A couple years ago I compiled my list of The Beatles' best albums, and while it occurred to me back then to do a list of songs as well, I ran into a conundrum: How the actual hell do you narrow down the Beatles' iconic song catalogue to ten choices? It would be nigh impossible. So instead I've saved myself hours of agony by compiling not one list, but three: the ten greatest Beatles songs written, respectively, by the group's three songwriters - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and today's subject, George Harrison!
George has always been considered the unsung hero of the band, finding himself in the unenviable position of having to compete with the two-headed compositional juggernaut known as Lennon-McCartney. While the two prodigies were virtually pooping out gold records, George was left to his own devices to come up with one or two tunes he just hoped would be deemed worthy of inclusion on each album. Though his early output certainly didn't stack up to standout singles like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You," George was diligent and untiring, honing his unique gifts and molding himself into a great composer in his own right. By the time the band recorded Revolver, George could consistently be counted on to deliver at least one album standout; he was sadly almost always limited to two tracks per disc, and when the band broke up he'd amassed a double album's worth of material which became his solo record All Things Must Pass.
With all this in mind, let's take a look at the Top Ten Beatles Songs: George Harrison Edition....
George's anti-establishment anthem about consumerism and class relations dates as far back as the Revolver writing sessions but wasn't finished until the White Album. The use of harpsichord calls to mind snooty 18th century upper-crusters, while the lyrics have a biting satirical bent.
The Inner Light
One of three Harrison-penned Beatles songs to use traditional Indian instruments, "The Inner Light" deals with his newfound interest in Transcendental Meditation. The music alternates between slow, meditative lyric sections dealing with spirituality, and upbeat Indian temple music making liberal use of George's sitar; the prevailing theme here is about discovering one's inner peace.
Within You, Without You
Probably George's most famous sitar-based song, and his only track on Sgt. Pepper, was steeped in traditional Indian music but with a mix of Western instrumentation as well. The lyrics evolved out of a philosophical conversation with Beatles friend Klaus Voorman about embracing the non-physical. I always found this song a bit overlong, but it was nonetheless an adventurous major sonic departure for the band.
Alright, now for the top ten....
10. For You Blue
A simple, bouncy 12-bar blues composition written for his wife Pattie, "For You Blue" was heavily influenced by a trip George took to Woodstock, NY to jam with Bob Dylan and The Band, a welcome contrast to the discordant White Album recording sessions. This song ended up on the Let It Be album, itself a very troubled production, but it managed to retain its intended care-free vibe, and is one of George's two strong Let It Be offerings.
9. Long, Long, Long
Perhaps the quietest of all Beatles songs, from the "quiet Beatle," George's hauntingly serene ballad about his reconnecting with God immediately follows Paul's violently heavy "Helter Skelter" on the White Album, making for an abrupt mood swing. The song has a sad-but-relieved vibe about it, as though George were atoning for his time experimenting with mind-altering substances and truly finding tranquility in mysticism.
8. Blue Jay Way
Released at the height of Beatles psychedelia, George's lone contribution to the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack is a ghostly, atmospheric tune written on a Hammond organ while George and Pattie waited for friends to arrive at their rented LA house, immediately after a long flight from London. Harrison's songs usually seemed to take on a darker tone than John or Paul's, but that's especially true of "Blue Jay Way," which perfectly conveys George's post-flight exhaustion and impatience waiting for his house guests.
7. Love You To
Another tune written partly for Pattie but also reflecting the emerging counterculture of the 60s, "Love You To" was George's first song to make full use of his newfound fascination for classical Indian music. Built around the sitar and tabla, the song contains a simple verse melody that climaxes in a brief but dense vocal harmony, and to me it's the strongest of George's trilogy of Indian-influenced songs.
6. I Me Mine
Fittingly given its lyrics about selfishness and ego, this Let It Be track was the final new song recorded by The Beatles before their 1970 breakup. John had already privately left the band and wasn't even present for the session, and in fact the song was only officially recorded for the album because it had been featured in the documentary (George harbored strong resentment of both John and Paul for their apathy toward his latest songwriting efforts). Originally the tune only ran 94 seconds, but when producer Phil Spector assembled the album he repeated the bridge and second verse to flesh it out into a full-length song. In spite of its unfortunate backstory, "I Me Mine" remains one of George's most acerbic Beatles songs, capturing his disillusionment at the time.
5. Savoy Truffle
Aided by thick, ominous saxophones, Harrison's soul-infused cautionary piece about his friend Eric Clapton's fondness for chocolate treats is ironically one of his darkest sounding Beatles cuts. George had come off a string of songs about meditation and spirituality, and wrote this song as a playful counterpoint to his more serious work. And yet the song still contains his distinctive, sardonically morose touch.
4. Here Comes the Sun
One of George's most beloved compositions is this sweet, optimistic Abbey Road track, written at Eric Clapton's house while the rest of the band were mired in Apple Corps business meetings. The 1968-69 winter in England had been particularly bleak, and George was just happy to be outside taking an April stroll through the garden. The verse/chorus sections are simple but elegant, while the transitions and bridge are full of innovative time changes. "Here Comes the Sun" is one of two Abbey Road tracks that announced George as a great songwriter in the same league as John and Paul.
The only Harrison song to open a Beatles album, "Taxman" was George's response to discovering that the top progressive tax rate in Britain (which now applied to him), was an appalling 95% ("There's one for you/nineteen for me"). The lyrics serve as a scathing rebuke of the policy, while the music is quintessential 1966 psychedelic rock. John contributed a few lyrical jabs, and Paul's snaking, Eastern-influenced guitar solo punctuates the derisive anti-tax anthem, but "Taxman" is in my opinion George Harrison's first truly great piece of songwriting.
Besides being widely considered an Abbey Road standout and the herald of George Harrison's maturity as a songwriter, "Something" holds a special place for me because it was my wedding song. Evidently written both for his wife Pattie and for Krishna (George's approach to love songs at this point allowed for ambiguity between romantic love and its spiritual counterpart), this song was originally offered to Joe Cocker before The Beatles decided to include it on Abbey Road. It would also become the first George Harrison song to be released as an A-side, paired as a double-A with John's "Come Together." More than any other song he brought to the band, "Something" proved to be George Harrison's Beatles-era masterpiece. However my favorite Harrison song is....
1. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
For me George's finest contribution to Beatles lore is this dirge-like rocker lamenting both the world's failure to embrace love and spirituality, and his growing alienation from his bandmates following their trip to India. As John and Paul took over management duties (after Brian Epstein's death), George found himself far more drawn to meditation and Eastern philosophies. Originally conceived as an acoustic folk song, the final version was one of the Beatles' heaviest rock songs, supported by Paul's thundering bass tone and accentuated by guest guitarist Eric Clapton's titular wailing, mournful solos. The trip to India saw George become reacquainted with his guitar after a long flirtation with the sitar, and this was his marquee accomplishment from the period. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is for me the greatest song of George Harrison's career.
Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the Paul McCartney and John Lennon editions of Top Ten Beatles Songs!
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PAUL MCCARTNEY EDITION
JOHN LENNON EDITION