I wonder what the odds were on George Harrison being the first Beatle to score a solo chart-topper? You would have assumed it’d be Lennon, who was releasing solo stuff before the Fab Four had even split, then McCartney, with his knack for a pop hook. Then again, George had been getting more of his songs included on their albums from 1968 onwards, and some of the Beatles’ most famous late-era tunes are his – ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Something’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’… So maybe it wasn’t such a surprise when he hit top spot less than a year after his former band’s last hit.
My Sweet Lord, by George Harrison (his 1st of two #1s)
5 weeks, from 24th January – 28th February 1971
And in the end, it wasn’t even close. We are still seven years from a #1 by Paul, and nearly a decade away from one by John, by which time he’ll be dead. Anyway, to the song… There’s something quite ominous in the opening acoustic chords, contrasting nicely with the goofy, tropical, lead guitar riff.
My sweet lord, Mmm my lord, I really want to see you, Really wanna be with you… His voice sounds great – angelic, but gruff and growly when it needs to be. Really wanna see you lord but it takes so long, My lord… First things first, then – is this a religious song? On the face of it, yes – especially when the hallelujahs come in. And does he want proof of God’s existence or, like Clive Dunn before, is he anticipating death? (George Harrison and Clive Dunn asking the big questions at the top of the charts, who’d’ve though it…)
It’s not your typical pop song – no verse, bridge, chorus here. It’s more of a growing chant, a five-minute long mantra, that ascends through several key changes. Now, you can’t ever go wrong with key changes, but at the same time it’s a song that doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe that’s the intention; but for me it leaves something wanting. ‘My Sweet Lord’ is a song that I loved without really considering why, and I do still really like it, but the more I listen to it the more I wonder if it’s as great as they say…
Sacrilege? Maybe. Halfway through the Hallelujahs become Hare Krishna’s and other snippets of Vedic prayer. Which answers our earlier question – yes, it is a religious song. Harrison was big into his Hinduism at the time and by combining it with Christian elements he wanted to make a statement on the follies of sectarianism. We all worship the same God at the end of the day, right? (No!, shout all the atheists in the back.)
It ends on a high, like a gospel choir singing it up to the rafters. Among the backing instruments and singers you can hear Ringo, Billy Preston (from ‘Get Back’), and Eric Clapton among others. You might also hear hints of ‘He’s So Fine’ by The Chiffons… Harrison famously lost a copyright case that ruled he had ‘subconsciously copied’ the melody. (I really like this cover by The Belmonts – minus Dion – which splices the two songs together, with lots of added kazoo.)
‘My Sweet Lord’ was on Harrison’s epic triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’ – a shackles-off moment in which he stepped out of Lennon and McCartney’s combined shadow. He would continue to have commercial success throughout the seventies and eighties – by himself, in the supergroup The Travelling Wilburys – and then in the nineties with the two remaining Beatles. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed, though, that this is his ‘1st of two #1s’… The other? A re-release of ‘My Sweet Lord’ just after his death in 2002. Till then then, George…
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