It was the mantra that took over the world. George Harrison’s first solo No.1 single stands alone in rock history for going against the secular grain as a full-on love song to the Creator. While there’d been some precedent with both the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows and Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit In The Sky, My Sweet Lord was different. The lyric offers nothing but praise – loaded with 40 ‘Lord’s 16 ‘hallelujah’s and nine ‘Hare Krishna’s.
Harrison started writing the song while he was on tour with Delaney & Bonnie in Sweden in late 1969. His main inspiration for it was Oh Happy Day, an old gospel tune rearranged into a hit that year for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Responding to that record’s joyful call-and-response vibe, Harrison said: “It really just knocked me out… I just felt a great feeling of the Lord. So I thought: ‘I’ll write another Oh Happy Day, which became My Sweet Lord.”
Harrison knew the song was both a departure and a commercial risk, both in its spiritual theme and its specific references to the Hare Krishna movement, which back then was a favourite punch bag of comedians.
“I was sticking my neck out on the chopping block,” Harrison wrote in his autobiography I Me Mine. “I thought a lot about whether to do it or not, because I would be committing myself publicly and I anticipated that a lot of people might get weird about it.”
But he was driven by an aim much loftier than simply getting a song in the charts. Raised Catholic, Harrison had become interested in Hinduism in the mid-60s. In 1968 he convinced the other Beatles to attend the Rishikesh retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Of the four, Harrison was the most serious student, and through learning the principles of transcendental meditation he began to delve deeper into Eastern spiritual ideas.
One of those was monism, or being one with a universal supreme being. In Harrison’s mind, My Sweet Lord could be both a call to faith and a way to transcend barriers between various religions.
Harrison first gave the song to Billy Preston, who recorded it for his 1970 album Encouraging Words. Released as a single on Apple, it was a minor hit in parts of Europe.
That thrilling intro is the sound of what Harrison called “one huge guitar”.
Frampton recounted the session in a Classic Rock interview: “George called to say: ‘Would you come and play some acoustic? Phil wants like nineteen of everything.’ It was just me and George sitting on two stools with guitars in front of the glass at Abbey Road, and there’s Phil Spector. Very surreal. It’s one of those moments that I will never ever forget.”
Against the wall of layered acoustic guitars, Harrison dropped in two electric slide guitars in harmony, a ragged, beseeching vocal that yearns through the song’s key modulations, plus a lively vocal chorus. “I did the voices singing ‘Hallelujah’ first and then the change to ‘Hare Krishna’,” Harrison said, “so that people would be chanting the Maha Mantra before they knew what was going on.”
With each part of the arrangement urging the next, the song continually crescendos into what Harrison called “a mystical sound vibration”.
That vibration topped the charts in 18 countries, including the US and the UK. It also won a Grammy and an Ivor Novello, and helped pushed Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album to No.1. But in the middle of the clamour around the song, it caught the attention of Bright Tunes Publishing, who heard a similarity to a song they controlled – The Chiffons’ 1963 hit He’s So Fine, written by Ronnie Mack. They filed suit for copyright infringement.
To complicate matters, Bright Tunes was simultaneously being sued by Mack’s family, for unpaid royalties, while Allen Klein, who represented all The Beatles except Paul McCartney, was negotiating to buy Bright Tunes on Harrison’s behalf, as a quick settlement (it was almost a tacit admission of guilt).
It was five years before the case was heard in court. The highlight was Harrison playing guitar in front of the jury, trying to demonstrate the finer points of how his song differed from He’s So Fine. In the end, a verdict of “subconscious plagiarism” cost Harrison 1.6 million dollars and set a precedent for similar lawsuits in the decades to come.
The finer points of penalties and payments were hashed out for years, and by the time the case was closed in 1998, Harrison controlled publishing rights for both songs in the UK and US, while Allen Klein had rights for the rest of the world.
“The only shame about it was if the writer of He’s So Fine had been alive in the first place, there probably would have never been a lawsuit,” Harrison said. “God knows I never sued anybody about all the songs of mine that got stolen.”
Despite the stigma of the court case, it’s My Sweet Lord, not He’s So Fine, that has endured. And really, Harrison just borrowed a few bricks from a slight pop song and built his Taj Mahal.
“I don’t feel guilty or bad about it,” he wrote in I Me Mine. “In fact, it saved many a heroin addict’s life. I know the motive behind writing the song in the first place, and its effect far exceeded the legal hassle.”
In 2021, My Sweet Lord’s 50th-anniversary year, a new video was released, which features musician cameos from Ringo Starr, Jeff Lynne and Joe Walsh. Director Lance Bangs said: “The approach was to represent the song visually while these agents and inspectors keep missing the metaphysical wonder around them.”
George would surely have approved.