Without wanting to over-complicate the pudding, I’ve often thought The Beatles’ masterful popcraft often overshadowed their skills as musicians; case in point: George Harrison.
Born 80 years ago (almost three years younger than Ringo Starr), it’s poignant to reflect on how relatively young the Baby Beatle was when he went troppo in November 2001, being still in his fifties and only five years older than I am as I write this in 2023.
Harrison’s economic use of soloing – playing exactly what was needed, when it was needed – was an essential part of the Fab Four’s sound. Even as the band was breaking apart on Abbey Road, the hitherto quiet one was starting to shine as both a songwriter and guitarist, something the public would get to see more of on his solo work.
Though he gave away the lead lines on the White Album‘s wonderful While My Guitar Gently Weeps to Eric Clapton, Harrison allowed his guitar chops to come into focus on 1969’s majestic Abbey Road, allowing him to fully express himself through his instrument, and none more so on the sublime Something, which Frank Sinatra was enamoured with to swiftly tackle in concert, often introducing the ballad as “one of the greatest love songs ever written” — when he could remember not to credit it to Lennon and McCartney, that is.
When George died, I was living with family just off West Hampstead’s West End Lane. As it seemed like the world and his wife was congregating down the road at Abbey Road Studios, I walked the 20 minute walk and found myself interviewed both in print and on the tellybox, quizzed by the famous zebra crossing by CNN’s roving reporter Richard Quest.
And no, I’ve never seen it either, but you can order a not inexpensive video recording if you so wish. I didn’t wish, but here’s the revenant part of the transcript on the news group’s website.
The music that you are hearing, this one, of course, is My Sweet Lord, written by Harrison after the Beatles in 1970 has been played by the managers here at Abbey Road, and they’ve been lighting candles in tribute all throughout the day.
Fans have also been gathering along with experts in the music industry. Steve, now, joins me from Mojo magazine. Steve Pafford. Steve, why did you feel it was important to come along here this evening?
STEVE PAFFORD, MOJO RECORDS (sic): One, I wanted to pay my respects as one quarter of the Beatles, the world’s most popular group, and obviously, they were British and incredibly important. Secondly, just as a human being, he was obviously a very important person, very spiritual, very dignified person. That did a lot of good. Not only in the music business, but in film as well.
QUEST: Let me ask you. I mean, the extraordinary thing that we have seen here today is young people coming here. I mean, you and I — I mean, I’m a Liverpudlian (ph). I was born and brought up in Liverpool. I love the Beatles. But many people here weren’t even around — weren’t even born, weren’t even thought of when they first started.
PAFFORD: Yeah, that’s interesting. A lot of people today are in their 20’s that have come to pay their respects, and I think that it’s just part of British tradition that you have to love the Beatles. They’re as English as, you know, eating fish and chips and watching Wimbledon. And, also, Oasis have repopularized the Beatles music in the last few years.
QUEST: Steve, many thanks indeed. Some of the thoughts here outside Abbey Road. It really is, Judy, an extraordinary sort of atmosphere. People may have been — the rush hour is now coming to an end. So, there are aren’t that many people here, although they are on the other side of the street. The press and media seem to take this side. But still, flowers, tributes, from all ages are being received here.
The other 2001 report that is a matter of public record is a piece featured in the New York Times, written by Sarah Lyall. The NYT called the original article A Place Evoking Reprises of Pivotal Memories (clunky, I know), though I notice the transcript now available online comes under Abbey Road Journal; Just Something in the Way He Moved Them.
Whatever the moniker, this is the full shebang.
London, Nov. 30
For a moment, the news that George Harrison had died sent Mark Allan, 39, right back to his childhood. Suddenly he was a boy again in Nottingham with little in the way of money or musical sense, hearing a classmate say, “You’ve got to hear this album Abbey Road — it’ll blow your mind.”
That moment changed Mr. Allan’s life and turned him into a passionate Beatles fan, the kind who hunted down obscure solo albums from secondhand record stores and argued endlessly — and fruitlessly — into the night about which Beatle was better and why. It brought him today to the real-life Abbey Road, in St. John’s Wood in north London, where the Beatles recorded their music and which they immortalized when they crossed the street for the iconic photograph on the cover of the Abbey Road album.
“I never met George Harrison, but I’ve known him since I was 10 years old,” said Mr. Allan, an engineering draftsman. “This is the end of something.”
It was sad and emotional and festive and quiet all at once, as Beatles lovers from around London converged here in front of the Abbey Road Studios to leave flowers, light candles and discuss Mr. Harrison’s life and death with others who seemed to understand.
Day turned to night and rain fell sporadically, but still they kept coming, as music by Mr. Harrison — the songs he’d written for the Beatles, and songs he’d recorded on his own — poured out of the studio building and into the street.
Mr. Harrison meant a lot to people all over Britain, of course, and tributes to him flooded in today from everyone from Queen Elizabeth — “the queen was saddened by the news of George Harrison’s death,” Buckingham Palace said — to John Chambers, a spokesman for the Liverpool Beatles Appreciation Society, who said he was “absolutely heartbroken.”
Fans gathered outside the gates of Mr. Harrison’s enormous, eccentric mansion in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, and they gathered at various spots in Liverpool, where he grew up and where his meeting with Paul McCartney on a school bus one day became the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
In Liverpool, the Union Jack flew at half-staff over City Hall. “George Harrison was one of the great Liverpudlians,” said Liverpool’s lord mayor, Gerry Scott. ”He was a warm, peace-loving man who was more than just a talented musician. He was a deeply thoughtful and caring human being.”
Here on Abbey Road, Jeff Khurgel, a 23-year-old law student from Irvine, California, recalled growing up to the sounds of Beatles music wafting from his father’s stereo. The song Back in the U.S.S.R. had particular meaning to them, because they were originally from Russia.
“George Harrison was part of the most influential group of people in my life,” Mr. Khurgel said. “That’s not an overstatement. My parents, of course, that goes without saying. But then the Beatles.”
Like many other fans drawn to this spot, which has been the center of Beatles worship in London for years, and where the wall in front of the studio is constantly being repainted — only to be covered again in Beatles-related graffiti — Mr. Khurgel was reluctant to talk too much about Mr. Harrison as anything other than a Beatle.
For all his solo work and the uneasiness that the group brought him, Mr. Harrison was first and foremost part of a four-man team, he said, something bigger than any of its parts. Now, with John Lennon murdered all those years ago, the four are down to just two.
“It’s a shock to the world to have George gone,” said Laurence Moore, 23, who had brought along an orange rose, a tribute, he said, to the orange outfit Mr. Harrison wore on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album. “They say he was the quiet one and that he took a back seat to the others, but he was a Beatle, and if it wasn’t for George then they wouldn’t have been the success that they were.”
It was a success felt all over Britain, because the Beatles were the most famous exports Britain has ever had, at least in modern times. “It’s kind of difficult to put it into words, but I feel really sad as a British person and fan,” said Steve Pafford, a 32-year-old music writer who became aware of the Beatles in grade school, when he sang Mr. Harrison’s sweet love song Something* along with the rest of the school choir.
“In this country we’re incredibly proud of the Beatles, that they were our own homegrown band, and such a massive success,” he said. ”They were a British band and the world’s most popular band, and when you consider what the British music scene was like pre-Beatles — so derivative — you realize how much they shook things up, big time.”
On Abbey Road today, memories were flooding back — memories of childhoods, adolescences, late wakeful nights and sleepy early mornings — first dances and first kisses, all the stops and starts and yearnings and aches of growing up. The one constant was the Beatles music that became everyone’s personal soundtrack.
“For me being in my mid-40’s, they were integral to my life from a young age, with all those early singles that my brother and I used to collect,” said Peter Laskie, 45, a television production manager. “What this shows is that we’re all getting older. It’s the progression toward the end — time moving on.”
Alicia and Rick Benbough, lately of California, were thinking a lot about the passage of time, too, and how it can feel like the sand in an hourglass, quietly but inexorably running out. ”It’s like an era is slowly slipping away,” said Mr. Benbough, 54.
His wife, Alicia, 42, thinks so too. She remembers when she first heard about the Beatles — “everyone was freaking out about the White Album” — and has always thought of the three band members that remained after Mr. Lennon’s death as rock-solid constants in her life.
“It’s a somber time — a lot of things are changing in the world,” Mrs. Benbough said. “You never really thought in terms of seeing this change, and then all of a sudden, wow. The Beatles were endless, but you realize that they are human too, just like everyone else.”