For George Harrison‘s first solo single following the announcement of the end of The Beatles in April 1970, he released what was to be a preview of a statement that was a long time coming for him. “My Sweet Lord”/”Isn’t It A Pity” was released as a double A-side on November 23, 1970. Up until 1969, the Billboard singles chart made it a regular habit to chart both sides of a single individually, so one record could have two different spots, with the A-side generally being higher than the B-side. If radio DJ’s felt strongly over the B-side, they’d give that a shot instead, so one side of the record might be a hit in one part of the country or state, while the other side might’ve been a hit elsewhere. That changed in 1969 when it was decided that if they were going to chart, both songs would chart “as one”. The first Beatles single to do that was “Something”/”Come Together”.
For Harrison’s first, “My Sweet Lord” was a folk-flavored song that spoke highly about his spirituality, while “Isn’t It A Pity” was a moody and somber piece about the human condition. Radio received both songs very well, but since “My Sweet Lord” was released close to the 1970 holiday season, it mixed in with some Christmas song programming and thus becoming a tradition of hearing it during Christmas, even though it is not a Christmas song.
What I love about “My Sweet Lord” is that it’s such an honest song for Harrison, which might seem funny considering he wasn’t honest about revealing the fact that its melody came directly from the girl group song “He’s So Fine” (by The Chiffons). Then again, anyone who listened to The Beatles’ Christmas records knew that pulling songs out of the air randomly was not anything new, since on the 1965 record, Ringo Starr would try to sing The Four Tops‘ “It’s The Same Old Song” before Harrison himself said the word “copyright”. Paul McCartney asks what will happen since they don’t have a copyright, and John Lennon states that perhaps “we’ll get the lilacs (lyrics) out of an old brown shoe”, a term Harrison would nick for himself when he and the band recorded “Old Brown Shoe” as the B-side to “The Ballad Of John & Yoko” four years later.
Thievery aside, it was Harrison’s way of saying that living life is part of the struggle, but that hopefully one day he will be able to “meet him” someday. The first half of the song has him singing “I really want to see you/I really want to see you/I really want to see you, lord/I really want to see you, lord, but it takes so long, my lord”, mixed in with a chorus singing the word “hallelujah”, alluding to his upbringing as a Christian in Liverpool. Once the second half of the song comes around, he changes his calling, equal to him converting to his Hindi beliefs and admiration of the culture and religion of India. All of a sudden, the song has him singing the Hare Krishna mantra, the first time that had ever been done in a pop song, and the first time a #1 pop song featured the mantra:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
This is followed by the Gurur Brahma, or a “daily prayer”
Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu
Gurur Devo Mahesh Varah
Guru Shakshat Para Brahma
Tasmai Shri Guruve Namah
Anyone who had listened to Harrison’s work with The Beatles knew he was incorporating more Indian sounds and themes in his music since “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, so in many ways, the Hare Krishna mantra and a daily prayer was him showing his independence as a Beatle, and telling the world “this is me, this is very much a part of me, and I hope you will continue on this life voyage with me”. You don’t have to be religious to understand his devotion in the song, and thus it stands out as much more than just something to sing to alongside “Here Comes Santa Claus”.
As the song gained recognition around the world, it would be released with different picture sleeves, a few simply taking excerpts from the All Things Must Pass album, some simply taking Beatles photos from the Get Back/Let It Be sessions:
The sleeve used for the U.S. and UK (shown at the top) was a somber pick meant to represent not “Beatle George” but a new George circa November 1970, and he never looked back.