The darkest day on the Beatles’ calendar is, without a doubt, December 8th, 1980, when John Lennon was senselessly wrenched from the world. But November 29th, 2001—the date of George Harrison’s untimely death at age 58—makes for a close second.
Little doubt exists among the group’s biographers and critics that George’s talent developed somewhat belatedly. But whose creative powers wouldn’t emerge with some degree of tentativeness and insecurity in the company of such luminaries as John Lennon and Paul McCartney?
When the Beatles mercifully stopped touring after their fateful appearance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966, George viewed the band’s future with understandable uncertainty. By Harrison’s account, the Beatles had performed some 1,400 live shows since their days in Hamburg. And a working rock-and-roll band, he reasoned, earned a living on tour, not in the studio. “I felt that was it. I never really projected into the future,” Harrison recalled in The Beatles Anthology. The frenzy of Beatlemania, it seems, had been especially difficult for George, who later quipped: “The people gave their money and they gave their screams, but the Beatles gave their nervous systems.”
The Beatles’ future, of course, entailed the studio years in which they redefined popular music with such albums as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club (1967) and Abbey Road (1969). The band had already enjoyed significant artistic forays with Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966) before abandoning life on the road. But it was the Beatles’ studio experiences that suddenly afforded George the freedom and, perhaps far more importantly, the time—“patience and time,” he would croon on one of his last hits, “Got My Mind Set on You”—to find his voice as a songwriter who could challenge, rather amazingly, the legendary mantle of “Lennon-McCartney.”
George’s respite from the Beatles’ debilitating global travels also allowed him to visit San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and India, where he felt “a great buzz” after witnessing the Maharishi riding an elephant. In addition to embracing Hindu philosophy throughout the mid-1960s, George expanded his musical horizons via his well-known experimentation with sitar music, the exotic, microtonal flavor of which adorned such Beatles classics as “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and Harrison’s own “Within You, Without You” off of Sgt. Pepper. The song’s simple message functions as a microcosm for his larger aesthetic: “When you’ve seen beyond yourself / Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.”
George’s Beatles songs frequently demonstrate his latent wit—who can forget the wordplay and political gamesmanship of, say, “Taxman” or “Piggies”? Yet Harrison’s later, more enduring tunes evince a solemnity that comes from knowing oneself: an attribute that cannot always be so readily assigned to his ostensibly more formidable bandmates. The White Album’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a song that emerged as a staple of 1970s album-oriented radio, casts George as an observer eavesdropping on a distorted world. In contrast with John and Paul—whose songs vacillate between confessional narrative and hyper-rhetorical balladry throughout the latter part of the 1960s—George clearly preferred to err on the side of philosophy, the place where meaning finally transcends experience.
George comes into his own, of course, on Abbey Road, the Beatles’ magnificent swan song of an album, which featured the symphonic suite that closed the band’s career. The unbridled optimism of “Here Comes the Sun” is matched—indeed, surpassed—only by “Something,” his crowning achievement and the classic tune Frank Sinatra famously dubbed “the greatest love song of the past 50 years.” For the better part of “Something,” George’s soaring guitar, his musical trademark, dances in delectable counterpoint with Paul’s jazzy, melodic bass.
And, instrumentally, the fusion of their guitar work produces a strangely hypnotic tapestry as the song meanders towards one of George’s most unforgettable solos, the tune’s greatest lyrical feature—even more lyrical, interestingly enough, than the lyrics themselves. A masterpiece of utter simplicity, George’s solo reaches the sublime, wrestles with it in a bouquet of downward syncopation, and hoists it yet again for a moment of supreme grace.
In the final reel of the Beatles’ 1995 documentary Anthology, Paul remarks: “I’m really glad that most of [our] songs dealt with love, peace, understanding. There’s hardly any one of them that says: ‘Go on, kids, tell them all to sod off. Leave your parents.’ It’s all very ‘All You Need Is Love’ or John’s ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ There was a good spirit behind it all, which I’m very proud of.” In themselves, these perceptive words account for the incredible and sustained popularity enjoyed by the Beatles, a band for which Ringo inevitably found the rhythm, Paul followed the sun, John imagined a better world, and George—always George—elevated the soul.