Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Harrison's Tribute to Lennon

The murder of John Lennon in December 1980 was, as I have written before, a traumatic event for anyone who was old enough to understand what had happened — but especially if that person happened to be old enough to remember when Lennon was half of the most influential songwriting team in the world.

I was only a child when the Beatles were making records, but I really felt as if I had lost a friend when Lennon was killed. I could only imagine how devastating it must have been for those who really had been close to Lennon during his life — people like former Beatles bandmate George Harrison.

Harrison's solo career after the Beatles broke up was kind of a mixed bag, I guess. It started out with a bang. He had a huge backlog of material that he never recorded with the Beatles, and he took the extraordinary step of releasing a triple album at a time when double albums were still something of a rarity — not to mention a gamble for an unproven solo artist (even one who had been a member of the Beatles).

I always felt — and, apparently, so did many others — that the quality of the songs on that triple album justified its release. More than 30 years later, that triple album — "All Things Must Pass" — was still held in such high regard that Rolling Stone named it one of the Top 500 Albums of All Time.

In August 1971, Harrison organized what I always felt was the model for the benefit concerts that were so prevalent in the 1980s — his star–studded concert to raise funds for Bangladesh refugees that he expanded into a revenue–producing movie and another triple album.

After that, though, his success was spotty for the rest of the decade, I would say. He had a few high moments but nothing approaching the commercial reactions he got for his earlier post–Beatles efforts.

And, in 1979 and 1980, he was ensnared in the production of an album that dragged endlessly.

A few months before Lennon's murder, Harrison thought he had finished work on the album, but the record label executives told him to drop four songs because they were too downbeat — so Harrison returned to the studio.

Just before Lennon's death, Harrison was working with another ex–Beatle, Ringo Starr, on a song called "All Those Years Ago," but it was unfinished until Lennon was killed.

I'm not sure what "All Those Years Ago" was about before Lennon's murder. After that event, though, it took on its true purpose — as a tribute to Lennon.

Harrison reworked the lyrics and included references to "All You Need Is Love" and Lennon's biggest hit as a solo performer, "Imagine."

Both references must have been painful for Harrison. "All You Need Is Love" was commissioned by the BBC, which had asked the Beatles for a song that contained a simple message that everyone could understand.

And Lennon himself had said that Harrison's contributions to Lennon's "Imagine" album were "the best he's ever f**king played in his life."

Harrison still had more to say musically about Lennon and the Beatles, which he did a few years later in a song called "When We Was Fab."

And he found a receptive audience for that single, too.

But the prime time for musical tributes to Lennon was in the early 1980s.

Less than a year after Harrison's song was released, Elton John released his homage to Lennon, "Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)."

That was a good song — John himself said he had been afraid that songs that were dedicated to Lennon would be "cheesy" until he read Bernie Taupin's lyrics in "Empty Garden."

But, to me, Harrison's song was more powerful. Maybe that was because of the knowledge that Lennon and Harrison had shared the staggering experience of being Beatles — something that only three other people ever shared with them.

It was actually released as a single in May 1981, but it was released as part of the "Somewhere in England" album on this day 30 years ago.

And it is to the presence of "All Those Years Ago" that "Somewhere in England" owes the success it enjoyed. As I recall, that is virtually the only song from the album that was known — or played on the radio — at the time, and it is likely the only reason the album reached #11 on the charts.

But those charts were misleading. The album's success was meteoric in nature, and it quickly fell from the heights it reached.

In hindsight, the album's commercial performance resembled the monthly jobs report with its conflicting numbers.

The album's chart position would suggest greater sales than it actually enjoyed. Its time on the charts was brief, though, and it wound up being Harrison's first solo album that failed to achieve gold status in the United States.

But Harrison's tribute to Lennon will always make that album special in his discography.