George Harrison’s Magnum Opus ‘All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary’ Edition

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“Sunrise doesn’t last all morning, a cloudburst doesn’t last all day. Seems my love is up and left you with no warning, its not always going to be this grey…” – George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass”

Since its been a whole month since this new 50th anniversary version of All Things Must Pass came out on August 6th I’ll have to admit to you, it’s taken me a while to get this piece written. Other things kept popping up from Plant/Krauss to Metallica that prevented me from getting this done. The original LP/vinyl version of George Harrison’s first (official) solo album All Things Must Pass was three albums long – already a magnum opus – the 50th anniversary edition is 5 CDs. That’s a lot to digest. I had been shying away from sharing my thoughts on big editions like this that are focused on one album. Well, I’ve been shying away from anything like this by anybody but Prince. Prince’s “deluxe editions” are always packed with an enormous amount of unreleased material. John Lennon did a 50th anniversary edition of Imagine and I didn’t even check it out. I figured it would be all roughed out demos and “alternate takes.” Only the true collectors could delve into those waters. The box set that changed my opinion on this was CSNY’s Deja Vu – 50th Anniversary. That set blew me away. And admittedly I’ve been in a heavy celebration of all the great music of 1971 all year long…

I remember when the sitcom Seinfeld was on television. Seinfeld was a huge Superman fan. It reignited a debate from when I was a kid. The question always was, are you a Batman fan or a Superman fan? We like to create rivalries on all things it seems. Supposedly, which side you fall on in this debate tells us something about your personality. For the record, I’m a Batman fan. He was darker… his origin story was more violent and horrible. Anyway, there was a similar debate when I started listening to music – are you a Beatles guy or a Stones guy? In the late 70s when I first started listening to music, I was 100% a Stones guy. Not surprisingly, my brother who usually tends to line up on the opposite side from me, was a Beatles fan. Frankly, all these years later I believe it’s possible to be a fan of both… the Stones and the Beatles, not Superman and Batman… you have to make a choice on the latter. For Beatles fans, it wasn’t enough to be a Beatles fan, you had to declare a “favorite Beatle.” Purists, what are you going to do? I think, and I would never dare to speak for him, my brother was a George fan. George was the quiet Beatle. I think George was considered the quiet Beatle because he could never get a word in edgewise with McCartney and Lennon hogging the spotlight. I always thought of him as more the sullen, frustrated Beatle. He wrote songs like “Taxman,” or “You Like Me Too Much.”

When the Beatles finally disintegrated in acrimony, they all went on to solo careers. For years Harrison had been stockpiling songs. Lennon and especially McCartney prevented his songs from making the released Beatles albums. His contributions to the Beatles’ last LP, Abbey Road, couldn’t be ignored however. The songs “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” were the best songs on the album. Sinatra once covered “Something” in concert and announced it as the best song Lennon/McCartney ever wrote… probably too much bourbon for Frank. There was some thought that McCartney was threatened by Harrison’s amazing development as a songwriter and that was another contributing factor in the Beatles break up. McCartney’s penchant for doing dozens and dozens of takes on trifles like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” or “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” couldn’t have helped. Lennon used to refer to those types of songs as McCartney’s “granny-style” music.

Harrison really had developed as a songwriter and with Lennon/McCartney keeping his songs off the Beatles records he had this incredible number of great songs he was sitting on. Uber-producer Phil Spector had worked with the Beatles on what would become Let It Be and had worked with John Lennon on his early solo stuff. Harrison decided to bring him in for All Things Must Pass. Spector’s “wall of sound” was considered the perfect background for Harrison’s “reedy” voice. I’ve always liked his voice, I’m not sure where that assessment comes from. The burst of creativity that is All Things Must Pass is nothing short of breathtaking. It was a statement to the world, George Harrison would be silenced no longer. It was a double album with a third LP sub-titled Apple Jams all packaged in a small box. Three LPs was almost unheard of in the 70s. I remember going into my brothers room and marveling at the enormity of it all. He had that box and the Concert For The People of Bangladesh which was also a triple- LP packaged in a large box. Those are probably worth some money these days. I don’t know where my brother got all this bread to buy these giant box sets but clearly his allowance was larger than mine.

To me, All Things Must Pass is the greatest solo LP from any Beatle. Ok, I could probably do without the Apple Jams third album. Like most people who discovered rock n roll in the 70s I started off as a big McCartney fan. Then by college I’d shifted to being a Lennon guy. I love their solo work but nothing compares to All Things Must Pass. The sheer volume of top shelf material here is astounding. Harrison has spent the end of ’69 up at Woodstock with Dylan and the Band and his obsession with the sitar ended and he rediscovered playing guitar. That experience supposedly inspired “Run of the Mill,” a track that ends the first album. He also covers Dylan’s “If Not For You.” “My Sweet Lord” was the first single, one of Harrison’s signature songs. So many great tracks: “Wah Wah” about the guitar, a farewell to his former bandmates in the title track, “Let It Down,” “Beware of Darkness,” and so many more. Every track on the first two albums could have been a hit. Maybe if Harrison had held back some of these tracks he could have solidified his solo career in the early days. There’s rock and roll, folk influences, gospel chords and of course, Eastern religion plays heavily here. It was an explosion of creativity that signified everything Harrison was into and everything he was about. It’s enormous yet a very personal statement. “Awaiting On You All” has been running through my brain non-stop all month. I’m a non believer and I’m singing, “the lord is awaiting on you all to awaken and see.” I’m not sure that’s true but what a great song and sentiment. 

The band backing him on this album is also quite extraordinary. Clapton brought all the guys he’d met while on tour with Blind Faith from the opening band, Delaney and Bonnie inlcuding Jim Gordon (drums) and Carl Radle (bass). Those guys went on to form Derek and the Dominos. Ringo shows up as well as John and Yoko on a track. Tellingly, only McCartney is absent. If you dig deep enough it’s a who’s who of British rock. Ginger Baker from Cream plays drums on a track. Klaus Voorman, bassist friend of the Beatles is here. Peter Frampton is on acoustic guitar. Billy Preston and Bobby Whitlock show up on keyboards. Dave Mason, guitarist of Traffic is on the LP. Alan White, later of Yes shows up on drums. Spector’s “wall of sound” approach usually included multiple drummers, guitars and backing singers on all songs. One could imagine him saying, “More guitars and drums and you two in the back, pick up those tubas and play something… horns, more horns.” The sound is all encompassing and powerful. It’s really incredible.

All of that said, I really dig the bonus material here and believe me, with three discs of it, there is plenty. Disc 3 on the CD version of the box is probably my favorite. It’s Harrison laying down demos of the tracks for Spector. It’s just Harrison, typically on acoustic guitar with Ringo on drums and Klaus Voorman on bass. That’s a similar line up of who recorded Lennon’s Plastic Ono album. Just Lennon and that same rhythm section. I think Spector’s decision to add all the backing musicians and turn it up to 11 was the right decision but I like these quiet, stripped down versions. They’re all (for the most part) fully realized songs. It makes for a much more personal statement from Harrison. The focus is more clearly on the lyrics. It feels like you’re sitting around the campfire jamming. They aren’t all acoustic tracks, “What Is LIfe” is still a rollicking rocker in this stripped down form. These early takes are so different from the released LP I found them fascinating. There are a few unreleased tracks here too. “Going Down to Golders Green” is a track he gave to another artist. There are two Eastern themed songs, “Om Hare Om” and one I really dug, “Dehra Dun.” Considering the unreleased stuff, he could have done three LPs without the jam LP. “Sour Milk Sea” was another acoustic track that would have translated well to an electric, full-band version. “Awaiting On You All” has different lyrics which include a swipe at the Pope which I thought was funny.

Disc 4 continues the demos theme. It’s mostly acoustic but this time just George alone with an acoustic guitar. I like “Everybody/Nobody” which was not included on the LP. “Beautiful Girl” is a track that eventually saw the light of day on the album Thirty Three & 1/3. “Tell Me What Happened To You” was an interesting outtake as is “Nowhere to Go,” which finds George alone on electric. “Cosmic Empire” is a track that I thought could have been a hit with a band. It’s a great little ditty. “Mother Divine” is another track I wish he’d pursued. Don’t get me wrong, I dig the acoustic versions of these songs presented here but it does hint at the fact there was so much more here.

The final disc, disc 5, has outtakes featuring the whole band backing him up. “Hear Me Lord” sounds like a jam that could have been a Derek and the Dominos outtake. What a great, big rock n roll tune that one is. George and the band do a funny rendition of “Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Gang of Mine.” The lyrics of this version of “Isn’t It A Pity” start off with “Isn’t it so shitty, we do so many takes, now we’re doing it again.” I wonder if that is a swipe at McCartney or Spector? They even include a version of the Beatles’ “Get Back” that is a sloppy delight. I like the bluesy “Down to the River (Rocking Chair Blues).” The bluesy, acoustic “Woman Don’t Your Cry For Me” is completely different than the version released on Extra Texture. The musicians he has in the studio with him really were extraordinary.

There is so much to like in these unreleased demos and outtakes. It does remind me of the recent 50th anniversary edition of CSNY’s Deja Vu. The quality of the unreleased stuff is on par with what was finally released. It just underscores what a huge, freeing, creative burst this album was for Harrison. I’ve come to appreciate a lot of George’s solo work over the years but this box really reconnected me to his masterwork. It’s well worth the investment of time.

Cheers!

 

4 thoughts on “George Harrison’s Magnum Opus ‘All Things Must Pass – 50th Anniversary’ Edition

  1. My brother-in-law helped Dhani Harrison go through boxes and boxes of tapes. He said it was so much fun hearing all this unreleased stuff for the first time. He also said it was painstakingly scary getting the stuff from tape to digital without screwing anything up as the tapes are so old.

    Liked by 1 person

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