The Beatles were initially known for their ferocious efficiency. The legends that surround their recoding of Please Please Me in a single day are well documented, and their impossibly arduous schedule meant that they could spend little more than just a few days in the studio to produce a new album. Every six months or so, there needed to be a new LP, so the band dutifully entered Abbey Road, laid down a few takes, and that was that.
Once touring became a non-issue for the band, the studio became their primary setting. Being able to utilise the most groundbreaking advancements of modern technology, The Beatles began pushing the limits of what sounds, styles, and symphonies could come out of a rock band. The days of whistling through a few songs in a single session were over – The Beatles were meticulous with their writing, arranging, and production.
But the newfound freedom within the studio also allowed for a certain amount of malaise to creep into the proceedings. Without explicit deadlines, songs could be tracked over and over without much progress or any solid ideas about what needed to be changed. With songs like ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, Paul McCartney began to impart an exacting perfectionism over his compositions, leading to some pushback from his bandmates who bemoaned his attempts to polish songs that they could barely stand in the first place.
But McCartney wasn’t the only one guilty of this approach. In fact, on a song dealing directly with guilt and pointed fingers, George Harrison engaged in a gruelling amount of refinement for a song that didn’t even wind up on a single Beatles album.
During the recording of The Beatles, better known as The White Album, Harrison presented a new contribution that dealt directly with the ill feelings that were present after the band returned from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s retreat in Rishikesh, India. Harrison had instigated the band’s association with Indian instrumentation and the teachings of the Maharishi, but when rumours began to spread about the potential (and likely false) inappropriate advances to female students, The Beatles quickly left the ashram and denounced the Maharishi.
McCartney and Ringo Starr were never fully on board with the path to enlightenment, but John Lennon, in particular, was stung by the false prophet that he naively believed in, resulting in the song ‘Sexy Sadie’. Harrison’s similar commentary didn’t criticise the Maharishi himself, but rather the way that his band members were treating him as a result of their dalliance with the Maharishi: ‘Not Guilty’.
‘Not Guilty’ is a stinging and defensive rebuke to his bandmates’ recrimination. The song was indicative of a more significant issue that surrounded Harrison’s place within the group dynamic. An emerging songwriter, Harrison’s compositions were routinely ignored or taken on reluctantly by McCartney and Lennon, even at times when both were printing material that paled in comparison to Harrison’s. “I’m not trying to be small / I only want what I can get,” Harrison bemoans as stinging harpsichord and distorted guitar adds a bitter and vindictive punch to the song’s arrangement.
Despite his desire to not “upset the apple cart”, Harrison spent two days trying to get his bandmates to learn the song, eventually utilising 102 takes, the most numerical attempts at a song ever recorded at a Beatles session. While only about 20 of these were complete takes, the amount of time spent trying to flesh out the song was likely indicative of McCartney and Lennon’s ambivalence towards learning or putting much effort into Harrison’s songs. When they were the subjects in the track’s vitriolic admonishment, the motivation to make it sound good was nearly nonexistent.
Harrison had managed to pull together a workable backing track on the 102nd take, and the song received a proper edit and mix down before being determined to be finished. But Harrison received another blow when the band assembled the tracklisting: ‘Not Guilty’ was not included. Songs like ‘Wild Honey Pie’, ‘Why Don’t We Do It In the Road’, and ‘Revolution 9’ were included, but Harrison’s labour-intensive effort was not.
The reason why ‘Not Guilty’ was left off the final cut remains disputed. The track was obviously a solid musical addition, having made it to the final discussions of track assembly. Harrison and George Martin apparently favoured its inclusion, but McCartney and Lennon allegedly were unhappy with airing the band’s dirty laundry in public. There were also whispers that the two didn’t want Harrison to have too many contributions to the album. With four songs already approved, a fifth might have seemed like one too many to Lennon/McCartney. As such, Harrison was restricted to having one song for each side of The White Album.
Unlike some of the tracks that were written around this time and later appeared on All Things Must Pass, Harrison didn’t return to ‘Not Guilty’ until 1978. Harrison was helping to produce the parody movie The Rutles: All You Need is Cash and was happily indulging in the dissection of his mythical former band. It was then that Harrison recalled ‘Not Guilty’, in all its searing honestly, and decided to re-record the song for his self titled album. This version is calmer and more relaxed, with a certain contentment revealing itself to replace the initial discourse that birthed the song.