Son of Schmilsson

Son of Schmilsson is the first Nilsson album which everyone, almost without exception, agrees is a step down from the album before. It is, in fact, generally considered to be the album that killed Nilsson’s career.

Partly that reputation comes from Rick Perry, the album’s producer. While Perry had essentially been given carte blanche over Nilsson Schmilsson, getting the final say over the production and song choices, here Nilsson starts to reassert control. The songs here still have the simplistic rock sound of the material on Nilsson Schmilsson, but here there’s an almost punklike aggression to some of the lyrics, and where the lyrics aren’t full of anger they’re rather juvenile jokes.

On top of this, the sessions for the album were chaotic, with Nilsson hugely upping his intake of alcohol and cocaine, and encouraging the other musicians to do the same. Perry was left trying desperately to bring some kind of order to the proceedings, and to try to make something semi-commercial out of what he considered a mess. He thought of the album as a throwaway, something that Nilsson had to get off his chest before making the next *real* album. And as a result, Perry has never spoken very highly of the album.

And it’s easy to see why. If Nilsson Schmilsson was Rick Perry sanding slightly too many of the edges off Nilsson, Son of Schmilsson is basically nothing but edges — it’s a deeply strange record, one which seems to be almost wilful self-sabotage in places, as Nilsson gives up on ideas of commercialism altogether, and sings songs with choruses like “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed” and “you’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you”. Nilsson was having a bad time in his personal life at the time, going through a particularly painful divorce and drinking very heavily, and this shows in the music — Nilsson’s life was starting to fall apart at the seams, and this is a record that seems like it’s not even trying to keep it together.

The fact that the same sort of high-profile, slick, session players were working on this material, and that it’s arranged in the same manner, just adds to the record’s strangeness. We have backing tracks that sound like everything else on the radio in the early 1970s, the kind of sound that dominated Nilsson Schmilsson — it even features two Beatles making appearances on guitar and drums (in fact “Ritchie Snare” provided nearly all the drums on the album) . Sonically, it’s entirely mainstream — it’s harder to find a better example of the early 70s mainstream rock sound than this, with George & Ringo, Peter Frampton, Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voorman, and Lowell George all active participants.

But then over that, there’s the chaos of Nilsson’s writing at the time — material that almost sounds like outsider art — except that again it’s being sung in that beautiful voice — although the voice was starting to show some slight signs of deterioration here. It’s only noticeable in retrospect, after hearing the albums after Pussy Cats, but this is the first album on which any imperfections are audible at all.

The juxtaposition of material, production, and performance, makes for a record that is much more idiosyncratic than most give it credit for. It seems a piece of wilful self-sabotage, but one into which an immense amount of effort has been poured. It’s quite unlike anything else that anyone has ever released. Depending on one’s view of the material, it’s either the greatest piece of turd-polishing ever achieved, making a sloppy drunken mess sound almost exactly like proper commercial pop music, or it’s a wonderful record of an artist reacting against the constraints of commercial success while also documenting the ongoing breakdown of his personal life.

I tend towards the latter view, and I tend to prefer this album to its predecessor as a result, but there are probably very few listeners who would deny that there’s an element of both in here.

Unsurprisingly, the album failed to repeat its predecessor’s success. It did reach number twelve on the US album charts and get certified gold, largely on the back of the momentum from the earlier album, but sales never matched expectations, and the album became a perennial of the second-hand racks, with many getting rid of their copies in confusion.

Perry continued to hope that he and Nilsson could work together again, and make the album he wanted to make, but Nilsson moved on to other ideas, and the two never worked together again — and Nilsson never had another hit again.

Take 54
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

The album opens with this, which is very much a statement of intent for the album — a heavy, horn-driven riffer which is very different in feel from anything Nilsson did prior to Nilsson Schmilsson, and not all that similar even to much of that. By this point Nilsson has completely embraced his identity as a rock performer rather than as a musician in the same style as Van Dyke Parks or Randy Newman, both of whom were contemporaries, friends, and colleagues of his who were working in a parallel musical world, separate from the one being embraced in the charts at the time.

Where the advertising for Nilsson Schmilsson had emphasised that “Nilsson’s done a rock album!” as a major, new, thing for him, in truth it hadn’t been that rocky, as opposed to simply fitting into the genre. This is — it starts with a screaming horn riff, and has squealing electric guitars — and, just as important, no non-rock instrumentation. And with lyrics like “I sang my balls off for you baby”, the song shows, early on, that the album is not just going to be a collection of gentle “Without You” style ballads.

Sonically, this is close to Lennon’s Rock and Roll album and similar 70s attempts at recreating the 50s — this is music that is clearly inspired by New Orleans R&B music like that of Fats Domino or Little Richard, but equally it’s music that could only have been made in the early 1970s.

Lyrically, the song (about a woman who walks out after the singer spends too much time in the studio) takes a slight shot at Richard Perry, who was known for wanting many, many, takes of everything (there’s video footage of him in the studio at a Nilsson session asking to use take forty-nine, so “take fifty-four” is far from an exaggeration). It’s also, sadly, sexist in the way that early-70s rock could so often be.

There’s also one worrying fact here — Nilsson’s voice sounds hoarser than it ever had before. That’s the kind of thing that could easily be dismissed as a stylistic choice, if we didn’t have the evidence of Nilsson’s later albums to tell us what was going on here. Nilsson was, at this point, using heroin and cocaine and drinking massive amounts, and the damage to his voice was starting to have an effect. The husky vocals are not bad at all, but it’s already hard to believe this is the same person who had made those earlier albums.

All that said, this is not quite as raucous as this description might make it sound — the playing is tight, and this would have fit perfectly on the charts at the time with bands like Wizzard who were doing similar 70s updates of 50s rock.

And the track ends on a joke — a spooky dialogue with a sepulchral voice announcing the album’s title, being asked “where did you get all those sound effects?” and answering “RCA Records and Tapes”

Remember (Christmas)
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

This is just about the only song on the album that was likely to appeal to Nilsson’s new audience of people who’d bought Nilsson Schmilsson on the strength of “Without You” — and indeed, it sounds at first like an attempt to copy the earlier track, although that’s because both songs were based around Nilsson’s piano demos, and Nilsson had a very limited piano style. (In the radio commercials for Nilsson Schmilsson, Perry points out that Nilsson was not a very good player, although he claims that Nilsson was still a “funky” player).

One of Nilsson’s best ballads, this is very much in the same vein as late-Beatles McCartney material like “Let It Be” or “The Long And Winding Road”, but much better than those tracks in that it isn’t quite as emotionally manipulative in its chord changes. It also has one of the best arrangements on the album, with a string part that includes some nice countermelodies and has a sparseness and austerity to it that suits the song much better than the syruppy overorchestrated mush one normally gets with tracks of this nature.

Nilsson also sings this very, very well. I’ve noted in some of this essay the way that Nilsson’s voice was starting to show signs of the strain that would eventually destroy his voice, but here he sounds absolutely gorgeous, with no noticeable degradation from his earlier voice, except that this is sung in a lower register than one would have expected from Nilsson earlier.

The song itself is a fairly sentimental one, and while the “Christmas” in the title is unexplained, it somehow fits anyway. The harmonic material is very simple — for most of the song it just alternates between I-Imaj7-I6 and V-Vmaj7-V6, with only the intro and outro really departing from those chords. The outro, indeed, is probably where the “Christmas” comes from, as the long piano outro section, with its fragmented melody, at times seems almost to be quoting “Carol of the Bells” for a phrase or two. (Though it should be noted that the outro was largely improvised by pianist Nicky Hopkins, who played several different versions of this — in the documentary film about the making of this album, you can see Hopkins try different ideas out for the ending).

But this is the last example on record of Nilsson, in perfect voice, singing a ballad he wrote himself with no irony or joke element to it, just a straight, beautiful, song, and it’s very hard to imagine anyone who likes Nilsson’s work at all not enjoying this one, whatever they think of the rest of the album.

Joy
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

And here we get back to the material that would make the newer fans despair. Not only is this a country song, it’s a comedy country song, most of which is spoken by Nilsson in an attempt at a southern US accent.

In the alternate versions of this song, Nilsson sings the whole song, and it’s an actual song, but this is something like a parody of “Wanderin’ Star”, but one which doesn’t actually have any humour — the jokes of the song are mostly around puns on the name “Joy” being the same as the word “Joy”.

What is interesting is that both the spoken and sung voices bear more than a slight resemblance to Nilsson’s friend Michael Nesmith, and it almost sounds like this track is taking a specific dig at him, and his then-recent albums of country-rock music (a feeling that is given additional credence by the fact that it features Red Rhodes, the pedal steel player who played on all Nesmith’s solo work until Rhodes’ death). However, if that’s the case, the parody being so much worse than the music it’s parodying doesn’t make the criticism seem particularly stinging.

Assuming for the moment though that there is no intentional ex-Monkee baiting going on here, what we have here instead is a mildly funny pastiche of country music, and not much else.

Turn on Your Radio
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

This is almost a return to the style of Harry, in songwriting and performance if not in arrangement (though even there, there’s a welcome return of the brass countermelodies that were a regular feature of the Tipton years), and the contrast with much of the rest of the album is just astounding. This is a really quite, quite, lovely little song.

This is one of the shortest songs on the album, but it manages to pack a lot more than one would expect into its short length. Alternating between a brief instrumental section and a vocal verse based on simple triads over a descending bass, it manages to have two very stylistically different feels within a unified whole. The instrumental section, on guitar and piano, shows some more of the blues/jazz influence that had been slowly seeping into Nilsson’s work over the last few albums, while the vocal verses have something of the meditative feel of “Think About Your Troubles” or “The Moonbeam Song”, yet they fit perfectly together.

Nilsson’s vocal here is once again splendid. For whatever reason, his voice sounds much stronger and more impressive on the ballads here, while the uptempo material tends to cause more strain and leave him sounding thinner. Again, this is in a notably lower register than similar songs had been in the past, but this is Nilsson at his most McCartneyesque and his sweetest.

You’re Breakin’ My Heart
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

According to Marc Hudson (in the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), at Nilsson’s funeral, George Harrison asked other mourners what their favourite Nilsson song was, and then responded to them, “fuck you”.
He wasn’t telling the mourners to fuck themselves, but was rather talking about his own favourite song, which they then sang around the grave, because the chorus to this song is brutally honest — “you’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you”.

This is a sentiment with which many will be able to empathise, though it may be that it wasn’t the best idea to put it out on a single, even as a B-side (to “Spaceman”).

Interestingly, Alyn Shipton seems to think that the song might be about Ringo Starr, and that the two men (who were to remain the best of friends for the rest of Nilsson’s life) might have had a brief falling-out. There are a couple of lines of lyric which might suggest this reading (notably the reference to “boogaloo”ing, a word which was a favourite term of Starr’s), but on the whole I think that’s a little bit of a stretch, especially since Nilsson and Starr had a famously close relationship. Given that Nilsson was going through a particularly messy divorce from his second wife at the time, it seems far more likely that the song is about what it seems to be about.

(It might, however, be worth noting that while this is the song on which George Harrison appears, it’s also the only track on the album to feature drums not by Starr. Everything else either features no drum kit at all, with its place being taken by various percussion instruments, or has Starr, but here the kit is played by session player Barry Morgan (Although I have seen some sources saying that Morgan played on “Joy”). This might lend some slight credence to Shipton’s claims.)

Musically, this is another song in the style of “Take 54”, the sort of shiny, slick, retro-50s sound that a lot of musicians, especially Lennon, were going for at the time. Again, it’s driven by horns and riffy guitars, with some great honking baritone sax, and Nilsson’s vocals are superb. There’s little of the sophistication of the earlier albums here, but then, “fuck you” is not exactly the most sophisticated of sentiments, and the track certainly communicates that particular emotion more than adequately.

Nilsson later complained that people had been offended by the lyrics, but that he thought they were necessary to get across the feeling he wanted to describe. And the song certainly makes that feeling abundantly clear.

Spaceman
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

Space was a much more current topic in the early 1970s than it is today, with the Apollo project still ongoing at the time Nilsson made this record and with records like Elton John’s “Rocket Man” or David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” having chart success. Nilsson’s record is very much in the vein of those songs, which like this deal with a certain feeling of hopelessness and disillusionment experienced by people in space. In Nilsson’s case, being a spaceman seems like it might be a metaphor for his own wish for stardom — “I wanted to be a spaceman, that’s what I wanted to be/But now that I am a spaceman, nobody cares about me” — although the lyrics for the song are rudimentary enough that it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to read much of anything into them.

This is one of the times where the CD (and download and streaming) era has caused a track to seem less impressive than it did originally. In its original context, this was the opening of side two, and opening a side with a bombastic track like this made sense, as did closing the other side with a similarly bombastic track. However, when heard back to back with “You’re Breaking My Heart”, with no pause between them to turn the record over, it sounds like more of the same. The combination of the two, heard right after each other, causes the album to sag a little under its own weight here.

And “Spaceman” is a much less impressive song than “You’re Breaking My Heart”. It’s not bad as such — there’s very little actually bad material on this album — but it just sits there. The most interesting thing about the track is actually the intro — the “bang bang shoot ’em up destiny” section — which shows signs of having been separately conceived (although it’s fairly similar to the rest of the song). A lot of the songs on this album seem to show the joins a little more than Nilsson’s other material — as if they had been conceived in the way that Perry described for Nilsson Schmilsson, with the different sections being conceived separately and only later joined together — but on most of the album that works rather better than it does here, with the “bang bang shoot em up” being relegated to a very short section, rather than alternating with the less interesting, more overpowering, main section of the track.

The Lottery Song
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

This is another of the songs on the album that hark back to the style of Nilsson Schmilsson — a genial, pleasant, ballad about taking chances — “loo loo loo loo loo loo/Life is just a gamble/gamble if you want to win”. If the entire album had been like this song or “Remember (Christmas)” it would undoubtedly have been much more commercially successful, and would have given the millions who bought Nilsson Schmilsson the followup they wanted. But it would also have been a much less interesting, much less honest record.

This one is all acoustic guitars and McCartneyesque pleasantness, and it’s clearly from the same musical mind that brought us Harry. This, along with “Turn on the Radio” and “Remember (Christmas)”, shows that even when he was deliberately making a confrontational, aggressive, album, he was capable of writing absolutely gentle, pleasant, music And this is very, very lovely, even if there’s a certain amount of joking here that isn’t in those other songs — the singer has very low ambitions, most of which seem to revolve around visiting Las Vegas rather than anything more impressive (although the Vegas obsession also works well with the “life is just a gamble” theme of the chorus).

Of the ballads on the album, this is the one that most shows the hoarseness of Nilsson’s voice — here he has a scary resemblance to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys’ later vocals, not only in the huskiness and thinness of the multi-tracked vocals, but also in the relative sloppiness of the enunciation and tracking. But again, this is only really noticeable when you see this album as part of a continuum with the sound of Pussy Cats coming up in a couple of albums’ time — Nilsson is still using his voice beautifully here.


At My Front Door
Songwriters:
Ewart B. Abner and John C. Moore
And this is another example of Nilsson’s thinner vocals, this time on an uptempo cover version.

The song itself is an example of the 1950s R&B that was so strongly influencing the rest of the album. Originally a 1957 hit for the doo-wop group the El Doradoes, it’s a fairly straightforward twelve-bar blues, influenced by people like Louis Jordan, but with extremely rudimentary lyrics. Nilsson’s version picks up on this, and makes the whole track be about the energy, rather than anything more sophisticated.

It starts with the intro to “Remember (Christmas)”, which gets as far as “long ago, far away”, before Nilsson burps and stops that song, replacing it with this one, immediately going from the gentle piano ballad into uptempo fuzz rock guitar and boogie piano.

To start with, Nilsson’s vocal is fairly unemotional (and also curiously back in the mix, which is unusually poor, with everything seeming quieter than everything else, which doesn’t really work for riffy rock music like this), and he doesn’t really start emoting until the middle of the song, with the “you got a little mama” line. The track is dominated by the saxophone and guitar solos, but passes quickly enough that nothing has a chance to make the song seem overlong.

This whole track, with its sloppy arrangement and hoarse vocals, would fit perfectly on Pussy Cats, where again a number of the tracks were covers of this kind of 50s material (although by that time Nilsson would not have been able to do the Frankie Valli style falsetto parts that he does on this track).

Ambush
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

Easily the least interesting song on the album, this is one of those tracks that leaves almost no impression. I’ve listened to this album dozens upon dozens of times, and from the titles alone I can hear every other song in my head. But when I came to write this I couldn’t remember the song at all. And when listening to it, it became apparent why. This is an overlong, plodding, song which once again features Nilsson in less than perfect voice. It starts off something like a rewrite of “City Life” from the Harry album, but it doesn’t have the musical interest of that song, having almost no chord changes and relying mostly on simple dynamics, with instruments slowly being added and then dropping down (so half way through the song, when Nilsson shouts “now this time through we want everyone to listen to the punchline”, the instruments are down to just the drums).

An anti-war song, the lyrics describe a platoon singing to themselves as they travel, before the enemy opens fire on all of them and kills them. The main point of the lyrics seems to have been a pun on the word bridge (“we sang until we reached the bridge” coming just before the bridge of the song, but also describing them crossing a bridge in the physical world).

Much of the musical interest here comes from the horn section, with Jim Price playing and arranging all the horns. There are some very clever moments — for example a flurry of notes on the line “the enemy opened fire”, evoking machine gun fire (and also sounding more than a little like the incidental music to the 1966 Batman TV series). But the whole thing, as a complete piece, doesn’t really register very strongly at all.

I’d Rather Be Dead
Songwriters:
Harry Nilsson and Richard Perry

Another song that seems to be something of a sick joke, the chorus here (“I’d rather be dead than wet my bed”) would be in bad enough taste, but getting a chorus of extremely elderly people to sing along with it, as Nilsson does, takes it into another level which might as well be considered genius as sick.

The elderly people involved clearly loved singing lines like “I’d rather keep my health and dress myself, but you’re better off dead than sitting on a shelf” (although apparently one of them had a wooden leg which caused problems for the engineers, as its squeaking kept getting picked up by the microphones), and the exuberance of the performers absolutely shines through, as they sing over the accordion-led polka-band backing.

The song is not particularly worthy of analysis (although, like the next song, it does point forward somewhat to A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night and that way that Nilsson was increasingly enamoured of the pre-rock styles he had temporarily discarded), but this is a wonderfully enjoyable, poignant, hilarious track, and one which perfectly sums up the sound of Son of Schmilsson.

As a bonus track on the CD reissue, there’s a piano run through of this which also features Nilsson singing the alternate lyrics to “It Had To Be You” which would feature on the next album.

The Most Beautiful World in the World
Songwriter:
Harry Nilsson

And the album finishes with another song which seems to be two very different pieces of music shoved together — there’s the comedy-latin music of the first two minutes, which transitions rather abruptly into the orchestral section (“I love you for your snow, your deserts down below/I love the way you wear your trees”). While these two sections have a clear melodic connection, they don’t sound anything alike — but whether they were conceived separately or together, they do work well together. Here the Schmilsson technique of shaping fragments into songs really comes into its own.

The Latin part of the song is one of the less effective things on the album, especially with Nilsson’s “comedy” foreign accent (which doesn’t seem to be an attempt at any particular accent, just a generic foreign which floats between Mexican and Italian, sometimes mid-vowel) and “ay-yi-yi”s. On the other hand, the orchestral section (which is deliberately overorchestrated in much the same manner as the Beatles’ “Goodnight”) works really well musically, even though the lyrics, which sexualise the Earth in weird ways, are not among Nilsson’s best.

And the album ends with “Goodbye Harry” “See you next album, Richard” — but of course Perry would not be involved in the next album…

Bonus tracks

Campo de Encino
Songwriter:
Jimmy Webb

This song was written by Nilsson’s friend Webb, apparently in response to Nilsson asking him why he never wrote any funny songs (Nilsson was known to claim that there were only four songwriters whose songs could regularly make him laugh — himself, Randy Newman, John Lennon, and Frank Zappa). And it is, indeed, a much funnier song than Webb’s material usually is, mocking a particular kind of super-rich hippie (and indeed mocking Webb himself) with the kind of idealism that includes both wanting to be vegetarian and learn primal scream therapy, but also wanting a sports car and “a waterfall bar that revolves around my swimming pool” and “where your nose always glows”.

That said, the line “I’ll make love to you if your mom and dad will let you stay”… yeah, that seems a lot less funny than it may have done to 1970s male rock stars like Nilsson and Webb.

This track was apparently recorded with far more instruments than make the final mix, all of them played by Nilsson himself, and most of them played badly. When the tape was auditioned in 2002 for the early-2000s CD reissue programme, it was dismissed by everyone except archivist and musician Alan Boyd, who stripped away all the instrumentation except Nilsson’s piano (played in the very distinctive , and revealed that while the finished track had been too sloppy to release, the core piano-and-vocal performance at the centre of it was remarkably solid.

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One Response to Son of Schmilsson

  1. Phil O. says:

    Good write-up. “…the first Nilsson album which everyone, almost without exception, agrees is a step down from the album before” is dead-on. A very frustrating listen. Although, worse was to come…

    Bottom line, for me “Son Of” is one of those albums that are much less than the sum of its parts. I love “Spaceman” (in my Nilsson top 10 or top 5, even), “The Lottery Song”, “Turn On Your Radio”, and several others. Heck, I love “At My Front Door”! But I detest “Joy” (to my ears, a forced, bad follow-up to “Coconut”), “I’d Rather Be Dead” is in poor taste, and while I like “You’re Breaking My Heart”, I don’t think I’d ever wished there was a censored family-friendly version of a track so much (just replace “f*ck you” with “ooo oooo” from elsewhere in the track… it could be done!). It’s the first Nilsson album I can’t play with the family around, nor do I want to hear it in its entirety anyway. I wouldn’t say that about any prior Nilsson album.

    (Semi-related: am I the only person who hears an almost identical musical refrain in “Spaceman” and “Children of the Revolution”?)

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