As a vocalist, he was nothing special. His voice was not as immediately powerful as Lennon’s nor as sweet as McCartney’s. In fact, it was kind of sub-par. Adenoidal and thickly accented, but I suppose he could carry a tune. As a guitarist, he was admittedly unable to improvise on the fly, definitely out of sync with his flashy Sixties peers, and not criminally underrated the way Ringo was as a drummer. (Relax, we’ll get to him in Part 4). As a songwriter, he couldn’t hold a candle to the great rock poets like Dylan and Springsteen. Harrison’s talents in all these areas can best be described as “modest.” One gets the impression that if there were no Beatles, Lennon and McCartney would have found another path and still be known to us in some capacity, but Harrison was in dire need of his Beatles background to launch his solo career.
But wait! Let’s examine all this again. Harrison’s voice was certainly distinctive and full of character (and blended perfectly with Lennon and McCartney’s to create that special Beatles alchemy, usually pinning down the tricky middle harmony). As a guitarist, it may not have been a bad thing to be out of step with his flashy Sixties peers. Some of those wanky, Vanilla Fudge-style blues-worshipers soloed like there was no tomorrow, often forgetting they were supposed to be playing a song.
Harrison did not go down the very well-trodden blues path, but played in a much more country & western-influenced rockabilly style, patterned after guys like Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins. His major concession to R&B was a healthy dose of Chuck Berry, which is the one thing he had in common with all other Sixties rock guitarists. (Hell, even the great Keith Richards spent most of the decade recycling Berry riffs, until he discovered open tuning in ’68.) Every Harrison solo was short, punchy, and served the song perfectly. Re-listen to some Beatles songs (“Can’t Buy Me Love” and their cover of the Larry Williams scorcher “Bad Boy” come to mind) with an ear on the solos, and you’ll see what I mean. As a songwriter, neither Lennon solo nor McCartney solo were on par with Dylan or Springsteen, either, and the best of Harrison’s solo material certainly equals the best of Lennon’s and McCartney’s. As far as being unable to improvise, who gives a good goddamn? The Beatles were never a jam band, anyway (thank God.)
And when, on a whim, he decided to join American R&B act Delaney & Bonnie on their British tour in 1969, he finally embraced the blues, but in his own way, rapidly developing an almost Hawaiian-sounding slide guitar technique that became the defining sound of his solo career. I still doubt there would have been a George Harrison music career without the Beatles, but luckily for everyone, there was a Beatles. And there’s some great stuff in the Harrisongs catalog…and also some turkeys. That’s why we’re here.
Anything else I have to say about Harrison, I said in my 2010 essay “The Quiet One.” In fact, I’ve probably already repeated myself somewhat, so let’s get on with our examination of the solo Harrison. Continue reading