I really meant to do quite a bit of writing this weekend, but I just could not stop reading John Higgs' Love and Let Die, his book about the Beatles and James Bond. I've read many books about the Beatles over the years, but John's is the best.
I don't have time to write a full review, but a couple of notes for the sort of people who likely read this blog:
Robert Anton Wilson is mentioned once, late in the book, in a section where Higgs discusses Wilson's notions of neophilia and neophobic. "The Beatles were a classic example of a group of neophiliacs," Higgs writes. The book has an index, but strangely, RAW's name is omitted from it.
Most serious Beatles fans will know that the lyrics of two Beatles songs written by John Lennon were related to Timothy Leary: "Tomorrow Never Knows" has a lyric derived from The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, and "Come Together" originally began as an intended campaign song for Timothy Leary's run for governor of California.
But I was surprised to find out about Leary's influence on "All Things Must Pass," the title song of George Harrison's acclaimed solo album, and a song that, like many of the songs on the album, were written while Harrison was still a Beatle. Higgs says the lyrics for "All Things Must Pass" are largely taken from Leary's translation of the Tao Te Ching. Sad to say, but Harrison really was kind of a plagiarist for some of his songs. The details about "He's So Fine/My Sweet Lord" are kind of shocking; I had just assumed Harrison vaguely remembered the song from when he was young, but Harrison's plagiarism actually apparently was intentional.
The trilogy of chapters finishing out Part II or II where Higgs deals with the legacy of the no-mark, Yoko and Lennon are astounding writing. I read them out loud to Adie after I went through them the fist time. The chapter on the no-mark is one of the most incisive assessments I've ever read in writing.
I was also disappointed to learn about Harrison's "light fingered" approach as Higgs puts it. But, he paints such a nuanced portrait of all four it is hard to judge them. I love "My Sweet Lord," never fails to make me feel better, no matter what its provenance happed to be.
After all I've read about the four Beatles, quite a number of books and endless articles, I was surprised by how much I learned about them reading John's book. And yes, the chapter on the no-mark is great.
I haven't read Love and Let Die but judging from this post it seems we can find multiple sets of "facts" or opinions regarding the Harrison My Sweet Lord/He's So Fine controversy. In the lawsuit the publisher of He's So Fine brought against Harrison the judge ruled that Harrison "subconsciously plagerized" the older song but did not deliberately do so. Harrison testified at the trial. In his autobiography, I Me Mine Harrison wrote that he wasn't consciously aware of the similarity between the two songs until My Sweet Lord came out and people started talking about. He then chastises himself for not realizing it at the time saying that it would have been easy to change a note or two without affecting the feeling of the song. Some years later he did rerecord My Sweet Lord and made changes to distinguish the two songs more.
Therefore if Harrison deliberately and intentionally plagerized He's So Fine then he perjured himself in his trial and outright lied in his autobiography. It's worth noting that the lawsuit was brought by the publisher of He's So Fine and not the songwriter who had died. The motivation appears to have been financial rather than a question of artistic integrity. My Sweet Lord had much greater popularity, therefore made much more money.
It sounds obvious to me that the two songs are intrinsically different despite some similarities. Harrison testified he took inspiration from another gospel song O Happy Day when he wrote My Sweet Lord,. I can hear that influence more yet they do sound like two different songs with a similar theme.
Harrison did borrow material from other sources. The first line of Something was written by James Taylor for a another song. Harrison used the same line but took it in a completely different direction. Harrison was very close to Bob Dylan. It's part of the folk music tradition to take older melodies and write new words for them and call them new songs. Dylan did this quite a bit, Blowing in the Wind appears one famous example. Woody Guthrie also did this. Dylan famously borrows or reappropiates material from other sources putting them in a different context. It wouldn't surprise me to find Harrison trying the same.
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