How George Harrison split the Beatles

Biographer Hunter Davies remembers the Quiet Beatle - whose ambition was the real reason for the band’s breakup

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George had been sitting for a long time cross-legged on the floor. He was putting new strings on his sitar while telling me about his spiritual life, about transcendental meditation, about reincarnation and stuff. I might well have been ever so slightly dozing off. This was 1968 and we were in his ranch-style bungalow in Esher, Surrey. George was in one of his more spiritual periods.

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The telephone rang. George picked it up. I could hear muffled giggling noises. “Esher wine store,” barked George, affecting a cockney accent. And hung up. He laughed at his own trick. Then went back to telling me how much I was missing in my spiritual life.

This was the thing about George. He could be intensely, often achingly, serious one moment, then break out of it, laughing, well aware of himself. Remember that excellent song he did on the Sgt Pepper album – Within You Without You – which is full of Indian music and instruments. When it comes to an end you can hear the other Beatles burst out laughing. People at the time thought it rather nasty of them, mocking George’s earnestness. In fact it was George’s own idea.

“After that Indian stuff,” as he told me, “you want some light relief after five minutes of sad music. You don’t have to take it all that seriously, you know.” George was a late developer, which comes across clearly in Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s two-part documentary on his life being screened by BBC2 this weekend. He was not just younger than John and Paul, he was far less mature, physically and sexually, and clearly had talent but lacked confidence.

A puzzling thing about George’s early years was that, despite having passed the 11-plus and gone to a top grammar school, the Liverpool Institute (which was where he met Paul, a year ahead), he left at 16 and became a humble apprentice electrician. A sign, perhaps, of lack of ambition or some sort of inferiority. Or perhaps in a way he was just asleep, waiting.

When George joined the Quarrymen, he seemed to trail in their wake for the first few years, in awe of the other two. John was an art student, Paul a sixth-former, men of the world, with ambitions and status, writing songs, having sex, while George just seemed like, well, Little George. When I was working on their biography, back in the 60s, I talked to many people – John and Paul themselves, other early members of the Quarrymen, Cynthia (John’s first wife) and Astrid, their Hamburg friend – and they all had the same visual memory.

They all remembered George walking down the street, one step behind John. Paul and John had each other to spark them, to combine and compete against, but George, when he slowly started writing songs, was on his own, and became self-conscious that his lyrics weren’t quite as good as their creations.

That’s what he felt – and for a long time it was probably true. On the other hand he was happy enough with his music, though he worked obsessively on it. Paul and John gained from each other, bashing and hammering into shape both their words and their music.

George became the Quiet Beatle, got overlooked in the noise and commotion. On stage, you could see his deadly concentration, not showing off or flirting with the audience as Paul and John did. He maintained he had to concentrate as he was carrying the music along.

Even when they were at their height, I don’t think many people realised just how much George was contributing. Yes, we knew about the Indian influence, but it is remarkable, when you look back, just how many George numbers were on the Beatles albums, right from their second one, With the Beatles, back in 1963, when he contributed Don’t Bother Me. Not a classic, but they got better, all the time. On Revolver I was surprised, when I started to count up, that three of the songs were his – Taxman, Love You To and I Want to Tell You.

One of the joys of the Scorsese film – along with unseen home-movie footage and the interviews with Ringo, Paul and George’s widow Olivia talking about his last years – is having George’s music all the way through, both his Beatles and post-Beatles music. You realise then just how much he wrote. Personally I could do without the old TV clips of David Frost and Malcolm Muggeridge chuntering on yet again, but the film does manage to capture George’s spiritual life, without grinding on too much.

George was the first, from my observation, to get pissed off by being a Beatle. He had by then developed – ahead of them. Long before the Apple rows or before Yoko came into John’s life, or Linda into Paul’s, elements usually listed in their break-up, George was desperate to move on and leave them all behind. He’d done all that, that phase in his life was over, and found wanting.

He was, in many ways, the late developer who developed most, right to the end of his life. The other three, at various stages, went on to mark time, but George was always seeking, studying, gardening, making, thinking, doing. It made it hard for me, at the time, to get him to concentrate and think back to the early days of the Beatles, when the subject bored him stiff. It was spiritual matters that he really wanted to talk about. When I finished the book, he was the only one who moaned about wanting more in – about his spiritual views. I talked him out of it, saying it would unbalance the book.

At the same time he was always a realist, and also still tempted by the weakness of the flesh, which Olivia – without spelling it out – indicates very clearly continued to go on. “He did like women and women did like him,” she says in the film. And his combination of seriousness and humour was always there. His passion for Monty Python, and saving their Life of Brian film, was done for his own amusement because he wanted to see the finished film – despite being such a seriously religious person himself.

The Beatles, when I was writing their biography, came to our house in north-west London to have tea or a meal. At the time, they had become vegetarians. When Ringo came, my wife had prepared an amusing ratatouille and some clever dish with aubergines and nuts, which Ringo pushed away. By vegetarian, Ringo really meant baked beans and corn flakes, which is what he had practically survived on for years in the backs of vans.

George was of course more sophisticated, in all his tastes. He was also the only one of them all who brought a present when he and Pattie arrived – nothing madly original or expensive, just flowers and chocolates. I often used to think he was off in the clouds, not concerned or aware of this world, but he could be well aware of the little worldly everyday things.

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Arena: George Harrison – Living in the Material World airs in two parts, starting on Saturday at 9:45pm on BBC2 and continuing on Sunday at 9pm on BBC2.