One of George Harrison’s solo masterpieces, ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ was released in two versions on the All Things Must Pass album.

The song was one of the album’s oldest; Harrison wrote it in 1966, found no outlet for it in The Beatles. He attempted to introduce the group to it on 25 and 26 January 1969, towards the end of the Get Back/Let It Be sessions, but to no avail.

‘Isn’t It A Pity’ is about whenever a relationship hits a down pint – instead of whatever other people do (like breaking each other’s jaws) I wrote a song. 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. We all tend to break each other’s hearts, and not giving back – isn’t it a pity.
George Harrison
I Me Mine

During the 1969 sessions, Harrison revealed that John Lennon had vetoed The Beatles from working on ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ in 1966, and that Harrison had considered offering it to Frank Sinatra instead.

The lyrics for ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ are divided into two halves. The first sees Harrison regretful at the heartache and pain people cause one another. His lines, “How we take each other’s love/Without thinking anymore/Forgetting to give back” are evocative of Paul McCartney’s closing lines on The Beatles’ swansong Abbey Road: “And in the end the love you take/Is equal to the love you make”.

The other half reflects Harrison’s spiritual ideals, and harks back to his Sgt Pepper song ‘Within You Without You’. Just as he had sung about “the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion/Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late… And the time will come when you see we’re all one”, on ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ he repeats the theme:

Some things take so long, but how do I explain?
When not too many people
Can see we’re all the same
And because of all the tears,
Their eyes can’t hope to see
The beauty that surrounds them

As on ‘Within You Without You’, Harrison’s delivery was wearily resigned, emotionally detached and neutrally delivering his judgement.

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.

It’s like “love lost and love gained between 16- and 20-year-olds.” But I must explain: Once, at the time I was at Warner Bros. and I wrote that song ‘Blood From A Clone’, that was when they were having all these surveys out on the street to find out what was a hit record. And apparently, as I was told, a hit record is something that is about ‘love gained or lost between 14- and 19-year-olds,’ or something really dumb like that.

So that’s why I wrote ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ [laughs]; I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll get in on that!’

George Harrison

George Harrison's handwritten lyrics for Isn't It A Pity

The music, meanwhile, contains much of the song’s emotional punch. Beginning with stately piano chords and strummed acoustic guitars, Version One builds and crescendos, with orchestral and choral swells, and an extended electric slide guitar solo that becomes the focus of the latter half.

The expansive final section and lengthy fade of the seven-minute recording inevitably invited comparison with The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’, although Harrison’s chords are more inventive and complex than McCartney’s, and the Wall of Sound treatment was in marked contrast to George Martin’s crystal clear production.

Version Two was a far more stripped down and sedate affair, clocking in at under five minutes rather than in excess of seven. Much of Phil Spector’s excess production was absent, diminishing much of the emotional weight of the end result.

The fact that Harrison was able to release two versions of the same song on his first post-Beatles album, not to mention the indulgent Apple Jam of All Things Must Pass‘ third disc, shows his status and influence as a recording artist. Lesser performers would have been kept in check by their record company, but Apple Records had no such compunction with a former Beatle.

Version One of ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ was almost released as the first single from All Things Must Pass in October 1970. However, it eventually accompanied ‘My Sweet Lord’ on a double a-side single in the United States, released in November 1970.

In the studio

Harrison began recording ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ on 2 June 1970 at EMI Studios, Abbey Road. It was decided early on in the sessions to use both performances, which featured slightly different personnel, on the album.

On 17 August 1970 Phil Spector typed a letter to Harrison in which he outlined his thoughts on the initial mix of the All Things Must Pass album. He gave specific suggestions on the songs, and an overview of how he envisaged the final release sounding.

‘Isn’t It A Pity’ evidently hadn’t been orchestrated when Spector wrote the letter, and Harrison was yet to record his lead vocals. The relevant part of the letter read:

6. ISN’T IT A PITY (NO. 1):

Still needs full string and horns. Naturally, performance is still needed by you. I think you should just concentrate on singing it and getting that out of the way.

7. ISN’T IT A PITY (NO. 2):

Still needs full or some type of orchestration. Performance seemed okay, but needs to be listened to at the end.

Bee Gees member Maurice Gibb claimed on several occasions to have played piano on ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, though which version is not known. Phil Collins, who performed on ‘Art Of Dying’ on All Things Must Pass, claimed to remember Gibb being present when the song was recorded, although no documentation to corroborate this has surfaced.

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