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.