[A note on sources: Where most of these essays have multiple sources, almost all the information here comes from Alyn Shipton’s masterful Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, with a little from Andrew Sandoval’s liner notes for the RCA album box set. Whenever I lean heavily on one source, I like to credit it]
Harry Nilsson’s time working with Phil Spector seemed to have been even less useful to him than Van Dyke Parks’ time with Brian Wilson — at least Heroes & Villains had been released as a single, while none of Nilsson’s collaborations with Spector had been heard outside the recording studios.
He’d been recording with a small company called Tower, putting out singles (eventually compiled into an unsuccessful album titled Spotlight on Nilsson), while he was working with Spector, but none had had any success. He’d also been working as a staff songwriter, paid $25 a week, for a company called Rock Music, co-owned by Perry Botkin jr, to whom he’d been introduced by the arranger George Tipton, and he’d been doing this while also employed in a full-time job on the night shift as the manager of a bank’s computer department.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he was essentially working two full-time jobs, Nilsson’s first marriage had collapsed, but in January 1967 a lot of things came to a head. That month, he not only split up with his wife, but he was dropped by Rock Music (amicably, they ran out of money) and almost simultaneously met Rick Jarrard, a record producer for RCA, who signed Nilsson and gave him an office where he could continue the daily songwriting routine he’d started at Rock.
It was also the month that the copyright was registered in a song, apparently about the breakdown of Nilsson’s marriage, titled Without Her. Nilsson would later claim that that song, 1941, and Don’t Leave Me, were all written on the same night, although their copyright registration spans a fourteen-month period. Whatever the truth, though, two of those songs would be used on the new album Nilsson began work on, with Jarrard producing and Tipton and Botkin sharing arrangement duties.
However, even with his RCA contract and day job, Nilsson was still a hustler, and soon hit paydirt with his songwriting. Chip Douglas, who had been in the Modern Folk Quartet when they’d recorded Nilsson’s This Could Be The Night, had remained an admirer of Nilsson’s writing, and had recently become the producer for the Monkees, who were looking for new material.
Nilsson went into the studio with them and played them a handful of his new songs. Michael Nesmith reportedly replied “Man where the fuck did you come from? You just sat down there and blew our minds. We’ve been looking for songs, and you just sat down and played an album for us!”
While both the Monkees and Douglas’ old band the Turtles would use several Nilsson songs between them in the future, the Monkees didn’t quite decide to record the album Nesmith talked about. However, they did decide to use Nilsson’s song Cuddly Toy, and Screen Gems, the Monkees’ publishing company, paid him an advance in the region of $40,000 (a reasonable sum today, but a small fortune in 1968 dollars) for the one song. Lester Sill, the Monkees’ music supervisor, told Nilsson after he’d played for the band “you can quit the bank”.
Cuddly Toy would also appear on Nilsson’s album, to which he could now devote his full attention. Titled Pandemonium Shadow Show, after the evil magical carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the album was a mix of Nilsson’s own material (roughly half the album), and an eclectic mix of covers including a song by Jesse Lee Kincaid (formerly of the Rising Sons), two Beatles tracks, a song by Botkin and his Rock co-owner Gil Garfield, a vaudeville song from 1919, and River Deep Mountain High. All of this was recorded in a style suggested by Jarrard and primarily arranged by Tipton, with heavy emphasis on brass instruments and snare drum, designed to sound like the circus of the title.
While the album’s material seemed disparate, it was in fact carefully chosen. Every song was, in some way, about childhood, separation, or running away to the circus, either literally or metaphorically. And there was a good reason for this.
When the Spotlight on Nilsson album had been released, despite it having little or no promotion, it had put Nilsson in the public eye in a way he previously hadn’t been, and his mother had broken news he wasn’t expecting — his father was alive.
For more than twenty years, Nilsson had been under the impression that his father, Harry Nilsson senior, had been killed during the war while serving in the Navy as a Seabee. In fact, he’d been a merchant seaman, not in the US Navy, and had survived, but had abandoned his wife and child, and was living in Florida with a new family.
The song he wrote about this, 1941, had a deceptively jaunty melody, but the lyrics, with an almost nursery-rhyme simplicity, spoke about how “in 1941 a happy father had a son/and in 1944 the father walked right out the door”, before going on to describe the son running off himself to the circus (a not-very-veiled description of Nilsson’s own teenage years), before having his own child and abandoning the mother himself, and ending with “what will happen to the boy when the circus comes to town?”
Nilsson was clearly worried that he would follow the pattern of his father’s life — while his first marriage had not produced any children, he had adopted his wife’s son and clearly felt bad about abandoning him (and he would later repeat the pattern, leaving his second wife and their son four years after marrying her) — and the combination of Nilsson having to reevaluate his whole childhood, and in effect experiencing two breakups at once — that of his own marriage, and that of his parents’ twenty-three years after the fact — made the selection of material on Pandemonium Shadow Show show the whole spectrum of feelings about abandonment and breakups. From the callous, almost date-rapist, vicious protagonist of Cuddly Toy to the girl leaving home in She’s Leaving Home to the protagonist of Without Her spending “the night in the chair, hoping she’ll be there, but she never comes”, every character is Nilsson, both abandoner and abandoned, leaving home to seek his fortune but being left by his parents, drifting apart from his wife while being desperate when she’s not there.
And it was this sense of loss that must have affected John Lennon in particular. Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ former publicist, now working for the Beach Boys and Byrds in LA, had heard 1941 on the radio, and immediately bought several copies of Pandemonium Shadow Show and sent them to the Beatles [FOOTNOTE: Taylor seems to have been aware of Nilsson before this, and even to have introduced him to George Harrison and given Harrison acetates of some of his recordings when Harrison was visiting LA in summer 1967, but the story he and Nilsson always told ignores that, and it seems Nilsson didn’t really figure on the Beatles’ radar until the album had been out a while.]. The Beatles, especially Lennon, fell in love with the music. Both Lennon and Ringo Starr had been abandoned by their fathers as children, in 1944 or 45, just as Nilsson had; like him they’d had almost no contact with their fathers since; and both of them had fathers who’d worked in shipping — Lennon’s father was a merchant seaman, like Nilsson’s, while Starr’s was a dock worker. Combined with how much Nilsson’s music was clearly inspired by the Beatles’, while being distinctively its own thing, it’s no surprise that Lennon adored it.
In early 1968, while promoting their new Apple label, Lennon and McCartney were asked their favourite American artist during a press conference, and Lennon replied “Nilsson”. When asked their favourite American band, both men again replied “Nilsson”, and later that day when asked about the state of pop music in the US, Lennon said “Nilsson, Nilsson for President!”
Nilsson had finally hit the big time.
Composer: Harry Nilsson
Line-up: Harry Nilsson (vocal) plus some of Mac Rebbenack (guitar and keyboards), Mike Deasy, Michael Duré, Neil Lavang, and Bob Segarini (guitar), Ray Brown, Al McKibbon, Lyle Ritz, and William Trochim (bass), Richie Frost, Vann Slatter, and Jerry Williams (drums), Dale Anderson, Hubert Anderson, and Milt Holland (percussion), Mike Melvoin and Don Ralke (keyboards), Roy Caton, David Duke, Robert M Knight, Carroll Lewis, Oliver Mitchell, Richard Nash, and Thomas Scott (brass), Jesse Erlich, Paul Shure, Robert Sushel, and Darrell Terwillliger (strings) (Credits taken from the booklet for Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection, which only provides credits for the full album, not individual tracks)
Original release: Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson, RCA LPM-3874
Currently available on: Pandemonium Shadow Show /Aerial Ballet/Aerial Pandemonium Ballet BMG CD
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