In 1968, The Beatles’ The White Album contained a song that was soon to be one of their most popular across generations. Formed in 1960, the world’s most influential band was, in part, responsible for shaping the counterculture movement that was beginning to take ground in the West at that time. Most of the songs that John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison wrote during that period propagated the message of universal love and peace.
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ has thematic similarities with other Beatles songs such as ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘Let it Be’ as it talks about the latent universal love for humankind, something which the band argued is present within all individuals but remains unrealised — “I look at you all, see the love there that’s sleeping…” wrote Harrison. But unlike other songs, this one is more of a wailing lament and an extremely personal one too. However, if we place the song in a wider context, it can be seen as a response to some major political events like the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the US and the Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia which blatantly pointed out that, despite their message and the overwhelming trend, love hadn’t quite conquered all yet.
The song was written by the band’s lead guitarist George Harrison. Perhaps, the most interesting aspect about The Beatles is that while all the four members wrote, composed and sang — there weren’t any rigid demarcations where one would either be the lead vocalist or the drummer or the lyricist— the group had a natural flow. The bond between the group was symbiotic but there was always one partnership at the top of the tree until one song would shake the Lennon-McCartney stranglehold loose. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was written by Harrison under the influence of some, at the time, boundary-pushing Eastern concepts.
The Beatles were just back from their India trip where they were studying Transcendental Meditation and soon after Harrison came across the Chinese book I Ching or the Book of Changes while he was visiting his parents in Warrington. To quote Harrison, “The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be… every little item that’s going down has a purpose. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simple study based on that theory… I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw ‘gently weeps’, then laid the book down again and started the song.” Fortuituous, perhaps, but Harrison expertly showed off his growing skillset with one of the band’s most beloved compositions. As well as Harrison channelling the Eastern philosophies he had wrapped himself in, the track also reflects the disharmonious atmosphere within the band following their return from the sub-continent.
Harrison is the sole composer of the song, however, it’s hard not to agree that one man stole the show on the recording, and he wasn’t even a Beatle. The song features Eric Clapton as a guest artist and the lead guitarist. Though hesitant to be a part of the Beatles-machine at first, Clapton eventually decided to come on board. “I was driving into London with Eric Clapton,” Harrison remembered, “And I said, ‘What are you doing today? Why don’t you come to the studio and play on this song for me?’ He said, ‘Oh, no – I can’t do that. Nobody’s ever played on a Beatles record and the others wouldn’t like it.’ I said, ‘Look, it’s my song and I’d like you to play on it.”
In a 1987 interview with Guitar Player Magazine, Harrison was asked whether it had bruised his ego to ask Clapton to play on the song. “No, my ego would rather have Eric play on it. I’ll tell you, I worked on that song with John, Paul, and Ringo one day, and they were not interested in it at all,” he said. “And I knew inside of me that it was a nice song.”
George Harrison had struggled, especially during this period, to have his songs given equal billing to those of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. While his songwriting was clearly improving, the time and space the rest of the group afforded him were paltry in comparison. There’s a good case to be had that Harrison asked Clapton to get involved to elicit some good behaviour from the rest of the group, much like when you invite a friend over for tea. “So Eric came in,” Harrison recalled, “And the other guys were as good as gold because he was there. It left me free to just play the rhythm and do the vocal.” It had the desired effect and Clapton’s presence made the others a bit more serious about the song. Even his musical presence in the form of a guitar solo is impressive.
In the studio, Harrison was bent towards a more folkish arrangement during the demo takes, with the use of acoustic guitar and Harmonium (an Eastern instrument.) But the final track was typically in a heavy metal style resembling the band’s other late ’60s works. The metal version undoubtedly made the song upbeat but the acoustic version (Harrison’s solo version recorded at the Abbey studio on July 1968) is arguably more appealing and suits the mood of the song.
There are certain thoughts of ‘what could have been’ with the original demo. It would have been really challenging yet interesting if they incorporated the harmonium in the final track but, considering The White Album was the band’s “return to rocking”, the chances were low. The other regret is that Harrison decided to do away with some brilliant lines which he wrote initially as part of the lyrics. One example would be: “I look at the trouble and hate that is raging/ While my guitar gently weeps/ As I’m sitting here, doing nothing but ageing/ Still my guitar gently weeps.”
With George Harrison on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, John Lennon on rhythm guitar, Paul McCartney on bass guitar, piano and organ, Ringo Starr on drums, tambourine and castanets and Eric Clapton on lead guitar, the song become a hit within a few days of its release. The fact that it was only released as a B-side to ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is every reason you need for why George Harrison simply had to leave The Beatles.
The soul-stirring lyrics and the simple tune paired with a message that rekindled a feeling of oneness made an immediate connection with the audience. It’s a quite stunning piece of avant-garde rock music, centred in spirituality but possessed by the afflictions of stardom and serendipity. It’s not often that songs just leap from the page and settle not only in your own canon but are then widely regarded as one of the best songs ever written by the most famous band the world has ever known. Quite some feat for the group’s third-choice songwriter.
Let’s listen to this song once again and try to the revive love that lays dormant in us.