“Life flows on within you and without you.” — George Harrison
It’s a question as old as The Beatles imposing shadow over music: who was the best Beatle? Apart from dismissing such a notion as purely fanciful folly, the kind of stuff best left for discussion in bedrooms and backroom bars, the fact that determining such a question as one of subjective preference rather than objective reality is a bit silly. However, when you lay it all down, paw through the facts, the details, dissect the body of their work and prise apart myth and music, it’s hard not to recognise George Harrison, the band’s guitarist, spiritual guide, adventurous musical experimenter and serial vibe-checker as the favoured member of the Fab Four.
Brian Epstein began the constant audience competition for who was the “best Beatle”. The Fab Four’s crafty manager was always sure to separate their personalities as attributes to be traded like top trumps. John Lennon was the rocker, the dangerous side of the band; Paul McCartney was the boy next door with a smile that made girls melt, George Harrison was put forward as the quiet Beatle while Ringo Starr was simply Ringo, the cheeky chappy with a glinting wink. As a smart piece of marketing, Epstein kept these distinct personas rumbling for as long as he could. With it came the rumblings of debate and competition, a discussion which should only end with one name: George Harrison.
Before the snorts of derision reach a cacophonous stage, let us quickly assess the other candidates. Ringo Starr, affable, enjoyable and humorous as he is as the band’s drummer and perennial curator of ‘Ringo-isms’ that often turned into headline singles, it’s difficult to recognise Starr as anything more than a comfort to the band and, therefore, will never truly have the chance to grab the title of “best Beatle”. Unfortunately, nobody has ever really put forward a strong case for the drummer to win the fictional accolade.
John Lennon is usually primed for inclusion as one’s favourite Beatle — he can even count David Bowie as one such fan — but one can only really make the case if you remove the singer’s caustic and, sometimes, violent personality. Lennon was known to have been an abuser of women, something he recognised and disliked about himself. As such, it makes his inclusion in the 21st century very difficult to balance. Of course, then there is his songwriting counterpart, Paul McCartney.
While Macca has kept himself mostly out of the tabloid headlines and kept a swashbuckling career while doing so, there’s something, in my opinion, wholly uncool about the singer. Perhaps it’s because of his dogged determination to remain relevant or merely the fact he has the rock ‘n’ roll edge of a headteacher. To encapsulate my point, let me gently remind you that McCartney once appeared on the X Factor singing alongside Jedward. That’s about all I need to say on that point.
The process of elimination, therefore, works in Harrison’s favour. But the truth is, even without the eliminations noted above, the guitarist would still float to the top as the crème de la crème. Harrison also manages to encapsulate everything that endeared us to the other three members of the band.
Much like Ringo Starr, Harrison was equipped with searing wit, but his words were usually barbed, unlike Ringo. It was part of why he kept quiet for so long. Like Lennon, Harrison was undoubtedly dangerous. He was the reason The Beatles were kicked out of Hamburg for playing the clubs underage and, later, he and Lennon first started taking LSD with the ‘Demon Dentist’ back in ’65. As McCartney was famed for doing, Harrison eventually became a prolific songwriter. While the guitarist struggled to have his voice reach maturity, then encountered an equally difficult struggle to have the same voice be heard in a room heaving with the very best songsmiths the world had ever seen, when he did find his groove, he created some of The Beatles’ best songs.
Tracks like ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Here Comes The Sun’, ‘Within You Without You’, and ‘Something’ not only speaks 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 aforementioned songs as part of their top five. 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 wield — but they superseded his collaborators’ efforts and still hinted at a struggle that everyone can connect with. 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. 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 just 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.
Even with that said, it wasn’t just music where Harrison had a hand in establishing pop culture. Harrison set a precedent for concert benefit shows with his landmark ‘Concert For Bangladesh’ a show which still provides aid to those stricken by famine and war. With his film company, he also saw fit to bring Britain two of its greatest productions. Firstly, he put forward £6million of his own money for the production of Monty Python’s iconic film The Life of Brian because he “wanted to see it,” and he also helped to finance the brilliant cult-classic Withnail and I. In fact, he even managed to fight off a home intruder back in 1999 who threatened both him and his wife, leaving Harrison battered and bloodied but, ultimately, standing.
Time may well be on Harrison’s side. After all, as mentioned before, the guitarist’s actions in his personal life, though shameful in spots, never seemed harmful. He was even happy to watch his ex-wife marry his best friend in the name of love, as Pattie Boyd and Eric Clapton got hitched proverbial minutes after his and Boyd’s divorce. As more and more listeners are introduced to The Beatles, it’s not difficult to see how Harrison is so easily favoured.
Through his songs and TV appearances across the decades, he openly appreciated and championed Eastern philosophy; he introduced America to the sitar, brought Transcendental Meditation to the mainstream and brought an over-arching theme of complete existential oneness that resonates more clearly than ever before. While the other three band members were always concerned with their position in the group and the music world, Harrison actively rejected the ego. It puts Harrison in a welcomed spotlight of modernity.
There’s no doubt that the guitarist and singer, like everyone, had his fallible qualities. His penchant for women often saw him seeking the comfort of his friend’s wives and girlfriends. He may have been a proponent of spiritual living, but he was also very annoyed about the tax he spent; he taught the guidance of a higher power but also loved racing cars. The truth is, George Harrison was a complex man who lived a complicated life the best way he knew how. Importantly, this is why he is still so loved.
John Lennon was the consummate artiste, difficult and demanding but wholly easy to predict. Paul McCartney, similarly, was driven only by making music and not much else. Ringo Starr was, and still is, simply Ringo. Harrison, however, represents a little piece of us all. He reminds us of ourselves, trying to live a life full of spiritual enrichment and total balance but naturally falling victim to our own humanity.
Harrison struggled to have his voice heard, but when the quiet Beatle finally found his volume, he spoke to all of us with gentle guidance, a kind candour and the simple subtlety of a man who had achieved at least some kind of enlightenment — the words still reverberating to this day.