The rising cost of remembering the Fab Four

A forthcoming George Harrison box set will sell for $1,000. Do we still love the Beatles enough to care?

beatles george harrison
George Harrison in December 1969 (Keystone/Getty)
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If you’re a diehard Beatles fan, it’s been a pricy year. And it’s going to get much worse. Within the last 12 months, those of us unable to resist new or repackaged product from John, Paul, George and Ringo have wrestled with sense and reason over whether to splash out on one of the numerous limited-edition, pre-release colored vinyl copies of McCartney III, the mega-box set reissue of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band from 1970 or even, dear old Ringo’s recent EP, ‘Zoom In’. And there’s more to come; expect a cascade of marketing hoopla around…

If you’re a diehard Beatles fan, it’s been a pricy year. And it’s going to get much worse. Within the last 12 months, those of us unable to resist new or repackaged product from John, Paul, George and Ringo have wrestled with sense and reason over whether to splash out on one of the numerous limited-edition, pre-release colored vinyl copies of McCartney III, the mega-box set reissue of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band from 1970 or even, dear old Ringo’s recent EP, ‘Zoom In’. And there’s more to come; expect a cascade of marketing hoopla around August’s Get Back, the Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson’s reworking of the band’s 1969 misery-memoir movie Let It Be, as well as a lavish tome of McCartney lyrics and memoirs in November.

But trumping all of these came the recent announcement that George Harrison’s epic three-disc set All Things Must Pass from 1970, is to be reissued (for the third time), in a range of formats, loaded up with all sorts of bells and whistles and fully-remixed for today’s audiences. It’s fitting, I suppose, given the original 1970 release was the first triple LP ever released by a solo artist. Another Beatles-related first. It comprised of two LPs of mainly brilliant songs, plus a third disc called Apple Jam, which was very much of its time. George and heavy chums like Eric Clapton, Billy Preston and Ringo Starr, happily jamming away in a haze of fragrant smoke.

But that was then and this is now. According to Harrison’s son Dhani, who is overseeing the 2021 reissue project, the album’s notoriously thick, muddy sound is going to benefit from a thorough refresh, dialing back the big, boomy personality of the boogie-down rockers and wild guitar freak-outs, while fussily polishing its clutch of pensive acoustic ballads. Shortly before his death in 2001, Harrison himself had said he wanted to ‘liberate the big production that seemed appropriate at the time, but now seems a bit over the top with the reverb in the wall of sound’.

So it comes to pass, as all things do, another commemorative edition. Beatles fans will be smacking their lips or preparing to remortgage the cat, at the thought of what the Harrison estate have in store — the deluxe editions will feature almost 70 outtakes, demos, alternative versions, and mixes as well as the brand-new remix and sonic overhaul of the entire LP. Meanwhile dilettantes and tourists can sate themselves with mere special vinyl and CD/Blu-Ray packs. But the ultimate trinket for the diehard Beatles fan represents a triumph of marketing chutzpah and hubris, a $1,000 box, complete with replica garden gnomes, prayer beads, books, posters, even an oak bookmark, sourced from a dead tree in Harrison’s garden and an ‘artisan crafted’ wooden box, to put them all in. My sweet Lord indeed!

In an era when once-mighty record labels rely on expensive re-releases of classic rock and pop music from the 1960s and 1970s to keep afloat, this preposterous package sets a new bar. A thousand bucks for a 51-year-old album, a set of prayer beads and some miniature garden gnomes! What on earth makes this album worth $1,000?

‘Why? Because there’s a market for it,’ laughs Tony Bramwell, a childhood friend of George Harrison’s, who worked closely with the Beatles through their career and beyond. ‘They’ll easily find an awful lot of people willing to pay the $1,000 for this box set which will probably never be opened, just kept there on display. Then they’ll be on eBay the week after, at two or three times the price or more…’

Bramwell, who mentioned he has been promised one of the lavish boxes himself (‘No, I won’t open it — I don’t have a record player’) was at the heart of the Beatles’ Apple label in the late 1960s and saw for himself the frenzied financial chaos engendered by the band’s hubris and naiveté, that precipitated their final downfall. Today, he is amused at the thought that the most spiritual of the Fabs is being marketed with such bombast. How would Harrison have felt about a 51-year-old album being rereleased at such an exorbitant sum?

‘I think George would have been laughing his head off! He’d have been like, “What’s all the fuss about?” Remember, he’d put it out as a three-disc box set at the time. He was happy with all that then, no one complained about it.’

All Things Must Pass is frequently lauded by rock critics as one of the finest solo Beatles albums. It was recorded in early 1970, using new solo compositions and songs stockpiled over the Beatles’ turbulent final years. Within the group’s bubble, Harrison had never been considered on a par with Lennon and McCartney, despite having blossomed into a fine songwriter — remember the sublime ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’, on the group’s 1969 swansong Abbey Road? Accustomed to being palmed off with one or two token tracks per album, he was increasingly sore at his songs being dashed off in the studio with relative haste, compared to his bandmates’ long, lavish productions. Later, the Beatles’ gentlemanly producer George Martin admitted, with stiff upper lip regret, ‘I was always rather beastly to George’.

As the group began to disintegrate, Harrison began to look for inspiration and collaboration from the new wave of late 1960s blues and rock musicians in the UK and US, as well as his beloved classical Indian performers. This included the likes of his best pal Eric Clapton, who was busy mooning over Harrison’s then-wife Pattie Boyd (for whom he wrote the anguished ‘Layla), keyboardist Billy Preston, Beatles friend from their Hamburg days, bassist Klaus Voormann and a cast of dozens more (including a young Phil Collins). The result was a torrent of material, just waiting to be recorded. Some years later, Harrison explained ‘That was why All Things Must Pass had so many songs, because it was like, you know, I’d been constipated. I had a little encouragement from time to time, but very little. It was like they were doing me a favor.’

‘George was having a strange time,’ recalls Bramwell. ‘The Beatles had broken up, he’d been to India, he thought he’d become Krishna, Vishnu, and Ganesh and he wanted to shag every woman he met, from Ringo’s wife to Eric Clapton’s girlfriend. So, while it was great seeing George’s songs getting recognized around the time of Abbey Road, he also did also become a bit of a cunt. He was being so spiritual, and he’d taken so much acid, and now he was telling everyone in the world to take acid and worship Krishna. So, it was a bit difficult at times…but there he was, working with great musicians at the time and doing his thing.’

Freed of the Beatles following their acrimonious 1969 split, Harrison took a deep breath and ventured solo into the studio with a group of like minded musician and laid down instant classics, including ‘What Is Life?’, ‘Wah-Wah’, ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ and ‘Beware of Darkness’, any of which would have equaled Lennon & McCartney’s finest. ‘It’s one of those albums you do enjoy, because there’s a lot on there,’ says Bramwell. ‘It’s like on the White Album, you keep finding stuff that isn’t splurged on the radio or people’s playlists, there’s a hell of a lot on All Things Must Pass that you can rediscover. ‘Beware Of Darkness’, that’s probably my favorite. ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ is pretty damn good. ‘All Things Must Pass’, the title track is amazing…’

But the newly-solo 27-year-old Harrison had a steep learning curve ahead of him. He didn’t make life any easier by electing to record with one of the most erratic characters in the music industry, the late Phil Spector. Spector’s signature style involved recording live takes with as many musicians as possible playing together, creating a thickly textured gloopy sound. Even though George had idolized Spector’s work since pre-Beatles days, (‘In the early days, we would sit in George’s car and listen to the Ronettes on a little portable record player’ remembers Bramwell) the neurotic producer was so out of control on cherry brandies and other recreational stimulants that he had to be let go halfway through sessions. (He would later work with John Lennon in LA and again be fired, after terrifying Lennon with hysterical screaming fits, guns in the studio and finally attempting to make off with the master tapes).

‘There were just too many overdubs involved,’ recalls Bramwell. ‘George was like, let’s just get the fucking stuff on tape and deal with it afterwards. But that wasn’t Phil’s method. He didn’t like overdubs and mixing, he just wanted everyone playing at the same time. I don’t know how they’ve managed to remix [the new reissue] because Phil’s stuff is really hard to remix, it’s all recorded with the echo built in.’

Dhani Harrison says one of the goals of tweaking the mix is to make the album more sonically friendly to a new generation. ‘We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,’ he says. ‘But these mixes have to be able to stand up alongside contemporary music and with headphones. The original mixes sound flimsy on a playlist. These mixes will give this album so much more longevity with a younger generation.’

It’s a curious trait of latter-day Beatles, this rather needy reaching out to the ‘younger generation’. It was a phrase bandied about a great deal to explain the compressed, punchy sound of the 2009 remastering program of the group’s back catalog, as well as inspiring the 2009 PlayStation The Beatles: Rock Band game, and the cheesy Las Vegas stage show Love. And one wonders why a group of the Beatles’ caliber still feel the need to promote their music via even tackier enterprises, like the recent, abysmal Yesterday movie, a car-crash of asinine rom-com bilge. The ongoing popularity of Beatles music on streaming services and social media reveals the ‘younger generation’ seem to have no problem in finding and enjoying Beatles music as it is, without the anxious wheedling of record label behemoths.

So, who exactly is the mega-sized All Things Must Pass box set going to entice? A quick trawl of music message boards and Beatles fan groups, usually dominated by the more mature gentleman, indicates a grumpy consensus of irritation among the hardcore at the numerous editions and iterations of the reissued album. Many glumly cite the successive repackaging of the same songs that they’ve bought over the years for sake of completeness. (‘It’s a sad turn of events to feel this way about people I’ve followed, and collected practically my whole life,’ says ‘Applebonkerz’, representative of many on the popular record-geek site, the Steve Hoffman Music Forum)

Ironically, Harrison himself may be to blame for the trend of extortionately priced rock artifacts and limited editions. In 1979, he published his autobiography I, Me, Mine, initially available in a limited run of 2,000 copies priced at £148 ($988 today). As an autobiography it was a curiously sketchy affair, revealing little and barely acknowledging Lennon’s role in his life (much to the latter’s chagrin).

But over the decades, as the hippy generation has continued to ruthlessly monetize its legacy to the last penny, classic rock fans have now come to expect costly commemorative editions of classic (and not-so-classic) albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, David Bowie, the Kinks, et cetera, as record labels and legacy artists come up with ever-more expensive ways to squeeze their lemons.

The atrophied record industry, the dominance of streaming, the diminishing of pop music’s once-powerful cultural impact — today, the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, and its aged audience, are in gentle but certain decline. When George Harrison assembled his colossal album back in 1970, he might well have been amused at the idea that 51 years later, boxfuls of his outtakes and sketchy demos would be selling to wealthy fans in 2021 for $1,000. But in truth, it might not have been such a stretch. Despite Harrison following up the multi-million selling All Things Must Pass with philosophical musings on weighty matters of the spirit and devotional pop in 1973’s Living In The Material World, the cheeky young chancer from Liverpool was never far from the surface.

‘Ha! George was living in the material world,’ says Bramwell. ‘He was buying every fucking Ferrari, Lamborghini and Mercedes you can buy! Oh, he did a lot of finger-wagging — turn on, do this, find God, do that, but really, we were all like, George, you’re a fucking Scouser, we’ve known each other all these years — no!’

The anniversary remix edition of All Things Must Pass is out on August 6.