George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

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George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door by Graeme Thomson

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A finely balanced warts-and-all portrait of the youngest member of the Beatles, his life, character, songwriting and other interests, which could hardly be bettered. Scrupulously researched, it is easily the most comprehensive Harrison life I have come across, and the most objective.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: January 2015
Publisher: Omnibus Press
ISBN: 9781468310658

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George Harrison was the youngest of the four wartime-born youngsters who came together to form The Beatles. He was also the only one who came from a relatively stable family background, his early years not scarred by the loss of one parent through divorce or early bereavement. With two elder brothers and a sister, he was the baby of the Harrison clan. A poor scholar but a promising trainee electrician in his teens, a musical ear and the advent of rock'n'roll soon led him along an alternative career path.

Another significant point underlined by Thomson in the early pages is that he was not only the junior member of the trio, in other words with John Lennon and Paul McCartney before the drummers arrived, but he was also a natural joiner. Unlike the other two he was not an instigator or a leader, more of a natural supporting player. When the group fell apart, he followed them in becoming a solo artist. But he often seemed happier as part of a group, whether it was Delaney and Bonnie & Friends, or some years later as a Traveling Wilbury.

The bare bones of much of George's story are familiar. He was the junior songwriter, the one who was generally allowed only one or two songs on a Beatles album and who only started to blossom as a writer in the latter days, contributing the two most-loved songs to 'Abbey Road', namely 'Something' and 'Here Comes The Sun'. He was the one who railed most against the punitive supertax rates levied on top earners in the 1960s (although unlike John and Ringo, he never became a tax exile from the UK), the one who embraced Indian music and culture, and almost single-handedly helped to integrate Indian and therefore world music into western rock'n'roll. While often appearing a desperately earnest character, he was also a strong supporter of the Monty Python team, and the film buff who founded his own movie company. As the public face of the concert for Bangla Desh, he was also the first great rock'n'roll philanthropist, blazing a trail for Bob Geldof and others.

Thomson gets to the heart of what a contradictory character George was. Although closely identified with religion, he was perhaps more Rasputin than Cliff Richard. When it came to alcohol, drugs and other people's wives, notably that of his closest comrade-in-arms Ringo Starr, he was no saint. The George-Patti-Eric Clapton saga, that of two rock gods who thought that anything and anyone was there for the taking, is not a pretty one. He could be remarkably generous and forthcoming, but on a bad day not just fiercely protective of his privacy but also churlish and ill-tempered. He once made a present of a guitar to a friend – and demanded it back a few years later. On a musical level, in the immediate post-Beatle era he made what is often hailed as the best solo album by an ex-member of the quartet of all time in 'All Things Must Pass', followed by some uneven and poorly-selling albumsy.

This biography chronicles the life, and also examines and analyses his craft as a songwriter. It was significant that, when John and Paul were writing cosy love songs like 'She Loves You' and 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand', he was expressing his frustrations in 'Don't Bother Me', the first Harrison song to appear on a Beatles album (did this make him the group's protest singer?), or his frustration at an inability to communicate in 'I Want To Tell You' (on 'Revolver'). In the latter song, a subsequent line goes 'my head is filled with things to say', but as Thomson suggests, he reaches the end of the lyric without really saying it.

We are also reminded that, ironically, his most successful hit as a soloist was not in all honesty his song. 'My Sweet Lord' was built partly on ideas being improvised while playing with Delaney and Bonnie, and when Delaney Bramlett reminded him that he had actually been partly responsible for its composition, George promised him a credit on the next printing of the record – but never did. After being taken to court for allegedly plagiarising the Chiffons' 'He's So Fine', maybe he wished he had credited a collaborator to deflect some of the copyright infringement after all.

The fall from grace in the mid-1970s is also well chronicled, although it reveals that the North American tour of late 1974 was not the disaster that some critics suggested at the time. It is encouraging to read that at various stages during his later years, George managed to shed the 'has-been ex-Beatle' persona cheerfully enough by busying himself with his films, a love of Grand Prix racing, gardening at his home, and inviting musical friends around for jam sessions without being too preoccupied about trying for another mega-selling single or album. We are also reminded that he was coaxed back into the music business with a renewed burst of success from 1987 onwards, that he made a successful and enduring second marriage, and became a father – and to note that son Dhani has followed in his father's footsteps as no mean guitarist himself. Significantly he was unashamedly at odds with much of the 1990s music business. While some of his contemporaries were happy to leap on every bandwagon going, appear on reality music programmes and so on, he remained an unashamedly grumpy old man who would far rather listen to Cab Calloway or Bob Dylan than to Michael Jackson or the latest drum'n'bass sensation. The last two years were sad, with his treatment for cancer, his encounter in his own home with an intruder with mental issues, and his subsequent decline and death all making sombre reading. But at least he had come to terms with the inevitable passing of his spirit from his body on to another plane once, to quote one of his album titles, he was no longer 'living in the material world'.

This is a finely balanced warts-and-all portrait of the man, his life, character, songwriting and other interests, an often baffling figure, a strange mix of good and bad. Thomson has dug deeply and spoken to several people who knew him well and worked with him, and as a life of the 'Dark Horse', I doubt it could be bettered. Scrupulously researched, it is easily the most comprehensive Harrison life I have come across, and the most objective.

For those who would like to know more, I Me Mine by George Harrison is a magnificently-produced volume containing his song lyrics, facsimiles, photos and a brief memoir, while his first wife tells the story of their life together in Wonderful Today: The Autobiography of Pattie Boyd by Pattie Boyd and Penny Junor, and one of his closest friends and musical comrades in arms is the subject of Jeff Lynne: The Electric Light Orchestra - Before and After by John Van der Kiste.

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