For those of us who never got to see the Beatles in concert, the Fab Faux is the next best thing. These five musicians have world-class chops, and they will present a George Harrison 70th Birthday Celebration October 26th at the Beacon Theatre. They were kind enough to give Elmore insight into their concert preparation. (You can read part 1 of our story here.)
Part 2 of 4:
George Harrison’s music
Unquestionably a junior member of the Lennon/McCartney collaboration, George Harrison found the Beatles’ songwriting club tough to break into. Although he tried to get songs on an album, acceptance was difficult. Schoolboys everywhere discriminate on the basis of age, and John Lennon was no exception. When fifteen-year-old Paul McCartney invited his chum George Harrison to audition, Lennon, then seventeen-and-a-half, thought Harrison (about eight months younger than McCartney and still fourteen) was too young. After a month, Lennon relented, but he may have been marginally correct: two years later, during their successful residency in Hamburg, Harrison was deported after German authorities discovered he had lied about his age.
Harrison’s songs differ fundamentally from the Lennon/McCartney model. “Paul played a lot of leads because their attitude was ‘Let’s get it done,’” Jimmy Vivino (bandleader for Conan) noted, and the Lennon/McCartney team worked together to crank out many, many songs. Harrison, who primarily wrote solo, competed against this amazing powerhouse.
“John and Paul used to tag-team,” explained bassist Will Lee (The Late Show with David Letterman). “One guy would come with an idea that would spark the other, and one guy would be a little too soft and the other guy would put some harshness into it and make some push and pull throughout the song. Paul would say, ‘It’s getting better all the time,’ and John would come back with, ‘It can’t get no worse.’ It took a lot of balls for a guy like George to present his meager scribblings. These guys had already latched up, they had thing going. They had writing at the top of their agenda when George was just their fledgling guitar player and hadn’t really started being a composer yet.”
The tables turned when Harrison landed the opening song on Revolver with “Taxman,” but still, Paul plays the lead. “George said, ‘Oh that’s great.’” said Vivino. “I wouldn’t have done that, I would have said, ‘It’s my song.’ But George was honored in a way to have his brother get so into his song that he played lead guitar. There was a reverence for each other that we can never imagine, a club that no one was allowed in but four people. And they’re brothers, no matter what…dysfunctional or not.”
Choosing songs from Harrison’s Beatle days was pretty easy, since they only recorded the cream of the crop. Later on, when his songwriting flowered and he was putting out a lot of material, the choices become less straightforward.
“People always say, ‘Oh, it didn’t get good until later,’ but it was always good, as you look back,” Vivino said. In the Beatles’ heyday, two songs per album were about as many as Harrison was allowed, and a lot of songs on his masterpiece solo album All Things Must Pass were turned down for Beatles albums for one reason or another, although they probably should have found a place on Abbey Road. Given Lennon and McCartney’s sheer output as songwriters, however, Harrison was swimming against the tide.
Harrison’s writing did not hit the public in a straightforward timeline. “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” two of his—or any Beatle’s—greatest songs were on the last recorded album, Abbey Road (Let It Be, the last album the band released, was recorded earlier). If Harrison’s allotment was two songs per album (and Ringo Starr one), Harrison’s own output was so strong that All Thing Must Pass‘ backlog of rejected material blew the Quiet Beatle’s solo debut up into a triple album.
Some see Harrison as the Beatles’ audio standard-bearer. “I find that when people mimic the Beatles, I think that they mimic George’s style of songwriting because he was that sponge from both Paul and John,” said drummer Rich Pagnano. “And he always sounded more British in his vocals. Original bands who come from the Beatles’ college, their music tends to have more in common with George’s sensibilities.“
One could argue that Harrison’s contributions changed popular music more than any other Beatle. It was Harrison, of course, who introduced the influence of Eastern music, and it didn’t go away. He placed emphasis on the diminished chord, which he used over and over in the most strategic spots. While the others used it in passing, it became a Harrison signature.
“He liked to do what is called a pre-bend,” Fab Faux curator and guitarist Frank Agnello said. “Instead of bending up, you hear it on the comedown. For instance, in the beginning of “Something,” the second note you hear: bum bowwwww owwww. It shows up in Indian music a lot, and George is always the person I think of when I think of that.”
When he got into slide guitar, Harrison said Muddy Waters was one of his influences; Harrison’s skill as a slide guitarist is something that the Fab Faux will highlight. “We all have to brush up on our slide playing because there’s going to be as many as four different guys playing slide guitar” Agnello said. “Jimmy [Vivino’s] the first lead player, but we’ll be harmonizing with him and playing a few licks here and there.”
“He really got to be a great slide guitar player, he just found his voice very late,” Vivino said, noting that Harrison actually asked Muddy to show him some stuff. “And the good thing about that to me is that no matter how successful, how much money, how great your songs are, you’re still thinking as a player.”
Harrison’s persona is more obvious because he wrote solo. “It was a darkness and humor at the same time to George’s stuff, he was a funny, moody guy,” Vivino pointed out. In interviews, whatever George said was cutting and quick, but Harrison’s music is about subtlety. His vocals are often delicate, his guitar playing nuanced. He arguably released the greatest solo Beatles record out of all of them, and he wrote incredible ballads, certain to be highlighted in the show.
“We love to champion George,” Vivino told us. “All the emphasis has been on Lennon/McCartney for so long, that we’re being the not-down- the-middle-of-the-road fans.”