Sunday, 23 September 2007

Classic Albums: Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson

The second album really is a true classic. It wasn't a huge seller and was only really known in the UK for Nilsson's one big hit, but it's a record that I grew up with and sounds as fresh to me today as it was when it was put down 36 years ago. It's Nilsson Schmilsson by Harry Nilsson:

When I was a nipper this was one of Mum's favourite albums so I heard it a lot without really appreciating it. Then when I hit my teenage years, when you'd think I'd be rejecting the sort of music that my parents liked, I rediscovered this album and came to wear it out with repeated plays.

For me Harry Nilsson has one of the most perfect male singing voices. There's a purity and power there which are reminiscent of Karen Carpenter - another artist who has never been fashionable, but deserves huge credit for the sheer quality of her voice.

The track-list below is from the original album. The modern CD edition has some excellent extra tracks, mostly demo versions which show how the songs came to be. Great to hear, but they're not part of the classic album.

Gotta Get Up (Nilsson)

A staccato piano leads into a rollicking song complete with horns and accordion. Harry sings a simple song about being late for a meeting because of a night spent on the tiles. Probably not an uncommon occurrence in his life - he spent most of his time partying with John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon and the other rock and roll tearaways of the 1970s.

Driving Along (Nilsson)

This one does show its age a bit. A flower-power driving song.

Early In The Morning (Hickman/Jordan/Bartley)

A superb blues. Just Harry's fantastic voice which he accompanies with a deceptively simple blues riff on an organ.

The Moonbeam Song (Nilsson)

Sleepy song with multi-layered Nilsson backing vocals. Simply gorgeous. And a lovely bass part played by the bass-player's bass-player, Herbie Flowers.

Down (Nilsson)

Here Harry backs himself on piano on a rocking number which slowly gathers pace to finish side one (of the vinyl album!) with a blast of Memphis horns and early Chris Spedding guitar.

Without You (Ham/Evans)

Harry's biggest hit, written by the Badfinger songwriting team and covered by all and sundry, but no-one else has ever done it justice. Hugely moving, it's the ultimate break-up song. Probably considered schmaltzy nowadays, but just listen to those harmonies. Despite being his best-known song, it's probably not the best showcase for his voice as he does seem to be straining at the emotional climax.

Coconut (Nilsson)

A one-chord (C7, I think), calypso-style novelty song which is nevertheless catchy and unforgettable. You'll hear this in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and it was covered by the Muppets. On Harry's BBC TV special in the early 1970s he (and his musicians) performed this dressed as gorillas...

Let The Good Times Roll (Lee)

The piano intro recalls Down from earlier on, but this is a barrel-house singalong. Again, the Nilsson BBC show is worth seeing for the version of this song, performed by multiple clones of Harry and featuring a segue from Cathy's Clown and Walk Right Back. Brilliant! Fantastic! The man was a genius.

Jump Into The Fire (Nilsson)

Kicking off with funky Herbie Flowers bass riff and with guitar backing from John Uribe, Chris Spedding and Beatles alumnus Klaus Voorman, this is a psychedelic wig-out which just begs to be turned up to 11, especially during the Jim Gordon drum solo. Sounds like it should be the last track on the album, but no, that's left for...

I'll Never Leave You (Nilsson)

The most beautiful, yet complex song in the collection. A gorgeous song about Harry missing his lover, this is the showcase for his voice which Without You misses out on. Undercut by strings which are, in turn, shimmering and threatening and with a bizarre key change around 3 minutes which shouldn't work, but somehow does.

And that's the end. Now it's time to flip the record back over and star again from the beginning...

Produced by Richard Perry
Recorded at Trident Studios, London. June 1971.


jomoore said...

Having been brought up in the same household, I have the same childhood musical memories. And I love this album. I seem to remember that Mum wouldn't let me read the lyrics that were printed on the inner sleeve - can't think why now. I'll have to listen again to see what might have been so shocking to my young tender ears.

I have to disagree with you about Driving Along, I'm afraid. I think it's hardly dated at all and I love the lyrics - it's one of my favourite tracks.

And Homer does an excellent rendition of Coconut in an episode of The Simpsons.

Harry Nilsson was a genius, and aren't we lucky to have such a musically tasteful mum?!

PT said...

Driving Along is one of my favourites too (in fact, I don't dislike any of them) and the tune's great, it just feels a bit old and hippy-ish with those bits about flower petals pumping out power. I think maybe Harry had a jazz cigarette or two when he wrote that!

I think that it was the inner sleeve to Son of Schmilsson which we weren't allowed to see. I remember getting told of for listening to it. The tracks in question were probably Take 54 (including the lyric, "I sang my balls off for you baby") and You're Breaking My Heart (which contained frequent "Fuck You"s in the chorus)!

jomoore said...


Anonymous said...

If you're a Nilsson fan, you should check out the blog For The Love Of Harry. They've got things you never heard of over there.