In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There’s an argument to be made that, at least early on, George Harrison was a bigger deal outside of the Beatles than he was when he was still in the band. That seems absurd, of course, since the Beatles were a one-time-only cultural phenomenon. Nothing before them was as big as they were, and nothing after them ever will be. But within the Beatles, Harrison was the Quiet One, the one always destined to be overshadowed. Throughout the band’s life, he’d made subtle musical choices to nudge the Beatles in certain directions. But he was just starting to write songs when the band was ending — or, at least, he was just starting to convince the other Beatles to record his songs — though he got a few great ones in there before the light finally blinked out. He simply hadn’t commanded the spotlight the way John Lennon and Paul McCartney had.
But when the Beatles ended, Harrison came into his own. McCartney and Lennon were making music, of course, and a lot of that music was creatively interesting and hugely popular. But they were also publicly sniping at each other and clearly struggling with the weight of what they’d already done. Meanwhile, George Harrison was out here building monuments out of sand. Harrison was the first Beatle to properly go solo, and he did it with a massive triple-album with Phil Spector on the boards and an all-star band on every song. With “My Sweet Lord,” Harrison was the first ex-Beatle to get to #1, a feat he pulled off only a few months after the last Beatles song hit that same summit. And he also organized the Concert For Bangladesh, a charity clusterfuck that would establish a blueprint for big-star good-cause spectacles that other people would, in later years, make a whole lot more efficient. The Concert For Bangladesh didn’t ultimately raise much money, since record deals and taxes got in the way. But it did raise awareness, and it also brought a ton of goodwill Harrison’s way.
In those early solo days, Harrison didn’t seem too worried about what it meant to be an ex-Beatle. Instead, he pushed himself creatively, exploring his own spirituality in public and letting his songwriting voice get more tranquil and expansive. But he wasn’t an experimentalist; he wrote big melodies that made sense on the radio. And he made hits. Harrison was, in other words, the ex-Beatle who seemed to be most successful at carrying that Beatles mantle. And “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” worked within that context.
“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” wasn’t as big as “My Sweet Lord,” and it wasn’t as big as “My Love,” the song from Harrison’s ex-bandmate that “Give Me Love” ended up knocking out of the #1 spot. (It’s the only time one Beatle has replaced another at #1.) And it’s not a particularly amazing song. Harrison is probably not the only person who could’ve written it. But he is the only person who could’ve taken it to #1.
After the Concert For Bangladesh, Harrison went quiet for a couple of years. He spent some of that time dealing with various court issues: the copyright lawsuit over “My Sweet Lord,” the issue of trying to disperse the Concert For Bangladesh funds. He also spent some of that time snorting vast quantities of coke. (This was also the period when he lost his license by crashing his Benz while going 90.) Some of that sourness creeps into Living In The Material World, his second solo album. But none of it is there on “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” the album’s first song.
Like “My Sweet Lord,” and like a few Beatles songs, “Give Me Love” works as a sort of generic plea to the universe, an idealistic koan. In his autobiography, Harrison wrote that the song “is a prayer and personal statement between me, the Lord, and whoever likes it.” There’s no real structure to the song. Instead, he sings the same few simple phrases over and over, asking for enlightenment and calm. And just like “My Sweet Lord,” the song addresses the divine: “My Lord, please take hold of my hand / That I might understand you.”
But where “My Sweet Lord” was an elaborate production, “Give Me Lord” keeps things lower-stakes. Harrison wanted to work with Phil Spector again, but it was increasingly apparent that he couldn’t rely on the guy, so he ended up producing Living In The Material World himself. And rather than pulling in all his famous friends, Harrison recorded the song with a band of session-musician assassins: Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, future hitmaker Gary Wright.
There’s an appealingly casual looseness to the song. It’s pretty underwritten, but its central melody is big and warm and strong. And Harrison and his band play it with an easy grace, working all sorts of little melodic flourishes like Voormann’s quiet bass-murmurs and Wright’s rich, mellow piano riffs. Harrison might say more with his double-tracked slide guitar than he does with his voice. And while the song finishes up in a tight 3:25, it’s not too hard to imagine these guys playing it for an hour straight, letting the groove direct them wherever it wants them to go.
After “Give Me Love,” Harrison would go through a messy period: a generally disastrous large-scale US tour, a follow-up album that nobody really liked. Harrison got his life together and kept releasing music, but he lost a whole lot of that huge audience that he had early on. And it would be 14 years before he landed another #1 single. But to Harrison’s credit, that never seemed to bother him too much. Maybe he’d already done what he had to do.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of George Harrison superfan Elliott Smith playing a solo-acoustic “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” cover at New York’s Knitting Factory, just after midnight on New Year’s Day 2000:
(Fun fact: I got a job working the door at the Knitting Factory about five months after that video was recorded. That was a shitty job, with constantly bounced paychecks and one moment where I unknowingly crossed a picket line during a Screen Actors Guild strike; they were filming an Amstel Lite commercial at the bar while I was working the day shift. I didn’t even get to keep drinking for free once the owner realized that some of us working at the club were under 21. But I did get to see a whole lot of shows, none of which were anywhere near as cool as an Elliott Smith New Year’s Eve set.)