George Harrison and Jeff Lynne Knew How to Write Songs That Sounded Like the Other Person Wrote It

Some plan for the universe says that George Harrison was always supposed to be friends and close collaborators with Jeff Lynne. That’s just how it had to be. However, the friends never knew they’d be so alike, especially in the songwriting process. Actually, they were almost too much alike. It was hard to differentiate who wrote what song.

George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Eric Clapton performing at the Princes Trust Concert in London, 1987.
George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Eric Clapton | FG/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

George Harrison had to get to know Jeff Lynne before they started writing songs together

In 1986, Lynne heard that George wanted him to produce his new album, Cloud Nine, through the music industry grapevine. So, Lynne visited the ex-Beatle at his home, Friar Park. Before they proceeded any further during that meeting, George asked Lynne if he wanted to vacation with him in Australia.

However, George had an ulterior motive. He wanted to get to know Lynne to see if they would be compatible as songwriting partners.

“When you’ve written on your own for so long, it’s difficult to just suddenly sit down with somebody,” George explained to Entertainment Tonight in 1987. “I think you need to really know the person, and it’s all the stuff that doesn’t really count in the song that is important.

“It’s important that I know what this person feels or if he thinks I’m an idiot or if he thinks that these chords are rubbish or-all the fears and paranoias that you may have by just saying, ‘Here, let’s do this.’ You don’t want somebody fall about and say, ‘What are you talking about?’

“I think it’s important you get to know each other to a point where you don’t have any fear about inhibition, so you don’t mind making a fool of yourself, then you’ve got all that out the way, and you’re able to begin.

“I think with Jeff, it was a matter of I knew a lot of his songs and I could relate to them… and it was just a question of getting to know him a bit more, and it was sort of, not easy, but it was definitely fun because Jeff worked so hard at writing a song.”

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George and Lynne wrote songs that sounded like the other person wrote them

When George and Lynne started writing songs together, something interesting happened. It seemed they knew how to write a song that sounded like the other had written it. George wrote something and it sounded like a song by Lynne’s previous band, Electric Light Orchestra. When Lynne wrote something, it sounded like something George would write.

Entertainment Tonight pointed out that “Fish on the Sand” on Cloud Nine sounded the most ELO-ish. However, it wasn’t Lynne who wrote it; it was George. “That is the one song that didn’t have anything to do with him,” George said.

“That song, I wrote that the night before we started the sessions. The only thing about that that could be ELO is that Jeff played a little keyboard part in the break in the lyrics, in the middle eighth there’s a little thing that goes [imitates sound], but apart from that it’s, you know, I wrote all the words and all the chords and even just did it in my arrangement.”

“That’s the good thing about the production because I wanted somebody who’d help me make my record; I didn’t want somebody who would help me make their record.”

When they worked on “When We Was Fab,” this happened in reverse. George wanted the song to sound like it came from The Beatles era. However, Lynne might have taken that too much to heart. Entertainment Tonight said the sitar riff at the end of the song sounded like George’s “Within You Without You.”

“It’s not intended to be, specifically, but it does sound a bit like that doesn’t it?” George said. “The first four notes sounds like that. But Jeff Lynne played that on an autoharp. Jeff played that, so you see, he may have intended it to be similar or may not.”

George and Lynne knew each other so well that they wrote songs similarly. It’s one of the reasons why George got Lynne to produce the album. It was also why George loved working with him, and why it was all a bit ironic.

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George thought it was a ‘bit ironic’ he loved working with Lynne

During a rare 1987 interview with Entertainment Weekly, George explained that it was a bit ironic that he loved working with Lynne.

“In an article from the 1970s, when the writer described an ELO song coming on the radio, you said, almost dismissively, ‘Sounds like the Beatles.’ Now, irony of ironies, you’ve ended up working with Jeff Lynne,” Entertainment Weekly pointed out.

“That’s one of the reasons why I tried to get Jeff Lynne, because he knew about… Okay, most people knew about the Beatles, but he really knew about ’em,” George explained. “And I was looking to work with somebody who would know my past and not disregard that, but who I would also respect, as a writer and producer. But it is a bit ironic, I know.

“I think in those days I was a bit sensitive to all that kind of stuff, having just got nailed in court for the other song [‘My Sweet Lord’ and its similarities to ‘He’s So Fine’]. Every song I listened to on the radio sounded like other stuff, and yet I had to go through that hassle.”

After years of calling Lynne a Beatles copycat, George realized he and Lynne would work well together. They were so similar. Working together was challenging but fun for George.

“We’d get through the first bit and get to the next bit, and he’d go back, and he’d say maybe that bit can be a bit better,” George said. “He’s a real hard worker at it, and it made me think a bit more about what we were doing, but we’ve had times when it was just fun as well.”

After Cloud Nine, George and Lynne couldn’t stop working together. They became bandmates in the Traveling Wilburys and stayed close friends until George died in 2001.

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