Tuesday, November 22, 2011

George Harrison Reconsidered

There is a lot about George Harrison in the news these days as a documentary by Martin Scorsese hits the air commemorating the tenth anniversary of George's death. Here is an article on George in the Weekly Standard. I haven't seen the documentary, but I found the article flawed and missing the point. It is perfectly all right to point out warts and all--I have done it in this blog a few times--but if all you talk about is non-musical aspects of a musician's life, it is safe to say you have missed the point. Sure, George may have been a bit of a split personality, as the writer says, "a religious seeker on the one side and a decadent, heedless rock star on the other", but the whole reason we are interested in George is that he was a religious seeker on the one side and a decadent, heedless rock star on the other who was in one of the most important musical groups in history and who made a significant contribution both as a guitarist and song-writer. If it weren't for that, we wouldn't be paying a lot of attention. Andrew Ferguson, the writer of the Weekly Standard article, does at least mention George's music in one brief paragraph:
One of George Harrison’s most appealing traits was self-awareness. He would have seen (and said) how absurd such talk was. “I was never a real guitarist,” he once told his friend Klaus Voormann. And he wasn’t; he couldn’t launch the fireworks like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, and the disciplined technique of AndrĂ©s Segovia or Julian Bream never interested him. About his songwriting, he told an interviewer: “There’s no comparison between me and someone who sits and writes music. What I do is really simple.” Right again. He compared himself to a pastry chef, able to combine musical ingredients nicked from others to make a pleasing presentation of songcraft. He made many marvelous records, but as a source of fresh musical ideas, he said, “I’m not really that good.”
You could say the same for pretty much anyone who ever wrote a rock song, which is an extremely forgiving art form, but you can’t imagine anyone else who ever wrote a rock song admitting it.
Like most journalists, even ones who write about music, Ferguson's musical understanding is, uh, limited. I have no idea what George meant if he said "I was never a real guitarist", but he most certainly was. He got into the Beatles in the first place because he could play stuff John and Paul couldn't. It took him a long time to develop as a songwriter; being in the same group as Lennon and McCartney caused his songwriting to be seen as insignificant in comparison. But he wrote better and better songs as time went on including "Taxman", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Something"--to name three outstanding ones. As a guitarist he is also an outstanding musician. Comparisons with Eric Clapton or Julian Bream are simply inane. Most rock guitarists from Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page come from the blues traditions of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. George comes from another tradition, the rock and roll one of Carl Perkins:

As for Segovia and Bream, why would anyone want to compare a rock guitarist with a classical one? But have a listen to this clip from A Hard Day's Night where George does some nice solos on a classical guitar by Jose Ramirez--the builder of some of Segovia's guitars:

If you have a look at the movie, you can see George playing on the Ramirez. Now you might say, oh, big deal, he plays on a classical guitar, so what? But let's dig into it a little bit, shall we? This is Paul's song, but a lot of the unique sound of it comes from George. That opening lick is by George and it is a motif that starts and ends the song. In the second verse George contributes a nice classical-sounding arpeggio. Around 1'30 we have the guitar solo. You might say, yeah right, he just plays the melody. But here's the thing: the song is in C# minor, but it jumps, most radically, to D minor for the guitar solo and stays in D minor until the final chord: D major. The relationship of D minor to C# minor is called the Neapolitan or flat II and it is both extreme and very popular with composers since the 18th century. Who came up with it? Either Paul or George. But it gives the song a unique twist.

Ferguson's sneer at rock songs and their composers is really just ignorance. Sure, there are hundreds if not thousands of boring, repetitive rock songs based on the most rudimentary of chord progressions, but it is very hard to find a Beatles song that is not a truly unique composition. Lennon, McCartney, yes and Harrison, wrote some of the finest songs in the English language and are legitimate heirs to the long tradition from John Dowland, to Henry Purcell, to Benjamin Britten.

Back to George's guitar playing. One of the things that stands out about his solos is that they, almost unique in the rock world, are not prolix. Take my favorite Harrison guitar solo:

Where is it? Exactly at 2'58. It consists of nine notes. After a long pause, there is a little trill. That's it. But I think it is exactly the right solo in exactly the right spot. Most virtuoso rock guitarists cannot resist playing a lot of notes. That's ok, but pretty much every blues-based extended rock guitar solo sounds exactly the same. Each of George's solos was created specifically for the song and sounds different from other solos in other songs. Lots of them were on electric six string, but he did a lot with twelve string too:

And of course, he is well known for being the first rock musician to take up the Indian sitar:

But he didn't stop being a rock and roll guitarist:

There is a great solo at 1'15 that is only about ten seconds long and sounds like no other rock guitarist. Yes, and it is also George's song. The only rock song that is about tax policy that I can recall...


Anonymous said...

"And I love her" is a lovely song, I agree. The halfstep modulation is, as you say, extremely common; in fact it's a pop cliche that is often pretty bad. I think it works here because it's done over the iv, which gives a plagal cadence to the new key, so it's not too painfully obvious. Minor nitpick: I think of a neapolitan as a pre-dominant device (a subdominant substitute) or, in say, Chopin's hands, an agent of modulation. But here it's a just a plain, unprepared modulation with no particular function except breaking monotony. The neapolitan, on the other hand, is functionally loaded.

Bryan Townsend said...

Bill, is that you? Your comment sounds exactly like what my theory professor in graduate school would have said. And you are correct. This is more of a "truck driver modulation" than a Neapolitan as it doesn't function as a Neapolitan. The song does have some other interesting harmonic aspects, though. For one thing it tends to float between C# minor and E major and then between D minor and F major in a nicely indeterminate way. Also, can we give them a pass on this because, unlike most use of this upward half-step modulation, this one doesn't seem crude?

Do I have great commentors or what?

Anonymous said...

The guitar solo on Taxman is actually none other than Paul McCartney, as are the solos on 'Another Girl' and 'Good Morning, Good Morning'.

Bryan Townsend said...

You are so right! I hadn't realized it was Paul. He also plays drums on Back in the USSR. It is deceiving because Paul is doing Indian style ornaments in the solo as a bit of an homage to George.