The song, written in Australia by Harrison and Jeff Lynne, looked back to the Beatles days. It contains various musical and lyrical references to the 1960s, including quotations from songs by Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson.
I went to dinner one night with Dave Edmunds, in Marlow. At the end, as we walked down the street to our cars, he shouted back to me, ‘By the way, I forgot to mention, George Harrison asked me to ask you if you wanted to work on his next album.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, by the way!?’ He took me around to George’s the next day. I got to the giant portcullis at the front and Olivia said, ‘George is down by the lake, I’ll take you there.’ He took me into the tunnels and said, ‘Don’t put your hands outside of the boat, just grip with your bum.’ I thought, ‘I like this guy!’ We got talking about what we liked, we had a nice day hanging out, then he said, ‘Do you want to go on holiday?’ OK then! We went to his house in Hawaii, then on to Australia. We landed at the Grand Prix in Adelaide, in the middle of the track in the helicopter, and went around all the pits and had a coffee with all the drivers. It was quite an experience. We went back to this guy’s house at night; he had a shooting gallery with a grand piano in there, and that’s where we wrote ‘When We Was Fab’. It was so much fun to do. We wrote it on one piano, George at the low end, me at the high end. It came out really well. I was so thrilled with all the little puns and innuendos.
Uncut, May 2020
‘When We Was Fab’ features Harrison’s former Beatles bandmate Ringo Starr on drums and vocals.
I thought – I don’t know why – I just thought that I’d like to write a song like that period, and the first thought I had was… I could hear Ringo in my head going, ‘One, two, dicka-dun, dicka-dundicka-dun…’
I think I was thinking of ‘Glass Onion’. But later, when I checked that song, he doesn’t actually do that. He just goes, ‘duh-dah, duh-dah, without all these chords.
Anyway, that’s where it started in my head. I started off the chords, and straight away I got about halfway through the chord sequence for the verse and the string bust, and anyway, then Jeff got ready. We went down to this person’s house and there was a piano there. So straight away – I didn’t want to lose this, so we got on the piano, started trying to find the chords there on the piano and progress it, and then Jeff got there and joined in on it, and it turned into that verse, the tune. Although, what became the vocal on the top was still a bit vague, it was more just the chords and little bits of melodies that were happening with the bass line on the piano.
We got a cassette and put it on it, just so we would remember it. Later, during the sessions – or just before we started the sessions to do the drum tracks – we started to try and recall that song, and see what was there with it. At that point, I had been writing another song, or trying to, and what is now the bridge of ‘Fab’ was this other song I was writing. So that just seemed to fit in OK. We did the basic drum track and we did that one, although it was very vague at that time on the chord changes that we wrote.
We quickly worked that out before we laid the track down – I got that bridge, and then Jeff figured out all them chords, like where it goes ‘…take you away,’ and there’s a lot of chord changes there. We laid the drum track down with the piano, I think, and guitar, and I made it later with these sort of sixteen or seventeen tracks that we’d done.
And then we started work on what I thought would make a good, varied album. And at the same time, the ones that turned out best with the drum tracks – because, you know, there were some songs that will eventually turn out fine but they just didn’t come out as good on that day as the ones we chose. And ‘Fab’ was one of these eleven. And we always had this one extra song. We started overdubbing on all the others, and then, every so often we’d say, ‘Let’s just check that one out,’ and then we’d add a few bits, and then we’d go back to the other stuff. And then we’d get that back out and add another few bits. We were keeping it going so that we’d have the choice at the last minute of which song to ditch to have ten tracks on the album.
That one – it sort of was growing and growing… We called it, incidentally, as a working title, – we called it ‘Aussie’ because we were in Australia; that song, you know, we wrote in Australia. So we just put a working title of ‘Aussie Fab’, so that we could remember that it was like a Fab song… and so the ‘Fab’ bit sort of stuck, you know, right up until we just had to come up with the lyrics. Then after the engineer went home one night – which is what we sort of did with all the songs that we wrote together – we just had a microphone up in the control room. And then the engineer finished, when we’d finished our serious bit, we’d just have a beer, we’d just sort of sing onto the thing, find which words fit it, and you know, just tried to refine it down, and it turned out like that. It’s got complete joke words.
George Harrison On George Harrison, Ashley Kahn
Every so often we took the tape of ‘Fab’ out and overdubbed more, and it developed and took shape to where we wrote words. This was an odd experience for me; I’ve normally finished all of the songs I’ve done – with the exception of maybe a few words here and there – before I ever recorded them. But Jeff doesn’t do that at all. He’s making them up as he goes along.
That to me is a bit like, ‘Ohh nooo, that’s too mystical. I wanna know where we’re heading.’ But in another way it’s good because you don’t have to finalise your idea till the last minute. We put wacky lyrics in the last line of each chorus like, ‘Back when income tax was all we had.’ Another one says, ‘But it’s all over now, Baby Blue.’ It’s tongue-in-cheek and shows how Jeff could assist my muse. To do it live, we’d need the Electric Light Orchestra for all those cellos!
That’s the great thing about Jeff. He wanted to help me make my record. But there’s so much in there Jeff contributed to. ‘Fab’ was a 50-50 contribution, but ‘This Is Love’ was a song where I said, ‘Why don’t you write me a tune?’ So he came down with lots of bits and pieces on cassette, and almost let me choose. I routined that song with him, and we wrote the words together. In fact, he had so many permutations of how that song is, he can still write another three songs out of the bits left.
I think he’s one of the best pop songwriters around. He’s a craftsman, and he’s got endless patience. I tend to feel, ‘Okay, that’ll do,’ and go on, and Jeff’ll still be thinking about how to tidy what’s just been done.
George Harrison: Reconsidered, Timothy White
‘When We Was Fab’ was released as a single on 25 January 1988, with the non-album track ‘Zig Zag’ on the b-side.
A 12″ picture disc and CD single were also released, which contained the additional tracks ‘That’s The Way It Goes’ (Remix) and ‘When We Was Fab’ (Reverse End).
In the UK it peaked at number 25 on the singles chart, and in the US it reached 23 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Harrison’s final US top 40 hit.
George said, ‘I have a song and it’s reminiscing about the old days. Can you do a cover?’ I took the same picture from the Revolver cover, the old George, and put a new George on the bottom.
Uncut, May 2020
Paul McCartney was rumoured to be in the video, playing bass guitar while dressed in a walrus costume. In a 1988 interview Harrison said McCartney “was camera-shy that day and he kept his walrus mask on”. However, McCartney later denied any involvement in the shoot.
George wanted me to be in it but I wasn’t available. So I suggested that he put someone else in the walrus and tell everyone that it was me.
Record Collector, February 1995
The video for ‘When We Was Fab’ received six nominations at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards, but failed to win in any category.