(Note: The blog post was originally published on another platform on November 20, 2011)
I belong to that tiresome generation that never got over the Beatles. You know us – always droning on about how there was never anything like them; always turning up the car radio (and singing along!) when whenever they play “She Loves You”; always blaming Yoko. And why not? From the time I was in elementary school to high school, they were white hot popular, always controversial, perpetually in our face and tremendously creative.
So of course I was a sucker for Martin Scorcese’s recent documentary on George Harrison, “Living in the Material World,” which recently appeared on HBO. What a great opportunity to wallow again in Beatlemania, revisit the stations of the cross, and contemplate the enigma that was “the quiet Beatle.”
The documentary reminds us again what an amazing story this is. The boys who grew up to be Beatles were born in wartime Liverpool, a rough, industrialized port city in the far north of England. They lived in working class or barely middle class families during a time of deprivation and diminished expectations (indeed, the most arresting interviews are with George’s older brothers, whose exotically arranged teeth demonstrate that no one could afford orthodonture.)
The creation myth of the Beatles is well-told. A 15-year-old Paul sees John performing, immediately appreciates the talent and convinces him to join forces. Later, when they need a good guitarist Paul recommends George, his 14-year old friend from school. They play weddings and clubs. At first they are not very good; George has to teach John the correct way to play a guitar, but not before informing him that a guitar should have more than four strings. But through practice, energy and ambition, they improve enough to get a long-term gig in Hamburg, another rough industrial port city, where they play eight hours a day, live in a closet, chase girls and hone their talents. (I was probably not the only parent who gasped upon hearing that George was only 17 years old when he went off to play in Hamburg.)
Soon they are accomplished and popular. Poor Stu Sutcliffe dies of appendicitis in Hamburg and Ringo Starr becomes their drummer, replacing Pete Best, who becomes a Trivial Pursuit answer. They meet George Martin, the EMI record producer, who tells them to let him know if there’s anything they don’t like about the recording session. “Well, for starters we don’t like your tie,” George replies.
And then they are a worldwide sensation, producing hit after hit. Girls are screaming and fainting. They produce phenomenal ratings when they appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. And they essentially kick off the Sixties. How the heck did that happen?
In his book Outliers: The Secret of Success, Malcolm Gladwell promulgates the “10,000 hour rule” arguing against the concept of genius and prodigy; massive success, he says, is built on hard work, and the Beatles (and Bill Gates and others) did the time before they became superstars.
Well, yes, the Beatles were not technically an overnight success because they did put in an intense apprenticeship, especially in Hamburg, but I think even Gladwell must know that his theory is preposterous. Plenty of other bands practiced more than 10,000 hours and never advanced past the VFW hall.
The Beatles worked hard and were in the right place at the right time, but in the end, this is a story of two musical geniuses who happened to meet each other in the godforsaken city of Liverpool and spurred each other to greater achievement. Which means that, in the very beginning at least, George was primarily along for the ride.
George was undoubtedly a talented musician and his dry sense of humor contributed to the group’s reputation for cheekiness, but what made the Beatles sensational were the Lennon/McCartney songs. If you go back to the earliest hits to make sure your memory isn’t playing tricks on you, you discover that even the earliest songs (“I Saw Her Standing There” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand” are still fantastic, fresh and fun. But this is primarily due to Paul and John, not George. So even though Scorcese’s documentary is ostensibly about George, it’s Lennon and McCartney who dominate the first half of the film.
It isn’t until the Mop Top Beatles begin to morph into Hippie Beatles that George begins to assert himself. This was a key period for the Beatles; in fact, one of the most remarkable things about them was that they were able to make the transition from the most popular boy band of all time to the most relevant rock band in history. It was as if Justin Bieber one day grew up to be Bob Dylan.
Our parents hated and feared the Beatles. And with good reason. Their shaggy long hair and ability to incite teens to ecstasy threatened parental authority and the conformity of the early sixties. Their hair, copied by millions of boys (and this is where they were so much more consequential than someone like Bieber, whose influence is limited to ‘tween girls) quickly became a symbol of the counterculture, which they influenced and reflected.
George played an important role in that transition. Always quiet and introspective, he soon began wondering if there was more to life than being a massively popular, immensely rich pop star. He was the one who rejected LSD and other mind-enhancing drugs in favor of Zen mysticism and then convinced the other Beatles to spend several weeks meditating with the Maharishi Yogi in India. At a time when all the Beatles were maturing and getting in touch with their inner lives (well, maybe not Ringo), George searched harder than the rest and added texture and depth to the group. All of a sudden, the Beatles, who had once seemed indistinguishable as individuals, were bursting at the seams with diversity and new ideas. And the output was astonishing. In 1966 and 1967 alone they issued four classic albums – “Yesterday … and Today,” “ Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour.”
The Scorcese documentary makes it clear that George began to chafe at the continuing dominance of Lennon and McCartney in the mid-Sixties. He resented being limited to one or two songs per album, and in retrospect, he probably had a point. His song “Isn’t it a Pity” was rejected for Abbey Road in favor of such duds as “Octopus’s Garden” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”.
In the end, George’s contributions to the Beatles was significant but not overwhelming. He made them a more interesting band and contributed a few great songs (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”. As a supply-sider I also appreciated “Tax Man”) but he never approached the output of John and Paul.
It is often said that George had the most successful post-Beatle career. This reputation rests almost exclusively on one album – “All Things Must Pass”. This is an album for which I have immense fondness. I received it as a Christmas present from my high school girlfriend (to whom I had given “Jesus Christ Superstar,” thus getting the better part of the transaction) and played it throughout college. Like many other LPs, it went into storage when I bought my CD player and I didn’t listen to it for at least fifteen years. When I rediscovered it a few years ago, it was like a window back to the tenth grade, incense and patchouli oil, only now I had the life experiences and perspective to understand the deeply spiritual point that George was trying to make. I felt like the album was speaking directly to me all over again. What terrific songs – “What is Life,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t it a Pity,” Awaiting on You All.”
As much as I loved “All Things Must Pass,” I was surprised to discover in the Scorcese documentary that George had written most of the songs while he was still a Beatle. What seemed to be this amazing outburst of creativity had actually occurred over several years when he was struggling to get his work onto the Beatles records.
This does not diminish the achievement of “All Things Must Pass,” but it does make me wonder if George’s songwriting efforts were really an attempt to match John and Paul and if he cared as much after the band broke up. After “All Things Must Pass,” the output gets a little thin. In 1973 he did issue the album “Living in the Material World,” which contained the hit “Give Me Love.” But after that the hits were few and far between until 1987’s “Cloud Nine,” which contained “This is Love,” “When we Was Fab,” and “I Got my Mind Set on You.” After that, the output slackened again and then he died of cancer in 2001.
But if George wasn’t the most prolific hit-maker, he was surely the most interesting Beatle. His life really was a voyage of discovery, but not in the sense of today’s celebrities, who jump from fad to fad. George was always asking the deeper questions and trying to get to the essence of humanity.
At the same time he was searching for God, he was certainly living in the material world. With the Concert for Bangladesh he basically invented the celebrity charity concert. He had a couple of wives, numerous girlfriends, one son who he doted upon, and he lived in a 120-room Victorian neo-Gothic mansion called Friar Park.
He also had a remarkable capacity for friendship. Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Billy Preston, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and most of the Monty Python troop were close to him (he went so far as to fund “The Life of Brian”), as was Ravi Shankar and other Indian musicians. It’s not easy for an adult male to cultivate and maintain so many friendships and it’s a credit to his personal openness that he was able to do so. You only need to watch the tribute film “The Concert for George” (my favorite concert movie of all time, by far) to appreciate how much love he generated during his life.
The Scorcese documentary makes clear that as a former Beatle, George was always top dog in any group of friends or musicians. Eric Clapton says that the Beatles aura was so great that whenever George (or any of the Beatles, really) walked into a party of restaurant, everyone would turn and gape, thrilled to be in the presence of a living legend
To be even a lesser Beatle, then, is still a very great thing, which is what makes George such an interesting character. He might not have been the greatest Beatle, but to have written “Something,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Here Comes the Sun,” to have released “All Things Must Pass,” to have organized The Concert for Bangladesh – all these were immense accomplishments on their own. Without John and Paul, George might never have been known outside of Liverpool, but he took his opportunity and made the most out of it. We should all be so lucky.