Sunday, 18 September 2011

Run Of The Mill

George Harrison: Living in the Material World is the title of Martin Scorsese's epic documentary about the life, music and beliefs of the Beatle who was my original favourite of the group (at the age of six, for no rational reason I can recall). When I became seriously interested in pop, it was October 1970, and the British pop weeklies were full of chatter about George's forthcoming album, All Things Must Pass.

For reasons that I've explained elsewhere on this blog, I had accidentally become infatuated (for life) with the Beatles a few weeks earlier. With the zeal of the fresh convert, I was eagerly awaiting new music from any (or preferably all) of the Fab Four. One afternoon, I came home from school to listen to Radio 1, the BBC's three-year-old pop channel, and was granted a sneak preview of George's work. As soon as his name was announced, I pushed the 'record' button on my father's ancient reel-to-reel tape recorder, which was connected up to our equally ancient radiogram. So I had plenty of time over the next few months to replay and appreciate the magic of what I heard: 'Run Of The Mill'.

It was the guitars that pulled me in: that gorgeous, tumbling motif that bookended the song - which was, as I would soon discover when I tried to reproduce it myself, very deceptively simple. Then the voice: somewhere on the emotional spectrum between 'beautifully pained' and 'poignantly sympathetic', not the carefree joi de vivre that Paul McCartney would try to maintain, or the naked savagery of John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band roar. And the melody, with that subtle elegance and beauty that would become the hallmark of George's best solo work.

What didn't really touch me for years, though, were the words. That was partly because it wasn't that easy to make them out beneath George's double-tracked Scouse slur, and partly because the tune was so pretty that I didn't bother to listen. It must have been twenty years or so later that I heard the song one day and suddenly clicked: "He's writing about the Beatles!"

At which point the whole thing made sense. In 'Run Of The Mill', George wasn't writing about the Beatles as an institution, but about his relationship with one particular Beatle (or maybe two of them, swapping the role of target in every other line). This wasn't the open sadness of Ringo's 'Early 1970', or the sly sniping of Paul's 'Too Many People', or the outright viciousness of John's 'How Do You Sleep'. Nor was it the shocking dismissal of Lennon's own verdict in late 1970: "I don't believe in Beatles". No, this was one human being very openly confronting the decline in his relationship with another human being who was still very dear to him, but who he feared was destined to slip out of his life altogether.

The most poignant lines in the song are these: "As the days stand up on end, you've got me wondering how I lost your friendship, but I see it in your eyes". What's gone wrong between these two men? The clue is in the early part of the same verse, where George says that tomorrow will bring "another day for you to realise me" (in other words, to realise exactly who I am) "or send me down again" (by ignoring me). Which takes us back to January 1969, when George unveiled a series of new songs for John and Paul, and they did their best to ignore them.

So which of these two old friends was the target of 'Run Of The Mill'. Ultimately, as George sings, "it's you who decides": both Lennon and McCartney had undervalued and squashed Harrison as a creative force in the final years of the Beatles. But my guess is that it's Paul who George had in mind - simply because George put so much faith in the reality of his relationship with John (as his comments in the Beatles' Anthology book proved) that he couldn't bear, at least in 1970, to consider for a second that he might have lost Lennon's friendship. He found it easier, in emotional terms, to blame Paul - the boy who'd been a year older than him at school, who had suggested he should audition for the Beatles, and who had chosen to lecture him about his guitar-playing in front of a camera crew during those January 1969 sessions.

And the title? It was only when I was writing You Never Give Me Your Money that it struck me where it had come from. There is nothing in the song about anything being "run of the mill". But my guess is that one of the other Beatles, at some stage in the 60s, slagged off a new Harrison song by telling him that it wasn't good enough to record, it was only run of the mill. It's the kind of comment that trips out of people's mouths in a second, and which they never consider the consequences of; and which the recipient remembers for the rest of their lives.

In this instance it sparked a remarkable song. Here is a work-in-progress, guide-vocal mix from the All Things Must Pass sessions: not as perfect as the finished record, but still an unpolished gem.




10 comments:

  1. That's an excellent interpretation. Even George (in the I Me Mine book) simply said it's about "when Apple was getting crazy", only alluding to the different colors the four of them wanted the label to be and "the problem of partnerships". He didn't elaborate much, but your comments had me going back to the lyrics and suddenly it all made sense. You nailed it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You absolutely nailed it. I always knew it was probably about John and Paul. Perhaps as you say, more Paul than John. But regardless, I don't think it could be about anyone or anything else.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It's a good post, John. Whenever I seek a visual image of the Beatles' disintegration, I always flash on Barry Feinstein's B&W cover photo of All Things Must Pass. Sardonic George seated in the middle of four rather grotesque garden gnomes.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wish you'd post that reel to reel recording of the radio show. That would be something special to hear Run Of The Mill from it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. But most of George's early songs WERE run of the mill. I don't see why it's so terrible to admit the truth: George developed more slowly as a song writer than John and Paul. I just find the giant chip on George's shoulder to be so tiresome at times. For goodness sake, Taxman leads off Revolver. That's not exactly holding him back. Yet instead of continuing in that vein, George went off and doodled on the sitar and didn't produce much in the way of good songs for a year or two. But that was HIS choice; it wasn't John and Paul holding him down.

    I suppose you could argue they held him back during the White Album (rejecting songs like All Things Must Pass). But I'm not convinced that was intentional either. It was a sin of omission: John and Paul were so absorbed with their own deteriorating partnership (not to mention John was focused on Yoko, and Paul was floundering in his personal life) that they barely noticed George. He was just collateral damage. I can see why he'd feel bitter about that. What I'll never understand is why George only blamed Paul -- and didn't equally blame John.

    But actually I think I do understand. George was afraid of crossing John but not afraid of Paul. I find George's willingness to repeatedly and publicly dump all over Paul in the 70s -- yet say next to nothing critical about John -- to be a bit cowardly. After all, it was Paul who helped out with George's songs while John went missing again and again from the studio. And if George and John were supposedly so close, why did they all but stop talking for the last 4-5 years of John's life?

    I think George just wouldn't admit publicly that he was as pissed off at John as he was at Paul. Paul was just an easier target. And I'm not saying Paul was innocent here; clearly he treated George cavalierly at times. But then George and John treated Paul pretty badly, too. But it was only Paul who got painted as the villain.

    Sorry for all the babbling. But this dynamic (George letting John off the hook but repeatedly blasting Paul) fascinates me. It suggest that George, whatever his spiritual quest, was not exactly forgiving and held a grudge.

    ReplyDelete
  6. M Drake thank you for your thoughtful post. I agree with every word you say. It's always bothered me too why John and Paul are cast as two egotists who were holding back Songwriter George Harrison. I've said repeatedly in many discussions the same things you say here. I also agree that many of George's songs were indeed "run of the mill" before he hit his stride as a songwriter. And that was absolutely not John and Paul's fault. I have always found George to be overly bitter and yes, he did only blame Paul while John got a free pass. I also find the pat excuse they always use, that George didn't hit his stride for a while, because he was so much "younger" than John and Paul to be ridiculous. George was the same age as Paul. It was Paul who was so much "younger"....than John. But that is never mentioned. This entire dynamic however, doesn't facinate me as you say. It annoys me. The Beatles breakup dynamic has always struck me as one big double standard and there is a lot of dumping on Paul. Yes he was an easy target it seems. I'm just glad Peter's book was so even handed, which finally put all of this into perspective. It was long over due.

    ReplyDelete
  7. M Drake-I completely agree with you. Paul has his faults but he at least played and sang on most of George's songs with the Beatles. John mostly didn't bother! Paul's bass playing and backing vocals on "Something" for example are tremendous and add greatly to George's wonderful song. Therefore, I really cannot understand why George was so bitter towards Paul in the 70s.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have a take on all this, and I think it may be a bit controversial (hope not). I read Peter's book with avid interest, as I have read about 20 to 30 books about the Beatles or solo Beatles.

    I get the impression that the problem was that George simply didn't like Paul. Paul's constantly "up" personality and scout leader demeanour, especially during the later days of the Beatles, was simply irritating. Or at least, George seems to have felt that way. During the last days of the Beatles, and even into the 1970s - in fact, as late as the Anthology project - sarcasm was always very near the surface when George talked about Paul, or something Paul wanted to do.

    It seems to me that they were school friends who simply grew apart, and once they were adults, they found that they simply didn't have much chemistry.

    I love both of them, by the way.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I think it's important not to mythologize the Beatles. George and Paul were definitely the weak link in the chain. Patti Boyd has confirmed what should be obvious anyway. They were not great friends. As for apportioning blame...Paul has a big ego but so did George and this tends to get overlooked. I think if you offered any rock star today 2 songs per Beatles album they'd take it. 2 songs, whatever they sounded like. George matched Lennon and McCartney for a very short period and not in the same quantity- there is nothing finer in his canon than his 2 Abbey Road songs. Up to then, his hit and miss songs were effectively in the limelight because of Lennon and McCartney and afterwards his commercial appeal slowly dwindled. And it's absolutely true. It always seems to be Paul who is doing his best to help George. His enthusiastic backing vocals, his wonderful bass lines. George got pissed off even about that. He saw it as Paul grandstanding and trying to upstage him. Maybe he was but he was actually making the song sound better as well. So yeah, I don't buy it when George whinges-even if most of the fans do- but I think there was some truth in Paul's lack of sensitivity and big headedness because we've all seen that in interviews at times and he's trying to hide it!!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I Need You, Think For Yourself, If I Needed Someone, Taxman, Love You To(o), I Want To Tell You, It's All Too Much, Only A Northern Song, Within You Without You, Blue Jay Way, The Inner Light, Not Guilty, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Long Long Long, Piggies, Savoy Truffle, Old Brown Shoe, I Me Mine, For You Blue, Here Comes The Sun and Something - I'd love to write some run of the mill songs like those. Heck, I'd even settle for Don't Bother Me, You Know What To Do and You Like Me Too Much, not to mention the other songs the Beatles turned down - All Things Must Pass, Art Of Dying, Hear Me Lord, Circles, Sunshine Life For Me, Sour Milk Sea, How Do You Tell Someone, Window Window, Nowhere To Go, I'd Have You Anytime, Wah Wah, Let It Down and Isn't It A Pity. But that's just me. Not to knock the others but they were all writing some great stuff the last few Beatles years. I loved the All Things Must Pass LP(s), despite being overproduced (the acoustic demos of the LP songs and others that weren't on ATMP are a great listen), although George, like the others, was somewhat hit and miss after that. Other faves: Plastic Ono Band, McCartney, Ram, Imagine and Band On The Run...

    ReplyDelete