AMERICAN MASTER: HARRY NILSSONby David Shirley
Harry Nilsson stumbled onto the American musical landscape like a character in one of his own eccentric songs. A seasoned L.A. pop composer by his early 20s, Nilsson first gained public attention in 1968, a few months after the release of his debut album, Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967). Featuring the moody, cello-driven ballad “Without Her,” and the bouncy but bittersweet “1941,” the semi-autobiographical tale of a fatherless boy who leaves home to join the circus, the album clearly displayed the young composer/singer’s impressive facility with an eclectic variety of musical forms that ranged from Tin Pan Alley to Motown to Beatles-style pop.
The recording’s most ambitious performance, Nilsson’s frenetic cover of John Lennon’s “You Can’t Do That,” miraculously crammed lyrical, melodic, and instrumental references from 20 other Beatles songs into a two-minute-and-sixteen-second arrangement. The track captured the apparently easily flattered ears of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who, when pressed by an insistent reporter at a 1968 press conference, named the little-known Nilsson as their favorite American artist and group.
Nilsson’s follow-up recordings, Aerial Ballet (1968) and Harry (1969), reinforced his reputation as a distinctive vocalist and intuitively inventive arranger with a seemingly endless supply of irresistibly eclectic pop tunes, like “Don’t Leave Me” and “Good Old Desk” (from Aerial Ballet) and “Mournin’ Glory Story” and “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” (from Harry).
After receiving a 1969 Grammy award for his breezy rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin” (a single release from Aerial Ballet that was included on the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack), Nilsson decided to cash in his newfound status in the music industry to promote the work of fellow composer Randy Newman. A singer/songwriter with a gruff, unconventional vocal style and dark, biting sense of irony, Newman was himself in the process of achieving critical but limited commercial success with his debut, Randy Newman (1968), and the soon-to-be-released 12 Songs (1970).
Nilsson Sings Newman (1970) was hailed by reviewers as a revelatory recording. Apart from an occasional splash of light percussion, Newman’s sparse, angular keyboards served as the album’s lone instrumental track, with Nilsson providing a multi-layered chorus of vocals. Even in these instrumentally stripped-down versions, songs like “The Beehive State,” “Dayton, Ohio–1903,” and “So Long, Dad” effortlessly communicated Newman’s nostalgic, music-under-the-gazebo Americana aesthetic. With Nilsson’s angelic vocals sailing higher and higher above Newman’s tilting chords, “Living Without You” is one of the loveliest, most defiantly tender moments in modern popular music. Newman would later note with pride that the sessions sounded as if neither he nor Nilsson had ever heard the Rolling Stones.
Nilsson spent much of the remaining year writing and composing the songs for The Point!, an animated musical film broadcast on ABC in early 1971. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, the film was part drug-induced fantasy, part modern-day morality tale, filtered through the colorful misadventures of Oblio, a round-headed boy temporarily exiled from the point-headed kingdom of his birth, and his loyal dog, Arrow. With narration by Ringo Starr and light, melodic songs like “Think About Your Troubles” and “Me and My Arrow,” the album version of The Point! peaked at 25 on the Billboard charts.
Nilsson’s next release was arguably the strangest and most ambitious recording of the lot. Aerial Pandemonium Ballet (1971) was a re-release with a mischievous twist. Nilsson and original arranger/conductor George Tipton transferred and reworked the charming but economical four- and eight-track mixes from Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet into fuller, more sophisticated, and far more adventurous 16-track versions. Where the original albums celebrated Nilsson’s chameleon-like facility as a vocalist and composer, the new recording emphasized the utter uniqueness of his musical vision and the largely untapped potential of his remarkable three-and-a-half octave vocal range.
The new release was Nilsson’s subtle but emphatic declaration of independence from even his most cherished musical influences. The celebrated Beatles sound collage, “You Can’t Do That,” was gone entirely, while “River Deep–Mountain High,” the by-the-book paean to Nilsson’s friend and mentor Phil Spector, was conspicuously de-Spectorized in the new version, the echoed wall of sound of the original largely shattered by a galloping keyboard rhythm, anvil percussion, and up-front vocal mix.
The real tour de force on Aerial Pandemonium Ballet is the sequence of love songs that ends the album. In keeping with Nilsson’s passion for Broadway show tunes, Tin Pan Alley classics, and the tuxedoed prime-time crooners who brought them to life, the first two numbers retain the measured, vocal-centric arrangements of the original tracks. On “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend,” Nilsson hams his way through a lugubrious setting of cello, double bass, and muted horns before soaring into Marvin Gaye–style glossolalia at the end. The multi-tracked vocals on “Don’t Leave Me” are lighter and less strenuous than on the original version, the sad theme floating quietly and effortlessly above the shuffling percussion and acoustic guitar. At the end, Nilsson’s wordless delivery first joins and then leaps ahead of the car-horn trumpet blasts. The combined performances evoke the image of a mid-’70s showman like Anthony Newley, muscling his way through a trademark show tune in the midst of a Quaalude binge.
Nilsson subtly transforms “Without Her” from the sweet, self-pitying pop lament that sets the tone for his first album into a dark, elegant tone poem. Balancing the halting bass line that anchored the original with the oblique jazz guitar chords buried in the earlier mix, Nilsson strips away the lead vocal in favor of quieter, more tentative layers of harmony. Rather than a typical late-’60s gimmick for legitimizing an otherwise trivial tune, the chamber accompaniment’s spirited take on the “Prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1” emerges as a serious—not entirely unsuccessful—attempt at pop-classical fusion.
On “Together,” the lyrical instrumental bridge is eliminated entirely and the careening piano track is replaced by a tense, off-rhythm string accompaniment. The tentative vocal of the original disappears beneath a fuller, more insistent delivery that sounds much more like a first-person complaint than a third-person description this time around. “Life isn’t easy when two are divided and one has decided to bring down the curtain,” Nilsson sings, leaving little doubt just who had brought the curtain down.
On “One,” the bright, staccato keyboard of the
original version is largely displaced by the harsh strokes of the cello and the syncopated thumping of the double bass. With a few simple turns of the knobs, the song is transformed from the bouncy pop standard popularized by Three Dog Night into a painfully understated ballad on the futility of romantic love.
In November of 1971, Nilsson released Nilsson Schmilsson, the album that would finally take his music to the top of the charts. The first of two recordings that Nilsson would make with producer Richard Perry, the album channeled the irony and lyrical wit, musical eclecticism, and vocal virtuosity of the earlier recordings through a pedigreed rock ensemble that included drummer Jim Gordon, guitarist Chris Spedding, and bassist Klaus Voormann. The recording peaked at number 3 on Billboard, producing three successful singles along the way. The propulsive, one-chord novelty tunes “Coconut” and “Jump into the Fire” reached 8 and 27 respectively, while Nilsson’s vocally acrobatic treatment of Badfinger’s “Without You” topped the singles charts for four weeks.
Nilsson’s fling with superstardom was short-lived. His follow-up release, Son of Schmilsson, represented a spectacular public atonement for the commercial success of its predecessor. A few tracks, like the sweetly nostalgic “Remember (Christmas)” and the tenderly romantic “The Lottery Song,” recapture the light, unthreatening appeal of Nilsson Schmilsson. But on the chorus of the opening cut, “Take 54,” Nilsson immediately establishes the more aggressive tone for his latest musical incarnation. “I worked my balls off for you, baby!” he shouts, before upping the ante exponentially on the take-no-prisoners chorus to “You’re Breakin’ My Heart.” “You’re breakin’ my heart,” the song proclaims. “You’re tearin’ it apart. So fuck you!” For fans of the lush, sustained-crescendo romanticism of “Without You,” the album felt like a betrayal, and Nilsson fell quickly—and permanently—
off the top of the charts.
Nilsson’s next release drifted even further from the mainstream. In 1973, he collaborated with arranger Gordon Jenkins on A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, a cover album of classic American ballads. The album was a brilliant and (at least it seems today) timelessly appealing achievement, but the vast majority of record-buyers were neither interested nor amused by Nilsson’s sudden transformation from foul-mouthed rocker to adult radio crooner.
Nilsson’s next album was Pussy Cats (1974), the spirited collaboration between Nilsson and John Lennon. With Lennon manning the production booth, the band for the project included bassist Klaus Voormann, lead guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, pedal steel guitarist Sneaky Pete Kleinow, and Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr on drums. Recorded during Nilsson and Lennon’s notorious binging in L.A. in 1973, the performances are raucous and uneven, the production muddled and cavernous, and Nilsson’s vocals (he was apparently suffering from a ruptured vocal chord throughout the sessions) disturbingly harsh. In retrospect, the sound is glorious, holding its own besides other lo-fi classics like Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night and Big Star’s Third. At the time, however, the album was a disaster, both critically and commercially, and Nilsson’s once-bright star sank even lower.
In 1977, Nilsson released Knnillssonn, a stunning collection of songs and performances (“Perfect Day,” “All I Think About Is You”) that rivals his best work from the past, and the recording that Nilsson would later name as his favorite. By this time, however, hardly anyone was listening anymore. Peaking at 108 on Billboard, the album quickly disappeared from the charts. It would be Nilsson’s last American release.
On January 15, 1994, Harry Nilsson, who had suffered a massive heart attack the year before, died of complications from diabetes. Almost two decades had passed since his last studio recording, but in the 10 years between his debut in 1967 and 1977, Nilsson produced some of the most consistently appealing, genuinely inventive and (the endless Beatles references notwithstanding) distinctly American music of the rock era.
About the Author
David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.