Review: George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle
Philip Norman came to our attention when he wrote a successful biography of the Beatles, titled “Shout! – The True Story of The Beatles” (also published as “Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation”), which was published in 1981. The book heralded John Lennon as the genius and basically shat on Paul McCartney and George and Ringo were reduced to bit players in the story. Nobody in the inner circle liked the bok. George Harrison once signed a copy of the book, but he crossed out the word “true” in the book’s title and replaced it with a handwritten “false”. Norman later wrote that Paul McCartney had taken to calling the book “Shite!”. Still, the book sold a lot of copies and was translated into many languages, even Norwegian.
Its claims and interpretations have since been largely contradicted by subsequent Beatles-related biographies, reference books and memoirs. Still, the book had some merit in as much that it brought forward some historical facts that hadn’t been known before, plus it brought some tales from the Beatles apprentice time in Hamburg, Germany. The main reason for the book’s success was that it was the first retelling of the Beatles story, from childhood to the end of The Beatles, since Hunter Davies’ official Beatles biography from 1968. Another reason was the recent, horribly shocking killing of John Lennon.
Certain aspects of “Shout!” continue to influence Beatles historiography. However, by the beginning of the 21st century major elements of the “Shout!” narrative were no longer unquestionably accepted as the prevailing Orthodoxy, and The Beatles Bibliography condemned its close-minded and inaccurate doctrine … The vast majority of sources which emerged between the wake of Lennon’s murder and the 21st century painted a far more nuanced picture of the Beatles, their music, and their breakup than the one Norman provided in “Shout!” Multiple biographies, reference books, eyewitness accounts and memoirs contradicted many of Norman’s … conclusions and interpretations.
In the 2000’s, Norman started on a new project, biographical books about the individual members of the Beatles. So far, he has published “John Lennon: The Life” (2008), “Paul McCartney: The Biography” (2016), where he did a complete 180 on his view of Paul, and now “George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle” (2023). We have been approached by Douglas Young, who has written a review of Norman’s book on George, and he wanted the review published by the Daily Beatle. So without further ado, here it is.
Marvelously Melodic but Mercurial: A Review of Philip Norman’s George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle
By Douglas Young
Dr. Douglas Young is a political science professor emeritus who taught government and history for over 33 years and whose essays, poems, and short stories have appeared in a variety of publications in America, Canada, and Europe. His first novel, “Deep in the Forest”, was published in 2021 and the second, “Due South”, came out in 2022. His next book, “This Little Opinion Plus $1.50 Will Buy You a Coke: A Collection of Essays”, is about to be published.
How swell to at last have a major biography of that most aloof of all rock stars, George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle, by respected pop music historian Philip Norman, and how sobering to learn that the reclusive rocker’s feet were all too completely made of clay. Though this book is quite detailed and very well written, I now know far more information about Harrison than his underlying motives. Alas, what is still a worthy biography could have been splendid if not for several shortcomings.
Perhaps the book’s top theme is George Harrison’s remarkable cornucopia of contradictions, something he alluded to in the “Pisces Fish” song on his superb last album, 2002’s Brainwashed:
Sometimes, my life it seems like fiction,
Some of the days it’s really quite serene,
I’m a living proof of all life’s contradictions,
One half’s going where the other half’s just been.
Massive contrasts define Harrison’s story. With bomb craters from World War II still decorating his neighborhood, he grew up in a crowded little Liverpool apartment with no bathroom, whose only heat came from a “small coal fire,” and where the weekly bath was in a backyard bucket. But massive musical success would earn him enormous wealth.
Harrison was the Beatle most in the background whose growing songwriting abilities were largely ignored by the group’s leaders, John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney. But after the Fab Four’s 1970 breakup, the lead guitarist would stun everyone with his astonishing “All Things Must Pass” triple album to become the most critically and commercially successful Beatle of the early 1970s.
It is comforting to learn how Harrison was usually kind, caring, and giving. Not only did he co-write “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo,” two of Beatle brother Ringo Starr’s biggest solo hit songs, but he did not even ask for a (quite lucrative) songwriting credit for either. Even when sick in bed dying of cancer, he offered to visit the drummer’s ailing daughter.
But Harrison was a stubborn loner who was often moody and brutally blunt. As Ringo put it, “There was the love and bag-of-beads personality and the bag of anger. He was very black and white.” Indeed, when Beatle brother John Lennon queried his bandmates on what they thought of his girlfriend and future wife, Cynthia Powell, Mr. Curt remarked she had “teeth like a horse.” While the second Mrs. Lennon, Yoko Ono, conceded “George was very nice,” she still complained how “very hurtful” his caustic comments could be, to which John would shrug, “That’s just George.” And on a long flight when a stewardess asked the softly chanting Hindu convert if she could get him anything, Harrison snarled, “F#%& off, can’t you see I’m meditating?”
The supposedly most spiritual Beatle who publicly sang warnings about “Living in the Material World” privately luxuriated in a 25-bedroom gothic mansion, and the Beatle purportedly most at peace as a devout Hindu nevertheless smoked lots of marijuana, drank loads of liquor, snorted copious quantities of cocaine, and chain-smoked French cigarettes. He was also an inveterate adulterer who cheated in his own house when his first wife was home and even with his closest Beatle brother Ringo’s wife. This was a conquest too far even for licentious Beatle brother John who denounced it as “virtual incest,” and the affair led to the Starrs divorcing the next year.
Surprisingly for the superb composer who wrote so many beautiful love songs, including the classic “Something,” George did not appear to be all that passionate or romantic. He not only routinely betrayed both of his spouses but did not seem to mind losing his first wife to his closest friend, Eric Clapton – who remained his best buddy.
While enjoying most of his time in the world’s biggest band for all the easy camaraderie with his bandmates and being too shy to perform on his own, by the latter 1960s Harrison firmly rejected any more concert tours and had grown deeply bitter that more of his compositions were not allowed on Beatle albums. Later calling himself “the economy-class Beatle,” he felt liberated when the group finally broke up and would never seek a reunion. Asked to help Sir Paul perform “Let It Be” at London’s 1985 Live Aid Concert, George’s typically tactless retort was that his Beatle brother “didn’t want me to sing on it ten years ago, so why does he want me now?”
Despite his enduring shyness – of his Beatle days, Norman notes that “no more private person can ever have trodden a stage more mercilessly public” — in 1971, spurred by his friend and fellow sitar player, Ravi Shankar, George organized the massive “Concert for Bangladesh” at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Though so nervous backstage that he suffered bouts of diarrhea and vomiting, Harrison’s pair of concerts would produce rock music’s first and possibly best benefit performance and album featuring Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Badfinger, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, George, Ringo, and many more — and he worked hard to make sure the proceeds actually went to hungry Bangladeshis. Harrison would continue to be very charitable with the unfortunate, ultimately providing $45 million to UNICEF projects in Bangladesh and elsewhere, as well as giving substantial financial support to Romanian orphans.
George was likewise repeatedly generous with family and friends, such as buying houses for his mother-in-law and a Beatles staffer. He not only made major contributions to his fellow Hindus, but even risked losing his beloved Friar Park estate by putting it up as collateral to finance his Monty Python buddies’ 1979 big screen controversial comedy, “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. Yet he was embarrassingly cheap with his own loyal staff, and the megamillionaire dissolved his first marriage by paying his most important muse a paltry 120,000 pounds.
“The quiet Beatle” in public “wouldn’t stop talking” in private settings where he was much more comfortable. But while he could be pleasantly social and even host a party, Harrison much preferred gardening to people since, as he explained in his frank fashion, “the flowers don’t answer back.”
Philip Norman’s book is unusually well written, especially for a rock star biography, and it is likely not a coincidence that the author is also a novelist and playwright. Harrison’s life is told chronologically in extraordinary detail, especially concerning his growing up and time with the Beatles. It was a revelation to realize just how materially deprived George’s childhood was, but how comforting to learn what a close, loving family he had. This makes his moody cynicism all the more mysterious.
Norman clearly likes his subject since his narrative reveals a magnificent musician who, despite often being tone deaf to others’ feelings, did not just mean well but (usually) did well by his friends and so many strangers through his considerable philanthropy. The author also appears especially partial to Harrison’s dry and even gallows humor. It is remarkable to read of his being carried out of his house on a stretcher in late 1999, having just almost died of forty stab wounds from an insane intruder, and his asking a pair of new housekeepers, “What do you think of the job so far?” Likewise, he named his last album “Brainwashed” because of his terminal brain cancer and published its songs under the name of “R.I.P. Music Ltd.”
But Norman’s fondness for his subject does not inhibit him from pointing out painful facts. Likewise, the biographer is balanced and fair conveying all the major players in Harrison’s orbit. Having written an earlier book about the Beatles, as well as biographies of Lennon, McCartney, Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Sir Elton John, the author has an encyclopedic knowledge of many of pop music’s major players from the 1960s and 1970s and may well be the world’s top Beatles scholar.
Indeed, the Harrison biography sings best when telling of George’s time with the famous fabs. Since he was in what would become the world’s biggest band from not quite age 15 until 27, these were the most dramatic and important years of his life when his development as a person, musician, and composer were critical. The book brims with compelling descriptions of each of the Beatles and their relationships with one another, as well as the staff within the group’s growing empire. Norman likewise provides plenty of memorable observations about the larger London pop scene to convey the cultural context from which the band fed and to a considerable extent led.
Particularly in light of how strained the foursome’s internal dynamics would become by the late 1960s, it is truly touching to learn what extremely close friends they were for most of the dozen years they were a team. It is also reassuring to read how well they ultimately overcame their differences as their Beatle past became an ever more distant blur in the rearview mirror.
But what could have been an outstanding biography is not due to several needless drawbacks. One of the most tiresome is when the book occasionally burrows way too deep in the weeds of utterly irrelevant minutiae about not just Harrison’s Beatle days, but trivial players from that time who only the most fanatical fans care about. Who buys a George Harrison biography for mundane details about long obscure local Liverpool bands from 1960?
Though the author bemoans how Lennon and McCartney ignored Harrison too much, Norman spends an excess amount of time on the Beatles’ dynamic duo as well. Having written biographies of each, he may have found their pronounced personalities more interesting than that of the self-effacing Harrison.
As captivating as this biography generally is when recounting George’s formative and Beatle years, just 153 of the book’s 440 pages address his life after the Beatles — the majority of it – and his last two full decades are crammed into a mere 55 pages. So Norman fails to devote remotely enough attention to the very 31 years of Harrison’s life when he finally enjoyed the freedom to be completely who he wanted to be.
This is all the more regrettable since George made a remarkable number of excellent albums of his own during this period, as well as with the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup he shared with Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne. Indeed, Harrison appears to have enjoyed being a Wilbury more than a Beatle since his second band was genuinely democratic and egalitarian. George also did much as a film producer and philanthropist. In fairness, Norman does touch on all this, but never devotes remotely enough space to develop a full understanding of any of it. Instead, when covering Harrison’s later years, the book reads like it is just hitting the big news events, but with little analysis.
This highlights the biggest flaw throughout the biography which is that, while I now know far more about Harrison, I doubt I really understand what shaped his character and drove him. Though full of intriguing, fun, and sometimes unsettling anecdotes, I still cannot say I truly appreciate why George Harrison acted as he did, and the book ends without even attempting to draw any conclusions about its protagonist. Particularly with the considerable research and writing talents of Philip Norman, this is a shame.
A final quibble concerns the embarrassing number of missing words, typographical errors, and misspellings littering the text. Like with other books I reviewed this year by political entertainers Greg Gutfeld and Kat Timpf, as well as Chadwick Moore’s biography of Tucker Carlson, it is stunning how big publishers are now comfortable putting out works riddled with basic writing errors. So is Norman sloppy or can a major publisher like Scribner somehow not afford a decent editor? This is a genuine mystery worthy of an answer.
Nevertheless, “George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle” is an overall very well researched and written biography of by far the most secretive Beatle that boasts loads of fascinating facts. Most importantly, it brings attention to an extraordinarily talented artist who has never gotten the respect he deserves due to being overshadowed by the greatest songwriting partnership of the 20th century. That Philip Norman has made a significant contribution to elevate George Harrison’s place in the pop music pantheon is a very welcome development.
Links in the text and images are pointing to Amazon (UK) listings of the books, and any purchase through these links will benefit the Daily Beatle with a small percentage.