Most fans have a favorite Beatle, but there’s not much debate about which Beatles solo album is the best: George Harrison’s epic “All Things Must Pass.”
Released in November 1970, just seven months after the group’s breakup was belatedly confirmed, it has become synonymous with the concept of suppressed brilliance. Since he first landed a composition on a Beatles album with “Don’t Bother Me” in 1963, Harrison had battled, largely unsuccessfully, to place his songs on the group’s records, eventually securing one per LP and finally one per vinyl side. Thus, he had a huge backlog of material, and his deep frustration at trying to break the John Lennon-Paul McCartney songwriting stranglehold was one of many factors in the group’s dissolution. Yet it’s also the reason why “All Things Must Pass” is such a masterpiece: He’d been working toward it for his entire career.
The eternally underrated Harrison was by far the most extracurricularly prolific Beatle. He wrote, co-wrote, produced and/or played on songs or albums by Cream, Billy Preston, singers Doris Troy and Jackie Lomax and others; dabbled in Indian and electronic music; and even joined his best friend Eric Clapton for a brief barnstorming tour with American combo Delaney & Bonnie. (He’d continue that streak after this album’s release, writing and producing the great singles “It Don’t Come Easy” for Ringo Starr and “Try Some, Buy Some” for Ronnie Spector.) He was invited to Woodstock to visit the Band in 1968 and ended up hanging out with Bob Dylan, with whom he co-wrote “I’d Have You Anytime,” the opening track here.
All that preparation and pent-up inspiration came to fruition on this remarkable album, which was originally released as two vinyl LPs, along with a bonus disc of blazing instrumental jams by the murderers’ row of musicians Harrison assembled: In addition to Clapton, Starr and Preston were guitarists Dave Mason and Peter Frampton, bassist Klaus Voorman, keyboardists Gary Wright and Gary Brooker, drummer Alan White, all of Badfinger, and the three musicians who would join Clapton in Derek and the Dominos and would record their own masterpiece, “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” a few weeks after working on this album. The whole shebang was produced by Harrison with “Wall of Sound” maestro Phil Spector (eerily, that murderers’ row included two future convicted murderers: Spector and drummer Jim Gordon).
The result is a glorious, celestial roar, spanning rock (“Wah Wah,” “Art of Dying”), pop (“What Is Life”), country (“Behind That Locked Door,” “Let It Roll”), neo-gospel (the global smash “My Sweet Lord”), towering epics (“Hear Me Lord,” “Let It Down”), Band-influenced Americana (a cover of Dylan’s “If Not for You”), and even a paean to the Beatle fans who’d wait outside Abbey Road (“Apple Scruffs”). The massed legions of guitars, keyboards, voices, horns, tambourines, bells, shakers — all drenched with echo and capped by Harrison’s alternately stinging and soaring slide guitar — summon visions of a giant sleigh-bell-bedecked caravan of traveling musicians thundering down a country road. Yet it’s actually the ultimate evolution of the Wall of Sound: The dozen-plus musicians were often playing live, and the blaring din on songs like “Awaiting on You All” shows that the distance from a Spector classic like “Da Doo Ron-Ron” isn’t that far. But like Simon & Garfunkel’s contemporaneous “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” many of these songs were painstakingly constructed to sound big and detailed on both tinny AM radios and whatever passed for a state of the art, hi-fi stereo system in 1970. Needless to say, this gorgeous cacophony sounds more amazing than ever in this revamped sonic edition.
Thematically, the album’s lyrics reflect both Harrison’s notorious dark side as well as the spirituality he’d found in his embrace of Hinduism. The word “lord” pops up frequently, and in an awesome move, the backing voices toward the end of the No. 1 single “My Sweet Lord” morph “Hallelujah” into the Hare Krishna mantra — intended, as Harrison wrote in his autobiography, to suggest that the two concepts mean “quite the same thing.” He probably got no small satisfaction in knowing that the words countless thousands of fans were trying to sing along with were, “Hare Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Gurur Brahma” and so on. (He’d later slip a “Hare Krishna” into the background vocals of “It Don’t Come Easy,” too.)
Not surprisingly, this meticulously prepared 50th anniversary edition presents the album more gloriously than ever, with a brand new, pristine remix included in several different packages ranging from standard vinyl or CD to the Super Deluxe to the completely insane $1,000, literally 50-pound Uber Deluxe, which includes piles of vinyl, two lavish books and other ephemera in a toy box-sized wooden crate (including the scale models of the plastic gnomes featured on the album’s iconic cover that Variety has made famous). There’s a lavish, heavy coffee-table book filled with gorgeous photos, many of them previously uncirculated, and Harrison’s estate has done a deep dive into the archive and reproduced handwritten lyric sheets for nearly every song, along with an exhaustive chronology of the album’s recording sessions and diary entries (“January 10, 1969: Left the Beatles,” regarding his brief departure during the “Let It Be” sessions) and other items.
Musically speaking, along with hi-res audio and Blu-ray versions of the album and other sonic whatnot, there are 47 demos and outtakes, most of them previously unreleased — none is a Holy Grail, but several are fascinating. Most interesting are the demos: many of Harrison’s rough acoustic takes have circulated on bootlegs over the decades, but far more interesting are rough versions of several songs where he is accompanied by Starr and Voorman, which are heart-warming in their simplicity. The familiar album versions are so big, but here there’s a humbleness that is completely cloaked in the glorious bombast of the album. We hear them ease through a dramatically different “What Is Life,” an easygoing “Isn’t It a Pity,” and — most striking — “My Sweet Lord” as a loose, mid-tempo groove. Elsewhere, Harrison playfully ends the demo of “Art of Dying” with a snippet of “Hernando’s Hideaway” from “The Pajama Game” (revealing an un-obvious influence for the song), and the last demo included is a jokey take on “Isn’t It a Pity” called “Isn’t It Shitty,” with Harrison comically complaining about spending long days in the studio.
The alternate takes are less revelatory and lack the Spector gloss, although they do provide an inside look at the recording process. That segment closes with several jams, which incorporate a funny run-through of the Beatles’ “Get Back” and the “Almost 12 Bar Honky Tonk,” with Clapton soloing over a smoky groove. Notably, several of the players on the album happen to be Southerners and, particularly here, bring some down-home grit and grease to the proceedings.
Throughout, even though it’s his first solo album, Harrison is generous with the spotlight: Clapton solos more than Harrison does on the album (even on its opening notes), there’s no question which songs Starr plays on, and keyboardists and bassists and horn players — even the tambourine player, usually Badfinger’s Mike Gibbons — all get moments in the sun.
Even amid the bounty of Beatles releases that emerged in the months after their split, “All Things Must Pass” topped charts across the globe and spawned two hit singles — “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life” — as well as a precedent-setting plagiarism lawsuit, also for “My Sweet Lord,” which ruled that Harrison had unintentionally borrowed from the Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” (unperturbed, he later said he’d been aiming for “Oh Happy Day”).
Some may argue, not without reason, that McCartney’s “Band on the Run” or Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” or “Imagine” is actually the best Beatles solo album, but this lovingly rendered 50th anniversary edition makes the case for “All Things Must Pass” in vivid detail. Unfortunately, Harrison’s creative gusher did not last much longer — none of his subsequent albums approached this one’s greatness. But to be fair, not many do.