The breakup of The Beatles was a devastating loss to the music world. For the four lads from Liverpool, however, the breakup was liberating. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were master composers, so it was safe to assume that their solo careers would prove equally rewarding. Ringo Starr, not considered much of a frontman, might not have as rewarding a career, but it seemed as if acting might be his forte; he had charmed in A Hard Day’s Night, Help, and characteristically so in Yellow Submarine, and his roles in Candy and The Magic Christian seemed to hint that his career might take off in another way.
For George Harrison, what to do next was the question. Of the four members, Harrison was the most vocal in his happiness that the band was over. For him, The Beatles had become a series of fights, arguments, disagreements, financial stress, and a permanent second-tier status. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the band’s final single as a real band was his Abbey Road contribution, “Something,” and is considered one of the band’s most sublime numbers.
“Something” was a high point, but it was merely the tip of the iceberg. 1969 was a prolific year for Harrison, even if his bandmates didn’t catch on that their kid guitarist had risen to their status in terms of songwriting. Imagine, then, the feeling of rejection that he must have felt when he presented “Isn’t A Pity,” “Run of the Mill,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Beware of Darkness,” and “Let It Down” during the disastrous Get Back sessions, only to have them brushed aside; it must have been especially galling to Harrison, considering the mediocrity of some of the material recorded and filmed for Get Back.
So when the band breaks up, Harrison’s got a large backlog of songs that he doesn’t really know what to do with. Enlisting a handful of his friends, and getting Phil Spector in the producer’s chair, Harrison simply started recording his material, with no real idea of what the album will be like. It’s obvious to everyone involved in the sessions that Harrison was on a streak, and ultimately the decision was made to release a then unheard-of triple album.
Free from having to create within the Beatles’ template—something Harrison often rebelled against, handing in numbers like “Within You, Without You” and “Blue Jay Way”—he was now free to explore anything he wanted. He proceeded to do exactly that, turning in a record that would run through heavy, solemn ballads like the title track. Joyous hard rock would be explored with with “Art of Dying” and “What Is Life.” “My Sweet Lord” is gospel with a hint of Eastern consciousness, while “Run Of The Mill” and “Hear Me Lord” are simple pleas for peace in times of trouble and tumult. Heck, if he wanted to just throw down some good old-fashioned blues jams, he did. Yes, on some levels All Things Must Pass is self-indulgent, but it’s a well-deserved indulgence. If anything, Apple Jam only adds to the sense of release from the pressures of his former band. Here, he was the star, he could rock out, and he could just play.
And that’s exactly what he did.
For me, there will never be a greater moment of musical discovery than hearing side one of the first album. I was about thirteen or so, and had saved up enough to get a copy. I put the needle on the record, entranced by the gentle “I’d Have You Anytime,” a co-write with friend Bob Dylan. It was mellow and short, a tasty hors d’oeuvre before the epic and grand “My Sweet Lord,” the only song on the album I knew, and a song I had already grown to love. To me, hearing that familiar guitar intro and its slowly-building tempo, leading to the ecstatic gospel choir ending—it was something that was going to be hard to top.
But then “Wah-Wah” kicks in, an acerbic song about fighting an arguing, written about his former bandmates, featuring some amazing guitar leads and an overpowering amount of tambourines and percussion and horns.The fuck-you nature of the lyrics was obvious, and you knew he was saying good riddance to the Beatles when he sang, “You won’t hear me sighing/You won’t hear me crying” and “I know how sweet life can be/If I keep myself free from wah-wah.” It was a bold testament and a burning-of-the-bridge to the past, with its head aiming directly at the future, joyously careening away from the darkness and into brighter, better waters.
Yet then comes “Isn’t It A Pity.” Offered on the album twice, this version, at nearly eight minutes long, serves almost as an apology for “Wah-Wah,” the moment of realization that what had been the defining relationship of his life up to that point had come to an end. Instead of blame and name-calling, he’s lamenting how everyone in this split-up was at fault. It’s a beautifully deft moment of duality. He’s declaring himself free of people and a thing that he loved and that got him to the point. The extended fade-out over a huge orchestral backing helps to realize that maybe Harrison wasn’t really as happy as “Wah-Wah” made him seem.
I didn’t listen to the rest of the album until the next day. To me, that side, those four songs, will forever be Harrison’s greatest creative moment. The rest of the album is wonderful, of course, but the stunned silence that overcame me when the stylus lifted as the final notes of “Isn’t It A Pity” played on—words cannot properly capture that feeling.
Truthfully, I can’t even begin to try.
Shortly before his death—obviously aware the end was near—Harrison worked up a remastered version, an unfortunate revision with poor remastering, hideously ugly updated cover art, and scant bonus tracks, including a superfluous (and not very good) remake of “My Sweet Lord.” This edition mercifully cleans up that monstrosity, and this remastering job sounds cleaner and crisper and vibrant. Thankfully, gone too is the hideous “colorized” cover artwork, restoring All Things Must Pass to the original dark, dreary vibe that so suits the music found within.
Not only is All Things Must Pass an amazing record, it has become a metaphor for creative types stymied in bands. When music journalists discuss a solo project from someone that’s not the key songwriter in a group, the question of backlog is often brought up, a direct result of Harrison’s own creative backlog.
Much is to be said of Harrison’s later career—and not a lot of it positive—but All Things Must Pass is undoubtedly its high point. It’s a point worth noting that these same musicians—including Harrison—would go on to assist John Lennon with his masterpiece, Imagine, indicating that the environment he created was conducive to masterful works of art that will forever stand the test of time.