Can there be anything new to learn about the Beatles? I have recently been doing some reading about the under-appreciated George Harrison, the innovator of the charity rock and album concept, as well as the triple album and perhaps the instigator of the world music phenomenon, through his melding of Indian music with rock and his friendship with Ravi Shankar.
Harrison was the third major Beatle to compose songs for the group. Ringo only composed two songs during his years as a Beatle, while Lennon and McCartney composed the vast majority of the Beatles tunes. Harrison wrote approximately twenty songs, including such famous ones as Something and Here Comes the Sun, and every libertarian's favorite rock song, Taxman.
Nevertheless, perhaps due to self-effacement, or perhaps due to the incomplete manner in which song rights are derived, Harrison has not received his proper credit for the Beatles sound. Consider Lucy in the Sky, for instance. Lennon wrote the song and sang it on the Pepper album and it was later covered by Elton John. But the Beatles' version has a very different psychedelic sound and feel which is largely derived from Harrison's use of Indian instruments.
As a quick aside, the title of the song appears to derive from a confusion by Lennon's son Julian of diamonds and stars, likely due to the song, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Upon presenting a picture he had drawn of his classmate Lucy to his father, John Lennon, Julian was asked what the picture was and he replied that it was a picture of Lucy in the sky with diamonds (stars). It obviously made a great song title with a delicious double entendre but the title's origin is in fact, most likely innocent and not related to the drug LSD.
Back to Harrison, many of the most characteristic hooks and riffs in Lennon and McCartney songs were devised by Harrison, the group's lead guitarist, but either because of group politics or legal failure to recognize innovations beyond lyrics and music, Harrison's innovations have largely gone unrecognized.
One of the most gratifying aspects of appreciating the Beatles involves listening to their music and recognizing the chronology of the different songs and albums. I am not sure that most of us today think of rock musicians as undergoing improvement in their technical skills due to the pre-packaged nature of much of the product, but with the Beatles, and particularly with McCartney and Harrison, it is readily apparent.
Their early work derives most of its value from the tunes and the innovative singing and arrangements but not so much from the instruments. But starting around 1966, with the Revolver sessions, the playing becomes much better. On Paperback Writer, Harrison's lead guitar and McCartney's skillful bass playing are notable. Even Ringo's drums come forward, showing an upfront and tasteful dexterity than gives the song, Rain much of its punch.
By their final album, Abbey Road, the Beatles truly had mastered the craft of their instruments. Harrison's distinctive guitar had never sounded better and the trading of guitar riffs between Harrison, McCartney and Lennon, accompanied by Ringo's first extended drum solo at the end of side two were an emphatic and satisfying punctuation to the ending of their partnership. ("And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make;" don't forget that. It is the key to a good life.)
I make this point about their increasing instrumental prowess because much of the improvement in the Beatles' sound derives from Harrison's guitar playing and riffs. Although it was not his style to play like a guitar virtuoso, Harrison's playing clearly received its due from others in the business such as Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. Listening to his early solo works, it becomes even more clear how important Harrison was to the Beatles' sound, particularly on Abbey Road.
Continuing with the theme of what you might still not know about the Beatles, here are five superb Beatles songs that many people, even Beatles fans might not have heard before:
1. It's All Too Much
Written by Harrison, this song appears on the original Yellow Submarine album, which many people do not purchase because it only contains one side of Beatles music, with side two being excerpts from the film score. This six minute plus song is superb psychedelia, with meaningful lyrics and a cool fade-out.
Written by Lennon, this song was the flip side of Paperback Writer and never featured on any of the Beatles studio albums, although it can be found on the American Hey Jude album and later on some CD compilation albums. Lennon sounds like an ancient medicine man and Ringo scourges the skins in way never before heard.
3. Hey, Bulldog
Written by Lennon, this is another rocking Yellow Submarine treat that is seldom heard on the radio.
4. All Together Now
Written by McCartney for the Yellow Submarine movie (does anyone see a trend here?), this is a great children's song that kids instinctively take to, as they do to this excellent movie in general.
5. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (accoustic version)
Written by Harrison, this song appeared in an amplified version on the White Album, with Eric Clapton lending a hand on guitar. This beautiful accoustic version features only Harrison and is a spare, haunting song with a meaningful extra lyrical stanza omitted from the White Album version. The accoustic version appears only on the Beatles third anthology album, which probably still isn't enough to justify the price for most people.