Nilsson Sings Newman

Nilsson once described his work as falling into distinct phases, trilogies of albums which were in some way similar. After the trilogy of albums just completed, with conventional songs, and with the same themes echoing through them all, of childhood and loss, Nilsson Sings Newman is the start of a second trilogy – a trilogy of albums that are, frankly, strange decisions for any artist to make, but which show an artist trying to do something really different.

The album is, as the title suggests, one which consists entirely of songs by Randy Newman, who Nilsson admired greatly. At the time the album was recorded, Newman was barely known – he had released one album as an artist, although he had written songs for Judy Collins, the Everly Brothers and others – but Nilsson was treating him the same way earlier singers had treated Cole Porter or George Gershwin. These days Newman is regarded as one of the great songwriters of his generation, and the idea of an entire album of his work makes perfect sense, but at the time Nilsson was by far the better known performer – and even Nilsson was nowhere near as well known then as he would be.

It was basically unknown for a rock-era artist to do an album focusing on a single other songwriter, and what made this stranger was the way the album was recorded. The instrumental backings are as sparse as it can get – for almost the entire album, the only backing is Newman’s piano – but that doesn’t mean that the arrangements themselves are sparse. Instead, there’s layer upon layer of Nilsson’s backing vocals, creating an effect that’s unlike anything else in popular music. The closest I can think of to this effect is the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, but there the multi-layered vocals over almost nonexistent instrumentation were in service of a psychedelic spaciness, rather than the luxuriant, crafted, feel of this album.

Nilsson Sings Newman is by any measure I can imagine simply the artistic highpoint of Nilsson’s career. It’s probably not my favourite – that would probably be Harry, though arguments could be made for a couple of albums – but it’s the album which is the most consistent, in performance, arrangement, song selection, and even in sound quality (famously this was an album which got used a lot in shops as a test album for high quality record players).

And that quality is the result of a quite ludicrous amount of work on Nilsson’s part. Nilsson would talk in interviews about how frustrating the recording process was for Newman, who played the piano parts but then had to trust Nilsson knew what he was doing with the vocals. The two men apparently rehearsed for a full month, while Nilsson got to know the songs inside and out, and Newman got sick of playing the same piano parts over and again, without really knowing what was going to go on top of them.

And he really did know what he was doing vocally. There are descriptions of some tracks having up to a hundred and eighteen vocal overdubs – I don’t hear that many on any tracks on the finished album, but it’s not a preposterous suggestion. Nilsson’s leads are often thickened, sometimes so subtly it’s almost inaudible, and the backing vocal arrangements here are astonishing. The engineering work in the final mixdown took five people working simultaneously, in the days before computer-controlled consoles, partly because of the complexity of the arrangements and partly because there were so many vocal tracks that the breath sounds had to be ducked in order not to overwhelm the rest of the music.

The front cover was designed by Dean Torrence, formerly of Jan and Dean, and showed Nilsson driving a car with Newman in the back seat, while the back cover was a photo of the engineers who worked at the extensive vocal sessions at Wally Heider’s studio, Allen Zentz, Mike Leary, Steve Barncard and Pat Iraci, in recognition of the huge amount of work they had to put in on the album.

The album was not a commercial success – Newman tells stories of going into a record store and looking at the Nilsson section and being told by the shopkeeper “this is the one that nearly finished him off,” pointing at Nilsson Sings Newman, though in fact it’s truer to say that Nilsson Sings Newman was rather the prelude to Nilsson’s greatest period of commercial success. And even to this day, the album is often overlooked, even among Nilsson and Newman’s fans.

This is a tragedy. This is one of the great albums in any genre by any performer. I find it almost impossible to imagine a better combination of singer and songwriter, and I can’t imagine anyone who likes either man’s work not getting an immense amount of pleasure from it. Even those who aren’t normally fans of either might be surprised by how much they enjoy this one – Nilsson’s selection of songs is surprisingly sensitive, with little of Newman’s more cynical material chosen (it’s impossible to have a completely uncynical collection of Randy Newman songs, of course, but this comes as close as anything can, I think). And because it’s a collection of other people’s songs, Nilsson’s idiosyncracies, too, are less on display than on any of his other work, while not being erased into mush.

Nilsson and Newman just bring out the best in each other – Nilsson’s performances are more emotionally touching, and less sardonic, than Newman’s, while Newman’s more disciplined writing allows Nilsson to concentrate on those performances. And Nilsson’s vocal arrangements here are better than I’ve ever heard from him elsewhere – they’re Brian Wilson-level good at points, and like Wilson they’re evocative of pre-rock music, quoting from Gershwin and Glenn Miller and weaving those influences seamlessly in.

Nilsson, Newman, and Van Dyke Parks (a friend of both men who would later become a very frequent collaborator with Nilsson) have all spoken about how they were uninterested in making the kind of music that was in the charts at the time.

Newman said, of his eponymous first album (the only one that had been released when Nilsson started his project) “It’s like I’d never heard the Rolling Stones. I thought you could move things along just with the orchestra, that it was somehow cheating to use drums. What Van Dyke and I, and Harry Nilsson to some degree, were doing, it was like a branch of homo sapiens that didn’t become homo sapiens. Homo erectus” and that’s certainly true of this album, which could have been recorded at any time in the previous fifty years – at least once one took into account the use of recording technology to allow Nilsson to be his own group of backing vocalists.

Of the three men Newman spoke about, Nilsson was probably the most commercial artist, and the most interested in being like the Beatles or similar artists, but he still had more than enough sympathy for pre-rock music that he was a sympathetic collaborator for both Newman and, later, Parks.

And here, for the first time in his career, Nilsson allows himself to be an equal partner. The next time wouldn’t be so lucky, but on Nilsson Sings Newman the results are beautiful.

Vine St.

The opening song had been written by Newman for Song Cycle, the debut album by Van Dyke Parks, a mutual friend of Nilsson and Newman (and himself one of the major figures in the LA music scene of the 60s and 70s).

The song starts with reminiscence about an old band that the singer had been in, and talking about a tape of them, and so each version of the song that Newman has been involved with opens with such a recording. Newman’s own version (on the box set Guilty), is programmed straight after his own first ever single, “Golden Gridiron Boy”, and Van Dyke Parks’ version, Harper’s Bizarre’s, and Nilsson’s likewise open with another song.

Parks’ version had opened with an actual tape of an old band of Parks’, singing the old folk song “Black Jack Davy”, while Harper’s Bizarre’s near-simultaneous cover (on their Secret Life of Harper’s Bizarre album, produced by Lenny Waronker, a close friend of Newman, with Newman credited as “assistant”) had been preceded by a Harper’s Bizarre original, “Bye Bye Bye”.

Here Nilsson introduces the song with another (otherwise unreleased) Newman song, “Anita” [FOOTNOTE: the song isn’t separately credited on the album, and has never come up in interviews that I know of, and so could theoretically be a Nilsson song, but the credits for the album say all songs are by Newman], which is done in a straightforward 60s pop style. Unlike Newman and Parks’ versions of the song, it’s not an actual recording from the past, but it still sounds like it could date from 1963 or so. “Anita” is the only point on the album where any rock instrumentation is used. For much of the album the backing is just Newman on piano, with very occasional intrusions of other elements such as vibraphone, electric harpsichord, or bass drum.

The reason for the instrumentation being different on “Anita” lies in the lyric to “Vine St.” – “that was me, third guitar, I wonder where the others are…” – any recording that introduced “Vine St.” would have to contain multiple guitars for it to make sense as the introductory song.

After “Anita” finishes, we go into the song proper, with the line “that’s the tape that we made, but I’m sad to say it never made the grade”. Nilsson’s take on the song, interestingly, misses out the line “I sold the guitar today, I never could play much anyway”, possibly because Nilsson, unlike Parks and Newman, actually was a guitarist (although like them his principal instrument was the piano – and he was nowhere near as proficient on that as either of them).

“Vine St.” is very untypical of Newman’s writing, and is far closer in feel to the songs Parks wrote for Song Cycle, but it does fit with Nilsson’s take on Newman, which is a strongly nostalgic, warm, version of the writer which is a far cry from how he appears on his own records. Newman, as a songwriter and a performer, is sharply cynical, sarcastic, and often angry in a coldly intellectual way. A lot of his songs are extraordinarily good, but he’s mostly a songwriter of the head rather than the heart.

Nilsson’s curation of the material gives a different impression. He brings out a side of Newman that is always there, but is easy to overlook given the more obvious aspects. This Newman is a bruised idealist, whose songs often evoke a mythologised nostalgic past which he’s perfectly aware didn’t actually ever exist outside of his imagination.

And “Vine St.” is a perfect example of this kind of evocation of the past. Looking back at sitting around with friends you’ve lost touch with, playing music together even though you’re not very good. Even here, though, the innocence of youth is portrayed cynically – “lying secure, self-righteous and sure/Why, we’d things to say if the people would pay to have us play”.

While the song was originally created as part of a song cycle, it works very well on its own without the context of Parks’ songs. Nilsson’s backing vocals also quote from “Rhapsody in Blue”, George Gershwin’s wonderful attempt to combine the worlds of art music and popular music, again evoking a world of pre-rock popular music which would come up time and again in the rest of the album.

Love Story

A love song, of sorts, this makes the banal details of an absolutely typical life seem almost enticing – so much so that, as with many of Newman’s songs, other interpreters have missed the point and seem not to have noticed the banality at all (notably Peggy Lee, who in her version changes “playing checkers all day, til we pass away” to “playing checkers in the sun, playing checkers is fun”, which is a change you could only make if you didn’t understand the song even slightly.)

This has always been one of Newman’s best-loved songs, and it’s easy to see why. For all the banality it describes, there is a real affection in the lyrics too, and it’s one of Newman’s most accessible and easiest to understand pieces. This is actually true for most of the songs Nilsson chooses here – he doesn’t go for abrasive or outright offensive songs, or songs dealing with truly unpleasant subjects like “In Germany Before the War” (probably the most beautiful song about child murder ever written).

The lyrics actually do, though, describe well the kind of relationship that most people actually have, and that can be described as a success – “you may be plain, I think you’re pretty” or “some nights we’ll go out dancing if I’m not too tired” are realistic expectations.

Because the real point of the song, of course, is that the boring life described here, one of staying in watching TV together, raising kids who have kids themselves, and eventually growing old together in Florida, playing checkers every day until they die, is actually a remarkably good life by most standards – it’s not the excitement and thrill of romance that many love songs talk about, but it’s a life that doesn’t involve any massive amounts of hardship, one that has no extraordinary difficulties, and one that does presuppose that the couple in it will stay together for the rest of their long lives. Given how few relationships that’s true of, perhaps this is the most optimistic song Newman ever wrote.

Two songs in, and it’s already clear that this album is very special, but at this point Nilsson is perhaps playing things a little safe with the song choices. That wouldn’t be the case with the next one.

Yellow Man

This is a brave choice, as it’s one of the few songs on the album that has a protagonist who is definitely unsympathetic. Or at least, one can sympathise with him, but we know that he is definitely in the wrong.

Newman always describes this song as “a pinhead’s view of China”, and it was inspired by the existence of a book called Our Oriental Heritage, which Newman found preposterous due to the way it attempted to abrogate thousands of years of multiple other cultures’ history as “our heritage” in a single book. Newman took that idea, and created a marvellous portrayal of unthinking racism.

The viewpoint character here is the epitome of the well-intentioned patronising white liberal, talking about a “yellow man” who’s “in a far off land”, but is “just like you and me” even though he eats rice all day – he believes in the family, after all, and has a yellow woman.

The character singing is unbelievably, astonishingly, racist, but he thinks he’s spreading tolerance and understanding, and that he’s being kind even as he’s casually insulting billions of people.

The music follows that pattern, opening with the parallel fifths that in Hollywood musical cliche always mean “someone of East Asian extraction, we don’t really care if it’s China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, or where”, before going into a much more typical Newman style – Newman spent much of his boyhood in New Orleans, and his standard piano style is influenced by musicians like Fats Domino and James P. Johnson. This song is musically very much along those lines, and the occasional intrusion of the Hollywood Asian music just serves to reinforce that this is a song being sung entirely from the point of view of a Westerner, with little real understanding of the people he’s singing about, any more than he has understanding of their musical forms.

Caroline

Probably the most straightforward of all the songs on here, this is also the only one that Newman never recorded on one of his own albums. It was written especially for the album, and it’s an absolutely straightforward love song in waltz time, performed as an extremely slow ballad. It’s a very stately, determined, song, which nonetheless has a charming beauty to its melody. It’s understandable that Newman didn’t ever record it, as his voice is not particularly notable for its beauty, and the sarcastic world-weariness of his voice would not suit something as pretty and sincere as this.

In its stately precision, the music is as beautiful as anything by Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney, the two writers whose work it most resembles. Lyrically, it’s simplistic, at least in the verses (“Caroline/Please be mine/You’re my kind/of girl”) – these are not the kind of words one expects from someone as known for his lyrical subtlety as Newman. The middle eight is slightly more lyrically sophisticated, but really this entire song is about the melody.

It has a more complex instrumental arrangement than most songs on the album, too, featuring several layers of tuned percussion (what sounds like glockenspiel) and a little harpsichord along with the piano (there may also be a handful of guitar notes buried in the mix).

Cowboy

“Cowboy” originally appeared on Newman’s eponymous first album, but had been somewhat overshadowed there, in part because of the song’s somewhat overwhelming arrangement (Newman had intended to give the song an outdoors feel, and so gave it a full film-style orchestration, but didn’t include a piano as you couldn’t take a piano out into nature).

Here the song is stripped to its absolute essentials, and it shines. It’s a beautiful song about someone who is used to living in the open plains finding himself now living in a city, unable to escape from the claustrophobia of having skyscrapers all around him. (And, of course, while a piano in the desert makes little sense, a piano in the heart of a city makes as much sense as anything else).

“Cowboy” was inspired by the film Lonely are the Brave, in which Kirk Douglas tries to live in the manner of old West cowboys, without a permanent residence or identification, but slowly gets trapped by modern society. Nilsson takes the simple, sparse lyric and turns the protagonist into a fully-formed character. He starts the song with just wind effects and his own a capella voice, “Cold grey buildings where a hill should be/Steel and concrete closing in on me”. He sings the whole first verse unaccompanied, with the piano only coming in on the chorus, when Nilsson doubles himself slightly out of phase, creating a truly disturbing effect as he cries “can’t run, can’t hide/It’s too late to fight now/Too tired to try”.

The song ends with a quote from John Barry’s theme for Midnight Cowboy in a nod both to the song’s title and to the film which had recently brought Nilsson such commercial success (and, indeed, that film is also about a “cowboy” who goes to live in the big city, and so there’s a certain appropriateness to the lyric, even though the film is about much else that’s not alluded to here as well) – this was suggested by Nilsson’s wife Diane, and was played on an electric harpsichord rather than the piano that backed the rest of the track.

One of Newman’s most haunting melodies, this is aided in its feel by the wind sounds, generated by a Moog, which start the song even before the piano comes in.

The Beehive State

One of Newman’s more obscure songs, not in terms of popularity, but in terms of what, if anything, the song is about, this song seems to describe a discussion on the floor of the senate or some other policy-making body in the US, in which delegates from Kansas and Utah both briefly describe their own states, giving little in the way of real information. Newman once said of the song that it should have been longer but he couldn’t think of anything else to say, and so much of the discussion about the song has been trying to parse out its meaning – so much so that the prog rock band Procol Harum actually wrote another song, “The Devil Came From Kansas”, mostly inspired by Newman’s song and the lack of apparent meaning in it.

Personally, I think that the discussion around the song is rather missing the point. Just because Newman would often write songs with multiply layered meanings doesn’t mean that that was the only kind of song he ever wrote, and it’s likely that the point of “The Beehive State” is simply its most obvious meaning – two representatives from relatively unknown states talking about their relatively trivial problems on the national stage. It’s not one of Newman’s best songs, but it’s perfectly enjoyable as a minor track.

While Newman’s solo version, on his first album, is sung in a more or less blank manner, Nilsson is emoting all over the place here, taking on the characters of the delegate from Kansas and the “gentleman from Utah” and making the need for a firehouse in Topeka and for the country to know more about Utah seem like the most important matters in the whole world.

I’ll Be Home

A reassuring ballad which was originally written for Mary Hopkin at the request of Paul McCartney, although Hopkin never ended up recording it. Newman never cared for the song, and didn’t record his own studio version until his 1977 album Little Criminals, although he performed it live and it’s on his 1971 album Randy Newman Live.

It’s very much a return to Newman’s pre-”Simon Smith” style, when he was writing on commission for pop artists rather than for his own entertainment, and it’s easy to see why he didn’t like it, even though it’s actually a very strong song – it’s the kind of song that could have been written by any talented songwriter, rather than the kind that only Randy Newman could have written. But as a listener who doesn’t have that as a consideration, it’s very, very lovely.

The most interesting thing about this is probably the almost girl-group backing vocals, answering lines of the song (“I’ll be home” “Oh yes he will”, “I’ll be home” “leaving in the morning, yeah”) which are stylistically incongruous for this song, which is very much a solo ballad.

Living Without You

This song had featured on Newman’s first solo album, Randy Newman (called Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun on early pressings, before Newman’s intense disapproval of this title, which wasn’t his idea, caused his record company to change it to something more appropriate). A straightforward song of love and loss, the difference in Nilsson’s interpretation of the song largely comes from the difference in his vocal tone from Newman’s.

While Newman is an excellent interpreter of his own material, he’s not got the most conventionally pretty voice, and he gets by largely on his personality. And as he’s a sarcastic, ironic, person, he uses a sarcastic, ironic, tone in his vocals, to the point where it’s almost impossible to imagine Newman singing sincerely and not in a character.

Nilsson, by contrast, did have a quite extraordinarily beautiful voice, at least at this point in time, and he uses it to great effect here – here Nilsson sounds truly anguished when he sings “It’s so hard living without you”, while Newman sounds almost as if he’s saying life is easier (and Newman’s vocal generally makes the song suggest that the “hard” in question is physical, that his frustration is more physical than emotional), Nilsson sounds like there’s a real emotional loss there.

But what’s really astonishing about this track is the stacking of vocals – just listen to the end of the track and the rising wordless vocals leading to the massed word “hard” – that’s vocal arrangement of a type almost unequalled in pop music, and all the more impressive because all the parts are being sung by one man.

Dayton Ohio 1903

One of the gentlest songs Newman ever wrote, “Dayton Ohio 1903” is, of all the songs on this album, probably the one that most fits with Nilsson’s aesthetic – “sing a song of long ago…” is something you can imagine being sung in many of Nilsson’s own albums.

The song had first been recorded by, of all people, Wayne Fontana, whose version was released in 1969.

The backing vocals here quote Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”, a song that was of course from many decades after the 1903 of the song’s title, but which sounded a little old-fashioned even at the time MIller wrote it, and which is hugely evocative of an unspecified nostalgic past.

So Long Dad

One of the more unkind songs on the album finishes it off, although once again Nilsson opts to take a more sympathetic approach to Newman’s lyrics than Newman himself would – here, when the son sings “There’ll always be a place for my old man/Just drop by when it’s convenient to/Be sure and call before you do”, you believe it to be a genuine offer, while in Newman’s interpretation of the song you realise that the son is brushing the father off.

But the thing is, this isn’t the kind of approach that covers of Newman’s work so often take, where the singer is unaware of the deeper levels of meaning within the lyric, and thus completely misses the point. Nilsson is doing an actorly interpretation of the material, and he’s making intelligent choices about how to read it. Nilsson is, after all, a writer who is no stranger to double meanings and unpleasant undertones in apparently-pleasant material, and he was also at this point one of the most nuanced performers in the medium.

No, Nilsson has consciously chosen to add layers of meaning, rather than take them away. Nilsson’s versions of these narrators aren’t just unreliable narrators to the audience, they’re unreliable narrators to themselves. Nilsson’s version of the son in this song would no doubt be shocked to discover that his words to his father could be interpreted as anything other than genuine affection – but he would also undoubtedly be quite relieved that his father chose to spend more time on his own.

It’s still an odd choice for a closing track, leaving a little bit of a bitter aftertaste – but then, perhaps that’s the point. You wouldn’t want to make an album like this too friendly, too safe. That would be too much of a cop-out. Nilsson Sings Newman is an easy album to listen to, and an easy album to love, but it’s an album that still invites repeated listening and deep analysis, and ending on a fun, lightweight, friendly song would possibly make that less of a possibility.

One thing that’s very interesting about the placement of the song, in fact, is that this is the track where more than any other the whole recording process is deconstructed. There’s a deliberate decision made to keep in the final mix several tracks of Nilsson saying “more first voice” and “actually I need more current voice, forget the one that’s saying more first voice” and so on to the engineer. This, more than anything else in the album, shows Nilsson’s working – it’s a track that very deliberately shows all the artifice used to create the record, which sounds so simple.

Bonus track:

Snow

It’s hard to understand why this gorgeous ballad was left off the original album, given that the record is under half an hour long. Whatever the reason, the CD reissue restores this to its rightful place in the tracklisting, and it’s an absolute revelation. “Snow” was originally recorded in 1967 by Harper’s Bizarre, a vocal group produced by Van Dyke Parks who specialised in soft-pop reworkings of pre-war songs like “Chatanooga Choo-Choo”, along with recordings of songs by Parks, Newman, and other writers steeped in those pre-war traditions. This song has much of the deliberate construction of the “great American songbook” writers who made up much of Harper’s Bizarre’s repertoire, but is much more evocative than most of them usually managed – craft used in service of evoking a deep emotion, where many of the songs Harper’s Bizarre performed were deliberately light and frothy.

“Snow” is a devastatingly beautiful ballad of loss – the “you” to whom it’s addressed might be a lover who has merely left, but from the overall mournful feeling of the song, it’s just as likely that they have died – certainly that’s the impression I’ve always taken away from the song. And again, Nilsson delivers it absolutely spectacularly. It moves slowly and carefully, with a methodical melody and lyrics that contain almost no words longer than a syllable or two. It’s a precisely calculated song, but one that’s calculated to make you weep.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trial of a Time Lord

I was asked a little while ago if I could write something about Doctor Who season twenty-three, the Trial of a Time Lord season. This is an interesting, and frankly difficult, request for me, because of all the Doctor Who I watched as a child, this is the one of which I have the strongest memories. I remember Peri’s mind being overwritten by Kiv’s, I remember recognising Honor Blackman from articles I’d read about her time as Cathy Gale in The Avengers (I was an odd child, and did actually read stuff about TV series from long before I was born for fun), I remember recognising Lynda Bellingham as the Oxo mum, and I remember noting the names of the writers, Pip and Jane Baker, and wondering if they were any relation to Tom or Colin. I remember learning the word “genocide” from the Doctor killing the Vervoids.

I remember, in short, watching this series from the perspective of a rather strange little boy, and that perspective is still with me when I rewatch it now. And in particular that means that I don’t see this in the fannish way, as three and a bit separate stories with a linking narrative, but as one long story called The Trial of a Time Lord.

That is, when I watch this series, what I pay attention to is the linking narrative or framing story. The things it’s framing are, for me, merely pieces of evidence in the trial, rather than stories in their own right, simply because that’s how I perceived the story when I was tiny. There’s no “The Mysterious Planet” or “Mindwarp” or “Terror of the Vervoids”, at least not in my mind while I’m watching it.

Now, this is of course a naive way to watch the story. There are three separate credited writers or writing teams on the season — Robert Holmes, Philip Martin, and Pip and Jane Baker — and on top of that there’s quite a bit of material written by script editor Eric Saward. The difference in writing teams is, of course, noticeable at the start of each episode. But at the same time, the framing sequences do make it appear that what matters is not the individual stories but the framing sequences — almost every cliffhanger, for example, is a shot of Colin Baker’s face as the trial reaches a turning point.

So when watching the series these days… well, firstly, I don’t watch it all that often because I feel compelled to watch the whole thing, and it takes nearly seven hours to get through. I know that classic Doctor Who was broadcast as a serial, but I still always watch whole stories, and I very rarely have that much time in a block to watch a story in.

But when I do watch it, there’s a weird dual vision about it that I don’t have with other stories, because my perception as an adult is very different from my perception as a child, and both are present.

But then, that’s appropriate for a series like this, where much of the story is told by an unreliable narrator, where two of the Doctor are present (one vastly older than the other, and seeing things from a very different perspective), where history is rewritten and where we have flashbacks from the future, and where that multiplicity of perspectives and histories is reflected in the production of the series.

Trial of a Time Lord is one of the few Doctor Who stories where the story of its production actually adds more to the story on screen. In part that’s because parts of the story itself are fairly weak — though nowhere near as weak as the story’s low reputation would suggest — but it’s also because when you decide to create a series that actually dramatises the situation in which the series found itself, and then get extremely intelligent writers like Robert Holmes and Philip Martin, both of whom deal in the metatextual on a regular basis, to write big chunks of it, you end up getting something very strange indeed, and something with resonances with the situation that weren’t actually intended.

Put simply, Trial of a Time Lord is a story that was intended to put the case for the defence for Doctor Who itself. The show had been on hiatus for eighteen months, and everyone involved with the series knew it was on borrowed time. There had been talk of it being cancelled altogether, and there’s a lot of evidence that it essentially was cancelled — when it came back it was only fourteen twenty-five minute episodes, rather than the thirteen fifty minute episodes of the previous season, and there have been claims that this was because the children’s SF series The Tripods, which had been based on a trilogy of books, was cancelled after the dramatisation of the second book — it would appear that there had been a budget and time-slot allocated for an SF series, the one they wanted to put on was cancelled, and so they fitted Doctor Who in because they had no other options.

So of course the programme makers (primarily producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward) decided that since the show itself was on trial they would put that trial on screen — the Doctor was put on trial, with a format that was borrowed from A Christmas Carol, and he had to defend his actions in the past, the present, and the future.

Those actions were to be stories in themselves, each written by some of the best writers working on the show. And certainly in two of the three stories, Saward achieved that aim. Robert Holmes, who wrote the first four episodes and the thirteenth, and was intended to write the fourteenth (but sadly died before he could — and see later for more on that) is widely regarded as the best writer Doctor Who ever had, and he’s certainly one of the three or four writers (with David Whitaker and Terrance Dicks, and arguably Terry Nation) who did more to define Doctor Who as a series and an aesthetic than anyone else. And Philip Martin, who wrote episodes five through eight, had only written one Doctor Who story previously, but he was by far the most acclaimed writer ever to come to work on the show (other writers such as Douglas Adams became more acclaimed after they left the series, but that’s a rather different thing, and I’m not here counting the prestige hires on the post-2005 series, as that series is so different that it’s not a useful comparison).

Unfortunately for Saward, his choices for the “future” segment all dropped out, and he was left with no choice but to turn to Pip and Jane Baker for that segment of the storyline. Pip and Jane Baker are not the most highly regarded of Doctor Who scriptwriters, and one of the reasons for the low general opinion of the Colin Baker and early McCoy stories is that they wrote one or more stories in both of Baker’s series and McCoy’s first, but they weren’t as terrible as their reputation suggests.

Which is not to say they were good, by any means. They had no sense for dialogue, in particular, and Doctor Who is always a highly verbal series that stands or falls on the quality of the characters’ dialogue (although they did a better job with Colin Baker’s Doctor than with other characters, as Baker’s mildly pompous, loquacious, version of the Doctor fits with the Bakers’ love for polysyllabic circumlocution). But they were competent at plot, structure, and cliffhangers, their ideas were perfectly good Doctor Who ideas, and most importantly from the perspective of the production staff they could turn in usable scripts quickly and without needing too much handholding or rewriting — they were, if not great writers, consummate professionals, and in the world of TV production it is often more important to have something that can be put in front of the camera by the necessary date than it is to have something that’s perfect, or even good.

But again, to switch back to the way tiny Andrew was viewing this, there wasn’t such an important distinction to make. I knew that the Agatha Christie-ish bit of Trial was perhaps not as exciting as the bit with Sil and Kiv and Brian Blessed, but it was still all part of the same story, and all exciting because of what was happening to the Doctor during his trial.

But in fact, Terror of the Vervoids is rather an outlier in terms of the season as a whole, because the first two stories, Holmes’ The Mysterious Planet and Martin’s Mindwarp, both have quite a lot of thematic material in common with each other and with the overall storyline (understandably, as Holmes and Martin, unlike the Bakers, had spent a great deal of time developing their ideas with Eric Saward and were part of the team that planned the whole Trial of a Time Lord storyline).

So both deal, in their own ways, with suppression of the truth, and with memories being wiped — in the case of Holmes’ story, with the movement of Earth’s solar system to cover up a massive crime, and in the case of Martin’s, with the actual wiping of Peri’s memory (that this turns out to be retconned later doesn’t make a difference to Martin’s story as it was experienced at the time.)

Neither are their writer’s best work, of course — in Holmes’ case, he was suffering from the illness that would shortly kill him, while in Martin’s there was simply a miscommunication between the different parts of the production team that meant that by the time the story was completed there was no consensus as to which parts of it were the work of an unreliable narrator, and within the story there was also the question of how much of the Doctor’s behaviour was real and how much was him putting on an act, which no-one involved could satisfactorily resolve. This means that for any given scene, there are at least four possible in-story explanations, even discounting the later retcons about Peri, putting the whole of Mindwarp into a superposition of states from which a single coherent story can’t possibly be resolved.

But still, Trial of a Timelord has an immense power, and that power comes almost entirely from the figure of the Valeyard. The Valeyard is, of course, the dark future version of the Doctor “between his twelfth and final incarnations” who acts as the prosecutor throughout the story. As a child, I got him confused with David Warner’s portrayal of the Devil in Time Bandits, and certainly the two characters seem very similar in demeanour and presence even today, with the result that the revelation that this character is the Doctor is still powerful today. It’s all too plausible that this dark but articulate legalistic figure could lie in the future of the sixth Doctor — a version of the character played by someone who himself had legal training, and who often seems to be a wannabe-barrister, making speeches and using his verbal ability to defeat opponents.

The Valeyard has never been returned to in televised Doctor Who, although the Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice is a very similar character and may have been intended as a reference, and the “continuity nightmare” he caused was cited in the New Adventures writing guidelines as a reason to avoid him in the novels. As a result, he’s only appeared in one novel and three Big Finish audio adventures that I’m aware of in the thirty-plus years since this story — a shame, as the character has a lot of potential for use in further stories. An evil future incarnation of the Doctor is, after all, not far at all from the Master, and the Valeyard is arguably a better portrayal of the “evil Time Lord” idea than appears in any Master story after about Castrovalva (at least until Missy turns up, and even there she’s hampered by some fairly terrible writing).

The trial sequences do rather overshadow the rest of the story, at least in the memory — although rewatching it now, there’s far too much of things like the “knacker’s yard” semi-puns on the Valeyard’s name, which now remind me of nothing more than the terrible (but wonderful in their terribleness) jokes in A Touch of Cloth where characters keep saying things like “the entire department is losing face, cloth”. This story is, I think, more than any other where the cliche about the sixth Doctor being “a stupid person’s idea of a clever person” comes from — the Doctor is repeatedly not as witty or clever as he thinks he’s being, and presumably also as the writers of the linking sequences (one presumes mostly by Eric Saward) think he’s being.

Ah yes, Eric Saward. Here one gets to the real difficulty with Trial of a Time Lord, trying to parse who was responsible for what. There were major fallings out between members of the production team towards the end of Trial, many of which were played out in interviews for fan magazines and which led to permanent rifts between programme makers. To this day, Colin Baker is still not on speaking terms with Saward, which is perhaps understandable given the way that Saward insulted him both as an actor and as a person in an infamous interview after leaving the show.

Saward is a fascinating and somewhat tragic figure in Doctor Who, and one for whom I have a fair bit of empathy. He is someone who was overpromoted — a neophyte writer who had barely any experience before being put in charge of the scripts for the series (a position roughly equivalent to being a co-showrunner in today’s terminology, especially given the fact that John Nathan-Turner was the least writerly producer the series ever had). He had the unfortunately common liability among creative people of having far better taste than he had ability (this is something that nearly every creative person has until fairly late in their career — certainly it’s something that’s true of me) and much of his writing was attempts at copying the style of better writers — Slipback and his novelisation of The Twin Dilemma, for example, are both him trying to be Douglas Adams, while Revelation of the Daleks is him trying to be Evelyn Waugh and Robert Holmes simultaneously.

This meant that, even as his own writing was often substandard (with the exception of Revelation of the Daleks, which is really very good), he recognised quality in others, and his choices here of Robert Holmes and Philip Martin show that. Holmes was one of the two or three best actual writers ever to have worked on Doctor Who, and someone who even at his worst could always be relied on to turn in a script with an interesting premise and a few good lines of dialogue which could be brought in on budget and which could be broadcast without looking embarassing. At his best, he was as good a writer as anyone who was working in TV.

Philip Martin, on the other hand, was a respected writer of political plays and postmodernist TV drama, who had found that Doctor Who was just about the only place left on TV where one could do non-naturalistic drama. He was a properly heavyweight writer, and someone any script editor would jump at employing.

So Saward knew who could do a good job, and it was just unfortunate for him that he was stuck with Pip and Jane Baker for the last four-part substory of the season. But what was more unfortunate was Robert Holmes’ health, which was deteriorating rapidly.

The original plan had been that as well as writing the first four episodes, Holmes would also write the last two episodes, where the Trial concludes. He and Saward discussed his plans in great detail, and came up with what they thought was a satisfactory ending for the season.

Unfortunately, Holmes’ illness got much worse more quickly than anyone had expected, and so while he was able to turn in a draft script for the penultimate episode, which Saward had to rewrite quite heavily, he died before he was able to write the last episode. Saward wrote a script based around their plans, and then the producer, John Nathan-Turner, vetoed the ending, which he felt would give the BBC too great an opportunity to get rid of the show altogether.

Saward, who had been unhappy in the role for some time, quit, and would not allow Nathan-Turner to use his script. Nor would he allow him to use any of the story elements from his script, so Nathan-Turner was stuck with thirteen parts of a fourteen-part epic story, with no conclusion, and the last episode was to start filming in a short period of time. He needed a script, and it had to be something written by someone who had no idea of what had been done in Saward’s original script, it had to use the same locations and characters that had already been arranged, and it had to be written in almost no time at all.

Luckily, Pip and Jane Baker were available, and they already knew the trial premise, having written four episodes of the story, but they had no idea how it was meant to end because Saward hadn’t bothered to discuss that with them.

They managed to turn out something which, while it wasn’t in any way a good script (and lines like “it’s a megabyte modem!” only become funnier as time passes) did at least manage to tie together enough of the loose ends that it could be called an ending. It even managed to tie together loose ends that weren’t actually loose, like Peri’s death, which was retconned into her being safe and happy and living with Brian Blessed’s character King Yrcanos — a character with whom she had shown precisely no chemisty or affection whatsoever during the course of the story.

But this — and the other bits of the ending which confuse what was real and what was only a Matrix illusion — rather works in the story’s favour in an odd way. Thematically, everything is about unreliable narrators and about things that turn out to be untrue, and about people’s memories also being incorrect or altered, so it makes sense that on a deeper level even the writers don’t quite understand what story they’re telling themselves, and everyone on the production team was working from different basic assumptions.

In short, Trial of a Time Lord is not a story that anyone who was making it actually understood — not one single person making the series had a clear idea of what was meant to be real, what was meant to be false, and who in the story knew what when. That this happens to be reflected in the story’s themes of rewriting history is purely coincidental — the plotlines for the sub-stories were worked out long before the production crises that beset the series — but it works to the story’s advantage. This is perhaps the only Doctor Who story where the production chaos makes it something slightly better than it would otherwise have been, rather than something slightly worse.

This is not ever going to have a massive critical rehabilitation, which is a shame as it’s roughly a third of the on-screen time for a Doctor who had few enough stories as it is, but when looked at in that way, as a story that’s about the problems of creating a collaborative story, it does I think have a lot to offer.

And if you’re eight years old, it makes for fourteen weeks of truly gripping TV.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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.

Maybe
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.

Rainmaker
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.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

New Comics Posts From Me Elsewhere

There’s a new post from me on Mindless Ones about Crisis on Infinite Earths issue 3, and for Patreon backers, a bonus post on Animal Man.

(Incidentally, I know I’ve been away quite a bit recently, but I’m building up quite a backlog of posts that I’m getting scheduled for the next few days. Expect a lot more from me shortly…)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

References in my “Book of the Enemy” Story

As some of you might know, in January the latest Faction Paradox short story collection, The Book of the Enemy, came out, and it has a short story (well, shortish — 10,000 words) by me in it. That story is also called “The Book of the Enemy”, although the book isn’t named after my story.

I’m planning on posting about the stories by other people in it at some point, but a couple of times recently I’ve been asked about references in my story — it’s a very densely referential piece, in the manner of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or things like that — and so I thought I’d go through every reference I intentionally put in there (I say “intentionally” for reasons that will become apparent later…) and list them here, for the benefit of anyone who’s at all interested in this stuff. I may miss one or two, since it’s a few months since I wrote the story.

This isn’t to show off my cleverness or anything like that — there’s nothing particularly clever here — it’s just that I’ve had enough people asking me “is X a reference?” that it’s probably worthwhile having something to point them to. If you’ve not read the story, feel free to skip this and know that you won’t be missing anything of any importance to you.

Everything that follows is a SPOILER for my story.

The story itself is a pastiche of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century genre fiction, and hopefully the general voice will be recognisable to anyone who’s read, say, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes — I’m not pastiching any particular writer’s voice, but rather going for the general popular style then.

The original idea I had for the story had  the same “enemy” — the book itself — as in the final version, but I was originally planning on going for a much more Borges-style thing — a review of the imaginary book, which also worked as a review of the book in which the story was, and so on. But I just couldn’t get the actual story to work. I discarded multiple drafts, and missed a couple of soft deadlines, before realising that I could go in a King in Yellow direction instead with the story. I actually made the realisation while reading Stephen King’s “The Breathing Method”, which is his own pastiche of the kind of story I’m doing here.

But the idea of a framing story around the actual story being told by a club member is a very common one, both in this kind of fiction and in things like the Black Widowers and Azazel stories by Asimov or the stories of the Oldest Member by P.G. Wodehouse, and it just seemed perfect for the story I wanted to tell. And once I’d got that, and the pseudo-Edwardian voice, everything else fell into place. 

So here is each reference as it appears in the story…

“A great many clubs even specifically catered for the solitary gentleman” — the Diogenes Club from the Holmes stories.

“the club’s oldest member” — Wodehouse wrote a series of golf stories, all told with a frame story about how they were being told by “the oldest member” of the golf club.

“Mr Holmes” — obviously all the Holmes and Watson references here are to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

“excursion across the moors” — as in The Hound of the Baskervilles

“wrestling match on a precipice” — “The Final Problem”

“Reginald” — the first name of Jeeves from Wodehouse’s Jeeves books, not revealed until the penultimate Jeeves book, Much Obliged, Jeeves, in 1971, more than fifty years after the character first appeared.

“Ruritania” — as the characters state, originally mentioned in The Prisoner of Zenda

King Rudolf — again, The Prisoner of Zenda

“I noticed another gentleman” — this bit of action happens simultaneously with an important scene in “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James.

“an address in Belgravia” — a little reference to the BBC’s Sherlock series here, though also see later.

“the unfortunate events” — these events are those from The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, as are the Martians here, which I also tried to keep consistent with the editor Simon Bucher-Jones’ use of them in his Charles Dickens’ Martian Notes.

“Popes” — in the Doctor Who novel and audio drama All-Consuming Fire, Holmes and Watson meet the Pope, and the Faction Paradox books share a continuity with the Doctor Who books.

“beings we may as well consider Gods” — this is the understanding of Holmes and the Martian as to what is happening in the War which forms the backdrop to the whole Faction Paradox series. Their understanding may or may not reflect the reality.

“more suited for a continental orchestra” — this is actually a reference to non-fiction from the same time period. One of George Bernard Shaw’s perennial complaints when writing music criticism in the late 19th century was that British orchestras tuned their instruments to a higher pitch than continental Europeans did. This had largely passed in the decade leading up to the time this story is set, but the change was a recent innovation, and Holmes in this story is having memory problems, so it’s reasonable for him to use this as an example.

“demons trapped in pyramids” — several stories, but I was specifically thinking of the Doctor Who story Pyramids of Mars here.

“squamous cephalopodic beasts” — as in Lovecraft’s work.
“mock turtle soup and dodos’ egg” — Alice in Wonderland

“a siege and gunfight” — this is a reference to a real historical event, but it’s also me being accidentally clever. I picked the siege of Sidney St as a historical event that happened around the same time my story was set, mostly by looking at historical news stories and seeing what would fit the location and be dramatic. It was only a month later, when I reread Ronald Knox’s original essay on Sherlockian “canon”, that I realised he said “When Holmes, in the ‘Mystery of the Red-Headed League,’ discovered that certain criminals were burrowing their way into the cellars of a bank, he sat with a dark lantern in the cellar, and nabbed them quietly as they came through.  But when the Houndsditch gang were found to be meditating an exactly similar design, what did the police authorities do?  They sent a small detachment of constables, who battered on the door of the scene of operations at the bank, shouting, ‘We think there is a burglary going on in here.’  They were of course shot down, and the Home Office had to call out a whole regiment with guns and a fire brigade, in order to hunt down the survivors”

The Houndsditch gang event is the siege of Sidney street. The example Ronald Knox used, in the essay which first created the concept of “canon” as it’s applied to pop culture, and which created the whole idea of treating the internal contradictions in stories as things to be explained away — the example he used of how the real world differs from that in the Sherlock Holmes stories — is the same one I used in my story, which is about canons and the contradictions in stories and how the real world differs from that in the Holmes stories.

I must have unconsciously remembered this example, because it’s simply too perfect otherwise. I actually had a minor freak-out when I noticed this, in an “I made it all up, and it all came true anyway” way, before I realised that I must have unconsciously remembered the passage.

And this is why I earlier said “every reference I intentionally put in there” — there may be other stuff in here I didn’t put in…

“non-Euclidean geometry” — a phrase beloved of Lovecraft, and used by him to signify evil beings from other planes of reality, so appropriate here. The description here is accurate, as far as it goes, except that I’ve attributed the discoveries of Einstein (that non-Euclidean geometry better describes physical spacetime than does Euclidean) to Moriarty — the description of his The Dynamics of an Asteroid in The Valley of Fear is very close to what people were saying around that time about Einstein.

“Every trace of romance” — this parallels, though doesn’t quote, a passage in Lawrence Miles’ Dead Romance, which shares a continuity with Faction Paradox. 

I think that’s all the references I deliberately put in.

This blog post, like all my writing, is funded by the generosity of my backers on Patreon, for which I am eternally grateful. Why not join them?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

For Those Wanting the Paperback of Monkee Music…

There’s been a slight delay, as the font I used in the index is slightly too small for the printing guidelines. It should be available later today or tomorrow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Monkee Music: Second Edition

My latest book is out — the revised and expanded second edition of Monkee Music. This is about twice as long as the original version and contains full essays on:

David Jones (1965 album)

All Mike and Micky’s pre-Monkees singles

The extra material on the deluxe and super deluxe editions of The Monkees, More of the Monkees, Instant Replay and the Monkees Present

The Dolenz, Jones, Boyce, and Hart album

The cast album to The Point!, starring Davy and Micky

and Good Times!

It also has shorter essays on the live albums or DVDs Summer 1967, Live Summer Tour, Concert in Japan, and Twentieth Anniversary Tour, as well as a round-up chapter looking at “Milkshake” (from Peter’s Stranger Things Have Happened album, featuring Mike and Micky) and the 1976 Christmas single.

On top of that, every essay that was already in there has been revised and updated, correcting things ranging from my understanding of why Pool It! ended up as it did to my persistent misspelling of Cynthia Weil’s surname, and expanding on what I’d said.

If you follow this books2read link you’ll be able to find it at your favourite digital store — and if you follow the Amazon link in that link you’ll find the paperback available there from tomorrow, too. Those of you who prefer hardbacks, there’s a hardback available at Lulu.com .

People backing my Patreon at $5 a month or more will be able to find their free ebook copies here.

And for those of you who don’t get why I’d want to write 72,000 words on a manufactured pop band, here’s a playlist I put together that might explain it…

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments