Perfect Sound Forever

George Harrison

Photo copyright by Robert Altman

A tribute by Alan Crandall
(January 2002)

Since I'm on the road a lot, a long time ago I assembled tapes for my car; favorite songs by favorite artists. Strict criteria: they really had to be the songs that were the most special to me. Not the "best," not the most celebrated. The ones that I most wanted to hear when I wanted to hear that artist.

No big surprise that on the night of 11/30, it was The Beatles that needed to be heard. It was raining that night, and as I drove, with The Beatles still-fresh sounding music blasting away, I noticed that none of George's songs had made the cut. Not "Here Comes the Sun," not "Taxman," not even "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

Like I said, the tapes are made of the stuff that really moves me. When it come to The Beatles, the stuff that really moves me is mostly located in the period from late `64 to the end of `66. Basically, A Hard Day's Night to Revolver, encompassing Beatles VI, Yesterday and Today, (or Beatles for Sale, for those up on the UK versions), Help and of course, Rubber Soul. This is the stuff I most want to hear when I want to hear The Beatles. When they'd moved past their direct, Chuck Berry/Buddy Holly-influenced rock and roll period, but before they entered their "baroque," "psychedelic"/Sgt. Pepper phase.

Like I said, no George songs made it.  But, as I listened that night, it dawned on me that, actually, all of them were George songs. He was all over that music.

See, George was the musician of the group. He wasn't the Mad Genius, he wasn't The Craftsman, he wasn't The Sex Symbol (I can see the archetypes of the rock group, spread out before me like a hand of Tarot cards). He was the guy who you paid attention to if you were interested in the playing. Note that guys like Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix always got their biggest following among (a) guys and (b) guys who wanted to be musicians themselves. So it was with George. But maybe a little more so, because unlike Beck/Clapton etc., George's strength wasn't his flashy solos but as a riff-maker, a driver. His guitar powers songs like "Paperback Writer" or "Rain" much the way Steve Cropper powered a few hundred soul records. If you don't play a little guitar yourself, your ears might not even pick it up. George was my kind of guitar player, the kind I like best and admire the most (speaking as a guy who always wanted to be a musician himself).

And what strikes me first and foremost about the Beatles music from that era is that sound - the distinctive blend of rock and roll/folk rock/vocal harmonies - a sound The Byrds would cadge from and use (to great effect, mind you) and earn a lot of praise for, but one The Beatles kicked off (as they kicked off a lot of things that happened in popular music). And George's guitar is as integral to that sound as the vocal harmonies, as Paul and John's smart (and often complex) lyrics. None of this is to take anything away from the man's own songs, mind you. But it was as a guitarist that George always interested me.

I won't call it a tragedy and I'm not grieving. George's death was, if anything, amazingly ordinary for one so famous; after all, thousands of people his age die from cancer every year. I was never a fan of any of his post-Beatle works, though I acknowledge that he was indeed a musical innovator. It's been a long time since George Harrison was involved in anything that was likely to make me sit up and take notice.

But one of the worst ideas rock journalism has perpetrated is that an artist is only as good as his last good record. As messed up and confused as the history of rock music may be, there's no denying The Beatles played a monumental role in it (this is true even if you hate their music). Regardless of what came later, George once participated in giving the world some damn fine music, and something for guitar geeks like myself to aspire to.

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