‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ has entered the realm of a modern ‘standard’, solidifying its place in the iconography of rock ‘n’ roll. Whether it reminds you of Prince shredding the solo with euphoric ease akin to the moment that the scissors begin gliding through the wrapping paper, or memories of the classic scene in Withnail and I, or maybe even personal corroborations of working in a bar and having it temporarily bludgeoned by a regular playing that and only that on the jukebox, the point remains that is a truly transcendent piece of music.
For The Beatles, however, it resides as somewhat of an oddity. The ‘Fab Four’ were very much a close-knit gang. Sure, George Martin more than earns his stripes when it comes to being dubbed ‘The Fifth Beatle’ and Billy Preston and a few other stars dabbled with the band, but when it came to making records, it was usually a locked door affair. Paul McCartney would even sometimes slunk away from the others and record tracks on his lonesome to get his head down. Thus, seeing Eric Clapton’s name crop up in the credits is somewhat of a surprise.
Although the obvious answer to why does he play lead guitar on the track is why the hell not – he was, after all, George Harrison’s close friend and near enough the greatest guitarist in the world at that point. The Beatles could’ve welcomed anyone at any time, so why now? Well, apparently, this was something that Clapton even asked himself, initially stating: “I can’t do that. Nobody ever plays on Beatles records”. However, his nerves were dissipated by Harrison’s enthusiasm, and this passion came with good reason.
“There was an embarrassing period when George’s songs weren’t that good and nobody wanted to say anything,” John Lennon said regarding the period around the White Album. This was further added to by Paul McCartney, who separately revealed: “I thought until this album that George’s songs weren’t that good.” While Ring Starr, as usual, was simply keeping his nose out of things having returned from his hiatus.
With this attitude around his songs forming an undercurrent in the studio and McCartney squirrelling away by himself, Harrison thought that he needed to manufacture an impact, and what better way to do that then welcome a guitar virtuoso into the studio to make a six-string sob so much it later apologised for making a scene.
As Harrison would later recall: “What happened when Eric was there on that day, and later on when Billy Preston … I pulled in Billy Preston on Let It Be… it helped. Because the others would have to control themselves a bit more. John and Paul mainly because they had to, you know, act more handsomely.” And it worked. By all accounts, the atmosphere in the studio was a steady one and everyone was suitably awed by Clapton’s guitar talents.
By the time Clapton entered the studio the track had been demoed in a tentative form, but Harrison knew his clout would help push it over the line and etch it onto the iconic double album. Despite Clapton thinking that the song “sounded fantastic” in his autobiography, he recalled Lennon and McCartney were “fairly non-committal”. However, Harrison’s eye for a tune and enthusiasm once more sealed the deal. “I knew George was happy, because he listened to it over and over in the control room,” Clapton concludes. The rest, as they say, is ancient history.