Harrison had a habit of offering his best tunes to his friends. He originally gave “My Sweet Lord” to Billy Preston. He gave a song called “You Gotta Pay Your Dues” to Badfinger, although they turned it down.
So Starr took a crack at “You Gotta Pay Your Dues” during his Sentimental Journey sessions. George Martin produced and Stephen Stills was on the piano, but after thirty takes on February 18 and 19, 1970, it still wasn’t coming easy.
Thus Harrison sang a demo himself with Badfinger on backing vocals, instructing them to chant “Hare Krishna!” during the instrumental. In the final version of the song you can still hear it, low in the mix.
Starr tackled the song again on March 8, this time with Harrison producing. It sat in the can until October, at which point Harrison added sax and trumpet like he had once added horns to The White Album’s “Savoy Truffle.”
In mid-April 1971, Harrison’s haunting guitar intro finally drifted across the airwaves. Its arresting sound came courtesy of the Leslie speaker cabinet.
The cabinet was originally built for the Hammond organ but had been adapted for guitar and vocals. It housed a rotating bass speaker and a pair of horn speakers that spun around in different directions, making the guitar sound as if it was swirling under the ocean. Lennon ran his vocals through the Leslie for 1966’s “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and Harrison had used it in 1969 when he wrote “Badge” with Clapton for Cream; in fact, the “Badge” instrumental break sounds pretty close to “It Don’t Come Easy.” Harrison was always a master at recycling—or should we say, developing further. Thus the outro of “A Hard Day’s Night” became the intro to “Ticket to Ride.”
The Leslie effect became one of the most distinctive sounds of the late ’60s and early ’70s, gracing songs including Harrison’s “Something,” Badfinger’s “No Matter What,” the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones,” Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” The Hollies’ “Air That I Breathe,” the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” and even McCartney’s “Listen To What the Man Said.”
Badfinger’s soaring backing vocals, Stills’s pounding piano, Starr’s perfect drum fills, and the horns build an epic momentum behind Starr’s exhortation to stay resilient in the face of hardship. The lines about paying dues to pay the blues probably wouldn’t have worked with Harrison singing; the guy came from a stable family and was a superstar before he was twenty. But Starr was born into an inner city house without a toilet, fell into a coma from appendicitis at age six, then was confined to a sanatorium for two years at age thirteen due to tuberculosis, before dropping out of school altogether.
In Beatles tradition, the lyrics challenged the listener to be peaceful. It was a sentiment that could apply on any scale, though it might have been aimed at McCartney, who was taking the others to court at the time. Yet with a reunion increasingly unlikely, the song actualized Harrison’s and Starr’s determination to carve out a career for themselves independent of the Lennon and McCartney gravy train.
Starr preaches with such confidence that you wouldn’t know he was filled with doubt about the direction of his life. Perhaps his determination to transcend his fears is what fills the performance with its enduring power.
Forty years later, Starr still opens every show with it. The song shot up the charts, passing Lennon’s “Power to the People,” Harrison’s “What Is Life” (both reached number eleven), and McCartney’s “Another Day” (number five), all the way up to number four, settling just beneath the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” at number one. It was the first of three top ten hits Harrison cowrote or produced for Starr. The success stunned those who had assumed Starr couldn’t cut it on his own.
(Compare “Badge” at 1:09 to “It Don’t Come Easy” intro)
(There it is again in “You Never Give Me Your Money” at 3:37)