A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: First single from ex-Beatle George’s Thirty-Three & 1/3 album. Released November 1976. Reached No. 25 on the U.S. Top 40.
And here’s why I like it:
1. Ol’ Brown Eyes is back. “This Song” features what has to be one of the strongest, most assured, and most enjoyable vocal performances of any George Harrison solo record. Among other travails, Harrison had recently come through a “Dark Hoarse” period in which laryngitis audibly affected his singing. Here he sounds delighted to have his pipes back, and it’s a pleasure to listen to him sing, especially when he slips into falsetto at the end of key lines (“don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright, so…“)
Extra points to George for writing the “square/rare/bear” rhyme into the last verse, so we get to hear Hari’s peculiar Scouse pronunciation of that particular phoneme — hard to capture in words, but almost something like “squahr.” You can take the boy out of Liverpool …
2. While my guitar gently … shuts up? Harrison’s doleful, multitracked slide guitar was always a feature of his solo work, and deservedly so. The lead lines from “My Sweet Lord” and “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” are classic examples of the kind of hooky, memorable guitar statements George did so well.
Here, though, he gives it a rest. Outside of the first 15 seconds, when a quietly chugging rhythm guitar can be heard, you’d be hard-put to spot any guitar at all for most of the song. Harrison’s trademark slide playing, as best I can tell, is absent. There’s a brief (and totally unnecessary) guitar solo at the very end of the album version; I think it’s cut out of the single edit, and that’s no loss.
To build a song around something other than your core instrument, and leave your familiar solo instrumental voice out of it, is a step outside the lines. George Harrison, superstar guitarist, made the right choice here.
3. The Man can’t get him down. When rock stars sing about legal entanglements or business matters, they run a good chance of coming off as pissy. George had already been down that path a few times by the time “This Song” came out. 1973’s “Sue Me Sue You Blues,” inspired by the lengthy legal wranglings surrounding the Beatles’ breakup, has a tired bitterness that overwhelms its snaky funk. And 1967’s “Only a Northern Song” — George’s droning, acrid musical complaint about the dispensation of his song publishing — must surely rank among the least substantial and most disposable of the Beatles’ officially released music.
But, on “This Song,” George gives vent to the legal frustrations from his “My Sweet Lord” infringement trial in a winning way. The tune is irresistibly bouncy, and rather than grumble, George sounds like he’s smiling his way through adversity, drawing power from the absurdity of the case. It works. More people oughta try it.
4. Recursion! “This Song” is a song entirely about itself. It exists to defend its own existence. There is no other content or message. Ceci c’est un song, Rene Magritte might have described it.
George wasn’t the first songwriter to ply self-referential waters and call attention to his song-as-song. He wasn’t even the first ex-Beatle: Earlier that same year, his old friend Paul McCartney had a mammoth hit with a love song about love songs.
In still earlier examples, Elton John’s “Your Song” comes to mind. So does Jim Croce’s “I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song.” (And, once again, “Only a Northern Song.”)
But in those cases, the song carries an additional message to the listener, or to one specific listener anyway. “This Song” doesn’t say anything about love, or hate, or anything else.
It ends with the words “there’s no point to this song;” and if I didn’t like so much of the rest of it I would probably bash George for self-referential laziness. But in this context it fits. There isn’t a point to “This Song.” It’s pure shiny pop surface, and a neat trick for the Quiet Beatle to pull off.
5. Not ready for prime time. “This Song” gets an extra coolness point or two for its association with the early Saturday Night Live. George was the first of the ex-Beatles to associate with the show: On the November 20, 1976, episode, he taped two duets with host Paul Simon and contributed promo videos for “This Song” and “Crackerbox Palace.” (He also provided a hilarious conclusion to Lorne Michaels’ Beatles-reunion gag, describing his one-quarter share of Michaels’ proferred $3,000 as “pret-ty chint-zy.”)
A live performance of the song might have been cool. In its absence, we get a relic with its own distinctive worth — a video clip in which George exercises his sense of humor.
Like a lot of things from the early Saturday Night Live (still known as NBC’s Saturday Night at that point), the clip has a hit-or-miss quality. The shots in which George doesn’t appear are mostly stupid — heavy with mugging, drag, and gratuitous cheesecake.
(Harrison is often linked to Monty Python: He financed Life of Brian, and Python’s Eric Idle provides the screechy female voices on “This Song.” But this clip reminds us that his sense of humor was also shaped by years of exposure to the broad-side-of-a-barn British comedy that preceded Python.)
On the other hand, the shots in which George appears are pretty good. My favorites are George earnestly working the jury, Bible in hand, and George strumming his guitar while handcuffed to a police officer. This last is perhaps a pretty good summary of how it felt for him to try to create new music after the unexpected legal backhand of the “My Sweet Lord” trial.