Isn't It a Pity
|"Isn't It a Pity"|
|Single by George Harrison|
|from the album All Things Must Pass|
|Released||23 November 1970|
|Producer(s)||George Harrison, Phil Spector|
|George Harrison singles chronology|
|All Things Must Pass track listing|
|"Isn't It a Pity (Version Two)"|
|Song by George Harrison|
|from the album All Things Must Pass|
|Released||27 November 1970|
|Producer(s)||George Harrison, Phil Spector|
"Isn't It a Pity" is a song by English musician George Harrison from his 1970 solo album All Things Must Pass. It appears in two variations there: one the well-known, seven-minute version; the other a reprise, titled "Isn't It a Pity (Version Two)". Harrison wrote the song in 1966, but it was rejected for inclusion on releases by the Beatles. In many countries around the world, the song was also issued on a double A-side single with "My Sweet Lord". In America, Billboard magazine listed it with "My Sweet Lord" when the single topped the Hot 100 chart, while in Canada, "Isn't It a Pity" reached number 1 as the preferred side.
An anthemic ballad and one of Harrison's most celebrated compositions, "Isn't It a Pity" has been described as the emotional and musical centrepiece of All Things Must Pass and "a poignant reflection on The Beatles' coarse ending". Co-produced by Phil Spector, the recording employs multiple keyboard players, rhythm guitarists and percussionists, as well as orchestration by arranger John Barham. In its extended fadeout, the song references the closing refrain of the Beatles' 1968 hit "Hey Jude". Other musicians on the recording include Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Gary Wright and the band Badfinger, while the reprise version features Eric Clapton on lead guitar.
The song appeared as the closing track on Harrison's career-spanning compilation Let It Roll (2009), and a live version, from his 1991 tour with Clapton, was included on Live in Japan (1992). Clapton and Preston performed the song together at the Concert for George tribute in November 2002. "Isn't It a Pity" has been covered by numerous artists, including Nina Simone, Dana, Matt Monro, Galaxie 500, Cowboy Junkies and Annie Lennox.
Background and composition
While no longer the "really tight" social unit they had been throughout the chaos of Beatlemania – or the "four-headed monster", as Mick Jagger famously called them – the individual Beatles were still bonded by genuine friendship during their final, troubled years as a band, even if it was now more of a case of being locked together at a deep psychological level after such a sustained period of heightened experience. Eric Clapton has described this bond as being just like that of a typical family, "with all the difficulties that entails". When the band finally split, in April 1970 – a "terrible surprise" for the outside world, in the words of author Mark Hertsgaard, "like the sudden death of a beloved young uncle" – even the traditionally most disillusioned Beatle, George Harrison, suffered a mild bereavement.
– Musician Delaney Bramlett, 2003
Towards the end of May that year, among the dozens of tracks that would be considered and/or recorded for his All Things Must Pass triple album, Harrison returned to a number of unused songs that he had written during the late 1960s. "Isn't It a Pity" was one of these, having most recently been rejected by the Beatles during the January 1969 Get Back sessions that resulted in their final album, Let It Be. According to Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick, however, the song had been offered for inclusion on 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, while Mark Lewisohn, the band's acknowledged recording historian, has stated that it was first presented during sessions for the previous year's Revolver. Lewisohn's opinion appears to tally with a bootlegged conversation from the Get Back sessions, where Harrison reveals that John Lennon had vetoed "Isn't It a Pity" three years before, and that he (Harrison) considered offering the song to Frank Sinatra.[nb 1]
Despite its relative antiquity by 1970, the song's lyrics lent themselves well to the themes of spiritual salvation and friendship that define All Things Must Pass, being consistent with the karmic subject matter of much of the album. In his 1980 autobiography, Harrison explains: "'Isn't It a Pity' is about whenever a relationship hits a down point ... It was a chance to realise that if I felt somebody had let me down, then there's a good chance I was letting someone else down." His lyrics adopt a nonjudgmental tone throughout:
Isn't it a pity, isn't it a shame
How we break each other's hearts, and cause each other pain
How we take each other's love without thinking any more
Forgetting to give back, now isn't it a pity.
Harrison biographer Ian Inglis has referred to the song's "surprisingly complex" lyrics, which in one sense can be seen as a personal observation on a "failed love affair" yet at the same time serve as a comment on "the universal love for, and among, humankind". This theme had featured in previous Harrison songs such as "Within You Without You" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and would remain prominent in many of his subsequent compositions. The same parallels regarding the universality of love in Harrison's work have been noted by Dale Allison, author of the first "spiritual biography" on the ex-Beatle; "When George asks, 'Isn't It A Pity?'," Allison writes, "the scope of his question is vast: it embraces almost everything."
Speaking to Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White in 2000, Harrison said of "Isn't It a Pity": "It's just an observation of how society and myself were or are. We take each other for granted – and forget to give back. That was really all it was about."
Two contrasting versions of the song were recorded in London in mid 1970 during the sessions for All Things Must Pass, both of which were intended for release, from the outset. According to Harrison, after recording the first version, he decided he was unhappy with it, and the second version came about by chance "weeks later", when one of the backing musicians began playing the song during a session. The so-called "Isn't It a Pity (Version Two)" is noticeably slower than the better known, seven-minute "epic" reading of the song. Eric Clapton's lead guitar fills, phased piano from Tony Ashton, and John Barham-arranged woodwinds dominate Version Two, which is also more in keeping with the Beatles' earlier attempts on the track; as with "Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp", it features extensive use of the Leslie speaker sound so familiar from the band's Abbey Road album.
Like the concurrently recorded "My Sweet Lord", the album's other "Isn't It a Pity" betrays the influence of co-producer Phil Spector more so than the comparatively sedate Version Two. It is also the most extreme example of Harrison's stated intention to allow some of the songs on All Things Must Pass to run longer and feature instrumentation to a greater degree than had been possible within the confines of the more pop-oriented Beatles approach to recording.[nb 2] "Isn't It a Pity" (Version One, in its All Things Must Pass context) starts small and builds, and reflects Harrison and Barham's interest in incorporating orchestration into the album's rock sound. Barham stayed at Harrison's home, Friar Park, and created the scores for "Isn't It a Pity" and other songs from melodies that Harrison sang or played to him on piano or guitar.[nb 3]
Taping of the backing track took place at Abbey Road Studios on 2 June. According to Spector's comments regarding Harrison's early mixes, the orchestral arrangement was not added until late August at the earliest. The first slide-guitar break on the released recording uses a near-identical melody to the one Harrison had vocalised when playing the song for the other Beatles on 26 January 1969 – reflecting a quality admired by Elton John in the latter's 2002 tribute to Harrison: "All his solos are very melodic – you can almost sing his solos." Inglis writes that the effect of Harrison's "elaborate patterns" on slide guitar is to "counterbalance the underlying atmosphere of pessimism with shafts of beauty", similar to the "notes of light and dark" provided by Pete Drake's pedal steel on the song "All Things Must Pass".[nb 4]
Now in the key of G (two semitones down from the Get Back performance), "Isn't It a Pity" begins with a two-note pedal point provided by layers of keyboards and acoustic guitars. Only at the one-minute mark, at the start of verse two, does the rhythm section come in, after which the instruments begin to "break out of their metronomic straitjacket to attain an almost ecstatic release", as Beatles Forever author Nicholas Schaffner put it in 1977. The "balmy" slide guitar passage, supported by Barham's string section, follows this second verse, and from that point on – around 2:38 – the same, circular chord structure continues for the remaining four-and-a-half minutes of the song. The long fade-out sees what Schaffner termed the "pseudo-symphonic tension" burst into a frenzy of brass and timpani, further bottleneck soloing, and the "What a pity" mantra joined by "Hey Jude"-style "Na-na-na-na" chorus.
One of the most obvious examples of what Rolling Stone magazine's album reviewer later termed "the music of mountain tops and vast horizons", "Isn't It a Pity" featured the largest line-up of musicians found on the album – including three or four keyboard players, a trio of extra rhythm guitarists, the orchestral strings, brass and tympani, and a male choir. Harrison's former bandmate Ringo Starr and two musicians with well-established links to the Beatles, Klaus Voormann and Billy Preston, were among the participants. Preston recalled that Spector's approach was to use several keyboard players playing the same chords in different octaves, to strengthen the sound. Preston said he had reservations about this approach but "with George's stuff it was perfect."
Harrison played multiple guitars on the recording, while members of Apple band Badfinger provided the "felt but not heard" acoustic guitars, consistent with Spector's criteria for his Wall of Sound technique. According to author Bruce Spizer, Peter Frampton may have been among the rhythm guitarists also. Pianist Gary Wright, who went to collaborate regularly with Harrison over the subsequent decades, recalls the session for "Isn't It a Pity" as being his first with Harrison. Bobby Whitlock, the other main keyboard player on All Things Must Pass, with Wright, recalls playing a "phase-shifted pump organ, or harmonium" on the track. Another possible participant is Maurice Gibb, Starr's Highgate neighbour at the time, who claimed to have played piano on the song.[nb 5]
Originally, the intention had been to release "Isn't It a Pity" as the lead single from All Things Must Pass in October 1970, until Spector and others persuaded Harrison that "My Sweet Lord" was the most obvious choice. The full, seven-minute "Isn't It a Pity" was therefore issued as a double A-side with "My Sweet Lord" on 23 November in the United States and Canada (as Apple 2995), four days before the album's release there. Reflecting the equal status of the two tracks, both sides of the single's picture sleeve featured the same Barry Feinstein-shot photo of Harrison, the only differences being the song title below Harrison's name and the fact that the green Apple Records logo and catalogue number appeared only on the side for "My Sweet Lord".
The single was phenomenally successful in North America, and around the world. Both songs were listed at number 1 on America's Billboard Hot 100 chart, for four weeks starting on 26 December. On the Cash Box chart, which listed single sides separately, it peaked at number 46. In Canada, "Isn't It a Pity" was the lead side when the single topped the RPM 100 chart for five weeks, through to mid January 1971.
"Isn't It a Pity" was issued on All Things Must Pass as the final track on side one of the LP format, providing, in biographer Elliot Huntley's words, an "elegiac, plaintive song of reconciliation" after the angry "Wah-Wah". Author Robert Rodriguez writes of the public's perception of "Isn't It a Pity": "All Things Must Pass was replete with songs that could easily be interpreted as commentary on the Beatles' breakup; though this particular song predated the events of 1969–1970, the subtext [wasn't] diminished in the least." "Isn't It a Pity (Version Two)" appeared as the penultimate track on side four of the original three-record set, thus serving as what Rodriguez terms "a bookend to a nearly completed journey".[nb 6] The single and the album surprised the music industry and elevated Harrison beyond Lennon and McCartney in the period following the Beatles' break-up.
Ben Gerson of Rolling Stone deemed All Things Must Pass "both an intensely personal statement and a grandiose gesture, a triumph over artistic modesty" and referenced the three-record set as an "extravaganza of piety and sacrifice and joy, whose sheer magnitude and ambition may dub it the War and Peace of rock 'n' roll". Gerson also lauded the album's production and described "Isn't It a Pity" as a "lament ... whose beginning is the broken thirds of John's 'I Am the Walrus' and whose end is the decadent, exultant last half of Paul's 'Hey Jude'". The NME's Alan Smith described it as a track that "catches the mood of aching tolerance of pain, which Harrison can do so well" and "a ballad which will stand out from the album with the passing of the years".
While reviewing the song's pairing with "My Sweet Lord", Billboard magazine wrote of a "powerhouse two-sided winner" with "equally potent lyric lines and infectious rhythms". Cash Box said that Harrison was making his single debut "in a grand manner with two towering sides", of which "Isn't It a Pity" was the "more impressive" and "a giant-sized chant in the 'Hey Jude' manner". Mike Gormley of the Detroit Free Press wrote that the two sides typified the "drifting feeling" evoked by the album, which he described as "a beautiful, very deep set of songs" with lyrics that impart "a lot but aren't fancy".
Led by the single, All Things Must Pass encouraged widespread recognition of Harrison as a solo artist and revised views of the nature of the Beatles' creative leadership. Among these writers, Don Heckman of The New York Times predicted that "My Sweet Lord" / "Isn't It a Pity" would soon top the US charts and he outlined his "complex" reaction to being presented with a sequence of Harrison songs for the first time: "amazement at the range of Harrison's talents; fascination at the effects of Phil Spector's participation as the album's producer; curiosity about the many messages that waft through the Harrison songs". Heckman added that "The spirit of the Beatles is everpresent."
In a 1973 appreciation of Harrison's solo career, for Melody Maker, Martyn Sutton said Harrison had shown himself to be the most mature and capable ex-Beatle with All Things Must Pass and the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. He paired "Isn't It a Pity" with "Something" as ballads that were the equal of McCartney songs such as "Yesterday" and "The Long and Winding Road".
Subsequent releases and live performances
Despite its commercial success, "Isn't It a Pity" was omitted from EMI/Capitol's album The Best of George Harrison in November 1976. Ignoring Harrison's suggestions for the track listing, the company gave over half of the compilation to his songs with the Beatles. In 2009, it appeared as the closing track of Let It Roll: Songs by George Harrison, a compilation that his widow, Olivia Harrison, said was a way to expunge the 1976 album. A demo version of the song, recorded during the Get Back sessions, was made available on Let It Roll as an iTunes Store exclusive.
In Martin Scorsese's 2011 documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World, "Isn't It a Pity" plays over a scene covering the failure of Harrison's marriage to Pattie Boyd and her beginning a relationship with Clapton. The scene is accompanied by Boyd, reading from her autobiography Wonderful Today, describing the night when Clapton told Harrison of his love for her.
Harrison played "Isn't It a Pity" throughout his December 1991 Japanese tour with Eric Clapton, his second and last concert tour as a solo artist. Keyboardist Chuck Leavell recalled it as a highpoint of the shows, saying: "The lyrics are just a great comment, anyway; but in performance the song had a wonderful way of building throughout its course, culminating in the crescendo at the end. At this point I always looked out at the audience to see their faces and could see how visibly moved they were by that song in particular." A live version from the tour appears on the 1992 album Live in Japan.
Retrospective assessments and legacy
– Music critic Jody Rosen, 2001
"Isn't It a Pity" remains one of Harrison's most popular songs. AllMusic calls it "deeply moving and powerful", while in their book on the solo Beatles' recording history, Eight Arms to Hold You, Chip Madinger and Mark Easter write: "If any George Harrison song can be called 'majestic', 'Isn't It a Pity' would be the one." In his book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, Tom Moon names it as one of the album's three "key tracks", saying that with All Things Must Pass, Harrison approached the Beatles' ignominious break-up philosophically and thereby "attains (and sustains) a state of radiant grace".
Simon Leng recognises the song as musically "sumptuous" and praises Harrison's melody and "unique" use of notes beyond the key signature, as well as John Barham's "evocative, suspended orchestration". He notes also the similarity of their combined musical counterbalance with elements of Indian raga, in the number of swaras (tones) in both ascending and descending scales. According to Leng, "Isn't It a Pity" is the "pivotal song" and the "essence" of All Things Must Pass, encapsulating the album's struggle between "gospel ecstasy and the failure of human relationships". He concludes: "Ever bittersweet, 'Isn't It a Pity' records the last dying echoes of the Beatles."[nb 7]
Writing in the late 1970s, Nicholas Schaffner commented on the song's "towering simplicity" and the "endlessly repetitive fade-out that somehow manages to be hypnotic instead of boring". Like Leng and Schaffner, several commentators have remarked on the significance of "Isn't It a Pity" in the context of the Beatles' break-up, starting with the song's length: 7:10 – just a second under "Hey Jude". Peter Doggett considers "Isn't It a Pity" to be a "remarkably non-judgemental commentary on the disintegration of the Beatles' spirit".
Elliot Huntley rues the song's enforced period in hibernation, saying: "[It] simply beggars belief that the track was rejected by Martin, Lennon and McCartney – three men whose reputations rested on their ability to spot a good tune when they heard one." Huntley views "Isn't It a Pity" as worthy of "fully fledged standard" status, with Barham's "soaring" strings and Harrison's "sublime" slide guitar combining to take the song "into the heavens, where it stays". Writing for Q magazine in 2002, John Harris said that All Things Must Pass was "by some distance, the best Beatles solo album" and the "widescreen sound" used by Harrison and Spector on tracks such as "Isn't It a Pity" had since been "echoed in the work of such Beatles fans as ELO and Oasis".[nb 8] Will Hodgkinson of The Times describes it as "simply one of the best songs in history" while commenting that, at its best, Harrison's music "displayed an unobtrusive kind of wisdom and real emotional maturity".
During his promotion for the 30th anniversary reissue of All Things Must Pass in 2001, Harrison named the song among his three favourite tracks on the album, along with "Run of the Mill" and "Awaiting on You All". In 2010, AOL Radio listeners voted "Isn't It a Pity" seventh in a poll to find the ten best post-Beatles George Harrison songs. Both Eric Clapton and Tom Petty have named "Isn't It a Pity" among their favourite two Harrison compositions, Petty calling the song "a masterpiece". "Isn't It a Pity" is featured in Bruce Pollock's 2005 book The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944–2000. In 2013, the Netherlands' Radio 2 programme Het Theater van het Sentiment listed the song at number 1 (ahead of Lennon's "Imagine") in its "Top 40 Songs by Year" for 1971.
Cover versions and tributes
Many artists have covered "Isn't It a Pity". It was one of the songs that mainstream balladeers rushed to record as a result of All Things Must Pass' popularity. In 1971, Matt Monro released it as a single, in an attempt to repeat the commercial success he had enjoyed with his recording of the Beatles' "Yesterday". Ireland's Eurovision Song Contest 1970 winner, Dana, recorded a rendition that author Alan Clayson views as "more poignant" than Harrison's or Monro's, given the political upheaval gripping Ulster at the time.
Nina Simone's eleven-minute reworking of "Isn't It a Pity" was released on her 1972 album Emergency Ward!, a statement on the Vietnam War which also includes a cover of "My Sweet Lord". A six-minute version of "Isn't It a Pity" was issued on the 51-track compilation The Essential Nina Simone in 1993. Jayson Greene of Pitchfork writes that Simone's reading "turns the song into a small dead planet with herself as the only inhabitant", and he cites this as an example of how Harrison's songwriting appealed to soul and jazz artists and invited fresh interpretations.[nb 9] In his autobiography, Harrison says he was influenced by Simone's treatment of "Isn't It a Pity" when he came to record his song "The Answer's at the End" in 1975.
Galaxie 500 covered the song on their On Fire album in 1989. Uncut magazine highlighted the track as a "radiant take" from the band's "career-defining album". Cowboy Junkies performed "Isn't It a Pity" on tour in 2004 and it was one of two songs that informed their subsequent album Early 21st Century Blues, the theme of which they described as "war, violence, fear, greed, ignorance, or loss". Pitchfork's Mark Richardson was unimpressed with their recording; he cited it as an example of the band's weakness in interpretation, saying it was a "plodding take" relative to Galaxie 500's "untethered" version.
At the Concert for George on 29 November 2002, a year to the day after Harrison's death, Eric Clapton and Billy Preston performed the song backed by a large band that included Harrison's son Dhani and former ELO leader Jeff Lynne. In Rodriguez's description, Preston's passionate performance "nearly stole the show" at the all-star event. Jay Bennett and Edward Burch recorded it for Songs from the Material World: A Tribute to George Harrison, a multi-artist compilation released in February 2003. A version by Jonathan Wilson and Graham Nash appeared on Harrison Covered, a tribute CD accompanying the November 2011 issue of Mojo.[nb 10]
The musicians who performed on the two All Things Must Pass versions of "Isn't It a Pity" are believed to be as follows.
|Canadian RPM 100 Singles Chart||1|
|US Billboard Hot 100||1|
|US Cash Box Top 100||46|
- Harrison had recently met Sinatra in Los Angeles while working there with Apple signing Jackie Lomax.
- In author Mark Ribowsky's view, All Things Must Pass was a "converging of two studio fanatics", and Harrison and Spector "could not have been better tailored to each another".
- Barham says that, for inspiration, Harrison also played him Spector productions such as Checkmates, Ltd.'s "Proud Mary". Barham adds: "We were very impressed – I'd never heard a sound like that before, and that was the kind George wanted."
- While Spector's presence ensured a Wall of Sound aspect on some of the basic tracks on All Things Must Pass, his reliance on alcohol made him an unpredictable co-producer. Harrison was left to work on many of the overdubs without Spector's input.
- In his 2014 autobiography, Dream Weaver, Wright lists Starr, Clapton, Preston, Voormann, the members of Badfinger, and Jim Gordon as the musicians present at the start of the session. Alan White, who was credited with drums and percussion on All Things Must Pass, along with Starr and Gordon, has said that he played on "Isn't It a Pity".
- The third LP was intended as a "free" disc to justify the high retail price of the set. Titled Apple Jam, it contained Harrison's birthday greeting to Lennon, titled "It's Johnny's Birthday", and instrumental jams recorded during the All Things Must Pass sessions.
- Leng says that "Version Two" lacks the "uplifting gospel sway" and "saving epiphany", however, and the album would have been better served with the inclusion of one of the omitted tracks that subsequently became available on bootlegs from the sessions. Writing for Rough Guides, Chris Ingham views the second version as "pointless".
- In a review for Mojo in 2011, Harris highlights the song on one of the few "truly essential" solo albums by a former Beatle, saying: "The faster songs (eg Wah Wah) are delightful; the slowies (Isn't It A Pity, Beware Of Darkness) simply jaw-dropping."
- Jazz guitarist Joel Harrison included "Isn't It a Pity" on his album Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explanations of George Harrison, released in October 2005.
- The Black Rider performed the song at the George Fest tribute concert, organised by Dhani Harrison and held at the Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles in September 2014.
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