George Harrison's songwriting

George Harrison’s songwriting brilliance

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From his earliest work to his successful career as a solo artist and collaborator, the simplicity of George Harrison’s songwriting belies the brilliance of one of popular music’s great artists.

George Harrison was a musician and songwriter who knew how to say a lot with a little. He also was the first world-renowned musician to draw attention to non-Western music, helping to ignite what would come to be called world music, as he learned the sitar and studied Indian classical music as the world listened. Harrison has left us a wonderful legacy of songs and music, and there is plenty we can learn from his carefully constructed compositions and lyrics.

For many songwriters, the challenge of finding a way to express oneself can lead to writing complex songs, through intricate chord changes, heavy symbolism or allegory used in the lyrics, or dense wall-of-sound production. Depending on the artistic intent, using these songwriting techniques can be just the right recipe for creating a memorable song … or it may cloud the original idea that sparked the tune.

The ability to simply and elegantly turn an idea into a song is a most valuable skill, and George Harrison’s songwriting is sometimes overlooked when searching for examples that drive this home. While Harrison was best known as one of The Beatles, he wrote dozens of great tunes post-Beatles that show off his spare, innovative approach. I’ve selected three songs – two inked by Harrison himself, and one that is a co-write – to examine just what makes George Harrison’s songwriting so memorable.

Meet the Beatle

Harrison had the amazing good fortune to be in what would become the most famous band of all time, but it came with the challenge of working side-by-side with – and being compared to – Paul McCartney and John Lennon, two of the most prolific and talented songwriters in music history. Lennon and McCartney met as teens and started writing songs together from the get-go. Harrison, asked to join the pre-Beatles Quarrymen in 1958, was also learning about songwriting, but tended to work solo and at his own pace.

Over his 11-plus years with Lennon and McCartney, and following the band’s break up, Harrison wrote memorable songs that reflected his more introspective, thoughtful personality and style. The hallmark of George Harrison’s songwriting is a straightforward economy that belies his thoughtful musical choices. Another hallmark of his writing is how Harrison’s lyrics very often work on multiple levels, inviting the listener to interpret the meaning, which adds greatly to a song’s memorability.

“If I Needed Someone”

George Harrison's songwriting: Rubber SoulIn 1965, for the first time in its recording career, The Beatles would enter the recording studio to work on a new album without the non-stop interruptions of the band’s tour commitments. In an intensive four-week period, the group recorded 14 tracks with producer George Martin, emerging with the album Rubber Soul, a cohesive body of work that stands as a major artistic achievement. It was also a preview of the incredible albums that would follow over the remainder of the band’s career, including Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the White Album, and Abbey Road.

Harrison penned “If I Needed Someone” and “Think for Yourself,” for Rubber Soul. U.S. fans, unfortunately, didn’t hear “If I Needed Someone” on the original North American version of Rubber Soul, released on December 3, 1965. Capitol Records, who distributed the band’s records in the US, pulled or added songs to The Beatles releases up until Sgt. Pepper’s, based on Capitol’s ideas of what would sell best in the US. Americans would first be able to buy the song on Capitol’s 1966 release, Yesterday and Today.YesterdayAndToday

Musically, “If I Needed Someone” presents two contrasting musical sections, the verse alternating between an A and G chord over Paul’s bass part, which remains firmly on A, the tonic note. Rather than strumming the chords, George picks out individual notes and embellishments in a repeating pattern on his Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, but he uses a seventh-fret capo and modifies the fingering of a D chord (at the 9th fret) to create the bright, jangly hook of the verses.

Harrison stated that he was influenced greatly by the sound of The Byrds, with whom The Beatles had become friendly. “If I Needed Someone’s” final version certainly makes the most of the electric 12-string’s sound with it pushed to the front of mix, equal to, and paralleling the movement of the vocal lines that make up the verses.

In a 1980 interview, Harrison downplayed the originality of the jangly sonic hook he created for the tune, stating, “‘If I Needed Someone’ is like a million other sings written around a D chord. If you move your finger about you get various little melodies. That guitar line, or variations on it, is found in many a song, and it amazes me that people still find new permutations of the same notes.”

While many other songwriters have used the same notes to create memorable hooks around the D chord, the capo-ed 12-string creates an instantly recognizable sound, a technique he would return to using on the acoustic guitar for “Here Comes the Sun” on Abbey Road.

The contrasting section in “If I Needed Someone” is a classic example of a “middle eight,” basically eight bars that take you away from the verse before circling back. Harrison also strums the 12-string in the middle eight, rather than continuing with the picking pattern, while Ringo’s tambourine part switches from playing just on the back beat to a double time feel, adding a sense of urgency to the middle eight lyrics.

Considering the song is only 2:23 in length, Harrison creates variety for the listener by inserting an eight-bar instrumental interlude into the second verse of the song. With three-part vocals intoning the rich “ahhh” sound the band used throughout their recording career, George picks out some more variations on the capo-ed D chord embellishments before returning to the lyrics for the remainder of the second verse.

“If I Needed Someone” might sound like a love song, but is it? Certainly the idea of needing someone suggests a romantic relationship of some type, but other lines in the song – “If I had some more time to spend then I guess I’d be with you, my friend” and “Carve your number on my wall and maybe you will get a call from me” reframe the relationship as one that is viewed with ambivalence by the singer.

This is another hallmark of George Harrison’s songwriting voice – his songs don’t always play out the way so many other pop songs of the era did, including the great majority of Lennon-McCartney hits. Considering the “life in the bubble” existence the band had been living non-stop for roughly 1,000 days since “Love Me Do” cracked the UK charts in 1962, Harrison was the first member of the Fab Four to question the benefits of such notoriety in a song, reflecting that he had little time for himself. The fact that he chooses to place the melodic emphasis on the off beats of this 4/4 song is another technique that subtly signals something is a bit off kilter in the storyline.

The middle eight lyrics suggest that the song’s protagonist is singing it for what might be termed the “right person at the wrong time.” George sings, “Had you come some other day/Then it might not have been like this/But you see now I’m too much in love.” The last line may be interpreted a number of ways, but clearly the song’s overall vocal delivery hints wistfully at what might have been, rather than a joyous love affair in progress. Considering that Harrison married his girlfriend, Patti Boyd, seven weeks after the release of Rubber Soul, it would appear that he’s not singing to her, but another potential paramour.

It’s worth noting that the careful use of George’s solo vocal as the song’s protagonist on the first and second lines of the first verse and in the middle eight sections nicely contrasts with the dense three-part harmonies used throughout the rest of the song. “If I Needed Someone” stands as the first great Harrison song to showcase his unique creative voice, one that he would develop much further over the next few Beatles albums.


George Harrison's songwriting: Abbey RoadGeorge Harrison’s post-Rubber Soul contributions to the Beatles’ songbook include iconic songs such as “Taxman,” “Within You, Without You” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” each of which stand as a classic Beatles track on its own. However, it was on 1969’s Abbey Road that Harrison penned a tune that would come to be seen as the equal of any of his peers’ greatest achievements. “Something” is a candidate for the perfect three-minute pop song; once again displaying Harrison’s intricate – yet economical – songwriting chops. He actually began writing it during the 1968 recording of the white album, but didn’t complete the song until February 1969. At that point, George Martin gave the song to Joe Cocker, who recorded his own version before The Beatles, but Cocker’s version was not released until after Abbey Road came out in late September 1969. (Harrison’s demo version was later released on disc three of the outstanding Anthology series of albums.)

The song is made up of three musical sections. First is the opening measure-long three-chord sequence (F – E-flat – G, resolving to C), which returns at the end of each verse that I refer to as the turnaround. Next, the verse-chord progression that emphasizes a gentle descending pattern of chord movement (C – CM7 – C7) and so on. And last, the song’s high point, its soaring middle eight section, where Harrison’s vocals reach their peak and the backing track provides a perfect bed for his musing on a particular relationship and its potential longevity. “You’re asking me will my love grow/I don’t know, I don’t know/You stick around and it may show/I don’t know, I don’t know.”

This is as close to any hint of uncertainty that Harrison displays in this lyric, which otherwise is one of the most direct and loving descriptions of one person’s emotional impact on another. It is written simply and directly from the heart in a way that leaves no doubt as to the singer’s love for his partner. Still, there’s a subtlety in Harrison’s lyrics that once again belie the care and craft that went into creating this timeless song. “Somewhere in her smile she knows/That I don’t need no other lover” and “Something in the way she knows/And all I have to do is think of her” both portray a mature emotional bond between partners that has none of the tenuousness found three years earlier in “If I Needed Someone.” Anyone that’s ever been in love can relate to the lyric, including many other artists. As a result, it’s not surprising that “Something” is the second-most covered Beatles song of all time, after “Yesterday.”

Dynamics play a critical role in developing the song’s contour and emotional punch. After the brief intro, the track drops in loudness to frame Harrison’s first verse solo vocal that is delivered with a sense of delicacy and tenderness. He embellishes the word “woo” in the third line, perfectly indicating that this romance is a two-way affair. At the refrain, “I don’t want to leave her now,” George double tracks his own voice to build the energy and add a little tension before the turnaround reappears to signal the next verse.

Musically, the song is deceptively simple. Firmly set in the key of C, it uses stepwise motion, nearly always on the beat to establish a calm, tranquil base for the lyrical delivery. More than anything, “Something” exudes a sense of being in a balanced, solid relationship that is providing the singer with everything he could want as far as emotional sustenance. The refrain at the end of each verse cements this emotional message: “I don’t want to leave her now/You know I believe and how,” which is then echoed by the soon familiar guitar riff Harrison plays over the turnaround, creating one of the most memorable guitar hooks ever.

The backing tracks merit attention as well, with a steady Hammond organ part played by Billy Preston, fulfilling a church-like role in the verses then switching to staccato eighth notes in the refrain to build momentum. The electric guitar part is played through a rotating Leslie speaker, giving the part a new flavor for listeners in 1968, while McCartney plays one of his busiest bass lines ever, using fills and arpeggios as subtle accents below the simple stepwise vocal melody.

George Martin adds tasteful – occasionally soaring – strings throughout the song to further emphasize Harrison’s original dynamic shape, while a grand piano doubles the bass part in the middle eight, adding some granularity. Ringo also contributes an inventive drum pattern, similar to what he did on “Come Together,” for the middle eight that lifts the track up to a whole new level of energy. The drum and bass parts are perfectly counterbalanced by the descending chromatic riff that occurs at the end of the second and fourth line of the middle eight, which acts as a reset button for the listener, prepping us for what comes next – either the rest of the middle eight, or the transition into the guitar solo.

At the end of the second refrain, Harrison cleverly alters the way the turnaround chords resolve, using F – E-flat – G, but then going up a whole step to A rather than resolving to C as it normally does. This signals to the listener that the song is headed somewhere new, the middle eight is in the key of A. For the high point of the tune, Harrison delivers an impassioned vocal in his unique style, that don’t paint any sort of Pollyanna-ish image of idealized love. No lover can foretell the future, he says, but sticking around and remaining constant is the best way to find out if love will endure. Paul McCartney’s harmony vocal, added to George’s double-tracked lead vocal, rounds out the sound of this emotionally charged section.

As a release to the tension built up during the middle eight, Harrison takes us back to the key of C and the verse chord progression for one of his most beautiful guitar solos. Played with plenty of left-hand vibrato and impeccable phrasing, the guitar solo is a master class in taste and control that echoes the emotions vocalized in the song’s verses. It ends with the soulful, repeating pattern played over the refrain that rises up to segue perfectly into the fourth statement of the now familiar turnaround.

After the guitar solo verse and following the classic Beatles formula for vocal production, on the final verse, the band adds harmony vocal parts tastefully over the first three lines before returning to George’s double tracked voice for the final statement of the refrain. However, Harrison still has one more zinger for the listener, a reprise of the altered turnaround (F – E-flat – G, resolving to A) with Harrison’s solo guitar a little descending chromatic riff, before taking the song back home with the original version of the turnaround (F – E-flat – G, resolving to C) which signals the song’s conclusion at exactly the three minute mark.

Critical and commercial response to the song was overwhelmingly positive, and the song, which was released as the first ever Harrison composition to be a Beatles A-side, hit the number one spot on the Billboard chart on November 29, 1969. In short order, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, and James Brown would release cover versions of the song, the first wave of hundreds of artists who would acknowledge the beauty and simplicity in Harrison’s composition.

“Handle with Care”

While technically credited to all five members of The Traveling Wilburys, “Handle with Care” had its origin in 1988 before the group ever formed, as the track was intended to be a B-side for George’s Cloud Nine single, “This is Love.” However, reportedly he hadn’t really progressed very far on actually writing the song and was instead spending time in LA jamming with various friends and musicians. As the story goes, Harrison was relaxing in the garden at Bob Dylan’s home and saw a cardboard box stamped “Handle with Care” nearby.

George Harrison's songwriting: Traveling WilburysThat box’s appearance inspired Harrison’s first line, “Been beat up and battered ‘round,” and when he played it for the other musicians that dropped by, the song quickly took shape, with each of the eventual Wilburys adding lines to create a song about a guy who has been knocked around a great deal in life (like the box), falling prey to isolation and loneliness. Looking back on Harrison’s own life and his antipathy toward superstardom, many Beatles fans might argue the verse lyrics were largely autobiographical for George’s celebrity life.

“Handle with Care” is in the key of G, and like “If I Needed Someone,” it relies heavily on both 12-string electric guitar and variations on the fingered D chord for its sound, which once again, echoes the classic sound made famous by The Byrds. The track would become the first single from what would become the group’s first album, Traveling Wilburys, Volume 1. “Handle with Care” has three main sections: the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. The group, made up of Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, wisely chose to use various members to sing each part of the song. Harrison, as mentioned, took the verses; Orbison’s soaring tenor handled the pre-chorus; while the whole band joins in on the chorus, which is a classic sing-along, complete with cowbell.

Once again, the verse lyrics reflect an economy of style typical of Harrison’s best songs, although as mentioned, this tune was a co-write. One can easily imagine the Wilburys sitting around, coming up with the lines of the song. They had each spent considerable time in the glare of the spotlight throughout their respective careers, suffering the slings and arrows of the press and often being viewed as a musical commodity. “Been stuck in airports, terrorized/Sent to meetings, hypnotized/Overexposed, commercialized/Handle me with care.” Clearly, the Wilburys are making the case that stardom isn’t all glamor and encores.

Musically, the song is a basic rock groove in 4/4 time, with a steady back beat and simple backing track that favors the electric 12-string as the main instrument, along with a nicely played slide guitar that takes the short solo between verses three and four and plays over the outro, along with the Dylan-flavored harmonica. Largely, because they could, the Wilburys both adhere to and flout some of the rules of pop songwriting, in that they introduce a second lead singer within the first minute of the song when Orbison takes over on the pre-chorus. Of course, when the new vocalist has one of the most instantly recognizable and unique voices in rock history, songwriters can color outside the lines with confidence.

The band also sticks to an organic sound for the recording, with each of the two choruses featuring a different blend of the Wilburys, making it easy to visualize the whole group standing around one microphone, leaning in and out on the chorus, having a blast with the sing-along section, just like in the video. The band uses harmony vocals on the fifth and final verse, a classic Beatles-y choice, which sums up the whole song beautifully with a shot of sarcasm added as a chaser. “I’ve been uptight and made a mess/But I’ll clean it up myself, I guess/O-o-o-h, the sweet smell of success/Handle me with care.” Harrison’s delivery of the third line is dripping in irony. No matter, the song is a winning, upbeat celebration of five survivors who tell us that whatever comes next, they will persevere.

Classic Tracks: The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care” (Mix Online)
Here’s an in depth article by Matt Hurwitz that goes behind the scenes for the unlikely partnerships and recording obstacles that were overcome to create the album, Traveling Wilburys Volume 1.

Professional songwriters offer advice on how to write a great song

Keith Hatschek bio pic

About Keith Hatschek

Keith Hatschek is an author and educator who spent two decades in the music industry prior to joining University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA where he directed the Music Industry Program. He’s written four books and more than 100 articles on the music industry. His latest book, The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, tells the story of the famous jazz musicians’ five-year struggle to create a jazz musical challenging segregation at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

10 thoughts on “George Harrison’s songwriting brilliance

  1. I am an average music maker but been at it for 50 years so I know a thing or two.
    How Disc Makers could deem Harrison’s music as simplistic is beyond me. Really.
    Makes you wonder if whomever wrote that headline is a music maker as well. – Just saying. 🙂

    1. Did you read the article? The point is what appears simple, and can be interpreted as such, really hides the complexity of Harrison’s songwriting and the emotions/messages underlying the songs. And really, they are 4-minute pop songs after all, and there’s a beautiful simplicity in that. I think you’ll find the author of the piece is obviously a music maker if you dig into the article.

  2. With delightful synchronicity, I found your article on George Harrison’s songwriting today. I had just been musing this morning about my late wife (Cheri) and the lyrics she would occasionally point out to me as being particularly meaningful to her. I was thinking about a line in the Scott Boyer song, Please Be With Me (notably recorded on one occasion with Cowboy and Duane Allman on slide), “because you can find my mind—please be with me.” Cheri loved that line (she was an INTJ Myers/Jung personality type), but she also would catch my attention and make me listen to Harrison’s lines in If I Needed Someone, “…guess I’d be with you my friend…carve your number on my wall and maybe you will get a call from me.” I should note that long ago when I was still playing live (rock guitar, 1970’s) that had been the nature of our relationship.

    I’ve always loved Harrison’s work and in some ways my own musical life followed his (in a minor way, as far as relative success or pure merit of songwriting). The shared love, Pati Boyd, that seemed to inspire some of his songs as well as his friend Eric Clapton, whose love for Boyd inspired the Layla album to a large degree, was mirrored somewhat in my late wife’s relationships with me and my old friend and colleague, Chas Thomas. Chas, Cheri and I all got back together in 2009 and two indie albums emerged from that emotional and spiritual synergy (shameless plug, “Dalton Bentley music” or Dalton Bentley CD Baby” searches both get you to my site or CD Baby).

  3. George Harrison was foremost a complete gentleman. His songwriting is so deep and magical that it touches your soul. Long live The Beatles !!

  4. I love George, but he wasn’t really the “first world renowned musician to draw attention to non-western music”.
    Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck, just to name two, got there first.

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