George Harrison was always Bob Dylan’s favourite member of The Beatles, and they struck up a close relationship during the band’s heyday, eventually leading to them becoming lifelong friends as well as bandmates in the Traveling Wilburys.
Dylan said of Harrison after his tragic passing: “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? If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he’d have been probably just as big as anybody.”
He continued: “George had an uncanny ability to just play chords that didn’t seem to be connected in any kind of way and come up with a melody and a song. I don’t know anybody else who could do that, either. What can I tell you? He was from that old line of playing where every note was a note to be counted.”
Dylan’s words speak volumes about the respect which he held for Harrison. Meanwhile, the late Beatle instead chose to show his appreciation through covers, and on several occasions, he put his own spin on songs from his fellow Travelling Wilbury.
They both helped each other through stages in their respective careers when they were struggling creatively or personally. Despite being from different corners of the world, the pair saw things through a shared lens, and Harrison’s Dylan covers are the perfect way to celebrate their friendship.
George Harrison’s five best Bob Dylan covers
‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’
In 1993, George Harrison was one of the esteemed names who appeared at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s first recording. Harrison’s public performances were extremely rare around this time, but he couldn’t say no to paying tribute to his old friend and participating in a historic evening.
Harrison was one of the star performers, and his performance of ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’ was soul-stirring. Admittedly, the former Beatle didn’t tinker too heavily with the arrangement and instead tried to keep it similar to the original.
“That’s about as complete as you can be,” Dylan once said about the line about a yellow railroad in the track. “Every single letter in that line. It’s all true. On a literal and on an escapist level…. Getting back to the yellow railroad, that could be from looking someplace. Being a performer, you travel the world. You’re not just looking out of the same window everyday. You’re not just walking down the same old street. So you must make yourself observe whatever. But most of the time it hits you.”
‘Abandoned Love’ is a track that both men ironically abandoned, and it didn’t see the light of day until 1985 when Dylan finally included it on the compilation release, Biograph. It was recorded ten years prior, but he snubbed it on Desire in favour of ‘Joey’ and during that time, Harrison nearly released it.
Harrison recorded his demo version of ‘Abandoned Love’ in 1984, but for unknown reasons, he never officially released the track. It’s a mark of their friendship that Dylan allowed Harrison to attempt to make it his own, and it still beggars belief the track is yet to be officially released.
‘Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind’
‘Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind’ has been covered on plentiful occasions, most notably by Jeff Buckley, and Johnny Cash also recorded a version of the track. However, despite its greatness, George Harrison’s cover of the classic is less widely known than the others.
Viewers of Peter Jackson’s documentary about The Beatles, Get Back, will be familiar with Harrison’s take on the track as the programme includes jaw-dropping footage of the guitarist bursting into a jam of ‘Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind’ in the studio, and it’s simply wonderful. Just like ‘Abandoned Love’, it’s another track that Dylan didn’t deem worthy enough to appear on an album, yet, it would be many others’ magnum opus.
‘I Threw It All Away’
Dylan’s 1969 masterpiece, Nashville Skyline, was a seminal album in Harrison’s life, and ‘I Threw It All Away’ was a personal highlight. Harrison was fortunate enough to hear the track long before it was recorded after Dylan gave him a sneak preview in 1968, and the Beatle loved it so much that he felt compelled to learn it.
Harrison recorded his version of the track during the same medley in the Let It Be sessions, and it can be safely said that he was firmly going through a Dylan phase. Surprisingly, Dylan has only played the song sporadically throughout his career and retired it in 2002. Unfortunately, Harrison never played it in concert, but at least this recording thankfully exists.
‘If Not For You’
Before Harrison began recording his debut solo album, All Things Must Pass, he took a trip to Woodstock to play with Bob Dylan and The Band, which got his creative juices flowing. Many positives came from that experience which revitalised Harrison, including handing him ‘If Not For You’.
During his stay in the States, they recorded a version of the track together with The Band, but this was not the take that found its way onto Harrison’s album, although it finally saw the light of day in 1991. While calling this song a cover is perhaps a bit of a stretch because Harrison’s version was released a few months before Dylan’s, it still originated from the mercurial mind of the latter and therefore made a list.