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.

274. The Rolling Stones – Honky Tonk Women (1969)

We’ve only just reached the end of The Beatles’ 17 number 1s, and now it’s now time to say goodbye to The Rolling Stones.

Since their triumphant comeback in 1968 with Jumpin’ Jack Flash, they hadn’t released any UK singles, but the album it came from, Beggars Banquet, was a real return to form, and the start of a run of classic LPs. Some of the tracks, including epic opener Sympathy for the Devil, are among the finest rock songs of the late 60s.

In December 1968 they filmed the concert special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus for the BBC. The line-up included Taj Mahal, The Who, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithfull and a one-off appearance by supergroup The Dirty Mac, consisting of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell. The Stones withheld the show, believing their appearance to be substandard, though some claim they felt The Who outshone them. It eventually surfaced in 1996, and is worth a watch.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards holidayed together that Christmas in a ranch in rural Brazil, and while there they became inspired to write their next single. There is not an ounce of Brasilia in either version, but it did bring to mind Americana, country and roots. Originally they had in mind the version that surfaced on next album Let It Bleed. Country Honk was, as the name implies, a country version of Honky Tonk Women, with slightly different lyrics (the first verse is set in Jackson, Mississippi rather than Memphis, Tennessee) and Byron Berline on fiddle.

Multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones featured on the demos for this track, recorded that March. It would be the last material he performed on. By the time the band regrouped in June, they had met with Jones at his home. Increasingly paranoid and drug-addled, the former bandleader had been contributing less and less, and couldn’t compete with Jagger and Richards’ growing control any more. He left the band.

Seeking a replacement, their keyboardist Ian Stewart and bluesmith John Mayall recommended a 20-year-old guitarist called Mick Taylor to Jagger. He had replaced Peter Green in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1967 when he left to form Fleetwood Mac. The Stones invited Taylor to a session, and he believed he was only wanted as a session musician, but they were impressed and he was asked to continue. He overdubbed guitar on to Country Honk and the new electric version they were planning to release as a single, called Honky Tonk Women.

Richards later claimed that Taylor had transformed the single, but the newest member of the group insisted his contribution was minimal. Whatever he actually did, he’s listed with Richards as lead guitarist. Richards also provided the rowdy backing vocals and rhythm guitar. Along with the usual roles for the rest of the band, the single featured backing vocals from Reparata and the Deltrons, who had a hit in 1968 with Captain of Your Ship, Nanette Workman (slyly credited as ‘Nanette Newman’) and Doris Troy, later to be best known for her orgasmic wailing on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle duetted on saxophones, and producer Jimmy Miller was the man behind the cowbell.

The Rolling Stones really know how to write brilliant intros, and Honky Tonk Women is one of their most memorable, thanks to the cowbell, and Watts’ raunchy drumbeat. Jagger begins to tell his tales of sexual conquest in a louche drawl, boasting about picking up a ‘gin soaked bar-room queen in Memphis.’ They’re pretty risqué lyrics for the day, with references to ‘a ride’ and laying divorcees, but Jagger gets around it by ramping up the accent to a comical degree, making some of the words almost intelligible. I love the lyric ‘she blew my nose and then she blew my mind’.

Musically, it’s not too adventurous, throwaway even. It’s not up to the standard of most of their number 1s, and sees the start of The Rolling Stones settling into their role as the ultimate good-time rock’n’roll band. Only two verses and it’s over in under three minutes, but it’s still a lot of fun.

But just before its release, the fun stopped for Brian Jones. He was found dead in his swimming pool on 3 July. Death by misadventure was the official reason, but his liver and heart were both enlarged from his pursuit of drink and drugs. He was 27, that infamous age that many rock stars have died at.

The Stones were scheduled to perform a free televised concert at Hyde Park on 5 July. Planned in part to unveil their new guitarist, it became a wake for Jones. In an example of pure black comedy, butterflies were let out into the crowd, but many had died, so they were simply banged out of boxes onto the floor as the band got started. It’s what Jones probably wouldn’t have wanted.

The Rolling Stones were the last British band to have a number 1 in the 60s. They have never topped the singles charts since, and it’s unlikely they will until perhaps Jagger or Richards die… so, some time in the 31st century, perhaps. The classic albums kept coming for a while though, with Let It Bleed their final LP of the 60s, released 5 December, featuring Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

Unfortunately the 60s came to a tragic end for the Stones. A day after its release they headlined the Altamont Free Concert. It was a bad idea to have the Hells Angels providing security, and several scuffles between them and the crowd ended with armed fan Meredith Hunter stabbed and beaten to death, during, of all songs, Sympathy for the Devil.

The 70s began with the band having left Decca records to set up Rolling Stones Records. The first material released, Sticky Fingers (1971), contained Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. They became tax exiles, moved to France and recorded the double album Exile on Main Street. Raw and ragged, it’s considered by many to be their last classic, as the rest of the 70s saw commercial success but lukewarm reviews from critics, starting with Goat Head’s Soup in 1973.

Miller departed as producer, and then Taylor left after the release of the Glimmer Twins-produced It’s Only Rock’n’Roll in 1974. Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood had contributed to the title track, but his group were still taken by surprise when he took up an offer to join the Rolling Stones. But frustrations over numerous drug offences affecting the group’s abilities to tour meant this wasn’t the best period for Wood to be joining them.

Fortunately things picked up again in 1978 with the release of Some Girls, which featured their last classic, the disco-influenced Miss You. Despite the Stones being on top again, a rift developed between Jagger and Richards. Nevertheless, 1981’s album of outtakes contained Start Me Up, another huge hit.

Jagger became too busy with a solo album to concentrate much on the Rolling Stones, and their output suffered, like many 60s/70s legends, from substandard material recorded with bombastic production techniques.

In 1985 Jagger had a number 1 single with David Bowie for Live Aid, featuring one of the stupidest, most unintentionally hilarious videos of all time. I am of course referring to Dancing in the Street. That same year saw the death of the Stones’ keyboardist Ian Stewart, who had been there from the start. With both of the Glimmer Twins releasing solo albums, these were lean years for The Rolling Stones.

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, along with Jones, Stewart and Taylor, and this helped thaw the frosty relationship of Jagger and Richard, who put aside their differences and began work on their first album in three years, Steel Wheels. It was the best they’d made in a while, though nowhere near their best, which was now a distant memory.

Bassist Bill Wyman decided to leave in 1991, but the news was kept secret until 1993. He went on to form Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. We won’t go into his love life, because as we all know, he’s on extremely dodgy ground there. Darryl Jones has been their bassist ever since, yet for some reason he isn’t given recognition as a ‘full’ member of the band. I just hope it has nothing to do with the colour of his skin. And that isn’t an insinuation, just a genuine hope.

The Stones took a break after touring and then released Voodoo Lounge in 1994, which was their most critically acclaimed in years, followed in quick succession by the half-decent Stripped (1995). They brought the 90s to a close with Bridges to Babylon (1997).

Their last album of original material to date, A Bigger Bang, was released in 2005. 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation, so the Stones embarked on yet another mammoth tour off the back of their 1000th greatest hits compilation.

In 2013 Michael Eavis finally got his wish and they headlined the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was lucky enough to be there, and they surpassed my expectations, playing a set of classic material. What really stood out was how much they seemed to relish the opportunity. They didn’t phone their set home, they attacked it with all the energy of a band more than half their age. It’s truly incredible how they can still have so much passion, really.

It’s a long, long time since The Rolling Stones were known as the most dangerous band in the world. You could argue they are just a money-spinning brand now, and to be fair, I’ve made that argument before. But seeing them at Glastonbury changed my opinion. Granted, we haven’t needed most of their recorded output since the early 80s, but it became clear to me that they actually get a kick out of still performing, even after all this time. Jagger recently had heart surgery, and is back on stage after a few months. The man is 75. He must have sold his soul to the devil to carry on the way he is. Look at Keith. He definitely has.

Their tally for number 1 singles may not match The Beatles or Elvis Presley, but The Rolling Stones outlasted them, through drug addictions, prison and deaths. They will come to an end one day though, and it may take that for people to realise not only that the Glimmer Twins were once one of the most talented songwriting teams of all time, but that we have lived through a true musical phenomenon, the like of which we’ll never see again.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Jimmy Miller

Weeks at number 1: 5 (23 July-29 August)

Births:

Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson – 26 July
Bounty hunter Domino Harvey – 7 August
Joe Swail – Northern Irish snooker player – 29 August

Deaths:

Physicist Cecil Frank Powell – 9 August
Novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett – 27 August

Meanwhile…

23 July: The debut of BBC Two’s long-running snooker tournament Pot Black. The Beeb had been looking for programmes that could exploit its new colour transmissions, and they struck gold by turning snooker from a minority sport into one of the most popular in the UK. The show ran until 1986, but returned for many specials well into the 21st century.

1 August: The pre-decimal halfpenny ceased to be legal tender. The rest of the first half of August’s news was mostly taken up by the start of one of the late-20th-century’s biggest conflicts – The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

12 August: The Battle of the Bogside began in Derry. The Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Jack Lynch, made a speech the day after the ruins began requesting a United Nations peacekeeping force for Northern Ireland.

14 August, British troops were deployed to restore order, and by the time they had, eight people had been shot dead, over 750 were injured, and over 400 homes and businesses had been destroyed. It was only the beginning.

264. Fleetwood Mac – Albatross (1969)

Fleetwood Mac are one of the biggest-selling acts of all time. Like Pink Floyd, they started out in the 60s and overcame losing their chief songwriters to become hugely successful in the 70s with a very different sound, selling millions of records.

Also like Pink Floyd, they’ve only ever had one UK number 1 single. Peter Green’s classic balmy instrumental Albatross, which conjures up images of waves lapping against a sun-kissed beach, must have come as welcome relief during the winter of 1968/69.

Green had been Eric Clapton’s replacement as guitarist in John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers. Early in 1967, drummer Aynsley Dunbar announced he was leaving the group, and Green suggested to Mayall a former bandmate of his called Mick Fleetwood. The new version of the band consisted of Mayall on vocals, Green, Fleetwood and bassist John McVie. During their next recording session they named an instrumental after their new rhythm section, Fleetwood Mac.

Soon afterwards saw the debut of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, consisting of Green, Fleetwood, slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and temporary bassist Bob Brunning, who was only there until McVie could be tempted away from The Bluesbreakers. It didn’t take long. No matter what has happened within the band since, Fleetwood and McVie have always remained.

Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous debut LP, a no-frills, bluesy affair, was released in February 1968. Not long after they entered the singles chart for the first time with Black Magic Woman, which became more famous via Santana’s version in 1970. Second album Mr Wonderful swiftly followed, featuring Christine Perfect on keyboards.

Around this time, Green had become impressed with a young guitarist called Danny Kirwan, and when his band Boilerhouse split, he invited him to join Fleetwood Mac. Green was unhappy with Spencer’s lack of willingness to help contribute to original material, but Kirwan was keen.

Among the material Green asked Kirwan for help with was Albatross. The song was said to have been inspired by Santo & Johnny’s Sleep Walk in 1959, though there is a more close resemblance rhythmically to Chuck Berry’s 1957 track Deep Feeling.

I love the lush sound of Albatross. This simple composition is for me one of the most atmospheric chart-toppers so far. From Fleetwood’s deep, muted drumming, played on timpani mallets to sound like rolling waves, to the languid guitar work of Green and Kirwan (Spencer is absent), there’s no wonder this gorgeous, tranquil tune has been used on TV and films so much over the years whenever a gorgeous scene of paradise is needing an appropriate piece of music. Apparently, the reason this single topped the charts is because it was used by the BBC on a nature documentary, and captured the public’s imagination.

The success of Albatross marked the first change in Fleetwood Mac’s sound, as they began to move away from pure blues during 1969. They signed with Immediate Records and Man of the World was a hit. Oh Well was a heavy rock classic, particuarly the first part, featuring a riff Led Zeppelin would be proud of.

Unfortunately, by the time of the dark psychedelia of The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown) in 1970, Green’s mental health was rapidly dimishing. He had taken LSD at a hippy commune in Munich and had become erratic. Following an argument in which Green announced he wanted to give all the band’s money to charity, he left Fleetwood Mac in May. After an uncredited appearance on their 1973 album Penguin, he disappeared into obscurity. When he did resurface in the 90s, he was a shadow of his former self. I wonder what he made of his old band’s enormous success?

Fleetwood Mac struggled once their principle songwriter had gone. Perfect, now married to McVie, became a full-time member that August. In February 1971 Spencer went out to buy a magazine. He never returned. After several days searching they discovered he had joined a cult known as the Children of God. Kirwan was the next to leave, in 1972, having become a full-blown alcoholic. After his last solo album in 1979 he left the music industry for good. Their was to be no comeback for Green’s protégé. He spent much of the 80s and 90s homeless, and divorced, and had an estranged son. He died in June 2018, aged 68.

After numerous line-up changes, success finally beckoned when guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and his partner Stevie Nicks joined up in 1975. They released their second eponymous LP, which sold millions. Despite their new-found commercial success, the new line-up was mired in personal problems. The McVies and Buckingham and Nicks all split up, and the relationship turmoil resulted in one of their most famous albums. Rumours is one of the most famous pop-rock albums of the 70s. They ended the decade with the more experimental Tusk.

For much of the 80s, Fleetwood Mac were on sabbatical, with solo careers taking up most of the time. This most famous line-up regrouped in 1987 for another huge-selling album. Tango in the Night was their biggest since Rumours, and featured the hit singles Little Lies and Everywhere.

I have to confess to not really getting the massive fame of the soft-rock 70s and 80s incarnation of Fleetwood Mac. I like Rumours, and Little Lies transports me back to my childhood, but they’re a bit too safe for me. Albatross is in my opinion their best single. Even the Beatles loved it, and would pinch the sound on their similarly gorgeous Sun King from Abbey Road (1969). Its soothing tones would also drift in and out of The KLF’s influential ambient Chill Out album from 1990.

Buckingham and Nicks left after a fight in 1987, and the next Fleetwood Mac album, 1990’s Behind the Mask, recieved mixed reviews. The 70s/80s era line-up reformed to perform at Bill Clinton’s inauguration as US President in 1993 to perform his campaign’s theme song, Don’t Stop. In 1997 they reformed again, and a year later Fleetwood Mac were entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As well as the current line-up, Green, Spencer and Kirwan were also inducted.

Fleetwood Mac’s last studio album to date was Say You Will in 2003. Buckingham left for (to date) the last time in 2018, and was replaced by Neil Finn from Crowded House and Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The current line-up still perform Albatross, and their sole number 1 always appears on any greatest hits compilations.

Written by: Peter Green

Producer: Mike Vernon

Weeks at number 1: 1 (29 January-4 February)

Deaths:

Actor Boris Karloff – 2 February