Some of us were always Team George.
In early 1964, the Beatles rolled out of JFK Airport, onto the stage of “The Ed Sullivan Show” and into the frenzied hearts of millions of American teenagers. What were four identical musicians to parents were quickly individuated by their children. My two older sisters fought over the “Meet the Beatles” LP and locked horns in the eternal teleological debate: John vs. Paul. I was 6, and most of my grammar school peers favored Ringo: He was funny and funny-looking, a natural clown. But whether it was because of his cartoon monobrow, his terse self-possession or the simple fact that the other three seemed taken, I was drawn to George Harrison as my personal Beatle. That was part of the revolution: For the first time in popular culture, every member of a pop group was indispensable to the whole, and yet you had to choose just one favorite.
The irony is that Harrison, “the quiet Beatle,” was in many ways the most outspoken in private life. He was more critical to the group and to cultural history than is generally acknowledged. Without him, the Beatles might never have happened. The band’s earliest iteration, the Quarrymen, had broken up until George reformed them for a key club date. Their initial 1962 meeting with EMI producer George Martin was going south until Harrison broke the ice by insulting Martin’s necktie.
Who was the first rocker to explore Eastern spirituality and broker what would come to be called world music? George Harrison. Who spurred the Beatles to quit live performance and expand their sonic palette in the studio? George Harrison. Who awoke rock’s social conscience and invented the all-star charity event with the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971? You’re catching on.
This is part of the impetus behind Philip Norman’s new biography, “George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle” – to give due and overdue attention to the self-styled “dark horse” of the 20th century’s most important pop act. The other part seems to be completism: Norman authored the first serious book about the Fab Four, “Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation,” which was published in 1981, and has since written biographies of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, not to mention Elton John, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. One imagines a list of names on Norman’s refrigerator, two-thirds of them checked off, and poor, sad-eyed Ringo Starr down at the bottom.
Not surprisingly, much of the author’s research had already been done when it came time to write the new volume, especially as it pertains to the “Beatles decade” of 1958 through 1970. These passages do feel warmed-over, as if Norman were reciting a familiar story while reminding himself to keep the focus on the lead guitarist just behind John and Paul. It is in the chapters on Harrison’s childhood – George was arguably the poorest of the four Beatles but came from the warmest and most supportive family – and on the post-breakup years that we get closer to the particulars and paradoxes of this enigmatic man.
And there are paradoxes aplenty, chief among them what Ringo described as his bandmate’s battle between “the bag of (prayer) beads and the bag of cocaine.” To the public, George was the most saintly of rock stars, but in private he sinned as much as his A-list peers, and to read of his extramarital affairs – including sleeping with Ringo’s wife, Maureen Starkey, and chasing after his own wife’s teenage sister – is to understand why Pattie Boyd, aka “Layla,” left him for Clapton. (There’s a very weird anecdote here about Harrison the betrayed husband inviting his friend and rival over for a guitar faceoff – Stratocasters at dawn.) The overarching irony, as Norman notes early on, is that the more George meditated, the more uptight he seemed to get.
But “The Reluctant Beatle” is also a biography of an excluded man – a good songwriter in a band with two all-time greats, and a talented musician whose talents were rarely acknowledged. Even Martin admits he was always “rather beastly” to Harrison. Viewers of Peter Jackson’s massive 2021 Netflix documentary, “Get Back,” saw how years of Lennon and McCartney slighting Harrison’s creative contributions had chafed his ego raw. George’s revenge – 1970’s triple-disc megapalooza “All Things Must Pass” was by far the best-selling solo album by an ex-Beatle – must have been sweet. Why the albums that followed were so oddly inconsequential is a question Norman doesn’t explore. Did the 1976 legal decision that found Harrison guilty of plagiarizing the 1963 Chiffons hit “He’s So Fine” for “My Sweet Lord” stifle his creative urges? Had the well simply run dry? A critical biography might delve into such issues. “The Reluctant Beatle” isn’t one.
What is it then? Mostly a dutiful recounting of the life of a poor but happy kid who loved rock ‘n’ roll with a purity that precluded the need to get famous and whose response to becoming one of the four most celebrated people on the planet turned him into a seeker and a churl, a mystic and a misogynist. Tellingly, Norman interviewed everybody he could with the exceptions of Harrison’s widow, Olivia, and their son, Dhani; the biographer speculates they may have been put off by a less-than-glowing obituary he wrote at the time of George’s death in 2001.
Norman does get a lot of front-row information from Boyd, and Sir Michael Palin of the Monty Python troupe is on hand to relate how Harrison mortgaged his mansion to underwrite “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” and went on to become one of the most important independent film producers of the 1980s – a legacy that may someday be considered as important as his Beatledom. Leave it to Palin, then, to counter the myth of George Harrison “the quiet Beatle.” “That must have meant just with John and Paul,” he tells Norman. “When he was around us, you could hardly get him to shut up.”
Ty Burr writes the movie-recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List.