The triple album All Things Must Pass was the culmination of a remarkable recipe of influences George Harrison had been synthesizing for years — Indian music, gospel and soul, slide guitar — matched with a new found commitment to more accessible vocals and hit songwriting, all set against producer Phil Spector’s epic backdrop.
In the mid-‘60s Harrison took time out from the guitar and focused on the sitar while Clapton, Hendrix, Beck, Page and others competed to be the most technically impressive. As Simon Leng points out in his excellent book While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Music of George Harrison, Harrison had been the bridge between ‘50s rock guitarists like Carl Perkins and Elvis’ Scotty Moore and the ‘60s guitar virtuosos, but he didn’t relate to his contemporaries’ showboating.
Then, in late 1968, he visited with Dylan and the Band during the latter’s recording of Music For Big Pink (with tunes such as “The Weight”), and found kindred spirits ushering in a new, more restrained era where the musicians once again served the song itself as opposed to using it as a backdrop for instrumental pyrotechnics.
Dylan and the Band respected Harrison as an equal, so when Harrison returned to London for the January 1969 Get Back sessions, he could no longer endure the condescending treatment he received from Lennon and McCartney, who viewed him as their little brother. He briefly quit, then recalled how much better the guys had behaved when Eric Clapton came into the studio to play on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the year before. He hit upon the idea of bringing his friend keyboardist Billy Preston to flesh out the group’s sound, since the climax of the Get Back sessions was going to be a concert on the roof of Apple Records. With Preston in tow, Harrison returned to the group.
Later that year he would produce an album for Preston and also one for Doris Troy (whose hits included “Just One Look”), both soul albums with heavy gospel influence. Working with the Edwin Hawkin Singers gospel choir (whose songs included the classic hit “Oh Happy Day”), he found the black American equivalent of the spirituality he felt in Indian music. During this time Preston recorded Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” but it went unnoticed.
Harrison then saw first hand how black music could be translated by Southern whites when he met husband-and-wife team Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, who mixed soul, gospel, rock, blues, and country in a traveling revue called Delaney & Bonnie and Friends. The friends included no less than Clapton, Duane Allman, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Dave Mason, King Curtis, and the guy who would go on to drum with the solo Beatles more than anybody, Jim Keltner. The revue was also how other future regulars Bobby Keys, Jim Price, and Jim Gordon came into the solo Beatles’ orbit. When Harrison saw Delaney and Bonnie in concert on December 1, 1969, he yearned for the entourages’ carefree camaraderie and asked if he could join their tour.
On the road, Harrison asked Delaney how to write gospel songs, and their improvised jam session became the genesis for “My Sweet Lord.” Delaney also mentored Harrison in the slide guitar. Harrison unveiled his new bottleneck technique in an early take of “If Not For You” on Dylan’s album New Morning (1971). Dylan ultimately did not use that take, but Harrison would do his own version of the song on All Things Must Pass (and could be heard on New Morning’s “Day of the Locust.”)
Harrison’s new guitar style, coming as it did at the dawn of his new era as solo artist, was like a superhero giving himself a new costume. He incorporated techniques learned from his apprenticeship in Indian instruments and fused them with slide techniques developed under Delaney’s tutelage, emerging with one of the most distinctive sounds of the early ‘70s, heard on his own songs, Lennon’s, Starr’s, and Beatle protégée Badfinger’s. It was similar to the way Keith Richards crystallized his own unique sound in the late ‘60s with the secret recipe of open tunings and no sixth string.
Along the way Harrison had also transformed his songwriting. When he had stalked out of the Get Back sessions, his songs were not the kind to burn up the hit parade (“For You Blue,” ”Old Brown Shoe,” and “I, Me, Mine”). But if he was going to tell McCartney and Ono to shove it and still keep his forty-acre estate, he’d have to start writing hits. Amazingly, he knocked two out of the park: “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.” The latter became Harrison’s first number one hit and Sinatra proclaimed it the greatest love song of the twentieth century. Harrison had penned the highlights of the last Beatle album just before the group disintegrated, the ultimate graduation from the Lennon-McCartney songwriting school of osmosis.
Harrison worked on his voice, too. Whereas he once sung with the surliest, thickest Liverpool accent of the bunch, now he lightened it up a notch, as he did with his melodies, fashioning them more warm and upbeat. As with his songwriting, he drew on what he learned vocally from the others, having been the “invisible voice” in the harmonies for ten years.
The Beatles’ producer George Martin never saw Harrison as an equal to Lennon and McCartney, so when Harrison branched out on his own he sought a new partner. Phil Spector was the maestro behind a string of classic girl group and Righteous Brothers singles in the early 1960s that– in Lennon’s words – kept rock alive between the time Elvis went into the army and the year the Beatles arrived. A tiny man with a Napoleon complex, Spector created “little symphonies for the kids” via huge orchestras and innovative recording techniques.
Lennon and McCartney both released debut solo albums that were as minimalist as possible – Lennon’s featured just him, Ringo, and Klaus Voormann on bass, while McCartney played everything on his himself. Harrison, in contrast, brought in Delaney and Bonnie’s sizable backing group and a dozen other musicians. Harrison was determined not to be like McCartney had been to him and dictate how his friends should play — instead, Harrison allowed the musicians to contribute what they wanted. They would all remember the happy atmosphere of All Things Must Pass.
The explosive bombast of Spector’s production made the album stand out from his ex-bandmates, just as his Indian epics stood apart from the others on the mid-60s Beatles albums. The Spector Wall of Sound was the perfect backdrop for a musician who had been ignored and was now determined to make as big a splash as possible. (Though Harrison would later regret using so much echo.) Harrison’s euphoria at his freedom was palpable in each cut, and the timing for his religious theme was impeccable.
The end of the ‘60s saw a huge spiritual revival, as people looked for answers in the midst of a massive social upheaval (civil rights movement, anti-war movement, feminist movement, gay rights movement, Sexual Revolution, drug revolution). While many explored Eastern religions, Christianity also saw a huge resurgence, Lennon’s comment that it would “shrink and vanish” notwithstanding. “Jesus Freaks” bridged the gap between hippies and Christians, and the airwaves swelled with Biblical imagery. Songs with Gospel themes included The Byrds’ “Jesus Is Just All Right,” the Youngblood’s “Get Together,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” Harrison rode the wave higher than any of them with “My Sweet Lord,” the best selling record of 1971. After its release, two smash hit musicals in a similar vein would open in New York, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.
All Things Must Pass was three discs of much-needed light that countered the depressed darkness of the other Beatles’ debuts, and was the most sprawling high-profile release until Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion quadruple album 20 years later. Harrison referred to the set as recovering from an “an eight-year dose of constipation,” an appropriate description for the first triple album by a mainstream artist. Many of the songs had been composed over the previous four years but rejected by Lennon and McCartney for inclusion on Beatles albums. In 1966 Harrison got three songs on Revolver (his peak in per-album composition count), but “Art of Dying” and “Isn’t It a Pity” were rejected. It was at this time that Harrison started stockpiling tunes, though many of the most accessible tunes on All Things Must Pass seem to have been composed after Harrison had his “Something”/”Here Comes the Sun” commercial breakthrough: “My Sweet Lord,” “What Is Life,” “Awaiting on You All,” and “The Ballad of Frankie Crisp.”
As George Martin said about The White Album, it would have been advisable for Harrison to carve All Things Must Pass down to one stupendous release and dole out the best of the rest over the next year or two. As it was, his next studio release wouldn’t come until 1973. With the third album comprised of long studio jams with Eric Clapton and friends, Harrison did seem to be pushing the limits of what a Beatle could get away with. Yet despite a hefty price tag, the album sat at No. 1 for seven weeks in the US and eight in the UK.
It would take Harrison 18 years to come close to revisiting that level of success. In 1970 and 1971, however, it seemed that the younger brother had left his older siblings in the dust.
Had Harrison pared it down to one stellar record, it could have been an undisputed masterpiece. And the two primary moods of the album could each rest nicely on either side of the album: the epic Spector orchestrations on side one, with the country/folk sound influenced by Dylan, the Band, and Nashville guitar player Pete Drake on side two.
- My Sweet Lord
- What Is Life
- Awaiting on You All
- Hear Me Lord
- Run of the Mill
- Isn’t It A Pity
- I’d Have You Anytime (co-written by Dylan)
- If Not For You (Dylan)
- Behind That Locked Door
- I Live For You (belatedly released on the 2000 remastered version)
- Apple Scruffs
- Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp
- All Things Must Pass