After The Beatles broke up, the Fab Four became very different people. Gone were the moptops of their early years, and in their place were the sounds of everything from John Lennon’s stirring inner turmoil to Paul McCartney’s silly odes to domestic bliss. While the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team tackled their relationship with love, George Harrison was after something else: enlightenment.
When Harrison began writing songs, he was never interested in writing typical love songs. Although he would occasionally write a perfectly sentimental song like ‘Something’, each of Harrison’s masterpieces also had its spiritual agenda. Whether it’s the nature of man to how we treat each other, Harrison was always looking for spiritual peace rather than base-level infatuation.
His embracing of Indian beliefs in the late 1960s only strengthened his relationship with his spiritual self. While he may have incorporated instruments like the sitar into his music, Harrison was just as interested in the philosophical nature of songs, trying to blend their Eastern sense of awareness and bring it into a Western context.
Across his career with The Beatles and into his solo work, Harrison created tunes that were meant to be a spiritual guide for what life had to offer outside of material possessions. Harrison knew we all lived in a material world, but inside these songs were the clues for us to escape our bodies.
The philosophy of George Harrison in 10 songs:
‘Within You Without You’ – Sgt Peppers
After years of flirting with Indian instruments, Harrison became a pure devotee by the Sgt. Peppers era. Having songs like ‘Love You To’ under his belt, ‘Within You Without You’ was the first song on a Beatles album to take away all Western instruments, dominated by the sounds of tablas and sitars. When combing through the lyrics, though, Harrison has a message to his fans about what he and his friends are discussing.
Inspired by the philosophy books he was reading at the time, ‘Within You Without You’ is about the cycles of life through Harrison’s eyes, using love as the great unifier and changing the world around the spiritual body. As Harrison sees it, it’s one’s spiritual duty to hold themselves in that cycle throughout their life, paying no mind to their earthly body.
The imaginative bits of wordplay arrive in the choruses, as Harrison intones that when one sees beyond themselves, one will finally achieve peace of mind. Life may be necessary to keep humanity alive, but Harrison knows that he cannot control his life, so he may as well control the love he can give others.
‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ – The White Album
The road to getting ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ to the final recording was a nightmare. Although Harrison knew he had a good song on his hands, he couldn’t get it off the ground until bringing in his friend Eric Clapton to guest on the track. While the rest of The Beatles were on their best behaviour, Harrison cried out in pain during the verses.
After seeing the dysfunction around him, Harrison penned this song by chance after reading the words ‘gently weeps’ in the philosophical book I Ching. The lyrics are a grim picture of where humanity has come, from Harrison getting overcome with emotion from something as little as the floor needing sweeping and the world turning around him.
Harrison isn’t willing to count himself out yet, remarking in the final verse that every mistake provides a new learning experience for him. Given the circumstances of his band, the lesson learned in this song may have been that his time with The Beatles was bound to be cut short. As much as Harrison may have loved being a team player in a band, this track acts as a preemptive eulogy for The Beatles.
‘I Me Mine’ – Let It Be
From the sound of the album’s sessions, no one wanted to see Let It Be come out. After being in production hell thanks to Phil Spector, most of the album ended up being table scraps of what could have been phenomenal Beatles cuts. While the crime of Harrison’s ‘I Me Mine’ is its astoundingly short runtime, Harrison makes the most of the seconds he has.
After brushing up on the teachings of the Hindu text Baghavad Gita, Harrison wrote this song as a meditation on one’s relationship with ego, thinking that they own that which they see. As the tune plays out in waltz time, Harrison laments at the number of people he saw throwing their egos about and living in their bubbles of self-absorption throughout their life.
While the song is picked up by the rock and roll chorus, the root of Harrison’s message lies in how pathetic people are when they focus on their narcissistic tendencies. Harrison might have been known as the ‘Quiet Beatle’, but that’s because he never felt the need to let his ego dictate his decisions.
‘Isn’t It a Pity’ – All Things Must Pass
By the end of his time with The Beatles, Harrison was sitting on some of the best material of his career. Outside of meeting his usual standard of two good songs on every album, Harrison was finally free to share his messages with the world on All Things Must Pass. The end of his former band did get ugly, though, and ‘Isn’t It a Pity’ is a brilliant way for Harrison to express his grief.
Instead of asking for sympathy, Harrison reflects on the dissolution of his friendships, posing the question of how people take so much from each other without thinking about it. As the echoes of Phil Spector’s production play in the background, Harrison is crying out about how so many people forget to give back to their fellow man, the Earth, and God in their daily lives.
Whereas some of these lyrics may have come off as preachy by certain listeners, Harrison has nothing but conviction throughout this song, offering up these questions to the ether and letting the listener make sense of them on their own. ‘Wah-Wah’ may have been a good way for Harrison to release his anger, but ‘Pity’ is a sad look at what happens when one’s closest allies forget their humanity.
‘All Things Must Pass’ – All Things Must Pass
The ending of the most successful band of the ’60s was nothing short of heartbreaking for fans. After years of giving them one great song after another, The Beatles were officially done, and the rest of the world had to keep turning whether they wanted to or not. It wouldn’t be easy, but Harrison told his fans that nothing lasts forever.
Originally demoed for the Let It Be sessions, ‘All Things Must Pass’ became the definitive statement of Harrison’s solo career, knowing that everything, good or bad, will have to come to an end eventually. Although Harrison might compare this philosophy to the sunrise not lasting through the morning, it’s hard not to hear it as a response to his professional life, reminding everyone that moving on is part of life’s cycle.
One unintentionally prophetic moment happens in the last line of the verses. Though the lyrics say, “it’s not always gonna be this grey”, Harrison’s pronunciation almost makes the last word sound like “great”. While both offer completely different meanings, both fit the song’s theme. The dark days will pass just as steadily as the good ones, so it’s best to roll with the punches.
‘Awaiting On You All’ – All Things Must Pass
Harrison never wrote songs trying to fill a quota. He just needed it to be the right time for him to feel inspired before writing straight from the heart. After becoming fully ingrained in the teachings of Hare Krishna, ‘Awaiting on You All’ was his catchiest song about achieving some higher consciousness.
Picking up where songs like ‘My Sweet Lord’ had left off, this song is about forgoing all of the horoscopes and finding one’s salvation by chanting the names of the Lord until finding salvation. In keeping with the mantra teachings, Harrison had tried to use his music as its own form of prayer, knowing that chanting the names of God will bring him closer to them day by day.
There were also a handful of question lyrics sprinkled throughout as well, including one line about the corporate side of the Pope that got Harrison into some hot water with the papacy. Although a few lines may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, this is the sound of Harrison finally letting go of the teachings of the Catholic Church and finally finding salvation with the Krishna faith.
‘The Light That Has Lighted the World’ – Living in the Material World
Even after months of separation, some fans couldn’t deal with the fact that The Beatles were gone. After John Lennon and Paul McCartney started to make response songs about each other, Harrison was content to sit back and rake in the money from his first solo album, making him the first superstar of the former Beatles. To follow up his blockbuster album, Harrison went back to what always helped him through his dark times: philosophy.
While ‘The Light That Has Lighted the World’ isn’t the most in-depth song Harrison would ever write, the verses of text read as Harrison’s reminder to his fellow man about the changing cycles of life. Throughout each line, Harrison looks on in shame at people who can never accept change, preferring to find people free from their Earthly bodies and surrendering to the ways of life.
Although the sound of the music is heartbreaking, thanks to Harrison’s slide guitar, the song ends on an optimistic note, as he mentions the people in life who give him hope in his search for God. Everyone finds themselves straying from their spiritual side, but it’s never impossible to find one’s way back, either.
‘Blow Away’ – George Harrison
Inspiration is never set in stone for songwriters like Harrison. Although it’s easy to write about subjects like love, Harrison had a knack for taking some of the most trivial moments in his life and spinning them into a more intellectual conversation. In the case of ‘Blow Away’, Harrison turned the subject of a cloudy day into one of his most joyous songs.
After a storm blew through his home, Harrison penned ‘Blow Away’ about how everything runs in natural cycles. Although the beating wind and rain outside his door may have been a sour sight at the time, Harrison only knows how to be happy through the dark times, knowing that there will be bright sunshine when the dust settles.
Compared to the usual religious doctrine in Harrison’s music, ‘Blow Away’ might be the most secular advice he could have given his audience at the time. Much like the songs he sang about with his other band, Harrison’s message in this song centres around the fact that any hard time in life can be overcome with life. After all, it’s all you need.
‘This Is Love’ – Cloud Nine
After years of making what Harrison thought his label wanted, Cloud Nine finally saw him in good spirits at the end of the ‘80s. Working with Jeff Lynne, half of this album revolves around Harrison getting back in touch with what made him love music in the first place. All those years in the dark hadn’t turned him off of his teachings, though.
While ‘This Is Love’ is the closest thing to a straight-ahead pop song Harrison wrote for the project, his mindset about the human condition hasn’t changed, talking about the sun melting the chill from our lives when we wake up every morning. Given the instrumentation, ‘Love’ practically feels like Harrison writing a song for The Cure, trying to make his teachings more palatable to the (then) modern sounds of pop.
And while this song is credited to Harrison/Lynne for the ELO mastermind’s contributions, lines about all man’s problems being their creations and can therefore be overcome are undoubtedly pulled out of Harrison’s songbook. Harrison may have tried to play the game of pop music all he wanted, but no amount of modern production was going to keep him from speaking his truth.
‘Any Road’ – Brainwashed
By the end of the ‘90s, Harrison knew his time on Earth would be short. After surviving a near-fatal stabbing in his home and his battle with lung cancer getting worse, Harrison wanted to share as much with the world as he could before his physical body stopped him. Though ‘Any Road’ premiered on television years before its recording for Brainwashed, Harrison’s tone of voice perfectly serves the tune’s message.
Having spent years at the mercy of being a superstar, Harrison compares all of life to going from one mode of transportation to another, going on trains, buses, and bikes to wherever he needs to go. As he reaches his twilight years, Harrison knows that the only roads that matter are the ones that lead him to his final resting place, where he can finally be in union with his creator.
Though everyone might be fixed to the natural roads that they ride every single day, Harrison’s awareness of the astral roads that exist beyond the physical plane are what he needs to pay attention to, with any of them leading one step closer to the bliss that he will feel one day in heaven. And as Olivia Harrison said when talking in Living in the Material World, Harrison’s death was as cosmic as his life, saying, “when he left his body, you wouldn’t need to light the room to see him pass”.