Forever Nilsson: An Introduction To Genius
Possessed of a three and a half octave range, with an acute understanding of harmony, and composition, Harry Nilsson should have been a huge star. And he was pretty big for a spell. But he was also an individual, an unique artist possessed of a temperamental relationship with commercial success, and a propensity for self sabotage. And then there's the fact that he never did a live tour. Still, he managed 3 top ten hits, and 16 albums populated by perfect songs of exquisitely layered vocal pop, hard rock, American standards, and a host of other genres.
When asked in an interview who their favorite American band was, the Beatles quickly offered "Nilsson". They named his version of "Mother Nature's Son" as their favorite Beatles cover. Harry himself had a career long affinity for the music of the Beatles, and both John Lennon and Ringo Starr became close friends, and drinking buddies. He was so devastated by Lennon's murder that he largely left music in order to focus on a crusade for gun control.
As this blog will focus on the songs, I highly recommend the documentary of his life, "Who Is Harry Nilsson And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him" as an enormously entertaining, and informative, place to start to understand the man.
The greatest challenge in putting together a list of great songs by Harry, is that there are so damn many. Nearly every record is chock full of them, and each person will find his or her own favorite. If you're new to Nilsson, take some time after reading the blog to dig a little deeper into the albums - you'll be glad you did.
I'm happy to have talented artist Johnnie Scoutten on board for this blog post - a Nilsson fan, she has contributed several sketches inspired by Harry's songs. You can find more on Johnnie at her page (linked with her hame) or at Instagram.
The Spotify playlist for this blog is at the end. It is followed by a comment section - love to hear your favorite Nilsson.
20. DON'T FORGET ME - PUSSY CATS - 1974
This seems a good place to start. Though it's considered by some to be a mess of a record, Pussy Cats is a favorite of mine. I played it constantly when I got it. Recorded during John Lennon's Lost Weekend separation from Yoko, the recording sessions found Nillson and Lennon (often with Ringo) drunk. And wearing Tampons on their heads at times. The styles of the two clashed - Harry was best in baroque pop, with layered vocals and clever arrangements. Lennon, fresh off recording oldies with Phil Spector, as well as the Spector influenced Mind Games (to which Pussy Cats bears a sonic resemblance) was going for raw, echo/reverb drenching. The blend doesn't always work, but its often fascinating. This beautiful song, which sounds like it could have come from the 30s, with its sweet melody and repeating piano figure, is a definite highlight. Needless to say, it saw many covers, including a flawless version by Harry's friend Marianne Faithful; Marshall Crenshaw; and a cover by Joe Cocker, which actually preceded Harry's version by a month, and was the first released.
19. YOU CAN'T DO THAT - PANDEMONIUM SHADOW SHOW - 1967
Harry's re-arranged "You Can't Do That" is a clever, and inventive, cover that pays homage to the Beatles, and includes a few laughs for no extra price. Multi-tracked vocals, a Nilsson trademark, are prominent. He manages to get in over 20 lyrical references to Beatles songs, and it's game just keeping up with them. No wonder the Beatles named his their favorite band.
18. ALL I THINK ABOUT IS YOU - KNNILLSSONN - 1977
Over a decade before everyone else started recording albums of American standards covers, while it was still considered very not cool, Nilsson did it with his record A Little Schmilsson In the Night. This isn't from that record, but it could have been. Harry wrote a modern American standard of his own. His voice had fully recovered from the thrashing it took during the Pussy Cats sessions (more on that later), and in fact sounds absolutely beautiful here. It happens that Knnillssonn was one of his favorite albums of his own.
17. MANY RIVERS TO CROSS - PUSSY CATS - 1974
On March 28, 1974, Nilsson, Lennon, and others, moved into the Record Plant recording studio, and there met up with Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, among others, and a snowstorm of coke. With Yoko temporarily out of the picture, and the gently encouraging May Pang on the scene, Paul and John reconnected in L.A. after their often bitter post-Beatles feud. What could have been a classic, historic jam, was instead (in the words of the title of the bootleg of that night) A Toot and A Snore In '74. It might have been this night that Harry's voice finally crashed - cigarettes, coke and liquor took their toll. Told by doctors not to sing (maybe not talk) for six months, Harry, of course, didn't listen, and pushed through with the rest of the recording sessions. He did permanent damage to one of the greatest voices in pop music. Still. the record somehow manages some fantastic vocal moments. This take on Jimmy Cliff's classic, with Harry pulling every bit of emotion from it, is one of them.
16. I'D RATHER BE DEAD - SON OF SCHMILSSON - 1972
Humor was a regular feature of Harry's work, usually odd, and often dark humor. It was intrinsic to his personality. Like many great comedians, he had plenty of dark and painful memories in his past to pull from, and he used humor as a balm. "I'd Rather Be Dead" is a song that benefited from that sense of humor, and the video - with elderly retirement home seniors singing the chorus - takes the humor to an almost surreal place. We make humor of what we fear most, and its probably not unrealistic to assume humor was medicating some normal fears for Harry. Since the senior citizens all seem to be singing along in good humor ("I'd rather be dead, then wet my bed"), I like to think they were in on the joke, and approved.
15. GOOD OLD DESK - AERIAL BALLET - 1968
Here we have some classic baroque pop, piano with light horn backing, and the many voices of Harry Nilsson. It's a winning combination. Seems like a simple song about office furniture, but Harry said it was actually an anagram - G.O.D. - exploring modern man's relationship with the higher power. Its likely an exploration by Harry of his own views on God, but then he later denied the anagram. So maybe the desk is just a desk? Only Jung knows. Either way, an absolutely lovely song.
14. JOY - SON OF SCHMILSSON - 1972
Son of Schmilsson was meant to deliver on the record company's desire for an equally commercial follow up to its very successful predecessor, Nilsson Schmilsson. What the suits got was a much more eclectic product, full of wonderful songs with lots of unexpected edges. "Joy" sounds like a country tribute, until the lyric slowly starts unravelling, finally descending into Harry repeating "Good, bad" at accelerating pace. The lyrics are hysterical, a great send up of country songs, without disrespecting. The chorus' play on the name/word Joy may be simple, but it's simple genius.
13. JESUS CHRIST YOU'RE TALL - SANDMAN - 1976
From the title you can safely assume this is no meditation on deity or higher power. On its surface it seens like humor worthy of a schoolboy, but upon listening to it - it is humor worthy of schoolboy. And that's a big part of its charm. Another part is the shuffling groove, reminiscent of the 50s music Harry grew up on, and loved. The demo version, which came out on the preceding record - Düit on Mon Dei (do it on Monday) - had already made that clear, with its rolling Fats Domino vibe. Harry, by the way, was over 6'2".
12. REMEMBER (CHRISTMAS) - HARRY - 1969
A beautiful song about the ephemeral and fleeting nature of life, and the soft, narcotic gauze of memories. Perhaps the increasingly complicated nature of his life made Harry nostalgic for a time when things were clearer (and cleaner), But his father abandoned the family when Harry was three, so how far back did he have to go for "clear"? The Christmas in the title isn't in the lyric, but it's implied in the nostalgia of emotion in the lyrics.
11. MOURNIN' GLORY STORY - HARRY - 1969
Lushly set inside a chamber pop arrangement, is the story of a homeless woman who wakes in a doorway to her unpleasant reality, struggling to understand how her life led her to this point. There's a Shakespearean intimation of the contemplation of suicide, but though the story is poignant, it isn't bathed in heavy pathos. It reminds me on several levels of the Beatles' "For No One". The light arrangement of strings doesn't overwhelm, but rather enhances the story. The lyric, like "For No One", is sympathetic, but told almost like reporting. Even the opening line, "She wakes up", matches McCartney's classic, and its hard to imagine it wasn't at least partly intentional. The indomitable Al Kooper did a faithful rendition, which naturally lacked Harry's sublime voice.
10. YOU'RE BREAKING MY HEART - SON OF SCHMILSSON -1972
Well, there's certainly no pathos, or subtlety, to be found in this song about the break-up of Harry's marriage. Producer Richard Perry, like the label, was trying to steer Harry toward a more commercial record, but Harry pretty much did what he wanted to. And here that meant taking a song with great hit potential, and making it hit unfriendly by adding the radio killing lyrical tag: "So f**k you!" But there was intuitive genius here as well, because its in part what made the song notorious, and well loved. The anger he feels is palpable, and honest, expressed not only in the lyric, but also in the horns, drums, and vocals, as well. George Harrison adds a sweet slide guitar break to the song. Peter Wolf of the JGeils Band did a great cover (of course, he would) for the Harry tribute record.
9. GOTTA GET UP - NILSSON SCHMILSSON - 1971
Nilsson Schmilsson was Harry's breakthrough album. Coupled with its follow-up, the wryly titled Son of Schmilsson, its a one-two shot of world class songs, arrangements, vocals, and players. Both records were produced by Richard Perry and recorded in England, and it's no surprise that most of Harry's best known songs can be found on these two chunks of aural gold. As noted already, Harry's link to the Beatles, personally and artistically, bubbled up frequently. He alluded to the connection many times, both in lyric and arrangement. The chunky, bouncing chords that open this song, and the album, are easily reminiscent of McCartney's section of "A Day In the Life", and the lyric furthers the association. Nilsson was already famous when this record was recorded due to two songs which are further down (or higher up) in this list. The cover in part pranks that fame, Harry appearing in a worn bathrobe, shaggy and disheveled. There is a running thread of unease with commercial success throughout Harry's career - he seeks it, and he sabotages it at the same time. I see that in the cover as well. But with Nilsson Schmilsson there was no avoiding it - commercial success came in a big way. Harry's daughter Annie did a lovely version of this song to start the tribute record, Gotta Get Up! The Songs of Harry Nilsson. Garage rock revivalist, Ty Segall (who is currently all that, and knows a thing or two about great pop music) did a modernized version.
8. SPACEMAN - SON OF SCHMILSSON - 1972
With two lines - "Bang bang shoot em up, destiny/Bang bang shoot em up, to the moon" - "Spaceman" links America's exploration and expansion into the Wild West, with the then very current, and vital, space exploration program. Sadly, Harry's spaceman is left in space, in circular orbit, forgotten by those below, and now he just wants to come back. Kind of like the real space program in its current state. It was a modest hit at the time of release, but seems to have grown over time. Rightly so, its a great song. The vocal is pop rock perfect, and its melody and lyric as sticky as taffy. It's a personal favorite at my house. "Around and around is just a lot of lunacy", indeed.
7. ONE - AERIEL BALLET - 1968
Harry grandparents were circus performer doing what was called "aerial ballet, which is the genesis of this album's title. Three Dog Night took a track from the record, gave it a big bam boom production treatment (bad for the song, good for sales) and had their first of many big hits. Harry's version, with stark, chamber pop arrangement, and hushed vocal, suits the topic of loneliness and isolation much more appropriately. The mournful cello in particular captures the mood. The story is that Harry had called someone on the phone, and got a busy signal. He sat on the line, listening to the monotonous beep-beep, and wrote the entire song. You can hear that busy tone replicated in the arrangement. It's an absolute classic song that has seen many covers: Al Kooper again did a faithful version on his debut record, as did Aimee Mann; while rock band Filter took some liberties. And you might think how in the heck could heavy metal band Dokken cover it, and yet there it is!
6. JUMP INTO THE FIRE - NILSSON SCHMILSSON - 1971
Hard rock and funk are not what you think of when you think of Harry Nilsson. But hard rock is exactly what you got on this, the funky second single from the album. It was a sizable hit during the 70s, but got considerable airplay after as well, in part because it was featured in Martin Scorsese's film Goodfellas in one of the best uses of music in a film ever. Don't believe me? Have a look here, and try and imagine the movie without it afterwards. It also appeared in Son of Dracula, the "first rock and roll vampire film" - which starred Harry and Ringo. There is a great performance video of the song in the movie (here) with a video band that features Keith Moon and John Bonham alternating on drums, Peter Frampton on guitar, Klaus Voorman on bass, and Leon Russell on keyboards. Quite the super group, though that's not them all on the record. It's a wild ride of a song at over 7 minutes, with Herbie Flowers detuning his bass, on a lark, after the drum solo. You would expect such a fantastic, rocking song to have plenty of covers, and oh, you would be right! LCD Soundsystem kicked it up in their imitable style; Alice Cooper, who was an old drinking buddy of Harry's, and a founding member of the Hollywood Vampires, did a version with his supergroup, featuring Dave Grohl on drums. And Temple of the Dog, with the late Chris Cornell,, did it live.
5. GUESS THE LORD MUST BE IN NEW YORK CITY - HARRY - 1969
Harry offered the director of Midnight Cowboy, this song as a theme for the film. It bears a strong resemblance to Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking'", which ended up being the choice for the movie. But it stands very well on its own, even if it didn't make the cut for the film. It seems it would have been a great fit for the tone movie, with a lyric about following a dream to the big city. Sinead O'Connor did a very nice cover of it.
4. COCONUT - NILSSON SCHMILSSON - 1971
Nilsson transcends what could have been a pure novelty song, with this playful tune that sticks to one chord. It's a comical, and simple, tale about four characters, and Harry sings three of them in different voices. It's hard to have been around the last 40 years and not heard this song. It's found its way into commercials, and cultural touchstones like The Muppet Show. A more rocked up version was offered by the B-52's Fred Schneider. Riding a tickling acoustic guitar, the repeating lyric worms its way into your head. Sadly, this would be Harry's last top 10 hit.
3. ME AND MY ARROW - THE POINT - 1971
Only Harry Nilsson could take a pun, and turn it into not only an album, but a TV movie as well, Tripping on acid one day, he looked out his window at the world and saw everything led to a point - houses, trees, branches. And anything that didn't lead to a point - had no point. On The Point, the album, Harry narrates the story of the only round headed boy, in a town of pointy heads, and his faithful dog, Arrow. Certainly Harry could relate to the most unusual boy in town, as he was no tower of conformity himself. It's a fairly straight forward song that rolls along on a metronomic beat, a pumping piano, and Nilsson's gentle vocal. In short order the listener is humming along, or singing the easy to follow lyric. It was a modest hit, which was caught chronologically between two monster hits for Harry.
2. WITHOUT YOU - NILSSON SCHMILSSON - 1971
There's a lot of story behind "Without You". The song originally appeared on the second album by Beatles' proteges, Badfinger. That band's tragic story is for another post. It was written by two of the four writers in the band - Tom Evans and Pete Ham. In Lennon-McCartney fashion it came together from two songs, one written by each. Ham had written the gentle verse, but didn't like his chorus. Evans had written a song with a great, emotionally pitched chorus, but a weak verse. So they put the two together. The song was album filler in their eyes, and went largely unnoticed on Badfinger's second album, No Dice. Harry heard the song at a party, mistook it for a Beatles' song, and decided to cover it. His cover - almost an early version of the soft/loud verse/chorus dynamic - far surpassed the original. His chorus vocals soared on his multi-octave range, thrilling listeners as the song shot to #1 in the charts. Former Beatles' press officer, and friend of Harry, Derek Taylor, jokingly said he thought of hemorrhoids whenever he heard the high notes in the outro chorus. The record stayed at #1 for four weeks, and has remained as a musical staple ever since. It was arguably the first power ballad. Paul McCartney called it "the killer song of all time". It set the standard for an onslaught of similar ballads in the years that followed. Tragically, things did not end well for the song's writers, nor did they profit from the song's enormous success with Harry. Pete Ham, depressed over learning the extent of his financial ruin due to an unscrupulous manager, hanged himself in 1975. Tom Evans hanged himself in 1993 after a bitter argument with another bandmate over the song's royalties. There have been nearly 200 covers of "Without You", but none of them come close to Harry's.
1. EVERYBODY'S TALKING - AERIAL BALLET - 1968
There is more then a little irony in the fact that the two biggest hits for this world class songwriter, were written by others. "Everybody's Talking" was written by Fred Neil, an important, pioneering figure in the early New York folk movement. Neil took both Bob Dylan and David Crosby under his wing when they first arrived in New York. Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison recorded his songs, and luminaries such as John Sebastian, Tim Hardin, and Gram Parsons, were influenced by him. And he didn't sell any records. This song was released on his second album, written and recorded quickly after he was told he needed one more song to finish that record. Nilsson was looking for a hit, which had so far eluded him. After hearing the song, he recorded it for his album Aerial Ballet. It was released as a single and skyrocketed to the lowly #113 on the Billboard charts. Former Beatles' press secretary Derek Taylor recommended Nilsson to John Schlesinger, director of Midnight Cowboy, to do the music. Nilsson offered "The Lord Must Be In New York City" as the film's main song, but Schlesinger chose "Everybody's Talking'" instead. Re-released, and riding its enormous popularity in the hit film, the single broke into the Top 10 on Billboard, and it remains Nilsson's most recognizable song. Befitting a song about loneliness, and alienation, Neil's version is sparse and restrained. Nilsson's however, propelled by the arpeggio guitar and his graceful vocal, is the essence of pop perfection. And because of the contrast, it likely gives Neil's lyrics greater punch.
16 albums of fantastic songs await you in exploring more of Harry Nilsson. Below is a Spotify playlist to take with you and delve deeper into the songs in this blog. Please follow Picnic Tool at Spotify. And below that is the comments section - what Harry songs stand out for you?