Aerial Ballet

(This is the third in a series of posts looking at Harry Nilsson’s albums)

Nilsson’s second album proper was made in a very different situation from his first. Whereas when he had recorded Pandemonium Shadow Show he was an unknown, now he had written for the Monkees and was being feted by the Beatles, and Lennon and McCartney had described him as their “favourite American group” when asked by the American press.

But the album itself is very much Pandemonium Shadow Show part two. There are fewer cover versions, but otherwise the combination of Rick Jarrard’s production, George Tipton’s horn-based arrangements, and Nilsson’s songs about loss (both of parents and of partners) is much the same, largely because work started on the album almost as soon as the previous one had finished. The album contained probably the biggest hit Nilsson would ever have as a songwriter (“One”, which became a big hit for Three Dog Night) and also one of his biggest hits as a performer (“Everybody’s Talkin'”), but it was nearly not released at all. As Nilsson had refused to do the normal publicity for Pandemonium Shadow Show — he disliked the idea of live performance, and other than a couple of TV appearances and drunken cameos in other people’s shows, he never performed live once his recording career had started — the record company were considering dropping him. It was only the fact that they trusted Rick Jarrard, and that work on Aerial Ballet had already started, that convinced them to allow the album to be completed and released.

Nilsson did acquiesce to RCA’s demands that he do slightly more promotional work for the new album — he even got himself a manager and made a few TV appearances — but the real reason for the album’s comparative commercial success was the involvement of Derek Taylor, who had become a friend of Nilsson’s, and who wrote the liner notes. Taylor was an experienced publicity man, and it was him who brought Nilsson’s version of “Everybody’s Talkin'” to the attention of John Schlesinger, the director of Midnight Cowboy. The song’s use in that film (chosen over offerings by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and over Nilsson’s own song “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City”) is what propelled Nilsson to stardom.

The album, whose title was inspired by Nilsson’s grandparents (or great-grandparents depending on which source one uses) who had performed in the late nineteenth century as a vaudeville act called “Nilsson’s aerial ballet”, using an invention of Carl Nilsson’s devising to allow ballet dancers to perform in mid-air, opens with the sound of some vaudeville-style piano and dancing feet, before going into…

Daddy’s Song
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

The opening track on the album covers old ground somewhat, effectively being a combined, improved, rewrite of the opening diptych from the previous album. “Daddy’s Song” is melodically and stylistically similar to “Cuddly Toy” (and even contains a similar lyrical reference to toys in the rain, albeit in a very different context), but the lyrics once again cover Nilsson’s relationship with his absent father, although this time, unlike with “1941”, he expresses hope that his future song would have a better experience, rather than the pessimistic expectation that he would repeat his father’s mistakes.

The song was included on initial pressings of the album, but was removed shortly after its release, as the Monkees chose the song to feature in their film Head and on its soundtrack album, in a soundalike version featuring Davy Jones (who had also sung lead on their version of “Cuddly Toy”). The Monkees paid $35,000 to have exclusive rights to the song, and Nilsson’s record label RCA was co-owner of the Monkees’ label ColGems, so the track was deleted in order to avoid providing too much competition; though given that Head was a flop it’s questionable whether they got value for their money. It’s been restored on all the CD issues of the album.

Performance-wise the most interesting aspect of the track is the way Nilsson overdubs himself multiple times, deliberately differentiating the voices he was doing, to act as a chorus rather than just multi-tracking himself in the conventional way to make a single vocal sound thicker.

But the song is a perfect opener for the album, which lost a lot of its impact when the track was removed, because of the way it introduces many of the themes which will run throughout it — a sense of nostalgia for a broken relationship seen very differently by the two parties, parental connections, and a hope for the future along with a sense of awareness that the hope is probably futile.

Good Old Desk
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

The opening track of the album after the initial pressings, this is a pleasant little song based on staccato piano chords and brass instruments, something in the same mode as the Beatles’ “Penny Lane”. The lyrics appear to be just about the pleasure of having a good desk, and possibly may relate to Nilsson’s feeling of security around having a “desk job” (Nilsson grew up very poor, and like many people who grew up poor, he was both extravagantly generous with his money and deeply insecure about it, craving financial stability). “It’s the one thing I’ve got, a huge success, my good old desk”.

Nilsson claimed for years that the song was actually about God (the initials G.O.D. being an acronym in the same fashion as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”), but later admitted that when he’d said this on a TV interview “I bullshitted him. I thought it was funny.” — while Nilsson was deeply religious himself, the song was about nothing more than a desk, and he didn’t even realise the coincidence of the initials until it was pointed out to him.

The track was released as a single, to little success. A few months after the album was released, The Move (a British psych-pop band who were much influenced by LA soft pop music) would take the intro from this song and use it, note-for-note, as the middle eight of their UK number one single “Blackberry Way”.

Don’t Leave Me
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Nilsson would often claim in later years that this song, a bossa nova song about lost love, was written on the same night as “Without Her” and “1941”, though they were all copyrighted at different times. It is, however, clearly of a piece with “Without Her”, “One”, and other songs from around that time, in being inspired by the demise of his relationship with his first wife, and the desperation is audible in Nilsson’s voice as he begs “don’t leave me baby” and claims, despite the rest of the song suggesting otherwise, that “things are gonna work out fine”. Like much of the album, the song teeters between despair and hope, and is about trying to make the best of a very bad situation.

Typically for Nilsson, the song also features an incongruous quote from a Beatles song — in this one he sings “beep beep, beep beep, yeah”, from “Drive My Car”, and it’s testament to Nilsson’s strength as a performer that it actually sounds, in the moment, like it makes sense in the context of a song about divorce.

Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Named after Tony Richland, a song plugger friend of Nilsson’s, this mid-tempo, rather bluesy, song makes very different use of the brass section than the other songs so far have, with the arrangement sounding closer to some of Henry Mancini’s soundtrack work than to the brass-band sound of the earlier songs.

Lyrically, the song describes the downward career trajectory of a former teen idol, who still has some devoted fans, but “the time has come, the walrus said, to call your fans by name”, the reference there being to “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, which Nilsson quotes in the lyrics and which had also inspired John Lennon to write “I Am the Walrus”. Nilsson seems at times to be impersonating Lennon vocally in the rather bitter last verse, and Lennon later told Nilsson that he wished he’d written this song.

Little Cowboy
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Bette Nilsson (uncredited)

Nilsson based this song on one his mother had sung to him when he was a child (as, indeed, he sings in the introduction). It’s a short, sweet, lullaby telling a “little cowboy” he needs to go to sleep, in a similar style to such cowboy songs as “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” or “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, and it manages to be charming enough not to outstay its welcome.

Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

And after the brief respite of a song about a mother’s love and a little child going to sleep, we get back to the major subject matter of the album — another song about the end of a relationship. Here the lyrics tumble out over the piano-and-brass backing — “life isn’t easy when two are divided and one has decided…” — the internal rhymes and long sentences being suggestive of pressured speech, as if the song’s narrator just can’t stop talking. Most of the themes here — such as the difference between the numbers one and two, both mathematically and emotionally, and the difficulty when two people have different views of their relationship — are repeated throughout the album.

This was released as the B-side to “Good Old Desk”, and was one of the three songs (along with “Good Old Desk” and “Bath”) that Nilsson chose to perform in TV appearances to promote the album.

Everybody’s Talkin’
Songwriter: Fred Neil

And here we get to one of the two songs for which Nilsson is best known — and the only cover version on the entire album. The original version of this song, by folk singer Fred Neil, had been something of an afterthought — written and recorded for Neil’s eponymous second album at the last minute after his manager, Herb Cohen, insisted on an extra song being included on the album.

Neil apparently wanted to go home to Florida and resented the pressure he was being put under to record another song, so he locked himself in the bathroom for five minutes and came out with a song about wanting to go “where the sun is shining” and “where the weather suits my clothes” and about not wanting to deal with people any more.

Nilsson’s version took Neil’s song and gave it a much more commercial pop sound than anything else on this album, with standard rock instrumentation (with strings) rather than the brass-band sound of much of the first half of the record, and with the most prominent instrumental part being Al Casey’s guitar figure.

But where Nilsson’s version wins over Neil’s is in the vocal. Neil’s vocal is perfectly fine, but not much more than that, with a glum, depressed, tone. Nilsson turns it into a song of wistful longing, and his keening towards the end of the track is far more affecting than the song itself is.

This track would go on to become a massive hit when it was used in the soundtrack to the film Midnight Cowboy, selling a million copies, hitting number six in the Billboard charts (and number two in Adult Contemporary) and winning Nilsson his first Grammy, for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male. The album was rereleased under the title Everybody’s Talkin’ to capitalise on the track’s success.

I Said Goodbye to Me
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Possibly the most heartbreaking song on the album, “I Said Goodbye to Me” is an unflinching look at suicide from the point of view of someone contemplating it — “I said goodbye to me, I looked in the mirror, and I began to cry”, “There’s nothing left to say, I’ll pack up my memories and I’ll walk away”. The song also hints that this is in response to a breakup, with the narrator “hop[ing] that she will understand why”. While one doesn’t want to assume that everything in a song is directly inspired by the songwriter’s real life, given the utter despair in many of these other songs, it might be that this was reflective of Nilsson’s personal situation at the time.

Musically, the song is a waltz (apart from a two-beat interjection after most lines), following a fairly standard chord progression — essentially the chords change as little as possible while accomodating a descending scalar bassline, so you have a sense of constant motion while remaining static. This is a common tactic, used in songs like the Beach Boys’ “Forever” or Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, but here it’s especially effective at evoking the rumination and constant circling of thoughts that come with depression. The narrator in the song is constantly second-guessing himself — the word “hope” is used multiple times, which for a song about suicide might seem odd, but is curiously appropriate — and so the music circles round and round the same points, stumbling with the two-beat interjection and returning to the beginning.

(Indeed the middle eight, where the song shifts to a minor key and gets even darker, works simply by continuing the descent after the stumble, so going from II7/III to ii rather than returning to I — and the descending-bassline-over-static-chords thing continues there).

Everything in the song is circular, everything comes round again, which is why it makes sense that the last verse is the same as the first verse — this is not a record of someone who has decided to kill himself, despite what he says, but rather a record of someone who is thinking over the decision to kill himself. The mirror in the first line (which, like the rest of the first verse, repeats at the end) is key here — this is a song about reflection.

Everything about the song, arrangement, and performance works perfectly, from the minimalist piano-based backing track (with the strings mixed far down) to Nilsson’s wordless scatting, which here sounds like the singer has lost the capacity to verbalise his hurt and is just howling. The one slight quibble I have is with the decision to have Nilsson speak the lines in the last verse as a voiceover, along with his singing of them, in a sort of Ink Spots style. There’s nothing really added to the track by this, and to my ears it detracts from it. But otherwise this is a fine, fine track and a highlight of the album.

Little Cowboy
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Bette Nilsson (uncredited)

A short reprise of the earlier song, only fifty-one seconds long, with Nilsson whistling the melody rather than singing it, until the last line where the lead vocal joins in with the whistling.

Mr. Tinker
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Another song in the style of “Mr. Richland’s Favourite Song”, this sounds very inspired by some of the storytelling songs that the Beatles had been doing at the time — songs like “Eleanor Rigby” — as well as by the Kinks’ contemporaneous work, though the effect is actually more like Boyce & Hart’s songs for the Monkees trying to ape that style that it is like the inspirations. It’s a good enough song — the story of an old man whose wife has died, who’s lost his trade, and who has been left by his son, backed by a lovely Tipton arrangement featuring bass clarinet and valve trombone — but one of the more lightweight pieces in an album which is at its best when looking inward rather than outward.

Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Easily the most beautiful thing on the album, another introspective song of separation, although this time with a sneaky drug reference (“doing a number” at the time was slang for smoking a joint, so the “loneliest number that you’ll ever do” line was a pun on that). Other than that little joke, though, this song is a serious take on loneliness and the end of a relationship.

Nilsson was inspired to write this by the sound of a telephone busy signal, which is replicated by Mike Melvoin’s cramped piano voicings through much of the track, and that sense of trying to connect but failing is also present in the lyrics, which also hark back to those in “Together” (compare “life isn’t easy when two are divided and one has decided…” with “one is a number divided by two”). For much of the track there is only Nilsson’s voice, Melvoin’s electric piano just playing chords with the right hand, and a cello countermelody played by Jesse Ehrlich, before bass, harpsichord and flute come in for the middle eight (and Nilsson starts to sing some counterpoints against himself towards the end). It’s one of the best things Nilsson ever wrote, and an example of how the most mundane inspiration can lead to transcendent results.

Nilsson’s own version of this was released as a single to little success, but a few months later Three Dog Night released a cover version of the track, with Chuck Negron singing lead. Their version bludgeons Nilsson’s gentle little song, turning it into a rock anthem and replacing its subtle minimalism with husky singalong rockisms. However, it became staggeringly popular, selling over a million copies and reaching number five in the Billboard charts.

The Wailing of the Willow
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Ian Freebairn-Smith

A bossa nova genre exercise, this was co-written by Ian Freebairn-Smith, a composer, conductor, and arranger who’s best known for his work on the film Mash (he was one of the uncredited session singers on “Suicide is Painless”, the film’s theme) and composing the original theme to Magnum P.I.

Musically, this is a perfect pastiche of the style of Jobim, with a lot of clusters of minor sixth chords, and with Nilsson acting as his own cooing girl-group. The lead vocal is taken in a much lower register than is usual for Nilsson, and at points this almost sounds like a Jake Thackray track (although in the fade Nilsson jumps into his more usual falsetto range for the last few bars).

Lyrically, it’s another song about lost love, and refers back to the opening lines of “Don’t Leave Me — “the willow weeps and having wept can weep no more but still it cries for me”. illustrating the way that, even more than Pandemonium Shadow Show, this album works as a single, unified, whole. Every song has at least some small connection to one of the other songs on the album, or to the larger themes of nostalgia, loss, parental relationships, broken marriages, or hope.

This is ultimately a minor track — it’s lovely when listening to it, but it’s not got the substance of some of the songs around it — but Aerial Ballet is an album that’s strong enough that even the minor tracks would be highlights of many other records.

Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

And finally, the last song on the album is far more upbeat than almost anything on the rest of the record, as over a backing similar to that of “Good Old Desk” Nilsson sings “I’m beginning to think there’s hope for the human race”.

The reason, of course, is that this song is about the immediate aftermath of losing one’s virginity at a brothel. “I’m awfully glad you let me come inside”, indeed. It wouldn’t be a Nilsson album without at least one dirty joke song, though — remember that this is a man who once based a song for the Ronettes on a famous bit of toilet graffiti — and the song’s utter sense of joy is contagious.

The album finishes with a reprise of the opening, more dancing feet and piano. There are a few other possible contenders for Nilsson’s best album — Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman would both be on my own list, and there are arguments for Nilsson Schmilsson and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night — but as a unified artistic work this is a staggering achievement.

This blog post is supported by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Patreon’s well-publicised missteps last month led to the level of support dropping dramatically, so I appreciate even more than usual the people who continue to back me, and now would be a better time than ever to join them.

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