POP / Nilsson Schmilsson, and other disguises: There was far more to Harry Nilsson, who died last week, than 'Without You'. Chris Salewicz looks back over an exemplary record

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The Independent Online
There was something mysterious at the core of Harry Nilsson's recorded work, a sense that all was not what it seemed. Partially this was because Harry Nilsson was not the same person as 'Nilsson', the multi-faceted character through whom he could perform. A manipulative scam? Quite the reverse: the supreme confidence displayed in his writing and recording could seem irritating, if the resulting music wasn't so eternally innocent.

Nilsson refused to sit tight in one genre. On Nilsson Schmilsson (RCA ND83 464), his most successful album, all the forms of songs he favoured are featured: romantic ballads, like his biggest hit 'Without You', a melodramatic hand-me-down from Apple group Badfinger; the wistful children's tune, 'Coconut'; Beatle-esque rockers like 'Gotta Get Up', the album's opening number; songs of vocal acrobatics, like 'Back Into The Fire'. This record, released in 1972, sold millions of copies. Why? Certainly because it had a huge hit single, but also because Nilsson's poetic heart and satirical wit took pop music to such a high level.

Again Nilsson sold records by the million with A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night (RCA ND 90582), a perfect crooner's album, recorded in four days, produced by Beatles publicist Derek Taylor. Although 'As Time Goes By' is perhaps the strongest performance, Nilsson himself preferred 'Lazy Moon', because no one had previously recorded it except for Oliver Hardy.

With a sort of art school perversity, the opening bars of each song are never from the number that follows, but act as a trailer for a later tune. Because 'Over The Rainbow' was thus heralded more than once, Nilsson decided it should not appear at all. As a late addition, only 'Lullaby in Ragtime', from the Danny Kaye film The Five Pennies, had its own intro intact. Time magazine listed the record as one of its Top 10 LPs of 1973.

Perhaps as an antidote to the album of standards, John Lennon produced the rocking Pussy Cats (Edsel ED 337) for Nilsson a year later; however, rather than one artist producing another, the work seems closer to that of an established double act. It was made during Lennon's 'lost weekend', when he had split with Yoko Ono, and his rage spills over into the music - in a blistering version of Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', for example. Lennon's taste is clear from track one: Nilsson provides an impassioned rendition of Jimmy Cliff's 'Many Rivers To Cross', and there is an understated version of The Drifters' 'Save The Last Dance For Me'.

Possibly afflicted by his spar's melancholia, Nilsson's own material is in similar vein - the mildly bitter 'Old Forgotten Soldier', the weird but too clever 'Black Sails'. And presumably no one was prepared to tell an ex-Beatle that the version of 'Rock Around The Clock' is crap.

Within Nilsson was a thorough background of pop craftsmanship, blended with an understanding of pre-war Tin Pan Alley songwriting, and more arcane forms like doowop. Nilsson appealed to both the hip 'underground' audience and to Top 40 buyers. His professional yardstick was simple. 'Longevity, public acceptance, and a degree of difficulty' were what Harry Nilsson believed his material should combine.

This is clearly expressed in Without Her - Without You: The Very Best Of Nilsson (RCA ND 90520), which begins with a wistful version of 'Over The Rainbow', the tune so wilfully left off the Little Touch LP. However, it is in 'Without Her', written in 1967, that his method becomes most apparent. This tune is extraordinarily complex, with a strange melody, based only around cello and wind instruments; only at the very end of the song do you hear guitar and bass, and there are no drums at all.

'Down To The Valley' sounds like a missing Beach Boys song; almost entirely this is due to the two-, three- and four-part harmonies, which, thanks to his three octave range, Nilsson overdubbed on to the record.

'Everybody's Talking', his multi-million seller theme tune from Midnight Cowboy, written by Fred Neil, is here. Nilsson had tried to persuade John Schlesinger, the film's director, to instead use 'Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City', which he had written in a similar style. 'Mourning Glory Story', from 1968, another Nilsson song that recalls the Beatles, is in similar lyrical mood - the story of a female down- and-out.

These songs seem to gain an extra piquancy when you remember they are by the man who established the computer network for the Bank of America in Los Angeles, the job Nilsson had when he first became a songwriter.

From its ebullient, joyous introduction ('Oh my] It's a wonderful day . . .'), Nilsson's 1988 version of Zip A Dee Do Dah - from Stay Awake, interpretations of music from Disney films, produced by Hal Willner (A&M CDA3918) - turns into a blend of zydeco and sweeping orchestral movie music, replete with harps and choirs of the sort that make clouds part and the sun appear. This effect is completed by the kind of crashing sound effects that you would hear any evening at New York's Knitting Factory. Harry Nilsson thereby manages to encompass around 100 years of American musical tradition into one three- minute song.

The line-up is extraordinary: the orchestra is conducted by Lennie Niehaus, and the song is co-produced by Nilsson's old colleague Van Dyke Parks; on guitar is Arto Lindsay, while NRBO's Terry Adams is on piano, and Jim Keltner is once again behind the drum-kit. Nilsson, meanwhile, not only sings the song, but also acts the part of a sort of post-modern Uncle Remus.


(Photograph omitted)