Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 240
Fri. Oct. 23, 2013
“Old Brown Shoe”
George Harrison & The Beatles
Paul McCartney said it in best in an December 1984 interview with Playboy when he proudly admitted that The Beatles were, “the biggest knickers in town. Plagiarists extraordinaires.” Unbeknownst to most Beatles and Dylan fans, no song is more reflective of this than George Harrison’s original composition, ‘Old Brown Shoe.” The 1969 b-side may sound at first like clever nick of Bob’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” but after further listens of this flip side to “The Ballad of John & Yoko,” Harrison’s song is a definite tribute to the American Bard, George’s lyrical mentor and future collaborator Dylan, himself.
It shouldn’t be surprising to even the casual music lover that The Beatles as a group were highly [sic] influenced by the American Bard. Specifically, Dylan being the one who turned on The Fab Four to the glorious herb that was Marijuana. That night the Beatles got high for the first time changed the dynamic of the group as producer Bob Johnston believed in Howard Sounes book, Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, when he said, “All four of the Beatles were in his hotel room and he talked to them all night. They never even talked. When they came out the next morning they were John Lennon and George Harrison and Paul McCartney. They weren’t The Beatles [any more].”
No Beatle was more influenced by Dylan that the Dark Horse, George Harrison himself was the first to feel Bob’s lyrical breath of inspiration; he was actually quoted in Clinton Heylin’s book Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades Revisited, when the Fab Four guitarist famously said, “We got a copy of Freewheelin’ and we just played it, just wore it [out]. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude.” It was that same loner spirit attitude that Harrison would go on the cling to during the later years with The Beatles. Marc Shapiro captured the connection between the two songwriters in his book All Things Must Pass: The Life of George Harrison, when the author wrote, “In November 1968 George, in his late twenties and showing a marked sense of maturity when it came it music, went back to the United States for a visit with Bob Dylan. During this visit, all barriers came down and the two musicians were able to deal with each other as people. During this visit, Dylan was generous and forthcoming in inviting George into his latest musical vision, sitting together for hours, swapping lyrics, chords and ideas. George came away from his visit with Bob Dylan renewed, inspired and anxious to make new and personal music away from the glare of The Beatles spotlight.”
Could you blame George, here he was with one of the best songwriters on the planet Bob Dylan who was treating him like an equal and he had to fly back to record during the White Album sessions, feeling like a sideman while, still trying to get out of the shadow of his bandmates Lennon & McCartney. But after 1968’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and with Dylan’s lyrical influence, George was starting to make his mark as one of the most underrated unsung songwriters in The Beatles.
In 1969, George would compose the ultimate tribute to his friend when he and John, Paul and Ringo recorded “Old Brown Shoe.” Released in May of that same year, you can hear Dylan’s influence on Harrison’s original composition. Sounding like the musical son of “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Old Brown Shoe” captures the unbridled enthusiastic spirit that Harrison had harnessed from his time spent with Dylan in America. Harrison didn’t like being in the shadows, so he cut loose in this Bob inspired Beatles b-side.
While George and Bob would collaborate on such lovely songs as “I’d Have You Anytime” and “If Not For You,” you can truly feel Dylan’s influence on this Harrison original released as Beatles b-side on “The Ballad of John & Yoko.” “Old Brown Shoe” wasn’t just a George nicking one of his old friend’s most famous singles but I hear this gem of a b-side as a tribute to Bob who he constantly praised and protecting his inspirational mentor from a far. As documented in Bill Harry’s book The George Harrison Encyclopedia, back in 1965 at Bob’s infamous Royal Albert Hall, Harrison was the only one of The Beatles who stood up to the hecklers when George yelled out “Leave him alone…shut up.” Defending Bob, when Dylan decided to leave his folk strings behind and go for a more pure electric sound, George said, “It was all still pure Dylan, and he has to find out his own directions. If he felt he wanted electrocution, that’s the way he had to do it.” And what better way to honor his lyrical mentor and future collaborator than recording this “Old Brown Shoe” homage that was most certainly influenced by Bob’s birth into electric phase 1965 “Highway 61 Revisited.”
It makes you stop and think if metaphorically Dylan was Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe.” It’s more likely that the main tribute, lyrically, to Bob was in the verse that begins, “♫ If I grow up I’ll be a singer […] Who knows, baby? You may comfort me? ♫” It’s as if George was sending Bob a lyrical thanking him for all the time his words of wisdom comforted the quiet Beatle and most of all inspired him to compose some of the most beautifully underrated songs of all time, with and without the Fab Four. More than just a song hidden on the flip side of The Beatles’ “The Ballad of John & Yoko,” “Old Brown Shoe” was George Harrison’s obvious tribute to his lyrical mentor and songwriting collaborator.
When the whole world would be critical of Dylan’s choice to forge his acoustic instrument for something a little more righteously electric, George was always the one defending Bob, in one such instance as quoted in Sean Egan’s The Mammoth Book of Bob Dylan, Harrison once said, “The thing I remember most about it was all these people who’d never heard of folk until Bob Dylan came around and two years later they’re staunch folk fans and they’re walking out on him when he was playing electric songs. Which is so stupid. [Dylan] actually played rock ‘n roll before. Nobody knew that at the time but Bob had been in Bobby Vee’s band as the piano player and he’d played rock ‘n’ roll. And then he became Bob Dylan The Folk Singer, so, for him, it was just returning back.”Harrison new that Dylan was a piano player so he crafted this unheralded Beatles B-side on traditional keyboards as he famous said in his book I Me Mine, “I started the chord sequences on the piano, which I don’t really play, and then began writing ideas for the words from various opposites… Again, it’s the duality of things – yes no, up down, left right, right wrong, etc.”
You see, “Old Brown Shoe” was the sound of George once again getting Dylan’s back with his song salute to “Highway 61 Revisited.” Maybe it was a private homage between two good friends that Dylan never forget. The two songwriting stalwarts were friends until Harrison’s death. Although he didn’t perform at Harrison’s star-studded tribute concert, Dylan returned the favor after George passed away with his own personal homage to his friend when he said before singing his own rendition of “Something” on November 12 2002 in New York City, “Thank you. There’s a tribute coming, I guess it’s the next week or the week after, it’s over in England, for George Harrison, but we can’t make it I just want to do this song for George because we were such good buddies.”
I like to think this goes back to that classic saying, “Immature poets imitate while mature poets steal.” Far from being an act of imitation, “Old Brown Shoe” was Harrison’s way of showing Dylan that he had mastered the craft in the literal larceny of rhythms. You can hear it in the melody, in the piano, this Beatles b-side was a more breakneck version of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” More than just a nick for plagiarists sake, but “Old Brown Shoe” was Harrison’s first true musical olive branch to his very good friend Bob Dylan. Their creative bond lasted decades and is a reflection of a true friendship between two songwriting loners who found a familiar sounding connection while traveling on similarly lyrical “Highway” perspectives as they journeyed these creation roads alone.
What do you think? Was Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe” influenced by Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited?” You decide…
George Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe”:
Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”:
Editor’s Note: The funny thing is that this Dylan/Harrison song post got its inspiration from the dentist chair. On Wed. I was in the middle of a five hour root canal and when the dentist was using one of her tool it made this whooshing sound similar to the whistling echo on Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” So during my whole ordeal at the dentist I had Dylan’s song in my head. So today while I was listening to Dylan’s “61,” I remembered how similar Harrison’s “Old Brown Shoe” was to “Highway” and so, out of my pain came this spotlight in ecstasy; and this is how today’s DFTS:365 song post came to life.