Lessons from George (Harrison)
Videos by American Songwriter
You might have seen him at the back of the class in grammar school, doodling guitars on his notebook. What accounted for the transformation of the quiet schoolboy into a musical icon whose songs are loved by millions and continue to inspire generations of songwriters? After combing through interviews, biographies, and sheet music we were able to distill a few lessons and insights.
Aspire deeply: The son of a bus conductor and a shop assistant, George was born in 1943 in Liverpool, a long way from swinging London. His childhood home had an outdoor toilet and was heated by a single coal fire. While these humble circumstances might have discouraged a few souls, they only sharpened George’s ambition to rise above it all. Rock ‘n’ roll provided a magic carpet, and the local nightclubs lit the way.
Find inspiration: George cites yodeling cowboy Slim Whitman, who was a hit in England, as the reason he wanted to play guitar. Other early influences included Lonnie Donegan, Carl Perkins, and above all, Elvis. Who are your inspirations? Where are they leading you?
Study the pros: Better still, study with a pro. George’s mentors included two of the finest songwriters of all time, but Liverpool’s thriving club scene was a classroom seething with competition, with fame and freedom as the ultimate prize.
Choose a path: “Getting out of Liverpool” was laudable, but where to catch the bus? Schoolmate Paul McCartney introduced George to John Lennon, who had rock ‘n’ roll dreams like George and was actively pursuing them. Suddenly George was one of four guys in a rowboat, and this made him pull harder.
Obsess: Had he not been the kid sketching guitars on his notebooks, George might well have failed his audition with John. Had he not been obsessed with rockabilly and country music, he might not have had the resources to excel creatively.
Aim high: Said John, “When the Beatles were depressed, thinkin’ that the group was goin’ nowhere, and this was a shitty deal, and we’re in a shitty dressing room, I’d say, ‘Where we goin’, fellas?’ And they’d go, ‘To the top, Johnny!’ And I’d say, ‘Where’s that, fellas?’ And they’d say, ‘To the toppermost of the poppermost!’ And I’d say, ‘right!’ And they’d cheer up.” Affiliate yourself with the likes of John and banish all nattering nabobs of negativism from your orbit.
Take risks: When booking agent Allan Williams got the boys a gig in Hamburg in 1960, 17-year-old George jumped at the chance. Some would call him reckless for dropping out of school, and while that’s true, a move like this is best made in the twilight zone between adolescence and adulthood, while you still have second chances in the bank. Eventually, he was deported from Germany for being too young to work in a nightclub, but five months later he was back again, headlining at the Star-Club.
Keep your sense of humor: Humility and self-deprecating wit characterized George throughout his career.
Jump in the pressure cooker: Reflecting on Hamburg, Allan Williams said, “People would say to me, ‘Allan, tell us the secret of how to be a Beatle.’ I’d say, ‘Go to Germany for six months, play seven nights a week, eight hours a night, and then come back and ask me the same question.’”
This may be the most important lesson of all. Every famous musician, from pop to jazz and everywhere in between, seems to have been forged in a furnace-like Hamburg, but the Beatles’ run was surely exceptional.
Learn songs: Even while working eight days a week in Hamburg, the Beatles were constantly adding new songs to their playlist, which distinguished them from also-rans Rory Storm & the Hurricanes, who were more popular at the time. If you’re going to write songs, you must know a lot of songs.
Compete: Where John and Paul competed with each other, George competed with them. When the Beatles broke up, John and Paul seemed diminished somehow, but George blossomed with All Things Must Pass. Study the 21 songs he contributed to Beatles albums and you’ll see his evolution:
1963 – “Don’t Bother Me”
Parting Words of Wisdom
“There was a point in my life where I realized anybody can be Lennon-McCartney, you know. ‘Cuz being part of Lennon-McCartney, I could appreciate how good they actually are, and at the same time, I could see the infatuation that the public had. But the point is nobody’s special. If Lennon-McCartney are special, then ‘Harrison and Starkey’ are special, too. What I’m saying is that I can be Lennon-McCartney, too, but I’d rather be Harrison, you know.” (From Howard Smith interview, edited)
Photo by Barry Feinstein.