Monday, 7 December 2015
George Harrison: "Thirty Three And A Third" (1976)
George Harrison "Thirty-Three-And-A-Third" (1976)
Woman Don't You Cry For Me/Dear One/Beautiful Girl/This Song/See Yourself//It's What You Value/True Love/Pure Smokey/Crackerbox Palace/Learning How To Love You
Well, dear readers, it's been a long time coming but here it finally is: our one thousandth post! Yes that's right: one thousand posts of newsing viewing, musicing, noodling, confusing, blue suede shoes-ing, politicking, nit-picking and praise singing covering everything from whether Sgt Pepper's really is the zenith of the manifestation of the hopes and dreams of a particular point in time in reference to previous moments of civilisation to the stone heads of Pink Floyd's 'Division Bell' bickering with each other for hours to random Youtube videos featuring mascot dogs in top hats. It's been an eventful voyage to get here, sitting through some terrific milestones and unsung classics of the best music the 20th century - and a few truly terrible albums along the way too. It's never been easy, but the best music was never meant to be easy and the challenge of passing on a soupcon of knowledge to you (via several thousand word essays) has been a real privilege. There was a stage when I didn't think we'd make the hundredth post, so this has been a particularly valuable milestone (by the way that's in terms of posts written rather than posted in case you're counting them all; there's rather a lot in reserve at present after working hard on our intended book series that's still due 2017). Thankyou for coming this far and allowing the AAA into your homes/laptops/mobiles/the recycling section of your pc.
While we're in celebration mode it's all my 'vinyl birthday'. We only get one so I'm going to celebrate it properly with a double party to which you're all invited! What is a vinyl birthday I hear you cry? Why, it's the moment when the gramophone needle of destiny has reached the end of the first side of your metaphorical long-playing existence - or to put it another way when the Earth has gone round the sun exactly thirty-three-and-a-third times (note: due to a bit of messing around that's gone on with our posts recently, it won't quite make the real date but it's close enough to consider the time delay of the posting as merely the outer groove on the record!) You get to have another party when you turn '45' and another when you turn '78' (I feel sorry for the modern generation who will likely never get to the '1000-2000' songs on your average I-pod/mp3 player unless they're cryogenically frozen with a pair of earphones attached) but you only get one 'thirty-three-and-a-third' party per regeneration so be careful how you use it. How am I going to spend it? The only way I know how - by reviewing a record with you for company. No prizes for guessing that the record is George Harrison's 'Thirty-Three-And-A-Third', the guitarist's own celebration/commiseration at reaching this milestone age. Which is quite a scary thought for those of us who are about or recently had 'vinyl birthday's of our own - how the heck did George achieve so much so young - The Beatles had been officially over for six years and his solo career had already risen and fallen once by this stage. All I have to show for my existence is a thousand posts of newsing, viewsing and musicing and some random Youtube videos starring dogs in top hats - fun as it's been I'd have swapped it for being in The Beatles any day.
Or would I? You see, that's the thing about this record: till now George's solo records have found him either largely happy and buoyant ('All Things Must Pass', which even manages to sound happy when being miserable), disgruntled and disillusioned ('Living In The Material World') , moody and confused ('Dark Horse') or downright depressed ('Extra Texture'). 'Thirty-Three-And-A-Third' is, however, a much more mixed album, with George unsure whether life has dealt him lemons or lemonade: greeted as a sunshiney singalong at the time on the back of such a melancholy quote of solo albums, actually it's a more complex record than that and comes back to what we were saying: this is George at the end of side one of his life, at a crossroads between the past and the future, half-yearning and half-dreading what might be coming next. Life is no longer full of hope or hopelessness but a mixture somewhere in the middle of the two, with George now removed a step emotionally from the turmoil of the last few years full of Beatle breakups and losing his wife to Eric Clapton.
There is, for example, a lot of reasons why the future looks rosy, why the 'side two' of George's life will bring all the success 'side one' did but more on George's own terms. With Apple now officially over (this album's predecessor 'Extra Texture' was the last album of original material released on it) and George's contract with EMI up too he is now officially free to leave the nest that's been his home since 'Love Me Do' fourteen long years (an EP or thereabouts) ago. Warner Brothers were the label that courted George the most and bought into his concept of a whole new record label to replace Apple: 'Dark Horse Records', a concept which George had been planning since the album of that name back in 1975 and which he had big plans for (even if in the end the label only signed five other acts: Ravi Shankar (inevitably), Splinter (a Mal Evans discovery not unlike his beloved Badfinger) and three unknown and forgotten acts: 'Attitudes' (the LA session musician who'd played on most of 'Extra Texture'), 'Stairsteps' (a Chicago gospel band who were the Christian equivalent of the Radna Krishna Temple Movement album George produced for Apple back in 1968) and their lead singer Keni Burke when she went solo). It's hopefully not giving much away to knowledgeable fans that Warner Brothers will become as hard for George to deal with as Apple, but for now it's a source of strength and happiness: the label really want him and his music for what it says, not just because he's a Beatle and part of the furniture taken for granted at EMI. George is even pleased enough with how the elongated contracts were going to record a quick 'thankyou' song for label boss Mo Ostin which is as close to being kind to a figure in authority as George ever came (the pretty song 'Mo', a bootleg regular which really deserves a release on CD one of these days - this album would make the most sense).
The other spring in George's step comes from the new love of his life, Olivia Trinidad. We've already covered their meeting on our review for 'Extra Texture' (to bring you up to speed, she was hired as the secretary for Dark Horse records - and George found himself making more and more excuses to go in and talk to her!) This is the moment their relationship is made public, though, with the first love songs George wrote for her and while Harrison never approached McCartney in the 'silly love songs' stakes this is the record that comes closest with three ballads very much written to his new love, one treacly Cole Porter cover even Paul would have had second thoughts about covering and more than a hint of Olivia's philosophy and character in most of the other songs on the record too. I'm surprised in retrospect that this wasn't bigger news at the time: George had just split up with his model wife (in both meanings of the word) who was almost as big a star as he was and who was now with the equally famous Eric Clapton; instead of getting another big name trophy wife the papers have heard of George is now openly spending his time with his secretary. Though you could argue that this is in character with the maturer George, it's the Lennon-like honesty and open-ness of it all that you'd expect to make bigger fuss: the growing relationship with Olivia is plain to see and results in the first Harrison love songs since the most famous one 'Something' a full seven years ago. No wonder 'Thirty Three' feels like an album of new beginnings: the beginning of 'side two' is looking rather nice as things start.
However, it's the successor record named simply 'George Harrison' that's the only truly happy and carefree album of George's career; this album which dangles right at the halfway point of the solo Harrison discography hasn't quite finished with 'side one' yet. Though 'Extra Texture' was a nightmare to write, it sounds like it was a relatively easy album to make: the session musicians nailed the songs quickly and relatively painlessly (they nail the record a bit too well in fact - a little bit more raw grit would have made an under-rated album sound much better). 'Thirty-Three' had the opposite problem: the songs came nice and quickly, inspired by George's new-found happiness, but they were anything but easy to record. This album - and Dark Horse Records - should have been on Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss' 'A&M' label, which was the plan right up until the eleventh hour in September 1976, a week into the sessions, when the label sued George for non-appearance of an album they'd been promised since July. If that seems like a really stupid thing to do to a new artist you know you've got on your books for at least another four albums and who could still make or break your label then, well, it is but A&M had some justification for their decision. By September 1976 they'd been sinking money into the 'Dark Horse' label for two years with nothing to show for it except a few flop Splinter singles and George's sheepish acknowledgement that he still owed Apple a final album before he could become an official A&M act was a little clumsy (it's one of the times the later Beatles could really have done with Brian Epstein to get them out of trouble). The sudden switch to Warner Brothers late in the day was both a blessing and a curse - a blessing in that it bought George out of a very steep looking financial hole and a curse in that George was no longer bargaining from a position of power; future headaches made George wonder if he hadn't been better off taking up the A&M offer after all, court case or no.
The reasons for the delay were two-fold and linked and funnily enough revolved around another court case. A silly, unnecessary court case that should have been handled quite differently but was such a new phenomenon that nobody was quite sure what the protocol for it was. The publishers of the Chiffon song 'He's So Fine' argued that George had 'stolen' the tune of their recording for his hit single 'My Sweet Lord', a case which unbelievable stood up in court and cost George somewhere around $1,600,000. Though the song uses similar chords and notes (there are only eight possible notes after all - or thirteen if you count the black notes), I still can't hear the resemblance myself and even the judge overseeing the case ruled that the similarities were so slight George must have picked them up subconsciously. It seems far more likely that the suit was more a grumpy and spiteful way for ex-Beatles Manager Allen Klein to wreak some form of revenge - though the press strangely missed the fact his company ABKCO owned the rights to the Chiffon song and he had more than a slight grudge against the Beatles by the end of Apple. However the case is complicated by the fact that George quite openly ripped off the riff to the Edwin Hawkins Singers' 'Oh Happy Day' and had been quite open about this 'inspiration' before the court case (which was, pretty much, the first of its kind in the rock world - artists were far more quiet about what bits they'd 'nicked' after this!) The whole thing, then, struck George as completely daft: fighting a claim that wasn't true while trying to hide the song he had 'ripped off' and which had seen him return over and over again to court across five long years since 1971 (the final hearing took place in September 1976, just two months before this album's release). Typically George's response was to ask 'what was all that about then?' with humour and the album song the event inspired ('This Song') is one of his funniest, written to sound as unlike anything else around as he could (though that doesn't stop a jury declaring that he's nicked the Four Tops song 'Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch, Squid Face' - well that's what I know it as - in the song, despite the two having even less in common than 'My Sweet Lord He's So Fine'!)
This was a delay from the past that George could have done without and which distracted him badly and sapped his energy just when he needed to be at his peak. When the sessions finally began in May George found he didn't possess his usual strength and commitment on the first week of recordings (George wasn't eating well without anyone around to cook for him - George learnt more things than most during his time on the planet but cooking was never one of them - and was still at the end of his post-Patti era of binge-drinking and drugging; both were more than likely linked to the stress not only of the divorce but the court-case and stress over Dark Horse Records). At the start of the second week of sessions he fell very poorly with hepatitis, which led to him cancelling the rest of the sessions intended to run until June and delaying them until September. George grew more and more ill, desperate for a solution that no doctor seemed to be able to give him - it didn't help that just when he needed support his intended record company dismissed what was happening to him as 'prima donna' behaviour and sued him. As it turned out the only person who could 'cure' George was Olivia, who was a keen believer in homeopathy and turned George on to the art of acupuncture and reiki, which surprisingly George had never actually tried for himself before. George was cured so quickly and completely that he became a devout believer for the rest of his life, recommending cures and treatments for his friends (and being pictured receiving acupuncture on the inner sleeve of the 'Somewhere In England' LP, perhaps a testy comment on how Warner Brothers were making him ill again during the making of another troubled record - though that's another story for another time). The time spent alone with Olivia at the start of their relationship - the one person bringing light and laughs and fun into George's life at a time of 'grey cloudy lies' - no doubt helped too.
If you've been reading these reviews in chronological order (George's, not ours) then it might have struck you that we haven't mentioned 'religion' yet, despite it being such a major point of every album up till now. That's because, for the first time since the Beatles days, religion doesn't play a major role here - chances are George had been asked to 'tone the God thing down' and though he'd go along with it for the sake of a new label just this once - although it still plays a minor one. Technically speaking the actual name of this album is 'Thirty Three & 1/
which isn't quite the
same thing at all, even if no one actually calls it that for ease of
pronunciation and the bit at the end everyone thinks is a 'squiggle' is one of
George's favourite symbols which crops up often on the artwork of his albums.
is the Hindu/Buddhist/Jainist (look it up -
it's the closest I've ever come to finding a religion that matches my beliefs
and whose ancient wisdom reads like the lyrics of a 1970s John Lennon song,
although its emphasis on not hoarding possessions makes record collecting very
difficult) symbol for 'Om' (or as the Moody Blues once pronounced it
'Ommmmmm'). It's a spiritual incantation that's near impossible to translate,
often given at the beginning or end of sacred texts and is a 'holy' word felt
to directly link to the 'cosmic sound' of the universe (like a hell of a
'Hallelujah' or an amplified 'Amen'). Though many fans miss it, the use of the
word (in sanskrit) has never been given more importance on an album cover
before (and implies that George is not a mathematical equation round the world
but a fraction of the way through his spiritual destiny). 'Dear One' is the
closest the album comes, with a being who has such power they don't realise
trying their best to benevolently bring peace and contentment to the world -
it's with a shock that you realise by the end that George has been singing
about his new girlfriend, not his God (though he clearly sees links with both;
in years to come George will try this trick in reverse, 'secretly' getting in
references to God while pretending they're love songs written about a girl).
'See Yourself' and 'It's What You Value' are, by contrast, perhaps George's
most 'Christian' pieces: both songs are about forgiveness, turning the other
cheek and the pointless of jealousy. For the first time ever in George's solo
career though (and the only time if you, like me, believe that George is
singing as much about God as Olivia on 'Your Love Is Forever' from the next LP)
there isn't a single song dedicated to George's 'creator'. As a result this is
the record often recommended for newcomer fans to start with - it's certainly
George's most accessible record and was greeted with a surprised relative
thumbs up both on release in 1976 and on re-release as the first of the 'Dark
Horse Years' CDs in 1999 (where most reviewers nominated it as the highlight of
However, I'm not sure I quite agree. 'Thirty Three' may well be George's most accessible LP - but that also means that in many ways it's his emptiest. Though the more hectoring lectures of 'Living In The Material World' got my writing knickers in a twist and had clearly got a bit out of control, at least George was singing about what he believed in and loved. As we've seen, 'Thirty Three' is an album that has a bit of everything from all of the earlier albums, without their same identity: we get a bit of the joy and wisdom of 'Pass', the anti-capitalist and court-room dramas of 'Material World', the sadness of 'Dark Horse' and the grumpiness of 'Extra Texture', but all of them are emotions that are just passing instead of being explored. Joyful as it is to hear George happy again after so many years of misery, he hasn't yet arrived at the stage he will on the next glorious LP when he's worked out why he's happy and what he's learnt from it all, so after so many years of being out of practice the 'love' songs on this album are closer in feel to the simplicity of 'I Need You' than the depth of 'Something' and are content simply to say 'I'm in love and I'm happy', which musically is actually a downward turn from the 'God, I'm fed up of this!' theme of 'Extra Texture' (a record usually blasted compared to this one). The fact that two songs on this album date back to the final Beatle days ('Woman Don't You Cry For Me' and 'Beautiful Girl') and have been passed over for the first George Harrison albums is not exactly a sign of overflowing creativity (and neither are long lost classics, although the latter would have cheered up the lesser halves of both 'Dark Horse' and 'Texture' no end). Newer songs like 'Pure Smokey' (a Smokey Robinson tribute that, oddly, sounds less like Smokey Robinson than anything on 'Extra Texture') and 'Learning How To Love You' are also rather forgettable - not something you could say about many earlier Harrison songs. The fact that we get only the second cover of George's career (and, unlike the sarcastic 'Bye Bye Love' there is no hidden message or mammoth re-write going on in 'True Love') also loses this album a half-mark. The biggest loss for me, though, is the lack of a 'theme' - though none of George's albums ever came close to being a 'concept' the tracks usually ended up that way simply because they were written in a particular mood at a particular moment in time (though George may have been the 'quiet' Beatle in press terms, he's generally the one most content to wear his emotions on his musical sleeves and let us all know just what he's feeling, even if he's not sure what he's feeling himself). 'Thirty Three' isn't a pure picture but a patchwork quilt or a pointillist painting made up of lots of different moods from across a gap of lots of different years. Some fans like the way this record moves on from making them cry to making them laugh to making them cross to making them think to making them dewey-eyed and sickly. That is after all what most writers have done (George's old mate McCartney being a master of the art). But for George emotions aren't passing but intense and going from one extreme to another just makes my head spin. 'Thirty Three' is one of those records that sounds a lot better heard sampled, when your mp3 player ends up on random or when you hear a song heard on the radio (a rarity that: this is also the first Harrison solo album without a charting single on it in the UK, though 'Crackerbox Palace' should have been; unusually the US bought into the sly comedy of 'This Song' instead).
When you do hear this album in bits, it makes a lot more sense. Though I'm not sure I could ever lay much claim for most of the songs mentioned above, 'Beautiful Girl' is a very beautiful song - and while it's not that deep by George's standards not every song needs to be deep. I love the wisdom of 'See Yourself' and to a lesser extent 'It's What You Value' (it's such a shame two such similar songs are back to back), which are so George: simple but heavily profound, based of course round a saying built into his home by eccentric Victorian architect Frankie Crisp ('Pass not your friends under a microscope'). 'This Song' and even more so 'Crackerbox Palace' are amongst the funniest songs George ever wrote, laugh out loud self-deprecating classics that joke about George's writing and lifestyle that show off that delightful musical big grin which had been missing in George's songs (and life) for much too long. Olivia may not have inspired George's best love songs - not yet anyway - but she plays a crucial role in this album for giving George back his sense of humour and a joy for life that can make even a court case sound fun. 'Dear One' too is an unusual haunting ballad that's like a sampler for the record and does a good job at summing up a confused period: it's a happy song about having finally met a companion sung in the same lonely minor key way of the past three albums which suddenly turns into a comedy song full of croaking-frog synths.
This is, then, a more consistent record than either 'Dark Horse' or 'Extra Texture' and arguably contains more quality material than both and like these two records and more especially the sequel 'George Harrison' from 1979 they remain some of the most overlooked and underappreciated AAA records of them all. There are so many layers to George's work that even his least interesting tends to be more interesting than most and though quite a few songs on this record fall flat, none of them come close to being bad. This is, in many ways, an easier album to love than the records immediately before it: George is happier, poppier and more in line with what other artists were trying to make circa 1976. However for an artist like George, who never cared one jolt for what was in fashion, it's actually a displeasing sign of trying too hard to give the record company what they want instead of what George felt most in his heart. George was far from immune to the pressure he was under, hard as he tried to ignore it, and in another decade this will result in the tragedy that was 'Cloud Nine' (yeah it sold millions and had a few decent singles taken from it, but it's just George doing bad Jeff Lynne) - thankfully 'Thirty Three' isn't quite so excessively relentlessly 'commercial', but the slap bass opening to the record (played by Willie Weeks) still makes me feel ill whenever I hear it and the cooing mooning (mooing?) love songs play things so safe they come wearing fourteen helmets and an ocean of bandages. Not to mention the rather odd advertising campaigns which don't sound very 'George' at all (anybody got a pair of second hand 33 and 1/3rd sunglasses they aren't using?!) I much prefer 'my' George when he's being difficult or grumpy or complex or raising unanswerable questions, just as long as he's being 'truthful' to himself and his music (well, maybe not 'The Lord Loves The One That Love The Lord', but by and large anyway...) This is the first of a run of Warner Brothers albums that sound as if George is spending more time worrying about his audience and his reputation than where his life is heading and - necessity though it was at the time - it's still a tragedy when a writer with as much to say as George is silenced for whatever reason. There is, thank goodness, still all number of reasons to buy and treasure this album which still has the power to make you smile and make you cry - just not as often or for as long as some of his other records.
Given that we last left George in the deeply peculiar self-indulgent joke that was 'His Name Is Legs', the opening of 'Woman Don't You Cry For Me' comes as a shock. The whole production screams 'mid coast mid 70s middle of the road rock' and only George's slide guitar makes this sound like a Harrison track at all (even his voice is unusually husky and uses a slight scowl more like a Lennon song). Written back in 1969 and sensibly left off 'Get Back' and 'Abbey Road', this track might perhaps have slotted into the 'anything goes' feel of 'All Things Must Pass' (its more enjoyable and finished than 'I Dig Love' for instance) but it's clearly here to pad out an album George hasn't finished writing yet than a song he was dying to record. George may in fact have been inspired by his Beatle pals reviving their skiffle past on 'One After 909' - this track could easily have been a skiffle track played on a slide guitar, now transformed into a heavy rhythm track full of percussion and jew's harp and the lyrics refer to that old music standby of the jilted lover waiting at the train station (is it the same '910' even?) Unusually its George waving goodbye and the context of what's just happened between him and Patti give what clearly started as a jokey throwaway song about a generic split romance more depth and menace. 'There's no one place I want to be - attachments only hurt you!' is George's wounded comment which sounds as if it was added to the unfinished song at this time, although he still has the presence of mind to wish 'take care of yourself baby' as well as urging fate and life to 'let me be!' Strangely enough this earthiest of Harrison songs ends up becoming the only track on the album to mention God by name: 'There's just one thing I got to see - the Lord - gotta keep him in sight' George reminds himself quietly on the fourth verse (was he told to 'disguise' this verse in order to sell more copies or did he just naturally sing it softer?) The trouble with this track is that it's trying to be too many things at once: my guess is that the first draft was a comedy, it got re-written as a tragedy and the performers were told to make it all sound poppy. Choosing one of those three avenues would have been better as the melody itself is quite a strong one and George's slide guitar played in anger rather than unbridled joy is an interesting twist on his usual sound. As featured here, though, 'Woman Don't You Cry For Me' is just the wrong side of memorable.
'Dear One' is one of those Harrison 'sleeper' tracks that really grows on you. On first hearing it's a bit bland and forgettable, the tempo slowed down to a crawl with George singing unusually atonally over a barely changing riff. However the more I've played this album across - gulp - thirty odd years now (hey, I started young!) the more this has become the track that's stood out the most. Like the best of 'Living In The Material World' it's the fact that the track is so calm and serene and centred that makes it stand out on a genre that normally won't stand still and is always moving on to the next thing. Musically the sound of George trying to link his voice to that powerful organ surge mimicking the lost chord is all the more powerful for the fact he never quite joins up with it: the 'light' of the organ is just too pure for human voice. Lyrically the song is even better: as seen it sounds like it should be another 'God' song and in a way it is, but George is very much sensing God in the calming, healing, golden glow of the new love in his life. Though a couple of the songs on 'George Harrison' will surpass it, this stands as one of the best love songs for Olivia George ever wrote, capturing his sense of awe, tranquillity and excitement as he learns that life did have a 'soul mate' in store for him just as he'd given up hope of ever finding her. 'Dear one show me simple grace' is the key lyric here on this haiku-like lyric as George realises words won't do enough and pares his words down to their essence. The poppier chorus ('My spirit sings to you now...') is, oddly enough, more ethereal and closer to George's other songs about God and doesn't really fit: this is a song that needs to unfold slowly at its own pace rather than be hurried along by a record company desire to make all songs upbeat and catchy. It's like sticking a jingle on the end of a perfect poem! Even so the chorus isn't bad enough to ruin the sheer wonder and power of 'Dear One', which like the best of George's work is such a simple idea and yet sounds here like the most powerful and multi-layered song possible. A song ripe for re-discovery.
According to George's book of lyrics 'I Me Mine', the idea for 'Beautiful Girl' came to him during a party at Stephen Stills' house. Harrison excused himself and asked to borrow a guitar before heading to Stills' bedroom to work the song out! Though George doesn't give a date, other writers seem to have assumed this song written in 1969 alongside 'Cry For Me'. My guess, though, is that it dates to early 1970 when George and Stills were guests on Ringo's single 'It Don't Come Easy' (a song George pretty much wrote whatever the credits say). The reason I've gone about dating so much is that for years people have assumed this was another early love song for Olivia - but if the track really was written in 1970 then it's a last love song for Patti (possibly the reason it never got included the first time round). Did George come back to this song because his new love reminded him of his old one? Was he just desperate for material? Or had he simply not been able to stomach before a line in the song that turned out to be a remarkable piece of fortune telling? ('She's not the kind of girl you go handing round, want to keep her right there...') Like 'Woman' it's no great classic although it's arguably better than a large handful of the weaker Harrison solo songs released to date. Pretty without being gorgeous, original without sounding particularly inspired, it's a sequel to 'Something' that's even more lazy, written around Patti's smile making her out to be 'the one'. However, this song could still be about both wives, who were closer in character than many fans realise (perhaps because they couldn't look more different from each other or have more different characters): both are naturally sweet characters with an inner toughness quite different to the traditional 'Liverpool bride of the 1970s' ('Not the kind that is lost or found') - actually a claim you could make about all the Beatle wives to some extent. By contrast George has lost his sense of who he is in their gaze, finding his self becoming 'quickly untied', while the idea that the mystery girl was 'somebody I was waiting on' draws us back to George's obsession with destiny in this period. the clever switch between minor keys to major in the chorus also mirrors this sense that George has been waiting for someone a long time and they've finally arrived. However despite some good moments and the long gestation period, this song still sounds a little bit rushed: perhaps the sounds of the party downstairs were just too tempting for George to properly finish his song?
'This Song' is often cited as the standout track on 'Thirty Three' and for good cause: it's one long in-joke sung with a mischievous twinkle in the eye and is typical George (in many ways it's a happier snappier re-write of his Beatle track 'Only A Northern Song'). Anyone else made to sit through a long court case debating whether 'phrase A encroaches on phrase B' for years would have either written a mad and grumpy song about the stupidity of it all or never written another song again in case he ever got done for plagiarism again. George, however, finds the funny side with a song that takes the mickey out of the idea that anyone actually 'writes' a 'new' song and with an even funnier video set in court. Just to ram the point home this song couldn't be less like 'My Sweet Lord' - it's a rollicking retro knees-up based around a hot piano riff from Billy Preston and is one of George's few tracks not to feature any guitar (though he plays one in the video - what miming now? Send him up in court for that offence too!) Given the huge publicity of the court case most fans got the joke at the time, though more than a few 'newbies' were puzzled when this album finally made it to CD. There are quite a few 'in-jokes' lost in the mists of time though so here they are: when George sings 'there's nothing 'Bright' about it' he's referring to the 'Bright Publishing Company' who published 'He's So Fine'; this song isn't in 'E' but in 'A Major' (four flats if you're humming along) which may well be a reference to reports in court that - shock horror - a rock musician has no formal classical training (it's unusual for a Harrison to be in a major key with sharps actually, as if George was trying doubly hard to make this a 'joke'); and the finale that 'without you there's no point to this song' sounds at face value like a belated attempt to make this a 'love' song, though given that it's all been about the court case it sounds like George laughing at the prosecution team and saying 'thanks for letting me write a multi-million seller!' Alas this song didn't sell that well though, flopping in most of Europe and peaking at a disappointing #25 in the States despite the funny video. By showing off George's ability to laugh at the stupidity of the world, it deserved a lot better. Sadly it won't be George's last time in court - it's a shame there were no 'sequel songs' about the Handmade Films saga! As an aside, the court judge was asked by reporters what he thought of the song after the case ended. 'Which one?' he said before adding 'I liked them both'. 'But you've just said in court to the jury that they were the same song!' added the reporter. Oops!
The lovely 'See Yourself' is the long awaited return to the Harrison wisdom of 'All Things Must Pass' and sounds like it belongs on that album more than this one. A series of parables about how man takes the easiest way out every time, no matter what it means to other people, and so will never really achieve his full destiny ('It's easier to kill a fly than it is to turn it loose, it's easier to tell a lie than it is to tell the truth'), it's based on the inscription left for him by his Friar Park architect Frankie Crisp on a wall: 'Scan not a friend with a microscopic glass, you know his faults now let his forbid pass' (George had already used second half of the quote, 'Life is one long enigma my friend, but read on - the answer's at the end' on 'Extra Texture'). 'See Yourself' is about the dangers of judging others by your own standards, which could have been a very dodgy basis for a song that does a lot of preaching, but unlike the 'do as I say not as I do' preaching on 'Material World' this song works because George is making it a message to self as much as the world. George kicks himself for 'fooling around with other's people's lives' when his own is such a mess because 'it's easier to criticise someone else than to see yourself'. The second verse is especially telling: George doesn't want to be 'like all the rest' who stand around criticising what other people do without actually doing anything themselves (erm, as a reviewer I'm going to stick my fingers in my ears and pretend I didn't hear that...) and reminds us that it's 'easier to drag your feet than try to be a man'. An unusually C of E style confessional for someone who'd switched religions long ago, 'See Yourself' could sound cold and calculating if it wasn't for that wonderfully warm melody which like the best of 'All Things Must Pass' wraps the cold hard truth up in a lovely warm blanket, an aural hug from someone who realises we all share the same faults. No one else apart from George could have written this song (well, maybe Cat Stevens now I think about it...) which remains one of the best songs in his solo catalogue most people won't know.
Over on side two 'It's What You Value' reads like a similar song but sounds very different, being back in the 'mid-70s rock beat swagger' kind of genre. The song was inspired by the 'Dark Horse' tour when drummer Jim Keltner learnt that George had just bought a new car. The drummer got jealous: 'hey, how come you got a car? All I got was money!' George tried to remind the drummer that the money was free to spend on what he chose and that he could buy a car too and as a generous gesture bought him a car (a '450' Buick, I think - still searching for the actual quote) anyway. Like many funny things that tickled George, it became an in-joke among his friends for a while ('Hey how come I only got supper? I expected a car at the very least!' or 'I know you've done a lot of work on the estate this week - would you like to be paid your wages in money or wheels?') and then the 'serious' message at the core of the joke turned into a song. The 'somebody' in the song, in real life an experienced session drummer, ends up sounding more like a teenager: his friends are 'so wild' with jealousy at his car that they want one too - even though they can't drive and need the money for other things. George reflects that 'it all swings on the pain you've gone through' - in different circumstances the same man has probably sold his car to pay for a house, a sick relative, an operation, a complete set of Alan's Album Archives books...though capitalism relies on everything having the same value to everybody equally, life doesn't work like that: not everyone wants a car. Alas while the lyrics start off well, they run out of ideas rather early for a song that lasts for a full five minutes (by contrast the world-beating philosophy of 'See Yourself' clocked in at under three) and the hum-along chorus again sounds as if it belongs in a different song entirely. The melody too is, well, non-existent pretty much on the verse and only kicks in on the chorus, which is unusual for George (was this song written in a hurry?) The song is rescued, however, by the single best performance on the record (if you can look past yet more wretched AAA saxophones, though no solo this time I'm pleased to say...) which features a terrific piano part (by Richard Tee, I think, rather than Billy this time - he's the definite star of Paul Simon's 'One Trick Pony' film where he effectively plays himself!) and, fittingly, a wonderful Jim Keltner part that's completely at odds with the rest of the song and also sounds like someone relentlessly knocking on George's door trying to ask him for a raise!
So far 'Thirty Three' has rallied a bit with four pretty decent songs out of six, but alas George's take on Cole Porter's 'True Love' is one of the lesser moments of his back catalogue. First written for Bing Crosby back in 1956 and featured in the film 'High Society', it's not one of Binglebongle's better songs and is the sort of treacly 'tin pan alley' 'written to a formula' song the Beatles were put on the Earth to erase. Bing later named his yacht 'True Love' after the song that bought it for him. George's take on the song is curiously bouncy, without any of the fake-intimacy of the original and it somehow comes across as even less sincere than usual. Worryingly, George sounds more like an anonymous mid-70s singer-songwriter than ever and only his urgent slide guitar playing makes it sounds like him at all. More worrying still, it's this track's 'quick but not quick enough to rock with mega production values' that of all the songs on this album will be the biggest template for his sound on the other Warner Brother albums to come. If I was Olivia, I'd be wondering why Patti got 'Something' and she got this round about now (ah well, it's what you value I suppose)...
Equally tacky is 'Pure Smokey', a tribute song to one of George's greatest singers which again misses the mark completely. Robinson had a long association with The Beatles, going back to their cover of his song 'You Really Got A Hold Of Me', while several of George's songs follow a similar 'iron fist in velvet glove' technique of a slow sultry backing and a sense of fizzing passion underneath the surface. This song gets the slow stately backing right but completely misses any real sense of emotion underneath it all, turning out not to much 'Tracks Of My Tears' 'Tears Of A Clown' or 'I Second That Emotion' so much as the solo shlock Smokey had been reduced to in the 1980s. The lyrics are a little bland too: though George sings of Smokey's ability to express emotions and make George 'feel some joy' (note the word 'some' - George isn't ready to be happy just yet), this is a strangely emotionless song for a usually emotionally aware writer to write as a nod to another. I doubt Smokey would have appreciated George's attempts to thank God for his talents either: it's one thing as a writer to claim you get your inspiration from your maker, but crediting him with non-believer's talent is bordering on dangerous (oddly enough, George wouldn't have known how spot on with his guess he was at the time; Smokey only revealed in 2014 that a sudden visitation in a Christian church in Los Angeles in 1986 gave him the strength to beat a heavy drugs habit. The story goes that Smokey asked a friend to pray for him without saying why - she rang him up with word of what God had 'said' , full of details he'd never revealed to anyone, and urged him to go with her to church where he became a convert from that day on. We could debate for hours here over whether his Christian and George's Hindu/Buddhist Gods are one and the same wearing different hats but that's another essay for another day and there's enough religious tension out there for one lifetime: my guess is all the different Gods are up there singing Beatles songs together when they're not working). It's hard to tell why this song ends up being as weak as it does: the melody is forgettable but not that bad, while the lyrics are bland but far from the worst on the album. Together, though, they make for perhaps the worst original on the album and just doesn't go anywhere ('True Love' still probably wins the worst song award mind). Worse yet, it sounds nothing like the subject matter George is trying to pay tribute to (which is odd in itself: usually 'tribute' songs are just an excuse for an artists to stop sounding like themselves and like someone else - usually Elvis. Trust George to choose someone different!) The result is like smokey bacon crisps: this song only sounds like Smokey Robinson because George says it does; if you 'bit' into this song without knowing you'd never have guessed what the artificial flavour was supposed to be and feels like a wasted opportunity. Released as the album's third single long after the album had been out, it predictably flopped.
'Thirty Three' fits in one last great highlight with the screwball comedy 'Crackerbox Palace'. A sort of spoof mock autobiography, it's a genuinely funny song about madness which might have its basis in the far from funny events of the past year or two which had pushed George to breaking limit. 'Crackerbox Palace' sounds like a place the way it's delivered here (it's George's own garden in the music video, full of lots of overgrown elves wearing pointy hats!) but it's more of a state of mind certain 'lucky' people graduate to if their life heads in a certain way. Once again this comedy deals with George's take on pre-destiny ('We've been expecting you!') and takes in a few details of his more eccentric friends and family (he really did know a 'Mr Grief' by the way, which rhymes with 'life'), with just enough of an important message behind it all to overcome the fact that this is another long Harrison in-joke his fans just wouldn't get (luckily it's a funnier joke than 'His Name Is Legs'). My take is that it's also Georg realising that he's not 'alone' in his head: he enters Crackerbox Palace looking for 'someone to help me reveal my heart', which is surely a reference to Olivia. My other take is that the whole world is in 'Crackerbox Palace' (George winds up there at birth, after all) and that the Earth is the holding bay for mad people - but only a special few realise the fact and embrace it. There are some cracking lines here written in a suspiciously Lennonish style ('I was so young when I was born' 'Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad - it's all a part of life') and only the sudden reversion back to God again ('Know that the Lord is well and inside of you') doesn't quite fit somehow. Together with George's second best set of lyrics on the album (after 'See Yourself') comes a cracking tune that's bright and breezy, everything 'real' pop music at its best is (and tracks like 'True Love' and 'Woman Don't You Cry For Me' aren't). Even the period production with its grunting saxophones and Fender Rhodes churning piano swirls sounds rather good here in context, with so much going on in this song it's like one of those crackers that comes with a hat, a motto and a toy! Clearly I've been living in Crackerbox Palace for years anyway, but this advertisement is enough to make you want to sign up too! A much under-rated song: I'm amazed this didn't do well as a single and it actually became George's first to miss the charts completely both sides of the Atlantic!
The album ends with another 'smokey' moment: the Motownish ballad 'Learning How To Love You'. Though some people have accepted this is a 'God' song again, it sounds like a more traditional love song to me, with George falling in love whilst fearing that everything that made his life fall apart last time will happen all over again. George is alone after a meeting with Olivia that's brought him new joy and is torn; when he's with Olivia he's reminded how wonderful life can be, but left alone to brood he can only remember how many bad things love can bring too. Telling himself that being patient will help him find his true path, George tries to comfort himself that he doesn't have to decide now - but he can't help working through what troubles him while pondering all the happiness he could be having in the future. The end of the song has him longing for the day when the relationship is so secure he can look ahead to a happier future instead of keeping his head down studying every move 'with each step so unsure'. It's the moment when George is caught right between the two loves of his life, the record of his life story heading from the outer groove of side one into the first note of side two and ought to be one of the most important songs he ever wrote. So why does this song, too, drift past without us really noticing it? The slightly anonymous melody doesn't help (it's just the melody from 'The One That Has Lighted The World' recycled, only not as powerful) and nor does the faceless backing whose syrupy strings, cymbal bashes, flamenco guitar, accordions and bank of keyboards could be from almost any record released in 1976 and is the reason why punk was invented that year rather than any earlier (it's a measure of both how cocooned George was from the music world and how much he was slowing down that punk will be over by the time he makes another album).
George's vocal too is far too quiet in the mix, mumbled in a strangely insincere way that suggests he's trying to sound like someone else again (worryingly he sounds more like Englebert Humperdinck than anyone else and that's never a good sign) and what should be a powerful emotional statement to knock us dead in our tracks such hovers around for four minutes without really going anywhere. 'Thirty Three' needed a really good finale to rescue a slightly damp and soggy second half and though this song reads a lot better than it sounds, it clearly isn't it.
Overall, then, 'Thirty Three and Third' is a good half of the way there. That's a tragedy if you've come to this review fresh from 'All Things Must Pass' (which gets 90% of the way despite doubling the stakes and featuring far more songs), but a source of hope if you've come from 'Extra Texture' (which is better than it's ever given credit for but not exactly George's finest forty minutes either). There's a lot of promise here, most of which will thankfully be fulfilled on the similar but more inspired 'George Harrison' album in three years' time. By then several things will have changed for better in George's life: he'll be a husband again and a father for the first time (two big life changing events which took place in 1978), the record company and court case issues will be a distant memory and far from being upset at the way George's legacy and record sales are heading, he simply won't care, withdrawing to bring up his family as his first career, with gardening a close second and music a distant third, a 'hobby' rather than the be all and end all of his life. As it happens this will suit his music and while his albums might get further apart most of his records will grow to become a lot more consistent than 'Texture' and 'Thirty Three'. In retrospect this record sounds like the stepping stone to all this sudden joyful clarity from the sad murkyness of the past few albums and an LP that had to be made. On its own terms, though, it would perhaps have benefitted from being treated more like the albums either side of it: as an all out depressive melancholic mini-masterpiece like 'Extra Texture' or a warm-hearted hymn to life like 'George Harrison'. Caught between the two, 'Thirty Three' gets slightly lost and the record company pressure breathing down George's neck occasionally makes him do funny things (to my ears most records from 1976 sound like 'Crackerbox Palace' to me - it's artists like George, normally, who simply carry on with their own sound who've survived the test of time in better condition). There's more weak filler here than even 'Dark Horse', while you know you've got a problem when a man who once filled up a triple LP without trying is reduced to jazzing up Cole Porter songs for a living. However there's a lot of good stuff on 'Thirty Three' as well, which makes it into more of a 50:50 kind of an LP.
Well, what a vinyl birthday that was dear reader, spent with an album that distils so much, good and bad, about the last thousand posts on this site. I had great trouble blowing out that third of a candle as the record went round and round though. Lucky I put a spice girls LP on underneath the cake so that got clobbered instead! Join us for post 1001 next week!