What happens when George Harrison walks on stage, and the band breaks into the wrong version of With A Little Help From My Friends?
I recently read a beautiful story about George Harrison in Steve Lukather’s autobiography. Following the untimely death of Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro in 1992 – the man who popularised the headband a long time before Mark Knopfler – his former band members organised a tribute concert.
Unfortunately, Porcaro’s death is the closest that real life has ever come to the Spinal Tap drummer who died in a ‘bizarre gardening accident.’ He was spraying pesticides in his garden, without wearing a mask. Somehow the pesticide got into his system, and he was supposedly dead before he hit the floor. Terrible.
The benefit concert sounds like one of the best shows ever. Toto hosted all of their musician friends and colleagues – a long list, considering their session-band credentials (they comprised most of the session band on Michael Jackson’s Thriller among many, many other hits). Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, Don Henley, David Crosby, the film composer James Newton Howard, Eddie Van Halen and Donald Fagen all took part.
Around this time, Lukather also met one of his earliest musical heroes, George Harrison. He spotted him at a club in a private area and begged a bouncer to be allowed to speak to him. ‘George’s guitar is the reason I breathe and I wanted to thank him for inspiring me to play,’ he writes.
George sent word to let him through. ‘He stood and shook my hand, and was so gracious and welcoming. I told him that he was the reason that I played music, but also that my band had recently suffered a tremendous loss and that I understood that he of all people would know what that felt like.’
After getting on well due to their mutual connections, Lukather mentioned the upcoming benefit concert for Porcaro, and that the last song of the night was going to be With A Little Help From My Friends. ‘“I know this is a long shot and no pressure,” I told him, “but I’ll have a couple of tickets left for you at the back door.’”
Midway through the show, one of the crew guys tapped Lukather on the shoulder and said ‘Someone from Liverpool is here to see you.’ After a brief catch-up (‘You didn’t think I was going to turn up, did you?’), George agreed to sit in on the night’s closer, playing Lukather’s ’59 Les Paul.
‘I had asked George to wait in the wings so I could bring him on in my own words. “As if this wasn’t the most amazing night ever, we have one last surprise for you. This guy doesn’t need an introduction, but, ladies and gentlemen…George Harrison”!’
They played the rocked-up Joe Cocker version of the song, because that was the version that Porcaro used to play in his high-school band. When they kicked it off – a far different arrangement of the song to the Beatles’ original – George shouted over to Lukather ‘Well, me and the lads didn’t do it like this!’
Lukather ended up becoming friends with Harrison. The next time he saw him, George invited him for dinner in Los Angeles. Lukather turned up, and Bob Dylan was also sat at the table. ‘I’m now sat between George and Bob, but I don’t know what the fuck to say to Bob Dylan.’ Racking his brains, he struck up a conversation about Sammy Davis Jr. and Harrison leaned over and reassured Lukather. ‘He looks at me, smiles and says “I haven’t seen him this animated in years.”’
The With A Little Help From My Friends story seems to illustrate a theory I’ve always had about the occasional gaps in the musical knowledge of all four Beatles. In their own bubble, they didn’t have to learn the craft after the fact like a lot of other professional musicians. They were superb songwriters, arrangers and performers, but I wonder how they would have fared in, say, the early ‘70s, performing covers of contemporary artists.
Of course, they were an expert covers band – starting off covering ‘50s rock and roll – but it seems that the music that they influenced was always of a different level. Not better, or worse, just different. Even McCartney – arguably the most prolific of the four – can be seen making the odd error of judgement. In the documentary of the 9/11 tribute concert, he can be seen explaining to Eric Clapton which scales he could solo with on a song in the key of G (G Major or E Minor, if you’re playing along at home). Clapton looks back, with a poker face suppressing a massive internal eye-roll.
Lukather points to another example of this in his book, when he was invited to a jam with Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Kim Keltner. ‘I start playing George’s song I Want To Tell You off Revolver. I’m playing the piano part of the B section – a flat-9 – on the guitar while holding the low E open. George says “Stop. How are you doing that?”
“It’s a flat-9,” I say.
“I didn’t know you could that on the guitar as it’s the piano on the record.”’
Somewhere In England is George’s ninth studio album, release in 1981 on his own Dark Horse records label. Co-produced with ace studio-percussionist Ray Cooper, it was recorded in his home-studio FPSHOT (Friar Park Studio, Henley-On-Thames) and features a host of contributors including Keltner, Ringo Starr, Herbie Flowers, and Al Kooper.
The album starts off with the Dylan-tinged Blood From A Clone, but it is the fourth song on side A that stands out from the rest. All Those Years Ago, a song originally written for Ringo’s Stop And Smell The Roses album, was rewritten in light of John Lennon’s assassination and features Starr’s drums alongside backing vocals by Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney and their Wings bandmate Denny Laine.
Clearly affected by Lennon’s death – they parted on bad terms, with Lennon disappointed about his lack of mention in Harrison’s I Me Mine autobiography – Harrison offers a quote on the liner notes in tribute to his former bandmate:
Sri Krishna says in Bhagavadgita:
“There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you. Nor will there be any future when we cease to be.”
Hit: All Those Years Ago
Hidden Gem: Blood From A Clone