What Is Life
|"What Is Life"|
US picture sleeve
|Single by George Harrison|
|from the album All Things Must Pass|
|A-side||"My Sweet Lord" (UK)|
|B-side||"Apple Scruffs" (except UK)|
|Released||15 February 1971 (US)|
|Producer(s)||George Harrison, Phil Spector|
|George Harrison singles chronology|
"What Is Life" is a song by English musician George Harrison, released on his 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass. In many countries, it was issued as the second single from the album, in February 1971, becoming a top 10 hit in the United States and a European number 1. In the United Kingdom, "What Is Life" appeared as the B-side to "My Sweet Lord". Harrison's backing musicians on the recording included the entire Delaney & Bonnie Friends band, with whom he had toured during the final months of the Beatles. Harrison wrote the song in 1969 and originally intended it as a track for his friend and Apple Records protégé Billy Preston to record. "What Is Life" is one of a number of Harrison love songs that commentators recognise as possibly being directed at both a woman and a deity.
Built around a circular guitar riff, the song is one of George Harrison's most popular compositions and has been described by critics as an "intensely catchy" pop anthem and an "exultant song of surrender". In 1972, Olivia Newton-John had a UK hit with her version of "What Is Life", and other artists who have covered the song include Ronnie Aldrich, the Ventures, the Four Freshmen, Shawn Mullins and Neal Morse. "What Is Life" has featured prominently in soundtracks for movies such as Goodfellas (1990), Patch Adams (1998), Big Daddy (1999) and This Is 40 (2012).
Background and composition
Even before his temporary departure from the Beatles in January 1969 (documented in the song "Wah-Wah"), their Apple Records label was an "emancipating force" for Harrison from the creative restrictions imposed on him within the band, according to his musical biographer, Simon Leng. In his "definitive" article on All Things Must Pass for Mojo magazine, John Harris has written of Harrison's "journey" as a solo artist beginning in November 1968 – when he spent time in Woodstock with Bob Dylan and the Band – and incorporating a series of other collaborations through the following eighteen months, including various Apple projects and a support role on Delaney & Bonnie and Friends' brief European tour. One of these projects, carried out intermittently from April to July 1969, was his production of That's the Way God Planned It, an album by Billy Preston, whom Harrison had met during the Beatles' Hamburg years and had recently recruited to guest on the band's troubled Get Back sessions. It was while driving up to a Preston session in London from his home in Esher, Surrey, that Harrison came up with the song "What Is Life".
In his autobiography, I, Me, Mine, Harrison describes it as having been written "very quickly" and recalls that he thought it would be a perfect, "catchy pop song" for Preston to record. His lyrics, while simple, were similarly uplifting and universal:
What I feel, I can't say
But my love is there for you any time of day
But if it's not love that you need
Then I'll try my best to make everything succeed.
Tell me, what is my life without your love?
And tell me, who am I without you, by my side?
These lyrics have caused some debate among biographers and music critics, as to whether "What Is Life" should be viewed as a straightforward love song – perhaps a "lovingly crafted paen" to Harrison's wife Pattie, as Alan Clayson puts it – or a devotional song like many of Harrison's compositions. Ian Inglis writes that the song title suggests a "philosophical debate about the meaning of life", yet its rendering as "what is my life" in the choruses "reshapes [the meaning] completely". Theologian Dale Allison finds no religious content in "What Is Life" but notes the "failure of words to express feelings" implied in the opening line ("What I feel, I can't say"), a recurring theme of Harrison's spiritual songs such as "That Is All", "Mystical One" and "Pisces Fish". Joshua Greene, another religious academic, identifies the song as part of its parent album's "intimately detailed account of a spiritual journey": where "Awaiting on You All" shows Harrison "convinced of his union with God", "What Is Life" reveals him to be "uncertain that he deserved such divine favor".
The song's second verse repeats what Inglis refers to as the "somewhat confusing promise" from Harrison (in lines 3 and 4) should his love be "rejected":
What I know, I can't do
If I give my love out to everyone like you
But if it's not love that you need
Then I'll try my best to make everything succeed.
In I Me Mine, Harrison recalls that he changed his mind about offering "What Is Life" to Preston once he'd arrived at Olympic Studios and found the singer busy working on more typical material – or "playing his funky stuff" as Harrison puts it. Rather than attempt it with the Beatles during the band's concurrent Abbey Road sessions, he stockpiled the track with his many other unused songs from the period – "All Things Must Pass", "Let It Down", "I'd Have You Anytime" and "Run of the Mill" among them – and revisited it a year later, after completing work on Preston's second Apple album, Encouraging Words.
By May 1970, having recently collaborated with "genuine R&B heavy-weights" such as Doris Troy and Preston, as well as participating in the "blue-eyed soul" Delaney & Bonnie European tour, along with Eric Clapton, the previous December, Harrison was well placed to record "What Is Life", Leng observes. With Phil Spector as co-producer and all the Friends team on hand, the song was among the first tracks taped for Harrison's debut post-Beatles solo album; recording took place at Abbey Road Studios in London, during late May or early June. The same core of musicians – Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, Bobby Keys and Jim Price – would similarly elevate other All Things Must Pass tracks such as "Awaiting on You All", "Art of Dying" and "Hear Me Lord".
The recording is defined by Harrison's descending, fuzztone guitar riff, which also serves as the motif for the chorus. The track opens with this riff, soon joined by Radle's bass and "churning" rhythm guitar from Clapton, before Gordon's drums bring the full band in. During the verses, Gordon moves to a square, Motown-style beat – or "rock-steady Northern soul backbeat" in Leng's words – before returning to the "galloping rhythm" of the more open, "knockout" choruses, and the song is driven equally by Badfinger drummer Mike Gibbins' powerful tambourine work.
On "What Is Life", Spector provided what David Fricke of Rolling Stone has termed "echo-drenched theater", in the form of reverb-heavy brass, soaring strings (arranged by John Barham) and "a choir of multitracked Harrisons". The vocals and Barham's contribution, along with a brief slide-guitar commentary from Harrison over the final verse, were overdubbed at Trident Studios, most likely during late August through September. Dated 19 August, Spector's written comments on Harrison's early mix of the song had suggested a "proper background voice" was still needed; like sound engineer Ken Scott, Spector would be much impressed with the result, stating, "He was a great harmoniser ... he could do all the [vocal] parts himself" and rating Harrison "one of the most commercial musicians and songwriters and quintessential players I've ever known in my entire career".
"What Is Life" was released in late November 1970 as the first track on side two of All Things Must Pass, in its original LP format. Along with "My Sweet Lord" and "Isn't It a Pity", the song had already been identified as a potential hit single by Allan Steckler, manager of Apple's US operation. Backed by another album track, "Apple Scruffs", "What Is Life" was issued as a single in America on 15 February 1971 (as Apple 1828), just as the "My Sweet Lord"/"Isn't It a Pity" double A-side was finally slipping out of the top 10. At the end of March, "What Is Life" peaked at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, making Harrison the first ex-Beatle to log two top 10 hits in the United States. The single was issued in many other markets, climbing to number 1 in Switzerland and reaching the top 3 elsewhere in Europe and in Canada and New Zealand.
The single's US picture sleeve contained a photo of Harrison playing guitar inside the central tower of his recently purchased home, Friar Park, in Henley-on-Thames. The tower's single, octagonal-shaped room was an area that Harrison had adopted as his personal temple and meditation space. This picture was taken by photographer Barry Feinstein and was originally included in an elaborate poster designed by Camouflage Productions partner Tom Wilkes, featuring a painting of Lord Krishna watching a group of naked maidens beside a bathing pond. Harrison apparently felt uncomfortable with the symbolism behind Wilkes' design – the Friar Park tower image filled the top half of the poster, floating among clouds above the Krishna scene – so a darkened photo showing Harrison inside the house was used for the album poster instead.
The more common picture sleeve internationally was a close-up of Feinstein's All Things Must Pass front-cover image, taken on the main lawn of Friar Park. In Denmark, the sleeve featured four shots of Harrison, again with guitar, taken on stage during the Delaney & Bonnie tour.
Although it is rarely recognised in the same critical light as "Isn't It a Pity", "My Sweet Lord", "All Things Must Pass", "Beware of Darkness" and other weightier compositions from All Things Must Pass, "What Is Life" is one of Harrison's most commercial and popular songs – a "guitar classic", according to Rolling Stone. On release, Billboard magazine wrote of "What Is Life" and "Apple Scruffs" as "intriguing rhythm follows-ups" to Harrison's previous double A-side single, which were "sure to repeat that success" and "should prove big juke box items". In their Solo Beatles Compendium, authors Chip Madinger and Mark Easter refer to it as an "intensely catchy track" and view its combination with "My Sweet Lord" on the UK single release as perhaps the strongest pairing of all of Harrison's solo singles.
Alan Clayson describes "What Is Life" as a seemingly "lovey-dovey pop song" that "craftily renewed the simplistic tonic-to-dominant riff cliché". Simon Leng credits Harrison's "innate ability to write very fine pop-rock songs" and deems the result "as innovative an exercise in rock-soul as The Temptations' 'Cloud Nine'". Writing in Rolling Stone Press' Harrison tribute book, David Fricke includes "What Is Life" among his selection of "essential Harrison performances" (just three of which date from the ex-Beatle's solo years) and describes the track as an "exultant song of surrender", abetted by Harrison's "pumping fuzz guitar" and the song's "singalong magnetism". Allmusic's Richie Unterberger similarly praises "What Is Life" for its "anthemic" qualities, "particularly snazzy horn lines", and a guitar riff that is "one more entry in the catalog of George Harrison's book of arresting, low, descending guitar lines". Of Harrison's biographers, only Ian Inglis is less than enthusiastic, acknowledging that Barham's orchestration and the backing musicians give the track "undoubted excitement and energy", but bemoaning the fact that there is "little overall coherence between words and music" in the song.
In his Rolling Stone review of All Things Must Pass's 2001 reissue, James Hunter writes of how the album's music "exults in breezy rhythms", of which "the colorful revolutions of 'What Is Life' ... [move] like a Ferris wheel". Writing in 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, Tom Moon says of the song: "Harrison grabs what he needs from his old band – that insinuating hook sense – and uses it to frame an utterly comfortable metaphysical discourse."
In 2010, AOL Radio listeners voted "What Is Life" as one of the "10 Best George Harrison Songs", placing it in third place on the list, behind "My Sweet Lord" and "Blow Away". The song is said to be a favourite of Foo Fighters singer Dave Grohl.
Re-releases and other versions
"What Is Life" was included on the 1976 compilation The Best of George Harrison as well as 2009's Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison. The song has also been featured in a number of popular movies: Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), during the "May 11, 1980" sequence; Tom Shadyac's Patch Adams (1998); and, more recently, Sam Mendes' Away We Go (2009). In late 2012, "What Is Life" was used in advance promotion for the film This Is 40, directed by Judd Apatow.
A live version, recorded with Eric Clapton and his band in December 1991, is available on 1992's Live in Japan album. Part of a concert performance of "What Is Life" from Harrison's 1974 North American tour is included in Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World documentary. While challenging the given view that this controversial 1974 tour was a supposed "disaster", Simon Leng writes of a Fort Worth performance of "What Is Life" that was "greeted with a reception that matched anything the New York audience at the Bangla Desh concerts expressed".
An alternative studio version of the song – in fact, a rough mix of the original backing track with different orchestration (in this case, piccolo trumpet and oboe) – was issued as one of five bonus tracks with the 2001 remaster of All Things Must Pass. In the accompanying booklet, Harrison explains that this orchestral arrangement was discarded because he "didn't like the feel".
- George Harrison – vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, slide guitar, backing vocals
- Eric Clapton – electric guitar
- Bobby Whitlock – organ
- Carl Radle – bass
- Jim Gordon – drums
- Jim Price – trumpet, horn arrangement
- Bobby Keys – saxophone
- Pete Ham – acoustic guitar
- Tom Evans – acoustic guitar
- Joey Molland – acoustic guitar
- Mike Gibbins – tambourine
- John Barham – string arrangement
- Ronnie Aldrich, British easy listening pianist, covered "What Is Life" (as well as "My Sweet Lord") on his 1971 album Love Story.
- The Ventures recorded a version of "What Is Life" for their New Testament album in 1971.
- Also in 1971, a Finnish-language version of the song, "Mikä Saa Ihmisen Elämään", was released as a single by local singer Oliver − better known as Veikko Laiho, of The Laiho Trio.
- Australian pop singer Olivia Newton-John's cover reached the UK top 20 in March 1972. (Her previous single, a US hit in late 1971, was "If Not For You", based on the Harrison arrangement from All Things Must Pass rather than Dylan's.) Newton-John's "What Is Life" also appeared on the 1972 album Olivia, along with her version of Harrison's "Behind That Locked Door".
- In 1986, The Four Freshmen recorded "What Is Life" for their album Fresh!
- Nicola Sirkis covered "What Is Life" in 1992 on the Dans La Lune ... album.
- A version by Shawn Mullins was released as a single in 1997 and is played over the closing credits of the 1999 Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy.
- The song was covered by Japanese band The Collectors on the Gentle Guitar Dreams Harrison tribute album, released in May 2002.
- Classical guitarist Joseph Breznikar recorded a version of the song for his 2003 tribute album George Harrison Remembered: A Touch of Class.
- In November 2004, Neal Morse released his recording of "What Is Life" on the special-edition version of his album One.
- Les Fradkin included a cover of "What Is Life" on his 2005 tribute CD Something for George.
George Harrison version
Olivia Newton-John version
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- The Editors of Rolling Stone, p. 201.
- Rodriguez, p. 379.
- Leng, pp 55, 85.
- Harris, pp 68–73.
- Castleman & Podrazik, p. 80.
- Jim Irvin, "Close to the Edge", Mojo, December 2003, p. 82.
- Apple Records, "Encouraging Words" (retrieved 16 February 2012).
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- George Harrison, p. 162.
- Inglis, p. 26.
- Richie Unterberger, "George Harrison 'What Is Life'", Allmusic (retrieved 22 February 2012).
- Clayson, p. 298.
- Allison, p. 158.
- Allison, pp 124, 158.
- Greene, p. 181.
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