Growing Up George

George Harrison was nicknamed “The Quiet Beatle” during the height of Beatlemania. But underneath his quiet exterior was a man and musician who was deeply thoughtful and musically invigorating, reaching millions of people with the authenticity and depth of his musical contributions to the world’s most successful and popular band.

For a young, pre-Beatles George Harrison growing up in Liverpool life could be terribly boring. That is, until he picked up a guitar. Then he was transformed into a budding rock star, immersing himself in the fantasies of what a rock and roll lifestyle would be. Before he had encountered Lonnie Donegan and the skiffle craze, George did not feel passionate about music. Donegan, who George was ecstatic over, changed everything and caused him to ask his mom for money towards a guitar.

He immersed himself in the instrument, investing real blood, sweat and tears, experiencing both the deep frustration of failure and the passionate thrill of success. George, picking at his beat up acoustic guitar night and day, came to understand that rock and roll guitar was his life’s calling. No other job would be of interest to him. Music had to be his destiny.

The Early Days of The Beatles & Beatlemania

In the early days of The Beatles, before they were signed to a record deal but steadily gaining popularity, George Harrison loved music, but he also was fascinated by the financial prospects of being a rock star. He would interrogate Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein about finances and business affairs. He had dreams of fortune and of the material goods that he could purchase with it.

When Beatlemania first hit, George Harrison thoroughly enjoyed the benefits. Parties. Women. All the trappings of rock star fame. Of course, the fame of The Beatles was largely owed to the songwriting tandem or Lennon-McCartney. This was frustrating to George, who found songwriting to be a therapeutic, cleansing process. But with the tremendous amount of success that Lennon and McCartney were having writing, Harrison couldn’t get a lyric or note in edge-wise.

Songwriting was not the only source of frustration for George during his time in The Beatles. He also felt that the enormous nature of their success was interfering with the quality of their musicianship, especially live. While in the early, pre-Beatlemania days they were a tight live band that could focus on playing well, their concerts devolved into brief spectacles featuring their recent hit songs and little else, last under an hour. George found the overwhelming fame depressing and boring.

George Discovers India

An obsession with Indian culture began to seize George after he had experienced a band with traditional Indian instruments playing on the set of their film Help! George became enamored with the sitar in particular. He purchased the instrument, haunted by its sound and its distinctive, grand presence.

Meanwhile, Indian music wasn’t the only thing George was experimenting with. One night while out with his wife Patty Boyd as well as John and Cynthia Lennon, he tried LSD for the first time. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was so intense for George that he felt he actually had an experience of total enlightenment while on the substance.

As the 1960’s rolled on and The Beatles’ music continued to mature, George Harrison finally got more songwriting input with the band. He contributed cuts like the pointed “Think for Yourself” and the enigmatic “Norwegian Wood”. The latter would be George’s first foray into playing sitar with The Beatles. After a little bit of convincing, John and Paul agreed to let Harrison try out the instrument.

Within You, Without You

George got to explore his interest in Indian music even further when he met the great sitar master Ravi Shankar at a party in 1966. Their conversation soon became a request by George for Shankar to train him the sitar. After a couple of lessons at Harrison’s home, Shankar invited Harrison to India to train with him further. Harrison was enthusiastic about the idea.

George and Patti traveled to India, where Shankar found the rocker to be the ideal student of the sitar; George was eager to learn and grow both musically and spiritually.

The musical culmination of these studies was a song that The Beatles recorded for their record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band called “Within You, Without You”. The song, like a prior Beatles cut called “Love You To”, was composed and arranged in the traditional Indian style. In addition to the sitar, instruments such as the dilruba and tabla were incorporated into the arrangement. Lyrically, the song explored Harrison’s deep reflections on Hindu religious doctrine and philosophy.

The Lasting Impact of George

In effect, the remarkable success of Sgt. Pepper’s introduced the broader universe to the culture of Indian music and thought. Critic David Fricke has written on the song that it is “at once beautiful and severe, a magnetic sermon about materialism and communal responsibility in the middle of a record devoted to gentle Technicolor anarchy”. And while some have found the song dull and a waste of time, many others have found a profound and deep beauty in the song. Either way, Harrison’s musical and lyrical influence continue to profoundly affect musical and the broader world culture.

“And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you” – The Beatles

– Brian M. Reiser,
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