296. ‘My Sweet Lord’, by George Harrison

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.

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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…

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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…

Follow along with my Spotify playlist.

15 thoughts on “296. ‘My Sweet Lord’, by George Harrison

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    To say this is a vast improvement over the last number one is an understatement!

    That is a surprise as far as the number 1s. He had three in America.
    This is not my favorite song by George…I like the title track of the album more and What Is Life… but this has one of my favorite intros…totally recognizable.

    1. Yes, What Is Life is more of a ‘song’, while this is more of a chant, or a statement. But I can see why he chose this as the lead single from his debut solo album

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        It is catchy no doubt and a positive message. Lennon would have rejected this one for the Beatles in a heartbeat.

  2. Tom Breihan made a good point in his Stereogum review of “My Sweet Lord” of how weird George Harrison’s fame was up to this point. He was one of the most famous musicians in the world in the most famous band in the world and yet he was overshadowed by the two guys he’d been together with since they were teenagers. He also made a good point of how radical Harrison’s approach was to releasing a song stating that all religions are the same. Imagine any other third band member like John Paul Jones, Lance Bass, or Michelle Williams making that kind of artistic statement. The Beatles breakup arguably benefited Harrison more than the other members at least early on considering he had been coming into his own as a songwriter and now had the freedom that he didn’t have being in the Beatles to release his own songs. That alongside the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 helped to raise Harrison’s profile. Even though Lennon and McCartney would have their big solo hits (On the Hot 100, Lennon had two #1s and McCartney had nine #1s), they didn’t have much else to prove creatively and even though Ringo would have two American #1s it’s not like many people cared about him as a serious artist. I agree about “My Sweet Lord.” I appreciate the sentiment but the song drags on more than it needs too. And it’s also very repetitive and simplistic without much of a structure. It’s just Harrison wanting to meet God and that’s it. Though the Phil Spector production is nice so I’ll give it that.

    Here’s the most recent use of “My Sweet Lord” in 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

    1. I might argue that even Ringo was the ‘3rd’ member of The Beatles, given his more extrovert persona and the fact that he’d been allowed to sing on a couple of hits… Harrison was naturally very shy too, while the others don’t seem to have been. Certainly not Lennon, anyway… So yes, this huge worldwide smash certainly was a sort of validation of Harrison’s talents. Can’t believe McCartney has has nine US #1s! Off the top of my head I think he’s only on 4 in the UK.

      1. You make a good point about Ringo considering he’s had that goofy personality that people like about him though like Harrison wasn’t as attention-grabbing as Lennon and McCartney were. McCartney’s always been more pop and about what will sell so it’s no surprise that he had the most solo #1s of all the Beatles. Most of them came from Wings: My Love, Band on the Run, Listen to What The Man Said, Silly Love Songs (Billboard’s #1 single for 1976), With A Little Luck, and Coming Up (Live from Glasgow). The other three were solo collaboration efforts like Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey with Linda, Ebony and Ivory with Stevie Wonder, and Say Say Say with Michael Jackson. Even though Lennon was seen as the cool-kid favorite among the music press and was constantly in the public eye, Lennon wasn’t making many hits outside of Imagine and Instant Karma peaking in the Top 10 and even Lennon himself thought he wouldn’t get an American #1. It would take Elton John to get him to #1 with 1974’s Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.

  3. “It’s altogether fitting and proper” that Harrison got a #1 before the others. There was a lot of ego (laughing at the video clip above) in that band, much like the Eagles…two “stars” and everyone else is just “backup.” *eyes rolling*

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  5. Adored this then, adore it now, it’s a “good to be alive” vibe and positive message, in a melancholic fashion. I miss George. Not just for his music, and sense of fun (see The Rutles), but he financed Life Of Brian. He also gave Ringo his greatest moment on the brilliant Photograph, one of the best post-Beatles solo hits.

    1. Has there been a rock star with less of an ego? I mean, you’re a member of the greatest, most successful, most respected band ever and yet come across as a regular decent guy. In my mind I compare him to Brian Jones – as the sensitive, creative one sandwiched between two giants – though clearly George came out of the experience much better…

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