While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Beatles (George Harrison); Peter Frampton; The Concert For George

Hello there! This week our blog features a classic rock guitar song, While My Guitar Gently Weeps. We will first discuss the original by George Harrison of the Beatles. Next, we will review a cover of this song by Peter Frampton, and we will finish with this song when it was performed at a tribute event, the 2002 Concert for George.

George Harrison and While My Guitar Gently Weeps:

George Harrison was always the most spiritual of the Beatles. For example, in the spring of 1968 the Beatles had a highly-publicized infatuation with Transcendental Meditation, which led them to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India.  Below is a photo of the Beatles and their entourage: George is immediately to the right of the Maharishi.

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For George this was a deeply moving experience that significantly impacted his life in the future.  However, both John and Paul rapidly became disenchanted with the Maharishi and with TM in general.

This became an isolating event for George, as he felt his Beatles mates resented the fact that he had taken them off to India, a move that hampered their career and had a negative impact on their efforts to launch Apple Records.

After the Beatles return to Britain, George became interested in the I Ching, the Chinese book of changes. Influenced by the I Ching, George opened a book at random and reflected upon the first phrase that caught his eye. The phrase was “gently weeps,” and George subsequently turned this into the lyrics for this tune.

The lyrics to While My Guitar Gently Weeps express an inability to communicate and feelings of spiritual angst.

I look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps.

I don’t know why nobody told you
How to unfold your love
I don’t know how someone controlled you
They bought and sold you.

I look at the world and I notice it’s turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps.

Some commentators believe that the song is an expression of Harrison’s lack of connection to his Beatles mates, at a time when the band was disintegrating. Others have suggested that the song was influenced by current events from 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and the Soviet crushing of the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia.

In George’s initial version, the song was played on acoustic guitar and had a “folk music” feel. However, the nature of the tune changed dramatically during the recording sessions for the Beatles’ White Album.

George was apprehensive about how the other Beatles responded to his song. Unfortunately, this tune was being rehearsed right around the time that Ringo temporarily quit the group because of the drama and dissension in the studio. This tension was also complicated by John’s insistence that Yoko accompany him everywhere, including the studio.

Finally, George asked his best friend Eric Clapton if he would provide a guitar solo for While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Initially, Clapton refused on the grounds that “nobody ever plays on Beatles records.” However, eventually Eric agreed, and used George’s electric guitar “Lucy,” which had been a recent present to George from Eric.

Clapton overdubbed an electric guitar solo on Sept. 6, 1968. He took extra care to insure that his solo would be consistent with a Beatles song, and even suggested that his contribution be re-mixed so that it sounded more “Beatley.”

George was nervous whether John and Paul would approve of Eric’s contribution, but the general feeling was that this greatly strengthened the song. Other Beatles then provided additions in the re-mixing, with Paul adding a piano solo that is particularly important at the beginning of the song.

The final version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps became an instant classic and has become one of George Harrison’s best-loved songs. In addition, it has become a popular vehicle for guitarists to work out some jams.

In addition to its inclusion on the Beatles 1968 White Album, the song was released as the “B” side of a single along with Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da. That single was an international hit, even though it was never released in either Britain or the U.S.

After the Beatles broke up, George Harrison toured solo occasionally. While My Guitar Gently Weeps was included in every one of George’s concerts. Here is George, together with Eric Clapton, in their appearance at The Prince’s Trust benefit in 1987.

The Prince’s Trust concerts were massive charity events. As you can see, in addition to George and Eric we can spot Ringo Starr, Elton John, Jeff Lynne, Phil Collins and others.

It is moving to see George and Eric trading guitar licks on this piece. Both Eric and George have a wonderful melodic sensibility that they convey here, and the audience is clearly thrilled to see ex-Beatles George and Ringo jamming with an all-star cast.

During the period 1982 – 1987, George had not released any new material, although he had made occasional appearances. However, following the Prince’s Trust concert, George joined forces with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty to form the group The Traveling Wilburys.

Originally, the five had assembled in Bob Dylan’s garage to record a single song for a George Harrison album. However, the recording session was so much fun that they decided to form a group and issue an album.

The other members had all idolized Roy Orbison in their youth, so the opportunity to record with Roy was too good to pass up. The group also bonded over their shared admiration for Monty Python. Several of that group’s videos had been produced by Harrison’s Handmade Productions film company. Roy Orbison was also a big Python fan and was reputed to recite entire Python sketches from memory.

The conceit behind the “Traveling Wilburys” name was that these five superstars were all half-brothers of one Charles Wilbury. For the group’s first album, George went under the name “Nelson Wilbury.” Much of the songwriting and arranging for Traveling Wilburys material was taken on by Jeff Lynne.

Unfortunately, Roy Orbison passed away in 1988. The remaining four members produced the group’s second and final album (mischievously titled Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3) in 1991. The group never performed live.

George Harrison was an excellent guitarist, and perfect for the Beatles. His guitar work was solid and dependable, although generally not flashy or showy. However, occasionally he came up with surprisingly complex chord work, such as on A Hard Day’s Night and Taxman.

In particular, George’s own compositions such as Here Comes The Sun and Something feature beautiful guitar work. Through his interest in Eastern mystical thought, George became fascinated with the sitar.

Of course, the sitar had a fleeting but enormous influence on rock music in the late 60s.  But unlike almost every other 60s rocker, George was really committed to mastering the sitar. This was not just a fad to him, and George spent considerable time improving his sitar technique.

George Harrison was also a dedicated social activist. He personally organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, to provide famine relief for that country. Unfortunately, sloppy business methods delayed the money raised by this event, but it became a model for large-scale charity rock concerts.

The end of George Harrison’s life was marked by a number of difficult events. In 1997, George was diagnosed with throat cancer, a disease that he attributed to a lifetime of smoking. He was treated and appeared to have recovered.

Then at the end of 1999, George and Olivia Harrison were attacked by a housebreaker. The paranoid schizophrenic attacked George with a kitchen knife, inflicting more than 40 stab wounds. Eventually Olivia disabled the attacker with a fireplace poker, but George had to have part of a punctured lung removed.

Then in 2001, George learned that he had non-small cell lung cancer. He had part of an infected lung removed, but the cancer spread to his brain. When his condition deteriorated, Ringo and Paul visited George in November 2001.

On Nov. 29, 2001, George Harrison passed away. He was 58 years old. According to his wishes, his ashes were scattered in the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers near Varanasi, India.

Friends and collaborators described George Harrison as gentle, sincere, and generous. In an industry that can be extremely cutthroat, George Harrison was almost universally liked and respected. We remain “gently weeping” at his untimely passing.

Peter Frampton and While My Guitar Gently Weeps:

For several decades, Peter Frampton has been a terrific guitar player and rock musician. Frampton was born in Bromley, Kent in 1950. His father was head of the art department at the high school Frampton attended.

Another student at the same school was David Bowie, who was three years older than Peter. At the age of 12, Frampton was already a member of a pop group, and he and Bowie played in rival bands at their school.

By age 18, Frampton was a “veteran” on the British pop scene through his work with rock band The Herd. At that point, he joined up with Steve Marriott from the Small Faces to form the hard-rock band Humble Pie. Below is a photo of a young Peter Frampton while he was with Humble Pie.

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Humble Pie featured Frampton’s unique and innovative guitar work. About this time, Frampton was introduced to “talk box” technology by guitarist Pete Drake. We will return shortly to this important technical innovation.

Unfortunately, Humble Pie struggled to make it big commercially, so in 1971 Frampton left that group in search of solo fame. Even more unfortunately for Frampton, more or less immediately after he left Humble Pie that group’s live album Rockin’ The Fillmore (featuring Frampton on guitar) became a smash hit.

From 1971 to 1976, Frampton searched for an elusive commercial success. In addition to his mastery of guitar, Frampton was extremely attractive and became a teen sex symbol. Furthermore, he toured more or less non-stop, although his album sales were disappointing.

However, in 1976 Peter Frampton’s fortunes changed completely when he released an album called Frampton Comes Alive. This was a distillation of live performances at different venues, several of which took place at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom.

At the time, Frampton Comes Alive album was the biggest-selling live album ever. It spent 10 weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200 album charts, but it remained on that playlist for an astonishing 97 consecutive weeks.

That album also spawned three major hit singles, Baby I Love Your Way, Show Me The Way, and Do You Feel Like We Do. The last two of those singles featured Frampton using the “talk box” technology.

Innovator Pete Drake explained how his “talk box” technique worked:
You play the notes on the guitar and it goes through the amplifier … you disconnect the speakers and the sound goes through the driver into a plastic tube. You put the tube in the side of your mouth then form the words with your mouth as you play them. You don’t actually say a word: The guitar is your vocal cords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It’s amplified by a microphone.

Following the runaway success of Frampton Comes Alive, he became an international superstar. He continued with hit records, his tours grossed enormous amounts, and he was acknowledged as a true guitar master.

Here is Peter Frampton in a live rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. This was performed at the Festival de Vina in 2008.

The Festival at Vina del Mar in Chile is the oldest and largest music festival in Latin America, dating back to 1960. But this is a famously tough audience – nicknamed El Monstruo (“The Monster”), for over the years they have booed several performers off the stage.

Peter Frampton need not have worried. He begins with a 2-minute guitar solo, jamming for the fans. He then segues into the opening guitar and piano chords of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

It is thrilling to see a guitar virtuoso take on the famed Harrison-Clapton guitar piece. Note the precision of Frampton’s runs and trills as he constructs a masterful solo. He even changes guitars in the middle of the 9-minute piece.

And he has the audience on their feet clapping for much of the performance (so much for “The Monster”!). This is appropriate for he gives a memorable performance.

After his meteoric rise to the top, Peter Frampton then suffered a dramatic career reversal when he starred as Billy Shears in the 1978 motion picture Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

That movie was the brainchild of Robert Stigwood, the head of the Robert Stigwood Organization (RSO).  Stigwood, one of the most powerful figures in the music industry, was manager of the Bee Gees and producer of Saturday Night Fever and had released the soundtrack to Grease.

Stigwood was considered a major force in rock music and movie productions, and he cast both Frampton and the Bee Gees in his Sgt. Pepper film. The movie resembled a rock opera, and contained covers of almost every song from the Beatles records Sgt. Pepper and White Album.  Below is a movie poster for that film.

Poster for the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Alas, the movie was a complete disaster: the film did not cover its production and publicity costs; it dramatically set back the Bee Gees reputation and career; and it was savaged by the critics.
According to Leonard Maltin, the picture “ranges from tolerable to embarrassing and just doesn’t work. As for the Bee Gees’ acting talents, if you can’t say something nice …” Perry Seibert of AllMovie called the film “quite possibly the silliest movie ever conceived” … John Harris described Stigwood’s film as “mind-bogglingly awful”.

However, Peter Frampton eventually shrugged off this film debacle and continued his career as a renowned rock musician and virtuoso guitar player.

We are sorry to report that Mr. Frampton has just announced that he suffers from a rare degenerative muscular disorder called Inclusion Body Myositis (IBM). This is a disorder I have never before heard of, but apparently Frampton has known about this for over three years.

However, as the disease progresses, it will make it progressively more difficult, and eventually impossible, for Mr. Frampton to play guitar. So he has just announced that his upcoming tour will be his last one. A chance for his many fans to see one of the great guitar masters onstage one last time.

The Concert For George, and While My Guitar Gently Weeps:

The Concert For George was an all-star event organized by George Harrison’s widow Olivia and his son Dhani. It took place at Royal Albert Hall on November 29, 2002, just one year following Harrison’s death.

The event had three distinct parts, each of which highlighted an important element of George Harrison’s life. The concert began with a Sanskrit chant, paying tribute to George’s continuing interest in Eastern spiritual thought.

This was followed by a program of Indian music featuring Ravi Shankar’s daughter and also a performance of The Inner Light, a composition of George’s that was written during the time the Beatles were studying Transcendental Meditation in India.

A second segment consisted of sketches by Monty Python. As we mentioned earlier, George Harrison had financed several films through his company Handmade Productions. This included several of the Monty Python films, so the members of the group were personal friends of Harrison.

Here is video of Monty Python preparing for their Concert for George performance. The clip is narrated by Michael Palin. It shows the various Pythons (minus Graham Chapman who had passed away, and John Cleese) rehearsing various bits they would perform, and reminiscing about George Harrison, how much they admired him, and how happy they were to reunite in his honor.

The clip finishes with the very beginning of Palin’s performance of one of the favorite Python sketches, The Lumberjack Song. Here Palin asserts his life-long dream of becoming a lumberjack, and breaks into a song that begins extolling the lumberjack life but rather quickly degenerates.

A performance at the Concert For George (Harrison), 2002.

The final segment of the concert consisted of performances of Harrison’s compositions by a group known as “George’s Band.” Eric Clapton served as musical director for the band.  Above is a photo of the one of the first tunes from George’s Band.  From L: Eric Clapton; Dhani Harrison; Paul McCartney.

Here is a performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps at The Concert for George.

It was great that “George’s Band” included both of the surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. And it is entirely fitting that Eric plays lead guitar on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, since Eric had provided the guitar solo on the Beatles recording of this tune.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps was one of the last songs on the program. It features Eric on vocals and lead guitar solo, Paul on piano and vocals, Ringo on drums and George’s son Dhani on acoustic guitar.

The song commences with Paul’s iconic piano introduction, and then Eric supplies the simple but powerful guitar solo on his Fender Stratocaster. It is typical of these tribute jams that we are treated to no less than four all-star drummers thumping away.

But clearly everyone wanted to participate in a eulogy to one of the best-liked and respected rock musicians on the planet. George’s sincerity and spirituality were legendary, and considerable care was taken to perform George’s songs in the same way that he had originally recorded them.

Indian music, Monty Python, a rock concert – what a combination! And a great shout-out to George Harrison’s many contributions to art and culture in the last half of the 20th century.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Wikipedia, George Harrison
Wikipedia, Peter Frampton
Wikipedia, Pete Drake
Wikipedia, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (film)
Wikipedia, Concert For George

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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