[guest post by JVW]
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of George Harrison’s masterpiece All Things Must Pass. The first studio three-record set released by a major artist and issued by a major record company (the three-disc, yet entirely live, soundtrack for the Woodstock film came out a few weeks earlier), the record helped solidify the bridge from the singles-driven 1960s record market to the album-driven 1970s, where albums became the default purchase by the music connoisseur.
By the time the Beatles six-year run was drawing to a close, Harrison had begun to chafe at the limits that being in the world’s most famous rock group was imposing upon him. Famously limited to two songs per album, George still managed to come up with some of the Beatles’ most memorable songs such as the libertarian favorite “Taxman,” the Indian raga-styled “Within You, Without You” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the anthem “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” the vastly underrated “For You Blue” which features his excellent slide-guitar playing, and then, finally, his massive breakthrough on the band’s final studio-recorded album, Abbey Road, with “Something” backed with “Here Comes the Sun” reaching the top spot on the Billboard singles chart nearly one year to the day before All Things Must Pass was released.
George went into the studio in May 1970, one month after McCartney had confirmed the band’s dissolution, to begin work on his first post-Beatles record. He brought with him a number of songs he had written while still with the Beatles, including “Isn’t It a Pity” which was written in 1966, “Let It Down,” written two years later for the record that came to be known as “The White Album,” and the title track which was actually demoed by the Beatles over a year earlier. Harrison secured the services of producer Phil Spector, who had also been brought in by Beatles manager Allen Klein to try to salvage a coherent record from the Let It Be sessions. For musicians, George relied on his bandmate and friend Ringo Starr; the legendary guitarist Eric Clapton, a close friend who at the time was in a complicated love triangle with George’s wife Patti; bassist and ex-roommate Klaus Voormann of Manfred Mann, who knew George from back to the Beatles’ early days playing in Hamburg; and piano player Billy Preston, the so-called “Black Beatle,” who had played with the band in the Let It Be sessions. To these luminaries were added top-notch session musicians: Jim Gordon and Alan White on drums, Carl Radle on bass, Gary Wright and Bobby Whitlock on keyboards, Dave Mason on guitar, Bobby Keys on saxophone, and Jim Price on trumpet. Though they are not credited, Peter Frampton claims to have played guitar on some sessions and Phil Collins insists it is he playing the congas on “The Art of Dying.” The band Badfinger, recently singled to the Apple Records label (of which Harrison was part owner) provided rhythm guitars and percussion.
Beatles historians say that the majority of the recordings for the backing tracks took place between May 26 and June 13. Later that month, a core group consisting of Harrison, Clapton, Mason, Whitlock, Radle, and Gordon would record the instrumental songs which comprised the “Apple Jam” third record in the set. That group, minus Harrison and Mason, would go on to form the short-lived supergroup Derek and the Dominos who bequeathed to the world Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the album which cemented Clapton’s reputation as a Guitar God, as well as all but officially announce his love for Patti Boyd Harrison.
Meanwhile, work on All Things Must Pass continued, encountering numerous delays. Spector, an enigmatic personality who decades later would be imprisoned for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson, was drinking heavily in the studio and at one point fell down and broke his arm which more or less ended his participation in the album, placing the production fully into the artist’s hands. Spector had imparted his famous Wall of Sound technique to the recording, adding layers of overdub and festooning the songs with horns, percussion, and echo, which had initially bothered Harrison until he was assured by Clapton and Preston that the sound was terrific. Work on the album continually came to a halt throughout summer and fall as George made repeated visits to Liverpool to visit his dying mother. Though a first mix was ready by mid-August, Spector, who was by now recovering back in Los Angeles, urged Harrison to add more overdubs and more orchestration to the songs, delaying the final mix until the end of October. Harrison had not envisioned a three-record set, believing that Apple executives would trim the listing down to at most two records, and was stunned when a full three-disc collection was approved. Already well-beyond the original planned October release date, the album was manufactured and boxed in time to be released in stores on Friday, November 27, 1970.
Though All Things Must Pass would reach number one on the Billboard album chart and remain there for seven straight weeks as well as spending eight weeks atop the UK’s Melody Maker album charts, the reaction from music critics, almost uniformly positive, included some fault-finding. Rolling Stone declared it an “extravaganza of piety and sacrifice and joy, whose sheer magnitude and ambition may dub it the War and Peace of rock and roll” and described the sound as “Wagnerian,” yet Robert Christgau, the influential critic at The Village Voice, declared the album to be “featureless,” derided Spector’s production as “kitchen sink” (as in “everything but the. . .”) and reminded readers that Harrison had “never been good for more than two songs per album.” Further assessments through the years would continue to laud the album and its celebrated production, though as the years went on the album, like Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band or McCartney’s Band on the Run, started sounding perhaps a bit dated, a definite product of their time.
And so it may have been with that in mind that George, already diagnosed with the throat cancer which would kill him in a little more than a year, began to reimagine the album for a 30th anniversary release in 2000. Working with the help of his son Dhani, George sought to, as he explained it in the liner notes of the re-release, “liberate some of the songs from the big production that seemed appropriate at the time, but now seems a bit over the top with the reverb in the wall of sound.” Going back to the original master tapes, Harrison père et fils stripped out some of Spector’s Wagnerian noise, though he took pains to not completely remix any of the songs. Likely due to George’s battle with cancer, the Harrisons missed their deadline slightly and the re-imagined album appeared at last in January 2001, largely to the approval of fans of the original record.
All Things Must Pass has been one of my favorite records (George Harrison has long been my favorite Beatle) since I first heard it probably 35 or so years ago. The 30th Anniversary reissue was great, but the subsequent recent addition of previously unreleased demos has completely wowed me. It’s a cliché, yes, but I really did hear the songs in a way in which I had not contemplated them before. Let me just cover two of the new versions. The first one, “Let It Down,” was a song whose lyrics I had always admired, yet one which I felt had been cluttered on the original album by the heavy orchestration of the drums, keyboards, and horns. Here it is as fans heard it 50 years ago. But the new release adds as a bonus track an earlier demo (no, not the one he had cut in his Beatles days with McCartney warbling over the melody) in which George is backed by just a few guitars, and strips away all of the folderol from the original recording.
Beyond that version is the best version of a song which anchors the middle part of the final record. George had cemented a lasting friendship with Bob Dylan years earlier — Dylan and famously introduced the Beatles to marijuana — and the two had collaborated on a few songs, one of which, “I’d Have You Any Time,” made it to the album. Apart from all of that, Harrison had written an unreleased song of encouragement back in August of 1969 when Dylan was getting ready to play the Isle of Wright of festival, his first live performances since his motorcycle accident three years earlier. George brought in Pete Drake, a Nashville pedal steel guitar player who had played earlier that year on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album, and with the band in place Harrison recorded one of the finest songs of friendship, coaxing Dylan away from his self-imposed isolation and encouraging him to resume his public duties:
It’s a beautiful song, helped along immensely by the pedal steel line from Drake as well as the odd clarity that Spector had imposed upon the album. The original recording on the 1970 album was majestic, establishing the song as one of the best Harrison compositions on the record. Yet thirty years later the album version was completely surpassed by an enhanced demo recording which reimagined the song as it could have been before being touched by Spector’s Wall of Sound. Minus Spector’s overdubs and with Drake’s pedal steel guitar holding back until after the second verse, the song assumes a new elegance befitting the genius of the author:
George Harrison would go on to record a number of fine songs and decent albums, and the would lead one of the most awesome supergroups of the rock era. But one half century ago he released an album that has lasted longer than anything his mop-haired contemporaries produced and stands today as the greatest solo contribution of the most famous band of all time. I hope we’re still listening to this record in another half century.