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Revisiting George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’ — The Definitive Beatles Solo Album (50th Anniversary Out Now)
George Harrison cast a masterwork with his triple-album All Things Must Pass — the record that announced him as a solo creative force, and showed everyone, John Lennon and Paul McCartney included, just what the youngest Beatle was capable of, in 1970. The album was just reissued in remixed and vastly expanded form to commemorate its 50th anniversary.
The newly revamped All Things Must Pass was remixed by Harrison’s son, Dhani, alongside Paul Hicks, who has similarly revisited the catalogs of the Beatles, Lennon and the Rolling Stones. The set includes the original 23 track album, fleshed out by 47 additional tracks, including solo acoustic demos and stripped-down early versions of some of Harrison’s best-loved songs alongside works in progress — and even a few songs that were previously unreleased in official form — as a 5-CD/Blu-ray set that includes a 5.1 and Atmos mix of the album, a massive 8-LP vinyl edition, and even a $1,000 “uber” edition chock full of the kind of ephemera that will make any Harrison diehard reach for their credit card.
Below, in quotes taken from a promotional interview for the 30th anniversary edition of All Things Must Pass, as well as in new conversations with Harrison biographers Graeme Thomson, the author of George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door, and Kenneth Womack, the co-author of All Things Must Pass Away, Rock Cellar tells the story of the making of the greatest Beatles solo album of all time.
Well, when I started the album All Things Must Pass, I was just trying to do a record, and I had so many songs that I just recorded one after the other and kept doing backing tracks. And then, one day, I thought I’d better check out what’s going on, and I had eighteen tracks. Also, the accountant at Abbey Road came down the stairs and said, “Is this record going to take much longer?” So, I thought, “Well, I think that’s probably enough.” And I decided the put them all out at once.
Rock Cellar: So, in 1970, George Harrison doesn’t really know if he’s a Beatle anymore. He’s got all these songs. He does a day at Abbey Road with Ringo Starr and Klaus Voormann, which is featured on the new box set. And he does another day with Phil Spector, playing him all the songs he’s accumulated. Where do you think he was at, creatively, and what do you think he set out to do? Or, did he even know, maybe?
Graeme Thomson: You have to go back to 1966, to the end of the Beatles as a touring band. I think we underestimate the huge impact that had, on all of them, but George in particular. Up to then, he’d felt his job was to go onstage and play guitar in a band. That was his career and that’s what he liked to do. So, I think from that moment on, because he went to India pretty much straightaway, he really started to assert himself with other musicians from that point onward. And we see him developing quite esoteric tastes at that time. We see him infiltrating that into the band, and we get “Within You Without You,” which, at the time, George Martin was quite dismissive of, but now stands up as one of the great tracks from that album.
So, I think it’s a combination of those three or four years where George is starting to develop his own musical personality and then going to visit the Band and Bob Dylan in Woodstock in ’68 and ’69, and then the whole chilly experience of making Let It Be. So, I think he does know by that point that he’s not a Beatle anymore when he’s writing these songs. I think that decision has kind of been made in his mind. And although he still gets on with at least two-thirds of the remainder of the band, there is a sense of some destiny being fulfilled in a way, and in a kind of inevitable fashion, so he wasn’t just writing the songs for All Things Must Pass. He had a stockpile of a pretty remarkable bunch of songs.
Kenneth Womack: He’s balancing some of the better qualities of his personality. He’s a company man, right? Sure, Paul’s made an announcement. He realizes the fickleness of where they’re at. But he still knows that there are plenty of scenarios where George calls Paul, Paul calls John, and everybody’s back in the studio. All things are still possible. By the same token, he’s the guy who’s the best Apple A&R man. Because Paul has turned his back on everybody, even Mal Evans. He’s moved on, where others have not.
He’s not going to be this A&R guy anymore, with the Mary Hopkin and Badfinger. George picks up that mantel. So he’s out there, he’s being Apple in a lot of ways. So, I feel like he’s in a good place – I mean, other than the fact that his heart’s breaking because his mother’s dying. That’s crushing him. But beyond that, he’s really centered, and he should feel good, right? The big kudos, even from McCartney and Lennon, but especially reviewers of Abbey Road, were right toward George.
Rock Cellar: He is very much finding his voice, both as a player and as a creative force, but as a songwriter, too. How much of that was post-Rishikesh and from the White Album / Abbey Road / Let It Be era, because there’s at least 25 songs he auditions for Phil Spector? Other than “Isn’t it a Pity,” which is famously from around Revolver, most of it was kind of post-Rishikesh, right?
Graeme Thomson: Yeah, that was the great songwriting splurge, really for all of them. They’d stopped touring. So again, I think it’s a continuum. I do think from ’66-’68, there’s this kind of atomization of the band, and that they’re all going off in different directions and all doing a lot of stuff that, really, you could almost now call solo material. It’s the beginnings of all their solo careers, in some of the songs on those records, and I think George — out of the three main songwriters — had the furthest to travel. And he makes up a huge amount of ground. You think about Abbey Road, he contributes “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” by far the most streamed Beatles song there is. So, he’s coming into his solo career on a real wave of optimism and success and confidence. And he has all these songs already there to build on.
Kenneth Womack: We know “Isn’t it a Pity” was debuted for the Beatles in 1966 and they kyboshed it. And, of course, since we’re all thinking about Let it Be right now, and Get Back, you can’t help but listen to that first day at Twickenham, and George plays “Let It Down,” and John is basically playing over it. He’s just not there as they’re working on it. And then Paul shows up and of course everything goes in an entirely different direction. But suddenly, he’s not feeling like the junior guy anymore. He’s getting a little oxygen. And you certainly cannot forget, the excitement that both he and Eric Clapton felt touring with Delaney and Bonnie. It was good for both of them.
I happened to be invited to Woodstock by the Band. I spent some days with Bob and I s’pose we just got round to picking up guitars and we were just, you know, he was saying, “Hey, what about those, show me some of them chords, those weird chords.” And that’s how that came about. It’s like a strange chord, really, it’s called G major 7th, and it’s got all these major 7th chords. [laughter] So, you know, we just kind of turned it into a song. It’s really nice.
Rock Cellar: George is still, because of the dynamic that is long baked in, treated as a second-tier member and even a second-tier talent and songwriter, and yet he goes to Woodstock and hangs out with the Band and Bob Dylan, who, notably, treats him like a peer. That had to have had a huge effect on him as he’s heading into the Let It Be sessions and Abbey Road and producing Billy Preston and Doris Troy. It had to have made an impact on him psychologically, that Bob Dylan was treating him better than John and Paul.
Graeme Thomson: Yeah, in some ways, he was ahead of the curve and the other Beatles weren’t. They were a little more insulated. And they were a bit more London-centric. George’s views were open. He still loved the idea of a band, but in many ways, the band he’s in doesn’t function anymore, so he goes to find those connections somewhere else. And no one else is really doing that at that point. John was doing it with Yoko, on a very kind of intimate level. But Paul is quite happy doing what he can do himself because he can do everything, really. Dylan, I think, recognizes a peer, and someone who’s got rootsy, organic, soulful thing, which Lennon had in a much more acerbic way, but George had in a much more open way. And also, I don’t think he played the Beatles card as much as the others, so he was probably easier to be around. Plus, he was a musician.
He was very happy sitting down with other people and just playing guitar and writing songs. That kind of campfire kind of thing appealed to George in a way I don’t think it did the other Beatles. And so, here’s Bob Dylan and the Band and also Eric Clapton treating him as an equal, whereas to the people in the own band, he’s the baby. “He’s not quite up to our level.”
I got a lot of response from that record [“My Sweet Lord”] from people. I mean, half the Hare Krishnas joined because of that… I like “Run Of The Mill,” you know, just something about the words, what it’s saying. And I like “Isn’t It A Pity.” I like “Awaiting On You All.” I like the same ones now as I liked then. But I like them all in some ways, otherwise I wouldn’t have done them.
Rock Cellar: “Something” and especially “Here Comes the Sun” have really risen in stature in recent years. When people think about Abbey Road, for instance, those are the songs they think of. There are songs that were immediately associated with All Things Must Pass, but that’s shifted somewhat over the years, too. What were the hallmarks of that record in 1970, and have they changed somewhat in 2021?
Graeme Thomson: The title track has taken on a much more significance in recent years. People get the true depth of that lyric in a way that maybe wasn’t apparent at the time. “My Sweet Lord,” of course, was the huge song, and it still is an insanely catchy and addictive and uplifting tune. But it probably has fallen out of fashion, the sentiment. I think “Isn’t it a Pity” and “Run of the Mill” and “Beware of Darkness” are incredibly strong tracks, and really, really revealing lyrics. What wasn’t apparent at the time, which is much more apparent now, is what he was going through personally at that time. His mother was dying, his dad was very ill, he was leaving his band, he was at loggerheads with his best friends. There was a lot of upheaval.
And he’s looking to make sense of being 27. It’s ridiculous, really. One of the most famous people in the world wanting somehow to change the route that he’s in in his life. It’s like, “How can I alter the path that somehow I’ve been destined for? How do I grapple with that? How do I grapple with being somebody who wants to lead a spiritual life but is living in a house with 110 rooms and parrots and mountains and an underground cave? How do I square that circle?” So, it’s a really interesting record in addressing all those kinds of questions, and also the really deep personal stuff about what happens when we die. So, the songs that really address those things are the ones that I think endure now and really resonate, now that we kind of can see the overview of where he was in his life at that time.
Kenneth Womack: When you do read about the early years at Friar Park, it’s George holding court talking about spirituality, and I like “The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp,” and the way he throws himself headfirst into his estate and what it was built on and what it was about. That’s really important. But the songs that really get at who he is at that time and have staying power to me are “Beware of Darkness,” where he’s talking about — in a more mature way — the same things he was discussing in “Within You Without You” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It’s the same thing with “Awaiting on You All,” which is his spiritualism in a bite-sized manner. It’s really him trying to make “Oh Happy Day,” in a British way.
It’s the plastic gospel/soul of George Harrison. “Run of the Mill,” to me, enjoys some of that quality. And frankly, its simplest version may be the best one, when it’s more of a George solo production. “Art of Dying” has that great ‘70s riff that kicks it off, and really is setting the stage for FM classic rock, blueprinting it.
Well, we knew [Phil Spector] a little bit, he was – he needed a job. [laughter] And Phil was around. If you remember, he was brought in to London by Allen Klein when we’d done the record Get Back, [what] became the Let It Be record. Let It Be was supposed to be just a live recording. And we ended up doing it in the studio, and it wasn’t… nobody was happy with it. It was troubled times. Everybody listened to it back and didn’t really like it and we didn’t really want to put it out. So, later down the line, Klein, this guy Allen Klein, said, “Well, what do you think about Phil looking at the record?” So, at least John and I, we said, “Yeah.” We liked Phil Spector, we loved all his records, “Let him do it.” And he did what he did, and then everybody knows the rest. And so, he was around, and one day I was with Phil, and I was on my way to Abbey Road to do “Instant Karma,” and so I made Phil come with me and that’s how he got to do that record as well. That’s how we first started working with him.
Rock Cellar: It’s hard to look at Phil Spector objectively, with what we know in 2021, but even in 1970 he was a bit of a has-been, and a bit lost, drinking a lot and whatever. But he was still a big deal when John and George connected with him. But what do you think George got from him, and maybe needed from him? What did Phil Spector bring to the table?
Graeme Thomson: Well, firstly, he brought that connection to a lot of those records that George Harrison loved. He the energy and the excitement of them. Certainly was a big part of it, that sound and that connection to music that he genuinely loved. And I think George was maybe slightly cautious or maybe slightly aware that this was a big step for him. It’s his first solo record proper as a former Beatle, Phil Spector was there for a little bit of guidance and help. As it happens, he may not have needed it, but he clearly felt he did. So I feel that it was maybe two parts reassurance and one part, “I like what this guy does, and he’s going to be able to teach me a few things that I probably don’t know.”
Kenneth Womack: He famously wrote up his own production notes, which were very generous, and he helped George work on the one thing that Harrison thought was his weakness, which was his lead singing. George was very concerned about his voice. And when you read George’s interviews, he points to All Things Must Pass as the place where he starts to become a better singer. And I think that Phil was very helpful on the lead vocals and capturing those sounds and helping to shape him in that way, while not being too heavy-handed. And when you read that letter (that we produced in full) it really does feel like he is being a co-producer and not “the legendary Phil Spector with his ‘Wall of Sound’.”
[Eric Clapton’s] on nearly every track there is. The very first note on the album is Eric, on “I’d Have You Anytime.” In those days, the record company — both my record company and his — they didn’t like you to have your name on other people’s records. They were very possessive. So, if you look on the last Cream record, Goodbye Cream, my credit is “Angelo de Mysterioso” or something; that was me. He just didn’t get any credit because they said, “You’re not allowed.” Otherwise, you’ve gotta pay him royalties, or they have to pay me royalties or something silly thing like that.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about George’s relationship with Eric Clapton. Whatever has happened since, Clapton was at his best at this point, the “Derek” period, and his playing here shows he’s a good side man. He’s said George was very specific about what he wanted him to play, and he features in a way that no other guitar player, other than George, obviously, does on the record. What do you think his impact on All Things Must Pass is, from a musical standpoint especially – or even as a friend?
Graeme Thomson: Their whole relationship is really quite interesting. I’ve met and interviewed Eric Clapton and I’ve never quite understood how that relationship worked. But when George is a real fan of someone, then he really, really studies what they do and he really knows their work inside out. He knew every lyric to every Dylan song, for instance. He was a real student of Dylan’s work. And I think the same is true of Eric Clapton. And so, yes, when he got him to play, he was very sure about what he wanted from him. There’s no point in just having Clapton doing just anything. George, I think, knew exactly what he could do and how it would work. And it’s some of the best work I think Clapton’s ever done. And the songs are just so good, I think they bring greatness out of him, too.
Kenneth Womack: Clapton was there when “Here Comes the Sun” was written. He’s been there admiring George in a meaningful and very sincere way for a long time by the time of All Things Must Pass. He’s a true collaborator for him, and that’s why he gets showcased so much.
Rock Cellar: George apparently also liked the idea that this band — the ex-Delaney and Bonnie band that became Derek and the Dominoes, plus Ringo and Klaus and Billy Preston — could be a sort of Apple Records house band. Talk about that group of musicians, which is a really remarkable group of players, who did work together in various combinations for a few years.
Graeme Thomson: Yeah, it’s an astonishingly and incredibly skillful and talented bunch of players. They cover so much ground, stylistically. And it’s a really interesting mix of Americans and British, which runs the gamut of the record.
Kenneth Womack: He’s working with a lot of familiar faces, but not too long after those first couple of sessions, Alan Parsons told me, pretty soon anybody who would pick up a guitar could be playing in a George Harrison session. As May turned into June. And you can hear it, right, in some of those really big mixes that maybe have one or two more guitars than you really need. But one of my favorite aspects of the strange inner-relationship between All Things Must Pass and Layla is that George is thinking about an Apple house band. It’s like Hitsville USA or their own Wrecking Crew. Eventually, they head out to Miami to become Derek and the Dominoes.
Rock Cellar: And they’re all very soulful players. They’re steeped in gospel and R&B.
Graeme Thomson: Absolutely. They’re absolutely, purely plugged into those traditions, which I think is what attracted George to them in the first place, that ability to be incredibly bluesy and soulful and rhythmic and kind of gospely and linked to the spirituality of the music at that time. I think he was really good at making that connection, because while he was not singing conventional religious music, but he was singing spiritual music a lot of the time.
And it’s being played with a spiritual intent, a spiritual intensity, that we recognize from soul music and R&B music and gospel music. But it’s with a twist. It’s a with a kind of spiritual/Eastern lyrical twist, and it’s also with this English melodic sensibility, as well, in the songwriting. And the folk style of Dylan is in there. I’m contradicting myself slightly, but he probably did need a lot of musicians for that record, because it does cover a huge amount of ground and a lot of it sounds quite simple but the songs are quite complex. When you hear them as demos — just George and his guitar — they’re quite intricate songs. So, he had a real knack for picking fabulous musicians, and he seemed to just understand on a spiritual and emotional level what he was trying to do. It’s not always the most technically accomplished takes that are used. They’re sometimes quite ragged, but they’re always sympathetic and empathetic to the songwriting.
Kenneth Womack: Well, George, like Lennon and McCartney, loved Motown. He was attracted to the idea that you could have this crack group of musicians who can come in with whatever person you were trying to do at the moment, whether it’s Billy Preston or Doris Troy or any of the acts they were working with. And if you have a house band, especially if they’re really crack players, they could just play on any track.
Rock Cellar: And the idea of record-making had changed very dramatically. While he was a Beatle, they were cutting three or four songs in a morning and three or four in the afternoon, before they graduated to extended sessions. And they were always very precise. Except for Let It Be, they were very much studio animals, whereas this record, the Derek and the Dominoes record, and a lot of records that came later, were trying to capture the sound of a band, and a much more live sound, than previously.
Graeme Thomson: I think that was percolating. George Harrison immediately responded to the Band, and you can definitely hear that influence on All Things Must Pass. You can hear it on Let It Be, or on the Get Back sessions, and I think that was, in some way, George, again, dictating the direction of the Beatles, in a sense. He dictated it with Rishikesh, and there’s no question that from that point on he was asserting himself in a way that a lot of people don’t really recognize. And I think with Get Back, that was definitely in the air, getting back to the kind of organic, rootsy idea of a band playing together. And so, I think that continues.
Going on the road, hitching a ride with Delaney and Bonnie, I think definitely influenced his thinking as well in the sense that it mattered how you played, because it’s going to up your game if you’re surrounded by that kind of talent. If you’re playing guitar with Clapton, and Delaney and Bonnie, and these incredible musicians, like Bobby Whitlock and Dave Mason, you’re going to have to be on your game. I think that probably was very exciting for him, the idea that he was a musician whose chops are being tested against some really, really good players. And I think that you can definitely hear that spilling into the way he wanted All Things Must Pass to sound. It’s a bunch of people in the room having a lot of fun, playing to each other. But George always was very painterly when it came to his own parts, too. He would rehearse and rehearse his solos.
He was very patient, and he would take his time in terms of doing the kind of marquee parts of the songs. So that is interesting, that the bedrock is a big raucous band, and then there was a lot of time spent on the details and his parts and filling in the sound in the right way. So, it was a kind of mix and match in a way. It’s trying to get the best of both worlds.
Kenneth Womack: There was a lot of energy when you got players together who were excited to be there and wanted to do something great, because they’d just all experienced the Beatles and that idea of being ambitious and reaching for greatness. It’s a meta record, because they knew they were making a record with Eric and George Harrison in the room. It’s a meta experience. So, it’s a very aspirational record. It was really a desire for greatness that brought that about.
It’s just something that was like my continuation from The Beatles, really. It was me sort of getting out of The Beatles and just going my own way. And so, as my first record, it was a very happy occasion. I think … it kind of stands up still.
Rock Cellar: What do you think this album meant to George Harrison personally, and also for his career? 51 years later, this is probably the Beatles record most would say is the best of their solo records, so it’s aged well, too.
Graeme Thomson: It is remarkable, and quite touching, to see how George Harrison’s stock has risen and how he makes sense in these times. And that’s down to what he was singing about and the way he carried himself. And it really does resonate now in a way that perhaps it didn’t so much when the album came out. So, I think his response to the success of the album would have been very complicated. I know he was delighted that it was such a big success, and would’ve been, no matter what way you put it, it would’ve been validation for him, as the Baby Beatle, coming out of that and being such a huge success and being embraced in that way, to the extent where I don’t think, actually, he ever felt he had to do it again. I don’t think he ever felt that surge of real ambition. Or that he had to prove anything again. So, I think it probably was more successful than he even could’ve wished or hoped, in the sense that it did kind of overshadow everything. So, we do see him kind of retreating, I think, from the massive success of that.
And in some ways, that makes it even more attractive. The songs are still quite fresh because they haven’t been played all over every stage in the world, and they haven’t become clichéd, and we haven’t become bored with them. They’re very, very touching and poignant and sometimes a very amusing snapshot of where he was in his life at that time. And it’s some of the most honest writing I’ve heard certainly from any of the Beatles, too. John was honest in a very different kind of way. But George was equally as revealing and honest on that record. So, it still feels like there’s land there to be discovered, and the boxset is part of that. It’s scoping out a bit more of that terrain. And that’s a good thing, I think, to see and hear a little more of the hinterland of that record, because to understand a little more about George Harrison is a very welcome thing, because he is kind of the Beatle for our times, in a way.
Kenneth Womack: It’s George Harrison’s mega-statement. It’s his own emancipation, but then, at the same time, it is also has great range. It’s not George working in the very narrow vein that might include “Within You Without You,” “Love You To,” and “Inner Light.” He’s not working in a narrow field anymore. He is showing a deep breadth. And frankly, it’s an enjoyable experience, and that counts for a lot 50 years on. It’s still something. It’s a great listen, that record. All the way through from “I’d Have You Anytime” to “Hear Me Lord.” It still cooks.
October 18, 2021