“A Perfect Entity”: George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’ at 50

Ashley Kahn, editor of George Harrison on George Harrison: Interviews and Encounters, considers the legacy of the post-Beatles masterpiece.

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George Harrison in Copenhagen, December 1969. Credit: Keystone/Getty Images.

That was why All Things Must Pass had so many songs, because it was like, you know, I’d been constipated. I had a little encouragement from time to time, but it was a very little. It was like they were doing me a favor.

George Harrison, Crawdaddy, February 1977

It was sprawling and seemed to take the better part of a day to fully absorb. The music ranged from tight, jangly rockers to introspective, folkish ballads, from declarations of devotion to expansive instrumental jams laced with electric guitar solos. There was a lot of slide guitar.

The sheer quantity of music was astounding for its time: a 23-track, three-LP set housed in a shallow box, the kind of packaging once reserved for major operatic or symphonic works. Many retailers were confused as to where and how to display it. It arrived on November 27, 1970, at the end of a year laden with bittersweet emotion: The ’60s were over, and the hopes and dreams of a halcyon decade had dissipated into discord. Even the Beatles, the pied pipers of the Aquarian Age, could not survive the transition. The title of the triple album, one of the earliest solo outings released by a member of the Fab Four, offered sober comment — a gentle word, a shoulder rub — to help deal with the moment.

Fifty years later, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass still comes across that way: a hefty, perfectly named historical bookend, filled with wisdom and whimsy, an aspect that the cover emphasized with a photo of a long-haired, hirsute ex-Beatle, seated on a lawn amid four laughing or napping gnomes of stone. In the decades that followed, the album grew in renown, cementing Harrison’s stature as a songwriter, bandleader and purveyor of God consciousness. Today, looking back, it serves as the birth cry of a solo career interlacing music and message, personal voice and social service. The songs ring with Harrison’s spiritual priority and questioning nature — “My Sweet Lord,” “What Is Life,” “Awaiting on You All,” “Behind That Locked Door,” “Hear Me Lord,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” “All Things Must Pass.” Even when the lyric wasn’t explicitly focused on matters of sacred connection or mystical matters, Harrison’s need to peel back layers and get at the essence of things is evident. In romantic love, a deeper, more divine connection lies. In the simplest of rituals — a word, a sunrise or sunset — the cosmic cycle of life turns.

There’ll come a time when most of us return here
Brought back by our desire to be
A perfect entity
Living through a million years of crying
Until you’ve realized the Art of Dying…
Do you believe me?

George Harrison, “Art of Dying”

All Things Must Pass — in its vastness and cohesion — is also a deeply autobiographical work, each song reflecting some aspect of Harrison’s adventures in the waning days of the Beatles. The title track, composed in 1968, was inspired lyrically by a Timothy Leary poem to transience and musically by the Band, but rejected by the other Beatles for Let It Be. (Billy Preston was the first to record the song, as well as “My Sweet Lord,” for his 1970 Apple LP Encouraging Words.) His burgeoning interest in the Hare Krishna movement can be heard in songs that espouse the various Vedic tenets he was absorbing, including chanting, inner divinity and reincarnation (“Art of Dying”). His friendship with Bob Dylan, which Harrison actively pursued to the point of visiting him in Woodstock in 1968, comes through in the opening track, “I’d Have You Anytime,” which they composed together, and in his cover of a new Dylan tune, “If Not for You.”

The ups and downs of Harrison’s travails with the Beatles are woven into the songs as well: “Apple Scruffs” is a shout-out to the staffers at the group’s Apple Corps; “Wah-Wah” a wry comment on the headache (“wah-wah”) McCartney caused with his in-studio imperiousness. The opening lines of “Awaiting on You All” take Lennon to task for his “Bed-in” moralizing: “Don’t need a love-in/Don’t need no bedpan…”

Harrison in England with Eric Clapton and Delaney Bramlett (from left), December 1969. Credit: Birmingham Post & Mail/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images.

Of Harrison’s many experiences at the close of the ’60s, none was more consequential to All Things Must Pass than his impulsive decision to join the Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett tour in December 1969. Longtime companion and fellow axeman Eric Clapton had been first to come aboard, attracted by the entourage’s easygoing, communal vibe, their rootsy fusion of rock, soul and country blues, and the overall musicianship. Harrison was next, and for a two-week run through the U.K. and Denmark, he enjoyed being onstage for the first time since the Beatles had given up on live performances in ’66.

During those few shows, Harrison perfected his slide guitar technique, coached in part by Delaney, and it soon became a favored element of his repertoire — as well as a distinct voice on many tracks on All Things Must Pass. Most significantly, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (as the tour was billed) featured the core of the lineup Harrison used on much of All Things Must Pass: keyboardist Bobby Whitlock, drummer Jim Gordon, bassist Carl Radle, saxophonist Bobby Keys, trumpeter Jim Price and guitarist Dave Mason. (If these names sound familiar, they should; collectively they supported or were part of some of the most seminal rock bands of that era, including the Rolling Stones, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Derek & the Dominos and Clapton’s group of the early ’70s.)

Beginning in May of 1970 — only weeks after the Beatles’ split was made public — Harrison brought them into Abbey Road Studios, along with an extensive list of U.K.-based musicians that included old friends Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, keyboardist Gary Wright and bassist Klaus Voorman, as well as newer acquaintances like the members of Badfinger, Peter Frampton and drummers Ginger Baker, Alan White (pre-Yes) and Phil Collins, whose conga playing failed to make the album. Months passed. The recordings were eventually whittled down to the six vinyl sides of All Things Must Pass. The post-production, especially of the material on the album’s first two disks, was meticulous and time consuming. With the intermittent help of Phil Spector, Harrison was finally his own master, crafting the music as he saw fit, overdubbing and mixing at will.

One evening in ’69, while Harrison was waiting backstage to perform in Copenhagen with Delaney and Bonnie, he began strumming the chords to what became “My Sweet Lord” — a song that eventually found him in legal hot water for its melodic and harmonic proximity to the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine.” In fact, the inspirational source was “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, a rare gospel pop charter from ’67. The notion of creating music with a life-affirming message, of using popular song as a means to convey a deep-seated personal philosophy, was what made sense to Harrison. For a number of months, from late ’70 through much of ’71, it made sense to an entire generation as well. The same week All Things Must Pass was released, so was “My Sweet Lord” as the album’s lead single, each topping album and singles pop charts in the U.K. and the U.S.

In New York in late October 1970, Harrison listens to All Things Must Pass with Apple’s Peter Bennett (left) and Phil Spector. Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images.

As attuned as Harrison was to the well being of the planet, one can only imagine how outraged and outspoken he would be by the current state of things. Of the original four Beatles, he proved the most enduringly committed to humanitarian concerns and global mobilization; his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 created a lasting model for rock and pop activism. He was the one who carried forward their collective dream, who attained what Apple Corps, the joint partnership the group established in 1968, first set out to do. His music, films and good works reached as many ears and hearts as those of any former Beatle, in more extensive, generous ways.

Today, it comes as no surprise that the most streamed Beatles song of the past few years is “Here Comes the Sun,” a Harrison original; nor is it surprising that the song is played by many hospitals when recovered Covid-19 patients are discharged. However Harrison might respond to today’s headlines, he could find comfort in knowing that his music is still making a difference, and that — 50 years on — the message of All Things Must Pass has yet to fade.

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