The Beatles were a famous rock group comprised of four musicians, each of whom contributed a different degree of importance to the group’s success and longevity. In determining who was the best member of the Beatles, I must define the gravest of these contributing factors and who of the four members most obtained those characteristics. The distinguishing features a member must have to be considered the best Beatle are: one, exceptional skills on his respective instrument(s) (whether playing live or in the studio); two, strong talents in musical composition and lyric writing; three, responsibility in expanding the sonic textures of the band via new instruments and equipment; four, sincere and humble interest to drive the band’s influence in social, cultural, and political causes.
In spite of his lesser popularity, I think George Harrison qualifies as the best Beatle. To evaluate if George Harrison fulfills these four criteria, I must take into consideration not only the historic material of the band’s recordings, pictures, concerts, films, etc., but also the impact these materials have had on me (the researcher) as musician and member of band. For example, in actually playing live and recording Beatles’ songs I have developed a sense of how difficult certain songs are to perform and the skills required to create such songs from scratch.
Research Project: Part II - Beatles
Throughout the Beatles’ recordings, live performances, films, transcriptions, and scores, the best member of the band must demonstrate an “above-average” talent for playing his principal instrument. One’s sheer virtuosity (or technical facility) is an important factor in defining an “above average” talent; however, one’s creative musicianship (that is dynamic communication skills within the musical environment) is more significant because genuine talent is not just playing a lot of notes fast and furiously, but rather, an artful, intelligent expression of an idea.
Thus, determining who has the greater talent based purely on technical facility is an oversimplification. In addition, one’s proficiency for playing a variety of other instruments demonstrates one’s elevated degree of musical talent because often if one plays a wide array of musical instruments, one has a greater understanding of the mechanics of music. Similarly, a bilingual person often can learn many other languages more efficiently than a mono linguist because of his better understanding of the mechanics of language.
The second criterion requires the best band member to display strengths in song writing, which may be determined via the quality and quantity of songs. In other words, if the band member is a prolific writer, contributing original and quality material for the band’s recordings, then he qualifies. In addition, quality should be rated by a high level of:, one, artistry, i.e. creativity and originality; and two, listener satisfaction and enjoyment, namely emotional stimulation via the music. Quality and quantity will not be determined by popularity or record sales because fame and commerce are irrelevant to the art of composing music and lyrics. Plus, if the songs are a product of a writing team, then the songs do not qualify. Thus, the best member should be the sole writer of his compositions found in Beatles’ recordings.
Within the Beatles’ compositions, an expression of expanding the sonic textures via new instruments and equipment must be provided by the best member, who like an inventor, is responsible for spearheading the group’s sound into unexplored territories. For example, Les Paul’s idea to amplify his acoustic guitar led him to inventing the electric guitar (Voices 1).
Similarly, Cuban percussionist Frank Malabe developed a method of playing the various latin percussion instruments and their rhythms used in Afro-Cuban music, such as the clave, palito, timbales, et cetera, on a single drum set; thus, instead of five guys playing, one person could provide all the rhythmic foundation for the music (Malabe & Weiner 11).
The last criterion ensures that the best member obtained a sincere and humble interest in social, cultural, and political causes. By using his fame and influence as a Beatle, the best member must have initiated and endorsed causes which aim to improve society, such as the Farm Aid, Live Aid and Band Aid concerts; furthermore, the best member will have participated in such events strictly by one, his sincere interest, i.e. he should not have received any sum of money for participating, and two, by not having brought any special attention upon himself, e.g. the promotion of a newly released album. Unfortunately, there are many artists who promote charitable causes for purely selfish reasons. For example, during the preparation for the Free Tibet Concert in San Francisco, many artists when asked to perform at the event first responded by inquiring who would be on the bill, i.e. they had a “bandwagon mentality” (Palm Pictures). The best member of the Beatles cannot have this “bandwagon” approach to sponsor such social and political causes, but rather, he must play an active, involved role.
George Harrison: “The Quiet Raga” - Part III
I’m stumped. I stare at my guitar. Then, I glance back at the spinning vinyl on my parents’ old Panasonic record player. I’m entranced by the mystical sounds pouring forth from the stereo’s two eight inch speakers. I pick at my guitar again, attempting to figure out all the amazing notes racing by. As a nine-year-old, I can’t help but wonder how this music was created. After all, my dad taught me to play other Beatles’ tunes without virtually any problem; however, this song is different. Sitars intertwined with Western voices, singing: “Try to realize it’s all within yourself / No one else can make you change . . . Life flows on within you and without you”; what? Who created this? And why is this on a Beatles’ album?
Having grown up in a musical family, I heard the Beatles’ music so much it almost seems innate to me. I cannot remember a time when I did not know about the “Fab Four” lads from Liverpool, England. I’ve spent countless hours listening, studying, practicing, and jamming to my father’s Beatles records and music books. As a professional musician, I find myself performing and recording Beatles’ material frequently. Recently, I was working a jazz gig when someone came up from the bar. He said, “Hey, can you guys play ‘Something’ by the Beatles?” I thought, wow! out of the 220 plus songs recorded by the Beatles, this stranger picks one written by George Harrison, the “Quiet Beatle.”
Not too many people know about this “Quiet Beatle,” and in spite of his lesser popularity, I think George Harrison’s important contributions to the Beatles must not be overlooked. A “consummate musician,” an extraordinarily prolific writer, and a “consciousness-raiser,” Harrison impacted the world in a profound way (Randall 35). Demonstrating an “above-average” talent for playing a variety of musical instruments, composing numerous quality songs, expanding the sonic textures of the Beatles via new instruments and equipment, and humbly, initiating causes that aimed to improve society, Harrison clearly fulfills the criteria for who the best member of Beatles must be.
I. THE CONSUMMATE MUSICIAN
“Over the past four decades, George Harrison’s playing, both on acoustic and electric guitar, has led an inestimable number of people (including this writer) [both Randall and Mitchell] to pick up the instrument [guitar],” writes Mac Randall (35). With an “above average” talent, Harrison has challenged me musically, from back when I was a young kid just learning to strum the guitar to even now as a professional musician. Harrison’s virtuosity caused me to replay my father’s Beatles’ recordings over and over in order to properly learn what notes came singing out of his guitar.
Not only did Harrison demonstrate an amazing technical facility on his principal instrument of guitar, but also, on an array of other instruments, such as the sitar (that is, a classical Indian instrument with nineteen strings - see figures 1 & 2), tamboura (another classical Indian instrument), bass, piano, electronic keyboards/synthesizers and vocals (Miles 398). As a multi-instrumentalist, George would frequently overdub various guitar, sitar, keyboard, and vocal parts in the recording of just one song (e.g. “Here Comes The Sun”).
Harrison’s creative musicianship and artful, intelligent expressions of musical concepts reaffirmed his greater understanding of the mechanics of music over the rest of his band mates. According to Randall, “The two principal reasons John Lennon and Paul McCartney allowed Harrison to join their band were that he could play solos off records note-for-note, and that he knew more chords than they did” (36). Overall, George Harrison’s “above average” talent for playing a variety of musical instruments demonstrates one of his important contributions to the Beatles.
II. “SOMETHING” ABOUT THE SONGS
An infamous myth about the Beatles is that John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote all the songs. Even though his material was often overlooked, George Harrison was a prolific writer and contributed many quality songs to the Beatles’ records. In total, Harrison composed and recorded twenty-two songs for the Beatles. Some earlier examples are found on the sixth Beatles album Rubber Soul: “Think for Yourself” and “If I Needed Someone.” Because Harrison did not develop as a songwriter until later than John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Harrison’s material is seen more often in the Beatles’ later career. In a 1977 interview, Harrison stated that Lennon and McCartney “did write great songs, which made it more difficult to break in or get some action on the song writing thing” (Harrison 1). However, by having three of his compositions on the seventh record Revolver, “George was becoming a third significant songwriter in the group” (Miles 290).
Because Lennon and McCartney were a song writing team, the two composers had to divide their royalty earnings equally, which caused them to push a lot harder for their songs to be selected for the recordings. George Harrison wrote his heartfelt music free from this pressure. An example of this heartfelt music is the famous ballad “Something,” which was Harrison’s first Beatles’ single and one of “the most covered Beatles songs” (Miles 553). “[D]escribed by Frank Sinatra as ‘the greatest love song of the past fifty years,’ it was the only Beatles song that Sinatra ever sang live, albeit introduced as a ‘Lennon and McCartney composition’” (Miles 553). Lyrically, “Something” yields an immense amount of listener satisfaction and enjoyment: “Something in the way she moves / Attracts me like no other lover . . . Somewhere in her smile she knows/That I don't need no other lover/I don't want to leave her now/You know I believe and how” (Fujita 905).
I am amazed that such a gifted songwriter can be overlooked so frequently. I can only conclude that Harrison’s compositions were unfortunately overshadowed by the notoriety of Lennon and McCartney. Nonetheless, George Harrison’s genius of song writing underscores his weightiness as a Beatle. (For additional examples of Harrison’s lyrics, see below.)
III. HERE COMES THE SOUND
Because of George Harrison’s musical experimentation, the recorded expressions of the Beatles’ compositions, especially Harrison’s works, exhibit a productional vanguard of sonic textures. A lover of new sounds and musical equipment, George Harrison was a pioneer of “experimentation and musical risk taking” (“The Quiet Beatle” 56). The first clear example of this musical innovation can be heard on the recording of “Norwegian Wood” on the Rubber Soul album, in which Harrison incorporates the sitar as the prime melodic instrument (Fujita 712).
Interestingly, Ravi Shankar (the famous Indian sitar player) began teaching George sitar in 1966, at which point the two musicians established a life-long friendship. When asked in an interview with Rolling Stone about what the master sitar player thought of the sitar playing in “Norwegian Wood,” Ravi Shankar responded, “To tell you the truth, I had to keep my mouth shut. It was introduced to me by my nieces and nephews, who were just gaga over it. I couldn’t believe it, because to me, it sounded so terrible” (Shankar 31). Nevertheless, Harrison’s exploration of the sonic textures via new instruments and musical equipment, such guitar effects and amplifiers, pushed the envelope of the Beatles’ soundscapes.
“His [George Harrison] trademark was texture, atmospherics and dynamic counterpoint” (“The Quiet Beatle” 56). Harrison’s creative innovation for using ordinary instruments in extraordinary ways set a trend not only with the Beatles’ sound, but with the entire scope of pop music as well. Many modern rock groups (e.g. Radiohead, KulaShaker, Oasis, etc.) employ the same types of sounds (e.g. sitars, distortion, echo, delay, wah-wah, etc.) in their music. Hence, Harrison’s spearheading of the Beatles’ sound into unexplored territories is a highly significant contribution to the Beatles.
IV. THE SILENT RAGA
“For all his influence on the musical landscape, however, Harrison’s greatest and most lasting impact is rooted in his use of his platform as a Beatle to draw our attention to a larger world” (“The Quiet Beatle” 56). Long before it was trendy for rock stars to endorse and perform at benefit concerts, George Harrison set the standard. Unlike his band mates, Harrison’s approach to initiating and endorsing social and political causes was subtle and silent. John Lennon preached to people “about the world’s failings,” but “Harrison got involved” (“The Quiet Beatle” 56). By humbly and quietly organizing social and political events, Harrison raised public consciousness. For example, Harrison, with the help of Ravi Shankar, organized a concert for Bangla Desh on August 1, 1971 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. “In March, 1971, a deliberate reign of terror was unleashed on Bangla Desh”; a genocide of the large population of East Bengalis was attempted by the West Pakistani leadership. “An estimated one million East Bengalis were murdered,” and another approximate ten million faced “starvation, lack of sanitation and housing, and most notably - cholera” (Lipski 1).
Brought to his attention by Ravi Shankar, George Harrison began to study about the crisis in Bangla Desh and was deeply moved with compassion. (Lipski 2) Harrison sought to help organize and participate in a concert to raise money and awareness for the crisis; as a result, he compiled the right musicians for the job, such as Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton, and released an album to generate funds and even wrote a song called “Bangla Desh.” According to Ravi Shankar, “In a period of only four to five weeks all of this was done” (Lipski 1). By raising awareness on issues that concerned him, Harrison humbly utilized his influence as a Beatle to improve society. In summary, George Harrison’s quiet approach to endorsing social and political causes reflects his true motives as a sincere humanitarian.
V. “YOU LIKE ME TOO MUCH”
In examining George Harrison’s many roles as a Beatle, I must conclude that his “above average” talents, musical innovations, and humanitarian efforts have been unjustly overlooked and, at times, poorly credited. Harrison’s contributions to the Beatles have been extremely important in defining exactly who the Beatles are. But I wonder if it is possible to determine who the best member of the Beatles really is?
Given the four criteria I proposed, Harrison’s contributions to the Beatles leaves no choice but to conclude that George Harrison is the best member of the Beatles. I argue Harrison’s sublime musical and superb song writing talents, sonic innovations, and humanitarian efforts all point to him as the one and only candidate of best Beatle. However, I also think that in the spirit of George Harrison the terms “best” and “worst” cannot apply. Harrison simply lived according to his talents, innovations, ambitions and concerns.
The definition of the “best Beatle” would probably have insulted George Harrison, especially if it was applied to him. But is that what makes Harrison so great? His disregard for wanting to be the best? I think so.
To this day, I frequently pick up my guitar and play along with the Beatles’ recordings. Even sometimes I still find myself stumped, staring at my guitar, listening to the genius of the music. Especially when I hear a Harrison tune, I always feel challenged. I have to sit still and be silent in order to truly listen to what is happening. Harrison’s spirit is exactly that stillness: a quiet raga, hardly noticed but silently powerful. As a Beatle, George Harrison shared his spirit with the world, gently reminding us,“Here comes the sun / And I say it’s alright.”
Bernard, E., and Jonze, S. Free Tibet-The Tibetan Freedom Concert San Francisco. Palm Pictures., 1998 (2000).
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