“When We Was Fab.” Say it with a Liverpudlian accent and it can only be referring to one thing. For that matter, said with any accent it can only ever be referring to one thing: The Beatles, AKA the Fab Four. This was George Harrison’s hook line, and title, for his 1988 single, the second to be taken from his Cloud Nine album. It’s a perfect evocation of those heady days of Beatlemania when those loveable Mop-Tops, the Fab Four, ruled the world and we all thought they would go on forever.
George co-wrote the song with Jeff Lynne, who also co-produced the album that eventually led the two of them to form The Traveling Wilburys with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Roy Orbison. “When We Was Fab” is a musical nod to the psychedelic sound that the Beatles had made their own in 1967, through its use of sitar, string quartet, and backward tape effects. According to George, “… until I finalized the lyric on it, it was always called ‘Aussie Fab.’ That was its working title. I hadn’t figured out what the song was going to say… what the lyrics would be about, but I knew it was definitely a Fab song. It was based on the Fabs, and as it was done up in Australia there, up in Queensland, then that’s what we called it. As we developed the lyrics, it became ‘When We Was Fab.’ It’s a difficult one to do live because of all the little overdubs and all the cellos and the weird noises and the backing voices.”
Besides being such a catchy song, there’s fun to be had just noting the little musical motifs that reference Fab Four classics. Much credit must go to Jeff Lynne who had himself been so obviously inspired by the Beatles during his time with Electric Light Orchestra – just as Take That were inspired by ELO on their “comeback” album, Beautiful World.
Ringo Starr is among the other musicians on the track and he appears in the video directed by 10cc’s Godley and Crème. It also features Jeff Lynne; Elton John, putting the coin in the cup; and Neil Aspinall, The Beatles’ road manager, holding a copy of John Lennon’s Imagine album. There are also appearances from Ray Cooper, while Paul McCartney is rumored to have played the bass while dressed in a walrus suit. (As it happened, the rumor proved untrue. McCartney later recalled: “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.” Indeed, in a 1988 interview, George quoted the lyrics to “Glass Onion,” saying, “Here’s another clue for you all, the walrus was Paul.”)
“When We Was Fab” was released at the end of January 1988 and, a week later, on February 6, it made the UK chart for the first time. Despite the fact that it only reached No.25 in the UK, and two places higher in the US chart, the song endures as one of George’s most popular. The single art incorporates Klaus Voormann’s 1966 drawing of George, was used on the cover of Revolver, along with a drawing by Voormann, depicting George as he was 22 years later.