Certain Songs #492: George Harrison – “What is Life”

george harrison all things must pass Album: All Things Must Pass
Year: 1970

A childhood memory, probably from when I was 11 years old: it’s before dawn, and we are driving from Fresno up to a soccer tournament in the Bay Area. We’re somewhere deep in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, having just turned onto the 152, heading west towards the 5.

At that point, we were getting out of the range my beloved 1300 KYNO — because of course, I’d already commandeered the car radio — but just as the station is fading into a choppy signal, “What is Life” comes on as the first rays of the morning sun come in through the back window of our station wagon.

Now, I realize the more appropriate George Harrison song for that story is “Here Comes The Sun,” it doesn’t matter, because the joyous sound of “What Is Life” has always made it my favorite of all of his songs. And while I realize that having every single musician ever play on All Things Must Pass was part of its charm, it could also get wearying after awhile — thanks, Phil Spector! — so I’ve never held it in the same regard as a lot of you do doubt do.

That said, the massive sound always made “What Is Life” completely dominate on AM radio — probably one of the many reasons that it was a well-deserved worldwide top 10 hit in 1971.

It also didn’t hurt that he came up with an absolutely indelible melody line for the chorus:

Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side
Tell me, what is my life without your love
Tell me, who am I without you, by my side

And for a song with such a massive production, the best part is where the whole song stops and George just plays that curlicue riff, and one by one, Carl Radle, Eric Clapton & Jim Gordon join in just for a hot second before the the rest of the musicians — including Bobby Whitlock, Jim Price and Bobby Keyes, — just explode back in.

That right: “What is Life” combines a guitar hook that would have enlivened any Beatles song, a rhythm section featuring the guys who Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs , and the horn section that helped make Exile on Main St one of my top 5 all-time favorite albums. All the while sounding like none of those bands.

“What is Life”

Every Certain Song Ever
A filterable, searchable & sortable database with links to every “Certain Song” post I’ve ever written.

Check it out!

Certain Songs Spotify playlist
(It’s recommended that you listen to this on Spotify as their embed only has 200 songs.)

Support “Certain Songs” with a donation on Patreon
Go to my Patreon page

Comments are closed.