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Nov 16

GEORGE HARRISON – “My Sweet Lord” (2002 re-issue)

Popular24 comments • 2,065 views

#918, 26th January 2002

mysweetlord “They get to that age and they don’t need the operator any more. They’ve got the direct line.” – Father Ted.

Singing about going to be with God – about death and beyond – is a grand old hymnal and gospel topic. For those mired in trouble, misery and oppression, it’s one of the most powerful statements you can make: this world is not all there is. George Harrison, in 1970, was not mired in those things, no matter how high Mr Wilson and Mr Heath set their marginal tax rates. And he knew it – the original “My Sweet Lord”, written by a newly free singer on top of his professional world, is a surge of multi-faith ecstasy. Backing singers and the Chiffons come together – willingly or not – to take the strain off Harrison’s voice, and he builds a bridge to the hereafter out of a slide guitar solo.

Thirty-two years later, Harrison’s in the grave, and his song is at number one again. It comes reissued on a CD single with the original “My Sweet Lord” as the lead, but also a re-recording – “My Sweet Lord (2000)”. Laid down between the stabbing that didn’t kill him and the illness that did, it’s worth hearing and thinking about.

But first, the original, since that’s what the radio stations and music shows played. It’s not the last posthumous number one, but it’s the last number one single bought in direct response to a death: the modern way of mourning is to pile the chart with different tracks, like bouquets at a dead star’s gates, and it seems just as apt. “My Sweet Lord” is the final time a record company gets to dictate the terms of remembrance. (It’s also the last solo Beatle number one, though it takes more than this to banish their shade entirely.)

It was the obvious choice, and the right one, though it’s ironic that the most grimly private Beatle got the most communal and vigorous of send-offs. When your colleagues number a martyr, a beloved raconteur and voice of kids’ TV, and pop’s smiling omnipresent Dad, it’s tough to escape from the role you’d been put into for forty-odd years. The Quiet One. The Intense One. The Religious One. The One Who Did The Sitar Stuff. (A lick of sitar introduces “My Sweet Lord (2000)”, a rueful nod to the brand image.) “My Sweet Lord” was Harrison’s try at alchemising all that into a pop classic entirely his own, and it worked. At least until the lawyers called.

Why revisit it? Like a lot of people attracted to mysticism, Harrison was always aware of, and always tempted by, worldly accounts that needed settling. Wikipedia offers several reasons, which all sound appropriate: he wanted to reassess its statement, he wanted to get a better slide guitar solo down, and he wanted to show that the song is great even without the bits he swiped. It isn’t as great, if I’m honest, but he makes the point. What’s remarkable about the re-recording, though, is his singing on it: he turns it away from a young man’s cry of revealed bliss, and makes it an old person’s song, perhaps the first we’ve had on Popular.

It’s querulous, vulnerable, the sound of someone approaching God but not quite making his peace with Him. When he sings “I really want to go with you” you can hear the “but” coming, and it’s not an impatient one. This time the song starts as negotiation, not declaration – and this time the backing vocalists sound like they’re there to stiffen his resolve. With their support his vocal turns enthusiastic, becomes an affirmation again. And this time, when he builds that bridge of slide guitar, he crosses it.

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Comments

  1. 1
    weej on 4 Nov 2016 #

    When George Harrison died I took the train up to London with my friend Gwen. Not sure why we did this, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We went to Abbey Road, where an intense young Italian guy was leading a group of 30 or so people in singsongs of ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Hey Jude’. So we listened to that, then we went home.

  2. 2
    Tom on 4 Nov 2016 #

    #1 Aw man, poor George, they could at least have taken a stab at “Within You Without You”

  3. 3
    Mark G on 4 Nov 2016 #

    Our group (as in band and also a rough amalgamation of various people) used to ‘end up’ back at a house-share in Henley after rehearsals and/or whatever, at the top of the street was George’s place. We never actually saw him, but we could feel his presence. Or, we must have, because even though the band (and group) has long since spot in all ways and directions, something did feel gone the next time I visited Henley after George died.

    I did get to hear George’s remake on the remastered ‘All things’ CD set but didn’t understand it, it just seemed like a lousy remake for no good reason beyond getting Sam Brown on it. Now it makes more sense.

    I dare say Paul will get his posthumous No 1 when the time comes, but what will it be? ‘Let it be’ probably – he has the most successful post-beatles career but it’ll be his old band that his pinnacle will be based on. I’m guessing Ringo probably won’t unless ‘Back off Boogaloo’ goes viral.

  4. 4
    Tim Byron on 4 Nov 2016 #

    Wow – this got to #1 in the UK! In Australia, this apparently stalled at #62. Clearly the instinct to buy a single in tribute to the fallen is stronger in the UK than here (or at least it was in 2002 – in the iTunes/Spotify age, the deaths of Michael Jackson, Prince and Bowie made good business for their Australian record companies). Despite growing up with the Beatles – and ‘I’ve Got My Mind Set On You’ being one of the very first songs I remember – and so not being quite able to see them with a full critical eye, I did feel a bit distant from George’s death at the time – perhaps it felt to young me like he was an old man by then, and these things happen, and he hadn’t really released any music since the 1980s.

    But I ended up downloading the Brainwashed album on probably Audiogalaxy or Soulseek when it came out and surprised myself by how much I liked songs like ‘Any Road’. And I think the Concert For George soon after that got me around to realising the loss/how many Beatles songs I liked were really his (I was never really good at hearing the grain of the different Beatle voices at that point).

    I’ve had this version on the 30th Anniversary version of All Things Must Pass for ages, and have never given it much of a second glance; it seemed like the kind of retrospective history re-writing that old rock stars are wont to do…I don’t think I considered it as a “oh hey, I’ve just been stabbed and have really seriously considered my mortality recently” kind of thing.

    Listening to it more closely, he doesn’t really succeed in de-Chiffons-ing the song, if that was one of his stated aims; he mostly does this by trying to avoid the rhythm of the way the triumphant ‘really want to see you’ rises out of the ‘my sweet lord’ mantra. By delaying it and slightly changing the rhythm, he seems to put the song out of joint – there’s a point where an instrumental line and his vocal notably conflict and sound messy, clearly because the instrumental line was laid down before he decided to change that rhythm. And perhaps for that reason it’s hard not to listen to the song and know exactly what he’s not singing, rather than to hear it for what it is.

    And I’d say there’s something about the wall-of-sound murk in the original (especially on the original vinyl/CD issues before they remixed the album for the 30th Anniversary edition) that fits the song very well – it connotes the uncertainty of it all – that is inevitably missing in the much cleaner modern re-recording. But there is something affecting about his ‘I’m an old man now’ voice singing those lyrics, I agree.

  5. 5
    Rufus Headroom on 4 Nov 2016 #

    You just wait. “The Point” and “Caveman” deluxe screenings in all the theaters, Every Jack Tom and Thromnabular jamming “I’m The Greatest!” Ringo’s passing, though tragic, will also be the tits!
    Shame about George, “My Sweet Lord” ’70 was amazing, particularly meaningful for me as relating to a need for spiritual understanding. This re-release seems unnecessary , but if it got him some smiles, why not. Six seems about right, can’t really fuck up this mold can ya? Similar cousin “Spirit in The Sky” tho…

  6. 6
    Mark G on 4 Nov 2016 #

    Was gonna say “Ringo, The Point?” but I checked and it seems he’s on the VHS version so hokay then.

  7. 7
    Cumbrian on 4 Nov 2016 #

    I am kind of pulling for Ringo, the hardest living of The Beatles (at least as I understand it) to be the last man standing. Presumably the rallying song for him will be Yellow Submarine (or Octopus’s Garden).

    For a long time, one of the few really good pieces of video of Prince on Youtube, was him playing in an all star band at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. It was a tribute to George Harrison post his passing and they were bashing out While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It’s mostly perfunctory until Prince, having been very quiet up until that point, takes over the final minute and a half. He absolutely slays, showing everyone else up for their blandness, resplendent in grey suit, red shirt and hat. The song finishes with a shot of him throwing his guitar up in the air, done in such a way that it looks like the guitar never comes back to earth – like George (or even God Him/Herself) was playing roadie from on high.

    Anyway, I thought that a better tribute than this getting to #1. Particularly as it prevented Get The Party Started by Pink from getting to #1 – which has perhaps tired through overplay in subsequent years, but is nevertheless, I reckon, a pretty good, snotty pop song.

  8. 8
    23 Daves on 4 Nov 2016 #

    Boring comment incoming, but I always far preferred the original UK flip “What Is Life”. Such a joyous, uplifting sounding piece of work, whereas “My Sweet Lord” by comparison sounds less convincing, struggling and battling away rather than being effortlessly exuberant. Although that could just be because I find a song pledging dedication to a partner easier to relate to than one attempting to do the same to a God figure.

    In fact, I think “What Is Life” is the George Harrison song I’ve played the most. A total waste to throw it away on a B-side.

  9. 9
    Rufus Headroom on 4 Nov 2016 #

    A mate of mine once posited a
    “Beatles as Templars” theory. In his eye, I Want To Hold Your Hand is an acronmym for “Indiscriminate, Want-Ton Hatred of You Heathens!”
    And didn’t George always look exactly like Jesus? “Taxman”=Render unto Ceasar! (Any implied satire just profligate propaganda kind traveler!)
    Also, of George’s solo work i’ve been partial to “When we was fab”. The video’s great, that humor never dimmed in him is very pleasing in retrospect.

  10. 10
    Izzy on 4 Nov 2016 #

    7: that Prince clip is one of the funniest things I’ve seen – the bad vibes coming his way from whoever the other guys are (Tom Petty is there I think?) while they all strum the same chords on their acoustic guitars, are priceless. At least Dhani seems to be having fun though.

  11. 11
    Girl with Curious Hair on 4 Nov 2016 #

    I never even knew there was a re-recorded version of this song – but you’re right, there’s definitely something poignant about listening to George approach it first as a young man, and then as an old man for whom the idea of going with God isn’t quite as abstract*.

    It’s especially poignant since George is fated to be remembered forever as a young man, and not just any young man: he was in a band that played a huge part in defining the contemporary youth culture of their time…

    There’s a wider tradition in music to face this stuff, of course, but would the 2000 version of this be one of the first times that a rock star from GH’s generation really faced his mortality? There was always death, but it used to be the sexy glorious choking-on-your-vomit-in-your-sexy-20s kind: this is when it becomes apparent that maybe rock *is* a country for old men after all. I suppose that until Blackstar came along, this was the nearest pop/rock music had to a Sailing to Byzantium.

    *I’m aware that the Quiet Beatle was an intensely religious man; materialist assumption here is model’s own.

  12. 12
    lonepilgrim on 4 Nov 2016 #

    I enjoyed the 2000 version more than I thought I would – largely because of George’s engagement with the lyric. The repeated refrain at the end starts to get into ‘Hey Jude’ territory, mind you. George always seems equivocal about being in the spotlight so it seems appropriate that his most well known solo hit is one in which he pleads to be subsumed into the infinite.

  13. 13
    thefatgit on 4 Nov 2016 #

    I had no idea George had reworked MSL until now. On giving it a listen, there seems to be an absence of wonder that seemed at least to me, to be present in the original. The “Quiet Beatle” sums up an idea or perception of George. I’d prefer the “Thoughtful Beatle”. The one who was fiercely intelligent. The one who listened. The one with the surreal, Pythonesque sense of humour.

    If I was going to choose a favourite “George” number I guess “Here Comes The Sun” would be my go-to choice, for no better reason than it makes me smile.

    “My Sweet Lord” takes “He’s So Fine” and transforms teenage lust into spiritual yearning. That’s no mean feat, no matter what the lawyers might say. (6)

  14. 14
    AMZ1981 on 4 Nov 2016 #

    This was always going to be an interesting entry because it is in effect, the first recording to come up in the Popular playlist twice. Of course, it isn’t anything of the sort because Bohemian Rhapsody was the first. However where the two differ is that a) although Bo Rhap was the song that sold the single both times, the 1991 version was doubled A’d with a reasonably important song in the Queen canon and b) it prompted a renewed interest in the music of Queen. With My Sweet Lord you didn’t really get that impression. Some people bought it as a tribute, some like myself were hearing it for the first time but it faded from view pretty quickly. Had it not been released in a relatively quiet sales week it might have got buried although it did sell twice as many copies as More Than A Woman had the week before and, whisper it soft, has ten times the mystery and wonder than Aaliyah’s recording possesses.

  15. 15
    ThePensmith on 4 Nov 2016 #

    My mum was a massive Beatles fan – and still has her “With the Beatles” vinyl with “Shirley McCartney” etched onto the front in her 14 year old handwriting. Bless. The Beatles music was always around in our house growing up and I always associate it with long car trips when either they, Abba, Simon & Garfunkel or Phil Collins were on the stereo of our forever overheating Peugeot estate. ‘Penny Lane’ is my favourite for some reason.

    Ringo aside (his narration of the TV series of Thomas the Tank Engine excluded, which like many kids of the 80s and 90s I was obsessed with), their solo efforts were also part of my growing up. We had ‘Rupert and the Frog Song’ on VHS, fulfilling our Paul quotient. When ‘Imagine’ was re-released for the race for Christmas #1 in 1999, that fulfilled the John quotient. And with George it was “I Got My Mind Set On You” which I still love to this day. (PS We’ll also count ‘War is Over’ and ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ in the John and Paul quotients every December as well, whilst I think of it).

    The posthumous re-release of this then, was my first encounter of ‘My Sweet Lord’. Listening again now, I reciprocate with regards to the haunting eeriness of it all in the vocal delivery. It’s quite moving. A solid 7 for me this.

    I do remember thinking as well, some two years later, Sheryl Crow releasing a single called ‘Light in Your Eyes’ which was practically a carbon copy of the melody from this (it was long after her imperial phase had passed, and scraped in at #73).

    #2 watch with both this and the next bunny, and what we would have more than likely been writing about were Harrison still alive: “Get the Party Started” by Pink, which marked the beginning of her transition into global megastardom with the release of her “Mizundastood” album – one of the singles off it being a bunny from this year which I’ll save my thoughts on for then.

  16. 16
    EPG on 6 Nov 2016 #

    Nice to see these posts back. As noted, the last posthumous commemorative no.1 and the last Beatle, at least to 2016. To say the least, this is not the last 2002 entry to prosper primarily among a non-traditional single-buying audience, but the demographic contraction of the late 70s and the growth of file sharing were hammering sales among people on either side of 20 years of age.

    In 1991, there were 800k more 20-24s than 10-14s. By 2001, the gap was 300k in favour of the tweens. More people in their early 50s than early 20s, too; the former cohort grew up listening to the Beatles. Cultural industries paid heed to these changes, so you got tween pop and the nostalgia industry. Some might say that 14 years of the latter prepared the road for Brexit.

  17. 17
    flahr on 7 Nov 2016 #

    I want to hear from the people arguing that it was 14 years of the FORMER!

  18. 18
    Izzy on 7 Nov 2016 #

    15: Sheryl Crow had an imperial phase? Actually she did do a Bond theme, maybe that’s as good an indicator as any.

    I haven’t thought about her for a long time – though My Favorite Mistake, from 1998, is one of my top singles from that decade – so was surprised to see that her chart placings have held up, even if like everyone else her sales figures have declined. She’s still scoring top five albums in the US, and seems to be country now.

  19. 19
    weej on 7 Nov 2016 #

    Sheryl Crow had a whopping 17 top 40 singles in the UK, though never getting higher than #4, so dunno if we can call that an imperial phase, a smaller but longer lasting empire, perhaps.

  20. 20
    Nick R on 8 Nov 2016 #

    @#7 and #10: I just rewatched that performance, focusing on the other musicians, and it doesn’t come across to me like there are “bad vibes” coming from the other performers on that stage. Petty grimaces for a moment when Prince leans backwards off the stage, but then grins again – it doesn’t seem like anyone’s resentful of his showmanship.

  21. 21
    Cumbrian on 8 Nov 2016 #

    #20: Not guilty, m’lud. You’ll need to take that up with Izzy (as indeed you have).

    I will stand by my view that a) everyone else was bland as fuck and b) Prince was by far the most interesting aspect of that performance, to the extent that, if that performance is known by wider audiences, it’s as a Prince showcase rather than than a tribute to George Harrison.

    I’ve had a listen to some of the Harrison back catalogue over the last few days. It’s usually pleasant, with the odd gem, but not something I think I will be returning to over the long haul, apart from those odd gems. Handle With Care is excellent, I reckon, though possibly because of the presence of Roy Orbison.

  22. 22
    wichitalineman on 8 Nov 2016 #

    Re 8: I felt the same when I was a kid. But What Is Life was only the b-side in Britain, it was saved in the US as a follow-up to My Sweet Lord. Quite rightly. It’s the second most obvious hit single George ever wrote.

    Though I love the warm enveloping production and rockabye repetition, MSL has always felt a bit ‘eat your greens’ to me, in the same way as Let It Be. That could just be down to my aethism; both are specifically religious rather than spiritual. MSL in particular sounds a bit moany, a classic George lyrical trait right from Don’t Bother Me – his first Beatles song! – onwards: “but it takes so long my Lord”. Buh buh buh! Life’s so difficult!

    As a nicely understated (another George trait) spiritual song, I prefer Blow Away: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAVU3LNzsrw

  23. 23
    Mark G on 8 Nov 2016 #

    And, of course, also rescued onto an A-side by Olivia Newton John, like when she rescued ‘If not for you’, originally an album track by Bob Dylan.

  24. 24
    Girl with Curious Hair on 17 Nov 2016 #

    17: if I had to make an argument for that, it’s that the Baby Boomers got so sick of hearing my generation’s music that they decided the proportionate thing to do was to trash the economy and usher in an age of scary right-wing government-by-jerking-knee. That’ll teach us for making S Club 7 a thing.

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