Down Down Down: The Music of Harry Nilsson
I’ve listened to a lot of Nilsson. Some might say too much. In fact, a couple people have declared a moratorium on his music due to my repeatedly plattering Harry Nilsson records. My copy of The Point looks like it has gone through the wash one too many times.
What is the allure? First and foremost, it’s his talent for melody and harmony. Harry Nilsson songs contain some of the most rhapsodically colorful melodies I’ve ever heard. It’s little wonder that the Beatles declared him their favorite American artist. At a press conference in 1968, John Lennon was asked to speak about his favorite American musician. He laconically said, “Nilsson.” Paul McCartney was then asked to name his favorite American band. He replied, “Nilsson.”
If Nilsson were only interesting for his melodies, his discography would not warrant an entire radio show. But Nilsson’s career only gets more interesting the closer you look at it. The name of Nilsson’s second album, “Aerial Ballet,” comes from an act his Swedish grandparents performed in the circus. I can only imagine that some of Harry’s vaudevillian style and vocal acrobatics were influenced by his heritage.
Nilsson’s career was characterized by wild swings of ups and downs. He started out the gate strong as a songwriter and attracted the attention of Phil Spector and The Monkees. As a solo artist, he had a string of hits in the late 60s and early 70s and racked up a serious level of acclaim. From there, things got loopy. It’s almost like he approached his career with kamikaze abandon. He pursued whatever styles he liked and approached showbusiness with a wicked sense of black humor and cynicism. That said, he simultaneously evinced a child-like playfulness, a quality that allowed him to contribute to films like Popeye, The Point, and Skidoo. It’s only fitting to Nilsson’s career that all of these films tanked. The soundtracks however, are — to me — some of the best vocal soundtracks produced in the 1970s.
I won’t go much further into Nilsson’s life and work, except to say it’s fascinating, and warrants a thorough and thoughtful biographical treatment. His relationship with John Lennon, Paul Williams, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, Hollywood, women, and substance abuse all deserve a solid exploration.
Nilsson’s work has recently been revived by the likes of P.T. Andersen (clearly a fan), Jon Brion, Quentin Tarantino, Andrew Bird, Brian Wilson, and Aimee Mann. Nilsson left behind a scattered portfolio of demos, commercials, out-takes, and unreleased recordings–most of which are only just now beginning to be unearthed. For further research, I can recommend For the Love of Harry, which has lovingly and exhaustively assembled everything you would ever want to know about Harry Nilsson. For this podcast, I tried to sample at least one song from every one of his 15+ albums. To relieve ear fatigue, I introduced a few interpretive tracks where Nilsson is not singing, but either wrote the song, or contributed to its recording.
One of the most interesting themes in Nilsson’s career is the repeated motif of slow-motion descent. There are at least half a dozen Nilsson songs that introduce the idea of falling down into the depths, usually in an aquatic environment. It would appear that he was obsessed with this theme–even in The Point, you hear a very personal statement in his song Lifeline, even though it’s cloaked in the context of a children’s film…
Hello (Hello, Hello, Hello)
Won’t you throw me down a Life Line?
I’m so afraid of darkness,
And down here it’s just like night time.
Oobelie, Ooobely, Oogolie, Oogolie,
Oohs..Are all around me.
Will you please send down a Life Line?
And there isn’t any hope for me,
Unless this dream which seems so real,
Is just a fantasy.
Open Your Window (Harry)
Miss Butter’s Lament (Aerial Pandemonium Ballet)
Jon Brion – He Really Needs Me
Goin’ Down (Knnillssonn)
Everything’s Got ‘Em (The Point)
John Lennon – Only You
Everybody’s Talkin’ (Ariel Ballet)
She’s Leaving Home (Pandemonium Shadow Show)
Wasting My Time (Aerial Pandemonium Ballet)
Dawn Landes – Lifeline
Turn On Your Radio (Son of Schmilsson)
Counting (The Monkees Demos)
Shelley Duvall – He Needs Me
Ban Deodorant Radio Commercial
How Can I Be Sure Of You (Nilsson Schmilsson)
I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now (A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night)
Learning From You (Hollywood Dreamer)
Living Without You (Nilsson Sings Newman)
One (Aerial Ballet)
The Moonbeam Song (Nilsson Schmilsson)
Everyone’s Got To Eat (The Popeye Demos)
Mucho Mungo (Pussy Cats)
Me And My Arrow (The Point!)
Blackalicious – Blazing Arrow
This Could be the Night (30 second acetate demo)
The Modern Folk Quartet – This Could Be The Night
Buy My Album/Down To The Valley (The Point!)
Paul Williams – Nilsson Sings Newman
That Is All (Reprise) (…That’s The Way It Is)