When the Beatles Reunited to Pay Tribute to John Lennon
George Harrison's No. 2 hit “All Those Years Ago” arrived on May 11, 1981, as a heartfelt tribute to his late bandmate John Lennon, who’d been shot dead the previous year while the song was coming together. It was also a chance to stage a rare collaboration with the two other surviving Beatles, a decade after their split.
“All Those Years Ago” started out as a song for Ringo Starr, but the drummer didn’t like the lyrics. Harrison scrapped them in November 1980, while keeping Starr’s drum track in place. The recording was on a back burner when the news of Lennon’s murder broke around the world the following month.
Like Paul McCartney, Harrison opted to go to work as usual in his recording studio. The death of someone he’d known since the age of 13 and regarded as a hero was an experience that numbed and shocked him.
“George was in the kitchen, white as a sheet, real shook up,” keyboardist Al Kooper said in his 2008 memoir Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards. “We all had breakfast. He took calls from Paul and Yoko [Ono], which actually seemed to help his spirit, and then we went into the studio and started the day's work.” Kooper added that they made sure to keep “George’s wine glass full all day” to help bolster him against the emotional pressure.
Perhaps predictably, Harrison found a way to deal with the trauma through music, and he began writing new lyrics for his shelved song. “I’m shouting all about love, while they treated you like a dog,” he wrote directly to Lennon. “But you point the way to the truth when you say, all you need is love.” He told his friend: “And you were the one they backed up to the wall, you were the one who imagined it all – all those years ago.”
He knew the lyrics contained “strange” lines, but Harrison was fairly sure of the message he wanted to send. “The way I saw it was, I’m talking all about God and he’s the only reason we exist – now that’s something I believe to be true,” he told Creem. “What I was saying is there’s all these weird people who don’t actually believe in God and who go around murdering everybody – and yet, in the broad sweep, it’s like they were the ones pointing fingers at Lennon, saying he’s a weirdo. Sometimes my lyrics get a bit abstract in places.”
Watch George Harrison’s ‘All Those Years Ago’ Video
Harrison laid down his lead vocal track in early 1981. When it came time to add backing vocals, he invited McCartney to do the honors. The bassist brought along his wife Linda plus Wings guitarist Denny Laine, a familiar face in Beatles circles.
“They were just the same as they always were,” Laine later remembered. “The same as the public sees them. … They just had a sort of natural way of doing things. They weren't any different in front of me and Linda than they would have been when they were in a Beatles session … just Paul and George as you know them.”
“All Those Years Ago” was released the month before Harrison's album Somewhere in England, and became one of Harrison's most popular songs.
Looking back, he said “I know John … he knew who he was – a soul that happened to be in this body for this period of time. It’s just the method by which you die,” Harrison said in a 1988 TV interview. “You know, I think it’s nicer if you can consciously leave your body at death, as opposed to some lunatic shooting you on the street or having a plane crash. ... I think it's unfortunate the way he went out, but it doesn't really matter – he's okay, and life flows on within you and without you.”
Harrison subsequently admitted that he “hadn’t seen him for so long. I didn’t see him for two years anyway. Occasionally, [I’d] maybe send a postcard.” What Harrison missed most was “knowing that he’s on the other end of the telephone if you do want to call.”
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