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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

George Harrison: Thirty-Three & 1/3

THIRTY-THREE & 1/3 (1976)

1) Woman Donʼt You Cry For Me; 2) Dear One; 3) Beautiful Girl; 4) This Song; 5) See Yourself; 6) Itʼs What You Value; 7) True Love; 8) Pure Smokey; 9) Crackerbox Palace; 10) Learning How To Love You.

General verdict: This is where George Harrison finally sells out to funky grooves, catchy choruses, and British humor — and I think Iʼm loving it.

Supposedly we have to thank Olivia Trinidad Arias, the secretary for Dark Horse Records and, as of 1976, not-quite-yet-Mrs-Olivia-Harrison-but-getting-there, for reigniting the spark of life in dear old George. Even though his health problems, financial issues, legal troubles, and critical reputation were all far from being restored by the end of 1976, Thirty Three & 1/3 (the title actually refers to his age-of-Christ rather than simply the LP-playing speed) is a much brighter and livelier record than both of its predecessors — in fact, it could be the brightest and liveliest record so far in Georgeʼs entire solo career. Where John Lennon preferred to mark his coming to terms with the world around him by retiring from the music industry altogether, George had no such radical leanings — yet he, too, seems to have taken a turn for calm and peaceful at about the same time as John. Family life — where would we be without it?

Curiously, the album succeeds in spite of the fact (or, perhaps, as is often the case, because of the fact) that it features relatively few new material. Many of these songs are actually outtakes from older sessions, some going back to ideas as old as 1967 (ʽSee Yourselfʼ), and one is a cover (albeit drastically reworked) of an old Cole Porter standard. Then again, this was hardly the first time that George found himself diving into the old archives; what is really important is that the old ideas are presented with lighter, poppier undertones — occasionally bordering on dance-pop, as bass player Willie Weeks is sometimes surreptitiously found sneaking in a disco bassline or two... and the master, so it seems, almost ends up encouraging him.

You can see the difference immediately on the opening number; an early acoustic take from the All Things Must Pass sessions shows how ʽWoman Donʼt You Cry For Meʼ began life as quite a stereotypical piece of acoustic country-blues. But the finished take opens with a tight rhythm section groove instead — so bloody tight, in fact, that the interplay between Alvin Taylorʼs drums, Weeksʼ bass, David Fosterʼs clavinet, and Georgeʼs slide lead has forever become ingrained in my head as one of the catchiest funk grooves ever recorded (in all honesty, my mind has placed it on just about the same shelf as Stevie Wonderʼs ʽSuperstitionʼ). On no record prior to this one has the George Harrison ensemble played so fast, so tight, and so groove-oriented — to the extent where lyrics cease to matter completely, and we simply see George Harrison delighting in making pure music with his backing band, with no preachiness and no capital-S Spirituality in sight. You can only imagine the deep sighs of relief that so many fans and critics alike must have heaved ten seconds after placing the needle on the turntable.

It might not be a coincidence that the song, which had started life in 1969, was finally chosen as the lead-in track in 1976 — it is easy to take the opening lines ("Iʼm gonna leave you here / Iʼm gonna leave you at the station") as one final goodbye to Patti, as George finally accepts that it did not work out and moves on in life. But even if you know nothing about Georgeʼs personal circumstances at the time, it does not take a genius to recognize, upon listening to Extra Texture and Thirty-Three back to back, that ʽWoman Donʼt You Cry For Meʼ announces a decisive reboot of the George Harrison franchise. The slow, dense, preachy, tragical ballad is not going anywhere, but it no longer has a complete monopoly on this manʼs creative process, and this is good to know — even if it might drop the reputation of the artist among the crowds of stone-faced, sacred-book-thumpinʼ fanatics who get appalled at the mere idea of a spiritual man like George Harrison going out and having fun. (Not sure if «crowds» is the right word, though, because I have no idea what the average Christian rock fan thinks of George Harrison and his suspiciously pan-religious worship of Krishna-Jesus).

Another song here where the musical groove is more important (or at least more in your face) than the message is ʽItʼs What You Valueʼ. The pretext for writing this song was apparently Georgeʼs gift of a Mercedes 450 SL to drummer Jim Keltner, and the message is about the highly relative values of material possessions, but the point is to simply let the band groove along to this cool mid-tempo stop-and-start RʼnʼB groove for five minutes — the last of which features no vocals whatsoever and just has Tom Scott maniacally blowing his sax over the rising-and-falling piano pattern of the groove. It ainʼt genius, but I can never resist tapping my foot to Alvin Taylorʼs swaggy drum beat on this one.

For the most part, however, the album is remembered through its two first singles, both of which were accompanied by promotional videos made with the assistance of Georgeʼs friends from Monty Python. ʽThis Songʼ is Georgeʼs final word on the ʽMy Sweet Lordʼ / ʽHeʼs So Fineʼ controversy: to his being found guilty of plagiarism the man responded with bitter humor, not only filming himself being dragged in handcuffs to the courtroom, but also coming up with a great set of lyrics set to a fast, flashy, ultra-catchy pop melody. What makes it such a winner is how effortlessly he combines misery and sarcasm in his vocal delivery, how aptly Tom Scott mimics it in his playful-and-desperate sax solo, and how the final lyrical twist ("this song could well be / a reason to see / that without you thereʼs no point to this song") suddenly makes you, the listener, such a vital part of the show. (Although, to tell you the truth, I am a little bit happy about The Chiffons, too, because without this ordeal I would never have known of their existence).

The second single was ʽCrackerbox Palaceʼ, another tune where you really do not need to know all the trivia (about how it was inspired by Georgeʼs meeting with the manager of the late comedian Lord Buckley and his visit to Lord Buckleyʼs residence) to take it as a general allegory on life and death, or even ignore the lyrics completely and just admire the fabulous slide riff that makes the song — the one that sounds like somebody running up the stairs that lead up to the ʽCrackerbox Palaceʼ in question and then taking an amazed look around. But if you do take in the lyrics, it is another striking realization that George is now writing philosophical songs that are almost danceable, and goad you with subtle irony rather than weigh you down with preachiness and heavy moralization.

There are still elements of preachiness on the album, of course: ʽSee Yourselfʼ goes heavy on Biblical clichés and sounds like a slightly sped-up outtake from the Extra Texture sessions (though in reality, as I already said, the song dates back to 1967), and ʽLearning How To Love Youʼ, originally written for Herb Alpert, teaches us exactly how to do that in the same old terms, while also sounding like the single most clearly Bacharach-inspired piece in Georgeʼs arsenal (which is why I could never remember how it goes, probably). But they are now elegantly out­balanced by the funny and / or the energetic parts, as well as pretty rhythmic love ballads (ʽBeautiful Girlʼ — another oldie, brought to new life by the Olivia romance; the fast-paced reinvention of Cole Porterʼs ʽTrue Loveʼ) and even a heartfelt soul tribute to Smokey Robinson (ʽPure Smokeyʼ).

All of this makes Thirty-Three & 1/3, despite its shortness (though, with severe indignation, I must complain that the album does run for 39 minutes instead of the expected 33 minutes and 20 seconds!), easily the single most diverse George Harrison album to date, and fully justifies calling it a «comeback»; temporary, perhaps, since George would not make another release with that level of consistency until at least Cloud 9 (and that one only works if you are as much of a Jeff Lynne fan as you are of Georgeʼs), but a deeply enjoyable one, showing us how it is possible to produce really good music in a period of spiritual convalescence, and that one does not always need to be in a state of deep crisis to free oneʼs artistic genius. Much too often, we forget that «the quiet Beatle» actually loved this life (in the oh-so material world) no less than most of us do; Thirty-Three & 1/3 does a good job of refreshing that bit of information in our memory. 


  1. What do you mean by his "age-of-Christ"? I thought he believed in Hare Krishna.

  2. In his mind, George may have figured that Krishna is not a "only me" type of God and would allow plenty of room for other divinities. And regardless of what we believe, many of us still refer to time anchored to the age-of-Christ.