And here we get to the point which is either the pinnacle of Nilsson’s career as a singer/songwriter, or the point at which he starts to deteriorate noticeably. While Nilsson Schmilsson is undoubtedly Nilsson’s most commercially successful album — and given that it has both “Coconut” and “Without You” on it, it’s fair to say it’s the one that still to this day people most associate with Nilsson — it’s also the first album where Nilsson seems to be trying to do something commercial. The advertisements for the album, which say “Nilsson’s done a rock album”, say it all — this is Nilsson making music that can easily be categorised, and which can be categorised as the prevailing style of the times. And in doing so he seems to me to lose a little of what makes him Nilsson.
This is not to say that it’s a bad album — Nilsson Schmilsson is, by any reasonable standards, a great album. The question, rather, is whether it’s a great Nilsson album. Sonically, certainly, it has a lot more in common with the other work by the album’s producer, Richard Perry, than it does with anything else Nilsson did. This may be, in part, because Nilsson gave Perry a certain amount of creative freedom — Perry’s talked in interviews about having agreed to do the album only if he was in charge — but it’s also because Nilsson was apparently having difficulty as a songwriter for the first time, until relatively late in the recording process.
Perry was a very different type of producer than Nilsson himself or Rick Jarrard had been. Perry was a rising star of rock production, who specialised in music that straddled the border between hip rock and more middle-of-the-road work. Perry had worked with Captain Beefheart on the latter’s first album, but had produced something that sounded as much like the Monkees as it did Beefheart’s later work. On the other hand, he had also worked with Ella Fitzgerald, and with her he had recorded cover versions of songs by Nilsson, the Beatles, and other contemporary artists.
According to Perry’s accounts, Nilsson didn’t have proper fully-fledged songs when they started recording the album — and indeed they went round the London music publishers trying to find songs Nilsson could record in the event he had nothing. Even the day before recording started, the two men were visiting music publishers trying desperately to find material to perform, but there was little that sparked their interest. So it was decided that they had to work with what Nilsson had, even though this wasn’t much.
What Nilsson had, at least according to Perry, were musical fragments — verses and choruses, but with no lyrics or proper vocal melodies. In the absence of anything better to record, Perry imposed standard song structures on Nilsson’s fragments and recorded them as backing tracks, with Nilsson later writing music and lyrics for them. For other songs, Nilsson essentially composed them in the studio, playing piano with the session musicians and jamming in the hope of finding anything worth committing to tape.
This is not necessarily the case for all the songs on the album — some of them are known to have been demoed before Perry’s involvement, while some of the musicians involved have talked about how they would play while Nilsson was singing, which would not have been possible if there were no finished lyrics or melodies — but it certainly seems to have been the case that Nilsson was much less inspired as a writer on this album than he had been on previous records. Indeed, one sees the start of a downward spiral in Nilsson’s writing here, one which would not be arrested for a very long time. It was, however, the start of a descent from a very high peak, and so it’s only with hindsight that the flaws become apparent.
Because rather extraordinarily, the end result of this process was far more coherent than anyone had any right to expect. The musical ideas were, for the most part, strong enough that being corralled into a standard song structure allowed them to stand up as strong songs. There’s no dazzling structural or formal experimentation in these songs, but there are still several songs here which stand up against anything else Nilsson wrote. It’s an album that’s the result of craft rather than inspiration, but craft is nothing to be ashamed of. The fact that so many of these actually work as songs is, given the circumstances, a massive tribute to both Nilsson and Perry’s ability.
For this album, Perry pulled together the cream of British and American session musicians. The core musicians on the album — people like Klaus Voorman, Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner, and Chris Spedding, were the people who played on records by Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, and the various solo Beatles, and there were guest appearances by Jimmy Webb, Gary Wright, and various other well-known musicians. Indeed, several of the musicians were namechecked in the radio ads for the album, a sign of how in demand this particular set of musicians were.
But the statement there about the musicians playing on this is, like the fact that one of the songs on the album is a Badfinger cover, a sign of what the underlying problem is with this album. It’s an album that’s trying, desperately, to be Beatlesque, in the particular version of the Beatles’ legacy that was current in the early seventies, which actually meant, in effect, being like an album by a solo Beatle. Sonically, this is exactly like the solo records that John Lennon and George Harrison were putting out at the time — and, indeed, Richard Perry was later employed as Ringo Starr’s producer, to make an album, Ringo, that also sounded remarkably like this. This is a record that desperately wants to be Imagine or All Things Must Pass (especially, in fact, Imagine, which in many ways is Lennon’s equivalent album to this — one that is slightly less imaginative than his previous work, and slightly overproduced, but still manages to hit the right balance to be both commercially and critically successful).
And that’s not, in itself, a bad thing — while the solo Beatles’ records were not quite as imaginative as their records as a group, they were still often very good, and Nilsson Schmilsson is a very good album — but it isn’t an album that could only have been made by Nilsson, in the way that, say, Harry or The Point! were.
It’s an album produced by someone who was able to take the rough edges off idiosyncratic musicians and make them palatable to a broader public, without losing *too* much of what made them unique, and that’s what’s done here. But that’s not the same as saying it doesn’t compromise at all, and given the trajectory of Nilsson’s later career it’s hard to listen to this without wondering what could have been if Nilsson had remained as uncompromising as he could be at his most difficult while he still had his youthful voice.
Gotta Get Up
Jimmy Webb has often pointed to this song as an example of Nilsson’s extreme sense of songwriting ethics — Nilsson apparently phoned Webb and asked if it was OK for him to use the line “up, up, and away” in the song, as it had been the title of a Webb song — although Webb hastened to point out that the title wasn’t Webb’s own invention, but came from the 1940s Superman radio show.
However, it might be that Nilsson was questioning Webb about this because he believed Webb might be extremely touchy on the subject — the first time they met, Nilsson grilled Webb over the fact that Webb had, in the liner notes for the Richard Harris album The Yard Went on Forever, put the letters “BN” (standing for “before Nilsson”) by one track. That track had a line of lyric which Webb believed sounded similar to a line from “Everybody’s Talkin'”, and Webb wanted to emphasise that he had come up with the line independently. Nilsson (who was partly annoyed because “Everybody’s Talkin'” wasn’t even a song he had written) may have believed that anyone who would do that might want a similar acknowledgement made of his own work.
(Nilsson and Webb became very close friends after this, however.)
It’s also possible that Nilsson took inspiration from Webb in another way — Webb’s song “Honey Come Back”, a 1970 hit for Glenn Campbell, had the last word or two of each line in the chorus be the start of the next line, so the lyrics went “each lonely day’s a little bit longer than the last time I held you seems like a hundred years ago back to his arms”, but would be parsed as “each lonely day’s a little bit longer than the last”/”the last time I held you seems like a hundred years ago”/”go back to his arms”. Nilsson’s “the sun comes up/up and away” is somewhat similar, and used to the same effect, though not to quite the same extent, and it’s entirely possible that Nilsson was paying tribute to his friend here.
Either way, this is one of the catchiest things on the album, and one of the ones which is closest to the style of Nilsson’s first few albums — although lines like “he’d come to town and he would pound her for a couple of days” are rather more blatant about their coarse humour than the earlier material had been.
This is actually, with its staccato piano style and repeated melodic phrases, very similar to a lot of the material on The Point!, and could almost be seen as a bridge between that record and this one. There are differences though. For the first time we hear Nilsson’s music orchestrated by someone other than Tipton, and the difference is immediately obvious in the use of horns — whereas Tipton’s horn use was closer to that of a brass band, and featured unusual combinations of instruments, here we have some fairly generic rock horn playing, although with some jazzisms. There is still, though, the presence of some unusual instruments, notably the accordion.
Indeed the arrangement is a big part of the track’s appeal. Unusually for Nilsson, the stereo spectrum is used in interesting ways, and while the song starts out with just two pianos, with a bass and guitar coming in with the vocals, there are layers and layers of instrumentation here, and it ends up being a far fuller production than the earlier records. (It is, if anything, a little too dense for my own tastes — there’s not enough air in the mix).
What we have here, then, is almost a statement of intent — we have a track here which announces that this is the Nilsson we all know and love, but now he was going to sound enough like everything else on the radio that he would get hits. This is the start of an album which means to sell a gazillion copies, and wants you to know it.
There’s an interesting early version of the song included on the CD version, which is far more in the style of Nilsson’s earlier records, with a much more stripped-down arrangement (by Tipton) and with Nilsson scat-singing “wah wah”s as he had on all his previous albums. He wouldn’t be scat singing at all from now on — it wasn’t a vocal style that fit with any of the Schmilsson trilogy of albums, and after that his voice was no longer capable of that sort of pyrotechnics.
While I don’t believe Perry’s description of the songwriting process is literally true for all the songs on this album, many of which seem far too crafted for the process described, it does seem like this rather aimless song might have been created that way. There’s no real sense of progression here — it seems very like several of the fragmentary songs on The Point! rather than the more crafted work on the album — and it seems like a few reasonable musical ideas welded together with a “will this do?” attitude.
But the thing is, the musicians on this album are so good, Nilsson was such a strong singer, and there was enough of a sense of pride in their craft from all involved, that this still sounds good. In particular, the middle section (“driving along at fifty-seven thousand miles an hour” ) could be straight off a McCartney album from this period (and the wordless vocals at the end of that section bear a strong resemblance to parts of “Eat at Home” from McCartney’s Ram album). The track is worth having on the album just for that section of the song, which is by far the strongest.
But that section does, however, add to Perry’s point somewhat — it sounds like there’s a disjointed edit there, as if the two sections of the song were spliced together (though very, very well done, and this might only be my ears). There’s a difference in the ambience of the vocal which suggests that section was recorded at a very different time.
Nilsson himself was never happy with the song, and felt it should not have been included on the album. It’s not entirely unreasonable to agree with him — this is one of the weaker songs on the album — but for myself I would definitely rather have it than not.
Early in the Morning
writers: Leo Hickman, Louis Jordan, Dallas Bartley
Louis Jordan was one of the early pioneers of R&B music, being one of the foremost performers in the jump music style which inspired most of the original R&B musicians. This song, written and recorded by Jordan and his bass player Dallas Bartley (and the otherwise obscure Hickman) in 1947, was a minor hit for him.
A very different song sonically from most of the album, this sounds like a solo demo — there’s only Nilsson’s vocal and a harmonium part, and no multitracking or other instruments. But it’s interesting for precisely that reason — this is a stripped-down reworking of the song, and the only example I can think of by any musician of the harmonium being used for this kind of blues/jazz style performance. This is very much in the style of Mose Allison (though Allison would always use the Hammond organ rather than the harmonium), and it’s interesting to see how good Nilsson was at this kind of vocal, which is not really in a tradition of which he was normally part. It’s a very different style to Jordan’s version, which combined early R&B and latin rhythms for something that was somewhere between proto-calypso and the New Orleans music of Professor Longhair.
Nilsson would increasingly show an interest in blues and R&B as the 70s progressed, but before this his musical influences had mostly been the Beatles and pre-war popular song. But despite that, he shows a real understanding of the genre here –particularly the eight-second section starting at 1:19 when he improvises around the word “beat” and departs from the normal riff to just repeat the same figure until he’s ready to continue with the song. This sort of playing with the structure and sticking in extra bars is common in solo blues performances, but tends not to be something that musicians from rock and pop backgrounds do when they’re playing this type of music.
The Moonbeam Song
This was the one song on the album that Richard Perry disliked — he has repeatedly said in interviews that he doesn’t get the appeal of it at all. That’s a shame, as it’s possibly the best song on the entire album.
That said, it is a bit derivative of some of Nilsson’s earlier work — this is very similar to “Think About Your Troubles” in its melody, and in its detached, meditative, view of the world. But that wasn’t Perry’s complaint — he simply didn’t think the lyrics made any sense, when they’re perfectly reasonable. They may not make perfect sense on a literal level, but as an evocation of a type of feeling, they’re absolutely perfect.
The track also contains some of Nilsson’s finest backing vocals, as he overdubs himself multiple times to create a Beach Boys style block harmony backing for much of the second half of the track.
It’s not a song that particularly requires much analysis, of course — it’s just a simple song about looking at the moon, and the rain, and a train — but that is to its benefit rather than anything else.
A rather more blues-influenced song than one would have expected from Nilsson, perhaps, this is another example of the influence of blues and R&B we talked about in the entry for “Early In The Mornin'”. Here, though, this is again married to the influence of the solo Beatles, as the song bears a very strong resemblance to John Lennon’s “It’s So Hard” (the B-side of the “Imagine” single, also included on the Imagine album), which had a similar bluesy feel and, like Nilsson’s song, used the words “going down” as a refrain as well as starting with a verse whose lines started “you gotta”. As Jim Gordon and Klaus Voorman played drums and bass on both tracks, it’s reasonable to assume that the resemblance was, if not entirely intentional, at least noted.
The comparison doesn’t, in truth, do Nilsson many favours — Lennon’s track is slyly witty, one of many songs in which he complains about the difficulties of life but manages to be self-aware enough that it becomes funny while still not losing any of its tension, and it plays a lot on double meanings of “hard” and “going down”. Nilsson’s track, on the other hand, is overlong, having only a minute or so of musical material but lasting more than three times that long, and he seems to have given up bothering to write any lyrics after the first verse. That first verse is rather good, and plays off Lennon’s song in rather interesting ways, but after that the lyrics just consist of “down to the bottom of a hole, down you got me going round you got me going down down down” and slight variations of that.
This is not, however, to say that the track is a bad one — Nilsson’s vocal is excellent, and the raw, bluesy, nature of the song’s riff doesn’t really require much in the way of lyrics — but it’s not one of Nilsson’s better songs, and it’s a definite example of filler.
writers: Pete Ham and Tom Evans
One of the ironies of Nilsson’s career is that the two songs most associated with him in the public mind, “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Without You”, are two songs he didn’t write — and, in the case of “Without You”, it’s a song he didn’t even like very much.
“Without You” was originally recorded by Badfinger (themselves an act who wrote most of their own material but who were best known for a song by someone else — in their case “Come and Get It”, written by Paul McCartney), and was a rare example of collaboration between the two songwriters in the band, Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Ham had written a song called “If It’s Love”, which had the verse to what became “Without You” but had a different, inferior, chorus. Evans had also been writing a song, “I Can’t Live”, which had the chorus “I can’t live if living is without you”. They put Ham’s verse and Evans’ chorus together, and titled the result “Without You”.
The song was included on the band’s 1970 album No Dice, but was relatively unnoticed until Nilsson, at a party, heard it playing in the background without knowing what it was, and assumed it was a Beatles song he didn’t know (Badfinger were on the Beatles’ Apple label, and had a reputation as being a Beatles soundalike band — and indeed they played on several Beatles solo records). The next day, all he could remember about the song was that it had the word “you” in the chorus, but he asked the host of the party and eventually tracked down the song.
Initially, he was impressed, and he recorded a heartfelt-sounding demo of the song (available as a bonus track on many versions of the CD), in which he is almost screaming the lyrics while hitting piano chords, including a few wrong notes. It’s an impassioned performance — so much so that there was discussion about putting that out as the finished track — but Perry persuaded Nilsson to record a proper version for the album. This was probably the right decision — the demo version would certainly not have had the same commercial success that the finished version did — but at the same time it’s almost a shame, as the demo is truly powerful in its own right, and definitely worth seeking out.
However, by the time that Nilsson came to go into the studio and record it, his opinion of the song had changed dramatically. By that point, he’d decided that the lyrics were asinine, especially the line in the verse “well I guess that’s just the way the story goes”, which he used to mock mercilessly. Perry insisted on recording it, and on the song being on the album, over Nilsson’s objections.
Perry himself wasn’t absolutely happy with the song, but he argued — correctly, in my view, and in the view of most listeners — that the imperfections in the verse didn’t matter. All that was necessary for the song to work was the major line of the chorus — “I can’t live, if living is without you”. Everything else was just the framework to allow Nilsson to sing that line, and give it some kind of context.
And Nilsson does a wonderful job on the vocal. At this point in his career, he was at his all-time vocal peak. It’s a performance of incredible intensity — not as intense as on the piano demo, perhaps, and a less raw take on the song, but still a performance that conveys perfectly the suicidal despair of the song.
(And in retrospect, the song is suicidally desperate. Both its writers later killed themselves, in separate incidents several years apart, and it’s apparent listening to much of their work now that they were both suffering from very severe depression).
The production is tasteful, if a little bombastic towards the end, but really the only thing that matters here is getting Nilsson to that big chorus line, getting him back down again, and it does that exquisitely. Nilsson’s vocal is very, *very* highly nuanced, going from gentle, almost casual, soft singing on the verses to absolutely belting the chorus line with all his might. It’s a performance that one would never expect to come from someone who disliked the song he was singing, and it’s a testament to his professionalism that he could turn in something as astonishing as this while having such contempt for the material.
This is a track that is rightly considered a classic, even as it perhaps unfairly overshadows the larger body of work Nilsson created.
And here we have the song which is almost certainly the best known of Nilsson’s own composition-performances. He’d written songs which were bigger hits — most notably “One” — and he obviously had hit singles with other people’s material, but this is probably the only song Nilsson wrote that most people would recognise in his own recording.
The song itself is a very simple one, based on a single, repeating, one-chord figure on the guitar, over which Nilsson sings a shaggy dog story. The main hook of the song — the different voices Nilsson puts on for the characters in the song — was actually suggested by Richard Perry, and it was one of Perry’s strongest suggestions in the entire album, as it brought out a sense of humour in the song which is there in the demo, but at a much lower level. It turned the song from a trifle into a minor masterpiece and one of the most distinctive songs in Nilsson’s catalogue. Indeed, the voice of the doctor appears to be an imitation of Perry.
I may perhaps seem a little harsh at times in my assessment of Perry here, but it’s not that he did a bad job as a producer — he did an excellent job at making the record he wanted to make, which is not the record I would have wanted to make but is not a bad one. Songs like “Coconut” prove that he wasn’t unsympathetic towards Nilsson as an artist just because he had particular ideas of how to direct his talents.
The song is a silly novelty song, but it’s an engaging one, and of all the tracks on this album it’s undeniably the most fun, even if it’s not as clever or emotionally moving as some of the others. It’s perhaps surprising that this, rather than many of Nilsson’s more substantial works, is what he’s best known for as a singer-songwriter, but there are far worse ways to be remembered.
Let the Good Times Roll
writers: Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee
Not the classic song that most people know under this title (that was recorded by Louis Jordan, who we discussed earlier under “Early in the Morning”), this was instead a 1956 hit for R&B duo “Shirley and Lee”, the song’s writers. (Shirley later became the lead singer of Shirley & Company, whose disco hit “Shame Shame Shame” was a big inspiration for Nilsson’s friend John Lennon when the latter co-wrote David Bowie’s “Fame”). The song had also been covered in 1965 by The Animals (on Animal Tracks in the UK and The Animals On Tour in the US).
On a BBC TV appearance, one of his rare live performances (albeit without an audience) Nilsson recorded a version of this that also included the Everly Brothers songs “Walk Right Back” and “Cathy’s Clown” sung over the same backing, but here he just performs the original song, his multi-tracked vocals stacked up one on top of the other.
The song itself is a simple one, alternating between eight-bar two-chord verse/choruses (“come on baby let the good times roll/Come on baby let them thrill your soul”) and a middle eight a fourth up which follows standard blues turnaround changes (“Feels so good, now that you’re home”). The power of the song lies not in the song itself but in the performance, and handily Nilsson is very much on form here, turning in a performance that shows that at this point he was utterly capable of anything he wanted vocally. It’s a minor track, as the blues-rock stuff on this album tends to be, but an enjoyable one.
Jump Into the Fire
This is about as close as Nilsson came to hard rock, and is also one of the weaker songs on the album — it’s essentially just a bass riff, with a vocal melody that barely counts as one, just fragments of lyric sung over the backing track. Oddly, it was chosen as a single, and in an edited version was a minor hit in many countries, presumably off the back of the success of “Without You”.
It’s stylistically completely unlike anything he’d done before or since, but it’s still characteristic of this album and the fragmentary writing style that shows up throughout it. It’s hard to believe this is by the same man who wrote “Good Old Desk”, but the similarities to works like “Down” are obvious. This is seven minutes of a riff — including forty-two seconds of a drum solo which is Jim Gordon just playing the same drum part he plays for the rest of the track, before the other instruments come in one at a time. In Gordon’s defence for what would otherwise be one of the most unimaginative drum solos ever, leakage in the track suggests that this “solo” was constructed retroactively — you can very faintly hear guitars playing in the background, and my suspicion is that the whole band just kept jamming for the whole thing and Perry constructed the drop-down and build-up dynamics during the mix.
Indeed, the other notable musical moment around that point is Herbie Flowers audibly detuning his bass after the solo, which Flowers later said he did as a joke, believing that the finished record would have faded before that point,
I suppose this is fine if you like this sort of thing, but it’s not to my personal taste at all, I’m afraid.
The song was later featured in the film Son of Dracula, in which Nilsson mimes to the track, thus giving us one of the very few pieces of Nilsson performance footage that exist, and was covered in 2015 by the Hollywood Vampires, a band led by Alice Cooper and Johnny Depp, and named after the drinking group to which both Cooper and Nilsson belonged. That album consists almost entirely of cover versions of records featuring dead friends of Cooper’s.
I’ll Never Leave You
This song is in many ways an outlier on the album. While everything else was recorded with Richard Perry in the UK, this track was recorded in Hollywood before the rest of the record, and is the last of Nilsson’s collaborations with George Tipton, although Tipton’s orchestration is rather more Hollywood-syrupy than one normally expects from his work (and Perry still produced). The song isn’t conventionally structured at all, but has a quite beautiful melody, one which is more than a little reminiscent of Irving Berlin.
The song starts with a simple piano-led verse, in 4/4 time (“Sometimes I go to sleep without you”) in a very similar style to several of Nilsson’s piano ballads, before a tiny instrumental interlude leading to the second verse. During this interlude an orchestra comes in, but one with unusual instruments — harp and banjo — prominent. After the second verse, the song shifts into waltz time, as we get a violin-and-piano-led run through of a melody which will dominate the second half. We then get massed Nilssons singing this waltz-time melody (which is three parts Irving Berlin to one part Kurt Weill) for a verse (“I’ll never leave you alone”), before wordless vocals and pizzicato strings repeat the little figure that had gone between the first two verses, but this time in waltz rather than common time.
Of all the tracks on the album, it’s probably the most unconventional, and it could only really have been placed at the end — it’s quite beautiful, but it’s hard to see how anything could sensibly follow that.
Si No Estás Tú
This is a version of “Without You”, which is mostly sung in Spanish until the choruses at the end, when it becomes the standard track for some reason.
How Can I Be Sure of You?
This is a demo of a song which would eventually be, in part, reused as “Good For God” on Duit On Mon Dei. The song is a little aimless, and the verse (the part that was later to be used in “Good For God”), which is very much in the style of Nilsson’s cover of “Let The Good Times Roll”, goes into a chorus (“How can I be sure of you/In a world that’s always changing?”) in 6/8 time rather than the 4/4 of the earlier verse, and in a different key.
Both verse and chorus are fairly simple, but they don’t fit together at all — and there’s a slight melodic resemblance in the chorus to “I’ll Never Leave You”. It feels (and this is based on absolutely no hard evidence) like the idea of “I’ll Never Leave You”‘s structure was important to him and he tried that structure a couple of times before getting the final song.
An odd track, which features layers of slightly detuned-sounding pianos (sounding *very* like some of the music Nilsson’s friend Van Dyke Parks had done on his Song Cycle album) playing a melody which has a strong resemblance to the 1920s standard “Carolina Moon”, over which Nilsson recites some incomprehensible cod-French and gives occasional dance directions.
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