“If I’d had my way, the Strat would have been my first guitar. I’ve still got some of my books from when I was about thirteen, and there’s drawings of guitars and different scratch plates. Always trying to draw Fender Stratocasters.“ ~ George Harrison
George Harrison, “What Is Life”, released as a single February 15, 1971, reaching the Top 10 in the US, and #1 in Australia and Switzerland.
(In the UK, it had also been released as the B-side to the “My Sweet Lord” single on January 15, 1971.)
Its success meant that George was the first ex-Beatle to have two Top 10 US hits. The US single sleeve below:
The video at the top of this post was directed by Brandon Moore, chosen as the winner of a contest hosted by Olivia & Dhani Harrison to coincide with what would have been George’s 74th birthday in 2017. As they wrote at GeorgeHarrison.com at the time, “We were totally surprised and delighted by this video and it was a clear favourite for both of us. The dancer really expressed unbounded joy, and managed to capture the spirit of ‘What is Life’ through movement, which the director captured beautifully.”
You’ve heard the song before, of course, and are hopefully playing it now. Once you’re done with that, let’s break it down. It’s my favorite solo George song, definitely my favorite from All Things Must Pass, among my favorite 1971 singles by anyone, and more important for the proceedings here, it’s complex enough to both merit and benefit from a little closer scrutiny.
Although Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” approach to producing All Things Must Pass had its desired effect – Rolling Stone called it “Wagnerian, Brucknerian, the music of mountain tops and vast horizons" – George was the first to admit that some of it was a bit much. When remastering the 30th Anniversary Edition of All Things Must Pass released in January 2001 (see? Even George associated ATMP with 1971), he included a number of stripped-down demos that got closer to his original intent, but as a delightful contrast, he included Phil Spector’s original backing track for “What Is Life?”, which was way, way too much.
“When we were going through all the tapes, I just found this version that was like a rough mix on which I tried having this piccolo trumpet player like the guy who played on Penny Lane. It wasn’t actually the same bloke but I wanted that sound. So I had an oboe and a piccolo trumpet and I had this part for them all written out but they couldn’t play it the same; they couldn’t do this this kind of ‘hush’ phrase, and they played it very staccato like a classical player. So I must have just recorded them on it, then rough mixed it, and then ditched that.
And as I was saying earlier, most of it was live. I hadn’t done the vocal overdub because I’m playing the fuzz guitar part that goes all through the song. So all I could do on the take was to give the band the cue line – the first line of each verse – and then go back to playing that riff. So that rough mix without the vocal – I’d forgot all about it – was a novelty I found.” (more here)
One More For The Guitar Nerds!
What’s that you say? You want to hear George Harrison’s lead guitar isolated? Done!
It’s a lovely little fuzz tone that somehow simultaneously evokes surf music and Motown! Take a listen, see if you hear it.
But wait! ANOTHER For The Guitar Nerds!
The “Wall of Sound” wasn’t just a production trick. Yeah, George’s voice is layered onto 8 of the 16 tracks, but there’s also a ton of musicians here, playing mostly live, including all of Delaney & Bonnie’s backing band, all four members of Badfinger, and one Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Sir Eric Patrick Clapton.
Protect ya ears on this one! The video is very quiet for the first 20 seconds as George counts the band in and Eric waits his turn, so don’t be turning that volume up too high just yet – but once he takes off, he burns rubber. Listen to the first minute and a half or so to see what kind of chaos he’s laying down, then if you want to skip ahead, pick it up around the 4 minute mark, where he goes absolutely nuts on the outro. (Clapton nerds in particular won’t want to miss a lick, though!)
It’s easy to see why this was too much even for Phil Spector, who mixed this way the hell down. One enterprising lad created his own version of a mix that pulls Eric’s version equal to George (here if you want it), but I think it works better to hear it on its own as another bonus track, if you will.
Last but not least….
One For The Drum Nerds!
And honestly, if you’re not a drum nerd, you can skip this…but if you are, this’ll be the best thing you’ve heard in ages. Jim Gordon’s tale is a tragic one (drugs and paranoid schizophrenia don’t mix: he’s doing life in a California psychiatric prison, and we’re fortunate that the body count he left behind is as low as it is), but man, he gave us some amazing music, including this iso track of his drum work on “What Is Life?”
He was the definition of a “pocket” drummer, with an unerring sense of groove that transcended mere rhythm. High profile gigs with Delaney & Bonnie, Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Derek & The Dominoes, and here on All Things Must Pass are just the tip of it: he was surely among the top two or three most in-demand studio drummers in the 70s. This’ll give you an idea of why.
When everything else is said and done, the version to listen to is the good ol’ original. George was right, there’s too much reverb on it, but “What Is Life?” is still an amazing, exuberant track, an unforgettable peak for both George Harrison and 1971.
On this day in music history: January 2, 1971 – “All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison hits #1 on the Billboard Top 200 for 7 weeks. Produced by George Harrison and Phil Spector, it is recorded at Friar Park Studios in Henley On The Thames, UK, Abbey Road Studios, Apple Studios and Trident Studios in London from May – October 1970. Following the official break up of The Beatles in April, Harrison begins work on his third solo project. Including songs that he has been stockpiling as far back as 1966, the guitarist enlists the assistance of producer Phil Spector having recently compiled and post produced the final Beatles album “Let It Be” and John Lennon’s single “Instant Karma”. The twenty-three track triple LP boxed set includes appearances by numerous musicians including Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Ringo Starr, Badfinger, Dave Mason and Ginger Baker. The album also comes packaged with a poster of Harrison standing in front of a window at his estate, Friar Park. It spins off two singles including “My Sweet Lord” (#1 Pop) and “What Is Life” (#10 Pop). The album is remastered and reissued in January of 2001, ten months before Harrison’s passing, and is remastered and reissued again September of 2014 for the box set “The Apple Years 1968 -75 and as a stand alone reissue. “All Things Must Pass” is certified 6x Platinum in the US by the RIAA.
“My Sweet Lord” also began 1971 as the year’s first #1 single, making George the first solo Beatle to simultaneously top the album and singles charts.