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Tracing the emotional impact of 'Something' by The Beatles

@SamWKemp

‘Something’, the track taken from The Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road, was the song that bought George Harrison out of the shadows and into the light. Since the group’s inception in Liverpool in 1960, Harrison had been content to let charismatic frontmen John Lennon and Paul McCartney bask in the spotlight. However, as the decade went on, Harrison grew increasingly frustrated with the pair’s domination of the band’s creative output. 

‘Something’ was one of the fruits of Harrison’s simmering resentment. And yet, it is widely regarded as being one of the greatest encapsulations of romantic love in the history of popular music. Since its release, the song has continued to capture the hearts of the public. It’s one of those tracks that is so intertwined with our understanding of romance that the only way to fully appreciate its power is to examine it through the eyes of people for whom it has meant the most.  

It’s as though ‘Something’ existed in some shadowy realm before Harrison sat down to write it. You often hear songwriters describing how a particular song simply fell into their lap, as though it has dropped down from the sky. ‘Something’ was such a song. Indeed, Harrison was so taken aback by the sheer perfection of the track’s opening melody that he put the song to one side, having convinced himself that he must have subconsciously stolen it from one of the James Taylor records he was listening to at the time. Taylor, responding to Harrison’s claim that he stole the first line of ‘Something,’ said: “I never thought for a second that George intended to do that. I don’t think he intentionally ripped anything off, and all music is borrowed from other music. So, completely, I let it pass… If George either consciously or unconsciously took a line from one of my songs then I find it very flattering.”

By the time The Beatles took Harrison’s song into Abbey Road studios, it was clear they were on to a winner. ‘Something’ is an unashamedly romantic and wry portrait of amour, a pure, stunningly straightforward ballad that captured an aspect of love that hadn’t been fully explored until that point. In the lyric: “You’re asking me will my love grow/I don’t know, I don’t know”, Harrison evokes that indefinable bewilderment that is, at once, intoxicating and terrifying. Harrison’s ability to capture this previously unrecognised aspect of romance revealed a sensitivity to the finer details of human experience that Lennon and McCartney simply didn’t possess.

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Beyond The Beatles themselves, one of the first people to be affected by the beauty of ‘Something’ was the group’s producer, George Martin. Recalling the first time he heard the song, Martin said: “I first recognised that he really had a great talent when we did ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ But when he brought in ‘Something,’ it was something else. It was a tremendous work – and so simple.” Martin recognised the importance of ‘Something’ immediately. Not only was it sure to be a hit, but it also heralded the emergence of George Harrison as The Beatles’ chief songwriter. 

“I think the trouble with George was that he was never treated on the same level as having the same quality of songwriting, by anyone – by John, by Paul or by me,” Martin continued. “I’m as guilty in that respect. I was the guy who used to say: ‘If he’s got a song, we’ll let him have it on the album’ – very condescendingly. I know he must have felt really bad about that. Gradually he kept persevering, and his songs did get better – until eventually, they got extremely good. ‘Something’ is a wonderful song.”

Geoff Emerick, the studio engineer who worked alongside Martin during the recording of ‘Something’, was also deeply affected by the song. He observed the way that the track bought the previously divided Beatles members together. For a fleeting moment, they seemed to be on the same page again: “Everyone seemed aware of just how good a song it was, even though nobody went out of his way to say so,” Emerick noted. “That’s just the way The Beatles were: compliments were few and far between – you could always tell more about the way they were thinking by the expressions on their faces.”

Unlike many of the other songs on Abbey Road, The Beatles were happy to spend as much time as was needed to capture Harrison’s offering precisely as he’d intended. As a result of that patience, ‘Something’ became a classic almost as soon as it left the gate, garnering attention from some of the music industry’s biggest names. Even after The Beatles disbanded, Harrison’s song lived on in the public imagination. For Frank Sinatra, it was one of the essential love songs in the pop music canon. In the early 1970s, he decided to do a rendition of the song for one of his recorded concerts. Introducing ‘Something’, Sinatra said: “It’s one of the best love songs to have been written, I believe, in 50 or 100 years, and it never says ‘I love you’ in the song, but it really is one of the finest.”

Sinatra’s jazz-infused take was just one of the many interpretations that flooded record shops over the next decade. From Pavarotti to Booker T, practically every working musician put together a cover of ‘Something’, some of which were better than others. The song reached every corner of the music industry, with Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, and James Brown all releasing elaborate re-workings. As Harrison himself said: “At last count, which was years ago, there were 140 covers of ‘Something’. Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles. My personal favourite is the version by James Brown. It was one of his B-sides. I have it on my jukebox at home. It’s absolutely brilliant.”

‘Yesterday’ was the moment George Harrison arrived. (Credit: Alamy)

The track’s popularity endured long enough to see both a new millennium and the death of its creator. For Dylan, who performed a version of the song following Harrison’s death in 2001, ‘Something’ was symbolic of the powerful friendship that had existed between Harrison and himself since the mid-1960s. Dylan had always enjoyed George’s gentle company and bemoaned Lennon and McCartney’s control over The Beatles creative output: “George got stuck with being the Beatle that had to fight to get songs on records because of Lennon and McCartney,” Dylan once said. “Well, who wouldn’t get stuck?” He added: “If George had had his own group and was writing his own songs back then, he’d have been probably just as big as anybody.”

Today, ‘Something’ is still an important part of the musical landscape. Back in 2020, for example, the era-defining singer Billie Eilish released her own version of Harrison’s archetypal love song and, in doing so, introduced a whole new generation to the musician’s incredible songwriting. It’s been something of a gateway song for decades, allowing listeners their first taste of The Beatles. It is a track that continues to reverberate in the public’s imagination, evoking memories of a simpler time. 

Back in 2013, one Beatles fan described how ‘Something’ had soundtracked some of the most important and formative moments of their life, explaining as part of a Guardian article: “My parents had Abbey Road on a BASF double cassette that I wore out single-handedly. For me as a three-year-old, this was the song that had it all – a great intro that gradually swells, easy lyrics, and a chorus that demands to be belted out at full volume. As I grew older I realised that this wasn’t the definitive Beatles sound I had imagined it to be – their songs hurdled genres and leapfrogged topics. And as I grew, and fell in love (several times), this song remained completely topical as the soundtrack through it all. I have a lot of favourite Beatles songs but this one is my favourite favourite.” It remains a fitting appraisal of a song that will stand the test of time.

‘Something’ is undoubtedly one of the most sublime love songs in The Beatles catalogue. Since its release, it has had a profound impact on people all over the world, providing a framework with which to understand all the complexities of love. But for Harrison himself, it was just another song: “The words are nothing, really,” Harrison said in 1969. “There are lots of songs like that in my head. I must get them down. Some people tell me that ‘Something’ is one of the best things I’ve ever written. I don’t know. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. It’s very flattering though….It’s nice. It’s probably the nicest melody tune that I’ve written.” And perhaps it’s that same attitude that has allowed ‘Something’ to remain relevant for so long. It is a song characterised not by grand declarations of love but by a steadfast modesty, an absence of ego, and a startling acceptance of the complexities of everyday life.

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