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.

270. The Beatles with Billy Preston – Get Back (1969)

Hard to believe it but I’m nearly at the end of The Beatles’ career. This 16th number 1 was the last to feature John, Paul, George and Ringo together – plus one extra. For the first time, they gave equal billing to another musician – keyboardist Billy Preston.

The Beatles’ eponymous double LP hadn’t made the same cultural impact as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band upon its release, but it was a wonder it had even been finished, as the sessions had been tense, with Harrison and Starr walking out at separate points. McCartney searched for a new project to keep them afloat.

In January 1969, the same month that the Yellow Submarine album was released, they regrouped. Macca suggested they continue down the back-to-basics road they started on the previous year, but with a twist. They would record an album of new material, rehearse it, then perform it in front of a live audience. The results would be made into an album and TV special called Beatles at Work. They hired Michael Lindsay-Hogg to film them rehearsing at Twickenham Studios that month.

What followed did nothing for inter-band relations. Lennon and Harrison later described the rehearsals as the lowest point the band ever experienced. Harrison, irritated by both Lennon and McCartney in particular, who was captured on camera patronising the guitarist, walked out. He returned five days later, but issued an ultimatum. They must abandon the idea of a live performance, and concentrate on getting the album, by that point known as Get Back, finished, and then use the songs for the TV show. He also wanted out of Twickenham, a cold location that did nothing for the frosty atmosphere amongst the Fab Four (and of course Yoko Ono). The Beatles decided they would relocate to the newly completed Apple Studios and use Lindsay-Hogg’s footage to make a new documentary film.

Among the many songs rehearsed that January was Get Back, intended to be the project’s title track. It originated from a jam session during rehearsals on 7 January. McCartney played with the lyric to a George Harrison tune from 1968. Sour Milk Sea was originally planned for The Beatles but surfaced as a single by Jackie Lomax on Apple Records instead, with bass from McCartney. It featured the lyric ‘Get back to where you should be’.

Two days later McCartney brought a more developed version of Get Back to rehearsals, with the ‘Sweet Loretta Martin’ wordplay pretty much complete. He had also come up with some controversial lyrics that would surface on bootlegs over the years. Paul decided to use the song to satirise the views of people like right-wing politician Enoch Powell’s views on immigration.

While ‘Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs’ may fit the tune of Get Back perfectly, the Beatles were wise in scrapping this approach. It’s likely not everybody would have got where they were coming from… It also didn’t help that McCartney would look at Ono whenever he sang ‘Get back to where you once belong’, according to Lennon.

Immigration was clearly on their minds, as they also worked on another right-wing satire at the same time, usually referred to as Commonwealth. Again, it’s a good thing this was dropped, and it was musically inferior to Get Back.

Bootleg recordings dating from 23 January reveal a conversation between McCartney and Harrison inbetween trying to whip their next single into shape. McCartney explains it was supposed to be a protest song, but the group then decide that the third verse, featuring the ‘Pakistani’ line, should be dropped.

Instead, the song evolved from an angry rock song to a softer, bluesy sound, no doubt helped along by the ‘fifth Beatle’, who had joined the group the previous day. Enter Billy Preston, who Harrison had invited to proceedings to try and bring an end to the bickering. He wisely assumed a relative stranger among them would put everyone on their best behaviour and give them a kick up the arse. He was right.

Billy Preston, born on 2 September 1946 in Houston, Texas, had been a child prodigy. Self-taught, he never recieved a single piano lesson. He first met The Beatles aged 16 in 1962, when he was playing in the singer’s backing band at a Liverpool show that the Fab Four opened. When Harrison had left the January rehearsals, he had gone to a Ray Charles gig, in which Preston performed on the organ.

On 27 January, The Beatles and Preston made a concerted effort to finish the song, which now featured a false ending and a coda. Take 11 was picked, but it had come to an abrupt end, so they returned to the studio the next day to work on the ending. When McCartney and Glyn Johns came to turn the performances into a single, they opted to go against the ‘as nature intended’ vibe of the project, and tacked on a coda from 28 January to Take 11. But they were right to do so, and did it so well, you’d never know, really. Unusually, the single features Lennon on lead guitar over Harrison on rhythm, as Lennon stepped up during Harrison’s absence.

Before it had even been released, Get Back had earned its place in Beatles folklore, for it was the last song they ever played together live. After much toing and froing about how the project would end, they finally agreed to be filmed performing on the roof of Apple Studios with Billy Preston. They opened the short concert with two takes, and then closed the set with one last version, featuring ad-libs from McCartney referring to the police ascending to the roof to shut the gig down (available on Anthology 3). The set ended with Lennon’s famous, ironic quote ‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.’ Phil Spector would add this to the end of the version that made it to Let It Be.

Although it was a wise decision to remove that third verse of Get Back, it does rob the song of any bite it had. Reduced to two verses that don’t really mean anything, it needs to be musically interesting, and it’s not too good at that really. It chugs along pleasantly enough, and Preston’s solo adds some soul to proceedings, but it’s far from their greatest single and none of the actual band get to do anything very exciting.

It’s not a return to The Beatles’ roots either, which was how it was marketed. Get Back is the sound of The Beatles following the curve, rather than being ahead of it. It is in fact, the boogie sound of US blues rockers Canned Heat, with McCartney even stealing the distinctive vocal stylings of Alan Wilson. But before I make it sound like I hate Get Back, I don’t. As a throwaway bit of fun, it’s perfectly fine. The single version does a good job of sounding both rough and ready and polished at the same time, thanks to the reverb added to the mix. It’s superior to the Let It Be version. But it’s clear to see that at this point, The Beatles were struggling to keep the magic going.

Released with Lennon’s Don’t Le Me Down as its B-side (which is better if you ask me), also featuring Preston, Get Back was Paul McCartney’s fourth A-side in a row. It was also the last of their singles to be released in mono.

And what became of Billy Preston? Quite a lot. He worked with the Beatles again, playing uncredited on superior tracks I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Something. In the same year he signed with Apple Records and released his fourth album, That’s the Way God Planned It. Produced by Harrison, the title track was also a hit.

Following the split of the Beatles in 1970, Preston continued to work with his friend, and became the first person to release a version of Harrison’s solo number 1, My Sweet Lord. He also featured on Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass that year. Not only that… remember Stephen Stills’ excellent single Love the One You’re With? That title came from a saying of Preston’s.

In 1971 he left Apple to join A&M Records, and in addition to his own work selling well, he worked on many Rolling Stones albums, including Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. and was their primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. In 1974 he co-wrote and released the first version of You Are So Beautiful, a soul classic later made famous by Joe Cocker.

Preston worked with Motown in the early 80s, then concentrated on session work for artists including Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston. Drug issues curtailed his career but he resurfaced in the 90s, playing with, among others, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and the Band.

Following Harrison’s death in 2001, his friend performed three songs at the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall. Also in 2002, Preston played piano on Johnny Cash’s album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Towards the end of his life he appeared on American Idol and worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond. His last live performance saw him promote the re-release of the 1972 documentary The Concert for Bangladesh. On his last song on stage he performed Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity with Harrison’s son Dhani and Starr.

Soon after, Preston suffered pericarditis and fell into a coma. He had been struggling with kidney disease and his drug issues (which many feel stemmed from problems due to being abused as a child and later hiding his sexuality) had returned. He died on 6 June 2006, aged 59.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 April-3 June)

Births:

Actress Kate Hardie – 26 April
Television presenter Tess Daly – 27 April
Actor Cy Chadwick – 2 June

Deaths:

Writer Sir Osbert Sitwell – 4 May
Civil Engineer Sir Owen Williams -23 May

Meanwhile…

24 April: British Leyland Motor Corporation launched Britain’s first hatchback car. The Austin Maxi was designed to compete with family saloons like the Ford Cortina.
Also that day, the final episode of the long-running BBC Radio drama Mrs Dales Diary was broadcast.

26 April: Manchester City won the FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Leicester City at Wembley.

28 April: Leeds United won the Football league First Division title for the first time.

2 May: The famed ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II embarked on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York.

29 May: The release of one of my favourite movies of all time (I’m not even kidding) – Carry On Camping. It became the biggest film at the box office of 1969.