him. And he said, ‘Even if it’s one person, even if it helps somebody, then that’s great.’ But he wasn’t concerned about how he would be remembered.
“Not that he didn’t want to be remembered,” she added, “but he didn’t expect to be remembered. Which I always thought was impossible.”
to continue reading