The story goes that George Harrison had a tough time breaking into The Beatles songwriting clique. The band had been dominated by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and the band’s producer George Martin for so long that, by the time Harrison had found his rhythm with creation, he had to break his way into the fold forcefully. It left countless songs he’d written for the band on the scrap heap and left Harrison, for some time, contemplating how to jump over the ring-fenced hallowed ground of songwriting immortality.
Though Harrison did dabble with songs through much of the band’s career, it would appear he saved his best work for the band’s final footsteps, showcasing that not only had he been an incredibly underused tool at the group’s disposal but that his solo career was about to rocket into stardom.
Tracks like ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Here Comes The Sun’, ‘Within You Without You’, and ‘Something’ not only speak supremely highly of a gifted songwriter but go on to define The Beatles as a whole. You’d be hard-pressed to find many serious fan favourite lists that don’t include at least one of the songs mentioned above as part of their top five tracks ever released by The Beatles.
Within them, Harrison displays his uncanny ability to make universal and ethereal themes feel tangible and grounded. Likewise, he extrapolated the simplest notions into the very concept of life and love as we know them.
It’s a songwriting style that not only provided a clear image of the man behind the songs — rooted in love, driven to seek a higher power, and flourishing with the kind of musicianship that only Harrison could nonchalantly wield — but they superseded his collaborators’ efforts. Though he had some notable dodgy moments during his solo career, his seminal album All Things Must Pass is easily better than anything the Fab Four create outside the band barring perhaps only Imagine. Add to that his work with the Travelling Wilburys, and you have a canon of work unlike any other.
Harrison wasn’t simply happy to keep his talent to himself, though; the singer was keen for everyone to find the beauty in making music. It would often lead to the guitarist dishing out his favourite instrument, the ukulele, to any houseguest who came for dinner. “Everything is based on music. No, I’ll never stop my music,” he once said before his sad passing in 2001.
Below, we’re exploring the intricacies of Harrison’s songwriting by bringing you ten sets of lyrics that not only provide an insight into his music but his life.
Ten of George Harrison’s best lyrics
‘Don’t Bother Me’ (1963)
“Since she’s been gone
I want no one
To talk to me
It’s not the same
But I’m to blame
It’s plain to see
So go away and leave me alone
Don’t bother me”
The guitarist’s first tune for The Beatles, a song that featured on With The Beatles in 1963, was an indicator of the kind of writer that Harrison would become and that the band would evolve into as a whole. That’s because before the band turned their attention to autobiographical songwriting, Harrison was writing songs about the life he found himself living.
Now, we’re not trying to say that Harrison’s first song, ‘Don’t Bother Me’, should be considered at the top of his canon, but it certainly showed a string to the band’s bow, which they had never truly explored. “The first song that I wrote… as an exercise to see if I could write a song,” he once said. “I wrote it in a hotel in Bournemouth, England, where we were playing a summer season in 1963. I was sick in bed…maybe that’s why it turned out to be ‘Don’t Bother Me.'”
“Let me tell you how it will be
There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”
The opening track of the 1966 album Revolver may not be the most progressive, but it is an indicative one. It highlighted that George Harrison had firmly thrown his hat in the ring as yet another seasoned songwriter for the band to choose from. It also saw Harrison again draw from personal experiences.
Harrison said: “‘Taxman’ was when I first realised that even though we had started earning money, we were actually giving most of it away in taxes. It was and still is typical.” At the time, top earners were being taxed 95% hence ‘There’s one for you, nineteen for me’, referencing the pre-decimal pound, which equalled 20 shillings.
In his now-infamous 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon said of the song’s landmark moment: “I remember the day he [Harrison] called to ask for help on ‘Taxman’, one of his first songs. 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 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.”
‘Within You Without You’ (1967)
“Try to realise it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small
And life flows on within you and without you”
Released on the 1967 Beatle’s album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the track was written after Harrison’s visit to India, where he learned sitar from Pandit Ravi Shankar.
Lyrically, it explores the eastern spiritual ideologies of monism and maya. It evokes the teachings of the Hindu religious texts of Vedas and Upanishads in which Harrison absorbed himself during his stay. Speaking about the composition and the influence of North Indian Classical music, Harrison said: “Within You Without You” was a song that I wrote based upon a piece of music of Ravi [Shankar] ‘s that he’d recorded for All-India Radio. It was a very long piece – maybe thirty or forty minutes … I wrote a mini version of it, using sounds similar to those I’d discovered on his piece”.
Harrison talks about our potential to love, embrace, and forgive. He asks us to allow all our dormant and pent-up emotions to flow as easily as life flows within us. In a time when we feel alone and disconnected from the outer world, these lines remind us to trust and be there mentally, if not physically, for one another.
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (1968)
“I look at the world
And I notice it’s turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake
We must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps”
Recorded in 1968 as part of the White Album sessions, ‘While My Guitar Genty Weeps’ was written as an exercise in ‘randomness’ where he consulted the Chinese Book of Changes. “The Eastern concept is that whatever happens is all meant to be,” Harrison once commented. “Every little item that’s going down has a purpose. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ was a simple study based on that theory… I picked up a book at random, opened it, saw ‘gently weeps’, then laid the book down again and started the song.”
Rather than looking to his bandmates Paul McCartney and John Lennon to help finish the track, Harrison instead turned to friend Eric Clapton. “Nobody ever plays on the Beatles’ records,” Clapton is thought to have said to Harrison with a moment of trepidation. “So what?” Harrison replied. “It’s my song.”
It allowed Harrison to put extra time and effort into his vocal delivery, expertly adding colour and saturation to his broad and far-reaching lyrics.
“Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me
I don’t want to leave her now
You know I believe and how”
When artists such as Frank Sinatra pick out your work and label it as “the greatest love song of the past 50 years,” you know you’re doing something right. ‘Something’ will forever remain a special track for George Harrison.
Not only was ‘Something’ the first song he was able to release with The Beatles as a fully-fledged single, but it was also the first song for The Beatles to reach number one that wasn’t suffixed with “written by Lennon-McCartney.”
Many people have toyed with who the song might be ‘for ‘. Whether it was written for Pattie Boyd or for the universe as a whole is up for debate, but Harrison once said: “Everybody assumed I wrote it about Pattie. The words are nothing, really,” while reflecting 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.”
‘Here Comes the Sun’ (1969)
“Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here”
One of Harrison’s most popular songs and arguably some of his most hopeful lyrics, ‘Here comes The Sun’ is a classic. Released in the 1969 Beatles album Abbey Road, Harrison wrote this song while in his hiding at Eric Clapton’s country house where he escaped to avoid an Apple Corps meeting. “‘Here Comes the Sun’ was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: ‘Sign this’ and ‘sign that.’ Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton’s house.
“The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric’s acoustic guitars and wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun'” wrote Harrison in his autobiography I, Me, Mine.
The song can be interpreted at various levels. On the surface, it celebrates the arrival of spring after a “long cold lonely winter.” But at a metaphorical level, it talks about life’s trajectory and how the freezing of despair will always be thawed by hope.
‘All Things Must Pass’ (1970)
“Sunset doesn’t last all evening
A mind can blow those clouds away
After all this, my love is up
And must be leaving
It’s not always been this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away”
Originally recorded by Harrison as a demo for The Beatles on his 26th birthday, the song remains one of the few moments where western pop meets eastern ideology. Scrapped by The Beatles, the material eventually appeared on the album of the same name. It’s a song and a set of lyrics that distils the very notion of Harrison’s character into one perfect pop song.
Its lyrics are based on a translation of part of chapter 23 of the Tao Te Ching, and the track acts as a moment of songwriting bliss. Harrison explains the most complex of theories with a simple, soaring and heartfelt moment of connection and advice. It’s the poetry of his creation that shines through everything he does.
I don’t need no wah-wah
And I know how sweet life can be
If I keep myself free, wah-wah
I don’t need no wah-wah”
There can be no doubt that this song, alongside ‘Run of the Mill’, contains some of Harrison’s most potent and pointed lyrics. It reflected a time and place when the guitarist was struggling to be heard among The Beatles clatter. “At that point in time, Paul couldn’t see beyond himself,” Harrison told Guitar World in 2001. “He was on a roll, but…in his mind, everything that was going on around him was just there to accompany him. He wasn’t sensitive to stepping on other people’s egos or feelings.”
Harrison admitted: “I just got so fed up with the bad vibes,” he told Musician magazine. “I didn’t care if it was the Beatles, I was getting out.” That day, arriving at his Surrey home, Harrison enacted the ultimate reply to his oppressive partners by reaching for his guitar and writing one of his most treasured tracks, ‘Wah Wah’. Though it was named in part as a reference to the guitar effects pedal, later Harrison admitted in his biography I, Me, Mine that it was saying: “You’re giving me a bloody headache,” to his bandmates. The bleating sound and Harrison’s power make this song a classic on its own.
‘The Answer’s At The End’ (1975)
“The speech of flowers excels the flowers of speech
But what’s often in your heart, is the hardest thing to reach
And life is one long mystery, my friend
So live on, live on, the answer’s at the end”
The song featured on one of Harrison’s last albums Extra Texture (Read All About It). Released by the Apple Corps in 1975, a part of the song’s lyrics was apparently taken from a wall inscription at Harrison’s Victorian gothic style Friar Park home.
The opening line of the song “Scan not a friend with a microscopic glass” is often traced back to his topsy turvy relationship with his ex-bandmate Paul McCartney. “There were disasters all around at that time … But the thing about Sir Frank with his advice, like: ‘scan not a friend with a microscopic glass …’ I mean, that helped me actively to ease up on whomsoever I thought I loved, gave me that consciousness not to hang on to the negative side of it, to be more forgiving” said Harrison.
The song is a bit different from the others on the list. Its tone is that of warning and, to some extent, seems to be criticising our selfish natures. But something in the song is inspiring. It is a track that motivates one to behave properly, treat others kindly, be patient and keep moving through life with a positive attitude. It asks one not to submit to trivialities and bad energy and assures a satisfactory result at the end.
‘End Of The Line’ (1988)
“Well, it’s alright, even if they say you’re wrong
Well, it’s alright, sometimes you gotta be strong
Well, it’s alright, as long as you got somewhere to lay
Well, it’s alright, every day is judgment day”
This 1988 song seems to be a natural endpoint for Harrison’s impeccable lyrical career. A song by the British-American group the Travelling Wilburys, it featured on their album Travelling Wilburys Vol.1 and was later released as a single in 1989. Harrison wrote the song, but all the members got song credits officially due to the project’s collaborative nature. The recording featured the voices of all the members except for Bob Dylan.
The consolation that the lyrics offer is very comforting indeed. It’s like a voice that whispers convincing words whenever one feels doubtful, confused, torn or pressurised to fit into a mould. The last months have taken a toll on our mental wellbeing, and this song assures us by stating that “it’s alright” to feel the way we feel; it’s a part of life.