George Harrison had been struggling to get the acclaim he deserved during the recording sessions of The Beatles double LP classic The White Album. He was fighting John Lennon and Paul McCartney for every single studio session and, most importantly, every song slot on the record.
While the album would see Harrison place a track on each side of the LP, a record number of tracks for him, there was one which despite being attempted over 100 times was eventually left on the cutting room floor. The fact that the song is so good and was still rejected shows off just how gifted Harrison truly was.
Ever since Harrison’s first recorded song for The Beatles, ‘Don’t Bother Me’ from the band’s sophomore record With The Beatles, he had been trying to find his niche and establish himself as a songwriter within the band. It was a troubling time for Harrison as he struggled to confirm his space on the bill, it left many of his most treasured songs to be rejected by the Fab Four.
It had been the cause for the band’s growing tensions. Harrison’s work as a songwriter had undoubtedly progressed from those first moments as a band and now he was rightly knocking on the door. For Lennon and McCartney, Harrison had perhaps grown a little above his station and meant that the songwriting duo were often likely to not give his songs the time of day.
That can be said of songs like the iconic ‘All Things Must Pass’ which the band rejected as well as ‘Let It Down’ but there’s one track that the band did at least give a go. In fact, rumour has it they gave it over 100 goes, the long-forgotten classic ‘Not Guilty’. Written during the band’s trip to India, a trip that provided a proverbial treasure chest of songs, the track was shelved by the band at the last minute and kept off the album.
“Actually, I wrote that in 1968,” confirms Harrison on The Beatles Anthology, where the track was released as ‘Take 102’. “It was after we got back from Rishikesh in the Himalayas on the Maharishi trip, and it was for the White Album. We recorded it but we didn’t get it down right or something. Then I forgot all about it until a year ago, when I found this old demo I’d made in the Sixties.” The demo was from 1968 and was recorded at Kinfauns, his home in Esher, Surrey.
“The lyrics are a bit passé – all about upsetting ‘Apple carts’ and stuff – but it’s a bit about what was happening at the time,” remembers Harrison. The song is an open book on Harrison’s life at the time reflecting not only on his difficulties within the band but his pursuit of enlightenment too. “‘Not guilty for getting in your way/While you’re trying to steal the day’ – which was me trying to get a space. ‘Not guilty/For looking like a freak/Making friends with every Sikh/For leading your astray/On the road to Mandalay’ – which is the Maharishi and going to the Himalayas and all that was said about that. I like the tune a lot; it would make a great tune for Peggy Lee or someone.”
There’s a clear sense of Harrison’s frustration in the song at his place within the band but also in defence of the counterculture that had emanated from the sixties. Even on take 102, there’s a serious claim that this song should have been included on the album above many of the filler tracks.
Though it is certainly a little muddled and with several different time signatures, the song’s power is there for all to hear. It was later included on Harrison’s self-titled album in 1979 as a stand-out track.
Whether it was Harrison who after so many takes eventually gave up trying to get the song right or it was the rest of the band’s determination to get the tune right, what ‘Not Guilty’ proves is that George Harrison needed to get out on his own, he needed to enact his own vision. He needed space to record 103 takes, at least.