George Harrison: All Things Must Pass 50th Anniversary Edition
We learned so much about George Harrison when, in 1970, he released his first post-Beatles solo effort, All Things Must Pass. Now, the launch of a 50th Anniversary Edition has uncovered some previously obscured truths about the album itself.
The initial reaction to All Things Must Pass was a communal cry of “Hey, what’s going on here?” George was supposed to be the Quiet Beatle. The one who could muster only a scant two songs per album. Yet here he was putting out a triple-LP solo work. Something doesn’t compute.
The disconnect, we soon learned, came from the false assumption that George only had two songs to contribute. Turns out nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, George was a highly prolific writer. The two-Harrison-songs-per-album limitation was actually imposed by Lennon and McCartney.
Under the circumstances, it was inevitable that John and Paul would reject many of George’s submissions. Yet when that happened, did George fold up his tent and go home? He did not. Instead, he added each “reject” to the ever-growing pile of songs that would constitute a someday-solo project. By the time he was ready to record All Things Must Pass, he had a huge horde from which to draw.
The second shocker about All Things Must Pass was the consistent quality of the material. We were used to thinking of George as someone who could contribute meaningfully—if sparsely—to Beatles albums. No one would deny that “Taxman” got Revolver off to an appropriately rebellious start, that Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have had the same air of transcendence without “Within You Without You,” that “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was a White Album highlight, or that “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something” were Abbey Road’s crowning glories. But no one expected a multi-disc solo album flush with material (setting aside the forgettable jam sessions on the third LP) of the same high caliber.
If you haven’t listened to All Things Must Pass in a while—or have never heard it—play it now and I guarantee you’ll be amazed by its surfeit of fabulous songs. There are, of course, the hit singles “My Sweet Lord” and “What is Life.” But there are also a multitude of non-singles, such as “Isn’t It a Pity,” that are easily in that league. All the in-between songs are gems as well. “Behind That Locked Door” is a pining love song for the ages, while “Run of the Mill” is a bittersweet ode to the affection that once pervaded his former band (“As the days stand up on end/You’ve got me wondering/How I lost your friendship”).
The truth is that none of the album’s 18 tracks is a laggard. Each is melodically infectious and has something to say—usually about love, of either the spiritual or the down-to-earth variety. Yet the album isn’t all sunshine and kumbaya; it also includes cautionary tales such as “Beware of Darkness.” The album’s piece-parts are uniformly great, but its whole is even greater. That’s as good a definition of a masterpiece as any.
Nonetheless, All Things Must Pass had two big knocks against it right from day one. The first and foremost was Phil Spector’s heavy-handed production, which featured his famous Wall of Sound. Basically, the technique entailed a lot of layering: of multiple instances of the same instrument (why have just one rhythm guitar when you can have five?); of horns and orchestras; of harmonies and background singers; and especially of reverb. The approach had served Spector well on his girl-group records from the early-60s, but it seemed overwhelming on All Things Must Pass. Indeed, on the full-blown tracks George himself seemed lost in the melee.
That’s one symptom of the second, closely related problem: the album’s atrocious sound quality. Spector’s Wall was impenetrable, making it impossible to hear what was really going on. Instead of coalescing, all the musical elements clashed like a lesson in chaos theory. Two factors that might have helped anchor the sound, George’s voice and a solid bass line, were both buried too deep in the mix.
No one, least of all George, who was quite vocal on the subject, doubted these failings. But what to do about it? Over the decades the album has undergone multiple remastering efforts, including one in 2001 overseen by Harrison himself. These reaped only minor improvements. The problems were too ingrained to be addressed by mere remastering.
Finally, in 2020, George’s son Dhani joined forces with Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin and the man behind 50th anniversary editions of several Beatles albums. Their goal was to create nothing less than the All Things Must Pass that George had always wanted. To do so, they dug fearlessly into the original mix. There, they found the missing bass—and put it back in. They took George’s vocals up several notches, restoring it to prominence. Where possible, they slashed reverb. In general, they remixed tracks in a way that allowed individual parts to speak both individually and as a coherent whole.
The result is a flat-out triumph that’s spellbinding to listen to. Never before have we been able to hear everything going on in these dense recordings. Bass, now distinct and full-throated, is entirely transformed. In short, sonically speaking, none of its predecessors can compare to this 50th Anniversary Edition of All Things Must Pass.
That sonic clarity, in turn, allows for a rather surprising musical revelation. Abolish all the sludge fomented by Spector’s overuse of reverb and too many overdubs on technically-limited equipment, and you are inescapably left with arrangements that truly enhance these songs. Spector’s execution may have been suspect, but his concepts were fundamentally right on.
The truth of this assertion becomes glaringly apparent when listening to the bonus tracks on the new album’s various Deluxe versions. (Depending on the version, there are as many as 47 bonus tracks.) Among them are demos of virtually every song on the record. These were made by George—or George with a skeletal band of Ringo on drums and Klaus Voorman on bass—for Spector during the first days in the studio.
The unadorned demos, which have a simple charm that only grows upon repeated playing, ably demonstrate the inherent strength of the material. Moreover, they enable a direct comparison between each song in its basic and fully-fashioned state. In doing so, you can immediately glean Spector’s handiwork. Where appropriate, he takes a light touch. “I’d Have You Anytime” is a gorgeous song that wafts on a breeze. So Spector gently fleshes it out, letting Eric Clapton convey much of the emotion with his incomparable touch on lead guitar. Elsewhere, such as on “Let it Down,” “Hear Me Lord,” and the title track, Harrison has grander ambitions. Spector complies with frequently-thrilling horn, orchestral, and other flourishes. The songs are almost unimaginable without them.
Ironically, though this 50th Anniversary Edition of All Things Must Pass was prompted in part by a backlash to Spector’s production work, the album may ultimately redeem his reputation. In any case, this new edition gives us, for the first time, all the superb songs of the original album paired with an exemplary recording and production as close as we’ll ever get to the way George wanted it. The word “significant” hardly seems sufficient to describe the achievement. Highly recommended.
By Alan Taffel
I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.More articles from this editor
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