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Of the three songwriting Beatles, I think that George Harrison struggled the most to express himself. This was partly because he was given less space in which to do so. He got two songs per album, though with “I Want to Tell You” — begun today — this was increased to a record three. (It would never happen again, except on the double album.) And per song, less studio time was devoted to Harrison’s songs than to Lennon or McCartney’s.

If he’d been given equal space on Beatles albums, and an equal amount of time in the studio to work on his songs, would George now be considered the equal of the other two? We’ll never know, but it’s possible. Certainly he kept up a pretty high level of quality that improved as the years went on. By the time of Abbey Road, he was capable of producing “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” both worthy of being rated highly among any songs ever written by anyone.

But it also seems like George had a hard time getting ideas out of his head and into the world. His song ideas took some time to coalesce; he even had trouble naming them. “I Want to Tell You,” like “Love You To” and “Taxman,” was initially untitled. Geoff Emerick suggested “Laxton’s Superb” (a type of apple, following on from “Love You To” which had been provisionally titled “Granny Smith”). Then, when George Martin asked Harrison what he wanted to call the new song, the answer was “I don’t know.” So “I Don’t Know” became the working title.

“I Want to Tell You” is actually a song about not being able to express what’s in your head and/or your heart.

I want to tell you
My head is filled with things to say
When you’re here
All those words, they seem to slip away

It could be interpreted as being addressed to a lover:

When I get near you
The games begin to drag me down
It’s alright
I’ll make you maybe next time around

Or it could express a more general sense of alienation from other people. Harrison was a bit of a curious fellow, from what I’ve read. Not unlike John Lennon, the lofty idealism expressed in his songs was sometimes at odds with how he acted toward the people around him. He admits as much in the song:

But if I seem to act unkind
It’s only me, it’s not my mind
That is confusing things

This is a problem we all run up against to a greater or lesser extent. Having love in your heart, and being able to express that love, are not always the same thing. The palpable sense of regret in this song is somewhat remarkable for a person who was only 23 at the time.

Sometimes I wish I knew you well,
Then I could speak my mind and tell you
Maybe you’d understand
I want to tell you
I feel hung up but I don’t know why

But “I Want to Tell You” ends on a hopeful note:

I don’t mind
I could wait forever, I’ve got time, I’ve got time, I’ve got time

I wonder, did he figure it out in the end? Few people ever do, but that’s no reason to give up trying.


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