Dark Horse

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

It's one of the sad ironies of George Harrison's passing last week to cancer that he was memorialized by the international media as little more than a member of the world's most exclusive club: the ex-Beatles.

Of all the former Fabs, Harrison was always the least comfortable with both his role in the group and the demigod status it was accorded by its followers. He had taken to reflexively debunking the Beatle myth, admitting that the foursome wrote some good tunes and made some nice records, but they weren't really that big a deal.

Of course, they were a big deal, but the sorrow over Harrison's death seemed to miss his intense, and deserved, need to be respected for his individuality. Too many news reports rehashed the Beatles story last week, as though a band had died, when it was really an individual musician. To hear CNN correspondents in London and Liverpool spew out the usual "he was the quiet one" tripe suggested that none of these people really had a clue why he was important, other than the fact that he'd once rubbed shoulders with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Desperate to pinpoint his musical contribution, they endlessly played Harrison's famous ballad "Something," an admittedly beautiful song, but hardly the be-all and end-all of his career.

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.

The fact is that Harrison was important, not because he was the quiet one, or even because, as some stories are claiming with wild hyperbole, he taught Lennon how to play the guitar (he showed him a few chords, to be sure, but that's about it). To repeatedly push the notion, as the news outlets have, that he instructed Lennon is vaguely insulting. It puts Harrison on the level of Michael Jordan's junior-high basketball coach, a guy whose only legacy is that he helped someone else achieve greatness. But Harrison was important because he made musical contributions that -- even when placed in the context of the Beatles' pop empire -- were all his own.

Harrison's first major impact on popular music came with his use of the 12-string electric guitar. A gift from the Rickenbacker company to a bedridden Harrison during the Beatles' legendary first visit to New York in February 1964, the 12-string brought a rich, chiming sound to the band's next batch of recordings: the A Hard Day's Night sessions. On this album, Harrison's playing really crystallized into a distinctive sound, taking bits of Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry he'd filtered through the girl-group R&B sounds of the early '60s, and giving them the fresh ring of a new era dawning. You hear it in that impossibly weird opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night," in the insistent circular riff of "You Can't Do That" and the simple but majestic solo on "I Should Have Known Better."

When A Hard Day's Night hit movie theaters in the summer of '64, its avid fans included members of a budding group called the Byrds. Folkies energized by the Beatle phenomenon, they watched the film with close attention to what instruments the Fab Four were playing. As a result of seeing Harrison with his Rickenbacker, Roger (then Jim) McGuinn went out and bought the same. So the electric 12-string sound, which practically defined the Byrds (and later became an inspiration to the early, Murmur-era R.E.M.), can all be traced back to Harrison.

Harrison could be remarkably self-effacing about his own work, and when in late '65 he wrote and recorded the Byrdsy "If I Needed Someone," he thought he was lifting McGuinn's sound. He needed McGuinn to remind him that he'd actually invented it.

On the heels of that innovation, Harrison then introduced the sitar into Western pop music. Though Indian raga master Ravi Shankar had acquired a devoted following in America by the mid-'60s, he was still very much a cult figure in the Western world. In the fall of 1965, when Harrison lent his novice sitar chops to Lennon and McCartney's "Norwegian Wood" (a solo that Shankar frankly told Harrison he thought was "terrible"), he brought a trippy new timbre into a musical climate that was devouring new ideas faster than musicians could go into the studio.

While some people, Harrison included, got carried away with their sitar jones, the lasting impact of Harrison's breakthrough was that it expanded the possibilities for rock guitar playing. Not long after "Norwegian Wood," Indian modalities started creeping into the playing of people like the Yardbirds' Jeff Beck and Beatle worshiper Jimi Hendrix. Harrison's template even rubbed off on his bandmate Paul McCartney, who contributed an explosive, sitar-ish guitar solo to Harrison's "Taxman" on the 1966 Revolver album.

Harrison's third, and greatest, musical achievement has practically nothing to do with the Beatles. In late 1968, after more than two years of dedicating himself to the sitar, Harrison returned to the guitar, only to find himself intimidated by all the great new virtuosos around him. Sensing that he needed something to help him stand out, Harrison began playing with a slide. As his pal Eric Clapton pointed out, Harrison brought a completely different approach to slide guitar than had ever been heard before.

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."

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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