2001 / Music

For George Harrison, Rock’s ‘Dark Horse’ Always Recognized Others

Fab Four Guitarist Died From Brain Tumor Last Thursday

As a member of the Beatles, George Harrison was known as the “quiet one.” But, in truth, a better description for the man and his almost 40-year recording career would be the name that he chose for a song, an album and his one-time record label: Dark Horse.

Photo: George Harrison.com

Photo: George Harrison.com

The apparent reason why Harrison selected this metaphor was that it perfectly describes his situation. Despite his formidable songwriting talents, Harrison would always endure working under the shadow of his former bandmates, Paul McCartney and John Lennon.

But after examining his life and career closely, two of his recurring characteristics emerge which embody the idea of the “dark horse” — Harrison’s low-key ego and his unrelenting search for an underdog to champion — and make the description far richer.

More than his achievements as a songwriter or his impact on other guitarists, it was Harrison’s ability to accentuate the strengths of the artists that he worked with (often at the expense of showcasing his own skills) and his desire to call attention to unsung causes (politically, socially, spiritually or musically) that earned him the rank of one of rock music’s most enduring influences.

Most will rate Harrison as the third-most talented Beatle, but his contributions to the group were invaluable. Within the Fab Four, Harrison was the band’s musical foundation. He was the group’s lead guitarist, but his playing was sweet, melodic and notoriously restrained. As a backup singer, Harrison’s gentle voice was the anchor for the group’s trademark three-part harmonies.

Harrison’s contributions always served to benefit the songs as opposed to highlighting himself, but because of this, he was often the man left in the shadows.

And because Harrison’s songwriting skills took longer to develop, he was sometimes dismissed as only an adept sideman for Lennon and McCartney. “I think John and Paul were the stars of the Beatles,” Harrison later said.

This perception haunted Harrison and had a tendency to sour his recollections of the group and his relations with his ex-bandmates.

But during his solo years, Harrison continued to fill the role as the dark horse — both on his own albums and in his collaborations with others.

No doubt it was his selflessness as a collaborator that allowed Harrison, unlike his former bandmates, to cultivate and maintain close working relationships with other musical titans, like Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar, Paul Simon, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne, Carl Perkins and others.

In the case of Dylan and Clapton, Harrison’s songwriting collaborations with both men in the late ’60s and early ’70s helped them cross the bridge to new phases of their careers; He eased Clapton’s move from Cream’s overindulgent blues jams to a more song-oriented approach and assisted Dylan in writing a couple of songs that marked the first steps toward emerging from his songwriting funk in the early ’70s.

Harrison was a subtle catalyst.

In the late ’80s, Harrison tried to help the floundering careers of early rock legends like Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. While Harrison made a guest appearance on one of Perkins’ albums, he did far better for Orbison. It was Orbison’s unearthly angelic voice that was the star attraction of Harrison’s second most high profile band, the Traveling Wilburys.

The Wilburys were an all-star band that Harrison led that included Orbison, Dylan, Tom Petty, and Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne. The group recorded two easy-going rock albums together in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but Orbison’s death in 1989 meant the group would soon follow.

His sponsorship of others wasn’t always beneficial. For his 1987 comeback album, “Cloud Nine,” Harrison hired Lynne as the producer and unknowingly unleashed a monster. The pair’s collaboration, as Harrison later admitted, snowballed into Lynne producing albums for Harrison, Petty, Orbison and even the two new Beatles “Anthology” songs, and skewer the music so as to sound like ELO records.

<ibs_related>But perhaps Harrison’s most profound contribution to rock’n’roll and Western culture was his desire to call attention to causes, music or individuals about which he felt strongly. He enjoyed seeking out the dark horse.

It was his conscious decision to take the road less traveled and it led him to embrace Eastern religions, to be one of the first enthusiasts of what was called world music and to be an early convert to Dylan’s late ’60s roots-rock revival. As an internationally famous musician, songwriter and social critic, he sought to garner attention for the forgotten cause time and time again.

Maybe it was the overwhelming frenzy of the Beatlemania experience that triggered Harrison to replay this scenario, to cast off the pursuits that mainstream of society or his fellow musicians strived for in favor of something different.

Whatever the cause, at the height of the public’s Beatle fixation in the mid-’60s, Harrison sought out spiritual fulfillment outside the West. It was his fascination with the religions popular in India that drew the other Beatles to India and because of their fame, aroused the interest of many in the younger generation.

Similarly, Harrison’s use of the sitar and support for Indian musician Ravi Shankar opened the door for music and instruments outside the Anglo-American context to gain mainstream attention and to have an influence on pop music. He gave rock’n’roll new possibilities.

“I think any exploration of non-Western music in pop was a direct result of George Harrison,” said Spin magazine editor Alan Light.

But no sooner had Harrison and the Beatles’s trip introduced the West to such marvels as the Nehru jacket and inspired the Paul Butterfield Blues Band to record an extended raga-like composition, “East-West,” when Harrison found a new movement to support. (Unlike the other Beatles, Harrison remained a member of the Hare Krishna sect of Hinduism for all of this life.)

In 1968, Harrison, like Clapton, was drawn to the roots-based music that Bob Dylan was creating in a basement in Woodstock, N.Y., with his backup outfit, the Band. In the latter part of that year, Harrison traveled to Woodstock and visited with Dylan. The time that Harrison spent with Dylan was the beginning of a friendship that continued until his death.

His Woodstock trip influenced many of the songs that he wrote for the last three Beatle albums and was the dominating vision for his 1970 solo album, “All Things Must Pass.” With songs like “Isn’t It A Pity,” “Beware Of Darkness,” and “Behind That Locked Door,” Harrison latched onto the spiritual undercurrents as well as the musical qualities present in Dylan and the Band’s blend of country and folk music.

The success of the “All Things Must Pass” and other records pushed country-rock’s profile even higher in popular consciousness and onto radio programmers’ playlists. Even Ringo Starr headed to Nashville to record an album.

In 1971, he rallied support for the Concert for Bangladesh. The show was the an all-star charity concert for the famine-ravaged population of Bangladesh (located next to India) and he enlisted performers including his former bandmate Ringo Starr, Dylan, Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, Klaus Voormann and Badfinger.

At the Concert for Bangladesh, Harrison assembled together those two characteristics that so shaped his creative life and marked him as a “dark horse.” He provided backup for many of the acts performing that night (even rousing Clapton from his heroin-induced seclusion) while also eliciting public attention for something that he felt strongly about.

Reading the countless obituaries about Harrison, most writers and commentators have focused on his individual achievements — the handful of hit songs that he wrote or that he created what Frank Sinatra announced was his favorite Beatles’ tune (“Something”) or the fact that “All Things Must Pass” was the greatest post-Beatles solo album of all the Fab Four.

More than that, it was Harrison’s ability to encourage others — from those he worked with to music fans around the world — to try something new or different. And he did it without most people realizing his impact. It’s a shame that few seem to notice that Harrison the dark horse that won the race.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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