RetroReview: George Harrison - All Things Must Pass

Question: Who was the first Beatle to record a solo #1 single and/or a solo #1 album?

Answer: George Harrison on both counts. My Sweet Lord and the album it came from, All Things Must Pass, hit #1 in 1970, the same year Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (featuring Love, God, and Working Class Hero) and McCartney’s self titled debut (featuring Maybe I’m Amazed) were released.

Now that piece of obscure music trivia might surprise most people given the relative lack of discussion and radio play Harrison’s solo work has gotten since the early 70s and the ridiculous amount of attention paid to both Lennon and McCartney’s contributions to music. In fact I’m going to go ahead and go out on a limb here:

Neither John Lennon nor Paul McCartney released an album half as good as Harrison’s All Things Must Pass.

This isn’t personal preference; it’s blatantly obvious if one listens to the albums and evaluates them without prejudice. The songs are better, the playing is better, the lyrics are better, the flow of the album is better… the whole thing is arms and legs above anything any other Beatle produced after they broke up and should rank as one of the best albums of the 70s. But for some odd reason, people have mostly forgotten about it and what George Harrison did after the Beatles disbanded, so let’s set the scene before a discussion of All Things Must Pass.

The History:

-Harrison releases All Things Must Pass, the first ever triple album. It hits #1 on the Billboard Album Chart.
-Releases the single My Sweet Lord, it hits #1.
-Releases the single Isn’t It a Pity, it hits #1.
-Releases the single What is Life, it hits #10.

-Puts on The Concert for Bangladesh, the first ever mass charity concert, playing to 40,000 people. The band includes Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Badfinger, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar, and Bob Dylan. The event raises nearly $250,000 for the starving in Bangladesh.
-Ringo Starr releases the single It Don’t Come Easy, it hits #1. Harrison wrote and recorded the song for Ringo.

-Releases The Concert for Bangladesh. It hits #2 on Billboard.
-Wins Grammy for Album of the Year for The Concert for Bangladesh.

-Releases the album Living in the Material World, it hits #1 on Billboard.
-Releases the single Give Me Love, Give Me Peace On Earth, it hits #1.

It takes a bit of time to marry the commercial and critical successes of Harrison with the image of the quiet Beatle whose solo work has gone almost completely under the radar. Critics might argue that his material didn’t have the impact or staying power like Lennon and McCartney, but the reality is Harrison chose to put himself off the map. After 1973 he continued releasing albums every few years until the 80s, but his focus was no longer on music and they were mainly just a dumping ground for ideas. He released just two albums after 1982, easing into a comfortable retirement, though he did have success playing in The Traveling Willburys in the late 80s.

Whereas the death of Lennon cemented his legend and made his work infinitely more popular and McCartney promoted himself and his image by releasing albums at a torrid pace (and continues to do so), Harrison receded into the background, his incredible work becoming lost as the other Beatles remained in the public consciousness.

So why am I writing so much on things other than the album I’m writing a review of? Any time one reviews any work of a legendary artist or an album that was first released more than thirty five years prior, it is a necessity to create a launching point from which the album and/or artist should begin to be looked at from. The massive popularity, both critically and commercially, of George Harrison’s work in the early 1970s, and in particular All Things Must Pass, can’t be discussed enough when you realize that if you were to ask any music fan or critic in the early 1970s who the solo Beatle they respected, loved, and listened to most was and you would almost undoubtedly be told, “George Harrison.”

Now some people will probably argue at this point that Lennon overtook Harrison critically and commercially with the release of Imagine, but the reality is that Lennon’s celebrity and legend has shaped the view of his career. The single Imagine, hit #3 on the charts in 1973, but Lennon remained firmly behind Harrison in terms of both critical praise and album sales, going up against Living in the Material World.

It is then much more impressive to view Harrison’s achievements knowing the period they were achieved in and the musical culture they were released during. People think of Imagine as the ultimate solo album by any Beatle, but it played second fiddle to an album by Harrison that, although very good, was inferior to his own debut, All Things Must Pass.

The Album:

It is rare for an artist to have the creative reach and catalogue of songs necessary to release a double album, much less a triple album, which is what All Things Must Pass is: the world’s first triple album. Over the course of 23 songs and 105 minutes, Harrison constructs an incredible array of songs encompassing every style and influence he could possibly come up with. It is all things that all albums should be: tender, haunting, barnstorming, creatively interesting, unique, and boundary breaking. The first plaintive tones of I’d Have You Anytime (cowritten with Bob Dylan) through the toweringly heavy guitar lines of The Art of Dying and ending with the loose, jazzy sounds of Out of the Blue each song manages to forge its own fantastic identity while fitting perfectly within the framework of the epic scale of All Things Must Pass.

Anyone who doubted any of The Beatles ability as musicians (a criticism which has been thrown at them by critics who look back at them with modern contexts plaguing their impartiality) must acknowledge the immense skill with which Harrison’s guitar lines are layered and woven throughout the album. Almost every type of sound and song type can be found on All Things Must Pass and Harrison manages to perfectly marry each song with his playing style, evolving and changing his sound through intricately picked chords, slide guitar which cries with every picking, and distorted riffs which come across as heavy as any of the time.

The best moments are those which find Harrison at complete ease in his playing, singing, and lyrical content. Songs such as Isn’t It a Pity (upon which Coldplay based their song The Scientist), All Things Must Pass, and Beware of Darkness would be remembered as among The Beatles greatest moments if Lennon and McCartney had allowed them to replace far inferior songs (Oh Darling!, Sun King, She’s So Heavy, etc.) but instead they are nearly forgotten. They are all as beautiful and delicate as Something and yet improve upon the theoretically wonderful songwriting style which gave us both Something and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. This is not to say, however, that these epics are in any way superior to the rest of the album, especially the more up-tempo rock songs such as the incredible The Art of Dying and the wonderful Wah-Wah (written about Harrison’s frustrations with McCartney as The Beatles broke up).

Harrison also crosses over into the singer-songwriter genre with songs such as Run of the Mill, Behind that Locked Door, and the best of the slower songs The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll). It’s nearly impossible to attempt to sum up the best moments of the album simply because each song has its own charm and due to the fact that the album flows so well that each track is necessary to the album’s overall greatness.

All Things Must Pass is among the greatest albums of all time, the crowning achievement of one or music’s most important figures, and a tragically forgotten record featuring some of the best songs released in the last 35 years.

Be sure to click over to to listen to some of the best songs from All Things Must Pass including Isn't it a Pity?, The Art of Dying, Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll), and My Sweet Lord.

-Luke Barnard



Z. said...

Not heard any of these songs, but your descriptions are enticing. Wonderfully written.

Expect 'All Things Must Pass' to be in my album collection shortly . . .