AlphaBeaticles. Part 12: All Things Must Pass
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Never before has this sentiment been more desired to be true than at the time of writing.
We live in an age of perceived permanence so is our desire to believe that the time in which we exist is the time that defines all humanity. Pandemic viruses, populist politics, mass extinction, climate change, deforestation, technology, over-population, war, famine, lies and the truth.
We have a collective tangible fear or ignorance of what we do now doing all for those that follow. On a personal level, we perceive ourselves as creating a new way of life, individualistic ways of living, changing the rules and idioms...just as every generation that came before. God is dead. Long live God. The alter has changed yet the dogma remains. Humanity persists.
Our generation, my generation, were born in hope that things will always improve. Some of us see that directly relating to GDP, and fewer of us believe in the advancement of a greater good. For a while, both were bedfellows alongside a humanitarian liberalism - we are all who we are and why we are is what we are. Though somewhere, a fork in the road appeared and we took it. Seeing this platform for the future shaken and pulled down by men (and women) heaving with ropes and with blood in their eyes has led to disruption, separation, fear, anger and confusion. The New World Order.
It’s not always going to be this grey
The 20th Century saw huge change in microcosm. Time sped up and by the new millennium so confused was western civilisation that we began to repeat mini-cycles of the past fifty years, and stir them up into an unidentifiable stew of unrecognisable trait. The youth movement of the early 1960’s gave way to a new counter-culturalism before it had really matured, so in control of trend and capitalist opportunity was the new generation, buoyed on by a liberalist wave and lust of power. Love, love, love. The men in non-ironic glasses laughed. Then they got their guns out. Drugs happened, and on their coattails came the 1970’s: global economic recessions, down trends, fashion died and came back to call itself God. We still believe, but in what creates a cultural confusion. 1980’s saw the regain of control from those who it’d been pickpocketed three generations previous and suddenly money was the alter to which we’d all bow. Since then it’s been everything, all at once. The 1990’s was new and old, and the millennium has seen future past.
All things must pass.
George Harrison, of Speke, Liverpool, was all of this.
Encouraged to pick out a Raunchy bass line guitar riff on the top deck of a bus one evening in 1958, he unknowingly set himself on a path of revelation, discovery, self-exploration, hypocrisy, quiet iconoclasm, hope and cynicism that would define much of what the century as a whole meant to those looking back on it.
We know the story, whilst this isn’t a work of biography, George’s journey is one that deserves special attention as he had perhaps the most front row of all front row seats on the most thrilling rollercoaster that popular culture has ever ridden. He appeared to experience it first and second hand simultaneously.
Before teetering on the cusp of fame, George was afforded the same stage and song time as both Paul and John. Before Lennon/McCartney ‘I’m alright, Jacked’ themselves into their legally binding songwriting partnership, George was on a level footing. That is to say, just behind John in seniority and vying for closeness to him with Paul. Each of the other two had their best relationship in the band with John and the same was to be said when Ringo completed the puzzle.
At their New Year’s Day 1962 Decca audition, he sang more songs than John and only one less than Paul. They were three. Jaypage 3; thankfully that name got up and left with no warning, but the equilibrium was there, confirmed on tape. His sudden yet subtle demotion to Beatle Second Class came just at the crucial moment of development that gave cause to a gripe that would manifest in a triple album of FUCK YOU eight years later.
No one had to work as hard as George to be a Beatle. He worked harder at his instrument, by no means being a natural given to instinct like Paul, or as hard hitting as John or as individualistic as Ringo. Yet his instrument was the most singular in importance and influence during their rock and roll period - you can’t play Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins numbers for eight hours a night without a player who could add those flavours convincingly. Even Paul had tried and bottled it on the first attempt. He learnt his parts live on stage, often giving rise to very awkward moments as contemporaries will attest, but it passed. As all things do. By the time fame found him, he was a convincing and innovative player, melding a number of different styles into an authentic and new pop idiom.
Paul & John had had seven or eight years of private songwriting practice before they were required to collect the best and put them on a UK album release. George’s first attempt at a song went on the highly anticipated follow up, With The Beatles. Let’s pause to consider YOUR first songwriting effort going on a Beatles album. You’d call in sick that day with lupus, just as I would. But he went into school and did his ruddy best. And kept going. And going. And got good. Really, really good. Despite being in a band with two of the best song writer, arrangers and singers of the twentieth century, he did it all on his own whilst they held each other’s hands. So, to spite them, he bought in Indian ragas, Eastern one-chord drones, songs about HMRC. Songs about bloody chocolate and pigs and moody guitars. And they were Beatles songs, bona fide.
Make no mistake, his final advancement to rejoin his friends at the front of the stage propped up the sessions for their final collective works, not that the public saw the whole story…
Isn’t It A Pity was suggested for Revolver. No ta, said his buddies. Circles, Not Guilty and Sour Milk Sea were suggested for the White Album. ‘Hang on, we’ve got that one about Racoons and an 11 minute nightmare to finish’ laughed the freemen. Let It Down was brought in on the 2nd January 1970, and they did.
Much is made of Paul’s de-facto leadership in the latter part of the Beatles recording career, but George’s influence was pervasive. Once John (either focused on Yoko or later, dead) was out of the picture, his pervasive influence gave rise to conflict and confrontation with Paul now they found themselves evenly matched - and George was going to be heard. He put the kibosh on the last live performance being in Camden’s Roundhouse or a Greek amphitheatre (or an asylum) and only finally agreed to go up to the roof when in the stairwell cheered on by big Mal - though he clearly enjoyed being a Beatle when he’d got back to remembering what they were. He was still being heard all the way through Anthology, as he grumpily tempered Paul’s boyish enthusiasm at being reunited. He, although needing the money (a lovely bit of living in the material world, eh, Georgie?) only acquiesced to green-lighting the project to record Dead John’s songs if he were allowed to first sabotage them by enlisting Jeff Lynne to produce. He was now the member all deferred to.
George was in the unique position of having everything that he’d ever wanted, for it forever to remain just out of reach. Doesn’t that sound like each of us now, grasping for last month, for that last time we saw our elderly mother before she became tantalisingly distant, pining for yesterdays wanting more, rather than to remain; praying for a return to mere dissatisfaction and opportunity and away from what we now find ourselves in. A state of mind has never been so crucial to survival in the modern era.
Sunset doesn't last all evening
A mind can blow those clouds away
After all this, my love is up and must be leaving
It's not always going to be this grey
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time. Though it was John who left the band, instigating a long and painfully public divorce, and Paul who first declared the band DOA, it was John and Paul’s surrogate child George who benefited most. All that rejection, all that subjugation lead to what many Beatle obsessives claim to be the crowning solo Beatle glory, the triple vinyl All Things Must Pass.
George had all he wanted, but pushed past it. George was at his best, driven on to prove a point and himself when in the proximity of the chemistry between the three songwriting Beatles. All the songs on the best selling smash 1970 album were written with them still in his ear. Once that distance grew his attention turned to religion and somewhat hypocritical piety.
Though smatterings of inspiration would appear on record, his desire and his muse faded - though his guitar playing never waned, indeed Marwa Blues may be his most moving performance with the instrument (outside of the devastating slide on How Do You Sleep on Lennon’s ’71 Imagine album).
The song itself is a slow meditation on transience. A George song that has never been more universally relevant. A lack of permanence in any state that requires thought, hope and willingness to stick to yer ruddy guns. Hold On John. George Hold on, it’s gonna be alright. The difference between John & George’s outlook was (and this is so often overlooked) paper thin - the only difference being brevity. John could say it in a line, George was happy to ponder the thought, restating it to provide he and us with the comfort of reiteration. Harrison’s got his arm around us and his faith in truth, John’s saying it in the mirror in the hope he believes himself.
As a standalone piece, it holds George’s reputation as a thoughtful, smart artist working hard to see over the horizon. It was worked on sparingly by the Beatles, and it shows. The performance is ramshackle and Harrison's nervy vocal echoes the bands unease at running through it. It does give a tantalising taste of a more soulful, fuller production however.
The magic is found on the George only Beatles demo. The performance is nuanced and light and built around a very lovely tremeloed guitar motif that doesn’t quite sit still, managing to lurch forward onto the next line before the current one has satisfactorily settled. It’s end result is moving, and incomplete, which is its charm and power. George or his vocal was rarely this pretty and inspiring again, and in all honesty, it’s exclusion from Get Back/Let It Be and Abbey Road makes both albums weaker in comparison. To say that about Abbey Road says all that needs saying about the song.
Do we dare to dream of a motivated John & an unenvious Paul harmonising a ‘Because’ type arrangement behind George’s plaintive paean to hope? We do, but as with much of George, that dream is just out of reach.
A cloud burst doesn’t last all day.
In the morning it will fade away.
Stay at home. Be safe. You’ll see that aged parent again. All Things Must Pass.