With and without The Beatles: The 20 greatest George Harrison songs of all time
Arguably one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, George Harrison created some incredible tracks. Never seen as the principal songwriter of the band, even after displaying the talent he had at hand, Harrison is rightly seen as having a bad deal. Stuck alongside two of the greatest pop songwriters of all time, Harrison was always likely to struggle to assert himself. However, eventually, the cracks in the Harrison dam began to show and once one song came more and more flowed through him. It would accelerate the end of the Beatles and his own beginnings with his solo career.
Whether it be with The Beatles our out on his own solo material, Harrison had a unique vision when creating music. The artist was able, unlike any other, to put the most complex and grandiose themes and ideas into sweetly wrapped morsels of musical gold. With a gentle touch and a completely captivating tone that felt both comforting and guiding, Harrison quickly became one of the most revered songwriters of his generation. It was a giant transformation from the Quiet Beatle he was always made out to be. Below, we’ve picked 20 of our favourite George Harrison songs.
Naturally, being a part of the biggest band to ever walk the earth is quite some moment to have on your CV. But, in truth, some of Harrison’s best work came from his solo efforts. Much of that was down to being behind John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the songwriting pecking order within the band.
“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?” Bob Dylan once said in a 2007 interview. It’s hard to argue with, it must’ve been relatively stifling to sit between two such musical powerhouses as John and Paul. “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.”
In 1970, following The Beatles disbandment, Harrison did just that and released one of the most poignant albums of any Beatles solo career with the brilliant LP All Things Must Pass. He then went one further and created a chart-topping new album in 1987 with Cloud Nine.
Between those LPs and his work on The Beatles later output, Harrison can boast some of the most beautiful songs ever written. Here are 20 of the best.
George Harrison’s 20 best songs:
20. ‘Bangla Desh’
One of Harrison’s crowning achievements in music is not a song or album but arranging the first ever concert benefit with The Concert For Bangladesh, which saw a plethora of stars take to the stage in support of the war-torn country. This standalone single was released by Harrison to raise money and awareness for the stricken country.
One of the first solo singles Harrison ever released the track reached a post-Beatles fanbase still hungry for any morsel of the band. It sent the song into the Top 30 and promoted his history-making event.
19. ‘Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)’
As The Beatles drew to a close, Harrison was diving deeper and deeper into his spirituality.
By 1973 effort Living In A Material World (you’re welcome, Madonna), Harrison had completely committed himself to Hinduism as a form of solitude from the craziness of being one of the Fab Four.
This track, much like ‘My Sweet Lord’ is a mantra of peace and tranquillity, as Harrison describes it: “A prayer and personal statement between me, the Lord, and whoever likes it.” It’s gentle, simple and enriching—atypical George Harrison.
18. ‘It’s All Too Much’
“‘It’s All Too Much’ was written in a childlike manner from realisations that appeared during and after some LSD experiences and which were later confirmed in meditation,” Harrison once said of the Yellow Submarine song.
It’s a testament to Harrison’s writing that the track is so low on our list and yet offers a view of Harrison’s dexterity. Skirting the spirituality which had begun to take over his work, the guitarist delivers the track with a nursery rhyme tone which, somehow, turns the psychedelia up a notch or two.
17. ‘Simply Shady’
Reflecting on Harrison’s work it becomes quite easy to pick out central themes. There’s spirituality, humanity, love, kindness, and in ‘Simply Shady’, the darker side of rock and roll. George himself once described the track as “what happens to naughty boys in the music business” and sees him at his most confessional.
It was a dark period for Harrison. He had accrued an increasingly painful cocaine habit, his spiritual centre was at an all-time low, and his first wife, model Patti Boyd, was sleeping with his best friend, Eric Clapton.
This is all of those feelings put it to one single Dark Horse track.
16. ‘The Inner Light’
Another of Harrison’s archetypal spiritual songs, this one was concerned not with Indian teachings but that of the Taoist guide to living, Tao Te Ching. The track was released as the B-side to ‘Lady Madonna’.
The song remains a firm favourite with Harrison’s family. His son, Dhani, re-recorded the number this year with the further announcement of Harrison’s Material World Foundation, donating $500,000 to the MusicCares COVID-19 fund. “These lyrics sung by George are a positive reminder to all of us who are isolating, quarantined or respecting the request to stay in our homes,” said his widow Olivia. “Let’s get and stay connected at this difficult time. There are things we can do to help and we invite you to share your Inner Light.”
It is true that Harrison was far more concerned with inner peace than conquering the globe and he made his feelings clear on songs like ‘Taxman’ and ‘Piggies’. Both written in 1966, it would take two more years for ‘Piggies’ to find a home on The White Album.
“‘Piggies’ is a social comment,” recalled Harrison. “I was stuck for one line in the middle until my mother came up with the lyric, ‘What they need is a damn good whacking’ which is a nice simple way of saying they need a good hiding. It needed to rhyme with ‘backing,’ ‘lacking,’ and had absolutely nothing to do with American policemen or Californian shagnasties!”
14. ‘Got My Mind Set On You’
One of the most infectious songs ever written was expertly performed by Harrison on his 1987 chart-topping album Cloud Nine.
Originally written by Rudy Clark, the song saw Harrison back in the charts after a five-year hiatus. It may not be Harrison’s coolest release but certainly is one of the most played.
Expect to hear this at every wedding forevermore and expect to enjoy it too, it’s hard to avoid such a warm tone, jovial pace and demand for shuffling feet.
13. ‘Wah Wah’
“At that point in time, Paul couldn’t see beyond himself,” Harrison told Guitar World in 2001. “He was on a roll, but…in his mind, everything that was going on around him was just there to accompany him. He wasn’t sensitive to stepping on other people’s egos or feelings.”
Harrison admitted: “I just got so fed up with the bad vibes,” he told Musician magazine. “I didn’t care if it was the Beatles, I was getting out.” That day, arriving at his Surrey home, Harrison enacted the ultimate reply to his oppressive partners by reaching for his guitar and writing one of his most treasured tracks, ‘Wah Wah’. Though it was named in part as a reference to the guitar effects pedal, later Harrison admitted in his biography I, Me, Mine that it was saying “You’re giving me a bloody headache,” to his bandmates. The bleating sound and Harrison’s power make this song a classic on its own.
12. ‘Think For Yourself’
It took a little while for the spiritual and sublime songwriting talent of George Harrison to emerge from The Beatles. Harrison, often dubbed the ‘Quiet Beatle’, was being rather more contemplative than subdued as he soon delivered a plethora of songs, both with and without The Beatles, that would concern the spiritual balance of the modern world. One of his first songs for the band was similarly steeped in the subtleties of spirituality and turned pop music on its head upon its release.
It’s not one of Harrison’s most famous Beatles song, in fact, it may be his least famous. But ‘Think For Yourself’ is quite possibly the archetypal tune for the composer, not only delivering a thought-provoking piece of pop but adding a touch of sourness to proceedings too. “‘Think For Yourself’ must be written about somebody from the sound of it,” hazily recalled Harrison in his autobiography I, Me, Mine, “But all this time later I don’t quite recall who inspired that tune. Probably the government.”
It would be a strange case if the government did inspire the song as it is largely considered one of the first true break-up songs, meaning that it’s not a love song for heartbroken teens but written about a pure moment of heartbreak. Lyrically, the song is loaded with more negative words than The Beatles were used to with “misery,” “lies,” and “ruins” all being featured in the lyrics. While it may seem a little trite in 2020, rest assured it was akin to a revolutionary idea in 1965.
11. ‘I Me Mine’
This was the very last song The Beatles ever worked on and is depicted in the Let It Be movie. It saw the Fab Four gather at the iconic Abbey Road studios early in 1970 and complete the track. With Lennon arriving in full peace campaign regalia, the song is the final moment of harmony between the group.
Lyrically it told a different story as it reflected on the growing tensions between the group and most notably the giant egos that went with them.
10. ‘Isn’t It A Pity’
One guaranteed way to check to see if your song is a great one is to see who else has enjoyed both listening or performing it. If Harrison was to have looked around, he would have noticed that only the very best had ever taken on his song ‘Isn’t It A Pity’. The track, most notably covered by Nina Simone, is a classic Harrison effort. Dripping in laconic melody, the guitarist takes us through the spiritual balancing we must all go through.
The song is one of the more moving moments on All Things Must Pass and another form the rejected Beatles songs pile. While it’s possible to understand that the Fab Four were their own outfit with their own direction, it’s very hard to see how a song as beautifully constructed as this could be rejected while other Beatles’ hits were picked up. However, with room to branch out on his own, Harrison was finding himself mining gold wherever he turned.
9. ‘What is Life’
It may not be as instantly recognisable as ‘All Things Must Pass’ but Harrison’s ‘What Is Life’ was a popular hit when it arrived in 1971. It has since featured across a host of different film and TV projects always adding a lifting moment of human connection.
It may seem a simple song to construct but in fact, it’s wrapped in layer upon layer of intricacy so well aligned that it feels like one big sound. It’s a testament to Harrison’s style and panache that the song still sounds so effortlessly fresh to this day.
8. ‘I’d Have You Anytime’
The track was written alongside Bob Dylan as Harrison tried to find his own ‘voice’ on record. Harrison remembered in his autobiography: “He seemed very nervous and I felt a little uncomfortable—it seemed strange especially as he was in his own home. We got the guitars out and then things loosened up.”
One such loose track to come out of the sessions was ‘I’d Have You Anytime’, which apart from being sincerely underappreciated sees Dylan become the only co-writing credit on ‘All Things Must Pass’.
It must’ve been a point of pride for the guitarist as he made the song the first track on the album.
7. ‘Within You Without You’
Often thought of as ‘Paul McCartney’s record’, Sgt. Pepper wasn’t a pleasant experience for George Harrison. “Sgt Pepper was the one album where things were done slightly differently,” he said in Anthology. “A lot of the time…we weren’t allowed to play as a band so much. It became an assembly process — just little parts and then overdubbing.”
It was misaligned with Harrison’s newfound spiritualism, having just returned from six weeks in India, his songwriting style which was far-removed from a costumed concept album. “After [the India trip], everything else seemed like hard work,” George said. “It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do, and I was losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.”
That wouldn’t stop the guitarist from contributing one of the finest moment of the album in the beautiful ‘Within You Without You’. It is deeply ingrained with the new Eastern identity Harrison had gathered and was an accurate reflection of where his music would eventually go without the band. To make the point clearer, George recorded the album in London, alone and without the other members of the band.
6. ‘My Sweet Lord’
One of Harrison’s most iconic solo efforts the track is a perfect summation of All Things Must Pass LP and the path he intended to carve out for his solo career. Another moment of higher-thinking meeting pop music, it could have easily been missed by the general public.
In the autobiography, I, Me, Mine, Harrison said: “I thought a lot about whether to do ‘My Sweet Lord’ or not because I would be committing myself publicly and I anticipated that a lot of people might get weird about it.” He continued, “I wanted to show that ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ are quite the same thing.” And he did. The track remains a moment of transcendent joy as he blends warmest of celestial moments with the comforting glaze of pop.
The opening track of 1966 effort Revolver is an indicative one. It highlighted that George Harrison had firmly thrown his hat in the ring as yet another seasoned songwriter for the band to choose from. It also saw Harrison again draw from personal experiences.
Harrison said: “‘Taxman’ was when I first realised that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes. It was and still is typical.” At the time top earners were being taxed 95% hence ‘There’s one for you, nineteen for me’, referencing the pre-decimal pound which equalled 20 shillings.
In his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon said of the song’s landmark moment: “I remember the day he [Harrison] called to ask for help on ‘Taxman’, one of his first songs. I threw in a few one-liners to help the song along, because that’s what he asked for. He came to me because he couldn’t go to Paul, because Paul wouldn’t have helped him at that period. I didn’t want to do it…I just sort of bit my tongue and said OK. It had been John and Paul for so long, he’d been left out because he hadn’t been a songwriter up until then.”
4. ‘Here Comes The Sun’
Arguably the most famous of George Harrison’s compositions, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ is one of the most beautiful songs The Beatles ever produced. Recorded as part of Abbey Road, the song is a transcendent moment for anyone who hears those first iconic notes.
The track was written alongside Eric Clapton during a difficult moment for Harrison: “‘Here Comes the Sun’ was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun’.”
Not bad for a casual jaunt around the garden, to come up with one of the most widely adored songs of all time. We’ll bet that if you played his song at any cafe, restaurant or park, upon hearing Harrison’s first beaming notes, you will see a sea of smiles. And really, that’s what music is all about, isn’t it?
When artists such as Frank Sinatra pick out your work and label it as “the greatest love song of the past 50 years,” you know you’re doing something right. ‘Something’ will forever remain a special track for George Harrison. Not only was it the first song he was able to releases with The Beatles as a fully-fledge single, but it was also the first song for The Beatles to reach number one that wasn’t suffixed with “written by Lennon-McCartney.”
For that reason alone the Abbey Road number became a moment of utter pride for the guitarist who had struggled to impose his songwriting will on the Fab Four. But the song also worked as a clear indicator of Harrison’s bright solo future away from the band and his chaotic life at the time of writing.
Many people have toyed with who the song might be ‘for‘. Whether it was written for Pattie Boyd or for the universe as a whole is up for debate, but Harrison once said: “Everybody assumed I wrote it about Pattie. The words are nothing, really,” while reflecting in 1969. “There are lots of songs like that in my head. I must get them down. Some people tell me that ‘Something’ is one of the best things I’ve ever written. I don’t know. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. It’s very flattering though… It’s nice. It’s probably the nicest melody tune that I’ve written.”
2. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’
George Harrison’s greatest song with The Beatles quite simply has to be the masterpiece ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. It was recorded in 1968 as part of the White Album sessions and was written as an exercise in ‘randomness’ where he consulted the Chinese Book of Changes. “The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be,” Harrison once commented. “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.”
Instead of looking to the help of his bandmates Paul McCartney and John Lennon to finish the track, Harrison instead turned to Eric Clapton once more. “Nobody ever plays on the Beatles’ records,” Clapton is thought to have said to Harrison with a moment of trepidation. “So what?” Harrison replied. “It’s my song.” 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.”
It allowed Harrison to put extra time and effort into his vocal delivery and the song shines all the more for it. Quite easily in the top 10 of all-time Beatles songs, 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.
1. ‘All Things Must Pass’
If you survey the internet landscape for the George Harrison ‘Best Of’ articles you will be unlikely to find this little transcendental number on any of their lists. Why? We’re not sure. But are we going to mull it over for years and lose our cool over it? No. Thanks to one of the greatest songs ever written, George Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’.
Originally recorded by Harrison as a demo for The Beatles on his 26th birthday, the song remains one of the few moments where western pop meets eastern ideology. Scrapped by The Beatles, the material eventually appeared on the album of the same name.
Its lyrics are based on a translation of part of chapter 23 of the Tao Te Ching, and the track acts as a moment of songwriting bliss. Harrison explains the most complex of theories with a simple, soaring and heartfelt moment of connection and advice. It’s the poetry of his creation that shines through everything he does.