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George Harrison and the Struggle for Creative Freedom
I am pleased to say that STSC member Phil has taken the plunge and decided to launch a new Substack. The excellently namedis where he will be discussing ‘how to live life on your own terms and improve your awareness, focus, productivity and creativity. I’ll also be reporting on my experiences on running an animation agency from home for over a decade, with advice of how you can do the same.’
What else needs to be said? If that doesn’t pique your interest, then I don’t know what to tell you. But if further persuasion were needed then perhaps you can check out today’s essay wherein Phil considers the case of ‘the quiet Beatle.’
George Harrison was known as ‘The Quiet Beatle’. His main role in the early days of the group was as the lead guitarist, helping to add texture to the songs written by his bandmates, the legendary team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Throughout the band’s career, Harrison was responsible for writing just a handful of released tracks, but his efforts more than stood up to the quality of Lennon and McCartney’s
His love song Something, written for his wife, Patti Boyd, is regarded as one of the greatest love songs of all time. Taxman from the album Revolver was an early influence on punk rock and its riff influenced The Jam’s post-punk hit single Start.
He also wrote the classics Here Comes The Sun and While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the latter song being the subject of one of the greatest live guitar solos of all time when Prince performed it at the George Harrison Tribute Concert. Something and While My Guitar Gently Weeps were ranked #278 and #136 respectively in Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Despite these songs now being regarded as classics, at the time of writing they were seen by Lennon and McCartney, and the band’s producer George Martin, as token efforts compared to the rest of the duo’s output.
Harrison said “They had a lot of practice, put it that way. They had been writing since we were in school. So they had written most of their bad songs before we had gotten into the recording studio. For me, I had to come from nowhere and start writing and to have something at least quality enough to be able to, you know, put it in the record with all the wondrous hits.”
When recording their albums, Harrison admitted; “I’d always have to wait through ten of [John and Paul’s] songs before they’d even listen to one of mine.”
In 1968 and 1969, he released two instrumental albums, Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound, but kept writing songs in the hope that they would end up on Beatles albums.
He later admitted to feeling creatively ‘constipated’. In 1969, John Lennon had said that they would make sure that George had more input on their next album, but that album never came, as the Beatles split shortly afterwards.
With Harrison building in confidence as a songwriter and lead singer, the stage was now set for the recording of his third, but first ‘proper’, solo album. Production started in May 1970, and the resultant album was released in November of that year.
But All Things Must Pass wasn’t a single or even a double album. Rare for a solo artist, it was a triple album containing 23 original tracks, with three of them lasting longer than 7 minutes. Six of the songs on the album had been rejected for inclusion on either of their final two Beatles albums, Let It Be and Abbey Road.
Critically acclaimed on release, All Things Must Pass is ranked #79 on The Times’ 100 Best Albums of All Time and #368 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2014, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
So, after feeling creatively constipated and now being free of any constraints that he felt as part of The Beatles, Harrison was able to let the creativity flow and produced his masterpiece as a result.
So, what can we learn from this?
Firstly, there’s the saying that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with.
While Harrison was a talented guitarist when he joined The Beatles, his song writing skills were negligent at the time, and his first recorded song, Taxman, was released on their seventh studio album, Revolver.
Spending a vast amount of time from 1958 to 1970 with Lennon and McCartney, and in the late 60s with such luminaries as Bob Dylan and The Band, Harrison saw first-hand how they constructed their songs and developed them in the studio. This clearly helped his own song writing skills to mature rapidly to expert levels.
Secondly, we need to be aware of the impact that our environment and daily routines have on our productivity.
Harrison’s role as a member of the biggest group in the world eventually became a double-edged sword in that it didn’t allow him full creative expression. Bob Dylan said: “George got stuck with being the Beatle that had to fight to get songs on records because of Lennon and McCartney. Well, who wouldn’t get stuck?”
He was in the right environment for creative consumption, but it ironically limited his freedom to be creative.
Do you have a yearning to do something different with your life, but you’re not taking any steps towards that goal? Maybe you want to write a book or start a YouTube channel but spend your free time just consuming content rather than creating it.
At some point, we need to realise that we’ve learned enough through consumption. Only by creating can we maximise the learning journey and prevent what we’ve learned from stagnating within us. The best way to do that is to develop a habit of creative experimentation and expression by allocating daily time for our creative pursuits.
Lennon and McCartney had a habit of including only their own songs on their albums, and found that habit hard to break. Harrison had a habit of acquiescing to them until he became so frustrated that he temporarily left the group in 1969. This was one of the events that contributed to the band’s eventual demise.
Similarly, what habits have you developed that actively distract you from being creative? Do you spend your time in environments that support your creativity or restrict it?
Do the limiting beliefs in your head act like Lennon and McCartney, stifling your confidence and preventing you from moving forward? It’s tough to have friends or peers restricting your creativity, but it’s tragic if you’re doing it to yourself, your mind immediately rejecting great ideas without really knowing why (though that’s another post for another day).
Are your closest contacts people who can help you move further towards your goals, or who act as barriers to them?
If The Beatles had stayed together, who’s to say that Harrison would ever have realised his true creative potential? Sometimes you have to be proactive rather than waiting for things to fall into place.
I’ll leave you with this thought - What is one thing you can do today to move you further along your creative journey?
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When Rolling Stone recompiled the list in 2021, they promoted Something to #110 but removed While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Go figure.