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After two speed bumps, George gets back on smoother ground
on June 27, 2005
While I have not heard much from 1974's DARK HORSE & 1975's EXTRA TEXTURE, the fact most fans do not hold these albums in very high esteem has already convinced me to hold off purchasing them until further notice. Taking that into consideration, George Harrison probably considered his next album to be a bit of a rebirth, what with a new distribution deal for his Dark Horse label & the voice problems that had marred DARK HORSE the album long gone. Of course, the album was to have been released on his 33 & 1/3rd birthday (in June of 1976), but was delayed until near the end of the year. When it did arrive however, it was clear THIRTY THREE & 1/3 was some of George's strongest work (solo or with the Beatles) in some time.
As some reviewers have rightfully claimed, George did not seem to care very much for chart success, unlike Sir Paul McCartney who owes his status as one of the richest entertainers in the world to constantly shooting for the top of the charts. So while his singles after 1973's #1 "Give Me Love [Give Me Peace On Earth]" only fared modestly well (he would not see the top 10 again for 8 years), we could be sure George was not losing any sleep over it. As long as he made music that reflected his inner being & beliefs, the commercial success was just gravy. That being said, THIRTY THREE & 1/3 just happens to be a personal effort with enough universality to win over the marketplace (evidenced by 2 top 40 hits).
Thanks to the highly insightful liner notes (from George's autobiography I ME MINE, which I must get someday), the songs on THIRTY THREE & 1/3 show just how his ideas for material can come from almost anywhere. The funk-blues of "Woman Don't You Cry For Me" opens things up, and its prominent clavinet would have certainly made it a candidate for Stevie Wonder's 1970s albums. A slight difference in his normal guitar-playing style brought about this song, and the fact it was written & played on a bottleneck slide is more than prophetic. George's 1980s music would feature a heavy amount of slide in his playing to the point where it became a late-period trademark. This song was the prototype.
George the spiritualist gets its obligatory workout on THIRTY THREE & 1/3 with "Dear One". Naturally, George's inspiration in Indian religion is often the make-it-or-break-it part of a fan's admiration of George's music. He can come close to proselytizing in a way that runs directly counter to a listener's more traditional beliefs, and that is often too much for them to bear. However, when you strip away the unconventional religiousness aside, "Dear One" works almost on its engaging instrumentation alone. Gary Wright's keyboards definitely make this song (especially the churchy organ), along with George's not-too-shabby dabbling in synthesizers.
George even began to dig back into his catalog for some unfinished gems to finally polish off. "Beautiful Girl" had originally been written by George for a Doris Troy album, but could not find a way to finish it at the time. Eventually, the tune came back to him, and made it to order on THIRTY THREE & 1/3. The song proves that even George can turn out a devotional love song like Paul, but with not nearly as much sentimentality as him. Even at its most celebratory, it is far from gushing.
1976 was also the year that George finally lost his battles with the publishers of "He's So Fine" with a judge claiming he had "unknowingly" plagiarized the tune for his own "My Sweet Lord". Royalties from "My Sweet Lord" would then be awarded to the publishers and the estate of the songwriter of "He's So Fine" (although I believe some years later, George would eventually win his own song back). With not much left to do but laugh at his troubles, George created the funny-as-hell "This Song", certainly one of the cleverest tunes he (or anyone else) has ever written. Daring to lift obvious melodies from The Four Tops & T. Rex (can you guess which?), it is clear George & crew were having a ball recording this one. Those who owned those songs probably were too busy smiling at the mood of "This Song" to ever think about calling their lawyers. But perhaps it was too clever for the general public, hence its topping out at #25. Surely, it deserved to go higher!
Another lost song rescued from the scrap heap was "See Yourself", George's commentary on the press brouhaha surrounding Paul's admission back in 1967 that he had taken LSD. George had started it at the time, but then forgot about until a decade later when he needed a tune for this album. Pretty sage advice from George saying "It's easier to tell a lie/than it is to tell the truth", showing that sometimes the truth does not necessarily set a person free.
A quarter century before saluting the American Songbook became a standard practice & career-reviver (are you listening, Rod Stewart?), George was doing it occasionally & with a surprising twist often enough. Cole Porter's "True Love" is given a vast rethinking with more syncopation & backbeat than Cole may have originally envisioned, but it actually works fantastically. George obviously knew when to be reverent towards the original article, but not be afraid to bend the rules just a tad.
The gently-bluesy and bouncy (thanks to Tom Scott's horn arrangement) "It's What You Value" is an interesting version of George's long-standing fascination with the materialism of humanity. He wrote it about his friend drummer Jim Keltner, who was asked to fill in during the 1974 Dark Horse tour on the condition that he received no payment for his services. George instead paid Jim by buying him a car, which ticked off the rest of his bandmates who merely got cash. The song seems to have George observing that there are people who value the green stuff, and others who are more practical and would rather have something tangible they can use. Even this early, George's fascination with automobiles was more than evident.
Being the humble guy he always was, George admits that he has been inspired by fellow greats himself. "Pure Smokey" was his tip of the hat to Smokey Robinson, who was certainly more than deserving of a tribute from somebody. Anyone who thinks this was a tribute to smoking drugs have definitely missed the point by a couple miles. As he himself claimed, George was right in saluting Smokey while he was still alive rather than waiting until he passed away, which is the only way to do a tribute song.
The second top 40 hit after "This Song" came with "Crackerbox Palace" (#19), and proves that even George can be a master pop craftsman when he wants to. It practically defines the term "catchy", much in the same way he would prove with "Blow Away" on this album's follow-up. Partly inspired by legendary proto-beatnik Lord Buckley, like "Dear One", its esoteric lyricism is made palatable by a melody that is literally inescapable. The term "Beatlesque" is often bandied about like mad, but "Crackerbox Palace" is one song that is deserving of it through & through.
THIRTY THREE & 1/3 closes out with the steady slow-dance of "Learning How To Love You", that George initially had written for Herb Alpert. Herb had shown with "This Guy's In Love With You" that he can indeed sing well, and George had hoped to create his own Herb vocal classic. Apparently, he liked it so much he kept the song for himself. George had divorced his first wife Patti by this time, so I wonder if he had discovered his new love for Olivia already, for this could definitely have been written for her.
Once again, the bonus tracks on the remasters of George's Dark Horse albums leave a lot to be desired, with the one on THIRTY THREE & 1/3 the most baffling of all. "Tears Of The World" is a fine, thought-provoking tune reflecting George's always-acute sense of world affairs, and was one of the infamous 4 songs that record-company politics forced off of 1981's SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND. The fact that it is being made available at all for the first time anywhere is commendable, but including it on an album made 5 years before makes hardly any sense. However, it is a song that would certainly feel right at home on SOMEWHERE IN ENGLAND's bouncy, easily-digestible brand of topical pop.
Putting a highly-publicized court battle behind him, George Harrison was clearly ready to move on & get back to the music. THIRTY THREE & 1/3 is an album that certainly does not feature that fraction of top-notch material within. After apparently allowing middle- to bottom-drawer songs make up his previous two albums, George at last appeared to be returning to the peak of his powers.