Returning to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” 50 Years Later
Many music historians and fanatics philosophize about what would’ve happened if the Beatles never broke up. Without that Fab Four fallout, however, you never get the albums and albums of solo work. Most important of these works, many would argue, is George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”. Harrison’s first solo album post-Beatles breakup was released in November of 1970 and has graced the ears of the world now for half a century. This passing of time seems particularly special when discussing an album that so heavily shares the joys, fears, and possibilities we’re handed with the time we’re given.
The triple album offers a mixed lot –which is inevitable when dealing with the all-encompassing themes of spirituality, life, and death. Its, joyous, cautionary, and always holds an intimacy with words that are encased in large, boisterous instrumentation and production. That production comes with the help of Phil Spector was one of the prominent and influential producers in music. In an album controlled by guitar, percussion and layered harmonies, this production lies somewhere inside the constant battle between over-the-top overdubbing and perfectly placed, expansive richness.
Joyous revelations of spirituality and love are every wherever on the album and made apparent from the album singles. The upbeat intimacy of “My Sweet Lord” matched with the vague, questioning lyrics strapped to the fast tempo of “What is Life” gives the listener a sense that -while the journey will be grand -there will be an undeniable burden ahead. This messaging is amplified by one of the biggest inspirations on this album and Harrison as a whole –the musician’s spiritual awakening through Indian culture, Hinduism, and relationship with sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.
In tracks like “Awaiting On You All,” Harrison explains a disillusionment not only with the ideology of organized religion, but with the practices of which could be described as performative worship or activism. This hefty subject is matched with a bright musical backing, appearing as one of the more pop fueled tracks on the records. In the opening line that could also act as a dig at John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Harrison sings, “You don’t need no love in, You don’t need no bed pan”. Obviously referencing Lennon and Yoko’s infamous Bed-In for Peace, Harrison seems to be pointing out the bigger issue of activism as a spectacle rather than an act of service. Harrison doesn’t only give a tongue lashing to his former bandmate and instead aims for a bigger figurehead. “While the Pope owns 51% of General Motors. And the stock exchange is the only thing he's qualified to quote us." His lyrics cheerily beg us to question we’re allowing to prophesize to us, and to ask ourselves if they’re qualified to in the first place.
Other songs like “Run of the Mill” and “Beware of Darkness” feel like messages to a world set to destroy itself and are set as pleas, begging it to find another way. The themes of this album could be generically placed under peace and love, but it never allows you to think that simply. Each song urges to expresses all the things that aren’t inherently peaceful or lovable in hopes to lead us out of it. The solemn, ever-present uncertainties of humanity and our place in the world –as well as our place once we’ve left it. Between moments of existentialism like “Art of Dying,” Harrison offers track like “Wah-Wah” to bring out his signature sharpness that he’d been known for.
In “Wah-Wah”, every instrument and voice blends into a congregation that both electrifies and hypnotizes. The track is so extravagant and embellished, the listener must listen closely to realize the track is mostly just a jab at his old bandmates –specifically Paul McCartney and John Lennon. The strife between all four at different periods is well documented, so there's no need to go into detail, but looking specifically at this time in the late 60s and early 70s, it's important to mention the resentment Harrison had towards Lennon and McCartney for their dismissal of him as a songwriter.
“You made me such a big star, being there at the right time-cheaper than a dime”
The band offers an enormous sense of sound, the kind that makes you wonder if you could even attempt to record something like this now. A piercing guitar with large, robust vocals. This reverb, overdubbing, and sometimes over-doing, all leads back to Phil Spector in his role as co-producer. Infamous for his Wall of Sound, many of his notes and changes were about addition, never reduction. Harrison would later make statements regretting the over-the-top effect the Wall of Sound had on the record. While there are times where the production is gaudy or misaligned with the messaging, it's hard to imagine it any other way.
In his original review of the record for Rolling Stone in 1971, Ben Gerson proclaimed, “It is both an intensely personal statement and a grandiose gesture, a triumph over artistic modesty, even frustration.” As Gerson points out, it can be a treacherous battle to make something of a “grandiose gesture” without reeking of a certain type of pretentiousness. In a project that is equal parts optimistic and ominous, there’s no doubt that Harrison was the one for the job.