Lifelong fan Randy Bachman looks at the impact of The Beatles, and the the music of their quietly pivotal, influential youngest guitarist, George Harrison
I heard The Beatles before anyone else in Winnipeg. I subscribed to Melody Maker and New Musical Express – they’d take a week to arrive – and so I was reading about them before anyone had heard them.
I was enamoured seeing the early pictures of them with the black leather and the Elvis hair, then suddenly they had suits and the Beatles haircuts, and I think that was because they were being sold to the parents as much as the kids, because there was still rebellion in their music.
When I got my first Beatles record, it was on Vee-Jay, a black label out of Chicago that usually released things like Jerry Butler. The Beatles was the first time four musicians were presented as a group: the Beatles changed the world, but they also changed every band. And for me, that was because I got to sing the George Harrison songs with The Guess Who.
I’d wait for a new Beatles album to come out, so I could learn the George song. We were all the same in Winnipeg – Neil Young and the Squires, Burton Cummings and the Deverons – half our sets were Beatles songs. And I sang the George ones – Don’t Bother Me, Taxman, You Like Me Too Much, Here Comes The Sun. I became an absolute George freak – I must have been the only person in Canada who bought Wonderwall Music!
George played guitar like me, like a violin player. He played parts – very seldom did he freak out. His parts were always melodies that added to the song.
Compare him and Eric Clapton: Clapton was working in a vocabulary, a vernacular, that came from the blues, whereas George always seemed to play lines that had been composed, though live he could play the Chuck Berry licks.
It’s often so simple – like the phrase he plays on the Gretsch after each line of I Need You – but it’s brilliant. I think he’s still underrated because people mistake being fast for being good. But there’ll always be a faster gun – you need good songs.
Once I was on tour with Van Halen, and Eddie Van Halen walked past my dressing room when I was practising false harmonics. He said, “That’s amazing, how do you do that? It’s great. But never play that on stage because you’ll die.”
And that’s right. I remember Paul McCartney put it well in an interview. Someone asked him what George brought to the Beatles, and he replied: “Listen to the solo in And I Love Her.”
I loved that George never did things for the sake of being commercial. If he didn’t want to make music, he didn’t make music. And when he had his big comeback in the eighties, he had a huge hit with an old obscurity – James Ray’s Got My Mind Set On You. Can you imagine what that must have done for James Ray’s family, after years of being ripped off?”
Making my album By George By Bachman – where I recorded George’s songs – was very cathartic for me. I wanted to write a song on the album, but I didn’t know how. I woke up one night feeling a presence in my room, but I knew there was no one at home – I was going through my divorce, and I was alone. But I could feel this presence pulling me out of my bedroom into the next room, where my laptop was and where my guitar was, where I had been making demos for the album.
I sit down to write, and out comes: ‘There’s an inner light / Let it shine.’ I thought, “Those aren’t my lyrics; I don’t write like this. I’m too vulnerable with my divorce to write like that.” But I carry on writing – what became the lyrics to Between Two Mountains – and as I write, I’m thinking, “This is amazing. Is George sending something here?”
I never got to meet George, but I phoned him once. It was 1970 and I had left the Guess Who. The American Woman album and single were Number One, but I had a gall bladder problem and had to leave.
Our publicist Ritchie Yorke also worked with Derek Taylor, The Beatles’ publicist. He said, “The Beatles are breaking up. George is starting a new band. Why don’t you call him? Here’s his number.”
Wow. So I phone him.
A really nice sweet female voice answers, who I assume is Pattie Boyd. I say: “It’s Randy Bachman, and I got your number from Ritchie Yorke, and I’d like to speak with George.”
She puts down the phone, and maybe forty seconds later George comes to the phone. He’s got this low growl. “Winnipeg? Is that where Winnie the Pooh’s from?”
He says he’s heard American Woman – “Good song, good solo” – but he says he’s already got his band together.
“And my guitarist is my best friend, who I’m sure you know, Eric.”
That was it. My one encounter with George Harrison.
Randy Bachman was talking to Michael Hann.