Nilsson: Harry

(The latest in my series of posts on Nilsson’s albums, which I’ll be collecting into a book soonish)

Harry was the first of Nilsson’s RCA albums proper not to be produced by Rick Jarrard, but instead to be produced by Nilsson himself. Jarrard blamed the Beatles for the severance of his relationship with the singer, and Nilsson himself seems to have agreed with this, though he would not have placed the same interpretation on it as Jarrard.

Jarrard, put simply, thought that spending time around the Beatles fundamentally changed who Nilsson was and made him into an unrecognisably different, unpleasant person. Nilsson, on the other hand, said that spending time around the Beatles while they were working, together and separately, had showed him that he was capable of producing his own sessions, and that if he was going to work with another producer it shouldn’t be one like Jarrard, but one more like the Beatles’ producer George Martin. So, halfway through recording Harry, Nilsson abruptly fired Jarrard as his producer, by telegram, and the two never spoke again. Jarrard had produced “Open Your Window”, “Mournin’ Glory Story”, “Marchin’ Down Broadway”, and “Rainmaker”, and Nilsson produced the rest of the album by himself – and truthfully, while one can see that Jarrard was treated shabbily, especially given that Nilsson’s second album had only been recorded thanks to Jarrard’s pressure on the label, it’s hard to see any difference in the sound of the tracks that Nilsson produced on his own – and the presence of George Tipton added to a sense of sonic continuity with the first two albums.

That said, there is one major difference with the earlier records: Nilsson had finally met his father for the first time since his childhood. While he was apparently completely underwhelmed by finally meeting Nilsson senior, the experience seems to have provided some amount of catharsis for him, and so for the first time we get no songs about his father leaving. There’s a nostalgia here still, a sense of looking back at the past, but the past conjured up is far more of a golden age than that in the previous albums.

Also, this album, more than the previous record, showcases Nilsson as an interpreter rather than as a songwriter. While there had been only one cover version on Aerial Ballet, here we have a ratio closer to the five cover versions of Pandemonium Shadow Show, with three cover versions of other people’s records, two songs written for Nilsson by his friend Bill Martin, one song co-written by Nilsson and Martin, and one song originally written by Nilsson’s mother (the last time one of her songs would show up on an album).

This is a pattern we will see throughout Nilsson’s career. He was a great songwriter, but not an especially prolific one, and he would tend to alternate between albums where he wrote most of the songs and albums that were mostly or solely cover versions. Here the cover versions include works by songwriters who would reappear time and again in Nilsson’s music – Lennon/McCartney and Randy Newman – but they’re still among the weaker songs on what is a remarkably strong album.

And this may indeed be Nilsson’s best, or at least most enjoyable, album. While Nilsson Schmilsson is the album which produced Nilsson’s biggest hit and his most recognisable recording of one of his own songs, Harry is the album that produced those songs which would appear in Nora Ephron romantic comedies in the 90s, and which now make up the bulk of the “best of” compilations. There are no hits on here, but there are some astonishing pieces of songwriting and gorgeous vocal performances.

More than anything, this is the album that shows just how good Nilsson was at all aspects of his art – as a performer, as a songwriter, as a producer, and as an interpreter and selecter of other people’s songs. It’s an album which just exudes a playful joy, as if Nilsson is inviting the listener to share with him the sheer wonder of being able to make music. There are very few albums which have that kind of easy virtuosity – Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney at their very best were capable of similar playful inventiveness, but neither ever had quite the combination of self-assuredness and sophistication that Nilsson pulls off here.

After this record, Nilsson would produce a couple of albums which were astonishing in their own way, but which weren’t conventional pop albums like this, before heading into a very different phase for the albums from Nilsson Schmilsson on. While The Point and Nilsson Sings Newman are both wonderful records, this album is really where Nilsson’s initial phase as a bright young thing ends, and while he would go on to make many more great records, he’d never quite make anything like those first three albums again.

The Puppy Song
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

“Dreams are nothing more than wishes and a wish is just a dream you wish to come true”.

Much as he had with Aerial Ballet, Nilsson opened the album with a song written for another performer – in this case Welsh folk-singer Mary Hopkin. Hopkin had been spotted on a TV talent contest and signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, and Paul McCartney, who was producing her first album, Postcards, asked Nilsson to contribute a song. That album went to number three in the UK, but Hopkin’s version, while pleasant enough, lacked Nilsson’s easy familiarity. The song itself combines a breezy melody, over simple major chords, with lyrics which seem at first to be equally breezy but which have a curious melancholy, lonely, edge to them – the protagonist wishes he could have a puppy, and also that he could have a loyal friend, but with both puppy and friend he’d “stay away from crowds”, and he acknowledges that having either a puppy or a friend is something he’s wishing for rather than something he has.

The song has gone on to become one of Nilsson’s best-known compositions, hitting UK number one (as a double A-side) in a cover version by David Cassidy, from an album which took its title, Dreams are Nuthin’ More than Wishes, from the song. That album was produced by Rick Jarrard, and it must have been strange for Jarrard to produce a hit single based on a song from an album he’d been sacked from…

Nilsson’s own version was later used over the opening credits of the 1990s hit comedy film You’ve Got Mail.

Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

The second song on the album has something of a trad jazz feel to it, with banjos, fiddle, harmonica, and honky-tonk piano mixing with lusher, layered, sax and clarinet arrangements to produce something which is, in its arrangement, somewhat reminiscent of Rhapsody In Blue, though melodically the pieces are nothing alike. There’s also a touch of Stephane Grapelli in the skittering violin. Lyrically, it’s the first of several songs on the album to discuss nostalgia and a lost early-twentieth century past, and thus ties in with later songs like “Marchin’ Down Broadway”.

The cover of Harry shows Nilsson as a very young child, and much of the album seems to be looking back to the time he was growing up. In this song, the couple looking back on their life got married in 1944, when Nilsson would have been three. There’s a nostalgia here, but it’s a nostalgia for a time Nilsson himself would have little or no memory of.

As with all the songs on the album, Nilsson gives an excellent vocal performance, but the track is a slight one, if extremely pleasant. There’s nothing bad on Harry, but there are tracks which are less necessary, and this is probably one of them.

Open Your Window
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Quite possibly the best melody Nilsson ever wrote, this song was covered by Ella Fitzgerald on her album Ella (Produced by Rick Perry, of whom more in future essays). Fitzgerald’s version sticks very closely to Nilsson’s, which is unsurprising, as this is an absolutely exemplary recording of an absolutely exemplary song. There’s a contentment and joy in this song, and a laid-back relaxed feel which makes you feel like, as the song says, “living is easy, as easy as pie”. Lyrically it’s not quite up to the same level as the melody, having merely serviceable lyrics, but this is a relative assessment – the lyrics are perfectly competent, and do a decent job of evoking the sentiments intended. It’s just that Nilsson’s melody is so absolutely beautiful that a merely competent lyric perhaps feels like it doesn’t do it justice.

But that’s just nitpicking, frankly. This is simply beautiful, and is an example of Nilsson at his very best. It’s a song I could listen to over and over, without ever finding a real fault with it. Harry is an album that never gets worse than very decent and listenable, but this is exceptional even by the standards of this exceptional album.

Mother Nature’s Son
Songwriters: John Lennon and Paul McCartney

This cover version of Paul McCartney’s song from the White Album is at one and the same time one of the most impressive and one of the more pointless tracks on the album – and for the same reason in both cases. Other than the original’s horn part being transposed into a string part on this version (oddly, as the horns on the Beatles’ version were exactly the sort of thing one would have expected from Nilsson), this is a soundalike cover version – the guitar part is the same, the tempo is the same, and Nilsson takes the song straight, singing it more or less the same way as McCartney had. This makes it extremely pleasant to listen to – the song is one of McCartney’s better melodies from this time period – but not especially interesting artistically. Nilsson sings it well, of course – at this point in his career Nilsson was pretty much incapable of singing badly – but no better than McCartney did.

Fairfax Rag
Songwriter: Bill Martin

The first of several songs on the album written by Bill Martin. Martin was a friend of Michael Nesmith (of the Monkees) and had written a couple of songs for the band (“All of Your Toys” and “The Door Into Summer”). He later moved into comedy, with Nilsson producing a comedy album for him, Concerto For Headphones And Contra Buffoon In Asia Minor, and later still he wrote the screenplay for the film Harry and the Hendersons (known in the UK as Bigfoot and the Hendersons).

As with much of the album, this is rooted in pre-rock musical styles, although not particularly in ragtime (despite the title). Instead we have a rooty-toot Dixieland clarinet part in the verses, and a full Dixieland horn section in the instrumental break, combined with a swing-time vaudeville melody that bears more than a little resemblance to Nilsson’s own “Cuddly Toy” and “Daddy’s Song”.

While most of Nilsson’s cover versions fit with his general aesthetic, as one would expect, the Bill Martin songs are the only ones that sound so like Nilsson musically that one can imagine Nilsson actually having written them. In part that’s because, at least in the songs represented here, Martin mostly avoids drawing from rock-era musical influences, instead going back to the popular music of the twenties, thirties, and forties. There had been a minor fad for revivals of these styles in the mid-sixties, but by the time of Harry that fad had largely passed. But for Nilsson, at least, that was the music he was most suited to – while he did record some rock music in the 70s, it was never as suited to his style as the ballads, jazz, and vaudeville of his first few albums, and he would continually return to those styles.

Martin’s songs don’t generally rise to the level of Nilsson’s own best work – and it’s notable that he never recorded any more of them after this album – but they all fit well with Nilsson’s style, and all deserved recording. It’s a shame Martin didn’t write more than the handful of songs we know of.

City Life
Songwriter: Bill Martin

The second of Bill Martin’s songs is a slow, lazy, blues-flavoured jazz number which seems to be inspired by the Lovin’ Spoonful – certainly one could imagine John Sebastian singing this on Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful, and its rootsiness fitting in with that laid-back album. But at the same time it also fits in perfectly here – so perfectly that it’s very hard indeed to believe that this wasn’t a Nilsson composition. In particular, its lazy jazz feel has a strong similarity to that of “Open Your Window”.

As with many of the songs here, the evocation of a pre-rock idiom suits Nilsson’s voice perfectly. Nilsson’s vocals on this album are always astonishing, and he has a perfect control of his voice which is almost unknown in popular music. In particular his changes in voice as he moves from his chest voice to his falsetto are so perfect that it’s almost impossible to hear where the transition happens (most vocalists, even if they have strong falsettos, have difficulty smoothly transitioning between voices, and often have a break or gap in their range).

Lyrically, this is quite hilarious – one side of a conversation between a young man and his mother, telling her he’ll definitely be coming home soon, “just as soon as I get a few dollars ahead”, “Gonna show up in person instead of those letters I never write”, but that he has to stick around in the city instead of visiting his parents because he’s going to get rich real soon now.

Mournin’ Glory Story
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

And this can be seen in its way as the reverse side of “City Life”, a more dispassionate, darker, look at someone down on their luck.

This song seems to be inspired by “Eleanor Rigby”. Much like that Beatles song, it’s a story song, told in third person, about a woman who’s having a hard time, and the backing is, at least at the start, a very sparse, staccato, cello part. Tipton does a trick here in the arrangement that he’s done on other occasions, of having a simple, empty, string part that sounds like chamber music, but then having a second set of strings come in, in a different part of the stereo spectrum, playing a more syrupy, sustained, Hollywood style string part – this means that we can get the detail and nuance one finds with a sparser, baroque-style arrangement, while still having the heartstring-plucking of the thicker orchestration.

“Baroque pop” is a much-misused term, which usually seems to mean only “has a harpsichord on it”, but this would fit the bill better than many examples – there’s an austerity to the melody which suggests real baroque music. This song is stately and measured, and all the more affecting for it.

Because the “classy” stateliness of the music contrasts vividly with the lyrics, which talk about a woman sleeping in a doorway (presumably homeless), wishing for death. There’s a surprising amount of religious imagery packed into this short song, but it all points to a character who sees herself as unseen by God. There’s a tremendous loneliness here, and a compassion for the protagonist which she no longer has for herself. It’s quite, quite, beautiful, and a highlight of the album.

Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

Something of a filler track, this, it’s “only” a very pleasant song which is enjoyable to listen to. It also has some musical similarity to “City Life”, although it’s possibly a more straightforward melody.

Harry is in many ways about the atmosphere and the cumulative effect of the whole album, rather than the individual tracks, and this definitely adds to that cumulative effect, even if it’s not as instantly impressive. It does, however, have a few good laugh lines in it, which is very necessary on this album.

Nilsson’s records are usually very funny, but Harry is probably the least humorous album he ever made, and so having the jokes in here about how he’s even willing to kiss his mother in law, in what’s otherwise another song about lost love, makes a big difference to the overall feel of the album.

But it’s still only a moment – this is still basically a serious song, one which we are intended to take as a sincere expression of emotion, not as a comedy song.

Musically, it’s a strong example of a type of ballad that Nilsson would make his own over the next few albums. The introduction in particular is very similar to the piano intros for songs like “Without Her” or “Remember (Christmas)”, and this is really the first time Nilsson goes in that direction musically. It is, of course, a type of music to which Nilsson’s vocals are perfectly suited, and he does a great job vocally here, but the track as a whole is somewhat blander than later attempts at the same style.

Marchin’ Down Broadway
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Bette Nilsson (uncredited)

This is the last of the songs on Nilsson’s albums which were written by his mother. In this case, it’s a fairly straightforward, but catchy, example of the soldiers’ homecoming song, written during World War II. According to Nilsson, Irving Berlin once offered Bette Nilsson a thousand dollars for the publishing rights to the song (which is very much in Berlin’s style), but she turned him down. Whether that’s true or not, it seems to sum up the feeling of the song very well – Berlin wrote dozens of songs like this, and it could easily have become a hit in the 1940s among the same audiences who went for all the patriotic songs that were hits at that time.

As with all the songs that Bette Nilsson wrote, this is extremely short, only one minute long, but it serves an important purpose in the structure of the album – after three songs taken at fairly sluggish tempos, having one that’s upbeat and optimistic is necessary to prevent listener fatigue, especially as the next song is a midtempo ballad.

I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

This song was written and recorded for the soundtrack of the film Midnight Cowboy – one of several recordings by major artists which were eventually turned down in place of the music the filmmakers had been using as a temp track, Nilsson’s own recording of “Everybody’s Talkin’”

Nilsson clearly knew that the filmmakers wanted “Everybody’s Talkin’” and turned in a virtual clone. The arrangement, with its banjo, guitar, and high string line, is near-identical, and the song has a very similar feel, while the lyrics relate more directly to the plot of the film but still have the same message of escape.

It is, in many ways, absolutely fascinating to hear Nilsson try to emulate his own record, while also writing a song that hits all the same points as another writer’s song. For all that Harry is named after its creator, and it’s certainly an album that only Nilsson could have created, it’s also an album that’s largely about how Nilsson relates to other songwriters, and to the act of covering other people’s songs. Sometimes Nilsson tries to recreate someone else’s performance (as in “Mother Nature’s Son”), sometimes he’s radically reworking someone else’s song, here he’s doing the closest thing possible to writing a cover version, and it’s fascinating to see how Nilsson strips out the elements of someone else’s song and puts them back together in a slightly different manner.

It is, however, not wholly successful on its own merits. When listening to it, it’s basically impossible for anyone who’s heard “Everybody’s Talkin’” (which is almost certainly the entire audience) not to think “this is trying to be ‘Everybody’s Talkin” but it isn’t”. It’s a track that would work on its own merits if the audience didn’t have that context – and to be fair to Nilsson, when he recorded this, “Everybody’s Talkin’” hadn’t yet become a hit and he would have no way of knowing how much of his audience would come to the record already knowing the earlier track. But that context is how the audience will always come to the song, and in that context, it’s a little bit of a failure.

Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and Bill Martin

The last of the three Bill Martin songs on the album, this one was co-written by Nilsson, and later went on to be covered by, among others, Michael Nesmith on his Nevada Fighter album. Of the three Martin songs here, it’s also the best-known due to appearing on many low-budget Nilsson compilations over the years – Nilsson is much-anthologised, and most of the anthologies consist of the same few tracks, with the bulk of Nilsson Schmilsson and Harry, the better-known songs from the first two albums, and little or nothing past that.

“Rainmaker” is an odd song for Nilsson. Most of his songs are firmly in the first person (though note that “Mournin’ Glory Story” is also a third-person song), and even when the character singing the song is not intended to be Nilsson himself (as in, say, “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Any More”) it’s meant to be expressing the emotions of the character.

Here, instead, we have a narrative about a travelling “rainmaker”, who can “call down the lightning by a mystical name”, and who travels to a Kansas town that hasn’t seen rain in months. When the townspeople renege on their deal to pay him after he brings down the rain as agreed, he leaves the town in a perpetual rainstorm.

It would be tempting to ascribe the basic story to Bill Martin, given how different this is from most of Nilsson’s work, but note that Nilsson’s next album of original material, The Point, is a third-person fantastical narrative, so it’s not entirely certain that he didn’t come up with the idea. The song also has some similarity to another Nilsson collaboration, the song “Old Dirt Road” which he co-wrote with John Lennon for Lennon’s album Walls and Bridges (and which also appeared on Nilsson’s final album, Flash Harry).

Musically, as well, this is something of an outlier – it’s the only song on the album which is at all rock and roll influenced, although it’s in a Nesmithian country-rock genre rather than the heavier rock that was starting to gain popularity.

In a later album, Nilsson would sing “deep down in my soul, I hate rock and roll”, and it’s certainly true that the style was not the one he was most suited to, but the fact is that the album needed something of this sort in order to add a bit of variation to side two, which is otherwise an extremely slow side of the record.

And Nilsson does a fine job here – the strained “rain rain go away, come again another day” at the end of the song is particularly powerful. It might not be the most characteristically Nilssonian thing on the album, but it’s a remarkably good track nonetheless.

Mr. Bojangles
Songwriter: Jerry Jeff Walker

A cover of the country standard, originally recorded in 1968 by its writer. This song is not, as popularly supposed, about the famous black tapdancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but is rather about a white street performer who Walker met in jail in New Orleans, who used “Bojangles” as a pseudonym, presumably inspired by the more famous man. It’s probably the weakest song that Nilsson ever covered on an album, and it’s hard to see what attracted Nilsson to it, but he does an excellent job on the vocals. It’s a simple country waltz, which has a lyric which is clearly intended to pluck the heartstrings, about an old alcoholic in jail reminiscing about his dead dog,

This is another song which often appears on compilations, even though its Laurel Canyon country-rock style is uncharacteristic of Nilsson – many of the compilations seem to be designed to make Nilsson into a safer, more conventional figure than the albums suggest him to be, and this track, which wouldn’t be out of place on an album by James Taylor or Jackson Browne, fits that image very well.

But that said, all this is not to say that the track is unpleasant. It’s a very pleasant record – it’s just that “pleasant” is all that it is.

Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear
Songwriter: Randy Newman

And the last song on the album is a cover of a song by a name we will be seeing quite a bit more of in these essays – Randy Newman. Newman was a very similar artist to Nilsson in many ways, having started out as a jobbing songwriter working for a publishing company (though with slightly more success than Nilsson had had – he had had a lot of songs recorded by successful artists, although no massive hits with any of them) who had recently turned to singer/songwriterdom.

“Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” had been a turning point in Newman’s craft, the point at which he changed from being a jobbing songwriter to doing something a little more interesting, and it was apparently written when he was writing a song intended for Frank Sinatra Jr. He got so bored writing a standard pop song that he just decided to write a song about a dancing bear instead, and from that point on didn’t write any conventional pop songs ever again.

(At least until he started writing songs for children’s films in the 1990s – but even there it’s entirely possible to see Newman’s later material as being a knowing pastiche of children’s songs, rather than as what it presents itself as).

The song had been a big hit in the UK for the Alan Price Set (a blues and jazz band formed by the former keyboard player of the Animals) in 1967, and Nilsson’s version follows the same template as Price’s, as did Newman’s own version (not released until 1972, on his Sail Away album). While Price performed the song in a husky imitation of Mose Allison’s vocal style, however, Nilsson’s vocal was a lot more easygoing.

Nilsson’s take on the song is a strong pointer to the way he would approach Nilsson Sings Newman, the project he would start soon after finishing Harry, in which he performed only Newman songs. In particular, the choice of song is telling – many of the protagonists of Newman’s songs are damaged or malicious individuals, but Nilsson only chooses songs which have a protagonist who can, at least in some senses, be read as basically decent. Simon Smith claims surprise that “a boy and bear could be well respected everywhere”, but of course part of the reason people are amazingly fair to him is that he’s going around everywhere with a bear!

But Nilsson’s take on the character – and it’s a perfectly valid reading of the song – is a naive one. He’s genuinely joyful that he and his ursine friend are welcome wherever they go, and doesn’t even seem to consider the possibility that this might have anything to do with people being scared. What’s to be scared of, after all? It’s just Simon Smith and his amazing dancing bear.

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1 Response to Nilsson: Harry

  1. TAD says:

    It’s fun to read your reviews, and then going to YouTube and listening to the tracks, many of which I’m not familiar with (other than the hits and “best of” tracks).

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