George Harrison’s birthday is February 25. Sadly, we can only speculate how he might have celebrated the milestone, but we do know how he celebrated his 33rd—or rather his Thirty Three & 1⁄3. In late 1976 Harrison released an album with a punny title that referenced how many trips Earth had made around the sun in his lifetime and how many revolutions a long player makes around a turntable in a minute. The album recorded all those years ago is sometimes overlooked amongst his other output; all the more reason to revisit it on what would have been his 76th birthday.
The making of Thirty Three & 1⁄3 happened amidst some personal and professional turmoil. George suffered hepatitis midway through its recording and the copyright infringement suit that alleged that his 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord” had plagiarized The Chiffons “He’s So Fine” was decided against him. Also, in the years leading up to Thirty Three and 1/3, Harrison’s marriage to model and actress Patti Boyd fell apart.
But there were bright spots, too—notably, the burgeoning romance with the woman who would become George’s second wife, Olivia Arias.
The trials, tribulations, and jubilations are all reflected on the record, which is suffused with George’s dry wit and cheeky sarcasm. There is also soul searching without preachiness (the latter being a complaint some critics leveled at Harrison’s music at the time).
Here are a half-dozen reasons why I keep coming back to Thirty Three & 1/3.
Though their divorce wouldn’t be finalized till June of ’77, George and Patti had already separated by ’74 and that same year George started dating Olivia Arias, who helped run his new A&M imprint, Dark Horse Records. While Harrison once said that the early lyrics to the song were inspired by Patti, by the time that he finished it, the song reflected his newfound romance with the woman who would be by his side till his death in 2001.
Like “Taxman” and “It’s Only a Northern Song,” “This Song” turns frustration—in this case over the aforementioned copyright infringement suit—into a rollicking bit of pop genius. Harrison sings “This song ain’t black or white and as far as I know/ Don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright, so …” and even gets in a dig against plaintiff Bright Tunes Music (“This tune has nothing Bright about it”). Led by Billy Preston’s keyboard stabs and barrelhouse piano the band knowingly references Motown and Chess riffs, while Monty Python’s Eric Idle (in his best fishwife voice) says, “Could be ‘Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch’ Nah! Sounds more like ‘Rescue Me.’” The Idle-directed video for the song shows Harrison led into a courtroom in handcuffs and holding a bible as he pleads to the jury while looking to the heavens: “My expert tells me it’s ok.”
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George actually started writing this one in 1967 after the public outcry surrounding Paul McCartney’s admission that he’d taken LSD, which makes sense given a lyric like “It’s easier to criticize somebody else/ Than to see yourself.”
“It’s What You Value”
George combines two of his great loves—rock and roll, and fast cars—to arrive at some perspective on his troubles, singing “It all swings on the pain you’ve gone through/ Getting where you are.” Founding Blues Brother and album co-producer Tom Scott’s searing sax, Willie Weeks’ bass playing and Alvin Taylor’s drumming help give an already wonderful tune some extra punch.
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“Learning How To Love You”
It would be tempting (but lazy, I think) to dismiss some of George’s output from this period as unsubstantial. This album has its share of songs that, at first blush, seem to fall into that category (“Pure Smokey” and “Learning to Love You”). But Harrison puts his patented diminished chord spin on the latter and lays down a jazz-tinged acoustic guitar solo (George’s guitar work is inventive throughout the record) that lifts this from the heap of mid-70s, yacht rock dross.
“Crackerbox Palace” was the nickname George gave Friar Park, the Victorian neo-Gothic manse where he recorded Thirty Three & 1/3 and many other albums. But the name actually comes from American comedian Lord Buckley. In 1975 Buckley’s former manager George Greif invited Harrison to Buckley’s house in LA, which the comedian (who died in 1960) dubbed “Crackerbox Palace.” Harrison not only namechecks a “Mr. Grief” in the song but also says the “Lord is within me” (Greif told George he resembled Buckley, a comedian the songwriter admired). Eric Idle’s whimsical promo video features future “Rutle” member Neil Innes (dressed as a nanny pushing Harrison in a baby carriage) and a scantily-clad Olivia Arias among the cast of Fellini-esque characters. And to add even more kookiness, you can hear Geoge mutter “It’s twoo, it’s twoo!” quoting Madeline Kahn’s memorable line from the movie, Blazing Saddles.
(For bonus Beatle-esque Birthday points seek out “It’s Johnny’s Birthday” from All Things Must Pass, in which George salutes John Lennon on the latter’s 30th!).
Photo Credit: George Harrison (Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis via Getty Images)