What Political Campaigners Can Learn From The Sad & Rabid Puppies

…apart, of course, from “don’t be like them”…
For those who haven’t been following this on my blog, there are

two extreme right-wing to neo-nazi groups, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies respectively, that are calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, sexist and homophobic. A noisy few but they’ve been able to gather some Gamergate folks around them and elect a slate of bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.

I think the massive, massive unpopularity of these people may have something to teach us about political campaigning. Obviously this unpopularity is, in part, because they’re truly horrible people who do things like call for the murder of one of my friends because he has a different understanding of the word “mysticism” — the correct response to Phil Sandifer saying something you disagree with (which happens in my experience about once every three blog posts or so, as he’s no stranger to controversial statements) is to tut, maybe roll your eyes, and move on, not to say that it would be right and proper to murder him.

But even aside from them being horrible people, I think their strategy was doomed to unpopularity. The basic argument of the two Puppy slates is (paraphrased but, I think, keeping the sense — I’m trying to steelman them here, presenting the best possible version of their argument):

The Hugo awards are no longer fit for purpose. Too much of the material that gets nominated or wins is material that ignores the traditional strengths of SF in favour of bad attempts at lit-fic. This material is *so* bad that there must be reasons other than its popularity for it to be successful. Therefore, it is the fault of “social justice warriors” (defined here as anyone to the left of, say, Dick Cheney) who, as we all know, are evil. They must be voting for those writers because they’re black or female or gay or otherwise “SJW”. The system is too broken to fight fairly, so to save the Hugos we must have a slate, and all vote the same way. Here are the best examples of the work we should be voting for — go forth and vote for them.

Now, this is in many ways the kind of narrative that has huge success in motivating people — hence the strong motivation of the two hundred or so people in the Puppy camp. It has a golden age in the past in which “people like us” were in charge and everything was good, but then the bad people did a bad thing, because they’re bad, and now everything is *their fault*, but the good people can fix everything. This is a traditional fascist narrative, but you can very easily change it to work for, say, Liberalism (if only that dastardly Labour party hadn’t usurped the true progressive voice…) or the Labour party (if only Thatcher hadn’t bribed those selfish bastards into voting for her…) or really insert your political organisation here.

But the problem is, this is a complex narrative (a rarity for the Puppies… thank you, I’ll be here all week, tip your waitress) made up of several separate controversial links, and unless you buy into *every one* of those links, the Puppy story fails and you’re no longer a Puppy.

Take me, for example. I could easily agree with the statement “Too much of the material that gets nominated or wins is material that ignores the traditional strengths of SF in favour of bad attempts at lit-fic” — I’ve made many similar statements myself over the years (check my previous years’ Hugo posts if you don’t believe me), though I would disagree with the Puppies about what those traditional strengths are. A campaign that was *purely* about promoting “traditional SF” and raising awareness of it to get it onto ballots would be something I would at least look at sympathetically. I’d end up saying “No, not for me, thanks”, because what I want out of SF is closer to Greg Egan than Doc Smith, but I’d have gone away thinking “I hope those nice people do well with their campaign, at least it’d mean something different would be on the ballot.”

But at the point where you try to drag in the US-centric “culture war”, and argue for the right-wing side of it, you lose not only the “SJWs”, but basically anyone in the Western world outside the USA, because even the most barking right-winger in the UK would be considered a leftist by US culture war standards, and the UK is right-wing compared to most of the rest of the West.

Then there’s the claim that the Puppies’ work is the best of what’s out there — on a purely aesthetic ground, that claim is a nonsense, and I get very annoyed at people pushing clearly sub-par work.

So even if the Puppies hadn’t made an actual enemy of me by including among their membership white supremacist homophobes who advocate rape and murder, I would wish them to fail purely because of their promotion of poor work and their culture war agenda.

But then there are other people — right-wing Republicans who like the stories — who are also voting “No Award” above the Puppies because they’re angry that those works got on the ballot thanks to voting slates, which are against the spirit of the awards and break the unspoken agreement among fandom not to do that kind of thing.

I have to say that personally, that bit doesn’t annoy me too much. I mean, it annoys me a bit, because it’s cheating, but if they’d cheated and got a *really great* bunch of stories on there, I’d have had a sneaking admiration for it. I’d not have approved, mind, but I’d not have been that angry.

And this is the point I want to make — the Puppy position, as I summarised it above, has seven different controversial assumptions by my count, all of them taken as obvious statements of faith rather than actually substantiated. *Each of those assumptions is a reason for people to disagree* — and even if 80% of people agree with any one of the assumptions, that would make only 20% of people actually agree with *all* of them. And if you don’t agree with all of them, then the Puppy campaign falls apart (unless of course you don’t care about anything other than “sticking it to the SJWs”).

There’s an important lesson here. The Puppies are targeting the small number of people in the *intersection* of all their beliefs — ideological purists who don’t question any of their assumptions. The anti-Puppy “faction” is simply the union of all people who disagree with even one of their assumptions. And this might point a way forward for campaigning — rather than saying “these are our policy positions, if you agree with them, campaign for them”, allow a much greater disunity of messaging and of campaigning. Give seven *separate and independent* reasons for voting reform, for example, rather than a long chain of steps like “MPs don’t work hard enough, and AV would make MPs work harder, and MPs working harder would be a good thing” like the Yes campaign in 2011 or “Labour are too left wing. The Tories are too right-wing. Moderation is better” like the Lib Dem campaign this year…

California Dreaming: Wichita Lineman

Glen Campbell had finally started having hits of his own. After Guess I’m Dumb flopped, he recorded Buffy St. Marie’s Universal Soldier — an odd choice for the conservative Campbell, but a commercial one, reaching number forty-five in the charts — before having a major hit with John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind.

But it was the song he recorded after that which made him a fully-fledged star. By the Time I Get To Phoenix, a cover of a song written by Jimmy Webb and originally recorded by Johnny Rivers. Campbell’s version, produced by Al de Lory, became one of the biggest hits of all time, turning the song into a standard and making Webb (who also had a hit around the same time with Up, Up, and Away performed by the Fifth Dimension) the hottest young songwriter in LA.

At the time, Campbell and Webb had not even met, but the two met soon after at a session, and hit it off. As Campbell and de Lory wanted a follow-up to Phoenix, Campbell called Webb shortly after that first meeting and asked him for another song with a town in the name, or failing that “something geographical”.

Webb had never written a song for a specific artist before, and was unsure of what to do, but Campbell needed the song quickly, so he sat down and thought about a drive through Washita County, and seeing someone working at the top of the telephone wire poles, and thinking about how lonely a job it must be. Webb at the time wanted to write about ordinary working people, but not to make their ordinariness a negative factor — he wanted to show that ordinary people have hopes and dreams, and thoughts that are more than just about their job.

Changing the place from Washita to Wichita in order to improve the scansion, Webb came up with a harmonically ambiguous verse that changed key halfway through from F major to D major and never properly resolved, and a Morse code-like instrumental part, representing the signals travelling down the telephone wires. The first two verses came quite quickly the same afternoon that Campbell called, but Webb was stuck for how to finish it, and after several telephone calls from the studio asking if the song was done yet, he eventually said he’d send over what he had so they could see if they liked the song — if they did, he’d finish it up for them.

As it turned out, he didn’t need to. Campbell and de Lory liked the song enough that they just went with what they had. The finished recording features Campbell singing the first two verses, followed by a “guitar” solo (actually played by Campbell on Carol Kaye’s six-string bass, hence the deeper and more resonant sound than normal) just restating the verse melody, before Campbell repeats the last two lines of the second verse and the song ends with an extended instrumental fade.

After Webb didn’t hear back from Campbell about finishing the song, he assumed that the song had been left aside, but in fact the “unfinished” song had been earmarked as Campbell’s next single. The simplicity of structure was precisely what was needed. Like Wichita Lineman, By The Time I Get To Phoenix had no middle eight or chorus, and told a very simple story using only verses. By leaving the song unfinished, Webb had inadvertently refined the formula that had worked on the earlier song — although he still made sure that the next “geography song” he wrote for Campbell, Galveston, had a middle eight.

de Lory’s production and arrangement, which combined organ and high strings with bright staccato piano to emulate the sound of electricity in the wire (and which foreshadows the staccato instrumental figure in Webb’s next big hit) created a unique soundscape, wrapping Campbell’s country-tinged voice in a lush backing closer to Pet Sounds than to Hank Williams.

The result was a massive crossover hit, which reached number three on the pop charts but number one on both the country and adult contemporary listings. After this, both Campbell and Webb were at the top of their professions. Campbell would go on to be not only one of the most successful singers of the next few decades, but also a star of both TV and film. Webb, meanwhile, would write more hits for Campbell and for others, and become known as one of the best songwriters of his generation.

Even after this, though, Webb still sometimes didn’t manage to place his songs with the artists he wanted to. The Association, for example, who were looking for another hit (and would largely fail to find it) turned down a song Webb tried to get them to record, considering its seven minute length excessive. That song, when recorded by Richard Harris, went to number two in the charts and became another standard, although with a slightly more mixed reputation. The Association never recovered from turning down MacArthur Park.

Wichita Lineman
Composer:
Jimmy Webb
Line-up:
Glen Campbell (vocals, guitar, bass), James Burton, Al Casey, Donnie Lanier (guitars), Carol Kaye, Donald Bagley (bass), Jim Gordon (drums), Dick Leith, Bud Brisois, Virgil Evans, Roy Caton, Jim Horn (horns), Richard Hyde (woodwinds), Bill Kurasch, Ralph Schaffer, Leonard Malarsky, Robert Sushel, Jerome Reisler, Tibor Zelig, Wilbert Nuttycombe, Samuel Boghossian, Joseph DiFiora, Jesse Erlich, Anne Goodman, Sid Sharp, Bob Balts [FOOTNOTE: This name, or something similar, appears on the AFM sheet, but the typing is slightly smudged. I’ve been unable to find any information on any players with similar names, so I’ve placed him in the strings on the balance of probabilities, as he’s listed with string players.] (strings), Norm Jeffries (percussion), Mike Melvoin and Al de Lory (keyboards),

Original release:
Wichita Lineman/Fate Of Man Glen Campbell, Capitol 2302

Currently available on:
Rhinestone Cowboy: The Best of Glen Campbell EMI CD

Laptop Stands — Recommendations?

I want to try writing standing up, because I’m having serious RSI and back problems at the moment. I want to find something that will raise my laptop to roughly eye height, but will *also* raise the USB keyboard to roughly waist height (I can’t use my laptop keyboard — using it is what started the RSI in the first place). I can’t find anything suitable on Amazon, Argos, or Maplin, but something like this *must* exist — anyone have any recommendations?

The Problem With Two-Factor Authentication

Two-factor authentication is, in principle, a good thing. It means that when accessing an online account, one has to have both an object and a password. “A thing you know, and a thing you own”.
This is great — for those who want it. Having it as a requirement, rather than an option, can cause serious problems.

I am on the autistic spectrum. I find talking on the phone distressing, even when it’s someone I know. I find dealing with strangers on the phone *extremely* distressing. I also dislike the presumption of contactability in modern society, in which we are expected at all times to be available to reply to instant messages, tweets, emails, texts, and phone calls at the convenience of the contacter. As an autistic person, I need to be able to withdraw and not deal with other people. Mobile phones remove that ability.

For this reason, I refuse to have or use a mobile phone. I occasionally, under *extreme* protest, take one with me when I’m going to be away from home, so my wife can contact me, but I have a deep and abiding phobia of the things.

Today I tried to register for Virgin Money’s online card management system — they changed their systems two months ago, and I’d not got round to registering for the new service until now. I got as far as the second screen, where the system *insists* on a mobile phone number, and will not allow you to proceed without it.

I phoned up Virgin Money (something I don’t like doing — as I said, I find talking on the phone distressing) and got told the following:
“No, you don’t need a mobile phone number to register, you can get the access code sent to your email address”
(After I explain that the access code is not the same thing, that this comes after entering that code)
“No, you don’t have to have a mobile phone for anything except text banking”
(After I explain that I am looking at the online credit card management registration page, that I have it in front of me at that moment)
“Can you enter your landline number instead?”
(After I explain that there is a separate box for my landline number, and that it wants the number for two-factor authentication)
“Can you use someone else’s mobile phone?”
(After I explain that I am not tying my credit card account to someone else’s mobile phone, because I’m not an idiot)
“Can you just click through?”
(After I explain that no, if I could just click through, I wouldn’t have bothered phoning up)
“My supervisor says you don’t need a mobile phone number”
(After I explain that his supervisor is, at best, mistaken, and that I don’t like being called a liar, because at this point I have had the evidence of my own eyes called into question multiple times)
“No, I can see you’re right. Can I put you on hold? [minutes later] Yes, it turns out there’s no way to do this without a mobile phone. Did you know you can buy a mobile phone for only…”

So, because of the imposition of two-factor authentication as a necessity, rather than as an option, I am forced to choose either never to use my credit card, to own a device which I have no wish ever to own and which would cause me stress, or to deal with Virgin Money entirely by phone, which would mean that every month I would have to phone a call centre and speak to the kind of people who, like the person I spoke to today, feel perfectly comfortable asserting that their own uninformed opinion overrides the actual experiences of the customer.

I’ve been using online banking for fifteen years, and have never in that time experienced any fraud based on not using two-factor authentication. I have no reason to believe I ever *will* experience such fraud, and am certainly willing to take that risk. Apparently, though, I am not *allowed* to take that risk on myself.

Technology can and should be a tool which enables people to take more control of their own lives, and which allows those who have different needs to meet those needs. Instead, it’s increasingly being used to create a set of inflexible systems which deny participation to those who don’t fit a set of accepted norms. This may seem a very minor thing in isolation — and it is — but it’s part of a wider pattern in which social assumptions (everyone has a mobile phone/everyone is either male or female/everyone finds touchscreens easier to use than buttons/everyone is visually, rather than verbally, oriented/everyone is happy with having only a single persona which can be seen by friends, family, and employers) get mapped to technology, which unlike society has no wiggle room for when its assumptions get challenged.

Hugo Blogging “Best” Fan Writer

And so once again I dip into the sewer. The “Best” Fan Writer category in the Hugos is apparently meant to encourage SF fans to write about SF. This year, it seems to be largely made up of people who claim to be professional writers, but who can’t string a sentence together.
This is understandable, as four of the five nominations were put on the ballot by… well by

two extreme right-wing to neo-nazi groups, called the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies respectively, that are calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, sexist and homophobic. A noisy few but they’ve been able to gather some Gamergate folks around them and elect a slate of bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.

(I too stand by Irene Gallo, for what tiny bit of good that does).

For this reason, I shall be ranking No Award at the top — once again it’s nice that my aesthetic, moral, and political judgments align, so I don’t have any qualms about doing so.

Below No Award I’ll be ranking Laura Mixon. The two pieces here — her devastating expose of Benjanun Sriduangkaew and a slighter, though moving, piece on the #notallwomen hashtag and rape culture in SF — are both very good. In a normal year I would rank her above No Award, but this is not a normal year, and I’m fairly convinced by the argument that an award with only one non-Puppy nomination is too tainted to function. I was in two minds about this, but Abigail Nussbaum’s post pointing out some problems with Mixon’s major piece convinced me. There are, of course, also problems with *Abigail’s* piece, and it wouldn’t sway me were the year a normal one, but the combination made me think it best that this year we get no award. But I won’t be upset if Mixon wins.

Jeffro Johnson, the least-worst of the Puppy nominees by some way, is merely a bad writer with very limited critical thinking skills and a bit of casual sexism. These four pieces are supposed reviews of four old SF/F novels. Three of these novels (The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, The High Crusade by Poul Anderson, and Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny) are dealt with in terms of what influence they had on Dungeons & Dragons, and what kinds of magic systems one could develop by following up on some of their other ideas. Someone could potentially write an interesting essay on that subject, but that someone won’t be Mr Johnson, whose level of insight doesn’t rise much above “neat! This could make a great game!”
The fourth review is of a pulp novel called Derai, and this is what I suspect made the Puppies nominate him. In between quoting about half the book and summarising the plot, Mr Johnson says things like

No, it’s not some alien menace, some freakish and debilitating disease, or some insidious cult. It’s not even stuff like more varieties of double dealing or even more pedestrian ways to die, although that is here in spades. No, the traveler’s kryptonite turns out to be something more inscrutable than anything we’ve seen in this series so far: girls

and

any science fiction novel with a sword wielding [sic] woman in unreasonable armor on the cover is worth a shot.

On the evidence of these pieces, Mr Johnson is an affable, hugely enthusiastic, but rather stupid man with (to put it politely) outdated notions about gender relations. But he does seem to be genuinely trying to share his enthusiasms, and I rather think that he’s been done no favours by having his work, such as it is, exposed to a wider audience who won’t share his prejudices.

Cedar Sanderson wants to make it clear that she’s a womanly woman, but she’s not like those other women, who men don’t like because they just insist on being feminist and writing message fiction, and why won’t they just be less MESSAGEY and FEMINIST?!

Women who seek notoriety based only on their femaleness betray those of us who only want to work hard, earn our money with words, and not grind men under our pointy heels.

We’ve seen this a million times before, the special-pleading anti-feminist woman who wants us to think *she’s* not like *those* other women.

Based on my observations at school, most women don’t go into science because it would mess up their hair and chip their nails, and they went to school where they passed because they were girls, and
science is HARD, so they switch to journalism.

Three of the four essays in her submission just repeat variations on this theme.

At least Sanderson can turn a sentence, however. “Amanda Green” keeps “using” scare “quotes” and stupid acronyms in her blog posts, which are mostly complaints about “SJWs” and something called “GHHers” (the former stands for “social justice warrior”, which is Puppy/Gater speak for anyone to the left of Hitler; the latter she doesn’t explain and I can’t be bothered finding out. In the most laughable piece, she complains about “SJWs” breaking Star Trek canon because, in a book she doesn’t name (because she’s not very good at actually explaining things) a Klingon and a Vulcan have a same-sex affair.
Now, regular readers will know what I think of the concept of “canon”, but the author of the book in question has absolutely torn apart her piece, showing that even taking it on its own merits and ignoring the homophobia it’s just wrongheaded about Star Trek.

And finally David Freer submits a gigantic badly-formatted PDF with as few as four words (in about forty-point font) per line, starting with a rant about the Hugo voters not appreciating the Puppies’ genius:

I also found out that some over-indulged and self-important
‘leading figures’ were having hissy fits about the scruffy, unsuitable,
unimportant, irrelevant and just wrong people on the short list, and demanding we should abase ourselves and get our ugly little selves out of the front of the bus, before they wrecked our careers and destroyed us. They’ve indulged in relentless bullying, media attacks, pushing people not to review or publish us, and to disinvite or restrict participation in conferences and readings…”

(Which is in fact a very good description of the Puppies’ own tactics).
His first actual piece is a rant about how “SJWs” should grow up and stop whining, because the people who should *really* be whining are right-wingers, who get much worse abuse. He actually compares the supposed abuse right-wingers get online with the sexual abuse Moira Greyland suffered from Marion Zimmer Bradley and Walter Breen, her parents. I gave up reading at that point.

This is what the people who want to “take politics out of SF” and “stop pushing messages” think is the best writing about science fiction today…

California Dreaming: To Claudia On Thursday

Curt Boettcher was feeling stifled by Gary Usher.

Usher was still necessary to Boettcher’s musical plans, as his position at Columbia Records gave Boettcher the ability to do whatever he wanted musically, but even Boettcher’s closest friends described him as a control freak, and he wanted to have a project that was his own, not playing second fiddle to Gary Usher.

So while still working with Usher on the Sagittarius recordings, Boettcher started to put together his own band. Initially he worked with Jerry Scheff, Ben Benay, and Toxie French, three session musicians who had played on sessions Boettcher had produced for Lee Mallory, but they soon quit and were replaced by two members of the band The Music Machine (sometimes also known as The Bonniwell Music Machine), a one-hit wonder band whose song Talk Talk is now a garage-rock classic. Boettcher had worked with Ron Edgar, the Music Machine’s drummer, in the Goldebriars, and Edgar brought along Doug Rhodes. A third Music Machine member, Keith Olsen, did not join the new band but became Boettcher’s co-producer on the new recordings (with Gary Usher being relegated to executive producer status).

However, Boettcher wanted a proper band, with multiple vocalists capable of taking leads, and so he expanded the new group to seven members, with four additional songwriter/vocalists. Lee Mallory had recorded a couple of mildly successful singles produced by Boettcher, and had worked with him on records by the Association, Sandy Salisbury was a former member of Boettcher’s group The Millennium, and the group was rounded out with two newcomers, Michael Fennelly (who Boettcher had picked up hitch-hiking to an audition and invited to join the group), and Joey Stec.

All of these people were hugely talented singers and songwriters, but they were all virtual unknowns, so Boettcher had a group who could all contribute commercial material and lead vocals, but who would also take their orders from him, as he was the one whose contract the band were using to record their album (Boettcher having been signed to Columbia as a solo artist).

The band’s first single, It’s You, was written by Fennelly and Stec, and featured Fennelly (who was very obviously the member with most star potential), but despite getting some small amount of airplay, the song (about government cover-ups, but phrased ambiguously so it could also work as a song about an unhappy romance) had little success.

That didn’t deter the Millennium, though, and they continued working on their ferociously ambitious first album, Begin. As might be expected from a band with seven strong creative figures, one of whom was among the most experimental producers working in Hollywood, the band ended up spending far more time in the studio than the label were comfortable with, and the album, by the time it was finished, ended up costing the label more than any other record in its history, coming in at a cost of $100,000 at a time when $50,000 was a more-than-respectable budget for an album. This was mostly down to Boettcher’s habit of writing and rehearsing vocal arrangements in the studio, teaching them to the band while listening to playbacks of the instrumental tracks, rather than having the band rehearsed before entering the studio.

Despite featuring songwriting credits for all seven members, the bulk of the album was split between solo songs by Boettecher and Mallory and songs written by the Fennelly/Stec team (with a couple of Boettcher/Mallory and Boettcher/Mallory/Fennelly collaborations thrown in). The Fennelly/Stec songs were far and away the most catchy, and so it made sense that (after the brief instrumental Prelude) the first song on the album hould be another of their songs.

To Claudia on Thursday was so named because it was written on a Thursday, for Boettcher’s then-wife Claudia. Claudia (who later married the band’s drummer, Ron Edgar), was heavily pregnant at the time and apparently needed cheering up, so Stec and Fennelly came up with a song asking her to “relax and smile”. Coming after the instrumental sounding opening, which combined baroque pop instrumentation with a repetitive beat that sounded looped (so that to modern ears it can’t help but sound like a 90s dance track), the almost calypso feel of To Claudia…, with its variety of odd-sounding percussion, made it clear that this wasn’t just another harmony-pop album, although the cascading harmonies on the line “in your eyes…” showed that the Millennium were as capable of pure harmony gorgeousness as anyone.

The song was clearly the most commercial thing on the album, and should have appealed to the same audience that had been buying the Association’s singles, with its simple lyric about taking life easy and being happy, but for some reason (perhaps an over-light mix — compare the early version later released on the compilation Again, and you’ll hear how much thicker the song could sound, rather than the airy trebliness of the final version) the song did nothing on the radio. Released as the third single off the album (after Salisbury’s 5AM), it sank, and with it the band’s career.

The band briefly started work on a second album before Columbia pulled the plug, unhappy with the album that had been delivered, the money spent on it, and the band’s unwillingness to tour to promote it, but even before that there were clear tensions within the band. Fennelly and Boettcher, in particular, didn’t get on (Boettcher felt that he could have moulded Fennelly into a star if Fennelly were more interested in being a teen idol and less in playing rock music), and Boettcher’s control-freak tendencies were asserting themselves. Boettcher had complained about Gary Usher doubling Boettcher’s vocals on the Sagittarius album, but was now doing the same to all the vocalists in the Millennium, creating Frankenstein leads in just the way Usher had, and imposing Boettcher’s vocal sound on all of the singers in the band. There was clearly no democracy here, but rather Boettcher making use of others’ talents for his own ends.

The album marked the end of Boettcher and Gary Usher’s relationship with Columbia. Usher soon started his own record company, Together Records, which released a second Sagittarius album, The Blue Marble, before collapsing, leaving other projects such as a Sandy Salisbury solo album (co-produced by Boettcher) and an orchestral tribute to Brian Wilson unreleased. Both Usher and Boettcher would continue making records throughout the 70s, but their moment had passed.

To Claudia on Thursday

Composer: Michael Fennelly and Joey Stec

Line-up: Curt Boettcher (vocals, guitar), Ron Edgar (drums, vocals), Michael Fennelly (guitar, vocals), Lee Mallory (vocals), Doug Rhodes (horn, keyboards, vocals), Sandy Salisbury (guitar, vocals), Patrick Shanahan (drums), Joey Stec (guitar), Red Rhodes (pedal steel), Doug Dillard (banjo)

Note, these are the credits for the full album, and not every member may be on every track.

Original release: Begin, The Millennium, Columbia CS 9663

Currently available on: Begin, Sundazed CD

California Dreaming: Everybody’s Talkin’

While Pandemonium Shadow Show had not been the commercial success that Nilsson may have hoped, it was nonetheless an artistic triumph, and when the time came to record a second album with RCA, Nilsson didn’t change a winning formula, once again working with producer Rick Jarrard and arranger George Tipton, with the bulk of the album being arranged for horns and with a heavy emphasis on snare drum and vocal harmonies.

To all intents and purposes Aerial Ballet, the resulting album, was merely a refinement of the sound of Pandemonium Shadow Show. But where Pandemonium Shadow Show had been a mixture of original songs and cover versions, the bulk of what became Aerial Ballet was made up of Nilsson originals, with only one cover version (if one doesn’t count Little Cowboy, based on a song Nilsson’s mother made up and sang to him as a child). It contains many of the songs Nilsson had written about the breakup of his marriage, with many of the songs dealing with feelings of profound depression and alienation, and even (in the case of I Said Goodbye To Me) suicide. While it has moments of humour, it’s a personal, bleak album, and it makes sense that it shouldn’t be dominated by cover versions.

But that one cover version ended up dominating anyway.

Originally recorded by Fred Neil, Everybody’s Talkin’ was a country-folk song very different from Nilsson’s usual style. Neil had written it in 1966, during the recording sessions for his second album, Fred Neil, at the request of Herb Cohen, who was his manager at the time. The album, widely regarded as Neil’s best, featured his other most famous song, Dolphins, later covered by Tim Buckley and Linda Ronstadt amongst others, and was produced by Nik Venet, with musicians including Billy Mundi (later of the Mothers of Invention), Cyrus Farrar of the Modern Folk Quartet, and Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson of Canned Heat.

Neil had nearly finished recording the album and wanted to leave, to get away from LA and go back to Florida, and Cohen insisted he record at least one more song. Neil locked himself in the bathroom, and came out five minutes later with a song about people putting pressure on him, and how he didn’t want to be there, and wanted to be “where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain”. He recorded it in one take, and Cohen drove him to the airport.

Given its genesis, Neil never thought much of the song, but Nilsson picked up on its potential when producer Rick Jarrard asked his opinion of it — Jarrard was originally going to offer it as a cover version to the band Stone Country, with whom he was working — and in November 1967 Nilsson, Jarrard, and George Tipton came up with a radical reworking of Neil’s simple acoustic track.

While much of Aerial Ballet, like Pandemonium Shadow Show before it, was based around staccato, straight crotchet beats in a style similar to Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Motown or Paul McCartney, if gentler than any of them, Everybody’s Talkin’ is based around a rolling, picked, acoustic guitar figure played by Al Casey, which is utterly unlike anything else Nilsson had done up to that point (although it has some similarities to Nilsson’s piano playing, transposed to guitar). And while both albums concentrated on brass band textures, Everybody’s Talking has only standard rock instrumentation and a simple string part (a single high violin note, later joined by cello at the bottom of the arrangement).

But what really made the track was Nilsson’s high scat singing, a plaintive, beautiful, howl of longing which came in at the same time as the cellos, and gradually building from a solo line into a stack of harmonies, before Nilsson jumps into the falsetto register for “I won’t let you leave my love behind”. The vocal apparently took only two or three takes to record, but remains one of Nilsson’s best.

The song was released as a single, but was unsuccessful, and languished for nearly a year, until John Schlesinger used the song as a temporary music track when editing his classic film Midnight Cowboy. Schlesinger asked several people to record new tracks for the shots he’d edited to the track — Bob Dylan apparently gave him Lay Lady Lay, and Nilsson himself came up with I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City, as close to a remake of the earlier recording as humanly possible, but in the end Schlesinger stuck with the music he’d been using all along. The song had become so ingrained in the film during the editing process that not only had Schlesinger based the cuts in the opening sequence around it, but composer John Barry was inspired by Tipton’s arrangement for his own, classic, score for the film.

Midnight Cowboy became a hit, and with it Everybody’s Talkin’. The track sold over a million copies, reached number two on the Billboard charts, and won Nilsson a Grammy. Before this, Nilsson had been a respected cult figure; after it he was a massive star.

Nilsson later came somewhat to resent this track, because while he would write songs that would become hits for others (most notably One from Aerial Ballet, which went to number one for Three Dog Night), his two biggest chart hits as a performer — this and Without You — were cover versions. But comparing Nilsson’s version to Fred Neil’s original, one is struck by the fact that while Neil’s version has a beauty of its own, Nilsson’s interpretation, rather than the song itself, is what made this track the classic it remains.

A song that neither its composer nor its performer particularly liked ended up defining both men’s lives. Nilsson remained identified with the song for the rest of his life, while Neil earned enough in royalties from Nilsson’s version (and the covers it inspired, by artists as diverse as the Beautiful South, Tony Bennett, Louis Armstrong, and Bill Withers) that he retired from the music business in which he had never been happy, and spent the last thirty years of his life in Florida, working to prevent the exploitation of dolphins.

Composer: Fred Neil

Line-up: Harry Nilsson (vocals) William Weiss, Leonard Malarsky, Charlotte Soym, Leonard Atkins, Tibor Zelig, Jerome Reisler,Darrel Terwilliger, Wilbert Nuttycombe, Arnold Belnick, James Getzoff, Alfred Lustgarten (violin), Dennis Budimir, Al Casey (guitar), Jesse Ehrlich, Jacqueline Lustgarten, Ray Kelly (cello), Jim Gordon (drums), Milt Holland (percussion), Larry Knechtel (bass, piano), Michael Melvoin (keyboards), Lyle Ritz (bass)

(NB, these are the credits for the whole album, minus those instruments not audible on the recording, as I have been unable to find session details for the specific track. Not all listed musicians may be on the track.)

Original release: Aerial Ballet, Nilsson, RCA LSP-3956

Currently available on: Pandemonium Shadow Show/Aerial Ballet/Aerial Pandemonium Ballet BMG CD