For a few years, George Harrison was in the zone. He was the utility baseball player who suddenly had a breakout season, marveling in his newfound skills, gaining the admiration of fans worldwide, yet wondering how long the success would last.
George had hidden in the shadows of Lennon and McCartney for half a decade, rarely getting a chance to showcase his writing skills. But as the Beatles were breaking up, he was coming into form. His two songs on 1969’s Abbey Road, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” were arguably the best on the album.
And the magic continued after the Beatles broke up. George had so much material he had saved up, material originally rejected by John and Paul, that one album wasn’t enough to fill it. Or two. 1970’s triple album, All Things Must Pass, was the musical equivalent of War and Peace – sweeping, majestic, epic in its scope. He recruited help from Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Dave Mason, Peter Frampton, Billy Preston, Badfinger and even John and Ringo. It was a mix of folk, rock and pop, heavily overdone by Phil Spector’s brass-laden production. Critics lavished praise over the album, and its signature hit, “My Sweet Lord,” became an instant classic.
It was then that the wheels began coming off. It started with the musical equivalent of using pine tar on your bat or testing positive for steroids. Bright Tunes Music, which owned the rights to The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” filed suit against George, claiming copyright infringement. The suit lingered in courts for years, but eventually a judge found that George had indeed “subconsciously plagiarized” the Chiffons’ song.
George always claimed that he did not use “He’s so Fine” when writing “My Sweet Lord,” but he felt snakebitten. If such a thing as subconscious plagiarism existed, then who knows what really inspires a tune? How did he know that a tune he had written wasn’t inspired by a distant memory of some snippet of a song he had heard?
Thus the batting slump began, the magic quickly vanishing. 1973’s Living in the Material World featured the hit single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” but his songs were becoming too preachy, with titles such as “The Light That Has Lighted the World” and “Be Here Now.” His interest in Hinduism had grown into an obsession; he lost interest in his wife, Patti, eventually losing her to his friend Eric Clapton.
Failure after failure soon followed: 1974’s Dark Horse (and the disastrous North American Tour that followed), 1975’s Extra Texture (Read All About It), 1975’s Thirty Three and 1/3, a greatest hits album that flopped and a self-titled album. It took John’s death in 1980 to break him out of his slump; he rewrote a song he had done originally for Ringo, changing the lyrics to reflect his admiration for his friend in the Top 10 hit, “All Those Years Ago.” Five years passed before he would see the Top 10 again. 1986′ Cloud Nine spawned two Top 40 hits, a cover of “Got My Mind Set On You” and “When We Was Fab,” co-written with Jeff Lynne from ELO. A reissue of All Things Must Pass followed in 2001, shortly before his death from cancer.
George always seemed reluctant to talk about the Beatles, much less be an ex-Beatle. His discomfort during the filming of 1995’s Anthology was evident; securing the group’s legacy was not a priority for him, especially if it benefitted Paul McCartney, whom George still regarded as overbearing and, well, more talented. It’s as if the Beatles’ success reminded him of his failures. He flourished in the company of his bandmates, but struggled without them.