When people hear the name “George Harrison,” two thoughts come to mind: his work with The Beatles, and his masterpiece All Things Must Pass. Obviously the latter album stands the test of time, boasting a staggering number of quality singles: “My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Wah Wah,” and “What Is Life,” just to name a few. However, Harrison released several other solo albums; while some were uneven, most contained at least a few gems. One such album that has received surprisingly little attention is 1976’s Thirty-Three and 1/3, a stellar effort that features beautiful ballads, his trademark humor, and just a touch of soul.
The album came at an interesting time in Harrison’s career: he had just formed his custom label, Dark Horse, and Thirty Three and 1/3 would be the label’s debut release. In addition, he was recovering from a painful lawsuit, having been found guilty of plagiarizing The Chiffons’s “He’s So Fine” for his song “My Sweet Lord.” His last album for EMI/Capitol, 1974’s Dark Horse, had not performed well on the charts; adding to the aggravation was negative reviews he received for his accompanying North American tour. Considering these problems, the album’s content astounds with its positive and romantic outlook.
Kicking off the album with a funky beat is “Woman Don’t You Cry for Me,” featuring Willie Weeks’s popping bass line, Harrison’s signature guitar, and Tom Scott’s deep saxophone adding some punch. Harrison appears in fine voice, exploring its upper ranges. Changing gears is “Dear One,” a track that could have been an extra song from All Things Must Pass. Featuring church organ from Billy Preston, the tune beautifully reveals Harrison’s spiritual side: “Dear One show me/Simple Grace,” he sings, “Move me toward Thee/With each pace.” “Dear One” serves as a lovely hymn, a proclamation of his beliefs.
Perhaps expanding on this spiritual theme is “See Yourself,” a song that calls upon the listener to look deeply at one’s strengths and faults. A gentler version of John Lennon’s “Crippled Inside,” Harrison sings that “It's easier to tell a lie than it is to tell the truth” and that “It's easier to criticize somebody else/Than to see yourself.” These blunt lyrics are accompanied by piercing guitar, as if to emphasize these points. Like “Dear One,” “See Yourself” urges people to look beyond the surface to explore more profound issues.
Harrison’s well-known sense of humor emerges in two songs: “This Song” and “Crackerbox Palace.” The former answers his critics from the “He’s So Fine” lawsuit, stating the tune doesn’t “infringe on anyone’s copyright” and that “my expert tells me it’s okay.” Preston’s rocking piano and Scott’s screeching sax add to the song’s fun, and Harrison’s buoyant solo shows his enjoyment in skewering those involved in the trial. Listen closely for a brief cameo from Monty Python’s Eric Idle during the bridge.
“Crackerbox Palace” contains surreal images and sly wit: when a song begins with the line “I was so young when I was born,” it signals the absurd theme. Featuring Harrison’s slide-guitar and a synthesizer that sounds as if it were being played underwater, the track is simply a delightful romp that illustrates Harrison’s love of wordplay.
Another standout, “Pure Smokey” serves as Harrison’s tribute to legendary Motown star Smokey Robinson. Since The Beatles covered “You Really Got a Hold on Me” in their early days and consistently cited their love of soul music, Harrison’s obvious adoration of Robinson’s music comes as no surprise. The gentle acoustic guitar and lush synthesizer set a soft, romantic tone, reminiscent of Robinson’s records. “And as I think back over so many years/Love that's filled my ears,” Harrison croons, “And anyone who hears/Hears that voice so free/He really got a hold on me.” Clearly Harrison had great affection for the soul star, and this track beautifully recalls that silky soul sound.
My favorite song, “Learning How to Love You,” is simply a gorgeous ballad that exudes emotion. The chord changes are unusual yet beautiful, and the band gels together to produce a laid-back sound. Harrison’s almost fragile voice soars over the keyboards. His picking style in the bridge demonstrates Harrison’s skills as a guitarist.
Interestingly, the lyrics can be read in a romantic or religious sense. He chronicles his struggle with “learning how to love you,” that his goal is to “Love you like you may have never seen/ Move you more ways than you have been.” These lyrics can be read as a man learning how to properly love a woman, yet he also describes his struggle as occurring “still in the night” and that he is “waiting on the light,” an obvious nod to spirituality. No matter which interpretation you choose, it remains an example of Harrison’s exquisite talents as a lyricist and musician.
While Thirty Three and 1/3 fared well on the charts in 1976, it is often overlooked in Harrison career retrospectives. Even Rolling Stone’s website skips over the album, and the All Music Guide contains a very brief synopsis, dismissing the work as “slight.” But Thirty Three and 1/3 deserves a special place in the Harrison catalog, as it illustrates his exemplary gifts and shows how music can be both uplifting and thought provoking.