Side Tracked: “This Song” and “Pure Smokey”, George Harrison, Thirty Three & 1/3

Even– or perhaps especially– if you’re a huge Beatle fan, you could be forgiven for believing George Harrison simply just stopped making albums after his triple LP All Things Must Pass. Some may even remember that he released Living In The Material World shortly after, but the rest of Harrison’s solo career seems to be blips, maybe a single here or there, “All Those Years Ago”, “Got My Mind Set On You” (why did that ever, ever, get made?), and of course his time with The Traveling Wilburys.  There’s a good reason that most of his 70s output gets glossed over like a sterilized re-write of history.  Most of it is terrible.

Now I don’t mean terrible in the sense that McCartney was able to craft beautiful melodies centered around what in the world lyrics like “Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody is ringin’ a bell”,  or that Lennon spent his whole mid 70s/ “Lost weekend” trying to rediscover what a good melody was. I mean Harrison tried to hard to be philosophical and inaccessible, and his music–and audience– suffered.

He also had a tremendous bout of bad luck.  His wife left him (though his own behavior certainly had a hand in that), he tried to record an album, Dark Horse, before his first solo tour and was left with a crippling case of laryngitis that made itself comfortable throughout the album.  The tour was even worse, not only was his voice gone, he decided to replace the “she” of “Something” with God, and as many rock stars of the era, had been wooed by the cocaine habit that was exploding around the world.  His last album for EMI, Extra Texture, would also be a bust, avoided on radio play except for maybe its lead single “You”.

More problems followed, Harrison was sued for plagiarizing The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” in his biggest hit to date, “My Sweet Lord”. When he set about recording his first album off the EMI label, he came down with hepatitis.  However, Thirty Three & 1/3 would emerge as one of the best Harrison releases in years.  

“This Song” was written as a direct response to the whole “My Sweet Lord” lawsuit, and in a way Harrison predates the MTV craze by concocting a ridiculous video for the affair (you almost can’t hear the song on it’s own and get the same effect) . It’s a meta-moment where he sings about writing the song because of the court, and saying what key the song is (E).  He also throws in a bunch of subtle tongue-in-cheek moments (like Eric Idle’s psuedo-feminine declarations before the instrumental break.  More than anything, this song proved that the usually dour Harrison was at his best when he didn’t take things too seriously.

“Pure Smokey”  on the other hand, was tucked away as the B-side to “True Love”, a Cole Porter cover that is wholly out of place, even on a usual Harrison record.  Yet “Pure Smokey” is a delight, sounding more like Steely Dan’s idea of slicked back R&B with some great horn and guitar parts.  Strange that it’s supposed to be a dedication to Smokey Robinson when the music doesn’t attempt to comply. It’s an unusual–but well crafted– unknown highlight of Harrison’s catalog.

This Song

Pure Smokey