George Harrison was undoubtedly a genius songwriter; the things he could do within the confinements of music was a gift, even decades after his sad passing. Whether it was with The Beatles or in his solo career, Harrison showcased his exceptional talent for all to see. But, it wasn’t just music that he excelled at and he was also a comic genius that Phil Collins found out about the hard way.
Harrison famously even had a side-line-career as a producer of comedy films including Monty Python’s The Life of Brian which he also made a beloved cameo in. However, this anecdote courtesy of Phil Collins provides a perfect glimpse into the comedic workings of the former Beatle’s mind. The seed for his prank on the Genesis drummer began back in 1970 when Collins was a teenage session musician who grew up in absolute awe of everything Beatles related. The chance to work with Harrison was one that he couldn’t quite believe. Even though he was a nervous wreck, this opportunity was potentially a life-changing one, and Collins grasped it with both hands.
At the time, Collins was in his former band Flaming Youth and wouldn’t audition to join Genesis until later on in the same year. Speaking to Classic Rock, Collins recalled about how the opportunity to collaborate with Harrison came about: “Our manager got a call from Ringo Starr’s chauffeur, who said they needed a percussionist, and he suggested me. So I went down to Abbey Road, and Harrison was there and Ringo and Billy Preston and Klaus Voormann and Phil Spector, and we started routing the song,” Collins stated.
Harrison was recording his debut solo album; All Things Must Pass. The record is the guitarist breaking free from the system that saw his work submitted through a Beatles shaped filter and is a liberating listen from start to finish.
Collins continued: “No one told me what to play, and every time they started the song, Phil Spector would say, ‘Let’s hear guitar and drums,’ or ‘Let’s hear bass and drums.’ I’m not a conga player, so my hands are starting to bleed. And I’m cadging cigarettes off Ringo – I don’t even smoke, I just felt nervous. Anyway, after about two hours of this, Phil Spector says, ‘Okay congas, you play this time.’ And I’d had my mic off, so everybody laughed, but my hands were shot.
“After that they all disappeared – someone said they were watching TV or something – and I was told I could go. A few months later, I buy the album from my local record shop, look at the sleeve notes, and I’m not there. And I’m thinking, ‘There must be some mistake!’ But it’s a different version of the song, and I’m not on it,” he added.
However, that’s just the start of this story. Once Collins would become a world-famous star in his own right, he and Harrison were back in contact, which is where this story begins to get truly remarkable. “Cut to years later,” Collins added. “I bought [former F1 driver] Jackie Stewart’s house. Harrison was a friend of Jackie’s, and Jackie told me George was remixing All Things Must Pass.
“He said, ‘You were on it, weren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Well I was there.’ Two days later a tape’s delivered from George Harrison with a note saying: ‘Could this be you? Suddenly the congas come in – too loud and just awful. At the end of the tape you hear George Harrison saying, ‘Hey, Phil, can we try another without the conga player?’
“So now I know, they didn’t go off to watch TV, they went somewhere and said, ‘Get rid of him,’ cos I was playing so badly. Then Jackie rings and says, ‘I’ve got someone here to speak to you,’ and puts George on and he says, ‘Did you get the tape?’ and I said, ‘I now realise I was fired by a Beatle.’ He says, ‘Don’t worry, it was a piss-take. I got Ray Cooper to play really badly, and we dubbed it on. Thought you’d like it!’ I said, ‘You fucking bastard!'”, Collins then reminisced in hindsight, “It was lovely, wasn’t it?”
Yes, George Harrison went out of his way to pay a whole band to spend a day in the studio with him just so he could pull a joke on Phil Collins. His commitment to this prank shows precisely the character that Harrison was and provides a beautiful snapshot into what he was like behind the curtain.
Although, Collins missed out on getting to say that he played on All Things Must Pass, the dedication to the cause that Harrison showed in making those tapes more than makes up for getting cut from the album.