Released as the first post-Beatles breakup album, ‘All Things Must Pass’ was always liable to be a more prominent note in musical history than most albums. While Harrison had released a pair of instrumental albums, ‘Wonderwall Music’ and ‘Electronic Sound’, he considered ‘All Things Must Pass’ as his true solo debut. Released fifty years ago, we look back at this album of epic scope, groundbreaking length, enormous cast and enduring legacy.
The final years of The Beatles career are well documented, as they fractured and quarreled, before slowly breaking up between 1970 and 1971. During this time, with each member leaving the band for short periods only to return, and with both Lennon and McCartney eventually leaving for good, Harrison was writing extensively. Frustrated that few of his songs were being picked up on albums by the band, Harrison created a showcase of songs, demos and sketches for producer Phil Spector in early 1970. The extensive catalogue impressed Spector, and this encouraged Harrison to continue to write voraciously, resulting in a huge number of songs being available when Harrison began the recording sessions for what would become ‘All Things Shall Pass’ in mid-1970. By this time, Harrison already had many side projects to The Beatles, having toured with Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, co-written work with Eric Clapton for Cream, and played guitar on several Bob Dylan recordings.
Intent on recording as much work as possible, Harrison brought in a significant cast of players and collaborators for the sessions. Having grown frustrated at Paul McCartney’s rigid direction during later Beatles sessions, Harrison sought to encourage a relaxed and expressive atmosphere for his fellow players who included Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Krause Voorman, Pete Drake, Ringo Starr, and most of the band Badfinger along with many others. Harrison took on co-production duties alongside Phil Spector, recording multiple players at once, making extensive use of overdubs, and adding reverb and effects to create an album that conforms to the famed Spector “Wall of Sound” style. The result was a triple album, one of the first by a solo Rock artist, that featured the ‘main’ album on the first four sides with an additional two sides of extended Blues guitar jams known as the “Apple Jams” for a total run of 23 tracks. Exactly who plays on what, whether Harrison or Spector had more control over production, and even exactly when tracks are written (some dated back to at least 1966), has been left to historic conjecture. As an album it is, in every conceivable way, a lot.
With so much having gone into its making, so too was the pressure on its release. Landing in November 1970, weeks before Lennon’s ‘John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band’, all eyes were on Harrison. His latter Beatles tracks, like ‘Here Comes The Sun’, and his work with Dylan and others had shown his skill as a songwriter and an audience clamoring for work by The Beatles were keen to see what he had in store. So how did a triple album, featuring over two dozen players, win over its public?
As ‘I’d Have You Anytime’, written with Bob Dylan, opens with a multitracked, luscious guitar strum and Harrison’s slide guitar melody begins, the easy, warm, inviting tone of ‘All Things Must Pass’ likely already grips the listener as Harrison implores “let me into your heart”. So it continues, track after track of calming, engaging soft Rock that would help define the sound of the first half of a new decade. Harrison was not alone here, releasing in the same year as Neil Young's ‘After The Gold Rush’ and Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, and his sound was also decidedly more American than many of his British peers. That is to say that Harrison was not blazing a path towards new horizons; instead he fit within the dominant narrative, helping to develop it rather than play against it.
Track two, soon to be the first number one solo release by a former member of The Beatles, was written as an attempt to capture the spirit of Gospel. ‘My Sweet Lord’ is a stone cold singalong classic, that expertly builds as Harrison’s voice along with the backing vocals swell. An overt song of praise, Harrison set it up as a form of “gotcha” as the “Hallelujahs” give way for “Hari Krishnas”, yet it’s an honest reflection and celebration of the significance of Harrison’s Hindu beliefs and spirituality. As significantly, the track introduces what would become Harrison’s signature slide guitar play with its echoes of Indian sitar. It’s a remarkable track that even manages to get away with a little too much tambourine.
Track three, ‘Wah-Wah’ is exactly as it says on the tin, a wah-soaked electric guitar riff rocker that left Harrison apprehensive on whether it merited inclusion, but is a worthy injection of energy early in the album. Any number of 90s Britpop bands looked to this track for inspiration when they got loose with it. It’s immediately followed by another classic, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ captures the mellow, wistful sadness Harrison was so good at. Built on a simple rhythm, there’s ample room for the guitar and orchestration to soar while never threatening to overrun Harrison’s affecting vocals. Sometimes seen as a reflection on the ending of The Beatles, the track had been rejected for inclusion on several previous Beatles albums. Instead, like so many Harrison tracks, it is a reflection of love in the grand scope, meditation on life and humanity and our interconnected nature.
That is only side one of six. Elsewhere, ‘Beware of Darkness’ again draws on Harrison’s spiritual beliefs as well as his frustrations at the time of his former band’s breakup. ‘Apple Scruffs’ begins with a blast of Dylanesque harmonica, while ‘Let It Down’ finds guitar and horns combine for a bombastic intro. The title track, ‘All Things Must Pass’, had a long gestation. Originally conceived as a track with a strong debt to The Band, Harrison crafted a version and worked on it with The Beatles, though it was never recorded. Harrison the. Gave the track to Billy Preston, who recorded a version, before Harrison decided he too wanted to include it on his new solo album. This version, the cornerstone of the entire album, draws on a Timothy Leary poem and is bound in the emotion of Harrison’s mother’s death, the disillusion of The Beatles, and his spiritual frustration at the disconnects in the world around him. The song has gone on to be widely considered the finest song The Beatles could have, but didn’t, record.
Across so many tracks, Harrison managed to create several classic songs, to shape and influence contemporary and future musical trends, to pay homage to the styles and artists he loved, and to imbue a spirituality in a major Rock record in a way that didn’t scare off the mainstream. Most notably, fans of the album often have vastly different highlights and favourite songs. In spite of the hits, no one song dominates on an album so vast. For many, the highlight will be the title track, or the ear worm ‘My Sweet Lord’. For an oft overlooked highlight, somewhere to begin for those daunted by an album of this scale, ‘If Not For You’ walks a line between Dylan and The Beatles with a simple, heartfelt and slightly lovelorn vocal from Harrison accompanied by his flawless slide guitar.
With several reissues featuring heavy remastering and shuffled track listings, ‘All Things Must Pass’ is harder to seek out than many classic albums. Thankfully, the quality of the songwriting stands as strong as ever on each release, marking the album as even more worthy of the ‘classic’ label.