All Things Must Pass album artwork – George HarrisonWritten by: Harrison
Recorded: May-October 1970
Producers: George Harrison, Phil Spector
Engineers: Ken Scott, Phil McDonald

Released: 30 November 1970 (UK), 27 November 1970 (US)

Available on:
All Things Must Pass
Live In Japan

Personnel

George Harrison: vocals, guitar
Eric Clapton: guitar
Pete Ham, Tom Evans, Joey Molland: acoustic rhythm guitar
Carl Radle: bass guitar
Bobby Whitlock: piano
Jim Price: trumpet
Bobby Keys: saxophone
Jim Gordon: drums
Mike Gibbins: tambourine

The second single to be released from George Harrison’s 1970 magnum opus All Things Must Pass, ‘What Is Life’ was a top 10 hit in the US and several European countries.

When George Harrison was recording ‘What Is Life’ with Phil Spector at Abbey Road, they were running out of tracks, so George came to Trident where I was working, and we finished it there. Working with George was always a joy. When he did backing vocals, it was all George. It was tedious, but it was so much fun. We would double it and bounce those down, and double some more and bounce those, getting the mix as we went along. It was a real juggling act to get all the voices on using only an already half-filled 16-track tape, but we had made the decision about what was needed and went for it. Nowadays, every vocal would be on its own track and mixing would be a nightmare.

Phil Spector left the All Things Must Pass sessions in June 1970 for health reasons, leaving Harrison to continue recording backing tracks and overdubs without him.

Harrison sent early mixes of most of the songs to Spector, who was convalescing in Los Angeles. On 19 August 1970, the producer wrote a letter to Harrison in which he outlined his thoughts on the album’s progress.

WHAT IS LIFE:

The band track is fine. This needs a good performance by you and proper background voice. It should be done at Trident Studios if further tracks are necessary.

Phil Spector

The release

‘What Is Life’ was issued as a single in the United States on 15 February 1971, as Apple 1828. Its b-side was ‘Apple Scruffs’. In March 1971 the single peaked at number 10 in the Billboard Hot 100.

The US single came in a picture sleeve depicting Harrison playing the guitar through an open window in the central tower of his mansion, Friar Park, in Henley-on-Thames.

‘What Is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969. I wrote it very quickly fifteen minutes or half an hour maybe, on my way to Olympic Studios, London, when I was producing one of his albums. Because of the situation. at the session it seemed too difficult to go in there and say ‘Hey I wrote this catchy pop song’ while Billy was playing his funky stuff. I did it myself later on All Things Must Pass.
George Harrison
I Me Mine

The song had already been issued as the b-side of ‘My Sweet Lord’ in January 1971 in the United Kingdom. However, ‘What Is Life’ topped the charts in Switzerland, reached number two in the Netherlands and New Zealand, and was a top 10 hit in Germany, Austria and Norway.

An alternative version of ‘What Is Life’ was released as a bonus track on the 2001 remastered edition of All Things Must Pass. It was an early studio mix featuring trumpet and oboe orchestration that was later discarded.

This is a rough mix from Trident Studios in London August 9, 1970. It had parts for piccolo trumpet and oboe that weren’t used originally because I didn’t like the feel. It sounds a bit of a novelty now and I’d forgotten about its existence.
George Harrison
All Things Must Pass liner notes

The mix was rediscovered while Harrison was preparing the album’s 2001 reissue.

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.

George Harrison
Billboard

A live version of ‘What Is Life’ featuring Eric Clapton and his band appeared on Harrison’s 1992 album Live In Japan.