This week my new favourite song is My Sweet Lord by George Harrison. And, well, I know you already know it’s a great song. And you know that I know that too, right? But… boy, it really is a great song isn’t it?
Beautiful, Beatles-style harmonies. Check. That kinetic Phil Spector way of building momentum, layer after layer. Check. A propellant rhythm section punctuated with a series of satisfying drum-beat thuds, thick like clotted cream and homemade fudge. Check. A 12-second guitar solo that fits the song as starched linen handkerchiefs do the breast pockets of fine tailored suits (and that isn’t just showing off). Check. The underrated virtues of catchiness and simple lyrics you want to sing along to (Hallelujah!). Check.
All very lovely – and especially so (for me, at least) whenever you think a little more about the man who wrote it, a George finally emerging from the shadow of a John and a Paul. This affable chap, in fact, keeps popping up in the book I’m currently reading, Halfway to Hollywood, excerpts from Michael Palin’s diaries, 1980-1988. (Among its little revelations: Palin was close enough to Harrison to phone him the day John Lennon died – from, of all places, his mum’s house in Southwold.)
Here’s what got me thinking, though. Is liking a religious/spiritual song somehow inauthentic if you don’t share any of its religious fervour? Does doing so inevitably mean missing out on something that only other people ‘get’?
Maybe those aren’t the hardest questions to answer as far as My Sweet Lord goes: whatever else George is singing about (guruve namah and what-not), here’s a song that’s also decisively fluent in the language of pop. How, indeed, could it ever not be with mad genius Spector wearing the studio headphones? But what about gospel music? The sort of singing that forever involves the singer clapping and gazing helplessly up?
More and more these days, I love listening to gospel, and yet… godless, English, and white, it’s a little tricky not to do so self-conciously. The Abyssinian Baptist Gospel Choir might well ‘Want to Ride That Glory Train’ but I most definitely don’t. The Rev. Louis Overstreet might be ‘A Soldier In The Army Of The Lord’ but I’m still far too busy contentiously objecting. Does any of this matter? Am I going to be struck down by a thunderbolt someday, or have I nothing to worry about, after all?
Ah, to hell with it, I’m plumping for the latter. For two simple reasons. One, because even an ‘ordinary’ sort of voice singing from the heart is capable of being as thrilling an instrument as music has. And two, because a real, honest, straightforward lack of guile is hardly likely to ruin a lyric any time soon. These the things that really count, I reckon, at the sharp end of listening.
As far as I can hear, it’s the difference between shivers, goosebumps, and joy, on the one hand, and a whole lot of soulless wailing for the sake of being on television and Simon Cowell’s bank balance, on the other. I really want to know you! sings Harrison of his sweet lord – and everyone, exactly everyone, knows exactly what he means. (Even if they don’t.)