296. George Harrison – My Sweet Lord (1971)

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were the greatest pop songwriting partnership of all time, together or separately writing 17 number 1 singles for The Beatles. But George Harrison has always been my favourite member of the Fab Four. Sardonic, mystical and more level-headed than the others, ‘the Quiet One’ blossomed at the end of his time in The Beatles. He had matured into a great songwriter, and I’ve always liked an underdog. Something was the first dance on my wedding day, and my youngest daughter was born to Here Comes the Sun. I even have the latter tattooed on my right arm.

Despite his new-found confidence and prolificness, it must still have come as a shock to the other three members of The Beatles that it would be Harrison who would score the first solo number 1 and biggest seller of 1971 with My Sweet Lord.

Born 25 February 1943 in Wavertree, Liverpool, Harrison was the youngest of four children. His father Harold was a ship’s steward and his mother, Louise, a music-loving shop assistant. Fascinatingly, when Louise was pregnant with George, she would listen to a show called Radio India every Sunday, hoping that the sounds of the sitar and tabla would make her baby peaceful.

As a child, Harrison liked artists including George Formby and Cab Calloway, until in 1956 he had an epiphany while on his bike. He heard Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel blaring from a house, and was hooked. At first his dad was apprehensive, but relented and bought him an acoustic guitar. He formed a skiffle group called The Rebels, and one day on the bus to school, he befriended an older boy called Paul McCartney.

Two years later, Harrison was accepted into McCartney’s group The Quarrymen following initial skepticism from founder John Lennon. By the time the group had become The Beatles and settled on the legendary line-up, Harrison was their lead guitarist.

In their early recording years, Harrison would usually get a song or two to sing on each album, either a Lennon-McCartney original like Do You Want to Know a Secret? (from first LP Please Please Me) or a classic rock’n’roll track such as Roll Over Beethoven from the follow-up With the Beatles. It was on this album that he made his songwriting debut, with the typically sulky, downbeat but interesting Don’t Bother Me.

His influence would start to really be felt on the band when recording 1965’s Rubber Soul. By this point he was a fan of folk rock from the US, but had also become interested in Indian music through the filming of that year’s film Help!. His track If I Needed Someone, a Byrds soundalike, was one of that album’s highlights (he later said this was his favourite Beatles album).

Harrison became ever more fascinated with Indian culture and music, and Love You To on Revolver and Within You, Without You on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band helped turn their fans on to both – and many other bands too. And me – it may sound hard to believe, but it was The Beatles’ Indian-influenced songs that really got me into the Fab Four. I can remember the exact moment, in fact – I tranced out to Harrison’s Blue Jay Way at a friend’s house (completely without the aid of drink or drugs, I should add) and became obsessed. His first ever B-side, 1968’s The Inner Light, also marked the end of his overtly Indian material within the band.

The Beatles began splintering while recording their self-titled double album that year, and Harrison quit at one point, but two of his four tracks that made the final cut, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Long, Long, Long, were among the album’s best.

His songwriting went from strength to strength from here on in. Something was his first A-side, and famously Frank Sinatra called it the finest love song of the past 50 years. After Abbey Road had been released, they had discussed continuing, and Lennon suggested Harrison should be allowed an equal share of songs on their next album – something McCartney disagreed with.

Harrison had already released two solo albums before The Beatles split – the 1968 film soundtrack Wonderwall Music and the experimental Electronic Music the following year. He was stockpiling songs all the time, recording a beautiful demo of All Things Must Pass during Beatles’ sessions. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when he decided his first post-Beatles album, produced with Phil Spector and named after said track, would be triple-length.

Among those songs was his first solo single, My Sweet Lord. First written in December 1969, it was influenced by his production duties on Radha Krishna Temple’s Hare Krishna Mantra. Harrison was a guest, along with friends Eric Clapton and Billy Preston on Delaney & Bonnie’s European tour. He ducked out of a press conference and began vamping on an acoustic guitar, alternating between singing ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna’. Whether he was aware he was doing it to the tune of He’s So Fine, a 1963 hit for The Chiffons, we’ll never know, but he was also deliberately influenced by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ rendition of Oh Happy Day.

At the time of writing My Sweet Lord, Harrison wasn’t intending on going solo, so he offered it to Preston, whose second album, Encouraging Words, he was producing. With the Edwin Hawkins Singers providing some great backing vocals, Preston’s version is more overtly gospel, with the backing chant being mostly ‘Hallelujah’.

Letting someone else record it was one thing, but Harrison was nervous about doing it himself later in 1970. He wanted to sing about needing a direct relationship with God, and for others to be able to do so too, whatever their religion, and so he reintroduced the Hare Krishna mantra to the song, as well as the third verse of the Guru Stotram an ancient hymn in praise of Hindu spiritual teachers:

‘Gurur Brahmā, gurur Viṣṇur 
gurur devo Maheśvaraḥ 
gurus sākṣāt, paraṃ Brahma 
tasmai śrī gurave namaḥ.’

This translates as:

‘I offer homage to my guru, who is as great as the creator Brahma, the maintainer Vishnu, the destroyer Shiva, and who is the very energy of God.’

Opening with a low-key strum (in general, this is a pretty lo-fi recording by Spector’s usual standards) that’s much more ‘Harrison’, his version comes to life with some nice slide guitar work that’s also unmistakably him, before he begins singing. Harrison is earnest, pleading almost, for God, in whichever form, to come into his life. As cleverly noted elsewhere, it’s almost like Harrison is on his way for a first date, nervous but keen to find romance. I prefer the choice to build the song up, keeping the backing vocals until later – it helps create the ‘epic’ atmosphere such a song deserves. Critics of My Sweet Lord complain that the backing vocals smother it, but I can’t agree with that. They make it such a joyful song of love and devotion, and I’m speaking as an atheist.

My Sweet Lord had an all-star role call of collaborators. Among those making an appearance at Abbey Road Studios were Preston on piano, Clapton on acoustic guitar, his Derek and the Dominoes colleagues Bobby Whitlock on harmonium and Jim Gordon on drums and percussion, Ringo Starr on the same, Pete Ham, Tom Evans and Joey Molland from Badfinger on acoustic guitars, their drummer Mike Gibbins on tambourine, Klaus Voorman from Plastic Ono Band on bass, future Dream Weaver hitmaker Gary Wright on electric piano and Ravi Shankar collaborator John Barham providing the beautiful string arrangement. It is unknown, however, who played on the selected takes. I could always make out Harrison’s voice among the backing singers – what I didn’t know until now is that it’s purely him, multi-tracked and credited to ‘the George O’Hara-Smith Singers’.

Harrison announced in October 1970 that there would be no single before the release of All Things Must Pass, but Spector and bosses at Apple disagreed and thought My Sweet Lord had real potential. Harrison backed down, and the single was released in November in the US, then in January 1971 in the UK. It only took a fortnight to climb to number 1.

My Sweet Lord went on to sell millions, and All Things Must Pass was a huge-selling album. While Lennon and McCartney were busy sending each other coded insults via respective albums Imagine and Ram, Harrison, for a time looked like he would be the most successful solo Beatle of all. It didn’t work out that way, but he wouldn’t have wanted it to anyway. It may not be his greatest song, but it’s certainly up there, and if anyone deserved some time in the limelight, it’s the Dark Horse.

In 2002, Harrison’s debut single was re-released posthumously and went to number 1 once more. A very fitting tribute. I’ll look at the rest of Harrison’s life and career, and the controversy regarding this song, when we get to that point.

Written by: George Harrison

Producers: George Harrison & Phil Spector

Weeks at number 1: 5 (30 January-5 March) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Actor Darren Boyd – 30 January
Northern Irish TV presenter Patrick Kielty – 31 January |
Singer Michelle Gayle – 2 February
Playwright Sarah Kane – 3 February
Singer Sonia – 13 February
Actress Amanda Holden – 16 February
Actor Steven Houghton – 16 February

TV presenter Melinda Messenger – 23 February
TV presenter Nicky Hambleton-Jones – 24 February
Classical composer Thomas Adès – 1 March
Satirist Charlie Brooker – 3 March

Meanwhile…

3 February: Gritty British crime thriller Get Carter, starring Michael Caine, premiered in Los Angeles.

4 February: Car manufacturer Rolls-Royce went bankrupt.

11 February: The UK, along with the USA, the USSR and others, signed the Seabed Treaty, which outlawed nuclear weapons on the ocean floor.

15 February: Decimal Day! People all across the UK and Republic of Ireland were left confused when currency went decimal, despite public information films like this explaining beforehand.

24 February: Home Secretary Reginald Maudling announced the Immigration Bill, which would strip Commonwealth immigrants of their right to remain in the UK. The bill was of course supported by Enoch Powell, but the controversial former shadow cabinet minister continued to demand a massive voluntary repatriation scheme for the immigrants.

1 March: An estimated 120,000 to 250,000 “kill the bill” protesters went on strike against the 1971 Industrial Relations Act in London.

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