I was working for Granada TV in Manchester in the Sixties when the word got round about this amazing new group – Beetles, but spelt wrong, people said. As I weighed them up, George seemed the odd one out. John had the wit, Paul had the glamour, but George . . . well, he seemed more thoughtful.
I like that, and have done ever since. I was over in Liverpool at the time, too, charting its amazing cultural flowering: Liverpool poets and playwrights as well as Liverpool bands. When I came to research my 2011 novel, She’s Leaving Home (yes, I stayed loyal!), I was in Liverpool again, meeting up with ageing DJs and archivists who’d kept records and memories of the Liverpool scene. I discovered that in the musical maelstrom that was the Sixties every kid on the block had a guitar, begged, borrowed or bought. It was as though a fever had seized the city.
And just like all his mates George was seized by it, too. In the ferment of music-making, dozens of groups were coming together, splitting, re-forming, trying out different players, searching for the right sound and the right people. That John and Paul found George was their great good fortune – and his.
It was Paul who found him, when he was only 14, and recruited him to come and hear the Quarrymen. They’d met on the bus to school: Paul was in the class above him. They were all from modest homes, state-educated at grammar schools. George’s dad was a bus conductor and George helped out with a butcher’s delivery round every Saturday morning. This was a time when lads borrowed each other’s records, got together in the bedrooms of council houses to rehearse and ventured to try out bookings at working men’s clubs. Paul and John had other guitarists for a while but somehow settled on George.
I can only guess that his sweet nature, his eagerness to work hard and his emergent musicality appealed to them. They knew he wouldn’t challenge the powerful talent of their double act but would meet their own standards of music and lifestyle. It was an ideal match. Even if the group didn’t have the serendipity of the best string quartets there was something about the balance of their talent and personalities that welded them in a unique way. George was to get angry, jealous, hurt at their estimate of his talents, and he hailed their break-up as a great escape. But, for those central Beatle years through the Sixties – through the tours, the singles, the albums and the films, George was exactly what was needed.
And the songs! How can a song with as mundane a title as “Something” lay claim to being one of the greatest love songs ever? At least that’s how Sinatra rated it, and, for what it’s worth, I agree. Its lyrics have the innocence and simplicity of the best poetry: “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover . . .” How fine is that, harbouring an erotic charge that still gives me a thrill. And “Here Comes the Sun” – one of the gentlest, most beguiling tunes of the decade. On their early LPs it’s Lennon and McCartney who dominate. George hardly gets a look-in: but doesn’t seem to mind. He laughs and jokes through the film Help as much as they do. But towards the end of the Sixties his talent really emerged. He grew in confidence, started to think for himself and to take an interest in sitar music. Ideas were moving fast: the Beats and Zen had drifted over from America . . . Everything fed their appetites for the new.
Then they’re off to India and caught up in the Maharishi scam, but the whole exploit makes George more thoughtful. He worries about big things: the point of it all, what life is about, where we’re all going. Nothing too Nietzschean – but the big questions nonetheless. He wrote “All Things Must Pass” and “Living in the Material World”, and worried about doing good, being a good person. It was George who organised the great Concert for Bangladesh – the first great charity rock concert. It was there that “My Sweet Lord” proclaimed itself the anthem of swooned youth. It’s there, too, that “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” took to the big stage and became a classic.
George’s role in the Beatles was merely a prelude to a lifetime’s music-making. His partnership with Ravi Shankar, his creation – along with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne – of the Traveling Wilburys, testify to a lifetime’s obsession with collaborating and being in groups.
But the Beatles were the first, and an extraordinary bond: for almost ten years the four shared an intimacy as close and as stressful as marriage; as the world lionised them, they grew together, sharing jokes, hairstyles, attitudes, perhaps women, certainly music. It shaped the outlook and expectations of the boy George, gave him a safe place to develop his identity and talent. And the strength to live his own life when the split came.