In Random Tracks, I’m reviewing a random hit song from any point in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 going from the chart’s beginning in 1958. If you like what I’m doing, comment and let me know what random Hot 100 hit song you want me to review.
George Harrison- “All Those Years Ago”
PEAK: #2 on July 4, 1981
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”
Celebrity deaths often get attention but none as big as John Lennon. When Lennon was assassinated 40 years ago this December 8th, it was more than the loss of a popular musician. It was the loss of a major cultural icon who as one of the leaders of the Beatles and an activist solo artist helped bring a major revolution to the world of music that still reverberates today.
For young people at the time, Lennon’s murder became a historical flashpoint along the lines of JFK’s assassination and the 9/11 attacks. It was more than the loss of Lennon but the loss of an era that had shaped their worlds the likes of which we’ll probably never see again. Ask anyone alive at the time and they can most likely tell you where they were when they heard the news and how they felt.
What does the American listening public do in the wake of such an unspeakable tragedy? They eat up a weak-ass sunny tribute song that reunited the three remaining Beatles with George Harrison singing a eulogy to his late bandmate.
There’s a reason why “All Those Years Ago” sounds like it does. It wasn’t originally planned as a John Lennon tribute song. Harrison had written a different set of lyrics for his bandmate Ringo Starr to sing. They both recorded the track for what would be “All Those Years Ago” in late November 1980 at Harrison’s Friar Park studio. But Starr wasn’t a fan of the song giving it to Harrison. Just mere weeks after recording, the trajectory of the song would change a lot.
After Lennon’s death, Harrison rewrote the lyrics to pay tribute to his fallen bandmate recording his own vocals but kept the production from his sessions with Starr. In addition, he recruited his other Beatles bandmate Paul McCartney, his wife Linda, and their bandmate from Wings Denny Laine to record backing vocals. It marked the first time in a decade that all three Beatles recorded on a song together since before the band broke up and it took their bandmate’s death to do it. Yet you can’t really tell by listening to the song.
Aside from Harrison’s vocals and his signature slide guitar, there’s nothing very Beatles about “All Those Years Ago.” It has that slick early ‘80s studio sheen that sounds like the members’ best attempt at making a yacht rock song. For a song honoring a fallen bandmate, it sounds very unusually upbeat and breezy anchored by an electric piano played by Al Kooper, the same guy who played organ on Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” and the French horn on The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” There are also synthesizers including an ugly-sounding one that pops up which sounds like a kid playing around with the cheapest setting on their keyboard. It’s completely competent yet mediocre at the same time.
The lyrics don’t do much to raise the song up as it’s clear that they were written at the last minute to capitalize on the sudden news. In the song, Harrison celebrates Lennon for the ideals he stood for even as others ridiculed him for it. The lyrics are vague enough that they could refer to any figure like Lennon though Harrison makes the subject clear by referencing some of Lennon’s songs, “But you point the way to the truth when you say/All you need is love/You were the one who imagined it all.” Harrison also brings some of his religious preachiness in the line, “They’ve forgotten all about God/He’s the only reason we exist” and probably references Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman as the “devil’s best friend.”
By the time of Lennon’s death, he and Harrison hadn’t spoken to each other in years and weren’t on good terms. Obviously, losing Lennon changed everything and Harrison had to have felt upset at the news but it doesn’t come across here. Harrison doesn’t sound connected to the words he’s singing. You can barely make out McCartney and gang in their backing vocals. And the song doesn’t have much of a hook to make it stick with you. It goes in one ear and out the other though it could be worse.
When “All Those Years Ago” was released as a single in May 1981, the charts were still mourning Lennon as his third and final single from him and Yoko Ono’s album Double Fantasy, “Watching The Wheels,” had reached its peak of #10. (It’s a 7.) Just a few weeks before the song’s chart peak, “Stars on 45,” the kitschy disco medley that included bits of various Beatles songs had made it to #1 interrupting the nine-week reign of the year’s biggest hit “Bette Davis Eyes.” Despite the tributes for Lennon, “All Those Years Ago” couldn’t get past Kim Carnes’ smash spending three weeks in the runner-up spot during the summer.
Lennon’s death proved to be a big boon for Harrison with “All Those Years Ago” giving him his biggest hit in almost a decade since his 1973 #1 “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).” After starting the ‘70s as the most successful ex-Beatle being the first member to score a solo #1, Harrison spent the eight years after “Give Me Love” in various turmoil. He followed up 1973’s Living In The Material World with Dark Horse the next year. The album was technically a success but sold less than Material World and the previous All Things Must Pass receiving scathing reviews from critics. An accompanying tour of North America was also a disaster. All this bad press damaged the momentum he had early on as his subsequent albums for the rest of the ‘70s came nowhere near his peak but was still a pop chart presence with his singles regularly peaking in the lower half of the Top 40.
There was also his separation from wife Pattie Boyd who famously left him for his friend Eric Clapton. Harrison was also deep into cocaine and had to deal with the plagiarism lawsuit for “My Sweet Lord” where he was found in 1976 to have subconsciously copied the Chiffons’ 1963 #1 “He’s So Fine” for the melody on his hit. Clearly, the success of “All Those Years Ago” gave Harrison a much needed shot in the arm in between his early ‘70s peak and his late ‘80s comeback with the Cloud Nine album and his work with the Traveling Wilburys.
Nowadays, “All Those Years Ago” hasn’t left much of a legacy. It mainly exists as an artifact of the moment in time when John Lennon’s death was fresh in people’s minds wanting to hear anything Beatles related as they mourned the senseless killing of an important figure. Once that moment faded, so did the song.
BONUS BEATS: Had to search deep for this one but here is French composer and one-time #1 artist Paul Mauriat’s take on “All Those Years Ago” he released in 1981: