Swinging Modern Sounds #27: All Things Must Pass


On 11/29, a band in Brooklyn called The Universal Thump staged a fortieth anniversary rehabilitation of George Harrison’s monumental All Things Must Pass album. The band, who consist mainly of Greta Gertler, a singer-songwriter from Australia, and Adam D. Gold, a mult-instrumentalist who has played with many of Brooklyn’s eminent bands of the moment, were heavily augmented on the night of show by a crack team of players. And among the singers of particular note were Dayna Kurtz, Rozz Nash, Amy Correia, John Wesley Harding, Shara Worden, Dave Nagler, Oren Bloedow. Not a weak performer there. I was lucky enough to sing lead vocal on one song–a mind-blowing experience for me. I have never sung in public in front of a band so large, nor have I often experienced the kind of ecstatic community spirit in the air that night. It was just really, really fun. We were all there out of love for the Harrison songs, there wasn’t any professional posturing or competition, everyone pulled the oars together, despite a bruising soundcheck, and rehearsals that couldn’t possibly include all the artists (I think we topped out at seventeen on stage during “My Sweet Lord”). All in all, a very special event. As part of it, I was asked to write a short piece about Harrison’s album, seen from this retrospective vantage point. Greta Gertler said it would be fine for me reprint this piece for The Rumpus, and so I’m appending it below.

There are many great Beatle solo projects (McCartney, Ram, Venus and Mars, Band on the Run, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, The Concert For Bangladesh, Travelling Wilburys, Vol. I, and Ringo, e.g.), but there is only one post-Beatle masterpiece, and that is the album before us, All Things Must Pass. What’s a masterpiece, you ask? This is a masterpiece! For its ambition, its attention to detail, its thematic coherence, its fearlessness, its seriousness, its epic size, its breadth, and its confidence. All Things Must Pass takes what was most acute about the Beatles, their origins as writers of the love song, and makes spiritual experience, musical ambition, and Harrison’s own misgivings about the demise of his band, into love songs, so that everything Harrison might once have said, might have needed to say, can be furrowed into these romantic matrices, I Dig Love, or, if you like, Hear me, Lord.

It takes years of listening to hear the sophistication and sheer musical bravado in this wealth of material, but I can attest, having begun listening to All Things Must Pass seriously pretty close to its initial release, that even the singles sounded like nothing else happening at the time, certainly not like the Beatles, even though this album shared a producer with them, Phil Spector, and despite the fact that the most successful single from the album, “My Sweet Lord,” was the subject of a plagiarism action later on. “My Sweet Lord,” with its frankly non-secular exhortations on the subject of the Divine, was not only shocking for its non-Western inclinations, but for the strange way that the chords worked, and its long recitation of mantras at its close. It had, obliquely, a little Marvin Gaye in it, the Marvin Gaye of What’s Going On, in the massive layering up of instruments and voices and the impulsiveness of the melodic structures, and it had some Chiffons. Then there was “What Is Life,” which hinted at Harrison’s love of Badfinger and British invasion, with its sunny, beautiful, soaring chorus, and its magnificent horn arrangement, so pop it made the things that Paul and John were doing at the same time seem skeletal, oblique. There were more uptempo rock-oriented things, like “Wah Wah,” “Let It Down,” and “Awaiting on You All,” but these concealed real melancholy and spiritual longing underneath more accessible surfaces. The resting place of the album is in the ballads, though, the slower, more reflective compositions, like the sinewy unpredictable Harrison/Dylan collaboration that opens the recording, “I’d Have You Anytime,” the gorgeous Beatles-era title composition, a companion, lyrically, to another piece from the same period, “Here Comes the Sun,” and thus frankly about the recognition that the attention and success and sheer cultural dominance of the Beatles would, indeed, have to end.

But there’s also the country flavor of Harrison’s Dylan cover, “If Not For You,” and the Hawaiian slack guitar flavor of “Behind that Locked Door.” And this isn’t even to mention the album’s most eerie, and profound spiritual/carnal mediation, “Isn’t It a Pity?,” which is so important to the album that it gets played twice, as if it’s hard not to come around again and again to this sentiment, that the squandering of affection is too much to bear, and as if playing it twice isn’t enough, it has a big “Hey Jude” ending, the only “Hey Jude” ending by a solo Beatle, and a beautiful Spectorish arrangement including massive choir in counterpoint, string section, horns, timpani. It’s worth pointing out here, as elsewhere, the plangent qualities of Harrison’s voice. In The Beatles, he was younger than everyone else, and used to being the dark horse, used to being fourth in a group of four, and so he had something to prove, and on “Isn’t It a Pity?,” he proves that he took the lesson, took the instruction, and made something better than the others could make by themselves, but even more than that, even more than out-Beatling the Beatles, he shows that he had learned from the indigenous music of the United States of America, for this was the first album to showcase his talents on the slide guitar, and though he was an exceptionally melodic guitar player with the Beatles, on All Things Must Pass, he gives the first sign that his gift was for tone, and that as a slide player he had tone in abundance, a kind of gentle, beautiful, stately tone that would have been, had it been present on the Beatles recordings, instrumental perfection of a kind they didn’t often know.

And then there is the band sound on All Things Must Pass. The band is gigantic, and consists in large measure of the Delany and Bonnie Bramlett band, with some key additions: Ringo, Klaus Voormann, Gary Brooker. It is Middle Atlantic, and pre-Derek and the Dominos, while retaining some of what’s great about the latter band, refreshed by its engagement with American music, and some of the thematic concerns of American music, which means that All Things Must Pass is a gospel album, in a way, because it is using American southern music to write about spiritual concerns, and is fusing this idiom with the love song, that staple of the British invasion, and, in the process, coming up with something really unique, hybridized. The application of all the reverb (which Harrison mentions wanting to remix in the 2001 re-release), the Wall of Sound, creates a further mixed metaphor, a cultural and stylistic fusion, by suggesting the arrangement articulations of the early sixties, and yet that fusion is part of what invites in almost any listener. As with The Beatles, there’s something here for everyone.

Disc three, on the original, the jamming disc, does challenge, does make you engage as a listener in a more patient and a less goal-oriented way, but this is a quibble. The Harrison/Clapton duet on lead guitar that is implicit throughout the songs on the first two discs is stated more clearly on disc three. You will have to wade through some relaxed playing to appreciate it. A quibble! It was a three-lp album from a former Beatle in which you got all the way to disc two before there was a song that wasn’t perfect.

The forty years have treated All Things Must Pass very well, as they have already treated the accompanying bootleg of the demos. The lucidity of the writing and singing and playing is undiminished by the way that technology, more recently, has galloped off, in a much different direction, from ensemble productions of this kind. Harrison resisted the urge to tinker with the rerelease, just before his death, as a testament to the lasting qualities of the sound of All Things Must Pass, though he did one very cagey thing. He rerecorded “My Sweet Lord,” eliminating just the sequence of notes that had occasioned the plagiarism suit, way back when, showing, in the process, that this mere sequence had nothing to do with the heart and soul of the song. The song survived its turbulence, which is the kind of thing that happens to really direct songs about spirituality, they have turbulence associated with them. And they survive. That survival is an indication of the kind of commitment and determination associated with this charmed recording.

And it must be remembered that the artist who made this album then lived relatively quietly for thirty more years, gardening quite a bit, never again having made a record this sumptuous, though he certainly had his moments, and it seems that his legacy, as a solo artist, is bound up with this particular project, and what we can conclude from this evidence is that if this was all he did, then he made something lasting, profound, something to be exceedingly proud of. Few people can scale the heights that George Harrison scaled here, making spirituality accessible, making love seem divine (making “He’s So Fine” into “My Sweet Lord”), making the loss associated with the late-model Beatles into a kind of yearning for overcoming and transcending, and in so doing he made something at once human and ethereal, something almost any music lover can admire and love. The art of dying is its subject occasionally, the names of God are its subject, loss is its subject, disconsolation, and love, above all things, is its subject. Its reverberations linger on, long after its creator has relocated to a more celestial address.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →