In the Studio With George Harrison

Eoghan Lyng looks back at the recording of “All Things Must Pass” in this bonus to our 50th anniversary coverage of the George Harrison album. You can find much more about “All Things Must Pass” in Beatlefan #247. …

Though commonly disparaged by Beatles fans and Beatles themselves, especially Paul McCartney, “Let It Be” remains an epoch of a record. It was the first Beatles album of the 1970s, and was finished off by veteran producer Phil Spector.

Spector, whose fingerprints are all over The Beatles’ final studio release, had entered into their sphere by invitation of John Lennon. Delighted with the producer’s work on his fiery “Instant Karma,” Lennon invited Spector to sift through the chaotic residue that was The Beatles’ early 1969 recordings. Yet, it was George Harrison who had invited Spector to the “Instant Karma” sessions, having bumped into him at Apple’s offices, so it was no surprise that Harrison and Spector would work together on an album.

It was Harrison who had made the earliest moves to record a completely solo studio album within The Beatles’ group structure. An instrumental tapestry of Eastern and Western textures, Harrison’s “Wonderwall Music” was a worthy accompaniment to Joe Massot’s idiosyncratic film. And, then, there was 1969’s “Electronic Sounds,” Harrison’s blow-by-blow guide to the workings of a Moog-3 synthesizer. This experiment was considered solely an experiment, described by Harrison as “avant garde a clue” on future CD issues.

Harrison in the studio recording his debut solo album.

Whatever feelings he held for his odd 1969 release, his view of 1970’s “All Things Must Pass” was altogether more positive.

“I didn’t have many tunes on Beatles records,” Harrison admitted in 1992. “Doing an album like ‘All Things Must Pass’ was like going to the bathroom and letting it out.” 

Harrison had found The Beatles’ most recent recording sessions troubling. After the “Get Back”/“Let It Be” sessions, the guitarist channeled his feelings into the storming song “Wah Wah.” His fury, even in 1970, was palpable: “Everybody had gone through that,” Harrison said in the “Beatles Anthology.” “Ringo had left at one point. I know John wanted out. It was a very, very difficult, stressful time, and being filmed having a row, as well, was terrible. I got up and I thought, ‘I’m not doing this anymore. I’m out of here.’ So, I got my guitar and went home and that afternoon wrote ‘Wah-Wah.’”

Harrison had had a tough time pitching songs to The Beatles. Engineer Geoff Emerick recalled “Isn’t It a Pity” being passed over for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and again the song wound up rejected during the “Let It Be” sessions. “I’d Have You Anytime,” written by Harrison with Dylan’s help, had been a contender for recording by The Beatles since November, 1968.

Harrison hinted at the falling-out in his autobiographical book “I Me Mine,” writing that “It was that period — the problem of partnerships.”

Keyboardist Billy Preston had joined The Beatles’ 1969 sessions, bringing an influence Harrison thought comparable to Eric Clapton’s on the White Album. Together, Harrison and Preston collaborated on Doris Troy’s eponymous Apple album, released in September, 1970. Troy, discussing her work with author Simon Leng, could see the influence that gospel music had on Harrison: “I think he had been involved in soul music for years — he listened to it, he loved it, and that’s what made him want to do it. I wasn’t actually introducing him to the stuff; he already knew it. The Beatles as a whole listened to black music; a lot of their soul and feelings came from American music.”

Harrison spent April, 1970, in America, visiting Bob Dylan. Guesting on Dylan’s “New Morning” sessions, he added guitar patterns on the yearning “If Not for You,” a crisp rendition heard years later on Dylan’s “The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991.” Harrison, absent from the version heard on “New Morning,” would return to the song himself on his first solo album. His guitar playing had turned another leaf, as he developed a signature style that may have been inspired by Delaney Bramlett.

“One time he asked me if I would teach him how to play slide,” Bramlett recalled, “and, later, George said I’d taught him how to play it. Well, he did make that statement — but I didn’t teach him anything. George already knew how to play guitar, he just wanted to know my technique, what I thought about it, and what I did. All I did was teach him my style of playing.”

Harrison had a backload of songs from his Beatles days.

Bramlett and Harrison had worked together in 1969 on a tour by Delaney & Bonnie, a group for whom Harrison had tremendous fondness.

For his solo recording sessions, Harrison had a producer in Spector who supported his songcraft. Spector traveled to Harrison’s Friar Park estate in early 1970 to hear Harrison’s demos, and was impressed by the material he had assembled.

“It was endless,” Spector admitted in the documentary “Living in the Material World.” “He had literally hundreds of songs, and each one was better than the rest. He had all this emotion built up when it was released to me.”

More artist than arranger, Spector’s production work was typified by a style known as “wall of sound.” The 1963 album “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” showed this indomitable style at its purest, as an array of vocalists, percussionists and musicians translated his ideas into massive soundscapes.

As it happened, Harrison also felt the need to work with an array of musicians, liberating the guitarist after 10 years of singing beside Lennon and McCartney. John Leckie, an engineer-producer whose later work with XTC, the Stone Roses and Radiohead was likened to The Beatles, thought the approach had a positive effect on Harrison.

“Phil Spector was fantastic,” Leckie told the website We Are Cult in 2018. “Very funny man, one of the first gigs I had. I think Phil brought a lot out of George Harrison, saying let’s have all our mates in, 24 people playing on it, rather than just four Beatles. Eric Clapton brought the Derek and the Dominoes guys along, so there were was a lot of great guitars and equipment, very peace and love. I don’t know who else could have produced it; maybe Chris Thomas, who did White Album stuff and was something like George’s assistant, but Phil was great.”

The sessions, beginning at the end of May, 1970, took place at Abbey Road Studios. Running over 100 minutes, the resulting triple album boasts 19 Harrison originals. Dylan is credited on two tracks, while writers Bill Martin and Phil Coulter were co-credited on the jaunty “It’s  Johnny’s Birthday,” since it was based their song “Congratulations.” Ringo Starr is credited on drums, alongside session players Jim Gordon and Alan White. Phil Collins — soon to join progressive rock band Genesis — recorded congas for “Art of Dying,” although his contributions were not used on the final track. Returning to the album in for a reissue in 2001, Harrison made a point of appreciating the drummer in the liner notes.

Spector encouraged Harrison to distance himself from the more direct textures of The Beatles’ milieu, and to position himself at the center of a production style that was broad in texture, tone and presence (Harrison later described the approach as “like Cinemascope.”)

George with wife Pattie in 1970

Spector penned Harrison a letter, dated Aug. 19, 1970, in which he suggested “strings and horns” for “Isn’t It a Pity,” and offered his opinion on what “Let It Down” was lacking: “The vocal group (Eric and Bobby) on the “Let it Down” parts sounded okay. The ‘Moonlight Bay’ horn parts should be out the first time and very, very low the second time they play that riff, I think. Perhaps at the end, near the fade, a wailing sax (old rock and roll style) played by Bobby Keys would possibly add some highlight to the ending and make it totally different from the rest of the song. It’s hard to explain, but some kind of a screaming saxophone mixed in with all that madness at the end might be an idea. Anyhow it’s something to think about.”

Harrison later expressed some reservations about how the album sounded, and remembered Spector with discerning criticism in years to come. Harrison was shrewd, stoic, workmanlike, while the mercurial producer — nominally a perfectionist who drove his artists to near artistic frenzies — found his time in England a more difficult period.

Recalling the process in 1987, Harrison praised the album’s sophisticated sound, but considered Spector’s drinking habit problematic.

“I literally used to have to go and break into the hotel to get him. I’d go along the roof and climb in the window, yelling, ‘Come on! We’re supposed to be making a record!’” Harrison recalled. “He’d say, ‘Oh! OK.’ And then he used to have 18 cherry brandies before he could get himself down in the studio. I got so tired of that, because I needed someone to help. I was ending up with more work than if I’d just been doing it on my own.”

“Phil was an incredible guy, a genius, but he is uncontrollable,” bassist Klaus Voormann agreed. “I think he broke his arm in the Apple control room — George was doing some overdubs, Phil came in and was completely drunk and just fell over backwards. And, in the end, George got irritated by it, and Phil sort of disappeared. So, George finished the album.”

Clapton was a frequent guest at the sessions. Joining Harrison on the elegiac “My Sweet Lord,” the guitarist is one of several acoustic players heard on the final mix. Badfinger frontmen Pete Ham, Tom Evans and Joey Molland each contributed guitar backing, over which Harrison could play his sharp slide guitar. Complete with a verse in Sanskrit, “My Sweet Lord” — inspired in part by “Oh Happy Day” — proved atypical among the rock singles released that year. For Harrison, the message was one that proved true to his heart and soul. More than that, the song epitomized the more spiritual tone of the album.

“He just lived by his deeds,” Spector recalled in 2011. “He was spiritual, and you knew it, and there was no salesmanship involved. It made you spiritual being around him.”

Spreading himself between the roles of singer, songwriter and musical director, Harrison opted to work very closely with the many musicians involved I the album.

“George would go around to each musician and make a point of showing each what he was doing,” Molland remembered in 2015. “He’d sing the arrangement to them and talk about the part they were going to play.”

An alternate version of the album cover shot.

John Barham, the album’s orchestral director, was impressed with the detail Harrison laid out for the work: “I stayed at Friar Park while we did the preparatory work for the orchestrations of ‘All Things Must Pass.’ We discussed arrangement details, as George wanted them to be finalized before the session. George didn’t want any surprises at the last moment in the studio — he didn’t like last-minute changes, and preferred things to be well thought out in advance.”

Still, spontaneity was evident in the sessions, particularly on the songs that appeared on the record’s third disc. Among those was an impromptu performance labeled “Jam 3” at EMI on July 2, 1970. Complete with Clapton’s guitar, Jim Price’s fiery saxophone and Bobby Whitlock’s placid keyboard, the song was renamed “Out of the Blue” on the finished product.

Cognizant of Lennon’s 30th birthday, Harrison also led his bandmates through a thunderous number designed to celebrate the event.

Harrison made an effort to maintain a relationship with Lennon, as his former bandmate was attempting to complete his own inaugural work in the fall of 1970.

“George Harrison had a Ferrari, a 330 GTC,” EMI engineer Andy Stephens recalled, “which was dark blue, with a cream interior, and it was parked out the front of the studio. And stuck to his windscreen he had a little vase holder with a little plastic flower in it. He took it out, walked into Studio 3 and said, ‘Happy birthday, John.’ He gave him the plastic flower and they had a hug. Yoko had brought in this present for John, which was a sensory box. It was about twice the size of a shoebox, with lots of holes in it. You had to put your finger in — one hole would be warm and mushy, one would be wet, one would have a pin in it. John had such a ball with it.”

No doubt influenced by the camaraderie he still shared with Lennon and Starr, Harrison posed for his album cover seated between four garden gnomes. He felt the album portrait gave his audience an alternative view of the Fab Four. As he put it: “Originally, when we took the photo, I had these old Bavarian gnomes, which I thought I would put there, like kinda … John, Paul, George and Ringo.”

Completing overdubs on the album in September, 1970, Harrison’s own musical contributions included slide guitar duties, lead guitar patterns and vocal performances. On “My Sweet Lord” were a shimmering collection of voices curiously credited to the George O’Hara-Smith Singers. It was, in fact, Clapton and Whitlock joining Harrison as the chorus.

Not long after the album’s release, Harrison was sued in February, 1971, for allegedly infringing on Ronnie Mack’s song “He’s So Fine” with “My Sweet Lord.” By 1976, Harrison was deemed guilty of “subconsciously” plagiarizing the melody. The accusation and the court proceedings were the basis for his tune “This Song,” which called into question the legitimacy of the lawsuit questioning his integrity. “It’s difficult to just start writing again after you’ve been through that,” Harrison admitted to Rolling Stone. “Even now, when I put the radio on, every tune I hear sounds like something else.”

However, Harrison nonetheless spoke highly of his triple album in 2001. Supervising a 30th anniversary remastering, Harrison penned an essay for the re-issue that summed up his feelings.

“It’s been 30 years since ‘All Things Must Pass’ was recorded,” he wrote. “I still like the songs on the album, and believe they can continue to outlive the style in which they were recorded. It was difficult to resist re-mixing every track. All these years later, I would like to liberate some of the songs from the big production that seemed appropriate at the time, but now seem a bit over the top with the reverb in the wall of sound. …

“Still, it was an important album for me, and a timely vehicle for all the songs I’d been writing during the last period with The Beatles. I began recording just months after we had all finally decided to go our separate ways, and I was looking forward to making the first solo album of ‘songs’ (as opposed to ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Electronic Sounds’ which were instrumental).”

— Eoghan Lyng

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