‘All Those Years Ago’ – George Harrison
By 1980, George Harrison was in a creative rut, not having had a Top 10 hit in seven years. There were signs that he was breaking out of it; his 1979 self-titled album received good reviews, and the light-hearted single “Blow Away” had managed to hit No. 16. But it would take John Lennon’s murder at the end of 1980 to spur him into a hit-making machine again.
“All Those Years Ago” was first written for fellow Beatle Ringo Starr, but the drummer thought the song was pitched a little high for him, and he didn’t like the lyrics. “I wrote it with slightly different words,” he told “Entertainment Tonight.” “It had the same chorus, but it was a bit more of an uptight kinda lyric like, ‘You did this and you did all of that.’” Harrison shelved it until Lennon’s murder.
When he revisited the tune, he was full of nostalgia. It’s no secret that Harrison idolized Lennon, who was three years older than the guitarist. The two experienced a rocky relationship during the 1970s, and perhaps Harrison felt guilty about that. He rewrote the lyrics for “All Those Years Ago,” focusing on Lennon and referencing Beatle songs:
Talkin’ all about how to give
They don’t act with much honesty
But you point the way to the truth when you say
All you need is love
Living with good and bad
I always looked up to you
Now we’re left cold and sad
By someone, the devil’s best friend
Someone who offended all
We’re living in a bad dream
They’ve forgotten all about mankind
And you were the one they backed up to the wall
All those years ago
You were the one who imagined it all
All those years ago
Harrison got Starr to play drums on the song and recruited Paul and Linda McCartney to sing backup vocals — one of the few times three Beatles came together on a song after the breakup. Harrison’s trademark slide guitar takes center stage.
The lyrics are honest and direct, but it’s in the chord progression where Harrison really shone. Written in D, the song slips into E minor before Harrison brings out his “naughty chord” — an E diminished seventh. Also known as “the devil’s chord,” the diminished chord features a tritone between D and G sharp — something not present in the regular major scale. It creates tension, and in this case, heartache as Harrison sings, “They treated you like a dog.” (The Beatles rarely used this, but it was common in Harrison songs.)
The chords settle back into D then shift through several minor sixths and minor sevenths before returning to D, shifting down to a B7 and going to another minor seventh. These sad, wistful chords are a perfect accompaniment to Harrison’s ode to Lennon.
The buying public agreed, at least in the U.S. The song spent several weeks at No. 2, behind “Bettie Davis Eyes,” but only managed to reach No. 13 in his homeland of the U.K. It’s now considered one of his most accomplished singles behind “My Sweet Lord.” A fitting place in history for a man who struggled to emerge from his idol’s shadow.