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Issue 46

The Trouble With Harry

Harry Nilsson

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BY Matthew Gidley in Features , Frieze | 06 MAY 99

Sometime in the mid 80s, a friend lent me his copy of Harry Nilsson's Son of Schmilsson (1972) album. On the cover is a photo of Harry, arms outstretched, posing as Count Dracula with the title screaming out in a schlock-horror, dripping-blood typeface. (I take the liberty of addressing Harry on first name terms, since to fall in love with the music is to fall in love with the man.) I'd heard one of the tracks before: 'I'd Rather Be Dead', a piano and accordion singalong affair about senility, performed with the Stepney and Pinner Pensioners Choir. Harry had the male section singing lines like 'I'll tie my tie/till the day I die/but if I have to be fed/then I'd rather be dead', while the ladies harmonised on loneliness, isolation and wetting the bed.

Black and white photo of Harry Nilsson with stretched out arms
Harry Nielsson, Son of Schmilsson, 1972, album cover. 

Harry's perverse humour was matched by a truly beautiful three-octave voice, harmonising with itself over lush string arrangements, rock'n'roll, Country & Western, and anything else that took his fancy. Harry was versatile. And Harry was such an accomplished songwriter that you could listen to his enchanting melodies over and over before realising he was singing about washing his willy after visiting a brothel ('Bath'), discovering a treasure map hidden in his girlfriend's varicose veins ('Black Sails'), and falling in love with a gorilla ('It Had To Be You').

Thanks to the success of some early demos, Harry's ability as a songwriter had already been established by the time his first album Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) was released. Its eclectic mix of tender balladry, vaudeville knees-up, funky military beats and literary wit made for a unique and haunting half-hour trawl through the history of popular music. Mass public appeal evaded it, although one prominent fan, John Lennon, revealed that he'd spent 36 hours listening to the album, 'probably more than the rest of the world put together'. Shortly afterwards, at an Apple Corps press conference at New York's Waldorf Hotel, The Beatles named 'Nilsson' their favourite American band.

Over the next five years Harry's fame increased as he released a number of stunning albums: Aerial Ballet, Nilsson Sings Newman, The Point!, Nilsson Schmilsson, and Son of Schmilsson. Humour played an important part on all these records, but as his confidence rose, his cheekiness began to alienate many of his fans. Despite being possibly his greatest album, Son of Schmilsson was more than many could stomach. Some found the use of the pensioners' choir a little exploitative. Others were put out by the frequently repeated line 'You're breaking my heart/you're tearing it apart/so fuck you', while the beautiful 'Remember (Christmas)' has a false start with Harry singing the first two lines and then pausing to belch before apologising and starting again.

Harry Nilsson playing the piano
Harry Nilsson (1941 - 1994) at the piano, 1972. Photo by Stan Meagher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Harry's public appearances hovered somewhere between rare and non-existent, and he never gave a live performance. The complex over-dubbing of his vocals enabled him to perform all manner of musical wizardry on his recordings (Nilsson Sings Newman is reputed to feature 118 separate vocal tracks) but prevented him from reproducing his sound in a concert hall. It is for this reason that a short BBC TV showcase special, The Music of Nilsson, is so treasured by his fans. First broadcast on New Year's Day 1972, it features performances of some of Harry's greatest songs, as well as video montage, animation and what amounts to performance art. Here we see Harry at his most playful, failing to impress an indifferent studio audience which sleeps through his songs, talks amongst itself and wanders off in small groups. Between songs, Harry juggles oranges, sulks and sucks his thumb. For the three-part harmony 'Let The Good Times Roll', Harry is joined by himself, superimposed at the piano, and halfway through the song a third Harry pops up to play harmonica. For the politically suspect 'Coconut', two bowler-hatted gorillas play piano and guitar whilst a third keeps time by banging a coconut with a wooden spoon. The show also features kaleidoscopic water-coloured animation excerpts from the film The Point! (a feature length children's cartoon, written by Harry, narrated by Dustin Hoffman and reincarnated as a successful West-End musical). We also see archive footage of hula-dancers, football crowds and wartime cityscapes. The show ends with two theatre workers up in the rafters, grimacing and holding their noses as, below, Harry sings the mournful '1941'. The song ends, Harry sighs, and a hand appears to thrust a custard pie into his face. For the first time, the audience applauds wildly. The film is surreal, hilarious, disturbing: pure Schmilsson.

Harry died in his sleep on January 15 1994. Like many half-forgotten former stars, his perfunctory obituaries were a mess of misinformation and shoddy research. Some couldn't even get the spelling of his name right (when asked about the title of 1977's Knnillssonn album Harry had remarked 'Everyone else misspells my name. Why can't I?'). The fact that his two biggest hits, 'Everybody's Talkin' and 'Without You', were written by others left many with the impression that he was an overrated crooner, even though the list of artists who covered his songs reads like a roll call of the great and the good of popular music (or else your worst Radio Two nightmare): The Monkees, George Burns, The Yardbirds, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Cilla Black, Johnny Mathis, Lulu, Harry Belafonte, Fred Astaire.

 

For the record, Harry Nilsson is the most underrated singer-songwriter of the post-war era. His knowledge of the form and structure of almost every genre of popular music was encyclopaedic. The range and potency of his voice when he was at his peak defies belief: forget the snoozy bumble of Bing Crosby and the glitzy hype of Sinatra, Nilsson's voice was the most unique and versatile of his generation. Harry could scat like Cab Calloway. He could yodel like a Tyrolean milkmaid. His whistling put the birds to shame. He could write you a cuddly McCartney melody, a Scott Walker nightmare-behind-the-net-curtains melodrama, a Bacharach/David cheesy-listener, an Irving Berlin string-fest, a pre-punk shit-kicker. He wrote music to fall in love to, get drunk to, fuck to, beat up the neighbours to, divorce the wife to.

Ultimately, perhaps this explains why Harry is so neglected. His wish to be everything to everybody meant that he couldn't be compartmentalised. Harry's music could be heard everywhere from white-trash trailer parks to Bible-Belt tea parties to Manhattan society balls. In schizophrenic early-70s America, when the beautiful people turned ugly, when Johnson's Great Society turned into Nixon's Big Nasty, it was hard for anyone to provide a clear direction, and perhaps Harry's music is still too redolent of an era that many prefer to forget.

Harry Nilsson: The Albums

1967 Pandemonium Shadow Show (RCA Victor)

Harry's debut. The sleeve shows him posing in the office suit his bank dayjob required, surrounded by objects relating to each track. Beatles PR man Derek Taylor bought a case of copies to distribute amongst friends, and Harry could finally leave the bank.

1968 Aerial Ballet (RCA Victor)

Melodic and upbeat. Includes 'Everybody's Talkin', 'Daddies Song' and 'One'.

1969 Harry (RCA Victor)

Released shortly after Midnight Cowboy. The influences of burlesque and vaudeville are clear throughout. Includes 'I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City', 'Maybe', 'The Puppy Song'.

1970 Nilsson Sings Newman (RCA Victor)

A break from songwriting as Harry records a whole album of Randy Newman songs. A brave move as, at the time, Newman was virtually unknown. Includes 'Vine Street'.

1971 The Point! (RCA Victor)

Soundtrack to the children's cartoon of the same name that Harry invented; the theme came from Harry's notion that everything in the world comes to a point (hats and trees being his unusual prime examples). Harry narrates between songs.

1971 Nilsson Schmilsson (RCA Victor)

Harry's best selling album, featuring a wide range of musical styles. Includes 'Jump Into the Fire', 'Without You' and 'The Moonbeam Song'.

1972 Son of Schmilsson (RCA Victor)

When Keith Moon invited Harry to play Dracula in his bizarre movie 'Son of Dracula', he was convinced Moon had somehow discovered the title and sleeve concept of his forthcoming album. Includes 'Spaceman' and 'Remember (Christmas)'.

1973 A Little Touch of Schmilsson in The Night (RCA Victor)

A selection of old-time favourites ('Always'‚ 'As Time Goes By'‚ 'Lullaby in Ragtime') performed alongside full orchestra.

1974 Pussy Cats (RCA Victor)

Produced by John Lennon and featuring a cast of high-living hedonists including Keith Moon and Ringo Starr. Harry permanently damaged his vocal chords during the recording after sleeping one night on a beach. The album was intended to resucitate Harry's damaged image following his infamous 14-month binge with Lennon. Originally titled 'Strange Pussies' until RCA balked and reminded them of the project's purpose. Harry and Lennon appear as cute cats on the sleeve, though a rug lies at their feet with the letters 'D' and 'S' on either side.

1975 Duit On Mon Dei (RCA Victor)

Originally intended to be titled 'God's Greatest Hits', though again bowed to record company pressure and settled on a cod Latin pun. Features 'Down By The Sea', 'Salmon Falls' and 'Good for God'.

1976 Sandman (RCA Victor)

Includes '(Thursday) Here's Why I Did Not Go To Work Today'.

1976 That's the Way It Is (RCA Victor)

Recorded live‚ in a studio with minimal overdubs. Includes Randy Newman's 'Sail Away'.

1977 Knnillssonn (RCA Victor)

Recently married, Harry wrote an entire album of original love songs and lullabies. Features big string arrangements, complex overdubbing and the St. Paul's Cathedral Boy's Choir. All songs copyright Golden Syrup Music.

1980 Flash Harry (Mercury)

Never released in the US, Harry now devoted his time to supporting the Coalition To Stop Gun Violence, following the murder of John Lennon ('I get nervous when they start shooting piano players', he was quoted as saying.)

1988 A Touch More Schmilsson in The Night (RCA Victor)

Out-takes (and cast-offs) from A Little Touch of...

This article first appeared in frieze issue 46 with the headline ‘The Trouble With Harry’.

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