George Harrison c.1970/1971
Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns
It's Not Always Going To Be This Grey: George Harrison's 'All Things Must Pass' At 50
In 1970, Let It Be, the documentary chronicling The Beatles' final studio album of the same name, hit theaters worldwide, providing a blunt answer to the whys and the hows for those who might still be in denial about the group's inevitable separation. The film unmercifully exposed numerous cracks in their interpersonal relationships, only letting us see fragments of what had once been a cohesive, seemingly indivisible unit. Although incredibly frustrating to many fans, this portrayal proved crucial for an adequate understanding of each member's personal and professional motivations at the time—particularly George Harrison, whose creative persona was undergoing a vital and revolutionary change.
Those sessions, which author Peter Doggett describes in his book, "You Never Give Me Your Money," as "a drama with no movement or character development," showcase Harrison's growing exasperation with the part he'd been given to play within The Beatles' equation as well as a certain impatience and dissatisfaction replacing his acquiescence of previous years. Recently returned from a stay with Bob Dylan at Woodstock to what he would later call "The Beatles' winter of discontent" in "The Beatles Anthology," Harrison continued to see his musical contributions systematically met with disdain from his bandmates. It soon became obvious that challenging the John Lennon/Paul McCartney power axis would be an impossible task while the band was still together—a realization that further accelerated The Beatles' disintegration.
All Things Must Pass is a direct result of this unmaking. Released November 27, 1970, All Things Must Pass was technically Harrison's third studio album yet his first fully realized solo release following two slightly niche LPs prior: Wonderwall Music (1968), the mostly instrumental soundtrack to Joe Massot's film, Wonderwall, and Electronic Sound (1969), a two-track avant-garde project.
The imbalance in group dynamics made evident in the Let It Be documentary is essential to understand the genesis of All Things Must Pass since the two projects are irrevocably intertwined—perhaps more so than Lennon's or McCartney's respective debuts, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and McCartney, which also released in 1970. While his bandmates had long made peace with their prime status as composers, Harrison's mounting refusal to be repeatedly pushed to second best was reaching a boiling point, and his creativity soared in proportion. By then, the material he'd been putting in the drawer was far too vast to fit in a single album alone.
For anyone doubting Harrison's ability to stand on his own two feet as a solo artist, All Things Must Pass must have hit like a ton of bricks. Composed of three records, two LPs plus an extra disc titled Apple Jam that mostly contained improvised instrumentals, the album emerged as Harrison's definite and irrevocable declaration of independence.
Still, the album was colored with references to a painful recent past: These are visible in the cryptic album art showing Harrison in his Friar Park estate surrounded by four gnomes, often interpreted as the musician removing himself from The Beatles' collective identity. There are also the not-so-veiled attacks on his bandmates in "Wah-Wah," the sad contemplation of a breakup in "Isn't It A Pity?" and the inclusion of several compositions that had been turned down by The Beatles, such as "Art Of Dying," "Let It Down" and the album's title track, which Harrison can be seen playing to the other three in Let It Be.
The album, recorded between May and October in 1970, gathered an impressive supergroup of backing musicians that included bassist (and Revolver cover artist) Klaus Voormann, members of Badfinger and Delaney & Bonnie, Let It Be keyboardist Billy Preston, Eric Clapton and even Ringo Starr, the only Beatle who seemed to have no major feud with the other three.
Although Harrison had a very clear idea of what he wanted, things did not always go so smoothly. By summer, sessions came to a temporary halt as he made regular visits to see his dying mother in Liverpool. At the same time, further pressure came from EMI, who grew preoccupied with the alarming costs that a triple album would ensue. This, combined with Clapton's escalating heroin addiction and infatuation with Harrison's wife, Pattie Boyd, who he would eventually marry, contributed to a strained ambience that might at times have struck a chord of déjà vu for the Beatle.
Producer Phil Spector's erratic behavior didn't help either: Having been recruited by both Harrison and Lennon for their solo debuts following his impressive work on Let It Be, he was frequently unfit to function or nowhere to be found, forcing Harrison to take production matters into his own hands.
Despite all the delays and behind-the-scenes tension, some of it still resulting from the ongoing legal disputes between the four Beatles, All Things Must Pass triumphed. The album received a nomination for Album Of The Year at the 1972 GRAMMYs, while its No. 1 single "My Sweet Lord," for which Harrison was sued for copyright infringement and ultimately lost, was nominated for Record Of The Year. All Things Must Pass was ultimately inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame in 2014; Harrison was honored with the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award one year later.
While a triple album could have easily been dismissed as self-indulgence as pop crossed over to the individualistic '70s, the reception of All Things Must Pass was so indisputably solid and favorable that some music critics claimed it eclipsed Lennon's and McCartney's solo efforts. Maybe it was the surprise factor, too. Melody Maker's Richard Williams would best summarize this in his review of the album with the famous line, "Garbo talks! - Harrison is free!"—a reference fitting of how it felt to witness "the quiet one" finally raising his voice.
All Things Must Pass opened the gates to a world the public had only glimpsed during The Beatles years, proclaiming a coming of age that had been delayed for too long. Encapsulating Harrison's serenity without falling into a trap of passiveness, the album acted simultaneously as epilogue and opening chapter by precipitating both public and personal healing.
But the ghost of Beatles past would still come back to haunt Harrison as he, like the other three, quickly realized one doesn't simply cease to be a Beatle. Recurrent comparisons and undeclared fights both in and outside the charts persisted throughout the years, bringing back the vestiges of a narrative he hadn't fully absconded yet no longer defined him. "We've been nostalgia since 1967," Doggett quotes Harrison as saying at the time of the album's release, commenting on The Beatles' inability to escape a very specific, even if outdated, image that had been crystallized in the public's collective imagination.
Fifty years later, All Things Must Pass remains an important landmark in George Harrison's legacy and his most enduring solo testimony—something music journalist Paul Du Noyer points out on the text "When 1 Becomes 4" as a slight irony, since the title refers precisely to "the impermanence of things." But more than that, the album is a fascinating and detailed snapshot of the exact moment Harrison officially announced he was willing to move on from a game whose rules had long ceased to serve him.