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100 Years, 100 Songs: #99. George Harrison – “My Sweet Lord”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 7, 2007

“I really wanna see you / I really wanna be with you / I really wanna see you lord, but it takes so long…”

“He left this world as he lived in it, conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace.” So read the oft-quoted eulogy for George Harrison, issued by his family upon his death in 2003. As if to prove this, his signature solo tune, “My Sweet Lord,” was re-issued to the UK market, and it easily topped the charts, just as it had on both sides of the pond when it was originally released in 1970. It was as fitting a eulogy as could possibly have been written for the ex-Beatle.

Although far from the group’s most acclaimed or popular member during their reign of supremacy of the 60s, it was Harrison who was the most primed for a successful solo career after the Beatles’ dissolution at the turn of the decade. His Beatles songs, previously sequestered to obscured album spots and single b-sides (with the notable exception of Revolver opener “Taxman“), had become far more high-profile by the time of the group’s end, and he even got half the double-A side to one of the group’s last #1 singles with “Something” (famously referred to by Frank Sinatra as “one of his favorite Lennon/McCartney songs”). The time for the Quiet Beatle to step out of the group’s shadow was surely soon to come.

And that’s exactly what happened with the release of George Harrison’s solo debut, the triple-album All Things Must Pass, in 1970. An amazingly consistent selection of Phil Spector-produced introspective pop songs (with the notable and somewhat infamous exception of the disc’s bluesy third LP, which is nonetheless easily ignored), All Things has since gone 6x platinum, the best selling (and arguably best, period) album ever released by a solo Beatle.

Still, even amidst songs as strong as “What Is Life,” “Isn’t It a Pity” and the title track, “My Sweet Lord” is the album’s clear standout, and is immediately apparent as Harrison’s definitive work, with or without the group that made him famous. The song is an exceedingly simple one–built on just two chords (the selection of which would eventually land Harrison in some very hot water, but more on that later), extremely repetitive lyrics and Phil Spector’s lush without being ornate production, the song has the feel of a pop/rock hymnal, which is almost undoubtedly what Harrison was going for.

“My Sweet Lord” of course refers to God, a lyrical pre-occupation of Harrison’s since The Beatles discovered spirituality in the mid-60s. The thing that always struck me about Harrison’s spiritual songs were how innocent and enthusiastic they seemed without ever crossing the line into preachiness or didacticism. It’s faith stripped down to its simplest and most understandable feelings–“I really wanna see you / I really wanna be with you / I really wanna see you lord, but it takes so long, my lord.” Keeping it vague and devoid of specific religious references, Harrison creates a spiritual song as easily relatable as any of the best love songs.

This wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t for the song’s musical sweep, surely one of the most gorgeous productions Harrison or Spector had ever been involved with. Spector’s wall of sound approach to Harrison’s guitar playing makes the exceedingly basic and stately guitar line sound gigantic, and complemented perfectly by the spare use of slide guitar on the song’s instrumental sections, and of course, Harrison’s impassioned vocal, the song finds the appropriate balance between hypnotic chant and rousing spiritual. And the subtle transformation of the backing vocal from “Hallelujah” to “Hare Krishna” at the end is a brilliant last-minute injection ofpersonal feeling into a universal anthem, making the song all the richer for it.

Of course, not everyone found the song so inspiring. The Chiffons, the 60s girl group responsible for, among other genre classics, the 1963 #1 hit “He’s So Fine,” seemed to think that Harrison’s song borrowed more than a little bit from their biggest hit, and hit him with a lawsuit, eventually claiming all of the song’s royalties. To be fair, the Chiffons were basically right–the song more or less lifts wholesale the chords and vocal line from “He’s So Fine” (replace the “hallelujah”s with “doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang”s and you’ve essentially got the same song–it even modulates at the same point). Today, however, it might be considered more of a clever homage than a rip-off, and I believe Harrison’s claim that the lift was subconscious (Harrison says he was more inspired by the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day,” which makes sense too).

The punchline to this story, of course, is that The Chiffons, whose commercial fortunes were fading to say the least by the turn of the decade, tried their hand at a novelty hit by actually releasing a cover version of “My Sweet Lord” as a single. Interesting idea, if more than a little hypocritical, but alas, the song flopped, and the Chiffons were never really heard from again (in fact, Harrison would eventually buy the rights to “He’s So Fine,” showing the group that it’s not wise to come in between a man and his maker). It’s a pretty fascinating cover, though, re-imagining “My Sweet Lord”as a lounge ballad (sounding, somewhat predictably, more like a love song than a spiritual now).

The first song by an ex-Beatle to go to #1, “My Sweet Lord,” along with Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” would set the stage for the christian-oriented rock boom that would spin off a shocking number of hits in the first half of the 70s, including Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” The Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus is Just Alright” and the inordinately successful soundtracks to religious rock musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, among many others. Unfortunately, most of these songs were awful, and none were nearly as powerful as “My Sweet Lord.” In fact, I think the only worthy successor to “My Sweet Lord” that the early 70s produced was Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” which isn’t even about religion, but inspires the same kind of feeling in its simple, communal, sweetly naive and undeniably emotional delivery.

Indeed, even George himself would find difficulty in reproducing the artistic and commercial success of “My Sweet Lord”–he would hit #1 again with the similarly-themed but far less enduring “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” and had a handful of nice, if largely forgettable, retro-themed hits throughout the 80s. But clearly, it is “My Sweet Lord” that proves to be Harrison’s solo legacy, the fruition of his talent, and probably the best of the Beatle solo singles. 37 years after its initial release, it continues to help us all feel a little more conscious of God, fearless of death, and at peace.

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2 Responses to “100 Years, 100 Songs: #99. George Harrison – “My Sweet Lord””

  1. Undercooked Sausage said

    MY SWEET LARD
    MMM MY LARD
    I REALLY WANNA KNOW YOU

  2. Mitchell Stirling said

    Another stellar choice, but still not as good as “What is Life?” or “Isn’t It Pity” in my book despite being one of the first songs I learnt to strum on the guitar.

    One of the most striking things I’ve always found about it is that not only the repetitive nature but the fact that aside from really none of the English words in the song have more than one syllable.

    I do find “Awaiting On You All” slightly preachy and lets not mention Living In The Material World.

    (He died in 2001 btw)

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