George Harrison & “My Sweet Lord”

In many ways, I can’t think of two people more apart than John Lennon and George Harrison.  During their brief time together as members of The Beatles, it was pretty obvious who the genius songwriter was.  Lennon’s work and tragic murder have (ironically) deified him as rock god. George was always known as “the quiet one.”  And though he did start to come out of his shell towards the end of The Beatles life-span, it wasn’t until he went it alone as a solo artist that George Harrison became, in my opinion, John Lennon’s equal.  Growing up, the first solo-Beatle music I listen to was Paul McCartney and then John Lennon’s solo work.  I never considered Ringo or George’s solo output until I heard a super-catchy, awesome song on the radio one summer afternoon.  It sounded like a lost Beatles track, something off of ABBEY ROAD.  I was able to jot down most of the chorus on a scrap of paper and the next time I got online (dial-up) I was able to do a search. I found out the song I’d heard was “What Is Life?” by George Harrison.  The song comes from George’s landmark solo (double) album ALL THINGS MUST PASS.  That’s a fitting title for an album recorded after the end of one of pop music’s greatest bands.

ALL THINGS MUST PASS is an achingly beautiful record, through and through.  Eric Clapton, Billy “The Fifth Beatle” Preston, and Ringo all played a part in it’s recording–but ALL THINGS MUST PASS is George’s record.  Whereas Paul’s solo music is pretty bubblegum and John’s solo stuff was angry and political (see “Woman is the Nigger of the World”), George Harrison’s solo work is very down-to-earth and deeply personal.  Somewhere between Paul’s commercial cash grab and Lennon’s brash antiestablishmentarianism–lies the music of George Harrison.

The crown jewel of ALL THINGS MUST PASS is a song called “My Sweet Lord.”  This song is a stark contrast to the work of Paul McCartney & Wings.  And it’s 1,000 miles away from John Lennon’s classic “Imagine.”  A deeply spiritual (but not religious) man, Harrison’s song is a devotional ode to his creator.  As an apathetic agnostic, I find myself filled to the brim with envy every time I hear it, the sentiment is so pure and simple.  In fact, the song reminds me a lot of the numerous Medieval poems I had to read in my British Literature classes back in my college days.  Listening to “My Sweet Lord” and then “Imagine” is pretty crazy/disconcerting.  How were these two men from the same planet, let alone in the same band?  I don’t think Lennon or Harrison were “lying” in either case, I think that they were just able to put their differences aside and be friends despite their wildly different world views.

That said, if I had to live in the world of one of those songs, I’d pick “My Sweet Lord” everyday (and twice on Sunday, pun intended).  The song was instantly popular, despite the fact that George didn’t initially have it released as a single.  It wasn’t until radio stations played the crap out of it that public demand led to the song being issued as single in 1971.  “My Sweet Lord” was also the first single by an ex-Beatle to reach #1.  A remarkable feat, one that would come at a heavy price–the increased scrutiny lead to lawsuit.  The song “My Sweet Lord” is fairly similar to a song written by Ronnie Mack called “He’s So Fine.”  Yes, George Harrison may have (subconsciously) used a song made popular by the girl-group The Chiffon’s to write one of the greatest love-letters to God.  The court battle (Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music) was lengthy and George lost, but  in the end we all won because “My Sweet Lord” is a beautiful song and the world is a better place that it exists.

Stripped down acoustic guitar, harmonized slide guitars, George’s distinctive voice, and the sublime lyrical marriage of eastern and western religious chants.  It’s a perfect song, through and through.

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7 thoughts on “George Harrison & “My Sweet Lord”

  1. Robin Renee says:

    It was so nice to come home and read this. I just heard “My Sweet Lord” on my iPod – the version by Girlyman, which I find very beautiful. Funny- I find “Imagine” to be a profoundly spiritual song, seeking to find that place beyond specific religions and all that divides us – ultimately not that far from the metaphysical sensibility embraced by George.

    • Thanks for reading. Yeah, it was really weird–I have no idea what made me come home and write about this song. I hadn’t heard it in years (and I have two other posts percolating in my brain).

      I guess it’s not that “Imagine” isn’t a spiritual song, I guess I just know too much about John Lennon. Once I got a little older and did a little reading I’ve struggled to still like a lot of Lennon’s music. To say that he was “complicated” would be an understatement. Anyway, the song itself is more about a utopia/”brotherhood of man” whereas “My Sweet Lord” is more personal, about one man who loves God.

      I’m able to relate more easily with “Imagine” because like I said in the post, I’m an apathetic agnostic. “My Sweet Lord” is a non-creepy devotional.

      Have you heard the Billy Preston version? Apparently George let Preston record it before he (Harrison) put it out himself. From what I’ve read it’s quite gospel-like. I need to track it down.

  2. Andy says:

    One of the weird things about that lawsuit is that a lot of it turned on whether or not George had “access” to “He’s so Fine.” They don’t have to prove intentional copying — all they have to show is that George reasonably could have heard the first song before, and that the two songs were substantially similar. The songs ARE pretty similar, at least in the judge’s opinion. It’s hard to apply objective legal principles to abstract musical expression. Kinda stupid, but there you go.

    • Ha! I knew that you would know about that lawsuit so I put it in there. What about the other famous (infamous) Beatles lawsuit where John Lennon “ripped off” Chuck Berry in “Come Together” off ABBEY ROAD? Eventually John lost and some kind of weird agreement was made wherein John had to record a bunch of old rock songs that this label owned (he put it out I believe in 1972-1973 it’s called ROCK N ROLL) so that they could benefit from having him record their songs (royalty payments). That is a bizarre chapter in rock history my friend.

      • Andy says:

        I’m actually not too familiar with that one. That’s a really strange agreement to come to, but that kind of thing happens when you settle out of court. A quick wikipedia search shows that some guy named Morris Levy owned the rights, and was the instigator of the suit. He got Lennon to record three other songs owned by him, but Lennon only ever released two of the three (the third track was released posthumously). Because of that, Levy sued AGAIN and got about $6 grand (AKA peanuts). Levy then released some Lennon recordings in his possession without Lennon’s permission; Lennon sued HIM and won $84,000. He who laughs last laughs best!

      • Robin Renee says:

        Wow, I didn’t know that’s how “Rock ‘n’ Roll” came about. Stranger than fiction!

        • Makes sense now that you think about it? That album, while enjoyable, always seemed a bit off to me. I’m probably going to touch on this record when I get around to writing about John’s “Lost Weekend” years.

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