Alternative Version, Cover Versions, demo, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

By George!

George Harrison, the youngest Beatle, bullied by John and Paul into 2nd tier status in the band, was essentially the runt of the litter yet wrote some of their most enduring songs. When writing sessions were underway ahead of a new Beatles’ recording, poor George had to bide his time while the other two writers hogged the limelight with their latest offerings. Only after they had been given careful consideration would George be allowed to show off what he’d been working on. In any other band, he’d have been the principal writer and held in higher esteem, but in The Beatles he was lucky to get more than one of his tracks onto each album.


By 1968’s ‘White Album’, George had a handful of future classics under his belt. Writing sessions in Rishikesh in northern India proved particularly fruitful. The Beatles plus associated wives/girlfriends along with a raggle-taggle mismatch of musicians and actors (Donovan, Mike Love, Mia Farrow and her sister ‘Dear’ Prudence) gathered at the feet of the Maharishi to find out the ways of tanscendental mediatation.


The trip was not without incident;  Ringo visited a doctor due to a reaction to the inoculation he’d taken before going, John complained that the food was lousy (Paul and Jane Asher loved it) and the Maharishi, as peace-loving and spiritual as he may have been, turned out to be a randy old man, intent on bedding as many of the female guests as he could.

George was particularly taken with meditation, leading John to quip, “The way George is going, he’ll be flying a magic carpet by the time he’s forty!

Against this backdrop, John, Paul and George wrote many songs that would appear on the new Beatles’ album at the end of the year. Donovan turned John onto a new style of fingerpicking that he’d picked up from the folk clubs and Lennon put it to good use on Dear Prudence. George might’ve been equally inspired, as the descending bass run that characterises Dear Prudence makes it into a couple of his own songs on the White Album.


While My Guitar Gently Weeps began life as a downbeat campfire singalong; folk in a minor key, with the ubiquitous descending bass line offest by an uplifting bridge. It’s understated and simple, nothing like the album version.

George HarrisonWhile My Guitar Gently Weeps (demo)

George had to wait an agonising 8 weeks from the start of the album sessions before being given the chance to showcase it. Quite how he kept his mouth shut as John ran through days and days of tape loops creating the arty (but tuneless, let’s be clear) Revolution 9 while Paul completed dozens of takes of the reggae-lite Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and even Ringo had his moment in the spotlight with his honky tonkin’ Don’t Pass Me By is very impressive, but when given his moment (“I always had to do about ten of Paul and John’s before they’d give me the break,”) he rose to the occassion.


The demo of While My Guitar Gently Weeps was used as the blueprint and added to with layer upon layer of guitar and vocals through the use of an 8-track recording machine (the first Beatles’ track to do so) until it was the super-heavy version that appears on the album. An uncredited Eric Clapton was asked by George to play guitar on it. George had been bemoaning the fact that he’d spent hours aimlessly trying to recreate a weeping sound for the track and asked his pal instead to play the solo, which he did with majestic, understated aplomb.

The BeatlesWhile My Guitar Gently Weeps

It’s a perenial favourite, never bettered than when Prince put the other ‘stars’  – heavyweights Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood – firmly in their place with his outrageously brilliant cameo at the 2004 Rock ‘N Roll Hall Of Fame. Two questions, the first rhetorical. How overjoyed does Dhani Harrison look when the wee man steps up and takes the song to a whole new level?

Secondly, what happens to Prince’s guitar at the end? Watch….


I’d imagined, like, a string quartet after the second verse y’know.

If only I’d had these tracks in 1989! Round about then I taped Paul McCartney‘s MTV Unplugged off the telly and must have watched it about a million times. Well, at least 30. The bit I kept going back to was where he played ‘Blackbird’‘ (or ‘Blackboard‘ as he referred to it on the programme. Ho ho.). I slowly but surely worked out how he played it by freeze-framing the trickier parts, playing the mirror image of what south paw McCartney was playing and rewinding it as soon as the song had finished. I’d then play along to it with my vinyl copy of The White Album on my stereo.

The cover of my White Album technically isn’t white. The bottom left-hand corner and the inner gatefold has a distinct beige look about it. Probably because I pissed on it during the night after my 18th birthday. But that’s another story. Anyway. Freeze-framing and rewinding videos followed by carefully dropping and lifting record player needles at the right points on a record made learning this song a labour of love for me. Kids nowadays have it easy. Whomp ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ onto the iPod docking station, fire up and there it is, 300+ tabs of the same song, all slightly different, mostly all good. In my day you had to earn your guitar stripes. Tsk.


When they first started playing guitar, McCartney and George Harrison both learnt to play Bach‘s Bouree in E minor so that they could show off at parties. Looking for some post-Pepper inspiration, McCartney was staying at his farm on the Mull of Kintyre and wrote ‘Blackbird‘ after playing about with Bach’s tune. According to Philip Norman’s book ‘Shout!‘, later that same day he played it to the fans who were waiting outside the gates of his house. 

“A few of us were there. We had the feeling something was going to happen. Paul didn’t take the Mini inside the way he usually did – he parked it on the road and he and Linda walked right past us. They went inside and we stood there, watching different lights in the house go on and off.

In the end, the light went on in the Mad Room, at the top of the house, where he kept all his music stuff and his toys. Paul opened the window and called out to us, ‘Are you still down there?’ ‘Yes,’ we said. He must have been really happy that night. He sat on the window sill with his acoustic guitar and sang Blackbird to us as we stood down there in the dark.”  Fan Margo Stevens, quoted by Philip Norman in ‘Shout!’

It’s been said that the lyrics are about the civil rights movement in America and the struggle for equality. Or it might just be about a wee bird that McCartney saw in his garden one summer’s morning in 1968. Without wanting to sound too glib about it, as a guitar player it was always the finger picking and overall sound of the record that grabbed me.

McCartney and his Martin D28, Abbey Road June 11th 1968

These days, Blackbird has become my Bach and it can now be yours. What you have is a hassle-free way of learning ‘Blackbird”. The tab taken from The Beatles Complete Scores is here, in word document form. And below you have 10 or so in-the-studio crystal clear versions of ‘Blackbird’. Some fast, some slow, some with fluffed lines, some that stop short. There’s some rudimentary piano clanging on one take. There’s also the odd bit of studio chatter between Paul and George Martin. Occasionaly there’s a third voice. That’s a slightly fed-up John Lennon, taking a break from putting together ‘Revolution 9’ in the studio next door.

Blackbird 1

Blackbird 2

Blackbird 3

Blackbird 4

Blackbird 5

Blackbird 6

Blackbird 7

Blackbird 8

Blackbird 9

Blackbird 10

Blackbird 11

All tracks are taken from a Beatles bootleg called ‘Gone Tomorrow, Here Today‘ and were recorded at Abbey Road Studio 2 on June 11th and July 29th 1968, and at Trident Studios on August 28th and 29th 1968. None of the tracks on my bootleg sleeve are marked as being a particular take, so I can’t be any more precise about their origin than that. But this is a good way to learn the song – it’s essentially a work-in-progress session. McCartney repeats the trickier parts and plays it again and again and again, honing it to perfection. Anyway. Take the tab, download the tracks and play along. You’ll have it mastered in no time. You’ll need to add your own foot taps and bird noises. Party piece ahoy!

Piss stain not in shot