And with it, we mark the (admittedly probably intermittent) return of Gratuitous Beatles Blogging.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Quiet Beatle, but as I’ve begun an obsession with collecting vinyl records over these past several months,[1. Every song on this list sounds much, much better on vinyl. Especially the vocals. I’m just saying.] I’ve explored his solo work a bit more fully and found my love towards him grow tremendously.
George was a fabulous songwriter, a stellar musician, topnotch guitarist, and a very witty man. But he’s not normally praised for his vocals.
That’s understandable. For one, with his main legacy belonging to the Beatles, he’s greatly overshadowed in terms of vocal talent by both John and Paul. For another, his voice wasn’t that particularly strong. He didn’t possess a large range. He couldn’t hold a note for a very long time. Myself, I’ve always referred to George as the world’s greatest backup singer — not as an insult in the least, but as recognition that his vocal backing in the Beatles was routinely amazing. In that sense, his voice certainly was versatile, and whatever John or Paul was doing, he made it work. He didn’t just allow John and Paul to overshadow him, he also made them better.
At the same time, I consider it a serious mistake to simply overlook George’s lead vocal work. His voice had weaknesses and faults, but he also taught himself not only how to control them, but how to use them to his advantage. Further, I think that if you approach vocals looking only at how large of a range a singer has and how long he or she can hold a note, you’re cheating yourself out of an awful lot. After all, “errors” are a part of the beauty. Singing isn’t only about sound; it’s also about communication and connection. And there, I cannot accuse George of any serious deficiency.
1. My Sweet Lord
This choice may strike many as either an odd or easy pick. It was George’s biggest solo hit, making it easy, and the vocals taken on their own aren’t that particularly spectacular, making it odd. But just like with my love of John’s Stand By Me,[2. Note: I no longer fully endorse this list.] it’s not as much about the sound George makes while singing this song, it’s about the passion with which he does so. When George sings “I really want to know you, I really want to go with you,” I’ll be damned if you don’t believe him.
This song is praise, and it’s a prayer, but it’s also a plea. He’s saying, “Please, Lord, please, help me find my way to you.” And while not at all sharing George’s passion or path towards spirituality, I can’t help but be entirely moved by that devotion and that need. I think that all of us have likely, at some point, felt a deep and unrelenting need for something, a need that we didn’t quite know how to fulfill, but felt like we would be lost if we didn’t. George’s vocal here speaks to that.
2. If Not For You
Sticking with George’s 1970 masterpiece All Things Must Pass,[3. It was very difficult for me to not construct an entire list out of this one album.] his rendition of this Bob Dylan song has always struck me as absolutely gorgeous. It’s simple, it’s intimate, and it is, in my humble estimation, just perfect. This is one of those songs where I have great difficulty concentrating on anything else while it plays. When he sings “the winter would hold no spring,” the world around me slows down. There are no vocal gymnastics here, but there is pure, shimmering sweetness.
3. Just For Today
1987’s Cloud Nine is such a nerdy 80s album, and I’m not at all ashamed to say that I’m a total nerd for it. But Jeff Lynne’s otherwise ubiquitous synthesizer aside, this particular song doesn’t pigeonhole itself in any one era. It’s a classic. And the vocals themselves are chilling and haunting. I don’t know what else to say, other than to tell you to simply listen. If someone asked me to produce one and only one song as evidence that George Harrison’s vocal abilities are underrated, this is probably the song I would choose.
4. Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)
This song is a perfect example of what I mean when I say that George learned how to turn his vocal weaknesses into strength. Instead of lamenting the thinness of his voice, he turned it into a lilt. When he learned that his voice quavered on trying to hold an extended note, he exaggerated it and opted to use it as a conscious stylistic choice. And of course, George’s melodic moans in this song are just divine.
Easily George’s best vocal during his time with the Beatles, in my opinion, and a lovely vocal all around. But the real shining moment is during the bridge, with George’s anguished cries of I don’t know, I don’t know. Excellent harmonies, too.
(p.s. The video is already a fan favorite, but make sure to check out the amazing high quality of the version below.)
Bonus track …
6. Pisces Fish
This bonus comes from George’s final, brilliant album Brainwashed, completed and released posthumously. Pisces Fish is an all around fabulous song, and George does a lot with his voice throughout. From sweetly melodic vocals during the verses, to gritty and grainy singing during the bridge, to George unusually exercising and displaying the lower range of his voice every chorus, there’s a lot going on. Enjoy. And if you don’t have Brainwashed, pick it up.
And there you have it! What songs do you think I missed? What would your list have looked like? Please engage in a friendly debate in the comments — especially since I sadly do not yet own every single one of George’s solo albums, and could use the recommendations!
Also, if you enjoy the Beatles blogging, feel free to leave suggestions for future posts (whether they be Top 5 lists, or something else entirely) in the comments. I love doing them, but I need the ideas first!