Album Spotlight: George Harrison—All Things Must Pass

When it was originally released in late 1970, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass was an unexpected gift to the world. Packaged in a hinged box like a classical album, with three records inside, lyrics, a poster of George looking properly brooding and majestic, and a plethora of songs and musicians with a Wall of Sound created by the then-esteemed Phil Spector, the album wasn’t just a release; it was an Artistic Statement. Coming as it did from the “quiet Beatle” who had been allotted only one song per album side by Lennon/McCartney, it truly came as a revelation. George had been writing songs since the mid-Sixties which had been rejected by the group, and they came spilling out in a flood of beauty.

All Things Must Pass had originally been intended to have been recorded in five weeks or so, but due to Spector’s habit of imbibing many rounds of cherry brandy before he was ready to begin and George’s mother being ill with cancer, thereby causing him to take time off to see her, it was delayed almost six months. Meanwhile, layer upon layer of overdubs was recorded, with Harrison in charge throughout. The final result was hailed by Ben Gerson in Rolling Stone as “Wagnerian, Brucknerian, the music of mountain tops and vast horizons.” No other solo album has achieved such a grand, monolithic sound. It overwhelms the listener, both with the massive instrumentals and vocals and the flood of new, Harrison-penned material (with a little help from good friend Bob Dylan).

This doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Its biggest flaw is that third record, which is merely a bunch of instrumental jams from the sessions entitled “Apple Jam” (I must say, that title is clever, though). Rock jam sessions are unlike jazz sessions in that the players stick to familiar patterns for the most part, so it doesn’t really spark much joy in me. There is one interesting item, though, about which more later. The other flaw is that sometimes the sheer grandiosity of the project can make it seem ponderous at times, a sentiment which may be intensified in any atheist listeners. For the most part, however, George avoids lecturing his audience this time around.1

The original, track by track:

I’d Have You Anytime: A Harrison-Dylan composition of shimmering beauty. The layers of acoustic guitars (played by Badfinger) create a bed upon which Clapton and Harrison’s riffs can soar. From what I’ve read in I Me Mine about the circumstances surrounding its creation, George wrote the bulk of the tune and Dylan the lyrics for the bridge (“All I have is yours…”). Beautiful chord changes make this slow ballad a keeper.

My Sweet Lord: A #1 hit which pulled the album to the top of the charts. As Lennon said in the Rolling Stone interviews, “Every time I put the radio on it’s ‘Oh my Lord’.” Features the first album appearance of the George O’Hara-Smith Singers, which is George and a few other souls overdubbing harmonies en mass to create a virtual choir. I love the way the “Hallelujah” slyly changes to “Hare Krishna” midway through. Written by Harrison but subconsciously based on Ronnie Mack’s 1962 hit for the Chiffons, He’s So Fine, which got resolved in a lawsuit many years later.2 At any rate, I feel this is the better of the two songs.

Wah-Wah: Written when George had left the Beatles in January 1969. In this case, “wah-wah” means a bad headache. The interlocking melodic riffs are marvelous, and the Wall of Sound thunders impressively on a rocking number.

Isn’t It A Pity (version 1): An epic of empathy, starting as a simple dirge and then breaking into a mass of soaring strings and weeping guitars. Lyrically, it’s just as beautiful: “Isn’t it a pity, isn’t it a shame/How we break each other’s hearts and cause each other pain.” The ending has a long string of “na na na”s evoking that well-known Beatles hit, even echoing the exact tune well in the background near the fadeout. The two tunes even share a time length of 7:12, give or take a second or two.

[Side Two] What Is Life: Speaking of inspiration, I always felt this song was a lot like Day Tripper, in that it takes a catchy guitar riff and builds on it with each iteration. However, What Is Life adds a string section to give the tune extra power. Like most of George’s love songs, you can interpret this as being sung to God (“What is life without your love”). Or not. Whatever floats your boat. This single hit the Top Ten.

If Not For You: George nabbed this new Dylan song when he played on a session with him in May 1970, and his version beats Bob’s six ways from Sunday. It was so good that Olivia Newton-John copied the arrangement for her version the following year and had a hit with it. The incomparable Pete Drake from Nashville plays steel guitar. Harrison always was the best interpreter of Dylan; see also his 1985 single I Don’t Want To Do It, his demo of Mama You’ve Been On My Mind on Early Takes, Volume 1, and his still unreleased version of Abandoned Love.

Behind That Locked Door: An even more country-tinged ballad, with Pete Drake’s pedal steel predominating. Harrison wrote this for Bob Dylan to encourage him to come out of his shell and perform again. It was rumored for years that the Band backed George on this tune, but apparently that’s not the case.

Let It Down: By most accounts, including this one, the most prominent use of Spector’s Wall of Sound, with plenty of echo and reverb. (The 50th Anniversary remix tones this down somewhat.) George said he liked the way the thunder of the choruses contrasted with the quiet verses. A love song to Patti, who soon was to leave him for Eric Clapton.3

Run of the Mill: My personal favorite, for some odd reason. I like the way the tune circles around and around on the strength of the riff. A mantra about karma and how people’s decisions influence their lives. The ending guitar riff later became the song Soft Touch on George Harrison.

[Side Three] Beware of Darkness: A slow, spooky song about being careful not to let sadness and depression rule your life. I didn’t notice until years later, but I think that Harrison had a lot of periods of depression, as he wrote several songs about it throughout the years.4

Apple Scruffs: The most stripped-down song of all, with just George on acoustic guitar, handclaps and harmonica. Spector’s touches show, however, with the echoed massed vocals in the background. A sweet number about the groupies who hung around Apple Records.

Let It Roll (The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp): Another of my favorites. It’s like a fantasy novel, describing a magical journey (“Let it roll across the floor/Through the hall and out the door…Ye long walks of cool and shades”). Written about George’s new home, Friar Park in Henley-on-Themes, previously owned by Sir Frank Crisp in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.5 The property has acres of gardens, caves and an underground river. So cool. Pete Drake contributes his pedal steel, and Mal Evans, former Beatles roadie, sings the deep bass “Oh, Sir Frankie Crisp”, which I could never make out until it was heightened in the 50th Anniversary remix.

Awaiting On You All: This one isn’t one of my favorites, as lyrically it starts to become a lecture about the importance of faith rather than leading by example. Still, it’s another booming rocker about chanting the names of the Lord. The ending chorus mentioning the Pope and his stock ownership (this would’ve been Pope Paul, I think) was not printed on the lyric sleeve.

All Things Must Pass: One of the best songs. Why the Beatles didn’t record it is beyond me. A gorgeous orchestral arrangement and beautiful slide guitar elevate it into classic status. The last of the songs to feature Drake’s pedal steel. More optimism from George, talking to himself about cheering up in the face of depression. I often quote the title line.

[Side Four] This side is probably the weakest, but it’s still very good.

I Dig Love: A nice love song, but the lyrical repetition always annoyed me. I like the remix better, and the demo best of all. Ringo’s echoing drums are cool, too.

Art of Dying: A song about reincarnation. Kind of weird, but the arrangement elevates it. Supposedly a young Phil Collins plays congas on here, but I can’t hear them.6

Isn’t It A Pity (version 2): A slower, more pensive take, even more beautiful and intimate than the first version. It’s marvelous, but I can’t help but feel that I Live For You could have been used somewhere on this album instead. More about that tune below.

Hear Me Lord: The title says it all. It’s a good note to end on, but the song wears out its welcome a bit, for me.

The Apple Jam record, as noted above, consists of five tracks. Out of the Blue, Plug Me In, I Remember Jeep and Thanks for the Pepperoni are all instrumental jams recorded one night at the sessions. They bore me. Others think they’re great. It’s Johnny’s Birthday was recorded for John Lennon’s thirtieth birthday, based on a calliope tape which George found in EMI’s archives of the song Congratulations by Cliff Richard. George once again had to share songwriting credit with the composers of that tune, Bill Martin and Phil Coulter. It’s a brief ditty, but fun, playing tricks with the tape speed.

The 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition, released August 6th, 2021, includes two CDs of demos and one of outtakes from the sessions. The demos, recorded on the first day with Ringo and bassist/friend Klaus Voorman and the second by George alone, are a particular treasure.7 The first day sounds very much like Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding much of the time. George runs through song after song, spilling them out like a flood of pure water, including several tunes which never made it to the studio:

I Live For You: Actually, this did make it to the studio, and was released on the 30th Anniversary Edition of All Things Must Pass. Since it had never been finished, George and his son Dhani overdubbed instruments onto the original track consisting of Harrison’s acoustic and Pete Drake’s pedal steel. One of the only faults with the 50th Anniversary release is that it doesn’t include the studio version of this gorgeous love song. The demo is also lovely, however, and George sings it expressively.

Going Down To Golders Green: A tune based on Elvis’s Baby, Let’s Play House, which George plays some mean rockabilly guitar on, as well as giving his best Elvis impersonation. I love it.

Dehra Dun: Written in India in 1968, this was previewed in The Beatles Anthology, when George strummed a bit of it on ukelele. I’m so glad he did this demo of the full song, since by 1994 he had forgotten most of the words. It’s a lovely ballad, quite evocative.

Om Hare Om (Gopala Krishna): Sung entirely in Sanskrit. My Sanskrit’s awfully rusty, but I think it’s a Hindu chant of sorts. The tune is lively.

Sour Milk Sea: George originally demoed this at the Esher sessions for the White Album. He comes back to it here. I don’t know why; perhaps he was thinking of putting it on his solo album. But it didn’t make the cut, once again. In this case, I can guess why; that metaphor is a rather strange one, unless this is some British aphorism of which I’m unaware.8

Day Two: Everybody/Nobody: This is the tune which turned into Let It Roll, with different lyrics but that “Oh, Sir Frankie Crisp” motif running through it. I’m sort of sorry that George didn’t record this song in two different versions since I like the words. It reminds me of Pete Townshend’s Nothing Is Everything, aka Let’s See Action.

Window, Window: I really like this one. It’s a pensive ballad which reminds me of a Dylan song, but I can’t think which one. I wish George had recorded it as well, but it’s only a minute and a half or so, so it probably wasn’t finished.

Beautiful Girl: George dug this up and recorded it in 1976 for his album 33 1/3. Like Window, Window, it’s unfinished, consisting of one verse and a bridge which George scats his way through since he hasn’t written lyrics yet. Lovely playing, though.

Tell Me What Has Happened To You: Another unfinished tune, mainly consisting of one line repeated. Rather spooky, with eerie chord changes.

Nowhere To Go: Known to Beatles fans as When Everybody Comes To Town. Supposedly a recording exists from bootlegs of George and Bob jamming on this, but I’ve not heard it. The second tune they wrote together, but I don’t know who wrote what. George sings how tired he is of people and how he can’t hide anywhere, referring to Beatle Jeff and Beatle Ted as personas he’s tired of being. An amusing song.

Cosmic Empire: A catchy tune about about being first in line at the Cosmic Empire, aka Heaven, I suppose. Reminds me of Wilco for some reason. I bet Jeff Tweedy likes this one.

Mother Divine: A tune to the Virgin Mary, perhaps? Or George’s mother? Or both. Anyway, it’s got some more unexpected chords which raise it above average. I can’t help but think that as the best guitarist, or maybe because he wasn’t as worried as Paul about being “commercial”, Harrison came up with the most musically inventive melodies.

I Don’t Want To Do It: A Dylan cover, which Dylan never recorded officially. A nice acoustic version of a song which George later recorded for Porky’s Revenge (ugh).

Of the released songs, my favorite demos are I Dig Love, which gave me a new appreciation for the tune; Awaiting On You All, which isn’t as annoying as the studio production; My Sweet Lord, also more intimate than the final version; and Wah-Wah. All the demos are top-notch, though; even the unfinished songs are played with conviction. George was on a roll, and he knew it.

The studio outtakes are also well-chosen. Take 27 of Isn’t It A Pity is even more gorgeous than the studio version 2, perhaps because Spector didn’t unleash his full production on it. Take 14 of the same tune is a delightful goof. George also jams on Get Back and the old standard Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine) to good effect both times. Other standouts include:

Run of the Mill (Take 36) This has an entirely different fast arrangement. It is a bit too rapid and cluttered, but it’s a nice alternate version.

Down To The River (Rocking Chair Jam): The world wouldn’t hear this until George’s posthumous album Brainwashed, as a bluesy ballad. Here he takes it at a faster tempo with a full band and a horn section, obviously enjoying himself. Sounds a bit like a Band tune.

Almost 12 Bar Honky Tonk: Another instrumental jam, but better IMO than the ones which ended up on Apple Jam. YMMV.

Woman Don’t You Cry For Me: A slide guitar version which sounds more like a demo than an outtake. This is another tune which George returned to for 33 1/3.

The remix done for the 50th Anniversary by Paul Hicks is stellar, bringing out George’s vocals and clearing up the instrumentation without destroying the integrity of Spector’s production.9 It echoes his equally brilliant remix of Lennon’s Imagine, which—in hindsight—I suspect John took note of George’s commercial and critical success and tried to copy it for his second solo record. At any rate, I don’t understand why Yoko and Olivia have used Hicks for their spouses’s work but favor Giles Martin on the Beatles material. Maybe they were outvoted. For my part, I would rather Hicks had done the Beatles albums, since he has a much lighter touch. (BTW, Apple Jam was remastered, not remixed. Apparently they couldn’t remix it since it was recorded live in stereo. I don’t understand that, but I don’t really care.)

If you purchase this album, you might consider also picking up I Live For You in its studio version on iTunes or Amazon for an extra $1.29 or the euro equivalent. But I definitely recommend hearing All Things Must Pass. It is definitely in the Top Five of The Greatest Solo Beatles Albums, if perhaps not at the #1 spot.