Tragedy can put things in perspective. Not exactly a consolation, but a fact and an explanation for a great song that came out this day in 1981. George Harrison gave us his first single off the Somewhere in England album, “All Those Years Ago” , not only a tribute to John Lennon, but the closest thing we’d get to a Beatles reunion.
Harrison had remained friends with Ringo Starr, and was in 1980, both working, slowly, on his own album, and helping Ringo put together his Stop & Smell the Roses album. Harrison added some guitar work to the record and wrote a song for it, “Wrack My Brain.” He also wrote a version of “All Those Years Ago”, and they did the preliminaries, with Ringo doing the drumming of course. However, Starr didn’t really love the song, and turned it down.
Meanwhile, through rather good fortune that seemed anything but to Harrison originally, Warner Bros. – who distributed his own Dark Horse Records – refused to put out the version of Somewhere in England he turned in late in ’80. They noticed that George had only had one minor hit (the under-rated “Blow Away”) in years and thought the album he finished was rather bland and totally lacking commercial appeal. They even rejected the cover photo.
Harrison was upset, but grudgingly agreed to go back, rework a track or two and add a couple of new songs. Then, of course, John Lennon was murdered. Harrison remembered the old song he’d written for Ringo, and quickly rewrote the lyrics as a love song to John, with lyrics like “we’re living in a bad dream” and “you point to the truth when you say ‘All You Need Is Love’.” He kept the recording of Ringo doing the drums – session superstar Herbie Flowers did the bass by the way – and then, in an act of generosity, called up Paul McCartney. McCartney, along with his Wings bandmates (at that point just his wife Linda and Denny Laine) came by and recorded backing vocals, making it the first time the three had been together on a record since they finished Let It Be some 11 years earlier. Harrison finished it off with a touching video, a slideshow of pictures highlighting John.
It was a good song, and a timely one, and it helped put George back on the musical map, briefly at least. In his UK, it only got to #13 surprisingly, but elsewhere it was very well-received. In Canada it got to #3, in Ireland, #4; it also made the top 10 in Australia and several European lands. In the all-important U.S. market, it was a chart-topper on Adult Contemporary stations (an indication of the aging of the Beatles fans perhaps) and got to #2 on the singles chart, only kept from the top by Kim Carnes mega-selling “Bette Davis Eyes.”
It didn’t help the album out that much though; Somewhere in England peaked in the teens (#11-19) almost worldwide and quickly disappeared, it became George’s first post-Beatles album to not get a gold record (or better) in the U.S. Harrison would be almost invisible in the music world until his big comeback in 1987, Cloud Nine, which had another look back at the Beatles, “When We Were Fab.”