Popeye

I’ll be writing about this again, in more detail, in a few months as I write the book on Nilsson, but I thought I’d talk here briefly about the fact that Nilsson’s last real great work has finally been issued on CD.

In the late 70s, Nilsson wanted to transition away from being a singer (one suspects because of his damaged voice, and also because of the lack of commercial success of his later work) and go into writing musicals. He wrote a successful adaptation of his album The Point for the London stage (the soundtrack album for that, featuring Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, finally came out on CD a year or so ago) and a musical, Zapata, with his longtime collaborator Perry Botkin Jr, which played briefly in Connecticut and was never revived.

Shortly after his final album, Flash Harry, was released, Nilsson essentially retired from music altogether — the death of his close friend John Lennon affected him deeply, and he became a political campaigner, dedicated to stopping handgun violence. But more-or-less simultaneously with Flash Harry, Nilsson was involved in one last major project — the film Popeye, for which he wrote all the songs except “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man”.

The soundtrack album of that was released at the time, but never saw a CD issue until yesterday. The CD was originally announced as coming out in June, and the release date was pushed back twice, so I was quite surprised when it actually turned up in my letterbox.

For those who don’t know the film, it’s actually a minor masterpiece, but one which was largely misunderstood by the critics at the time. Written by Jules Feiffer, directed by Robert Altman, and starring Robin Williams (back when he was more Morkish than mawkish) and Shelly Duvall, it was possibly *too* inventive for its own good, as well as not really fitting what people expected from a Popeye film — Feiffer went back to E.C. Segar’s original 1930s comics for his adaptation, rather than the cartoon series loosely based on them, though elements of the cartoons remained in the performances.

But the absolute standout element of the film was the music. Nilsson’s last few albums (other than Knilsson) were largely made up of cover versions, but here he showed that he still had his songwriting ability, managing to write songs that work perfectly for a children’s film, fit the story, and yet have a surprising melodic depth. The duet between Popeye and Olive Oyl, “Sail With Me” is lovely, as is “Swee’pea’s Lullaby” (sung by Popeye) and especially “He Needs Me”, sung by Oyl, which Altman loved so much it was played at his funeral.

Much of the credit for this, one suspects, must go to Van Dyke Parks. While the music is unmistakeably Nilsson, Parks did the arrangements, and from the stories told about their working relationship it seems like Parks (who has form for being able to deal with unstable and self-destructive musical geniuses) was responsible for keeping Nilsson functional enough to work (at this point in his life Nilsson was apparently swigging cognac from the bottle).

The result was far more coherent than anything Nilsson had done since at least A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, and the soundtrack album had the best of both Nilsson and Parks. Nilsson’s imagination was never more fertile than here — who else would have thought of just repeating the three-word phrase “He needs me” over and over as a chorus, but having it be in common time rather than waltz? Having the stresses fall differently each time meant that each repetition meant something slightly different — “He needs me, he needs me, he needs me!”

Meanwhile Parks’ arrangements are quintessentially Parksian — the core band (who also appear in the film) are Parks on piano and accordion, Klaus Voorman on bass, Ray Cooper on percussion, and banjo virtuoso Doug Dillard. This small group provide the basic backing tracks, over which much more lush Hollywood-style orchestrations are layered. At times the combination of folk instruments and orchestra sounds very Gershwin (listen to the backing on “Kids” for example, which could be a lost cousin of “Rhapsody in Blue”), while at others it’s reminiscent of Carl Stalling (appropriately for what amounted to a live-action cartoon).

The new CD release, from Varese Sarabande, includes all the songs from the original soundtrack album produced by Nilsson and arranged by Parks, along with Thomas Pierson’s underscore and the song “Everything Is Food”, which was included in the film but not the original album. Along with this, it also includes a second disc of Nilsson’s demos, including the songs “Everybody’s Got To Eat” and “I’d Rather Be Me”, both of which were never included in either the film or album.

Pierson’s underscore is not as imaginative as Nilsson and Parks’ work, but is perfectly pleasant for what it is. The demos, though, are fascinating. On some, Nilsson sounds barely coherent and his voice is shot, but on others he sounds as good as he ever did. “Everybody’s Got To Eat” is absolutely recognisable as the same man as A Little Touch of Schnilsson in the Night, vocally (a little hoarse on the top notes, perhaps, but still the same voice), and musically it sounds like it could be an outtake from Harry. And on the demo of Sail With Me he not only sounds fantastic, but also manages to do such a good Popeye voice on the intro I assumed that it was Robin Williams at first until he went into the vocal.

Popeye shows that despite Nilsson’s problems, if he was inspired by his collaborators he could still do work which, if not necessarily as good as his very best work, was still miles ahead of most of his contemporaries. One can only mourn the fact that he spent the next fourteen years doing anything but making music, and hope that one day the comeback album on which he was working with Mark Hudson, and which got completed shortly before his death, finally gets a release.

Popeye can be bought here.

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5 Responses to Popeye

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    For those who don’t know the film, it’s actually a minor masterpiece, but one which was largely misunderstood by the critics at the time.

    Evidently with the exception of Roger Ebert: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/popeye-1980

  2. plok says:

    This is incredible news! When I first saw this movie in the theatre I resented it. My mother, on the other hand, loved it, like LOVED loved it. I was too young to really appreciate the sheer Altmanesqueness of it, but like 70s Kirby it seeped into my brain, I couldn’t get it out, I said I didn’t like it but I bought ten copies and fully wore out four with reading them. I think the Carl Stalling comparison is apt.

    Happy about this. I like a Great Work. Not like he’s hurting for those.

  3. Phil O. says:

    I’ve never heard any of this material before. (Well, I saw the film in the theater when I was 6, but don’t remember anything other than thinking “That’s MORK?!!”). I’m honestly floored by how good it is, and calling Nilsson’s tracks “demos” really undersells them, aside from the 4 actual home demos. There is a lot of magic here. (I haven’t heard Flash Harry, but from what I’ve read that magic didn’t extend there).

    The gem of the set might be the Shelley Duvall audition on “He Needs Me”, coached by and duetting with Harry. Magic.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I was going to specifically mention the Duvall track but somehow forgot. It’s just lovely. I like the way Nilsson counts “a one, a two, a one two three” and then Duvall whispers “four” every time, like she can’t cope with it being missed.

      As for Flash Harry, it’s actually a much better album than its reputation suggests. Nowhere up to the standard of the pre-Pussycats albums, but much better than Sandman, …That’s The Way it Is, or Duit on Mon Dei (though the covers are much better than the original material)

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