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The sneaky ukulele solo George Harrison snuck into a Beatles song


George Harrison’s obsession with the ukulele was well known. The legendary guitar player came to the instrument later in life, after he had already had his dalliances with the sitar and the keyboard. Looking for something fresh, he stumbled upon the four string instrument and marvelled at its lightness, compact nature, and easy playability. Pretty soon, Harrison was bringing ukuleles with him everywhere he went.

That includes the production of The Beatles Anthology in 1994. With production shooting at his house in Friar Park and recording happening at his home studio, Harrison’s love of ukuleles were an inevitable part of the proceedings. When the band’s surviving members decided to record a new track for the occasion, the archives were plundered until an at-home recording of Lennon singing ‘Free as a Bird’ was stumbled upon.

The track was rough and lo-fi, but the band enjoyed the central melody to it and agreed to work on the song with producer Jeff Lynne. Lennon’s lead vocal was processed and added on top of new instrumentation added by Harrison, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr. The result was a song that was uncannily Beatles-esque, despite being pieced together in fragments.

But each of the members’ personalities shined through on the new recording. Lennon is ostensibly the lead vocalist, but McCartney and Harrison frequently harmonise with him and even get their own brief turns at lead vocals. Starr’s unique fills colour the song, and Harrison’s signature slide guitar makes an appearance as well. But Harrison was eager to add a more recent obsession, one that he never played in The Beatles.

It would have probably been too distracting to put a ukulele part over the main part of the song, but when a coda was added to the track, Harrison found the perfect opportunity. A quick ukulele solo wrapped up the song, and Harrison got the unique opportunity to have the final creative addition to a Beatles song.

‘Free as a Bird’ was a small success when it was released along with the rest of the Anthology series in 1995. Peaking at number two on the UK Singles chart, only the unstoppable power of Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ kept it from the top spot. Unlike that slice of schlock, ‘Free as a Bird’ has aged nicely. It might not be in the same discussion as some of the band’s best contemporary works, but ‘Free as a Bird’ still connects in a truly satisfying way.

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