George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass 50th Anniversary

cover art for All Things Must PassThis album has been one of my favorites since I got it in December 1970. It was a monumental achievement and a towering artistic statement by the young man who had been called “the quiet Beatle,” toiling in the shadow of the two most important songwriters of the second half of the 20th century.

Since 2017 we have seen 50th anniversary editions of the Beatles’ late 1960s albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles, and Abbey Road (with a documentary film and God knows what else for Let it Be/Get Back coming later in 2021), and Paul and Linda McCartney’s splendid 1971 album Ram. All Things Must Pass‘s 50th anniversary was in October 2020 but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the release was delayed nearly a year.

Of all the Beatles group and solo 50th anniverary releases so far, All Things Must Pass is the biggest departure from the sound of the original. It’s the only one I haven’t liked more than previous versions. (Just to be clear, I’m only reviewing the bottom of the line three-CD version of this release, which has only one disc of outtakes and alternates and jams. I’d love to have the books that come with the Uber version, but I’m not that into tons of demos and rehearsals and alternate versions. Also I can’t justify the expense, which is considerable.)

George co-produced this album with Phil Spector, and one of its main features is Spector’s astounding all but patented Wall of Sound. Many of the songs include numerous strumming acoustic guitars, lots of drumming and percussion, multiple electric and slide and steel guitars, organs, acoustic and electric pianos, multi-tracked vocals and tons of reverb on everything. In most cases Harrison’s vocals are somewhat buried in the mix. That full wall of sound is only present on a few of the tracks, but some version of it is there on all but a couple.

The remixes for the 50th anniversary release, by Paul Hicks, overseen by George’s son Dhani Harrison, are really radical in many cases. George’s vocals have been pulled out front and mostly stripped of reverb, a lot of the solos or sonic accents have been lifted forward in the mix, and certain elements inside that wall of sound have been emphasized while others have been quieted. It is a great novelty to hear some of these songs and their component parts much more clearly – some for the first time, even. But I’d be unhappy if this album became the definitive version going forward.

It’s hard to review this album in any of its iterations without getting into a lot of history and philosophy and discussion of recording technology (about which I know only a smidgen). On the one hand, Spector’s contributions to rock and pop music are crucial and many of the works he oversaw are definitive of the genre. On the other hand he became a truly horrible person who is now serving out the rest of his life in prison for murder, and a lot of the productions he oversaw, including All Things Must Pass, are as much about his ego and need for control as they are about the music and the musicians.

That said, All Things Must Pass at its release was an astounding record that showed us not Spector’s genius but George Harrison’s. I’d like to think you can hear its influence on all kinds of music that has been created since then, not least a whole lot of the dense, loud, and emotion-laden indie rock that came out of the underground in the 1980s and ’90s. I don’t think you’d get that from the music on the 50th anniversary album, which positions many of Harrison’s songs closer to the singer-songwriter scene that in 1971 was just emerging.

I’m pretty conflicted about the 50th anniversary album, because the songs as you listen to them are very appealing, starting with the opening track “I’d Have You Anytime,” which he cowrote with some guy named Bob Dylan. The sound is somehow lush but spare – there are still obviously several acoustic and electric guitars here, some keyboards too, but George’s vocal is way out front, and it’s become a very intimate song, with him singing this right into your ears. An electric guitar and George’s slide are also prominent, and for the first time here I’m hearing a lovely vibraphone. Likewise on the hit single “My Sweet Lord” which comes next – there’s a new clarity in the rhythm section, the backing vocals are crisper and there’s a wheezing harmonium I’ve never noticed before. The gospel-ish organ is prominent on Dylan’s “If Not For You.” It doesn’t seem that anything very radical was done to the other hit single “What Is Life” beyond emphasizing the lead vocals and slide guitar. George’s vocals on the melancholy, folksy “Run Of The Mill” are startling – stripped of reverb but with a doubled track more prominent and distracting – and the spirited gospel piano has been pushed back behind the horns.

My favorite among the new mixes is “Behind That Locked Door,” on which Pete Drake’s pedal steel guitar is moved front and center, turning it into a lovely country waltz with gospel organ and guitar accents and the backing vocals emphasized. Drake also appears prominently on two other songs, “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)” and the title track. Perversely, “Let It Roll,” a mock-epic description of Friar Park, George’s home estate, has long been my favorite on the album, and this version enhances all of the good parts of it, particularly Drake’s utterly amazing pedal steel part, but also the B-3, the gospel piano, the bass men’s choral vocals, and George’s passionate yet tongue in cheek vocals. The new “All Things Must Pass” doesn’t work for me. The dense backing has been stripped down leaving mostly synthesizers, and Drake’s pedal steel isn’t as prominent. The boosting of the haunting backing vocals is a nice touch, though.

The new mix on version two of “Isn’t It A Pity,” which is an intimate song about love, is actually pretty appropriate for this song. The production is fairly minimal: a piano in the left channel and organ on the right, an acoustic guitar or two, with the electric guitar fills, bass, and vocals in the center. The sighing background vocals are brought in subtly beginning in the second verse, and it’s all a very nice package.

I also approve of what seems to be minimal tinkering with one of my favorites, “Apple Scruffs.” The sound on the verses is mostly unchanged but for the enhanced lead vocal. There’s still heavy reverb on the vocals, which is appropriate on this mid-tempo acoustic rocker. The choruses themselves are decluttered, with not much other than the backing vocals in different channels; I’m not so fond of that. “Beware Of Darkness is a good example of the way the new mix highlights some of the nuances of George’s vocal performance that were obscured before. His newly audible phrasing, vibrato and other embellishments really add to the performance and enhance the song’s emotional content. But I think the old dense production really added to the song’s overall dark vibe.

“I Dig Love” is an overlooked song. Lyrically it’s lightweight (and dated) but musically it kills, especially the drumming. I assume it’s Ringo totally attacking the toms on this one. It’s all keyboards and drums except for what I assume is Clapton’s solo and tasteful fills, and the new mix works although they didn’t have to do much. The original use of reverb on vocals and drums (which you don’t hear very often anywhere) were appropriately retained. The organ, electric and acoustic piano all pounding away during the final verse is amazing.

Version one of “Isn’t It A Pity” is a mixed bag. The string arrangement by John Barham (an old friend of George’s from Rishikesh days) is given prominence, and references to the string arrangement on “Piggies” from the White Album are obvious for the first time. But the choral arrangement, which explicitly echoes “Hey Jude,” is totally lost, which renders moot this song’s pointed commentary on Harrison’s relationships with his Beatles mates. Overall, the arrangement is less dramatic.

All of those songs are among the album’s less Spector-ized tracks to begin with. The same stripping back techniques applied to the big, bombastic rock numbers drastically alters them. “Wah Wah” has become a lackluster rocker instead of something that shakes the house. “What Is Life” loses a lot of its drama. “Let It Down” likewise; the mix buries some of the lovely slide guitar fills in favoring the strings/synth/organ drone, until the verses become something close to easy listening. They seem to have synthetically kept the wall of sound – in form – but mostly by bumping the bass, which here, especially in the third verse, becomes something of a distraction from the heightened emotions of that verse. I don’t like the way George’s double-tracked vocals are enhanced on “Awaiting On You All,” a standout rocker that also loses drama inherent in the Wall of Sound.

Likewise “Art of Dying.” They’ve oddly emphasized the chunking electric rhythm guitar in the left channel and by selectively boosting some elements make it very plain that this is a Southern Rock band with horns, heavy bass, and the dueling riffs of multiple electric guitars. The 2001 version’s much more balanced, the bass is sharp and clear and much more out front than that rhythm guitar. The same applies to “Hear Me Lord.” The backing vocals, guitars and bass on this one are pulled way up until it actually resembles a Beatles song, something George was explicitly trying to get away from. And paradoxically on many of the songs that were originally very dense, the new more spare arrangements sound busier, because so many individual parts are pulled forward in the mix, often only briefly, rather than contributing to the overall wall of sound.

At the end of the day, I find that with only a few exceptions I much prefer the remastered 30th anniverary version in 2001 that George oversaw a few months before his death of cancer at age 58. In the booklet for that version George wrote, “I still like the songs on the album and believe they can continue to outlive the style in which they were recorded. It was difficult to resist re-mixing every track.” Another 20 years on they’re still very alive, perhaps even more so than in 2001. I’m content to have the versions on the 50th anniversary set be in the world because they do enhance my enjoyment of the songs in some cases. But I don’t think of them as definitive and hope they do not go on to become so.

A big shout-out to the fellows at the Nothing Is Real podcast, whose three episodes on All Things Must Pass helped me figure out how to write about this album as an album and the new set. It’s an excellent podcast for all Beatles fans.

(Capitol/Apple, 2021)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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