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George HarrisonGeorge

Harrison

 

1943 -2001

 

 

When We Was Fab

 

Part 2

 

Guitar World: John Lennon said, "I grew up in Hamburg - not Liverpool." Is that also true of the Beatles as a group?

 

George Harrison: Oh, yeah. Before Hamburg, we didn't have a clue. [laughs] We'd never really done any gigs. We'd played a few parties, but we'd never had a drummer longer than one night at a time. So we were very ropy, just young kids. I was actually the youngest - I was only 17, and you had to be 18 to play in the clubs - and we had no visas. They wound up deporting me after our second year there. Then Paul and Pete Best [the Beatles' first permanent drummer - GW Ed.] got deported for some silly reason, and John just figured he might as well come home. But when we went there, we weren't a unit as a band yet. When we arrived in Hamburg, we started playing eight hours a day - like a full workday. We did that for a total of 11 or 12 months, on and off over a two-year period. It was pretty intense.

 

GW: Paul McCartney told me that playing for those drunken German sailors, trying to lure them in to buy a couple of beers so you could keep your gig, was what galvanized the band into a musical force.

 

Harrison: That's true, because we were forced to learn to play *everything*. At first we played the music of all our heroes - Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins - anything we'd ever liked. But we still needed more to fill those eight-hour sets. Eventually, we had to stretch and play a lot of stuff that we didn't know particularly well. Suddenly, we were even playing movie themes, like "A Taste of Honey" or "Moonglow," learning new chords, jazz voicings, the whole bit. Eventually, it all combined together to make something new, and we found our own voice as a band.

 

GW: I can see how all this musical stretching gave you the tools to eventually create your own unique sound. But it's hard to believe drunken sailors wanted to hear movie ballads.

 

Harrison: No, we played those things because *we* got drunk! If you're coming in at three or four in the afternoon with a massive hangover from playing all night on beer and uppers, and there's hardly anybody in the club, you're not going to feel like jumping up and down and playing "Roll Over Beethoven." You're going to sit down and play something like "Moonglow." And we learned a lot from doing that.

 

GW: Did those tight, Beatles vocal harmonies also come out of Hamburg?

 

Harrison: We'd always loved those American girl groups, like the Shirelles and the Ronettes. So yeah, we developed our harmonies from trying to come up with an English, male version of their vocal feel. We discovered the option of having three-part harmonies, or a lead vocal and two-part back-up, from doing that old girl-group material. We even covered some of those songs, like "Baby, It's You," on our first album.

 

GW: When you broke through in America, Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore, Elvis' guitarists [sic], were clearly your main influences as a guitarist. And, like them, you were using a Gretsch guitar. What was it about that rockabilly style that captivated you?

 

Harrison: Carl was playing that simple, amazing blend of country, blues and early rock, with these brilliant chordal solos that were very sophisticated. I heard his version of "Blue Suede Shoes" on the radio the other day, and I'll tell you, they don't come more perfect than that. Later, when we met Carl, he was such a sweet fellow, a lovely man. I did a TV special with him a couple years ago and I used the Gretsch Tennessean again for that, the one I like to call the Eddie Cochran/Duane Eddy model. And you have to understand how radical that sound was at the time. Nowadays, we have all this digital stuff, but the records of that period had a certain atmosphere. Part of it was technical: The engineer would have to pot the guitar [adjust its level and tone] up and down or whatever. It was a blend that was affected by the live "slap echo" they were using. I loved that slap bass feel - the combination between the bass, the drum and the slap, and how they would all come together to make that amazing sound. We used to think that the drummer must be drumming on the double bass' strings to get that slap back - we just couldn't figure it out.

 

GW: The other major factor in your playing was Chuck Berry. I remember being a kid and hearing you do "Roll Over Beethoven" and thinking it was a Beatles song. We never heard black artists on radio in those days.

 

Harrison: Oh, that's still happening. We did a press conference in Japan when I played live there with Eric Clapton [in 1991], and the first question was, "Mr. Harrison, are you going to play 'Roll Over Beethoven' in concert?" And when I said yes, the whole hall stood up and applauded! It was such a big thing for them, which seemed so funny. Then I realized they must *still* think I wrote it.

 

GW: Going back to the Beatles' early touring days, Ringo Starr told me that you all gave up on playing live because you literally couldn't hear each other, due to all the screaming and the primitive amplification.

 

Harrison: We couldn't hear a thing. We were using these 30-watt amps until we played Shea Stadium, at which point we got those really *big* 100-watt amps. [laughs] And nothing was even miked up through a P.A. system. They had to listen to us just through those tiny amplifiers and the vocal mikes.

 

GW: Did you ever give up and just mime?

 

Harrison: Yeah, sometimes we used to play absolute rubbish. At Shea Stadium, [during "I'm Down,"] John was playing a little Voxorgan with his elbow. He and I were howling with laughter when we were supposed to be doing the background vocals. I really couldn't hear a thing. Nowadays, if you can get a good balance on your monitors, it's so much easier to hear your vocals and stay in pitch. When you can't hear your voice onstage, you tend to go over the top and sing sharp - which we often did back then.

 

GW: The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 around the time of "Revolver." That album was a quantum leap in terms of the band's playing and songwriting. Rock could now deal with our inner lives, alienation, spirituality and frustration, things which it had never dealt so directly with before. And the guitars and music warped into a new dimension. What kicked that off? Was it Dylan, the Byrds, Indian music and philosophy?

 

Harrison: Well, all of those things came together. And I think you're right, around the time of "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" we just became more conscious of so many things. We even listened deeper, somehow. That's when I really enjoyed getting creative with the music - not just with my guitar playing and songwriting but with everything we did as a band, including the songs that the others wrote. It all deepened and became more meaningful.

 

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