There’s no doubt that John Lennon fell in and out of love with The Beatles quite easily. During his time as a full-time member and after he split from the group, Lennon’s view of the Fab Four was a constantly changing one. During many post-Beatles conversations, Lennon was asked to critique and confirm certain songs written by the band and, in doing so, also shared many of his favourite songs from their extensive back catalogue.
It’s meant that he picked out his favourite tunes from the band over the years as well as the ones he hated. But, often forgotten is his favourite songs of George Harrison. The guitarist began writing songs for the group much earlier than most people think with ‘Don’t Bother Me’, but it was his role on ‘Taxman’ that would see him finally assert himself as a bonafide songwriter.
“I remember the day he called to ask for help on ‘Taxman’, one of his first songs,” recalled Lennon when speaking to David Sheff. “I threw in a few one-liners to help the song along, because that’s what he asked for. He came to me because he couldn’t go to Paul, because Paul wouldn’t have helped him at that period. I didn’t want to do it. I thought, Oh, no, don’t tell me I have to work on George’s stuff. It’s enough doing my own and Paul’s. But because I loved him and I didn’t want to hurt him when he called that afternoon and said, ‘Will you help me with this song?’ I just sort of bit my tongue and said OK. It had been John and Paul for so long, he’d been left out because he hadn’t been a songwriter up until then.” However, though Lennon loved the song, it wasn’t his favourite Harrison composition.
Even after the brilliant ‘Taxman’, Harrison struggled to find his feet within the group. As Bob Dylan once famously said: “who wouldn’t get stuck behind those guys?” referencing the songwriting partnership of Lennon-McCartney. But, Harrison would continue to find some room on forthcoming releases and, following ‘Taxman’s placement on Revolver, was readying another track for the upcoming new record.
Often thought of as ‘Paul McCartney’s record’, Sgt. Pepper wasn’t a pleasant experience for Harrison and typified his struggles within the group. “Sgt Pepper was the one album where things were done slightly differently,” he said in Anthology. “A lot of the time…we weren’t allowed to play as a band so much. It became an assembly process — just little parts and then overdubbing.” It was misaligned with Harrison’s newfound spiritualism; having just returned from six weeks in India, his songwriting style was far removed from a costumed concept album. “After [the India trip], everything else seemed like hard work,” George said. “It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do, and I was losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.”
That wouldn’t stop the guitarist from contributing one of the finest moment of the album in the beautiful ‘Within You Without You’ — the song Lennon would call his favourite. It is deeply ingrained with Harrison’s new Eastern identity and was an accurate reflection of where his music would eventually go without the band. To make the point clearer, Harrison recorded the song in London, alone and without the band’s other members.
“‘Within You Without You’ came about after I had spent a bit of time in India and fallen under the spell of the country and its music,” remembered Harrison. “I had brought back a lot of instruments. It was written at Klaus Voormann’s house in Hampstead after dinner one night. The song came to me when I was playing a pedal harmonium.
“I’d also spent a lot of time with Ravi Shankar, trying to figure out how to sit and hold the sitar, and how to play it. ‘Within You Without You’ was a song that I wrote based upon a piece of music of Ravi’s that he’d recorded for All-India Radio. It was a very long piece – maybe 30 or 40 minutes – and was written in different parts, with a progression in each. I wrote a mini version of it, using sounds similar to those I’d discovered in his piece. I recorded in three segments and spliced them together later.” The track has since been regarded as one of the best The Beatles ever released, and Harrison ever wrote. It certainly had Lennon’s seal of approval.
“I think that [‘Within You Without You’] is one of George’s best songs,” recalled Lennon to David Sheff, “one of my favourites of his. I like the arrangement, the sound, and the words. He is clear on that song. You can hear his mind is clear and his music is clear. It’s his innate talent that comes through on that song, that brought that song together.”
Below, listen to the clear mind of George Harrison as he delivers one of The Beatles best songs on ‘Within You, Without You’.