New Book Shows The "Quiet Beatle" Was Anything But Silent

Musicians Billy Preston, George Harrison, and Ravi Shankar (right) visit President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office on December 13, 1974.
Musicians Billy Preston, George Harrison, and Ravi Shankar (right) visit President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office on December 13, 1974. David Hume Kennerly/WikiMedia Commons/Public Domain
George Harrison On George Harrison: Interviews and Encounters
Edited by Ashley Kahn
573 pp.
Chicago Review Press

The “Quiet” Beatle? Ha! While that particular sobriquet dogged George Harrison for nearly 40 years, here’s tangible proof that moniker was more in need a for quick nickname or (lazy journalism!).

The latest entry in Chicago Review’s Press’s essential “Musicians in Their Own Words” series features scores of interviews Harrison gave to newspapers and magazines, and on TV and radio appearances spanning the years 1962-2001.

Some of them are well-known in Beatles lore, other less, a handful were never before published, and some just rarities. In the last category, there’s a 1979 radio BBC radio session in with Harrison and Michael Jackson (???) in the studio discussing recent music from Foreigner, Bob Marley, and Cat Stevens in addition to their own stories.

Chicago Review Press book cover
The book also includes Harrison’s first ever published U.S. interview in 1963 with a southern Illinois high school newspaper…months before the Beatles landed in America. It was conducted when the 20-year-old guitarist spoke with a 17-year-old local student while Harrison and his brother had been in the state visiting their sister, who had relocated to the United States with her husband.

In a series of columns he co-wrote with publicist Derek Taylor of London’s Daily Express newspaper in 1964, Harrison is not quite sure what initial American audiences will make of the group and not so sure that record sales will equal a warm welcome for the artists. It’s mind-boggling to ponder today.

“Today we fly to New York on the most vital journey of our lives. We have one aim: to conquer the United States,” he wrote two days before the group’s initial appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. “We know we may be knocked and knocked hard. No nation lies to be taken by storm by foreigners. And the U.S., birthplace of pop music, isn’t going to give us an easy run.”

As the interviews – like all books in the series – are presented in chronological order, it’s fascinating to see how Harrison’s relationship with the press and his own thinking evolves over the years. As well as his relationships with his three bandmates, maturation as a solo artist, and his spiritual/religious journey. In fact, several interviews in the book—some conducted by fellow Hindu believers—focus almost solely on this aspect.

Here you also see the full spectrum of George Harrison: at times humble and appreciative, then angry and bitter. Sometimes he’s in record-promotion mode, sometimes off the cuff and honest, and sometimes slipping into the role he calls “Beatle George,” as if it were an entirely separate entity.

Nuggets and tidbits are manna to hardcore Beatles fans, and each interview is buoyed by not only editor Ashley Kahn’s astute intros, but sometimes reflections by the interviewers themselves. In 1977 when one such interrogator was shocked to find himself being picked up at the airport by Harrison himself, he notes the former Fab was fiddling with the radio dial and coming upon a song by Electric Light Orchestra, muttering “sounds like a Beatles song.” That Harrison would years later form a close personal and professional relationship with ELO leader Jeff Lynne is a tidy circular ending.

We also get glimpses into Harrison’s usually feverishly guarded personal life. When quizzed in the ‘80s if his son Dhani knew any Beatles music, Harrison says he was heavily into the film and soundtrack for Yellow Submarine…until his viewing of the Michael J. Fox movie Teen Wolf and its use of “Surfin’ USA” turned his attentions to the Beach Boys instead!

In a 1988 TV appearance alongside Ringo Starr, the two former bandmates cut up with each other with genuine fun and affection – a rare post-breakup public Beatle interaction. We also read more than once that of the hundreds of covers of his song “Something,” the composer’s favorite version was probably done by James Brown.

As perfectly expected, sometimes Harrison repeats stories, and often adds extra details. He tells one interviewer that he was home in bed when his wife Olivia woke him up at 4 or 5 am to tell him that John Lennon has been killed. He amplifies to another that his reaction was to go back to sleep, hoping that when he woke up it would not be true. Still, his religious beliefs meant there was no traditional mourning, but acknowledgement that Lennon’s soul and inner essence had just transitioned elsewhere.

Harrison’s own last interviews in this book are – fittingly enough for the times – Q&As with fans on the then-nascent internet for Yahoo! and MSN in 2001, the year that he died from lung and brain cancer. Ostensibly to promote the 30th anniversary edition of All Things Must Pass, there is incredible charm in Harrison’s backing-and forthing with real members of the public from all over the world.

When yahoomusic asks if he surfs the internet much, Harrison replies “No, I never surf. I don’t know the password.” And when nattyrobbo asks for a hint for a budding guitarist, Harrison replies “Yes. Buy ukulele!” Finally, when mike_in_tex queries about a possible reunion tour with Paul and Ringo, instead of dismissing it outright, George replies “Stranger things have happened.”

As for his own thoughts on being tagged “The Quiet Beatle?” It was a very simple matter George Harrison explained to one interviewer in 1965: “I talk when I feel like it. I shut up when I don't’ feel like talking.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero