All Things May Pass, but...
by Greg Panfile
... it's smart to occasionally run the ball to keep the defense off balance...
A Matrix of Musings on the Musicality of One George Harrison
That George Harrison is the least credited and perhaps most interesting of the three primary songwriters of the Beatles is axiomatic in many circles at this point. This essay attempts to give some shape to, and provide some analysis of, how that came to be.
An analogy can be posited to the effect that George's personality, compositional history, and songwriting style are of a piece, share certain characteristics in common, and that the resultant quirkiness and 'difficulty' are similar in shape. In some sense this is a continuation of my last approach to this topic, an obituary written in 2001 upon his death and still legible elsewhere here.
The attendant research for that piece, plus the unique opportunity presented by the trigger event, led me to a number of general conclusions that have since been further processed by additional attention paid to individual songs, and George's work as a whole across his three major 'incarnations' as Beatle, 'solo' artist, and Travelling Wilbury. The most important points would be the following:
1. His body of work as a whole is far more impressive and unique than can be appreciated when individual songs or periods are considered separately.
2. There is a conflict between his general, consensus-reality public image and what he actually was, both personally and musically.
3. While he spent time in the equivalent of a musical 'ashram,' roughly between Revolver and the White Album, hurting his ability to be more prolific in terms of producing what are more conventionally termed 'songs' in a Western sense, things he learned during that period were essential to his later development and great achievement in that very milieu... conventional, Western 'songs.'
4. One corollary of all the above, in every possible way, is that the meaning and value of what he did is less accessible than it might otherwise have been. However, the fact that the admission price is high does not diminish (heh heh) the value of the ride, whether examined as container or content.
In the Beatle period, George is clearly the third songwriter, developing slowly and quite conventionally, until approximately the period of Revolver, his most prolific album till then. His three songs, Taxman, Love You To, and I Want To Tell You to a great extent summarize and anticipate his later development, mixing as they do more traditional Western song forms with Indian raga tonalities and sonorities, along with interesting, somewhat 'different' choices in the harmonic realm. These have been well documented as pieces in any number of places by any number of insightful people... for more detail, refer as always to Sir Alan Pollock or any accurate Beatle chord book.
What appears to have happened next is that George for a combination of personal/religious and musical reasons essentially went into exile, contributing only a series of pieces that had in common a very strong Indian basis both in sonority and melody, and in the lyrics as well. While they showed talent and had wonderful moments, they were clearly for a variety of reasons less commercial and accessible to a mass Western audience than the works of the other two songwriters. Of course I refer here to Blue Jay Way, The Inner Light, Within You Without You, and even to an extent It's All Too Much, which with Love You To can be categorized as the musical ashram period, featuring a restricted diet and constrained, ritualized practices. It is probably more than likely that many fans of the Beatles, and Macca and Lennie their own selves, perceived Hazza as having gone off the deep end of loonyguruism, never to return.
But emergently, what seems to be true is that this period had some luscious and rare, if hard to find or identify, fruits. Certainly one, originating in the mechanics of sitar technique, was his slide style. The prebending, the use of one finger moving up and down to do the picking, and the preference for whistlable, cantabile melodies rather than flash have their origin here, and lead to one of the things that made George such a musician's musician and well-respected talent among his peers, despite his inability or disinclination to produce Page's pyrotechnics.
More subtle, and it says here more significant in a songwriting sense, is an appreciation of dissonance as a type of harmony, and a rigorous adherence to melody as the driving force of a song, rather than using a predefined, rules-based Western set of chords in keys. As Dhani Harrison clearly and accurately states in some of the bonus material on the Concert for George, his dad's work used a little known, hard to play, 'dissonant' little trick known as the diminished chord in a way rarely if ever seen elsewhere in classic songwriting of the Golden Age in which he was living.
We shall now experiment and see if a nonlinear exposition can have a nested digression... so first, the diminished chord. It is weird, as the word weird is weird (e before i but not sounding like a). It is classically considered 'dissonant' because it doesn't have any of the natural, mathematically correct Pythagorean whole-integer ratios of the perfect fourth or fifth. It is modern and nonlinear in the sense that it is self-similar... the notes are equidistant, a step and a half or three semitones apart, in a continuous symmetrical loop reminiscent of Mandelbrot and fractals. Because of that it lacks an apparent 'root' in that all four of its notes being equidistant, none seems to take a central or defining role. This imbues it with flexibility, gives the composer who includes it in his palette many opportunities to introduce it because one of its four notes is always in some sort of close relation to whatever more conventional chord precedes it, and it opens up for the same reason a wider set of potentially succeeding conventional chords. It is like only itself, and that very much so, and has the property of simultaneously being nowhere and everywhere.
It is probable that George became acquainted with it as part of his jazz and technical training... his playing on Till There Was You, for example, which is textbook jazz chord solo stuff that would be taught to advanced students in the era, is suggestive of that. The chord itself is hard to play, as standard guitar tunings are oriented toward making conventional chords with proper fourths and fifths convenient to the hand... playing the form clearly and well in tempo requires intermediate technique at least, and would tend to favor those whose hands and fingers hold winning tickets in the genetic lottery. Observation indicates that George, like Matthew Fisher of Procol Harum, had long, prehensile and slightly conical fingers, spidery if you will, making it easier to have them squeeze into tight spaces, reach farther than the norm, and cross over one another in ways more standard confingerations would find difficult if not impossible.
While generally speaking a rarity in popular music, we do find this beast in some very indicative if isolated environments... in Strawberry Fields to accompany the line 'nothing is real;' and in God Only Knows behind the lines 'need to doubt it' and 'nothing to me.' Given that the tonality itself is outre and somewhat negative, it's particularly probative that writers such as Lennon and Wilson deployed it at such lyrical points in their acknowledged masterpieces. It would seem that George would be well acquainted with both pieces, given the circumstances.
Thus, when George makes his grand return to 'conventional' songwriting, we get an outpouring of variety, mixing all the influences above, in the five songs he should have had on the White Album: While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Piggies, Long Long Long, Savoy Truffle and Not Guilty. Again, harmonic maps and analyses are plentiful in the sources cited above, and the reader is encouraged to avail his or her self thereof. Suffice it to say, that dark pony can RUN!
What happened during the Get Back/Let It Be time frame is again well known and widely accessible, and best summarized by the fact that George had a lot of songs, he wanted to record them, they fooled around with them a bit, and he ended up with one blues tune, extremely standard, on all attempts to make an album of those sessions, along with the I Me Mine extended fragment, part of which is also a conventional twelve bar blues.
Equally obvious but well documented is that the flowering of the post-ashram period happens on two albums, Abbey Road and All Things Must Pass. In the former case, there is a reasonable consensus that George for the first time, on the last album, outwrites his 'older brothers' producing melodies, harmonies, guitar parts and tracks that are unexceeded by others in the same collection. And as with all prior material, the formal issues are well discussed, described, analyzed and accessible from Alan et al. Perhaps missed, I have not checked, is the interesting way Sun King seems both lyrically and harmonically to pay homage, perhaps grudgingly, to both of George's songs.
Which brings us to the immediate impetus for this rambling jewel, All Things Must Pass. Here we have what is widely considered to be the best solo work of any of the former Beatles, with an all star cast of musical assistants, and numerous hit songs. My personal favorite in the media mix is the use of 'What Is Life' in Goodfellas in the latter part of the film as it all falls apart. Perfect. Scorcese's ear for pop appropriateness is unexcelled, although Tarantino comes close.
This album has been #1 twice already, and it has the Phil Spector legacy, and you've got the whole lawsuit thing, and it's of an era with the Bangladesh concert which follows immediately... no matter how you cut or slice it, this double collection (looking at the original material, not the bonus jammy stuff) is on a very short list of significant works of the era. One may have to place it 'below' in some sense Revolver, Pet Sounds, and any number of great ones, but there is no way you dislodge this from any top ten list, barring serious cognitive issues;-).
Given what has been stated herein so far, it should not be a far leap to see how the slide style and melodic playing, clearly influenced by time in the 'ashram' is an essential component to its sound and success. And it takes little more than literacy to perceive how various Eastern and Hindu mystical and religious influences abound in the lyrics. They thus leave our story here, and again, there are plenty of other places they are more than adequately treated. If there is anything new to say about the songs and the style and what it all means, that begins now, so let's start with the big hit and take a stand on the controversy.
My Sweet Lord obviously takes its subject matter and slide style from... do I have to type 'ashram' again? And it no doubt borrows a couple of very standard chord vamps from prior, well-made pop harmonic vocabulary. But what really makes this thing work, what makes the transitions and the modulation up a step work, are those diminished chords. The song is really all about them, and for that reason alone, utterly original. George should no more share royalties on this than the other two should pay Rick Nelson for the codas at the end of That Means A Lot and It's Only Love because they are the same as Travelin' Man and Young World, or the Beatles should pay Buddy Holly for all their uses of the VII chord for Well All Right. The refs should pick up the flag. Upon further review, there was no foul.
Our diminished... well friend isn't exactly the right word... really shines, and is pivotal, and dissonates with the lyrical and slide guitar content most of all in the beauteous Isn't It A Pity, the hardest three chord song to play in history. As in SFF and GOK, the chord comes in when things go wrong, and each cycle through the pattern has the shape... major/happy (thank you Neil), diminished/dissonant/sad, Amen. For those of you keeping score, that is a standard major G chord (the alternate fingering with the pinky in the treble is highly recommended), a full six string open G or Bflat or Dflat or E diminished (tab, starting from the low note: 0 1 2 3 2 0), C major, G major. Brilliant, perfect, and oh so simple. Not the most popular or accessible, either... who wants to be reminded of these sad facts, and who can get in and out of that chord cleanly and on time over and over again?
What Is Life, besides just plain rocking, has that interesting quality of possibly being interpreted as a hymn, and a love song, simultaneously. The transitions are very suggestive of a flown in Lennon influence, notably from pieces such as Polythene Pam and Mean Mr. Mustard. While Lennon and McCartney had a loud and obvious duel or fight musically on their early solo records, echoed in public statements, it would seem one conclusion that can be drawn here is that Harrison and Lennon had a musical conversation and interaction that went unmentioned and was covert rather than overt. It is hard not to hear the diminished chord in All Those Years Ago as a sort of thank you referring back to Strawberry Fields, innit?
One more song, then we're out of here... Let It Down. Again, this was already written during the GB/LIB period, and we have the good fortune of recorded instructions from George on how exactly to voice the E major seventh chord that predominates. But again, for a guitar player who knows the standard forms, you have to take a lesson just to get through this puppy accurately. There's a passing vamp that takes the same form up five frets, and odd chord that is sort of an A 7 sus 9 that is vital to both its predominant parts, and a use of C major, F sharp major, and F major in E that illustrates as well as any song the 'ashram' notion of following the melody. An open-fifth, 'thirdless' E is another outre ingredient. If you listen to the demos for this record, available as bonus tracks on the 2001 reissue and on the absolutely essential 'Beware of ABKCO' boot, you can almost hear how the chords are an afterthought, something figured out after he already heard in his head what he was going to sing. Very unlikely, and again, the somewhat dark feel and the difficulty of figuring out (never mind playing... it's hard!) this song contribute to a lack of prominence and popularity despite great quality. That there are clearly some commentaries that relate to the coda of Hey Jude musically at the end, and that the title starts with "Let It" and has three words is suggestive of something.
OK, then, really, ONE more song and then we've REALLY got to go. This is the best one of all... Beware of Darkness. Again, not the cheeriest of sentiments, and again a mix of the personal and the religious, and again an incredible slide solo. This one doesn't have a diminished chord, but compensates for it by having all the rest, almost literally, a collection of nearly every standard major and minor chord in three or four keys. It seems as a whole to be in no discernible key, at times suggesting that it is in E, or G, or B, but constantly violating the norms for each, changing chords irregularly, and seemingly moving to something like but not quite the key of A in its middle part. It's an astonishing achievement of unsurpassed beauty, and the solo demos are unspeakably brilliant and interesting, yet the released track is irresistible. One cannot conceive of anyone putting these chords together as chords... again, it seems as if there were a melodic trail that had to be followed, and led to these strange and interesting places. And certainly a standout moment of the Bangladesh concert is the timbre and phrasing of Leon Russell's entrance to sing the second verse. You cannot make this stuff up.
There's an old story about a guy who shows up to give a lecture but first asks the crowd if they know what he's about to say... they say no, so he leaves because they are too ignorant to talk to. He returns, asks the same question, and they say yes... then leaves because they have no need of him. Finally he comes back, asks again, and they say that some do know and some don't... at which points he instructs those who know to tell those who don't, and leaves.
A similar thing happens with things like this... for people who aren't musicians/guitarists, there is only so much you can get across of this, and for those who are, there is very little you can add to what they already know. So you do your best to do a little of each, and then you leave. Less than this I couldn't say... for more, those of you who know, tell those who don't, and don't forget to tip your waitperson.
PS. Given that this is all OTOH, kudos, prurient propositions (ladies only please), substantive suggestions, and 'the Frenchman' should be directed to email@example.com. You know who you are...