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The Story Behind The Song: When George Harrison paid tribute to The Beatles with 'When We Was Fab'

Although The Beatles prided themselves on their humour as much as their musical skills, it was George Harrison alone of the four who carried the flippancy into the 1970s. He was known for writing throwaway rockers such as ‘I Dig Love’, ‘Sue You Sue Me Blues’, ‘His Name Is Legs’ and more, but he was also partial to glib throwaways in interviews and was happy to appear on Saturday Night Live, comfortable in the knowledge that the audience were laughing at him as much as they were with him.  

Indeed, he gave Eric Idle his blessing to create All You Need Is Cash, a deliciously written rock-moc-doc that focused on a band that were in no way related to The Beatles: The Rutles. Idle played the part of Dirk McQuickly, the doe-eyed bassist who was determined to get The Rutles to bed in the hope of ensuring their work productivity. 

Paul McCartney was reportedly unimpressed, but John Lennon loved the film, and Ringo Starr enjoyed the whimsical tunes Neil Innes wrote for the soundtrack. Harrison appeared in the movie, dressed up as the sort of reporter he had spent so much of the 1960s running away from. He also provided the finances for Life of Brian, Monty Python’s excoriating dissertation on the Church’s stronghold over society. In his 2002 eulogy for the guitarist, Idle claimed it was the most anyone has paid for a cinema ticket. 

Best of all, Harrison appeared on Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television dressed up as a pirate. Disappointed that his request to sing a pirate song was rejected, Harrison starts performing ‘My Sweet Lord’, before abandoning the tune for the altogether jauntier, ‘Pirate Song’. What it demonstrated was Harrison’s eagerness to laugh at himself, which he would do again in 1988 when he released ‘When We Was Fab.’ 

It was a slight single from an admittedly slighter album, but ‘When We Was Fab’ did at least show the purportedly grumpy guitarist setting himself for the listener in question. And it certainly was catchy enough to warrant a music video, which was directed by former 10cc bandmates, Kevin Godley & Lol Creme. Drummer Ringo Starr was filmed beside a walrus, which was rumoured to be McCartney in disguise. It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop interviewers from asking Harrison and McCartney about his supposed appearance during their promotional sessions. Eventually, the songwriting bassist came clean, and admitted: “George wanted me to be in it but I wasn’t available. So I suggested that he put someone else in the walrus and tell everyone that it was me”.

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Not that McCartney was necessarily missed from the proceedings, considering that the video also features Electric Light Orchestra founder Jeff Lynne on violin, and a bespectacled Elton John throwing money at Harrison with scant interest in his music. Like McCartney, Paul Simon was also rumoured to have appeared in the video, although Godley has denied this. “I’ve never met Paul Simon,” he chuckled on an episode of Nothing Is Real, although he did concede that the actor’s resemblance to Simon was striking. 

The song directly addresses the rise of The Beatles, from their protests against “income tax”, to the sound of the “fuzz” waiting patiently outside a rockstar’s door. The strings railed against the guitars, like the orchestra that matched John Lennon’s zesty vocal performances on ‘All You Need Is Love’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and the tune is soaked in the style of “doo-wop” vocals typically heard on the band’s work from 1965. More cleverly, Harrison singled out ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’, a soul standard he had sung on the excellent With The Beatles in 1963.  

Harrison and Starr were spending more time in the public eye together and even consented to do a joint interview on Aspel & Co. “The last time George was angry with me,” Starr told Mike Aspell, “was when he was suing me”. 

Clearly embarrassed by this admission, Harrison was still sporting enough to play along, only for the drummer to say he loved him. Both men declared that they had nothing but admiration for McCartney, and in 1995, they recorded with him again. 

Nobody was blown away by ‘Free As A Bird’, a tune that was even more banal than ‘When We Was Fab’, if that was even possible, but it did end with a mock-style ukulele that seemed fitting for a band that had learned their craft on rudimentary instruments. And as Harrison had shown with the aforementioned single, The Beatles were still happy to laugh at themselves all this time later. 

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