Before his death on January 15, 1994 at the age of 52, the career of Harry Nilsson was one of the most unique stories in pop history. For one matter, Nilsson famously never toured and made few concert appearances. Instead, from 1967 to 1977, he made RCA Studios at 6363 Sunset Blvd.
in Hollywood his personal laboratory where he crafted some of the most innovative music of the era.
Normally defined as a singer-songwriter, Nilsson’s first splash was his Grammy-winning performance of “Everybody’s Talkin'” from the 1969 film, Midnight Cowboy. He didn’t compose that one, Fred Neil did. Likewise, Nilsson’s biggest hit, 1971’s “Without You” was a cover of the Badfinger song written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans. On the other hand, Nilsson wrote “One,” the first hit for Three Dog Night, The Fifth Dimension recorded his “Rainmaker, and The Monkees performed “Cuddly Toy” and “Daddy’s Song.” Among his TV and film compositions, Nilsson wrote the theme song for ABC television’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. His 1971 soundtrack for The Point! yielded another hit for the composer, “Me and My Arrow.”
Still, “singer-songwriter” remains too limiting a term to categorize Nilsson. Yes, during his early years he had glorious, golden pipes that he could multi-track into a one-man choir. Yes, he had a distinctive vocal style that could soar through the octaves and capture the spirit of old hit parade standards, baroque pop, Broadway, or rock jams like “Jump Into the Fire.” In addition, Nilsson was no mean keyboard player, especially on piano. Lyrically, he excelled at sketching character portraits or telling deceptively simple stories of innocent childhood. But on top of all that, along with longtime collaborator George Tipton, Nilsson was a superb arranger able to painstakingly mold ideal settings for his songs, both instrumentally and vocally.
Throughout his time at RCA Records and Tapes—remember tapes?—Nilsson released 14 original albums, now lovingly bundled together anew in the The RCA Albums Collection. It’s a spectacular package. It’s astonishing and magical in its breadth and depth. Mostly. There are clunkers here as well, especially in the post-1973 releases. The box set is 17 discs of not only the 14 classic and less-so albums, but 65 bonus tracks, including 26 previously unreleased rarities. Many of them are on the three new collections, Nilsson Sessions 1967-1968, Nilsson Sessions 1968-1971, and Nilsson Sessions 1971-1974, collectively dubbed “Sessions Schmessions.”
But not all the extra delights are on those “Schmessions.” I began my own trip down memory lane with the first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967), which includes the full album in both stereo and mono mixes. Most of the time, I prefer the stereo incarnations of any recordings, but had to admit tracks like “1941” and “River Deep-Mountain High” had more punch in the monaural versions. (More on this below.) For the record, as it were, “1941” was the year Nilsson was born. The lyrics describing a father walking out the door were autobiographical, as were the references to the circus. His paternal grandparents were circus performers and dancers known for their “aerial ballet,” which became the title for Nilsson’s 1968 follow-up release. In this set, Aerial Ballet is also presented in both stereo and mono versions. So far, on two discs, we’ve been given four full albums of music.
In 1969, these collections were followed by the very listenable Harry, very much in the mold of his two previous releases. In retrospect, the first three Nilsson RCA albums now seem something of a trilogy with similar arrangements conveying similar moods and similar instrumentation along with quirky verbal introductions before Nilsson went off into new directions. For example, things were very different on the offbeat Nilsson Sings Newman (1970). Back then, it surprised no one that Nilsson and Randy Newman should collaborate together. The two of them, along with Van Dyke Parks, seemed like very sympatico, keyboard-centered performers with their collective feet firmly planted in musical styles first heard on old 78s. In 1970, however, Nilsson Sings Newman was pretty much ignored, with one reviewer claiming it was essentially one record label’s attempt to touch all the bases. Well, it was a more honest effort than that, but the project still sounds like an experiment only a very small niche market would like.
Speaking of niche markets, The Point! was a humorous Nilsson fable which is mostly his narration interspersed with new songs about a round-headed boy named Oblio who lives with his dog Arrow in a village where everyone else had pointed heads. There are lots of metaphors about what “the point” is, and the concept was successful enough to be reworked into various TV and stage adaptations with the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Ringo Starr serving as narrator. While the idea was apparently inspired on a LSD trip, don’t tell the young ‘uns this. Just let them enjoy the tale of the mean-spiritedness of cruel discrimination and how it can be overcome if you journey into the Pointless Forest that actually has many points.
Then, in many ways, 1971’s Aerial Pandemonium Ballet was the culmination of this period, one of my all-time personal favorites. It’s a serious nugget in this collection. Long, long before the idea became commonplace, the set was a remix package where Nilsson revamped a number of songs that had appeared on his first two albums. While some critics feel the collection was just a means to re-package old tunes, I’ve always heard a distinct difference between earlier versions and the 1971 incarnations which seem to have more presence and pop. For me, these are the tracks of “1941,” “Together,” “One,” and “River Deep-Mountain High” I treasure most. I had to smile hearing “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song” again as it’s one of the reminders of age in the Nilsson canon. The story is about a star who’s hot when his fans were young, had to scale back when his fans became parents and had to be home early, and finally a performer in a bar where “yesterday is king.” Sound familiar?
In this box, Aerial Pandemonium Ballet also offers many special bonuses. First, there are a handful of foreign-language takes of Nilsson songs, and there are many others scattered around other discs as well. But we also get a generous selection of live Nilsson material captured on Brian Matthews’ Top of the Pops British radio show. It includes a rare broadcast interview and one of the many quirky radio promos for Nilsson’s albums. If you can only play one Nilsson album for your friends to represent what the early Nilsson was all about, this is the one.
Then, the most profitable period for Nilsson was when he worked with producer Richard Perry. It’s difficult to argue the point that Perry’s full, dramatic, and lavish production style elevated Nilsson’s music to its zenith. The award-winning smash Nilsson Schmilsson (1971) included three of the pair’s most memorable tracks, “Without You,” “Coconut,” and “Jump Into the Fire.” Then came the controversial Son Of Schmilsson (1972). While some found a number of lyrics bawdy and excessive, I not only found the collection as entertaining as I remembered it, I now had to gulp listening to “I’d Rather Be Dead.” Back then, it was funny to hear Harry and the old codgers at the retirement home sing “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed.” Now, er, ah, the old codgers are my generation. Recovering from that realization, I was glad to hear the bonus songs, including an early version of “Take 54” and “Daybreak,” the title song from the 1974 Nilsson/Ringo Starr children’s film, Son of Dracula. The original soundtrack (on RCA/Apple Records) included Nilsson songs used in the film, excerpts of dialogue, and an iron-on cover photo good for Halloween t-shirts. Wonder if any of those are still around in any package.
Speaking of Starr, I remember a Crawdaddy magazine article in the early ’70s suggesting Nilsson was the closest person to being the fifth Beatle after the break-up of the Fab Four, the most likely candidate for engineering a reunion. There was good evidence to support this speculation. In 1968, both Lennon and McCartney publicly stated they were Nilsson fans, perhaps inspired by Nilsson’s 1968 “You Can’t Do That.” In that tour de force, Nilsson covered the title Beatle song, but added passages from 22 others in the multi-tracked background vocals. Nilsson covered other Beatle numbers as well. His arrangements for his own compositions often emulated McCartney-esque “Granny songs,” to use Lennon’s term.
More personally, on Son of Schmilsson, both Starr and George Harrison made guest appearances. In 1973, Nilsson guested on the Perry produced Ringo, the only solo Beatle album on which all four former members appeared separately on various songs. But the most public of the Beatle connections was Nilsson’s 1974 Pussy Cats produced by Lennon.
This was a project doomed from the beginning. For one thing, the sessions took place during Lennon’s “Lost Weekend” away from Yoko Ono when he and Nilsson were known for bad behavior in California bars. The songs were recorded after Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord, reportedly during one of those alcohol-drenched evenings. The result was a Nilsson album that didn’t remotely sound like a Harry Nilsson album. Many of the songs sounded like plodding Lennon outtakes with some ponderous impersonator with a shredded voice trying to sing like Lennon. To rub salt into our ears, in the box set Pussy Cats can’t just die of its own weight, the bonus tracks and bonus tracks and bonus tracks make for a torturous lost evening for listeners. This includes one of the least entertaining “comedy” recordings from Nilsson and company, where a gang of drunks sit around and tell pointless stories while annoying a bartender. For once in my life, I side with the hapless bartender.
But before Pussy Cats eroded Nilsson’s reputation to its nadir, Nilsson issued a lovely album largely dismissed at the time. In 1973 he released A Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, where Nilsson sang old standards in front of an orchestra arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins, a veteran of many recordings with the likes of Frank Sinatra. The songs included “For Me and My Gal,” “It Had to Be You,” “Always,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “As Time Goes By.” Strangely, the original album was re-released in 1988 as A Touch More Schmilsson in the Night that included seven additional songs. Here, only “Over the Rainbow” was added on this disc. As every other album in this set has been chock-full of extras, this sticking to the original release is puzzling.
It should be noted that, back in 1973, an orchestral collection like this was very out of step with the times, especially for fans who had just heard Nilsson rock out on two albums in a row. Forty years later, such albums are the norm with rockers like Joe Jackson doing a collection of Duke Ellington songs and Rod Stewart issuing his ongoing series of American Songbook discs. Once again, Nilsson was ahead of his time. Now, Touch can be appreciated for what it was, a beautiful performance where his solo vocals, with no studio tricks, were presented in a very memorable concert. In every way, Touch was the mirror opposite to its follow-up, Pussy Cats.
Then, the next stage of my Nilsson immersion was one I almost dreaded. Burned by Pussy Cats back in the day, I never listened to Duit on Mon Dei (1975), Sandman (1976), …That’s the Way It Is (1976), or Knnillssonn (1977). I don’t think I ever knew they had been released. In 2013, I was tempted to skip ahead to Knnillssonn because I’d read Nilsson had thought it would be his great comeback. But, word has it, marketing support had been lost when Elvis died in 1977 and RCA threw itself into a King re-packaging machine instead. But it seemed fairest to go with the flow and experience four Nilsson albums for the first time just as they more or less were intended.
Right from the get-go, I found Duit on Mon Dei sporadically entertaining with its sacrilegious opener, “Jesus Christ You’re Tall,” and the final ditty, “Good for God” which was later re-recorded for the 1980 Marty Feldman Film, In God We Tru$t. In between, many of the songs sound like Nilsson doing Newman again, although there are no Newman compositions in the collection, just emulations of his style. Nilsson’s voice isn’t as strangled as on Pussy Cats, but he sticks to the dusty low-registers with none of the high reaches of old. There’s also an apparent nod to the Caribbean-flavors of Van Dyke Parks’ 1972 Discover America. After all, along with the reliable Ringo and Beatle buddy Klaus Voorman on occasional bass, Parks is a guest pianist on the set.
Parks returned on Sandman, where Nilsson seemed comfortable in what would soon be labeled adult contemporary music. The opener, Alex Harvey’s “I’ll Take a Tango,” disparages rock drumming, but Nilsson returns to his storytelling glories in tunes like “The Ivy Covered Walls” and “Thursday (Here’s Why I Did Not Go to Work Today).” The humor also returns on the six minute “The Flying Saucer Song” and a more polished version of “Jesus Christ You’re Tall.” Overall, I had the sense Nilsson was becoming the piano bar singer he had predicted in “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song.” This is Nilsson the silver-voiced lounge singer, not Nilsson the innovative master of the recording studio. Still, it’s a pleasant listening experience with one very cool bonus feature.
The same is true for …That’s the Way It Is. True, the album kicks off with a literal high note with George Harrison’s “That Is All,” where we hear the golden notes of old. Thereafter, we mostly get other covers like Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” and “Just One Look/Baby I’m Yours” with Nilsson dueting with former post-Diana Ross Supreme, Lynda Laurence. Here, Nilsson indeed sounds like he’s trying to touch all the bases, from calypso to Dixieland. No wonder RCA had been hoping to dump him—the story goes that it was the intervention of Lennon and Starr that saved his contract. He had one more chance.
So was Knnillssonn the great comeback album, at least artistically? Well, it was the first record in many a year recognizable as a Harry Nilsson production in the spirit of his early work. His voice was fully recovered and all the songs were Nilsson originals. Once again, he had clever stories like “Who Done It?” and “Laughin’ Man.”
Still, despite the collection’s quality, it’s hard to see how it could have had much commercial appeal in 1977. Nothing on it would have attracted the fans who’d been devotees of the Perry-era recordings. It was another soft and gentle set, so not likely to get much AM or FM airplay with no obvious hit single. Now, it does seem like the great lost Nilsson album for those who like the adult contemporary genre. It’s good to know Nilsson’s last project for RCA was one the artist was proud of and deserves a second chance all these years later.
Well, this takes us to the three rarities discs, and it seems a bit much to make this review longer than it already is. Suffice it to say there are demos recorded for The Monkees, singles never included on any album, outtakes, and seemingly every moment Nilsson spent in the RCA studios. Strange to say, the full Nilsson canon isn’t here. It’s all from the RCA vaults, not the 1966 Tower release, Spotlight on Nilsson, or the 1980 Flash Harry on Mercury Records. But if this set isn’t enough Nilsson for you, then you have issues I’m not qualified to address.
It’s worth noting the packaging is equal to the material inside, for the most part. The 14 re-released albums are housed in mini-replicas of the original vinyl records with print so tiny, three generations of my family failed to be able to read any of the back-cover notes. Fortunately, the box includes an excellent booklet including photos and an overview of how this project came together.
I know Sony Legacy is releasing many similar box sets this year for everyone from Elvis Presley to Paul Simon to Sly and the Family Stone. Sounds like perfect holiday giving to me, especially if all the sets are compiled with the same care and attention as Harry Nilsson’s The RCA Albums Collection. Still, it’s hard to imagine how any of the other collections could surpass what’s offered to Harry Nilsson fans. Perhaps, in time, Sony Legacy will break up the box into smaller sets so collectors can get the albums they really want and not bother with the less essential latter releases.