ALL THINGS MUST PASS IS THE WAR AND PEACE OF ROCK AND ROLL.
It’s a lot to wade through, but the wade is well worth it. Like Tolstoy’s great novel, George Harrison’s massive 1970 triple album is an epic, monumental, somewhat daunting masterwork. It captures the irrevocable march of time (the passing of the Beatles and the swinging Sixties) with a profound sense of loss, resignation, renewal and an all-encompassing spiritual perspective based on universal love. While it wasn’t the very first rock triple album — the Woodstock soundtrack album came out six months earlier — All Things Must Pass was the first triple-disc rock studio album by a single artist and an ex-Beatle at that. It would yield the first Number One hit by an ex-Beatle, the wistfully expansive “My Sweet Lord,” and now-iconic Harrison songs like “What Is Life,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Wah-Wah” and “Beware of Darkness.” All Things Must Pass also served as a gateway to the large-scale, “more is more” aesthetic of Seventies classic rock, and the emergence of Harrison from under the giant songwriting shadow of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He would prove to be one of the most compelling and original voices of the entire rock era.
The first Beatle to venture into solo recordings, Harrison had already released two previous instrumental albums on his own prior to All Things Must Pass — the Wonderwall Music film soundtrack (1968) and Electronic Sound (1969), one of the earliest albums to feature the legendary first iteration of the Moog modular synthesizer. But George’s mind and heart were once again rooted in guitar-driven rock and roll as he flung wide the doors of EMI’s Abbey Road studio to welcome an all-star conclave of players that included Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voormann, Billy Preston, sax player Bobby Keys, and country pedal steel ace Pete Drake. Among its other distinctions, All Things Must Pass is one of rock’s great guitar albums.
“You need a rhythm guitar player and you get Eric Clapton. How amazing is that?” On a Zoom call from the English countryside, where he’s been marooned by the pandemic, Dhani Harrison, George’s son, has spent the past five years of his life executive-producing the 50th Anniversary Edition of All Things Must Pass. Yet, after all that work, he still has the enthusiasm of a teenage fanboy as he marvels at the disc’s guitar treasures and transcendent songcraft.
“The backing band... it’s Derek and the Dominos, before they ever recorded anything on their own. It’s the first thing they ever recorded. They all got together before touring and before recording; they came into the studio to do All Things Must Pass. And that band is so hot. You listen to some of these tracks and you think, ‘God, it’s Derek and the Dominos!’ It’s a hell of a band.”
Poring over the box set’s pristine remix/ remastering of All Things Must Pass, Dhani and his co-producer Paul Hicks had ample opportunity to dissect the album’s many standout guitar moments. One of the innovations All Things Must Pass introduced to the triple rock album format was the inclusion of a full vinyl jam disc.
“There were lots of points you’re, like, ‘Is that Clapton? Is that Dad?’” Dhani marvels. “You’re like, ‘Oh, it’s Clapton. Dad would never play that.’ But at that point they were synched up. So it’s Dad kind of playing Eric riffs and Eric playing these George riffs.
While all this rip-roaring guitar bonding was going on in the studio, Harrison was in the process of losing his wife, Patti Boyd, to Clapton. Harrison had, of course, also just lost the band he’d played in since he was 14 — the band that had made him both rich and famous. And while sessions for All Things Must Pass were underway, his mother died. The album is one of rock’s most poignant evocations of loss and sorrow. Harrison’s personal sense of bereavement at the time was echoed by the world all around him. The Sixties utopian dream of peace and equality was, as Harrison’s exbandmate John Lennon noted on his own debut solo album, “over.” Counterculture kids of the era, myself included, just had to find some way to carry on, as Lennon suggested in his song, “God.” But while Lennon announced that “God is a concept by which we measure our pain,” spirituality had provided Harrison with his own way of carrying on — a lifeline.
“All Things Must Pass is coming from a time in George’s life that is very dualistic,” Dhani notes. “It’s very dark, yet some of it expresses some of the most exalted states of clarity you can have. And somewhere in the middle is that whole experience and that whole record.”
When All Things Must Pass first hit the record shops in the wintery November of 1970, fans found that there was a lot to digest among the 23 tracks that comprised the original release. Densely produced by George Harrison and infamous studio legend Phil Spector, the songs are awash in Harrison’s unique chordal modulations and spiritual concepts, drawn from Hindu tradition, that were not as familiar to many rock fans back then as they’ve become in our own time, with online meditation apps and yoga studios abounding in every city and town.
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