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Music

How John Lennon became George Harrison's biggest supporter in The Beatles

After The Beatles finally parted ways in 1970, the media sensationalised the tensions between the members. That said, during the recording of the band’s final two albums, Abbey Road and Let It Be, there were significant power struggles within the band. 

Following the untimely death of their beloved manager Brian Epstein in August 1967, Paul McCartney appeared to assume the vacant managerial role. As can be seen in Peter Jackson’s recent, intensely revealing documentary The Beatles: Get Back, McCartney was the leading creative force within the group in their final years as John Lennon’s focus shifted towards his romantic involvement with Yoko Ono. 

Concurrently, George Harrison was seen to be increasingly frustrated with McCartney’s stronghold on proceedings and was sitting on the fence with plans for a solo career where he would no longer have to fight for album space. 

In The Beatles: Get Back, Harrison can be seen storming out of the studio after an exchange of differences with McCartney, but he returned a day or two later with veneered reluctance to complete the sessions and play the final performance on the Apple Corps rooftop

Despite finding comfort in a close friendship during The Beatles’ peak fame, Lennon wasn’t always convinced by Harrison. In early 1958, McCartney invited his younger friend Harrison to watch his new band play. Harrison subsequently auditioned in front of Lennon, and although impressed by the young lad’s talent, he had reservations about the guitarist’s age. 

Harrison was nearly three years younger than Lennon, and while it seems odd that such a trivial detail should impact the dynamic between the pair, it remained in Harrison’s consciousness even after Lennon’s death.

After humouring the youngster, Lennon took on a natural position as an older brother figure for Harrison, offering his critique and guidance whether solicited or not. Lennon’s cheeky demeanour rubbed off on Harrison, and the pair became close friends amid a healthy deal of japing and goading. 

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The lead guitarist began writing songs for the group much earlier than most people think, with his first, ‘Don’t Bother Me’, appearing on 1963’s With The Beatles. However, it was Harrison’s shrewd writing on ‘Taxman’ that would see him compound his position as a competent songwriter alongside Lennon and McCartney.

In the mid-60s, when writing ‘Taxman’ for the Revolver sessions, Harrison looked to his mentor, Lennon, for some songwriting guidance. “I remember the day he called to ask for help on ‘Taxman’, one of his first songs,” recalled Lennon 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,” he continued. “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.” 

Though Lennon approved of Harrison’s emerging talent shown in ‘Taxman’, he parted with even more praise and encouragement a year later with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of Lennon’s favourite tracks from the early psychedelic masterpiece was Harrison’s Indian-influenced ‘Within You Without You’. 

“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.”

After The Beatles finally called it a day on April 10th, 1970, there was a cooling-off period whereby the four gave each other some space for a few months. While the acrimony between the other members and McCartney was palpable, Lennon and Harrison remained close and even worked on Lennon’s Imagine together in 1971.

As the 1970s wore on, The Beatles found footing in their respective solo endeavours. In a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Harrison was asked if he kept in close contact with his former bandmates. “Paul and Ringo, I see from time to time,” he replied. “I haven’t seen John for a couple of years. I get postcards from him – it sounds like the Rutles [smiling], but he keeps in touch with tapping on the table and postcards.”

Ostensibly, Harrison and Lennon had drifted apart somewhat over the latter half of the decade. In a 1990 interview, Harrison recalled the final time he saw Lennon before his murder in 1980. “I was in New York at his house at the Dakota,” George said. “He was nice, he was just sort of running around the house making dinner. [But] I hadn’t seen him for so long. I didn’t see him for two years anyway, occasionally maybe send a postcard, and it’s knowing that he’s on the other end of the telephone if you do want to call…”

George added, “He was actually playing a lot of Indian music, which surprised me, because he always used to be like a little bit (annoyed) when I was playing it. So he had hundreds of cassettes of all kinds of stuff. He grew into it.”

Sadly, Harrison never got the chance to speak to his friend and former bandmate again before his untimely death, but he remained an ever-present influence on Harrison’s personal and musical development. 

In the mid-80s, Harrison befriended American musician Tom Petty, and they formed The Travelling Wilburys alongside Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. Petty was among those who saw this lasting influence Lennon had on Harrison. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Petty explained that Harrison “really, really admired John”. Detailing further, Petty continued, “He probably wanted John’s acceptance pretty bad, you know?”

“I just know what I’ve heard from George as the years went by,” Petty told Rolling Stone. “But he was very funny, like, ‘The Beatles, they weren’t all that they were cracked up to be [laughs],’” Petty said.

“He loved the Beatles,” he added. “He used to bitch sometimes about individual Beatles who got on his nerves. But he really loved them down deep, and I knew this. I think that a lot of George’s personality was formed by John. This is just a guess, but that was the way it appeared to me. He looked up to John so much. He said, ‘Oh, John would be a Wilbury in a second.’ He’d say about Paul, ‘Paul is a year older than me, and he still is.’ But he really loved Paul, too. And he really loved Ringo.”