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The Story Behind The Song: George Harrison's wistful number 'When We Was Fab'

George Harrison’s final album, Cloud Nine, captured the former Beatle at a poignant moment in his life, a time when he was settled and happy living a quiet life with his family. Harrison had no regrets about his life and, on the track ‘When We Was Fab’, he reminisces about those heady days of Beatlemania which he had nothing but fondness for all those years on.

George Harrison wrote the song about a time when he and his friends came from nothing, transforming their status into the biggest band on the planet, a meteoric rise which left him with the most incredible memories. It was only right that he enlisted Ringo Starr to play the drums on the 1987 track, the lyrics just flew out of Harrison. The song wasn’t a deliberate move to look back at those conquering days, but it happened in organic circumstances, and the genuineness comes across. Harrison didn’t even write the lyrics until he had completed the music, and then the words spilt out onto paper. Because it was written in Australia and having a Beatles feel to it, Harrison initially gave it the working title of ‘Aussie Fab’.

After putting ‘Fab’ in the title in homage to The Fab Four, Harrison just started messing around with frivolous lyrics that were zestful hark backs to those halcyon days, and Harrison later said that the lyrics were just “complete joke words.” The song ends with a bit of sitar, which is a nod to when Harrison initially integrated the instrument to The Beatles on tracks like ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Within You Without You’.

Commenting on the track, Harrison once revealed: “Until I finalised the lyric on it, it was always called ‘Aussie Fab’. That was it’s working title. I hadn’t figured out what the song was going to say…what the lyrics would be about, but I knew it was definitely a Fab song. It was based on the Fabs, and as it was done up in Australia there, up in Queensland, then that’s what we called it. As we developed the lyrics, it became ‘When We Was Fab’. It’s a difficult one to do live because of all the all the little overdubs and all the cellos and the weird noises and the backing voices.”

Harrison opens the track by singing, “Back then long time ago when grass was green, Woke up in a daze, Arrived like strangers in the night, Fab – long time ago when we was fab, Fab – back when income tax was all we had.”

He added: “I just had the thought, ‘I’d like to write a song that’s reminiscent of that period of’ 67,'” Harrison recalled in another interview from that time. “In my head, I could hear Ringo (Starr) counting it in, ‘One-two duh-duh-dum, duh-duh-dum-dum.’ And I just started right there writing that song, and then Jeff (Lynne) was around and we got out this piano and we came up with all these little bits like the catchy little piano part that plays the melody on the chorus. And, of course, the start of the song and the original intention was that we should have that kind of sound.”

Jeff Lynne produced the track and helped this wistful idea beautifully come to life. Speaking about his impact, Harrison said: “This was an odd experience for me; I’ve normally finished all of the songs I’ve done—with the exception of maybe a few words here and there—before I ever recorded them. But Jeff doesn’t do that at all. He’s making them up as he goes along.

“That to me is a bit like, “Ohh nooo, that’s too mystical. I wanna know where we’re heading.” But in another way it’s good because you don’t have to finalise your idea till the last minute. We put wacky lyrics in the last line of each chorus like, ‘Back when income tax was all we had.’ Another one says, ‘But it’s all over now, Baby Blue.’ It’s tongue-in-cheek and shows how Jeff could assist my muse. To do it live, we’d need the Electric Light Orchestra for all those cellos! That’s the great thing about Jeff. He wanted to help me make my record. But there’s so much in there Jeff contributed to,” Harrison added.

Whilst on ‘All Those Years Ago‘, released in May 1981, six months after Lennon’s tragic murder, Harrison expressed his sadness at losing not only a mentor and a bandmate but one of his best friends. However, ‘When We Was Fab’ isn’t drenched in sorrow and takes a light look back at those unforgettable memories that they created together and how good it was in the summer of ’67.