Dark Horse

Though defined by the Beatles, George Harrison's greatest musical breakthroughs were very much his own

The slide had traditionally been used for bluesy riffing, but Harrison's style owed little to the blues: He played melodic, single-note phrases that were immaculately conceived. With the slide, Harrison achieved a tone and sensibility so distinctive that you could identify a solo as one of his within five seconds. Think about his soaring, ethereal lead playing on Badfinger's "Day After Day," his stinging solo on John Lennon's brutal anti-McCartney rant "How Do You Sleep," or his wistful, Hawaiian-sounding contribution to Bob Dylan's "Under the Red Sky."

When others even tried this kind of melodic slide playing, they usually sounded like brazen Harrison imitators. On Big Star's "Try Again," Chris Bell's harmonizing slide guitars are so obviously inspired by George that the song practically qualifies as a Harrison tribute (right down to its layered, strumming acoustics and references to the Lord).

In a way, it's remarkable that this sound, the Harrison sound, didn't emerge until the very end of the Beatles' run, showing up on their final album, Abbey Road, and on Harrison's 1970 guitar overdub to McCartney's "Let It Be."

George Harrison: A slide-guitar genius who played with unmatched taste and subtlety.
George Harrison: A slide-guitar genius who played with unmatched taste and subtlety.

Harrison's slide playing is really the signature of his post-Beatle work, the highlight of solo hits like "My Sweet Lord," "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)" and "Blow Away."

In retrospect, one of the things that's fascinating about the individual Beatles is how they each picked their musical heroes early, and the choices they made revealed so much about their own temperaments and creative impulses. Lennon's model was Chuck Berry, rock's original poet and witty social commentator. McCartney gravitated toward Little Richard, who was all about sound and energy, with lyrics that generally made no sense. Harrison's man was Smokey Robinson, a choice that was utterly fitting. Like Robinson, Harrison was gentle, romantic, spiritual (even if George didn't tap into his own spirituality until the Beatles' psychedelic phase) and a believer in music's power to elevate the soul. Harrison made the connection overt in 1976 with his musical homage, "Pure Smokey," but you can also hear it in his string of seductive ballads like "Dark Sweet Lady," "Learning How to Love You," and the gorgeous "I'd Have You Anytime," the opener to his blockbuster 1970 solo debut, the triple set All Things Must Pass.

Harrison's mellow proclivities and his earnest -- and often esoteric -- musings about higher consciousness and karmic law stubbornly flew in the face of the kind of rock 'n' roll hedonism that critics tend to embrace. Little wonder that Creem magazine, in a 1979 dig at the ex-Beatles, branded Harrison a "brown-rice bore."

But Harrison's saving grace was that however somber his subject matter could be, he refused to take himself too seriously. In fact, he probably would have been the first to agree with Creem. In a 1971 appearance on the Dick Cavett Show (during which, with typical Harrison humility, he chose to promote the Indian documentary Raga, rather than his own music), he good-naturedly told Cavett: "I'm probably the biggest bore you've ever had on the show."

He mocked his Beatles legacy by appearing in the Rutles' 1978 made-for-TV parody All You Need Is Cash, and tipped his hat to his old mates with his 1987 psychedelic flashback "When We Was Fab." He even managed to get a laugh out of his own legal troubles with the 1976 hit "This Song," a cheerful response to a plagiarism lawsuit he faced over the similarities between "My Sweet Lord" and the 1963 Chiffons hit "He's So Fine" (Harrison was found guilty of "subconscious plagiarism" in 1976). In a Monty Python-inspired video for the song, Harrison appears in a courtroom and pleads his case before a judge and jury: "This song ain't black or white/And as far as I know/Don't infringe on anyone's copyright."

And he loved to take the piss out of his own indulgences. When a critic suggested that Harrison's 1969 album of Moog-synthesizer noodling, Electronic Sound, was "avant-garde," Harrison responded that it could more accurately be called "'aven't-got-a-clue."

Harrison's solo work is often overlooked, but there are occasional glimmers of interest in his post-Beatle catalogue. In the mid-'80s, Concrete Blonde covered Harrison's "Beware of Darkness," and more recently, hip singer-songwriter Elliott Smith has performed "Isn't It a Pity."

Further evidence of Harrison's cross-generational impact could be readily found on the local club scene last weekend. On Friday, Johnny Bionic and the Trailer Park Disaster asked for, and received, a moment of silence in Harrison's honor from their Hollywood Alley audience. The next night, at Long Wong's, the Getaways tackled "My Sweet Lord," and the Zen Lunatics covered "Something."

"[Harrison] was so versatile, and he was a team player," says Pat Singleton, bass player for local power-pop quartet Sugar High, who posted a Harrison photo on the home page of its Web site last Friday. "Whatever they asked of him, he was able to do it."

But if others admired his unmatched subtlety and tastefulness, Harrison himself never thought he was anything special. In 1971, Cavett mentioned that writers always described Harrison as "the real musician" of the Beatles.

"What do they mean by that?" Cavett asked.

"I don't know what they mean," Harrison sheepishly responded. "It's probably because I didn't smile so much."

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