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Happy Birthday, George Harrison: The Quiet Beatle's Best Songs

​Volumes have been written about George Harrison, variously referred to as "the quiet Beatle," "the spiritual Beatle," "the baby Beatle," and the like. In fact, he was the most misunderstood member of the band, the one who had to continuously vie with Lennon and McCartney to get his songs on albums. 

Despite the fact that he started writing songs belatedly (a pre-fame Lennon/Harrison collaboration "Cry for a Shadow" gave the group a rare early instrumental), he went on to pen some of the band's most enduring classics, among them "Something," his first song to go on an A-side of a Beatles record and a number that was erroneously credited to Lennon and McCartney by Frank Sinatra, who pronounced it the greatest love song ever written. 

Born February 25, 1943, Harrison was the youngest of the foursome, which made his untimely death from lung cancer on November 29, 2001, particularly poignant. 

Yet despite the fact that he seemed to dwell in the shadow of John and Paul, he made his own indelible impression on the Beatles dynamic. It was George, along with John, who first tried LSD when a dentist friend slipped them some one evening at dinner. Harrison later encouraged the others to pursue a spiritual path, famously introducing them to the Maharishi and then insisting that they go to India to study at the master's feet.

Still, Harrison became increasingly aggravated when McCartney usurped Lennon as the titular leader of the band, after Lennon was forced to relinquish that role when his drug dependency accelerated. There's a famous scene in the Let It Be film where George bickers with Paul after being unrelentingly harangued into playing a descending guitar riff exactly as McCartney wanted. He left the group shortly thereafter ("Let's get Eric Clapton to replace him," Lennon nonchalantly suggested), but he returned to the fold three weeks later.

Still, Harrison was the most ambitious Beatle once he went solo. He made his frustration with being a Beatle known following the band's final concert in August 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. From that point on, he seemed determined to follow his own course. 

A disciple of Ravi Shankar, he introduced the sitar to the band's MO via Lennon's "Norwegian Wood," and his increasing fascination with Indian music made songs like "Within You Without You" (from Sgt. Pepper) and "The Inner Light" (the B-side of the "Lady Madonna" singles) separate and distinct from the rest of the Beatles' repertoire. Likewise, All Things Must Pass, his first album of actual songs (preceded by his experimental albums Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sounds), was an ambitious three-disc opus that not only sold well but established Harrison's ability to stand on his own. 

Early on, in fact, Harrison began to write and perform outside the Beatles sphere, first by co-composing some songs with Bob Dylan at Dylan's home in upstate New York and later by taking part in the American singing duo Delaney and Bonnie's traveling troupe. 

Still, he kept his Beatles ties intact by making occasional appearances on solo recordings by both Lennon and Ringo Starr. He also took an active role in nurturing Apple's artist roster, contributing production to albums by Badfinger, Billy Preston, and Jackie Lomax, along with helping other artists. Likewise, his all-star Concert for Bangladesh became the first major fundraising event in rock history, setting the stage for Live-Aid, Farm Aid, and numerous other benevolent efforts. 

Harrison's later work didn't fare all that well (his first solo tour also faltered due to a scratchy voice), but his comeback effort, 1987's Cloud Nine, and subsequent work with the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys brought him back to prominence. 

Consequently, it's only fitting that on what would have been his 68th birthday, we give George the kudos he deserves courtesy of a baker's dozen of great but mostly lesser-known George Harrison compositions.

"Don't Bother Me"  
George's first attempt to venture into the songwriting territory normally reserved for Lennon and McCartney is a modest little number in the band's early Mersey-beat style. The off-putting tone sets the stage for other verbal rebuts that would show up later in other Harrisongs. 

"I Need You"  
A straight-ahead love song, it boasts a rudimentary lyric -- "You don't realize how much I need you/Love you all the time and never leave you" -- but still, the sentiments were straight-ahead. 

"If I Needed Someone" 
Another subtle dig at romance, it finds George seemingly determined to keep his lover at arm's length. "Carve my number on your wall and maybe you will get a call from me." Can you say noncommittal

Interestingly, the Hollies released a version of the song on the same day the Beatles introduced it on the U.K. issue of Rubber Soul. It was also the only Harrison song the Beatles ever performed in concert. 

"Long Long Long" 
A ghostly pall hangs over this haunting track from the White Album, resulting in one of the loveliest tunes in the Harrison canon. It ends with what sounds like a creaking door and a rattling of chains, an effect so unsettling that it might have caused old Ebenezer Scrooge to believe he was getting yet another visitation from the ghost of Jacob Marley. 

"Only a Northern Song" 
"It doesn't really matter what chords I play/What words I say or time of day it is/As it's only a Northern Song." George dashes off an irreverent lyric that takes a less-than-subtle dig at the underhanded acquisition of the Beatles' publishing company, Northern Songs. Although it never made it to a proper album, it did appear as one of the "orphan" tracks included on side two of the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. 

"It's All Too Much" 
Heavy chords signal the onslaught of this richly textured psychedelic stew. It too was relegated to Yellow Submarine, although its tricky effects and wash of sound might have made it a good candidate for inclusion on Sgt. Pepper. Journey boldly covered the track on one of its early albums, but naturally the Beatles offer the definitive version. 

"Apple Scruffs" 
This was George's homage to the loyal groupies who awaited any surprise appearance by the Fab Foursome at the Apple Records offices located at 3 Saville Road. Nicknamed "Apple Scruffs," these devotees figured it was worthwhile to lie in wait, especially since there was only one door leading into the band's headquarters and once the band members arrived, they couldn't be missed. 

"Old Brown Shoe" 
A nifty little rocker and another nonalbum track that made its debut as the B-side of "The Ballad of John and Yoko," it eventually landed on The Beatles Again, an odds-and-sods collection of non-LP tracks. 

Here's another deliberate dig, this time at Britain's Labour Party and its pursuit of a progressive tax base that effectively stripped 95 percent of a high-earner's wages. Word to today's Tea Party legions: Adopt this as a theme song. 

Although his contribution was uncredited, this co-composition with Eric Clapton was one of the highlights of Cream's final studio disc, Goodbye Cream. Harrison also played guitar on the recording, taking the alias "L'Angelo Misterioso." Ironically, the song got its title when Clapton misread George's handwritten lyrics, interpreting the word "bridge" as "badge." Harrison also credits a drunk Ringo Starr for the otherwise nonsensical line about "the swans, they live in the park." 

"Sour Milk Sea"  
A feisty number never recorded either individually by George or by the Beatles as a band, it was given to Jackie Lomax, one of the band's old chums and an initial signing to its Apple Records label. It was included on Lomax's Apple album Is This What You Want?, an outstanding effort produced by Harrison and featuring the participation of no fewer than three Beatles and their pal Clapton. 

"Photograph"/"It Don't Come Easy"  
George's pair of post Beatles cowrites with Ringo gave the drummer two substantial early hits, although in truth, they were more trademark Harrison than signature Starr.

Happy birthday, George! 

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Lee Zimmerman