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Nov 06

GEORGE HARRISON – “My Sweet Lord”

FT + Popular39 comments • 6,294 views

#296, 30th January 1971

 

At some point in the early 90s I was persuaded to go to a religious ‘discussion group’ set up by a liberal Anglican friend of my mother’s. These were frustrating affairs – mostly I remember being told repeatedly that doubts and questions were GOOD things that made people STRONGER on their JOURNEY into FAITH, even though it seemed that actually resolving any of these doubts was completely off the agenda. Meanwhile me and my friends were trying to get across the point that there is quite a large gap between ‘riddled with spiritual angst’ and ‘not believing any of it, where’s the free beer please?’. The experience let me evolve an adolescent critique of mainstream Anglicanism, one I’ve not really moved on from – a religion hooked on doubt and impotence.*

Turns out I’m a good Anglican after all, though, cos the bit of “My Sweet Lord” I like best is its searching, yearning, sad first minute or two, before the drums fully come in, before “Hallelujah” elides into “Hare Krishna”** and George starts to resolve his issues. The strummed opening takes us back to the dread we heard in “Woodstock”, though of course Harrison makes the spirituality explicit – the most important thing in the universe, and it’s slipping horribly away. Luckily, George has some really gorgeous, liquid guitar playing on his side to bolster his faith, and the song soon turns into an orange-clad knees-up. The power of that intro does dissipate into soft-rock prettiness, but then prettiness is always welcome.***

*Later on I would recognise the same kind of addictive defeatism in the indie music I loved. Reading back over my – simplistic – summary of my mother’s friend’s position, it looks more sympathetic than it did then, but I never got the feeling that they were making their doubts and questions work for them at all, more using them as a comforter, if that makes any sense.

**This is a pretty clunky move and I don’t think Harrison makes it work, but it’s still a good deal more subtle than, say, “Imagine” or “All You Need Is Love”.

***Especially when it’s the Chiffons.

{democracy:17}

7

Comments

  1. 1
    Lena on 3 Nov 2006 #

    Whenever I hear this I think of John Donne, if only because of the “He’s So Fine” Chiffons, um, roots of the song, except this has less gusto than Donne. I’m neither here nor there about it, at best – I MUCH prefer “What Is Life” or even “Dark Horse.”

  2. 2
    blount on 3 Nov 2006 #

    yeah definitely definitely prefer “what is life” but enjoy this enough – those goopy caramel guitar drips can be a bit much at times but they work here, do a better job expressing ecstasy than harrison’s vocals which to my ears sound like a guy on the way to a girl’s house, wondering what he’ll say to her when he gets there, whether he’ll manage to get it right; definitely feels more working mantra or a turning over of a puzzle in one’s head than exclamation or psalm. prefer “crying in the chapel” to this too – there’s a mystery and horror to it that this lacks. and prefer “he’s so fine” obv. still that caramel guitar and esp those backing vocals – i voted “just about right”; this seems maybe a higher class/better crafted forebear to alot of nixon 70s am glop i have a serious softspot for (thinking in someway – maybe i’m off my gourd here – this sets the stage for “eres tu” and that version of “the lord’s prayer” by sister janet mead i think maybe(?)). i’m not sure there was such a thing as ’70s style optimism’ but if so this seems to invoke it (cf. “imagine” which i think has some real subtle aspects you might be missing tom but that’s probably for another time).

  3. 3
    Kat on 3 Nov 2006 #

    I never liked this one much. The same refrain going ON and ON and never quite finishing in a satisfactory way. The Frog Song was much better.

  4. 4

    a nim nim blah

  5. 5
    Marcello Carlin on 3 Nov 2006 #

    The same refrain going ON and ON and never quite finishing

    all post-1990 pop to thread

  6. 6
    Alan Connor on 3 Nov 2006 #

    Linked, in my head, to Pastime Paradise, for its mashingup of spiritual riffs/tropes/whatnots.

    Scurrilous resurrections include, iirc, Jonathan King doing a protobootleg with the Chiffons’ track under George’s lyrics, and a cover by the Chiffons themselves, perhaps under the influence of Allen Klein, who George said owned it “in escrow” or something.

    More sincere covers by Aretha Franklin, Andy Williams, George’s pal Billy Preston, George & pals for Bangla Desh and the one I find it hardest to go back and listen to: Nina Simone’s Emergency Ward version on the song/poem/live album/thing Emergency Ward that’s the end of her tether, or the world.

  7. 7
    Marcello Carlin on 3 Nov 2006 #

    Also, lest we forget, the first solo Beatle number one in Britain, prompting much talk at the time about The Quiet One stealing a lead on John ‘n’ Paul &c.

  8. 8
    Marcello Carlin on 3 Nov 2006 #

    The JK one was the other way around; the Chiffons lyrics over the George backing track.

  9. 9
    Alan Connor on 3 Nov 2006 #

    Ta MC. Maybe I will get that JK boxset after all. I wonder if he’s ever been included in those po-faced-looking plunderphonics curations?

  10. 10
    Marcello Carlin on 3 Nov 2006 #

    Not to my knowledge, but both Nina Simone and Bobby Womack have recorded covers of “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon.”

  11. 11
    Jack Fear on 3 Nov 2006 #

    blount: [[ harrison’s vocals … to my ears sound like a guy on the way to a girl’s house, wondering what he’ll say to her when he gets there, whether he’ll manage to get it right; definitely feels more working mantra or a turning over of a puzzle in one’s head than exclamation or psalm ]]

    And here I thought that was kind of the point. It’s not really a song of ecstasy; it’s a song of yearning, just this side of anguish—I want to know You, I want to see You, I want to be with You, but it takes so long—of the soul’s longing for union with the godhead, and how distant and impossible it seems.

    There’s fear in the voice; Harrison always sounded spooked, and never moreso than here. The unspoken terror behind the song is, “What if I’m found not worthy?” The same question you’d ask yourself on the way to your would-be girlfriend’s house, really, but on a much larger scale.

    I read somewhere, years ago, that during concerts by the late great Pakistani devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, some listeners were thrown into such a religious frenzy that they would bang their heads against the edge of the stage, actually hoping to die; they were homesick for Heaven. That’s the vibe I get from “My Sweet Lord,” with Harrison playing both sides of the equation: the backing voices and the guitar are the sounds of Heaven, and the lead vocal is the human soul, lonely and confused.

    I mean, it’s not entirely successful, but I give it marks for the ambition of the schema.

  12. 12
    intothefireuk on 3 Nov 2006 #

    Like the acoustic guitar loathe the lead which I feel is the most irritating aspect of this production. It also goes on for far too long. Echoing an earlier comment I too find that once its stated its case it then meanders along without really adding anything. At the time this was tantamount to being accosted by a Krishna gang bearing dodgy LPs by artists who you’ve never heard of. 7 is generous.

  13. 13
    sonali on 3 Nov 2006 #

    caramel for fatty

  14. 14
    Erik on 5 Nov 2006 #

    Without having the recording in my ears, this is the first track in George’s chronology (in my mind) where the slide guitar sound is the clearly identifiable “george” slide sound, as heard on his later tunes and the Traveling Wilburys tunes. I keep meaning to go back through the Beatles tunes on a “George slide sound” safari. I know his slide playing when I hear it, but I can’t think of it on any Beatles tunes. It would be interesting (to me, at least) that George found a recognizable instrumental voice only after he left the Beatles. Maybe someone can list their favorite George slide guitar Beatles moments, since I’m trapped at work without music.

  15. 15
    Anthony on 6 Nov 2006 #

    ive always thot this was profoundly unsettled, the krsna rounds a kind of way to subvert, and not handle the implications of both xianity and the expereinces with the marishi.

    i also like it b/c it allows for a syncopation b/w krsna and christ, which seems v. 60s, why cant we all get along mysticism, but the two messiahs working together seems rarer, and here it gives me hope

  16. 16
    Tom on 6 Nov 2006 #

    Like a Marvel Comics team-up! (The secret comics connections of ALL 70S POP – another comments box theme)

  17. 17

    erik one place to start is maybe by treating his sitar-work as proto-slide? (so not yet the “voice” you’re talking abt, but the dawn of the idea of the voice?)

  18. 18
    wwolfe on 7 Nov 2006 #

    On the day the “unconscious plagiarism” verdict was announced, I walked from my college dormitory to a local record store, where I bought a copy of “He’s So Fine.” Having never heard it, I was curious to see if there was any real similarity between the older song and George’s. ‘Very surprised’ would be an accurate, if understated, description of my reaction.

    The next day on my college radio show, I played the two back-to-back without editorial comment, just so people could decide for themselves. Being a very tiny college (900 students), most everyone knew most everyone else, so for the next couple of days, people stopped me to say, “They sound exactly alike!” A few added that they liked the Chiffons’ song more. (A few years later, I repeated the experiment with my mom, who also agreed with the verdict on both the plagiarism and the relative quality of “He’s So Fine,” I was happy to find.)

    I wonder if in retrospect this created a conundrum for George as a solo artist who was a person of sincere faith: once you’ve hit #1 with a song about God, what’s the follow-up single? By definition, it almost has to be downhill from there.

  19. 19
    Erithian on 7 Nov 2006 #

    Have any of you read Mark Shipper’s “Paperback Writer”, a spoof Beatles history published in 1978? Its humour largely derives from playing around with the well-known chronology of the Fabs’ story, so for instance in 1963 the boys are touring with Del Shannon and George plays Del one of the songs about God he tried to get onto the “Please Please Me” LP. “That’s pretty good,” says Del, “but it sounds a bit like that song by the Chiffons last year…”

    Elsewhere a footnote reveals that “Love Me Do” only got as high as number 17 in the chart because of the rumour that if you play it backwards John can be heard in the background chanting “Paul is dead”.

    I’ll leave you to track down the book and enjoy its denouement, the Beatles’ disastrous reunion tour third on the bill below Peter Frampton and the Sex Pistols…

  20. 20
    Erithian on 7 Nov 2006 #

    Number 2 Watch: George held off the Mixtures’ Pushbike Song.

  21. 21
    intothefireuk on 7 Nov 2006 #

    Erith – Well at least we can thank it for that. As for the slide guitar – he should have asked Dave Edmunds ;-)

  22. 22
    wwolfe on 7 Nov 2006 #

    “Paperback Writer” is a very funny book. That and the Ruttles are easily the best histories of the Beatles. (Plus, on a more serious note, “The Hours and the Times,” a too-little known movie about the weekend that John and Brian spent in Barcelona just before Beatlemania broke.)

  23. 23
    mms on 8 Nov 2006 #

    7 seems about right to me. Worth mentioning his guest appearance on Eric Idle and Neil Innes’s Rutland Weekend Television where he starts to perform My Sweet Lord but starts singing lyrics of how he wished he’d been a pirate and “sailed the BBC”.

  24. 24
    Marcello Carlin on 8 Nov 2006 #

    I wonder if in retrospect this created a conundrum for George as a solo artist who was a person of sincere faith: once you’ve hit #1 with a song about God, what’s the follow-up single? By definition, it almost has to be downhill from there.

    Follow-up was “Bangla Desh” which only got to number ten so downhill is about right.

  25. 25
    Chris Brown on 11 Nov 2006 #

    I’ve hesitated on pitching into this one, because I’ve never been entirely able to quantify how much I actually like this – I don’t think it’s a particular highlight of the album, and yet the instinctive affection I have for George’s music seems to make me feel more warmly towards this than I really ought to. Possibly also it’s a song I can respect and understand more than enjoy.
    I was struck last night by the comparison with ‘Hey Jude’; I can’ imagine that he was consciously trying to emulate it, but it does sound like ‘My Sweet Lord’ is trying to launch into a big ecstatic chorus with the “Hallelujah/Hare Krishna” bit but it doesn’t entirely work. At least it fails to work for a shorter space of time though.

    On the resurrection side, I think ‘Some Fantastic Place’ by Squeeze might owe something to this. And will the 918th get its own entry?

  26. 26
    Waldo on 23 Feb 2007 #

    “I really want to see you, Lord?”

    Well, it didn’t “take so long” after all, did it George?

  27. 27
    orkney on 25 Sep 2007 #

    Took 30 years. If that isn’t a long time how old are you? lol And the writer of the Chiffons bubblegum song should be thanking his sweet Lord that he made money from this fabulous song.

  28. 28
    Erithian on 3 Jul 2009 #

    Nice little story in the Metro freesheet yesterday from Brian Cox, of D:Ream and Large Hadron Collider bizarre career path fame:

    Q: What was your defining moment as a pop star?
    A: I was once in a band called Dare. After a gig one night we were sat at a bar and our keyboard player saw this guy pushing in so he told him to f*** off. It was George Harrison. George said: ‘I haven’t been told to f*** off since 1965,’ and was so impressed he bought us all a drink.

  29. 29
    pink champale on 3 Jul 2009 #

    i can’t believe lennon never told him to f*** off

  30. 30
    punctum on 19 May 2010 #

    Extended thoughts on All Things Must Pass:

    http://nobilliards.blogspot.com/2010/05/george-harrison-all-things-must-pass.html

  31. 31
    Jimmy the Swede on 4 Oct 2011 #

    Of course Scorsese’s done a bio movie on George, the London premier attended by Macca and Ringo. I don’t suppose it will mention the game of poker Harrison claimed he had with God, though. George thought that the Creator was bluffing:

    The Almighty: “Come on George. It’s up to you. What are you gonna do?”
    Harrison: “I really want to see you, Lord.”

    Swede. Coat.

  32. 32
    Lena on 29 May 2012 #

    On your own bike: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/built-for-two-mixtures-pushbike-song.html Thanks for reading, everyone!

  33. 33
    Lena on 31 May 2012 #

    A different religious experience: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/just-you-wait-ashton-gardner-and-dyke.html Ta for reading, everyone!

  34. 34
    Lena on 4 Jun 2012 #

    Into the infinite: http://musicsoundsbetterwithtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/oceanic-perry-como-its-impossible.html Thanks for reading, everyone!

  35. 35
    Jimmy the Swede on 12 Dec 2012 #

    A good a place as any, I think, to pay tribute to Ravi Shankar, not only a major influence to Harrison, Brian Jones and others, but a truly remarkable musician in his own right. RIP.

  36. 36
    thefatgit on 12 Dec 2012 #

    Seconded. RIP Ravi.

  37. 37
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 12 Dec 2012 #

    Nice remembrance of Ravi S by FT’s one-time science editor Geeta Dayal

  38. 38
    hectorthebat on 16 Jun 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 454
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 460
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1970s (2008)
    HarperCollins GEM (UK) – Single of the Year 1949-99 (1999)
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Hervé Bourhis (France) – Le Petit Livre Rock: The Juke Box Singles 1950-2009
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 50
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee

  39. 39
    AMZ1981 on 26 Aug 2016 #

    Okay, I’m seven years late in replying to Erithian in post 28 but I wasn’t a Popular contributor at the time.

    Brian Cox appears to have withheld a small but critical point in his anecdote – HE was the keyboard player in Dare and presumably the one who told George Harrison to f*** off!

    Incidentally Dare (still extant as a band) are the answer to a good music trivia question; what band connects Thin Lizzy to D:Ream (Dan Wharton who founded Dare was in a late incarnation of Thin Lizzy, Brian Cox of course played with D:Ream).

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