It was always difficult for George Harrison to get a word in throughout The Beatles’ tenure. After being labelled as the ‘Quiet One’ for the majority of his career, Harrison was always more reserved about showing his talents as a songwriter, often having to fight against the songwriting machine of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. As he started to delve into his songs later in their career, there was one in which Harrison decided he didn’t need the rest of the Fab Four.
Once The Beatles decided to leave the touring life behind after 1966, they were in limbo, wondering where to go next. By the time Lennon came back with the beginnings of the song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, a new era for the group had begun, with them perfecting their material and becoming lab rats in the studio working with different sonic techniques.
Midway through production, McCartney had the idea to create Sgt. Pepper centred around an imaginary band, where each member would write whatever suited them based on this wacky concept. Although Lennon wasn’t on board with the vision, each of his songs seemed to fit in with the theme anyway, from the frenetic energy in ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ to the visions of a circus fairground in ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’.
While Harrison didn’t even try to go along with the idea, he deeply immersed himself in Indian music, getting better at the sitar and working with different Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar to expand his musical palette. Though he had delved into Indian music on songs like ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Love You To’, it would be ‘Within You Without You’ that was the first time he could follow his muse without the rest of The Beatles.
Working alongside professional Indian musicians, Harrison wrote a song about man’s spiritual connection with God and the world around them, as they paint themselves behind a wall of illusion and don’t realise the true meaning of life until they pass away. Although he was ready to play on his own, the common language of music was lost on producer George Martin, who had to end up scoring music for an orchestra to play that conformed to the improvisational nature of the Indian musicians.
Harrison would also incorporate bits and pieces of his Indian fascination into some other songs off of Pepper, using a tambura on ‘Getting Better’ and making his guitar sound like a droning sitar on ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’. Despite not contributing anything, Lennon always considered the song a favourite, telling Rolling Stone, “His mind and music are clear…he brought that sound together.”
This wouldn’t be the last time that Harrison would match his fellow bandmates’ penchant for classic songs, coming away with some of the most memorable tracks on their swan song Abbey Road with ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Something’, all while still utilising his knowledge of Indian music on tracks like ‘The Inner Light’. Harrison had already proven himself capable of writing a good song, but this should be looked at as the first time that he could work independently from the Lennon/McCartney machine.