Forty years after the band’s split, George Harrison continues to be “The Quiet Beatle”, even when it comes to reissuing back catalog. While 2010 saw an onslaught of John Lennon releases and documentaries to coincide with what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday, the 40th Anniversary issue of George Harrison’s landmark All Things Must Pass, in November, went relatively unnoticed. Blogs and magazines were rife with reviews of Lennon box sets and CDs, but Harrison’s estate chose to release All Things Must Pass as a Record Store Day vinyl set, and an audiophile-quality digital download available through only the official Harrison website. The vinyl has since become more widely available, but this was still far from the multimedia bombardment you might expect from an ex-Beatle.
That said, the low-profile suits Harrison’s style and legend. Many post-Baby Boomers who would label themselves “die-hard” Beatles fans, this writer included, discovered All Things Must Pass only after making their way through the Beatles’ catalog, Lennon’s solo work, and most of Paul McCartney and Wings. It was shocking to learn Harrison’s solo debut, released in November 1970, was easily the most commercially successful of the first round of ex-Beatle albums, and it’s still amazing to think that to date, it has outsold Imagine and Band on the Run combined. The lone previous reissue, in 2001, gained the album some attention with younger audiences, but All Things Must Pass remains, to use a common Harrison nickname, the dark horse of the ex-Beatles’ catalogs.
Like McCartney and Plastic Ono Band, All Things Must Pass finds its creator trying to grasp life and music after the Beatles. McCartney focused on his young family and jack-of-all-trades musicality, and Lennon reacted with simultaneous introspection and rebellion. But All Things Must Pass was nothing if not exuberant, even on its many mellow tracks. It is the sound of Harrison exhaling. He was quite possibly the only Beatle who was completely satisfied with the Beatles being gone. He had already tried to leave the band once, during the Let It Be sessions in early 1969, and his marginalization as a songwriter was openly acknowledged within and outside of the band. He had a stockpile of songs, wrote a bunch more, and had the clout, cash, and friends-in-high-places to make it all happen.
For such a gentle figure, All Things Must Pass was a big, bold statement. That’s a big part of why it remains such a pleasure and a thrill, even after all these years.
Harrison spent the liner notes of the 2001 reissue apologizing for All Things Must Pass‘s dense production and opaque, reverb-heavy mix. He need not have. Harrison brought in Phil Spector, and the result is arguably Spector’s last great “Wall of Sound” production. No fewer than four lead guitarists, four keyboardists, three drummers, and three bassists play on the album, often at the same time. Ringo is here, as are Clapton, Dave Mason, Klaus Voorman, and others. Harrison and Spector didn’t just bring someone in to play rhythm guitar; they brought a whole band, Badfinger. When Spector predictably became unreliable, Harrison took over production, continuing the same grand scale.
The beauty of it all is the songs still win the day. The layers of instruments and reverb enshroud them in an atmospheric mist that is perfect for Harrison’s heavily spiritual lyrics. The album’s best moments, though, involve Harrison addressing his former band. “Wah-Wah”, written during the Let It Be period, dismisses the Beatles’ troubled final years as so much white noise. As a raucous, killer jam transpires in the background, Harrison asserts “I know how sweet life can be / So I’ll keep myself free”. The song is cutting, but the sense of liberation is almost palpable. This is followed by “Isn’t It A Pity”, a more general lament for lack of understanding, but also a poignant reflection on The Beatles’ coarse ending: “Isn’t it a shame… / How we take each other’s love / Without thinking anymore”. You can be sure the “nah, nah, nah”s straight from “Hey Jude” are no accident.
It’s easy to overlook All Things Must Pass‘s musical influence, too. How many guitar-driven, echo-drenched bands have come around since, mixing powerful rave-ups with moody, reflective down-tempo numbers and a spiritual bent? Say what you want about ELO, but My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, and the rest more than make up for it. Furthermore, one listen to “Let It Down”, and you’ll understand a big part of how “Dream Pop” came to be.
Harrison’s thin, near-buried voice, a preponderance of glacial ballads that seem to start off the same, and the third disc full of disposable blues jams are all legitimate quibbles. But they aren’t nearly enough to alter what a great album, a great listening experience, a great expression this is. The remastering on this 2010 issue is even right, with no dynamics-crushing loudness issues. Referring to Harrison and Spector, Nicholas Schaffner, in his definitive The Beatles Forever, called All Things Must Pass “The crowning achievement of both their careers”. He was right.