There are some once in a lifetime experiences that influence us, show us a new path and change our lives forever. The spiritual awakening of George Harrison following The Beatles’ visit to Rishikesh, India, in 1967 was one such experience. Harrison was seeking a new identity, a greater purpose in life apart from being just a guitarist in the band. The eastern spiritual concepts that he learned under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi completed his quest for meaning in life. Reflections of this enlightenment were found rather instantaneously in the songs Harrison wrote both during and after the trip. Contrary to what people thought to be just a phase, the inspiration stayed with him till the end of his career. ‘My Sweet Lord’ is one such composition that also served as one of the most defining songs in his solo career.
Harrison began to write the song in December 1969 while he was in Copenhagen, Denmark, with fellow musicians Eric Clapton and Billy Preston. The band though not yet broken up was in doldrums foreshadowing its inevitable end. Finding solace in his newly developed skill of lyrics writing, he penned this song trying to voice a desire to be one with the almighty. The roots can be traced back to the eastern concept of monism which talks about being one with the supreme being, the only truth in the world, after death by following a path of lifetime salvation in the materialistic world.
Harrison enhanced this broader concept by trying to dimmish all the religious boundaries, which are also mental boundaries that separate Christians from Jews, Hindus from Muslims, Buddhists from Jains and so on. He did this by alternating the known Hebrew and Christian phrase ‘Hallelujah’ with the Hindu Vaishnav phrase ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Rama.’ His implications were crystal clear – Though we use different names we worship the same entity around the world. Thus, the spiritual theme is tinged with the theme of unity by which the universe is bound.
Harrison had no intention of recording the song himself. Finding a moment alone during the Copenhagen concert, he composed the song loosely strumming his guitar in a room while his companions were being interviewed backstage. The song was initially given to Billy Preston with whom Harrison developed a rapport during the Copenhagen trip. Recorded in 1969, the version slightly differs from Harrison’s. It was in the post-Beatles phase when Harrison recorded the song along with thirty others for his triple album All Things Must Pass. “I was sticking my neck out on the chopping block because now I would have to live up to something, but at the same time I thought ‘Nobody’s saying it; I wish somebody else was doing it,” said Harrison in his 1980 autobiography I, Me, Mine.
He used the ‘Wall of Sound’ feature which was introduced by the infamous Phil Spector which led him to apply the slide guitar technique for the first time. Traces of Hindustani classical music or North Indian classical music can be seen in the usage of instruments like harmonium and certain typical patterns that are predominant in such music. Apart from music arrangement and a few compositional alterations, the other major difference between Harrison’s version with Preston’s was its commercial success. Opposite of how Preston’s version was received, ‘My Sweet Lord’ topped every chart owing to its massive circulation on the radio. By the end of 1970 and early 1971, it was an international hit and the first song from the solo career of an ex-Beatle to have reached the number one position.
However, the period of high tide was followed with an ebb when in February 1971 as Harrison was sued for copyright infringement of ‘He’s So Fine’, a song by the late Ronnie Mack. When others started to point out the similarities between the two songs, Harrison admitted to subconsciously plagiarising it. “Why didn’t I realise?” said Harrison in his autobiography. To escape the legal repercussion, he claimed to have taken inspiration from the ‘O Happy Day’ which was an out-of-copyright Christian hymn. But it didn’t do the trick and as a result, Harrison suffered from massive damage. The case went on for a long-time making the situation overtly complicated.
Despite all the controversies the song won hearts for years and continues to do so. Several other versions were published some of which was Harrison’s own and some were covers by other eminent artists. The message that the song sets out to send is still relevant in this fractioned world. Hopefully, songs like this will unify us in the future disposing off the pretentious differences we create.