Spectropop remembers

GEORGE HARRISON (1943 - 2001)

The quiet Beatle

According to the Beatles producer Sir George Martin, George Harrison was "the Beatles' Third Man, always there yet somehow elusive." As well as being the "quiet Beatle", he was the rock guitarist who introduced the sitar to British pop music, a stalwart devotee of transcendental meditation, a film producer and an underrated songwriter - his composition Something was recorded by dozens of singers and was the only Beatles song featured in concert by Frank Sinatra.

He was born in Wavertree, Liverpool in 1942, eight months after Paul McCartney and two years after John Lennon. He experienced his "rock 'n roll epiphany", he later recalled, "when I was about 12 or 13 riding my bike and I heard Heartbreak Hotel coming out of somebody's house." The son of a bus driver, George passed the 11-plus exam and was awarded a place at the Liverpool Institute, one of the city's leading grammar schools. He met McCartney, who lived nearby, on the bus to school and the pair became close friends. When Paul linked up with John in the Quarrymen skiffle group, he tried to persuade the group to invite George to join. Lennon resisted, unwilling to have a 14-year-old kid in his band. He relented after hearing George's acoustic guitar rendition of the rock hit Raunchy. He realised that having a guitar soloist would allow the group to incorporate rock 'n roll material by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Little Richard into its repertoire. The disapproval with which Lennon's Auntie Mimi greeted George's teddy boy style and thick Scouse accent may also have helped change John's mind. Harrison's absorption in music took its toll on his school career, and he left the Liverpool Institute in 1959 with only one exam pass, in art. However, the following year his musical career began in earnest when the re-named Beatles were booked to play for four months in a club in Hamburg's Reeperbahn. Although the trip was cut short when the 17-year-old Harrison was discovered to be under age, the quintet (including drummer Pete Best and guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe) had gelled into an arresting and idiosyncratic unit.

By 1962, the Beatles had signed their recording contract with EMI. When their urbane producer, George Martin, politely asked them whether there was "anything you're not happy with," Harrison quipped: "Yes, I don't like your tie." The next eight years saw the Beatles become the most famous entertainers in the world and then implode. George had his share of the adulation - on his 21st birthday he received 15,000 cards and a full-sized door plus key - but within the group he was relatively isolated, as John and Paul were locked into their volatile songwriting partnership. Nevertheless, his contribution was considerable. He designed guitar breaks and riffs to suit the range of song genres used by Lennon and McCartney, although he had less opportunity than he would have liked to cut loose in the rockabilly style of his great hero Carl Perkins. He also got to sing at least one number on each album, beginning with Do You Want To Know A Secret? on the debut album. Eventually, too, the Beatles agreed to record his compositions, of which Within You Without You (from Sgt Pepper) While My Guitar Gently Weeps (from the White Album) and Here Comes The Sun and Something (from Abbey Road) were among the most memorable.

But probably his most important influence on the group concerned the new sound textures he introduced. Chief among these was the sitar that he first heard in a scene from the film Help! George was intrigued and he contrived a meeting with the sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar at the home of the leader of the Asian Music Circle in London. He briefly studied with Shankar, not, as he explained, to be able to become a classical raga player, but to be able to use the sitar in Beatle music. It was first heard on the Lennon song Norwegian Wood in 1965 and soon Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones and a dozen other pop musicians were featuring the sitar sound instrument on their records. Harrison and Shankar remained close friends, touring the United States together in 1974, and a Shankar recording appeared on Harrison's own record label, Dark Horse.

George's interest in Indian music led to the Beatles' famous entanglement with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967-8. With the other group members and their partners, George and his wife Patti Boyd (whom he had met on the set of the film A Hard Day's Night) travelled to the Maharishi's ashram in India. When the event disintegrated after allegations that the guru had molested a female adept, Harrison alone of the group remained faithful to the precepts of the Vedic tradition. He later showed his commitment in more practical ways by producing a hit record by the London-based Hari Krishna Temple group, by donating a Hertfordshire mansion for use as a centre of Hinduism and by playing concerts in support of the Natural Law party. He did, however, turn down the Maharishi's request that he, Paul and Ringo stand as candidates in Liverpool in the 1992 general election.

By 1968, The Beatles were on a downward path as John and Paul drifted apart and both antagonised George, who walked off the set of the film Let It Be after an argument with Paul. In these circumstances, it was perhaps not surprising that Harrison was the first of the group to record and succeed as a solo artist. He made two instrumental albums - Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound - before co-producing the three-LP set All Things Must Pass with Phil Spector and a range of distinguished instrumentalists. With 3m copies sold worldwide, it was his most commercially successful record, although a successful plagiarism suit over the song My Sweet Lord eventually cost him almost $600,000 (£421,000) in a US court case.

The devastation caused by floods in Bangladesh in 1971 inspired Harrison to organise a major benefit concert in New York that was recorded and released as a live album the following year. He continued to write and record at a fast pace for the next few years, releasing the hit Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) in 1973 and the albums Living In The Material World and Extra Texture. By the late 1970s, however, his spiritual soft rock was out of fashion and for much of the next decade Harrison concentrated on a new career as a film producer through Handmade Films, the company he formed with Dennis O'Brien in 1979. Their first success was the Monty Python's feature The Life Of Brian, which they took on after EMI's Lord Delfont decided it would incur charges of blasphemy. During the 1980s Handmade was responsible for such critically-acclaimed movies as The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, A Private Function, Mona Lisa and Withnail and I. The failure of the Madonna-Sean Penn vehicle Shanghai Surprise in 1986 heralded a downturn in the company's fortunes and it was eventually wound up in acrimony with Harrison winning an $11 million lawsuit against his former partner.

John Lennon's tragic death in 1980 spurred George to compose the tribute song All Those Years Ago which he recorded with Paul and Ringo, but his own recording career was not rekindled until 1987 when he and Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra co-produced the album Cloud Nine which included two hit singles, Got My Mind Set On You (a number one in America) and When We Was Fab. With Lynne he next formed the Travelling Wilburys, a kind of anti-supergroup with Bob Dylan (a former songwriting partner of Harrison's), Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. Despite Orbison's death in 1988, the group recorded two highly successful albums that in 1992 encouraged Harrison to undertake his first international tour for 18 years. Among the supporting musicians was Eric Clapton, whose professional and personal life had been entwined with Harrison's since the 1960s. After George and Patti Boyd had separated in 1974 she married Clapton, whose agonised love for her had inspired his famous song Layla.

In his 1979 autobiography I Me Mine, Harrison had written "I don't go out to clubs and parties. I stay at home and watch the river flow". In the 80s and early 90s he appeared in public infrequently, usually on Beatle-related occasions such as the court case in which the surviving Beatles prevented the release of a sub-standard live recording from Hamburg and at Linda McCartney's funeral.

During the remainder of the 90s, Harrison lived quietly in his lovingly restored 19th century mansion in Friars Park, Henley-on-Thames, with his second wife Olivia Arias and their 24-year-old son Dhani. Their idyllic life was shaken when a schizophrenic Beatles fan, Michael Abram, broke into their home in December 1999. Although he badly injured Harrison, he was found not guilty of attempted murder and was ordered to be detailed indefinitely in a secure psychiatric hospital. A year before the attack, Harrison, previously a heavy smoker, had revealed he had undergone treatment for throat cancer. After the break-in, Harrison developed lung cancer and received major surgery for the disease in America earlier this year. His death follows last-hope treatment in Switzerland for a tumour on his brain. He is survived by Olivia and their son Dhani.

Dave Laing - The Guardian

George Harrison: born 25 February 1943 - died 30 November 2001