Strangely, George Harrison wanted a version of “What Is Life” to sound like a Beatles song, given he’d recently left the famous band. However, he once admitted he did, at least on that particular version of the song.
By the time George recorded the version on All Things Must Pass, all traces of his former band were gone.
George Harrison wanted 1 version of ‘What Is Life’ to sound like a Beatles song
In 2000, George spoke to Billboard about the first remastered edition of his now-multi-platinum triple album, All Things Must Pass. The reissue came with five bonus tracks, including an instrumental version of “What Is Life.”
George said on that particular version, he wanted “What Is Life” to sound like The Beatles’ “Penny Lane.”
“When we were going through all the tapes, I just found this version that was like a rough mix [at Trident Studios in London on August 9, 1970] 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 [initial] 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 wrote ‘What Is Life’ in about 15 minutes
In his 1980 memoir, I Me Mine, George wrote that he penned “What Is Life” in about 15 minutes.
“‘What Is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969,” George said. “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.”
The former Beatle recorded many versions of his songs
All Things Must Pass came during a dualistic time in George’s life. According to the album’s producer, Phil Spector, George took forever to make it. Spector thinks that was OK with George because he teetered on whether to release the album from the start.
Another reason why the triple album took so long to make and why George recorded multiple versions of the tracks was because he was meticulous. Spector said George would record a song and tweak it a million times, constantly unsatisfied that it wasn’t good enough.
The producer said perfectionist wasn’t the word for George. So, multiple versions of his songs could be hidden in the depths of his home and studio at Friar Park. The latest 50th-anniversary reissue of All Things Must Pass is proof.