None of life's strings can last.”—George Harrison, “All Things Must Pass,” from his three-album All Things Must Pass (1970)
How on earth did “quiet Beatle” George Harrison make the loudest splash among his ex-bandmates as a solo artist in 1970? Perhaps Phil Spector asked if he’d like to collaborate on an album, and hearing Harrison’s response—“Yeah, yeah, yeah!”—the producer, who habitually layered two more instruments on one already in the mix for his “Wall of Sound," interpreted each “Yeah” as worth a whole album.
My explanation, in case you haven’t figured it out already, is a stretch. But nobody would greet it with the kind of astonishment, even incredulity, that awaited Harrison’s All Things Must Pass upon its release in the U.S. 45 years ago today. Nobody could have guessed that the Beatles’ lead guitarist, even after a few recent songs with his old band like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something,” had that much material waiting to burst out.
Nobody, that is, except that part of the Beatles’ inner circle who knew that principal songwriters Paul McCartney and John Lennon (particularly the latter) had repeatedly rejected their bandmate’s work. (Both the title track of Harrison’s new work and “Isn’t It a Pity” had been recorded for Abbey Road, but left off the final release—a shame, really, since either could have replaced “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and strengthened an already great album into something more.)
I wrote a post on All Things Must Pass five years ago, but my fascination continues and more can still be said about the circumstances revolving around its release.
In the wake of the quartet’s acrimonious front-page dissolution early in the year, many fans interpreted the song as a commentary on the long and ending road for the group. But Harrison’s own explanation for the song’s evolution—that it grew out of a translation of a poem in the Tao Te Ching by Timothy Leary—makes more sense.
The year 1970 was marked by the release of a number of classic albums: James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, Van Morrison’s Moondance, CSNY’s Déjà vu, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water—and that hardly even exhausts the list. But even among such distinguished company, All Things Must Pass stands out.
Of course, for a work that sprawling, a good part of it is uneven (notably the jam session recordings). But All Things Must Pass gave Harrison, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great guitarists, his own voice at last, with an identity as the group’s spiritual seeker. He was also rewarded with success—topping the charts for seven weeks, sparked by the singles “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life?”—and notices that must have galled the competitive and highly territorial Lennon and McCartney, including the headline, “Maybe George Was Always the Most Talented After All.”
(On the “Pop Matters” blog, Sam Buntz offers an interesting post comparing All Things Must Pass and Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band as the best Beatles solo LPs.)
Far more has passed since 1970 than the Beatles, or even Harrison himself. So have the album cover as photographic art, the notion of an album itself serving as a Grand Artistic Statement, or even commercial free-form FM stations that mine “deep album cuts” that become as memorable a listening experience as singles.