100 takes of failure: The classic George Harrison song rejected by The Beatles

News 100 takes of failure: The classic George Harrison song rejected by The Beatles

George Harrison had been struggling to receive the acclaim he deserved during the recording sessions of The Beatles‘ classic double Lp, The White Album, and it was beginning to show. The guitarist was fighting John Lennon and Paul McCartney for his moment to shine during every single studio session and, most importantly, for every available slot on the album’s tracklisting.

While The White Album would see Harrison place a song on each side of the record, in what was a record number of inclusions for the guitarist, there was one effort that, despite being attempted over 100 times, was eventually left on the cutting room floor. The fact that ‘Not Guilty’ is undeniably brilliant and still rejected shows just how gifted Harrison – and The Beatles – truly were.

From the very moment Harrison first recorded a song for The Beatles, ‘Don’t Bother Me’ from the band’s sophomore record With The Beatles, he had been vying to find his niche and establish himself as a songwriter within the band. It was a troubling time for Harrison as he struggled to confirm his space on the bill, a competition that ultimately led to a number of his most treasured songs being rejected by the Fab Four.

Of course, given the magnitude of the issue, the situation had been the cause of growing tensions within the band. Harrison’s work as a songwriter had undoubtedly progressed from those first moments together, and now he was rightly knocking on the door. For Lennon and McCartney, however, Harrison had perhaps grown a little above his station, which meant that the songwriting duo were often likely not to give his songs the time of day.

That can be said of iconic songs such as ‘All Things Must Pass’, which the band rejected, as well as ‘Let It Down’, but there’s one number that the Beatles did at least give a go. In fact, rumour has it that they gave it over 100 goes. Still, the long-forgotten classic ‘Not Guilty’ couldn’t find its place. Written during the band’s trip to India, a pilgrimage that provided a proverbial treasure chest of songs, the track was shelved by the band at the last minute and, as a result, banished from the album altogether.

“Actually, I wrote that in 1968,” Harrison confirmed when speaking as part of The Beatles Anthology, where the track was released as ‘Take 102’. “It was after we got back from Rishikesh in the Himalayas on the Maharishi trip, and it was for the White Album,” he added. “We recorded it, but we didn’t get it down right or something. Then I forgot all about it until a year ago when I found this old demo I’d made in the sixties”. The demo was dated back to 1968 and was recorded at Kinfauns, his home in Esher, Surrey.

“The lyrics are a bit passé – all about upsetting ‘Apple carts’ and stuff – but it’s a bit about what was happening at the time,” remembered Harrison. The song is an open book of Harrison’s life at the time, reflecting not only on his difficulties within the band but his pursuit of enlightenment too. Discussing the lyrics, Harrison added: “‘Not guilty for getting in your way/While you’re trying to steal the day’ – which was me trying to get a space. ‘Not guilty/For looking like a freak/Making friends with every Sikh/For leading your astray/On the road to Mandalay’ – which is the Maharishi and going to the Himalayas and all that was said about that. I like the tune a lot; it would make a great tune for Peggy Lee or someone.”

There’s a clear sense of Harrison’s frustration in the song at his place within the band, but also in defence of the counterculture that had emanated from the 1960s. Even on take 102, there’s a serious claim that this song should have been included on the album above many of the filler tracks that ultimately found their way onto the record.

Though it is certainly a little muddled and with several different time signatures, the song’s power is there for all to hear. Given Harrison’s affection for the material, it was later included on his self-titled album in 1979 as a stand-out track.

Whether it was Harrison who, after so many takes, eventually gave up trying to get the song over the line or it was the rest of the band’s determination to get the tune to the appropriate level, what ‘Not Guilty’ proves is that George Harrison needed to get out on his own, he needed to enact his own vision. He needed space to record 103 takes, at least.

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